Atlantic Cities

Who's Afraid of a Liberal New York Mayor?

Who's Afraid of a Liberal New York Mayor?
AP

The last time New York City had a Democratic mayor, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” was at the top of the Billboard charts, Schindler’s List was on track to win seven Oscars, and The X-Files made its debut on the Fox network (which was itself only seven years-old). In the news that year, federal agents besieged the Branch Davidian complex in Waco Texas, Bill Clinton agreed to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gays in the military, and the World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists – for the first time.

The mayor was David Dinkins, and it was 1993. In other words, a very long time ago.

Now this heavily Democratic city has ended a 20-year span of non-Democratic leaders by electing not just any liberal, but one who proudly waves the progressive flag. As the votes were still being counted Tuesday night, the sweep of Bill de Blasio’s victory was by all accounts massive, cutting across age, race, and class.

De Blasio won the crucial Democratic primary in September by defining himself in opposition to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who was seen by many voters as too close to the big-business, pro-development agenda of three-term Mayor Michael Bloomberg. De Blasio built support with his “tale of two cities” rhetoric about New York’s widening economic inequality and his strong stance against the stop-and-frisk policing strategies that came straight out of the Giuliani era.

The inevitability of de Blasio’s mayoral victory – in polls, he led Republican candidate Joe Lhota by nearly 50 points on the eve of the election – had his conservative critics traveling back in time to convince voters that a de Blasio administration would be a catastrophe.

Lhota’s ads dug up scary photos of New York streets and subways in the 1980s (and used at least one of them without the photographer’s permission). Before the votes were even counted on Election Day, the right-wing Drudge Report had tweeted a truly mind-blowing movie poster for 1979 camp classic The Warriors, which depicts a stylized gang war on New York’s "mean" streets, a suggestion that this was the lawless future a de Blasio administration would usher in.

The day before the election, the New York Post ran a front-page piece about a trip de Blasio made to the former Soviet Union as a student back in 1983. “It was the same year that President Ronald Reagan referred to the country’s regime as ‘The Evil Empire,’” the paper pointed out, for those who might not remember the history. “Back in the USSR!” the headline blared on a bright red background, along with de Blasio’s smiling, disembodied face next to a hammer and sickle.

All these scare tactics were likely lost on anyone under the age of 50. As one guy in his 20s said to me recently, for a lot of younger New Yorkers, the hammer and sickle is more likely to be familiar as a symbol that might appear on a hipster T-shirt than as an emblem of a feared enemy.

It’s not 1983, or 1993, anymore. And as much as de Blasio likes to trumpet his liberal bona fides, he has clearly learned a lot about the way American politics works since he went to Nicaragua to work with the left-wing Sandinista revolutionaries back in 1988 – another episode in his past that opponents have criticized.

Once de Blasio’s candidacy picked up steam, he started attracting big money from donors on Wall Street. He also scored major financial support from the entrenched taxi industry and wealthy real estate developers. His spokesperson, Lis Smith, told the Daily News, “As he's said repeatedly, Bill de Blasio will make decisions as mayor based on what's right for New York, not what the special interests or their lobbyists want.” But even before he was elected, there were questions about whether anyone scoring those kinds of donations could call himself a “true progressive.” As one Democratic insider told Newsweek back in August, “Bill de Blasio is much closer to Machiavelli than to Marx. He is not a left-wing crusader or ideologue.” 

While de Blasio has said he will try to fund universal pre-K with a tax on those earning $500,000 or more, he has also described himself as “a fiscal conservative” and “a progressive who can count.” His relatively brief track record in elected office shows he is hardly a wild-eyed opponent of capitalism: as a city councilmember, he was a staunch supporter of the controversial Atlantic Yards complex in Brooklyn, where affordable housing promised by the developer has yet to be built long after completion of the Barclays Center arena.

Chances are, de Blasio will not turn out to be a Robin Hood shaking down the rich to feed the poor and allowing chaos to reign in the streets. Nor will he be an unthinking panderer to plutocrats. Those are the caricatures of a generation ago, and they don’t necessarily have much relevance in the New York of today. Whether you are terrified of a return to the old days or you yearn for the city as it once was – cheap, loose and often out of control – you should know this: No matter what de Blasio does as mayor, he won’t be able to turn back time.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

Join the Discussion