What is Bill de Blasio communicating?
In October the New York Times asked Bill de Blasio what a mayor’s resume should look like.
His response contained many words, but the nut of it was this: “It’s about ability to communicate. It’s about clarity of vision and ability to sense what’s going on on-the-ground, and listen.”
So far, "ability to communicate" has not proven to be one of the new mayor's strong suits.
Though de Blasio campaigned on the promise of governmental transparency, his actual approach to communication has tended, even on ostensibly comfortable subjects for him—and even in the cases of set-piece events that he would seem to have an interest in promoting—toward the opaque and unhelpful.
He often talks about strengthening community relations and, ironically, improving public communication as a proxy for revealing details. Frequently, his press office doesn't bother to respond to requests for comment, and the mayor regularly shows up 40 minutes late to press conferences. More times than one might expect in just two months of governing, de Blasio has left important meetings off of his public schedule (AIPAC, Valerie Jarrett), or included them but then barred the press (the Real Estate Board of New York, Pussy Riot).
On Friday, de Blasio promised to answer questions from the press about his motorcade's violation of traffic rules, but then read reporters a statement instead, prompting former New York Times City Hall bureau chief Clyde Haberman to tweet, "BdB's press strategy seems to be to go out of his way, not even 2 mos. into his term, to smugly alienate those covering him."
When reporters protest, as we reporters do, de Blasio and his allies argue that the media is too distractable and focused on shiny ephemera, while the mayor is trying to talk about substance.
"These are issues that fundamentally affect peoples' lives and I think that's where the public debate should reside," he said, on Monday. "And I think too much of the time debate veers away into, you know, sideshows."
But de Blasio is often at his most wooly-mouthed when he's purporting to communicate on questions of actual policy.
This week, when an education reporter asked a question about screened high schools, de Blasio praised her "erudite" query, and then didn't answer the question in any sort of meaningful way.
Earlier, de Blasio traveled to Staten Island and expressed empathy and outrage at the slow pace of the Hurricane Sandy rebuilding effort, including the program called Build it Back. But he declined to explain how he would make it any better.
First, the expression of understanding: "My colleagues here are making clear how many people are still hurting, how many people are still experiencing Sandy in a very sharp way, and how much we have to do better at our response," he said.
And then the promise to "play a very hands-on role to fix some of these problems."
But however sincere the empathy is, de Blasio has yet to name an official to oversee the recovery.
And when reporters asked him to define the scope of the Build it Back “problems” and explain how he would make the program better, he promised to get back to them once he’d more fully reviewed the issue.
There was a similar lack of detail in de Blasio's Friday-evening announcement last week that SUNY, labor unions and community advocates had reached a tentative agreement to restart the bidding process for the money-hemorrhaging Long Island College Hospital in Cobble Hill, something he insisted was "truly historic."
As a candidate, de Blasio got himself arrested protesting SUNY’s plans to close the hospital and sell off the hospital’s property to "real-estate interests," but the agreement, which de Blasio described as "a major moment in the history of health care in this city," will almost definitely involve selling off the hospital's property.
De Blasio might have been in a position to make the case that the deal would have been worse if he hadn't protested. But he declined, in any information-based way, to make it.
When a reporter asked him if the agreement would lead to fewer hospital beds, de Blasio delivered a short speech that wasn't quite an answer:
“You know, throughout this last year, I've talked about the fact, as I mentioned in my remarks, there are changing economics and changing realities,” he said. “We want sustainability of health care, and we're open to different formulations, but we want sustainability. And I can only point to the fact that 15 separate hospitals were lost. Obviously, they weren't sustainable. That even LICH five years ago or so, we thought we had a sustainable solution. We did not. So, the one thing we refuse to do is to go through this whole struggle again. We want a solution that we believe really will stick this time. And we want to make sure it's a financially viable one. So we're open to different formulations. What's fundamental is the localness, the sort of, accessibility of the health care. And both this victory, specifically, and the waiver in general, I think are what's going to allow us to lock that in.”
Similarly, on February 8, when de Blasio unveiled his choice to manage New York City’s 334 public housing developments, he declined to substantively address the most controversial issue now affecting public housing: former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to help plug the authority’s multi-billion-dollar capital funding gap by building luxury housing on adjacent land and then dedicating the resulting revenue to the projects.
On the one hand, de Blasio said, “The previous approach, we rejected, and this is entirely starting over.”
But then he also said that he would leave the “door open” to private development, but only if there had been a real "reset” in authority-community relations.
In an effort to ascertain precisely what the mayor was trying to communicate, a reporter asked how one would know that such a reset had occurred.
Here’s how the mayor responded: “I think the point is that again, we’re starting with a very blank slate here because we reject the previous approach. So this is a total reset. And it is a reset that we will take time to work though, because it begins with a different kind of dialogue with our tenants. Then how do you know when something’s working? You know when tenants feel that they can see the plan as believable, as there being, bluntly, something in it for them in the best sense of the word.”
Other examples of areas in which de Blasio has promised a change of direction while leaving the new coordinates a mystery: borough taxis, which he wants to "fix" but won’t say how; charter school co-locations, which he’d also like to fix, but won’t say how; the Times Square pedestrian plaza, which he thinks requires further analysis.
When, in January, de Blasio announced his press team, a reporter asked him if he liked the media.
De Blasio responded that he has a “Jeffersonian worldview on this," meaning that "a free press is actually essential to making a democracy work. ... It doesn’t mean I'll give you the exact answer you're looking for, but I think this is part of the checks and balances in our society.”
Figuring out that balance, in terms of providing that free press and the public with useful information, is very apparently a work in progress for the administration.
Mayoral spokesman Phil Walzak pointed out that de Blasio has outlined specific plans for universal pre-Kindergarten and traffic safety, and he said that similarly substantive proposals in other subject areas are in the works.
"He's been very clear that more detailed plans are coming on these substantive issue areas, like the [affordable] housing agenda due May 1, like Sandy in the coming weeks," said Walzak. "So I think you will see more. And I think a lot of the, perhaps, perception that he's not got policy-heavy chops is more a function of complex policy items coming together in a very short time, and there's more to come and more to see."
Walzak also said, "I think he's been up front about the fact that there's a lot more to come on Sandy and that there's a lot of questions on how to get going in a more substantive way."
To mark the start of Fashion Week earlier this month, de Blasio invited the media to a press conference in the Garment District, a once-vibrant manufacturing center that's been undermined by globalization.
In his remarks, de Blasio vowed to make the preservation of the district a "priority." But that's a tricky issue, involving zoning and profit-driven landlords.
The several reporters who trekked to Midtown and sat through the prepared platitudes in hopes of getting to the detailed part, it turned out, were out of luck: De Blasio took no questions, off-topic or on.