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June 17, 2019

Why a de Blasio candidacy could be a good thing: More focus on poverty is more than welcome

May 24, 2019
Democratic presidential candidate and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio meets potential voters at a Democratic Black Caucus Meeting on May 18 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Mayor de Blasio announced he’s throwing his hat in the ring for the Democratic nomination for president — and, to no one’s surprise, it’s been met with a whirlwind of criticism.

Much, if not all, of the public response and news coverage of the mayor’s announcement, has been negative. Recent poll numbers show over three-quarters of New Yorkers don’t think he should run.

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It’s true that de Blasio is far from perfect. But his candidacy could be a very good thing for this presidential race and for this country.

In response to the mayor’s campaign announcement, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted: “Rather than do a PR stunt ‘run’ for President (we all know it’s going nowhere) maybe @NYCMayor should clean up his backyard first.”

Donald Trump Jr. is not alone in expressing dissatisfaction with the appearance of the city. In particular, many New Yorkers have taken issue with the mayor’s handling of homelessness, which, in fact, is at a record high. But it is no small thing that the mayor is not threatening to “clean up his backyard” like his predecessors.

I have spent the past 37 years engaged in advocacy on behalf of marginalized communities and seen one mayor after another use the most disadvantaged of New Yorkers to score political points. Mayor Ed Koch insulted homeless people — “If you can’t afford to live here, move” — and tried to hide them by cramming them into the degrading, overcrowded, and dangerous mass shelters. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani called several homeless people “murderous,” and “cleaned up” the city’s homeless population by arresting them, sending them to underserved shelters, and axing their community service programs. Although different from Koch and Giuliani, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was also criticized for failing to do enough to help the disadvantaged.

But de Blasio has been out front on behalf of disadvantaged communities. Since he first campaigned for mayor on a platform of reforming stop-and-frisk, he has demonstrated that focusing on the needs of marginalized communities is a critical part of a mayor’s duties.

This is an important message for Democratic candidates. Poverty is not discussed nearly enough by presidential candidates — with popular wisdom urging them to focus on middle-class voters — even though the latest Census data showed that in 2017, there were 39.7 million people living in poverty in the United States.

De Blasio has had important successes when it comes to improving the daily lives of the city’s poor. Under his watch, universal prekindergarten became a reality in the city. He guaranteed the right to counsel for low-income tenants in housing court. And in 2016, de Blasio appointed Steve Banks to lead the Department of Homeless Services. Banks, who has dedicated his entire career to helping the city’s most vulnerable, is an anomaly: Many past commissioners were openly hostile to the very people who were their responsibility. Banks is rightly praised for his work winning a landmark settlement with the city in 2008 that resulted in a permanent enforceable right to shelter for homeless families in New York City.

There is no glossing over de Blasio’s failures when it comes to poverty and homelessness, but experience with these issues in as complex a city as New York make him a valuable addition to the already large field of Democratic candidates. His struggles with public housing, for example, could put reinvigoration of the federal housing budget — which has lost tens of billions of dollars a year over the last 30 years — on the table in the 2020 policy debates.

De Blasio is not the only candidate who brings economic justice issues into the conversation. Cory Booker, who I have worked with, and whose candidacy I personally support, has the heart, intelligence and dedication to tackle these issues. At the same time, de Blasio’s successes, failures and willingness to expend his political capital talking about marginalized groups — can help put issues like poverty and homelessness front and center in the presidential race.

The more voices for the poor, the better.

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Lasdon is executive director of the Urban Justice Center. (The Urban Justice Center does not and cannot endorse any candidates.)

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