Democrat (and former self-described advocate of “democratic socialism“) Bill de Blasio has been mayor of New York City for one year having won 73% of the vote (roughly 700,000 votes) in the 2013 mayoral race. The same election saw the city council’s Progressive Caucus double in size and with the council’s 48-to-3 Democratic-to-Republican majority, de Blasio has been able to get a lot done during his first year in office. Assessing these achievements and understanding what de Blasio and his administration represent politically is critical to correctly orienting to the actually existing class and political struggle at the local level.
- Ended the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) stop, question, and frisk policy.
- Successfully lobbied Albany (both Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature) to expand pre-kindergarten programs in the city although they refused to pay for the expansion by taxing the city’s 1% as de Blasio campaigned for.
- Presented and signed a city budget with across-the-board increases in social spending rather than cuts as in the Michael Bloomberg era.
- Signed legislation increasing the number of workers eligible for paid sick leave and via executive action expanded the number of workers covered by the city’s living wage laws and raised the minimum wage of private sector workers.
- Signed a bill giving the undocumented city identification cards.
- Appointed Rent Guidelines Board members who voted to raise rents on one-year leases on rent-stabilized apartments by 1.0% and on two-year leases by 2.75%, the lowest-ever increases that broke with previous increases of 2.0% and 4.0%, respectively.
- Changed the Bloomberg administration’s affordable housing policy by mandating that real estate developers build fixed percentages of affordable housing units (under Bloomberg, the percentage of affordable units to be constructed was voluntary; developers were incentivized with government subsidies if they met percentage targets).
- Earmarked $88 million for the city’s crumbling, decrepit, funds-starved public housing projects.
- Boosted the amount of marijuana required for arrest on a possession charge and reduced punishment for possessing small amounts of marijuana from arrests to fines.
- Settled rather than litigated the lawsuit brought by the Central Park 5.
- Eased the mandatory work requirements imposed on welfare recipients, allowed them greater flexibility for their job-seeking and educational priorities.
- Instituted what appears to be an almost total “hands-off” policy towards peaceful protests by the NYPD. Rallies without permits were not broken up by force, demonstrators were generally not arrested unless they engaged in violent acts or civil disobedience.
Status Quo Measures
- Reached labor agreements with 71% of the unionized municipal workforce all of whom were working without contracts for years thanks to the Bloomberg administration’s refusal to sign any deal that did not contain massive, painful union concessions. The deals awarded retroactive pay raises that amount to slightly less than inflation and confined concessions to ill-defined ‘cost savings’ in health care.
- Agreed to provide public school space rent-free to charter schools, but only after the state legislature passed a law threatening cities with serious financial penalties if they pulled the plug on these publicly-funded for-profit private-sector schools that are devouring the public system from the inside. The legislature’s move came after De Blasio rescinded approval of co-location for three charter schools shortly before he traveled to the state capital to lobby for his pre-kindergarten expansion.
- At the Working Families Party’s convention, De Blasio fought to prevent this supposed third party from endorsing and giving its ballot line to the petty-bourgeois left populist renegade candidacy of Zephyr Teachout. At the time, she was running in the Democratic gubernatorial primary against the socially liberal, economically neoliberal incumbent Cuomo. De Blasio helped destroy Teachout’s chances of making it onto the November ballot, either on the Working Families Party or the Democratic Party ballot line.
- Filed a legal brief defending the NYPD’s cross-state spying on Muslims despite disbanding the unit responsible for said spying.
- Gave Israel his complete and unconditional support during its murderous 2014 assault on the Gaza Strip and continually touts his support for the world’s last colonial-settler/apartheid state.
- Favors banning the city’s horse carriage industry and eliminating 300 union jobs. The move is opposed not only by the horse owners’ Teamsters union but also by the taxi drivers union. Union-busting in the name of animal rights is still union busting.
What Does de Blasio Represent? What Type of Democrat Is He?
Two things stand out about de Blasio’s first year in office. The first is that his administration is a major break from that of his predecessors, Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. The second is the extent to which neoliberal austerity is a choice (a class choice) rather than a systemic necessity or an inherent, structural feature of advanced post-industrial capitalism.
De Blasio’s choices while in office show that he is not “the Obama of New York City.” He is not a center-right or conservative Democrat but an “old New Dealer” (to use socialist Carl Davison’s expression).
De Blasio is neither a neoliberal nor a Republican masquerading as a Democrat but a bourgeois liberal of the old school, part of the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” as the late Senator Wellstone famously put it.
It is precisely this genuine liberalism that makes De Blasio politically pernicious. Who better to knife Zephyr Teachout in the back at the Working Families Party convention and abort the victory of the Democratic Party’s popular base over its pro-corporate political superstructure than a man with nearly impeccable liberal credentials? Teachout was within striking distance of defeating Cuomo with nearly 40% of the primary vote, winning more votes in a low turnout primary than the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins won on election day. De Blasio played a critical role in keeping working people, the labor unions, environmental groups, and groups representing the oppressed in the thrall of the center-right, pro-corporate Cuomo on election day in 2014. He helped keep the Working Families Party from becoming the party (or proto-party) of working families (although there was plenty of self-sabotage from within the organization itself).
In class terms, what de Blasio and his administration represent?
Examining who donated to his campaign sheds some light on this question but donors and their interests did not dictate policy, at least not in any kind of crass automatic manner. 28 NYPD officers contributed to De Blasio’s campaign (his Republican opponent Joe Lhota only received contributions from 4), for example. The taxi industry donated $200,000 but after de Blasio was sworn in, he reversed his opposition to green taxi cabs in the boroughs to the chagrin of the industry. On the other hand, de Blasio opposed banning horse carriages until groups pushing for the ban began donating to his campaign and ran negative ads that helped destroy his rival Christine Quinn’s campaign during the primary. Then there is the fact that de Blasio raised $635,000 compared to Lhota’s $280,000 from September 17 to September 30, which indicates that many donors threw their financial weight behind who was quite obviously going to win the race rather than give based on ideological compatibility or similar policy preferences.
The key to unraveling what class or classes de Blasio and his administration represent politically is not the question ‘who donates?’ but ‘cui bono‘ — who benefits?
Unlike the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations, the list of groups and classes that benefited during de Blasio’s first 365 days is not limited to the 1%, Wall Street, and real estate barons but rather includes middle and low-income tenants, public sector unions, low-wage private sector workers (union and non-union alike), undocumented immigrants, welfare recipients, people who live in public housing projects, victims of police brutality (like the Central Park 5), and civil rights leaders.
De Blasio’s political choices in office show that he and his administration represent an alliance or a coalition of class and social interests, namely elements of capital (such as real estate developers), labor unions, and a multitude of oppressed and exploited sectors. Capitalist exploitation and all manner of oppression certainly continued after de Blasio became mayor but on different and undoubtedly more favorable terms for the exploited and the oppressed. Although they are in a better and stronger position to fight for their interests today than they were a year ago, it remains to be seen whether forces to de Blasio’s left (socialists, Greens, and other radicals) can take advantage of these more favorable circumstances to gain a following and begin breaking the allegiance of these sectors to the Democratic Party machine.