Setting himself as the progressive choice for mayor, Democratic contender Bill de Blasio promised, if elected, 200,000 new units of affordable housing, a better relationship with the city’s unionized workers and new health and education programs that would be funded by taxing the wealthiest New Yorkers.
Speaking at a Q&A session with journalists from New York’s community and ethnic media, the city’s public advocate offered a forceful indictment of the current administration.
“We are on the wrong path and it needs to be reversed immediately,” said de Blasio at the event sponsored by the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism. “Bloomberg policies, if continued, would not allow the city to thrive.”
He said that the fact that the city’s employees are working under expired contracts is “unprecedented,” and that none of Bloomberg’s predecessors – Mayors Ed Koch, David Dinkins or Rudy Giuliani – “would have, in their wildest dreams, left all the labor contracts opens simultaneously. In fact, no mayor in the history of the city has [done that].”
Decrying the current administration’s “attacks on labor,” he vowed to do “explicitly the reverse of Bloomberg” and use his “very good relationships with labor leaders” to start contract negotiations. (De Blasio has been endorsed by the city’s largest union, Local 1199 S.E.I.U.) The talks, he added, would be “in private, not through media,” and with “no pre-conditions.” He also promised to address other labor concerns, from employment to wage levels.
Another sticking point is the increasing difficulties for the middle class to afford living in the City. “This is kind of an existential crisis for the city, because we have a [long] history of being an accessible place, not just in terms of immigration but of economic class,” said de Blasio. “My critique of Bloomberg is, he openly put forward an elitist vision for the city. Remember the famous speech comparing New York City to retail establishment: We are the Bloomingdales, we are the high end... The byproduct of that and the fiscal crisis is now we have an hemorrhaging of middle class neighborhoods where people can no longer live.”
As an antidote, he proposed building 200,000 units of affordable housing over 10 years, especially “in areas that have been hit by gentrification the hardest.” To do so, he would apply the mandatory inclusionary zoning ordinance – a non-negotiable “requirement to the industry to provide affordable housing in every major development.” Also, he would invest $1 billion in city pension funds, and “change the tax code, which currently incentivizes land being left vacant by the land owners in the city. Instead, we should incentivize development for housing.”
De Blasio went on to defend his support for the controversial Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn. “Imperfect though it’s been, it was an effort to create a very substantial amount of new affordable housing right in the middle of a very gentrification zone,” he said, although he conceded that the affordable housing has yet to materialize. He partly blamed the financial crisis, but also cited “serious missteps by the developer” and “a serious lack of oversight by the state and by city government.”
Taking a cue from Dinkins and President Clinton, de Blasio promised more diversity in the administration ranks, and vowed to help immigrants improve their financial literacy, for example, in building a credit history or open a bank account. “That’s why I proposed a city ID card for folks who are undocumented, and obviously state drivers licenses as well,” he said.
On the education front, he said he would keep Bloomberg’s mayoral control of schools, but vowed to be less “exclusionary.” He proposed a greater focus on early childhood, and a curricular overhaul “updated for the realities of the modern economy” and less reliant on test prep. The centerpiece of his campaign, he added, is a plan “to tax the wealthiest New Yorkers so we can have full-day universal pre-K and after-school programs for middle school children.”
Citing Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (1934 to 1945) as his model – “He took the worst economic crisis in the history of the city and constantly innovated the use of city tools and resources to help people in need,” De Blasio defended his tenure as public advocate.
“I led the charge in pay sick days,” he said, also pointing out his role in reforming stop & frisk policies, going after bad landlords and helping tenants to organize. “We played the role of watchdog in a muscular way,” he said, even though he noted that the office “has long been underfunded and under empowered, so we had to do that with one hand tied behind our back.”
He also blasted Bloomberg for his homelessness prevention policies. “This Mayor said he would reduce homelessness by two thirds in 2005. He has given us the higher number of homelessness in our history,” said de Blasio, citing that “over 50,000 people, 20,000 of whom are kids,” live in the city’s shelter system. He acknowledged that the economic crisis had a lot to do with the jump, but charged that Bloomberg “did not take the steps to mitigate [the situation], and any other mayor would have been roasted alive had they done that.”
Although he approves of Bloomberg’s controversial soda ban and recently unveiled anti-flooding plans, de Blasio’s constant jabs at the mayor prompted the audience to ask him specifically about his differences with the other Democratic candidates. When he started his response by accusing Bloomberg of the “unacceptable level of disparity in this city,” he was interrupted by moderator Garry Pierre-Pierre, director of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media, who pressed him to stop talking about the mayor. “He is not running,” said Pierre-Pierre.
De Blasio eventually accused his opponents of wanting to follow the mayor’s vision, citing specifically Christine Quinn and Bill Thompson. “There is a sharp divide between a progressive model, which is mine, and what you can call a moderate or a Bloomberg-like vision,” de Blasio said.
“Finally!” quipped Pierre-Pierre, as the audience burst into laughter.
Complete Q&A session: