Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Bill de Blasio, Joe Lhota, and the Future of NYC

Bill de Blasio with neighborhood friends from Brooklyn, 
November 24, 2013. Photo by JTMarlin.
New York City has been blessed with a succession of strong mayors, and now we have two strong candidates for mayor - the "second-toughest job in America," as the late Mayor Koch used to say.

Mayor Bloomberg will be a hard act to follow. Coming in right after 9-11, he was a godsend and must be considered one of the great mayors of the city. Having a mogul as Mayor was a signal that the city is likely to be safe for other moguls, and gave them confidence to stay, to visit and move in. The steady aggregation of wealth in Manhattan keeps the NYC brand strong, even if Wall Street's rep is in the gutter. NYC is still the safest big city.

Adolfo Carrion (L) and Joe Lhota (R) at AARP Mayoral
Forum. Photo by JTMarlin.
But, lucky as we are to have had him lead the City, Mayor Bloomberg is leaving behind some big problems for de Blasio or Lhota to deal with. For starters:
  • The NYPD's "stop and frisk" hunts for illegal weapons or other contraband have been deemed unconstitutional by a Federal judge because they have had insufficient cause. Race is not enough of a reason to stop someone. The judge says a cop has to have a reason for stopping someone. That doesn't mean crime rates are going to have to soar again.
  • The labor unions are chomping - no, foaming - at the bit for long-delayed collectively bargained contracts. The new agreements could be budget-busters. Depends on how the revenues come in and the U.S. economy is still recovering from 2008-09.
  • The people Mayor Bloomberg chose to turn the school system around, and the methods they are using (such as constant testing) have been strongly criticized. Needs some re-thinking. 
  • His economic development programs have been heavily real-estate-oriented and involve unprecedented levels of new property-tax abatements that will pinch the budget as more services are required for new areas of development.
  • The late-in-the-game tech initiative, a Cornell campus on Roosevelt Island, may disappoint for the very reason that was its impetus - the City's interest in making use of property on Roosevelt Island.
  • The Mayor's ability to fund his own election campaigns has meant that he is not forced like other politicians to hunt for contributions - which has kept him above interest-group pressure, great, but also has kept him detached from the hoi polloi.    
Both Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota are capable of running  New York City. The major differences between them are ones of personality and policy.
  • Personally, de Blasio is warm, enthusiastic, and neighborly, whereas Joe Lhota is tense, combative, and remote (when he is under stress, his eyelids come together as if he seems to want to shut out all the rest of the world).
  • On the policy front, de Blasio wants to level the playing field for NYC's middle class and poor people, which means more services for them and probably higher taxes on the very well off. Lhota's biggest concern is to avoid raising taxes at the top rates and to keep NYC safe for wealthy apartment buyers. They both will be tempted to put these differences under the light of class warfare. Lhota may think he will win most this way, but I wouldn't bet on it. Not this year.
The unions may have been divided in the primary, but most of them seem to have no trouble scrambling from the Quinn and Thompson camps to de Blasio. The first two polls show de Blasio ahead by a three-to-one margin. (These numbers are virtually the same as those for Quinn vs. Lhota way back in 2012 when de Blasio was an unknown.) The first tests for the next mayor will be whether he can work out labor agreements that don't break the budget.

The good news for the next mayor, whether de Blasio or Lhota, is that New Yorkers are weary of their mogul. Twelve straight years of Bloomberg after eight years of Giuliani means that City Hall has gradually been cut off from the public, for reasons of security and of philosophy, in ways that were inconceivable in the Koch and Dinkins days.

To bridge the gap between income and wealth inequality described as "the two cities", de Blasio has made a specific proposal to get a little more money from the rich (raising the top tax rate slightly, by a fraction of a percentage point, on those earning more than $500,000 a year) to provide expanded access to early-childhood education for everyone. Offering earlier schooling means the working parent or parents can go back to work earlier, while the children are socialized earlier and are likely collectively to perform better in higher grades. NYC businesses will reap the benefit of a more skilled workforce. Lhota has accepted half the idea, the universal pre-school part, rejecting the idea that higher taxes would be needed.

In the less than six weeks between now and the election, the two campaigns and the many "independent" voices will be painting the choices in various colors of class warfare. Lhota has already said that de Blasio is using a "Marxist Playbook". The realistic range of policy options in New York City does not take us into the terra incognita of "There be Dragons" Marxism. But the City does face real choices.

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