Enlightened Self-Interest

Why New Yorkers Made Bill de Blasio Mayor

“Bloomberg fatigue” is the explanation frequently presented for progressive Democrat Bill de Blasio’s landslide victory in the New York City mayoral race. But voter ennui hardly explains why New Yorkers, having elected pro-business candidates running on the Republican line for the past twenty years, this time chose a mayor who finds his inspiration in liberation theology—and by a 3-to-1 margin, at that.

It’s a dramatic change in direction, and “Bloomberg fatigue” is sometimes a coded way of minimizing its significance. It implies that the public’s desire for change sprang from attention deficit rather than any shortcomings on the part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “I liken it to hemlines—you know, hemlines are fine, but next year they move them up or down, because people want a change,” Bloomberg said in an interview with WOR Radio.

Please, let’s give New Yorkers some credit for recognizing what their own interests are. De Blasio won because he appealed to the many people who had come to feel alienated in their own city. Voters were given very clear choices on issues at the core of local governance—how to run the police department and schools, and whom to tax—and roundly rejected the Bloomberg approach.

The result is likely to resonate across the country. Any mayor of New York quickly becomes a national figure, and the Big Apple’s experience has been influential nationally on matters such as policing, housing, health policy, and education. When voters clearly reject a key strategy of the NYPD—in this case, a massive stop-and-frisk program that Bloomberg says is essential to maintaining low crime rates—it’s bound to have an effect on the national conversation about policing.

De Blasio recognized that the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk program was one cause of the public’s estrangement. What began in the 1990s as a more focused effort to get guns off the streets had swollen into a massive, quota-driven intrusion into the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. That those subjected to searches were rarely white (9 percent of the 685,724 stops in 2011) and were mostly under twenty-four years old meant that many minority voters knew they or their children were constantly at risk of having a rattling encounter with the police.

De Blasio, married to a black woman, was in a good position to respond to that anxiety. His campaign highlighted his wife and two children, featuring an ad in which his famously coiffed fifteen-year-old son Dante called him “the only one who will end a stop-and-frisk era that unfairly targets people of color.” (An admiring President Barack Obama said of Dante: “My afro was never that good.”)

De Blasio split the black vote in the Democratic primary with Bill Thompson, a black candidate who was the former city comptroller, and took an astonishing 96 percent of it in the general election, according to exit polls. The city’s first African-American mayor, David Dinkins, won 91 percent the black vote. And 87 percent of Latino voters also supported de Blasio. That suggests once again the rising influence of black and Latino voters in many places across the country. It also shows that populist surges are not limited to the Tea Party; there is a left-wing version that in this case swept aside some well-established Democratic contenders.

Beyond the stop-and-frisk policy, there were other reasons large numbers of voters felt alienated from city government. One is that many parents of the city’s one million public-school students felt voiceless even as Bloomberg made abrupt changes in the schools. Bloomberg is a leading proponent of the corporate-backed, foundation-supported, bipartisan national school-reform movement that champions charter schools, tougher teacher evaluations, and heavy reliance on standardized testing. He succeeded in winning mayoral control of the schools, and in the restructuring eliminated the venues where parents and community groups could exercise influence or just vent.

De Blasio capitalized on this discontent. He said he would lower the stakes on standardized tests and end Bloomberg’s simplistic practice of assigning an annual letter grade to each school. He pledged to increase parents’ role in school decision-making and restrict the growth of charter schools, Bloomberg’s pet project. Charter school advocates and their supporters in the news media assailed him, but it was an effective political move: 94 percent of the city’s public-school students are not in charter schools, and their parents often feel left out. If the nation’s largest public-school system turns away from charter schools and standardized testing as the path to school reform, that’s bound to influence the national conversation.

Another source of voters’ frustration is the rising cost of housing stemming from gentrification, which raised the fears of the many New Yorkers who worry about being displaced from their own homes. Bloomberg’s zoning policies accelerated gentrification, and as a result affordable housing was lost at a quicker rate than it could be created. De Blasio said developers should be required to build housing that is affordable for low- and middle-income New Yorkers in exchange for zoning bonuses. On economic matters, he called Bloomberg “a free marketeer, never willing to be interventionist with the power of the most powerful local government on earth.”

Running aggressively against Bloomberg’s record—or, to be fair, against a simplified version of Bloomberg’s complex record—helped de Blasio win the Democratic primary. He kept that up in the general election, but, perhaps more so, ran against Bloomberg’s Republican predecessor, Rudy Giuliani. This made sense because the GOP candidate, Joe Lhota, was closely associated with Giuliani.

A former chairman of the MTA who was credited with speedily restoring mass transit after Hurricane Sandy, Lhota had served Giuliani as budget director and deputy mayor. On paper, he was a formidable candidate; he played a major role in steering the city through the crisis following 9/11. His policies on business, policing, and schools were similar to those that had won elections for Giuliani and Bloomberg on the Republican line. As a reporter who covered City Hall for Newsday during the Giuliani years, I couldn’t help but notice how closely Lhota’s positions tracked Giuliani’s—right down to the rhythm and vocabulary of his speech.

Lhota’s inexperience as a campaigner and his previously low profile no doubt contributed to his defeat. But that doesn’t explain the overwhelming margin. This time, voters were not buying arguments that had won the day for Giuliani. The most telling campaign moment came when Lhota and de Blasio clashed over the merits of Giuliani and Dinkins during the second of three debates. Dinkins’s term in office from 1990 to 1993 is often portrayed as ineffective. Although Giuliani’s popularity waned during his second term, it’s widely accepted that his mayoralty from 1994 to 2001 marked a turnaround for New York City because of the huge drop in crime.

“Rudy Giuliani did divide us, very consciously,” de Blasio said during his debate with Lhota. “And it hurt this city and held us back.” Lhota turned away with a look of disbelief. “Held us back?” he said, holding out his arms. “Held us back? What color is the sky in your planet?”

New York’s political world had turned upside down. Giuliani had always been accused of divisiveness, but if someone had told me in the 1990s that this argument would one day help carry a mayoral candidate to a 3-to-1 victory that included winning a majority of the white vote, I would have thought it impossible.

De Blasio didn’t phrase it this way, but he ran on a “preferential option for the poor,” decrying income disparity and calling for an increased tax on those earning more than $500,000 a year (to pay for universal pre-kindergarten). That might be expected from a man who said in an interview with WNYC Radio that he was “deeply influenced by liberation theology.” De Blasio, who describes himself as spiritual but not a member of any religion, attributed that influence to the community organizing he did for the Catholic-influenced Quixote Center during the 1980s. He helped fill shipping containers with food, medicine, clothing, tools, bicycles, and other humanitarian aid sent to Nicaragua (the Quixote Center’s answer to the millions of dollars the Reagan administration spent in support of the contras’ revolt against the left-wing Sandinista government).

After the New York Times reported on this work, Lhota jumped on the opportunity to accuse his opponent of supporting communism. While raising a bit of controversy, the matter seemed only to strengthen de Blasio by showing that his support for the poor was deeply rooted and not merely a contrived campaign message.

Dolly Pomerleau, co-founder of the Quixote Center, said that even though de Blasio did not consider himself Catholic or religious, it was not surprising that he worked for the center as a young man. “Given Bill’s values, it makes a lot of sense, because his values are for justice and peace, and the advancement of people who are poor,” she said, adding, “I’ve been totally impressed with how he’s been consistent.”

It remains to be seen how this commitment translates into the act of governing. Success will require maintaining low crime rates while improving police-community relations; showing real improvement in the schools while repairing the relationships Bloomberg frayed with teachers and many parents; and creating affordable housing at a rate that well outpaces its loss to gentrification.

If the success of his campaign is any indication, de Blasio is not without his resources.

About the Author

Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015).



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That he recognizes the discriminatory practice of "stop and frisk" is to be lauded.What will be his take on the discriminatory policy of  spying on [innocent] Muslims will also test his professed preferential option for the poor [in this case the most politically cloutless; not even metioned in the article, marginalized New Yorkers]. It's disappointing to hear that he  uses the Catholic phrase "liberation theology" while eshewing the faith[too hip to be part of the church?].Perhap his new found success[and an  encounter with Frances perhaps] will satisfy him enough to open  a place of humility   and hunger for religion that brings him to Jesus Christ and the Church,[a prayer].

Given the size of NYC and of its bureaucracies, I read today's Times story (12/31) with great interest. The general theme: he is searching out men and women with significant exprience in NYC city government in contrast to Bloomberg's preference for managerial types from business. The story also mentions that over-all by this point he has hired fewer agency heads and aides then previous new mayors. No mayor of New York governs alone, so a lot rests on his choices and his ability to entice good people. Not sure what lessons Liberation Theology offers on that score.

I'm taking a wait and see attitude  on de Blasio. I think he's unproven.  We've been there/done that with politicians who say all the right things; there's not always a correlation to the good stuff they say as candidate and what they actully accomplish when elected.  But at least he's been saying the right things, which is a start. 

From a working class and middle class multinational, immigrant New York City family with roots there that go back nearly 150 years, I do welcome the election of de Blasio but with a high degree of caution. The first caution is that the reform of the "stop and frisk" polices do not go too far. This type of policing seems to have had a major impact on the decline of violent crime in the City over the past twenty years, especially a decline in crime in the areas in which black and Latino residents predominate. My hope is that the new/old Commissioner will be able to eliminate some of the more objectionable parts of the policy, without eliminating it all together. The reversal of the educational reforms brought in by Mayor Bllomberg that this article seems to advocate and points to as a major reason for his landslide victory also worries me. A return to the "stautus quo ante-Bloomberg" would be a major step backwards for education in the City; yet this seems to be deBlasio's program as we perceive it now. I hope that is not the case. As for the need for more affordable housing; that is obvious, and we should applaud any efforts deBlasio makes in that direction, as well as others that will help revitalize the middle and working class presence in this wonderfully diverse City.

Will de Blasio prove to be a naif?  The Times noted his first challenge: 6-10 inches of snow predicted for tomorrow.

Margaret, let's hope not.


A naif?  No way.  He's a smart guy who certainly knows the art of politics and knows how difficult governing can be.  I suspect he is very much aware of his need to deliver something substantive on the broad issue of income inequality in NYC.  The question in my mind is -- are the folks who put him in office naifs?  Hopefully liberals/progressives in NYC can be mature enough to know that everything they want is not achieveable and they are wise enough to cut de Blasio a lot of slack and control expectations.

I would watch the tax increase to fund pre-K closely.  It is the proposal he is most known for at this point.  He must have some clue that he can break through the obstacle of Albany approval.  (he can't get the tax increase on people making over $500,000 without state approval).  The biggest obstacle is the Republican-lead Senate.  The Republican hold on power is very tenuous already and got more tenuous when a Republican from Long Island quit last night.  


That seat and a few others could easily go Democratic. 

Indeed, let's hope that de Blasio will succeed at the housing, education, and taxing realignment. Yet....A moment of disquiet. A friend reports that in his innagural speech he called for the end of "A Tale of Two Cities." Does he know that the original ended with a swish of the guillotine? Block that metaphor!

The new mayor's inauguration was not encouraging.  One supporter triumphantly noted that you would not hear the same music at a Bloomberg event.  Let's hope that the rock and other discordanant notes we heard do not turn out to be the dance music from the Titanic.

Wayne, I come from a background similar to yours so hear me out. I have worked as an educator in New York City for almost 30 years and have witnessed the educational "reforms" of the Bloomberg era. If you think these measures were steps forward you have never really been inside a classroom or have no sense of what it's like to live and work in fear under a regime that has no use for either  the children it is supposed to serve  or it's employees. Imagine someone incapable of holding a job spends a few months being trained with a corporate ideology that sees everything in terms of  numbers. Imagine next that this person is your boss and, unsubtle in their newly earned sense of power, is thoroughly convinced that everything you do is wrong. I have met this  type of person dozens of times since Bloomberg.  The media controlled mostly by Bloomberg's friends hardly ever reports on this reality. I woud suggest that you get your head out of the corporate media and look for alternative sources for your knowledge about the schools. Better yet, talk to a teacher, any teacher and ask what has been really going on for the last dozen years. If you or anyone else reading this wants an honest analysis of what the current educational reform movement is really up to look at the  2 links below.



George Kraus...your assumptions about me and the teaching profession, even in NYC, are all wrong. You should be very careful when making such assumptions.

I agree with you when you imply that "teaching to the test" can be both a fearful experience and probably not a good way to reach students. But, I contend the problem is as much the quality of the teaching as anything else. When I grew up in NYC, in both public and religious schools, primarily public, we had tests devised by our teachers and schools, as well as Regents in most subjects. You had to pass both to be promoted. I do not recall any teachers "teaching to the test." They taught their subjects because they loved their subjects and wanted to impart knowledge and enthusiam to their students.





In spite of your defense about "assumptions", I dare say you miss the point about Bloomberg completely. If you think that having people with minimal  or no educational experience brought in to improve the "quality" of teaching then you still have no sense of what the last twelve years have wrought. Remember that Dennis Walcott, our previous chancellor taught for two years in kindergarten. It was his blind obedience to Bloomberg not his ability to improve teacher quality (whatever that may be) that earned him his position. Need I mention Kathie Black? Joel Klein in spite of  his unearned accolades from the media unleashed  a mean spiritedness and type of top down corruption that the teachers on NYC have still not recovered from. The "assumption" you seem to be making is that the quality of education was better after Bloomberg. You are welcome to hold that opinion, but I am telling you from the inside that this is not the truth. In closing and I really don't want to carry this further,  I have to say that when you are a member of a humble profession like teaching and you are suddenly and cruelly assaulted by people who are anything but humble and who reflect the current of anti-worker ideology in this country you cannot join the chorus of "experts" who smugly think they know better. They do not know better because they are not there nor do they care to be. We teachers remain.








I'm sorry you do not want to carry this further. Teachers deserve all our respect, especially those working in large cities today. Our next door neighbor when I was growing up was a deputy of Al Shanker when he was forming the first teacher's union; they were both men held in great respect by me and by my family. But, I will acede to your wishes. I hope you have a better experience teaching under the new administration in New York.


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