It’s been a while. The last time we spoke was just two days before you announced your bid for the White House. We’re past that now. Phew.
Many New Yorkers sympathize with what you are trying to accomplish as mayor and want you to succeed. You represented and still represent a break from the Bloomberg years, when New York aspired to be a “luxury city.” In 2013, you were the only candidate willing to take on that legacy and remind us of the city that Fiorello La Guardia built — offering opportunity for all.
I have appreciated getting to know you. Your family history and hardships convinced me that you are genuinely committed to helping marginalized people. Beyond that idealism, you also inherited your mother’s immigrant-bred pragmatism. Sometimes the combination confuses people. You don’t always take the time to explain yourself, especially to the press. They are not easy. But you have so alienated them that I really wonder if it is possible for you to get a story that is not overshadowed by their negative feelings towards you.
Right out of the box, in 2014, you redirected spending to programs that target the needy, expanded free pre-K, raised the living wage, provided city employees with parental leave, guaranteed workers in small businesses paid sick days, settled labor contracts for practically the entire municipal workforce, and through IDNYC gave immigrants a legitimate sense of belonging that enabled them to utilize public services.
Notwithstanding your progressive bona fides, you certainly play by your own rules. You hired Rudy Giuliani’s police commissioner to assure people that you were tough on crime. Recognizing that the federal government no longer supports affordable housing, you hired a deputy mayor from Wall Street to work with private developers, who provide 80% of the funding for your housing program.
The results have been impressive. Crime, arrests and complaints against the police are at historic lows. You stabilized rents for more than a million regulated apartments and launched the most ambitious housing program in city history. You equipped tenants with legal representation to fight off predatory landlords.
You don’t always seem to be guided by politics. Determined to close Rikers Island and cluster sites for the homeless that were both decrepit and expensive, you ran for reelection promising voters to bring a new jail or homeless shelter to their neighborhoods. Given the NIMBY opposition, it won’t be easy; but it was the right thing to do. You need to explain to New Yorkers that keeping inmates and indigent people close to their neighborhood roots will help them become more productive citizens.
There is much more to get done in the next two years. In the wake of the Eric Garner episode, minority communities still do not trust the police. There is an alarming increase in suicides among officers. You need to stay on track with the police commissioner’s community policing program to forge bonds between officers and residents. You should also communicate to the public and their police force that you appreciate the difficult job officers do, and develop better mental health programs to deal with their daily stress.
Homelessness seems to be a permanent fixture on the city landscape, and your ambitious housing program — even with new mandates for rezoning — is not reaching the poorest of the poor. NYCHA requires a more imaginative approach to providing public housing for 400,000 people it serves. There is obviously a limit to what the city can do without federal support. You need to admit that poverty and inequality cannot be solved at the local level, that they are more a function of federal policy on taxing and regulation. Stop pretending that you can fix them, and focus on blunting their hard edges.
Use your voice as mayor of the nation’s largest city to urge the next Democratic president who hopefully succeeds Trump in 2021 to reengage the federal government to help struggling people — as your progressive predecessors La Guardia and John Lindsay once did. In a city that has become a destination to wealthy entrepreneurs and young professionals, you must also demand more from developers and make them partners in stemming the tide of gentrification.
While issues remain, New York’s ever-growing pre-K and 3-K program is one of American education’s most successful innovations in years, and your administration has initiated a conversation about racial segregation in schools that most mayors would run from.
Yet you can’t deal with educational opportunity without developing innovative instructional strategies that effectively address the leaning gap defined by race and class. To write off charter schools that have been doing just that is counterproductive. You need embrace charters as a resource in your pledge to provide a decent education to all and develop a plan to improve the quality of other public schools.
Some have compared the situation you face now to that of Lindsay, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 1972 and then faced two difficult final years of his administration, when crime was on the rise, middle-class residents and businesses were fleeing, and the city was on the brink of bankruptcy.
Yours is a much healthier city, in part to things you have done. I know you are capable of doing more.
New Yorkers are demanding of their mayor. They were unhappy with your run for the White House. They can also be forgiving. Talk to them directly. Remind them of what you have accomplished, admit to where you have come up short, and explain what is possible (and not) to fill in the gaps.
I know you can do it.
Viteritti is the Thomas Hunter Professor of Public Policy at Hunter College and author of “The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York.”