By former Assemblyman Steve Sanders
Five years ago this month, Bill de Blasio was running for mayor against a bevy of better-known candidates featuring City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Congressman Anthony Weiner in the Democratic Primary. His early standing in the polls was fifth among five.
As the summer wore on, one by one they fell by the wayside.
Weiner’s political career dissolved amid a flurry of revelations about his obsession with sending pictures and texts of the most personal nature to women (and later even girls). He was utterly discredited. Quinn came across as entitled and arrogant and the voters soured on her. Another contender, City Comptroller John Liu, had been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for illegal political advertising and never gained traction. And Bill Thompson could not repeat his impressive showing from four years earlier.
By the end of August just weeks before the primary, voters began to gravitate towards de Blasio by process of elimination. He was progressive and made great promises about a liberal renaissance after 20 years of Republican rule in City Hall.
He proposed freezing rent increases, creating a new generation of affordable housing, advancing social justice and so much more. He was free from scandal and seemed to hit all the right chords with Democratic voters. He won the primary, and easily defeated his Republican opponent in the November General Election to become New York City’s 108th mayor.
Last year with minimal competition he was re-elected. However, once in office, de Blasio showed little appetite for doing the small things, the nuts and bolts of running the city. He was often late arriving to community events and even blamed his tardiness on oversleeping and waking up groggy. He likes being driven from Gracie Mansion to his favorite gym in Brooklyn. Often his work day would not begin until after 10 a.m. He got into a major fight with the Police Union and made matters worse by appearing to give police nemesis Rev. Al Sharpton a leading role in law enforcement policy.
He spoke often about the larger national issues and spent time traveling to other states trying to become a national spokesman for progressive causes. Early in his first term he got embroiled in an ongoing battle with Governor Cuomo over political primacy in New York. He tried without success to engineer the defeat of Long Island Republican state senators, which enraged that majority party. It made him persona non grata in the Senate, effectively hobbling any hopes of getting his legislative agenda passed in Albany.
Now less than a year into his second term, de Blasio is beset by a trio of problems that may sink the rest of his mayoralty. The New York City mass transit system is in crisis needing a massive infusion of capital spending to keep the infrastructure from failing. De Blasio’s feud with Cuomo is making that herculean task even more difficult. As a consequence, little progress is being made.
Public housing conditions became a major scandal after it was revealed that critical testing for lead paint was either never done or records were falsified under de Blasio’s watch. Try as he may, the mayor cannot evade direct responsibility. Meanwhile, children have been diagnosed with dangerously high levels of contaminates in their blood. And to make matters worse for de Blasio, his image as a dedicated reformer is being shredded by revelations of big political contributions funneled to his campaign in exchange for favors to the donors. Maybe in his final three years in office he can turn things around, but it looks doubtful.
Is there a moral to this story? Most mayors come to the office with lofty political hopes for themselves that may extend beyond the corners of New York City. But the really successful ones know that first and foremost they must attend to the daily needs of governing the world’s greatest city. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia set the standard in the 1930s and ‘40s. Ed Koch followed in that tradition for 12 years in the late 1970s and ‘80s, as did Michael Bloomberg more recently. Each had their ambitions, but the public felt that these persons were laser focused on New York City, and as such had confidence in their ability and work.
With term limits we know for sure that New Yorkers will elect a new mayor in 2021. My advice to that person is to keep their eyes trained on the five boroughs, not to over-promise, and certainly not to oversleep.