Demystifying de Blasio

Bill de Blasio. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

Bill de Blasio won the mayor’s race by the biggest margin in decades, but has maintained a tiny public profile in the weeks since then. He laid out a bold agenda during the campaign, but what de Blasio’s government will actually look like and how he’ll accomplish his goals are still a mystery.

The incoming mayor won his post in large part by helping define Michael Bloomberg as an out-of-touch billionaire whose police department has overreached for years. Now he faces the tougher task of defining himself.

Here are some key unanswered questions about the mayor-elect:

1) Is he a ditherer or a decider?

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

The question of whether de Blasio’s family will move from his Brooklyn townhouse to Gracie Mansion has become a stand-in for a larger question, having to do with whether the mayor-elect is capable of making a tough decision (After saying the family would make this call after talking during the Thanksgiving holiday, de Blasio told reporters on Monday that it won’t be settled till the end of this week.)

The leisurely pace of de Blasio’s transition, despite the fact that the mayor’s race stopped being competitive after the primary, threatens to reinforce this old storyline about de Blasio, which actually dates back at least to 2000, when he managed Hillary Clinton’s first Senate race in New York. According to people involved in the race, de Blasio’s indecisiveness was the reason he was layered over by another adviser, Patti Solis Doyle, while the campaign was still going on.

For the moment, the transition story is mostly something for reporters to obsess about.

(“The people who are pressuring de Blasio on appointments are the media, not actual voters,” said Democratic pollster and strategist Jef Pollock. “Voters want him to take the time to pick the best people that reflect his values for these very tough jobs. He gets no bonus points for picking early.”)

The voters, fresh off handing de Blasio a mandate, seem perfectly willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. That won’t necessarily last.

2) Where will Chirlane McCray sit?

Will she give press conferences? Will she have an office and a staff? What will her portfolio be?

The woman who is about to become the city’s first first lady in well over 12 years (longer if you’re counting Rudy Giuliani’s chilled relationship with his second wife, Donna Hanover), McCray was omnipresent in de Blasio’s campaign, described by several people connected to his team as an equal partner in almost all decisions he’s made, from low-level hiring to policy.

She’s outspoken and has been deeply critical of the current administration, and was among her husband’s most effective surrogates in bringing down the early Democratic front-runner, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. She was the cause of a fair amount of attention being paid to the de Blasio campaign at a time when few people were watching it, when the New York Observer reported on a magazine article she’d written decades earlier identifying herself as a lesbian, which is how she says she viewed herself before she began dating de Blasio. She, along with the de Blasio children, was also a major part of the campaign’s successful effort to market the candidate as a caring husband and father and sympathetic post-racial everyman.

But New York is still getting to know McCray, and most voters don’t know much about her at all. (McCray has worked for Citigroup, for example, but the campaign has said little about that.)

She seems likely to play a role in the administration’s push for universal pre-K, based on her time as a public school parent. It’s not clear how broad, or formal, her portfolio will be otherwise.

3) Who will be the police commissioner?

This one is likely to be answered this week, by all indications. And the answer may well be Bill Bratton.

Picking Bratton,who was commissioner under Rudy Giuliani, would go a way toward soothing the city’s one percent, who remain in a state of near-panic about the prospect of crime going up after Bloomberg departs.

As police commissioner in Los Angeles, Bratton substantially increased the use of the stop-question-frisk tactic, which de Blasio has promised to lessen the NYPD’s reliance on. (The pushback from de Blasio’s team, if Bratton is picked, will likely be that he used the tool correctly).

Bratton was previously credited with introducing stop-and-frisk to New York City, while also focusing on police-community relations. He isn’t likely to be an agent of the dramatic departure from current policing practices that de Blasio signaled he wanted to deliver during the campaign. That may be the point.

4) Can he handle the press?

Since winning the race, de Blasio has shown unmistakable signs of impatience with the media, particularly when it comes to questions about his family, which he has made a central part of his political rationale when running for office, going back at least to his 2009 public advocate race.

New Yorkers have historically liked feeling connected to their mayor, something they didn’t have with Bloomberg, but mostly forgave. Part of de Blasio’s ability to tell his story in the first six months will be establishing a healthy relationship with the press, or at least a willingness to engage in vigorous, regular give-and-take in the tradition of Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani.

“Whether they like you or don’t like you, you’re much better off engaging than you are trying to hide,” Giuliani told me recently, advising the incoming mayor to hold regular press conferences. “You’re not president of the United States, you can’t hide behind the Oval Office.”

5) Is he an operative or an activist?

De Blasio was a political operative before he was ever a politician, and he is an extremely smart one. This was reflected in the disciplined campaign he ran, in which he packaged himself neatly as the uncompromisingly liberal “clean break” candidate, and promised to use government actively to reduce financial inequality in New York.

But the fact is that de Blasio’s campaign had little bearing on the many parts of being a mayor that have nothing to do with ideology whatsoever. There is also the fact that de Blasio is succeeding a mayor who will be hard, if not impossible, to top in many areas as a practitioner of activist government. De Blasio could hardly be more progressive than Bloomberg has been, for example, on public health initiatives like smoking and soda bans, and has indicated that he’ll be considerably less aggressive than Bloomberg in making New York a less car-reliant city and forcing the taxi industry to provide better service in the outer boroughs.

De Blasio, who got himself arrested during the campaign at a protest to keep Brooklyn’s Long Island College Hospital open, gave one indication this week that he’s finding a new balance: His spokeswoman told Capital that he’s declining to participate in a series of rallies and marches organized by progressive groups in support of his agenda.

6) How will he handle Cuomo, the City Council and the Senate Republicans?

People close to de Blasio often point to the fact that he and the governor worked together at the department of Housing and Urban Development in the 1990s as proof of a longstanding working relationship between the two men, and a predictor of how they can work together as leaders.

But de Blasio worked for Cuomo at HUD, not with him.

Cuomo, facing his own re-election effort next year, has been cool to de Blasio’s call for a tax increase on millionaires to pay for universal pre-K in New York City. “Team player” is not frequently an attribute ascribed to the governor, who values his position as the state’s most visible Democrat--a position de Blasio threatens if he can turn himself into a national figure on the issue of income inequality.

De Blasio will also have to contend, for now, with a State Senate controlled by Republicans and a handful of breakaway Democrats. Bloomberg donated lavishly to the Republicans in an attempt to get them to look more kindly than they otherwise would have on the city’s legislative priorities. He insisted Monday that he expects Senate Republicans to be open to his pitch for the tax hike, citing polling showing voters favor it. But in reality, they owe de Blasio nothing.

7) Who will he pick as his deputies?

And how many of them will there be? Bloomberg expanded the number from what Giuliani had. But over his 12 years, he largely appointed technocrats to key posts, bringing in a mix of longtime local insiders like Marc Shaw, businessmen like Dan Doctoroff and public-sector outsiders like Steve Goldsmith and Bob Steel. Giuliani’s deputies were mostly political or personal allies who were ideologically similar to him. Bloomberg’s people sometimes had no discernable ideology at all.

With four weeks left to make a string of critical appointments--fire and sanitation commissioners and schools chancellor among them--de Blasio has given no inkling as to who his choices will be, or what strains of governing thought they'll represent. What's more, his inner circle is largely comprised of the city's most progressive voices, and one of his closest advisers aside from McCray is Patrick Gaspard, who is currently serving as the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa.

The operating assumption is de Blasio will make at least one unexpected choice, one that could please the nail-biting business class but also be someone he feels he can rely on.

8) Will he actually come through for unions?

City unions have made clear that they expect de Blasio to be a major ally to labor organizations, whose leaders have been at odds with Bloomberg over contracts for several years.

But that may be an overoptimistic assumption on their part. De Blasio hasn’t committed himself to any specific concessions to unions, and in fact he may feel particularly free to defy them, given that only one of the biggest labor groups, SEIU 1199, backed him in the mayoral primary.

De Blasio’s language is likely to be more conciliatory toward unions than Bloomberg’s often was, but sympathetic rhetoric isn’t the same thing as, say, major retroactive pay raises. De Blasio may even calculate that achieving some separation from the unions by taking a tougher-than-expected line in negotiations would be a good thing for him, politically.

9) What will he do in the Council Speaker's race?

The jockeying to replace current speaker Christine Quinn, who has spent the past eight years as the city’s second-most powerful official, has been going on in earnest for weeks. There are a handful of candidates, but only one--Councilwoman Melissa Mark Viverito--can say her staff has been in touch with de Blasio's team.

Mark-Viverito, an outspoken liberal, has been a staunch ally of de Blasio, and shares his views on a number of key agenda items, including stop-and-frisk reform.

What’s not clear is whether de Blasio will actually try to use his clout to make her his governing partner. It’s also not clear whether he’d see it as an entirely good thing to have a speaker whose commitment to the agenda he laid out as a candidate may turn out, once he’s mayor, to be more uncompromising than his own.

And if he does decide to push for Mark-Viverito, he'll need to guarantee she wins what is often a quirky, difficult-to-predict insider's race.

10) What’s Plan B?

De Blasio has staked an awful lot on achieving his universal pre-K plan quickly, and has announced that he will soon have a task force to go over the difficult details, such as where the city might find room for large numbers of new students in the city’s already-cramped preschools.

He and his aides have declined to discuss what would happen if Albany doesn’t approve the tax hike on wealthy New York City residents de Blasio is counting on to pay for the program.

One option would be to negotiate a different funding stream to allow the pre-K expansion to go forward, even if that alternative undercuts the social-justice aspect of having rich people pay for it.

Another would be to shift focus to a new accomplishment that would fulfill some of the promise of de Blasio’s campaign—possibly something related to affordable housing. The worst case, surely, would be for him to come up empty.