Tomorrow – Tuesday, September 10 – New York City voters go to the polls to pick the major-party candidates for their next Mayor. Candidates need 40% of their party’s vote to avoid an October 1 runoff election among the top two finishers in the primary. At this writing, it appears that the nominees – possibly without a runoff – will be Republican candidate Joe Lhota (a former Rudy Giuliani aide and more recently Andrew Cuomo’s appointee to head the MTA transit system) and Democrat/Working Families Party candidate Bill de Blasio (a former David Dinkins aide and the city’s Public Advocate). To get from here to Election Day, the City may reopen old racial wounds and have to grapple with the legacy of its last three Mayors.
Five Decades, Four Mayors: Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani and Bloomberg
The Dinkins Debacle
It pays to begin with a thumbnail sketch of the past four mayors, beginning when David Dinkins toppled Ed Koch in the Democratic primary in 1989. Koch, elected in 1977 as the City reeled from a financial crisis, was then seeking his fourth term as Mayor after a scandal-riddled third term; Dinkins was running to become the City’s first African-American Mayor. Koch, once a liberal Congressman, had governed as a relatively pro-business Democrat (he was both the Democratic and Republican nominee in 1981) and rejected liberal political correctness on crime, although his anti-crime initiatives were less vigorous and successful than his revival of the City’s economy and finances. New York under Koch enjoyed the prosperity and Wall Street boom of the 80s, but it was neither particularly clean nor safe, with the burden of high crime rates falling most heavily on poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods; Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities aptly captured New York in the Koch era. But Democratic primary voters made the problem worse. Facing a ‘historic’ black candidate in Dinkins, Koch lost roughly 95% of the black vote in the primary, a showing on par with former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke’s 4% of the black vote in the general election for Louisiana Governor in 1991. (The Jewish Koch, a fighter for civil rights in the 60s, also had an increasingly acrimonious relationship with Jesse Jackson after Jackson called New York City “Hymietown” – an anti-Semitic slur – in 1984, as well as with rabble-rousing street preachers like then 35-year-old Al Sharpton.) Dinkins rolled up similar margins among black voters along the way to winning the general election against Rudy Giuliani, best known at the time as a crusading US Attorney who took on the mob, drug dealers and Wall Street insider trading.
To describe Dinkins as a failure as Mayor would be a massive understatement. Not even Jimmy Carter managed to discredit liberalism in action as garishly as Dinkins, who saw the murder rate explode and the city descend into the sort of chaos and racial strife that had liberals declaring it inherently ungovernable. In a 1993 rematch providing the same sort of perfect storm of opportunity to move the electorate rightward as Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory over Carter, Giuliani ousted Dinkins – but, this being New York, only narrowly. “Bad as the previous four years were – about 1,700 private-sector jobs lost every week on average, homicides surpassing 2,000 per year, more than 1 million residents on welfare – just about half the city was reluctant to give up on its first black mayor, and the voters in November 1993 ratified change only grudgingly. Incumbent David Dinkins was widely seen as ineffectual, but out of 1.75 million votes cast, in so heavily Democratic a town, Giuliani won by just 50,000.” To this day, Dinkins contends that racism rather than the catastrophic state of the City was behind Giuliani’s law-and-order campaign and victory (that’s not hyperbole: according to his 2013 autobiography, “I think it was just racism, pure and simple”).
The Rudy Revolution
What followed was a staggering turnaround in the City’s fortunes in general and its law enforcement in particular, completely revising everything people believed about the city’s safety and governance. Left-wing frequent Giuliani critic Michael Tomasky wrote that “[m]odern New York, with its safe streets, its gentrified Brooklyn, and booming tourist economy, was born on January 1, 1994. And, love him or hate him, it was Rudolph Giuliani who made the city what it is.” George Will called Rudy’s tenure “the most successful episode of conservative governance in this country in the last 50 years,” Reagan included. Thanks in good part to aggressive, hands-on policing that started with a “broken windows” theory of going after petty offenders like squeegee men, New York became the safest large city in America, the stratospheric murder rates a distant memory. The welfare rolls were cut in half, the public-sector unions brought in line, a few particularly onerous taxes cut, Times Square reclaimed from the hookers and the sex shops to be a place so family-friendly Disney would (literally) later open a store there. Rudy’s New York was still socially liberal and far from a libertarian paradise, but he had made it governable again.
Of course, there were always those who never accepted Rudy or his methods, most of all the Sharptonite resistance to Giuliani’s law enforcement policies. But a combination of internal Democratic division and external force kept them from unifying when Rudy’s tenure was up. Term limits put in place with the Koch third term in mind had made Rudy a lame duck by the time New York voters went to the polls on primary day of his final year in office: September 11, 2001. Between a racially divisive primary against Fernando Ferrer that saddled ultimate Democratic nominee Mark Green with low black turnout in November and the long shadow of the September 11 attacks, the voters elected to stay the Giuliani course with Mike Bloomberg. When the dust settled (literally), the billionaire who had built his fortune catering to Wall Street with trading desk terminals and business news was given the task of rebuilding the City’s shattered downtown.
Bloomberg Finds New York’s Center
While it’s easily forgotten in national conservative circles that revile him, Bloomberg’s 12 years in office (he shoved aside the term limits with the collusion of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn) have struck a course that is essentially centrist within the context of NY City politics, complete with drifting in and out of the Republican Party as it suited his purposes. Bloomberg continued and in some ways refined Rudy’s approach to law enforcement and management, making it more sophisticated in its use of increasingly detailed data. Rudy had been tough on guns; Bloomberg raised it to the level of anti-gun zealotry. He’s held the line against pressure to raise income taxes, and left the private sector mostly free of interference for economic purposes (as Bloomberg responds to charges of being ‘in the tank for Wall Street’: “I’m in the tank for industries in New York City! That’s my job. That’s the way people here eat!”). But Bloomberg often sticks his nose into business to advance one of his lifestyle crusades like banning big sodas, tossing smoking out of bars or inveighing against salt, and he also signed off on multiple rounds of property tax hikes. He’s pursued a neoliberal policy on education, accumulating more power in the Mayor’s office (his long-time schools chancellor, Joel Klein was Bill Clinton’s antitrust enforcer), promoting charter schools and using government controls to hold public schools more accountable – which, combined with a negotiating line that prevented reaching a contract with the teachers’ union the last several years, has earned him the enmity of the teachers. Befitting a former business executive, Bloomberg has proven a highly capable manager of day-to-day government operations, but has struggled when crises ranging from heavy winter snows to attempted terrorist attacks have called for him to rise to the occasion. And in myriad ways, when Bloomberg needed to buy off support or acquiescence to his policies and ambitions, he’s done it by throwing around his own considerable wealth rather than the taxpayers’ money.
Many New Yorkers have wearied of Bloomberg’s personality, soured on his evasion of term limits and dissented from this or that policy – as Jonathan Chait notes, Bloomberg’s contempt for the liberty or good opinion of the individual citizen has over 12 years worn poorly even in New York – but most observers of the New York scene would be hard-pressed to find evidence that the electorate wants a return to Dinkins-era progressivism run wild. A February 2013 Quinnipiac poll showed Bloomberg with a 53-40 positive approval rating and found that 31% of New York City voters cited Giuliani as the best Mayor of the past 50 years, with 25% saying Koch and 24% Bloomberg – compared to just 6% for the archliberal Dinkins, 6% for Great Society liberal Republican John Lindsay and 1% for conventional Democrat Abe Beame.
Bloomberg’s Heir: Christine Quinn Misreads The Primary Voters
The conventional wisdom entering the 2013 race, therefore, was that the City’s inherent Democratic partisanship (Democrats control nearly everything but the Mayor’s office) was overdue after two decades out of power to reassert itself, but most likely in the form of a candidate who would not run dramatically far to Bloomberg’s left. Enter Bloomberg’s reliable ally and co-conspirator, Christine Quinn. By any reckoning, Quinn was the heavy favorite when the primary began and well into the summer, and is the establishment candidate in the race, winning a rare trifecta of primary endorsements from the New York Times, the Daily News and the Post and running with Bloomberg’s blessing and de facto backing. Quinn backed Bloomberg on term limits and has mostly supported his education policies while joining forces on his various nanny-state crusades, and in a broad sense is seen as his heir. Yet, Quinn is distinctly more liberal than the billionaire, most notably on issues relating to private sector business, ranging from a more pro-union stance where Bloomberg has been generally neutral in private-sector labor disputes to an insane law permitting suits for discrimination against the unemployed that she passed over Bloomberg’s veto to caving to union pressure on a paid-sick-leave bill. (Quinn has been endorsed by the Teamsters and the building-trades unions). She’s also been an increasingly strident critic of the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” policies, and has a sour relationship with the NYPD’s union.
The massively powerful teachers’ union has been a particularly big obstacle for Quinn. Having worked four years without a contract, the teachers are looking for a budget-busting retroactive pay raise that (along with demands by the rest of the City’s 300,000 unionized workers) carries an estimated price tag in the $7-8 billion range (that’s a thousand dollars from every New Yorker). The 70,000-member UFT hasn’t endorsed a successful candidate since Dinkins, prompting Bloomberg to label its endorsement a “kiss of death.” The GOP candidates have opposed retroactive raises, with Lhota taking the lead on the issue; Weiner has suggested they be conditioned on concessions on the unions making contributions to their own healthcare (along the lines of what Chris Christie negotiated in New Jersey); Thompson has eagerly endorsed the teachers’ demand for retroactive raises, earning him the UFT’s endorsement; City Comptroller John Liu’s left-wing platform earned him the endorsement of District Council 37, the City’s largest public-worker union. Quinn and de Blasio have been cagier on the issue; Quinn has refused to deal in “hypothetical” questions about budget deals, while de Blasio has refused to rule in or out retroactive raises. The difference in their positions, however, is less important than issues of trust: teachers angry at the long stalemate with Bloomberg and his efforts to bring the schools under more Mayoral control have been unwilling to trust his wing-woman.
Quinn’s lead in the polls has crumbled so badly that she’s now seen as unlikely to make the runoff, if there is a runoff; liberal as she is, and as hard as she pushes identity politics (she touts herself as the potential first woman Mayor of New York; she would also be the City’s first openly gay Mayor – Koch’s sexual preferences were the subject of much speculation but never confirmed), she’s not a likeable campaigner and the Democratic primary voters seem inclined after two decades out of power to reassert their differences with Bloomberg. All of Quinn’s substantive dissents from Bloomberg haven’t managed to separate her in the public mind from the Mayor. And perhaps the most enduring lesson of Quinn’s imminent failure, in light of her alliance with Bloomberg on education, is that a white female Democrat simply cannot afford to be at odds with the teachers’ unions.
Dante’s Identity: Bill de Blasio and Race
For much of June and July, the Democratic primary race was divided into four tiers: Quinn and Anthony Weiner battling for the top spot in the low/mid 20s, de Blasio and Bill Thompson fighting for position in the low teens, Liu stuck in fifth place due to a lurid campaign-finance scandal, and the rest of the candidates (because what this goat rodeo really needs is more candidates) not even worthy of being polled and not registering when they were. As this great New York Times infographic illustrates, New York City politics remains a labyrinth of racial, religious, ideological and union voting blocs. Many observers, myself included, thought that it was premature to count out Thompson, given that he had won 48% of the vote in the 2009 general election against Bloomberg (who broke all known records for per-vote spending in a major election) and could draw on the traditional loyalty of African-American voters to black candidates, a particularly pronounced tendency in New York City over the years.
The race was rocked on July 23 when Buzzfeed broke the blockbuster revelation that the disgraced Weiner had continued his ‘sexting’ ways on the internet after being driven from Congress, beginning the process of the bottom dropping out of his support. By August 8, the RCP polling average had Quinn with a 10-point lead and Weiner, de Blasio and Thompson all tied up around 16%:
The Family Card
That’s when de Blasio rolled out this ad, featuring his 15-year-old son Dante (visibly reading off cue cards, but hey, he’s 15) and his eye-catching throwback-70s Afro:
The ad was such a hit that Dante has had to field questions about his own future political ambitions (he’d probably have to keep the now-signature Afro if that’s his plan). Quinnipiac, which has polled this primary race more than any other pollster, illustrates the dramatic effect that followed:
The “Dante” ad wasn’t the only factor at work, but it worked on two levels: one, at the level of raw identity politics, it spread awareness that de Blasio’s wife and son are African-American; and two, it hit directly on the racial hot-button accusation that the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” policy “unfairly targets people of color.” The cherry on top is de Blasio’s pledge to raise income taxes.
As to the former, on Saturday, Mayor Bloomberg made headlines with his response to the ad, which he initially described as “racist” before backtracking (and later pressuring NY Magazine to drop the “racist” reference):
I mean he’s making an appeal using his family to gain support. I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone watching what he’s been doing. I do not think he himself is racist. It’s comparable to me pointing out I’m Jewish in attracting the Jewish vote. You tailor messages to your audiences and address issues you think your audience cares about.
But his whole campaign is that there are two different cities here. And I’ve never liked that kind of division. The way to help those who are less fortunate is, number one, to attract more very fortunate people. They are the ones that pay the bills. The people that would get very badly hurt here if you drive out the very wealthy are the people he professes to try to help. Tearing people apart with this “two cities” thing doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s a destructive strategy for those you want to help the most. He’s a very populist, very left-wing guy, but this city is not two groups, and if to some extent it is, it’s one group paying for services for the other.
It’s a shame, because I’ve always thought he was a very smart guy.
On one level, Bloomberg misses an important point: a guy named Bloomberg doesn’t have to tell voters he’s Jewish, any more than Bill Thompson has to tell people he’s black or John Catsimatidis needs to tell people he’s Greek. But de Blasio, a white guy with an Italian surname, has to show people his family to make the point. Identity politics is a sad reality of politics, but we usually don’t see candidates remind voters of it quite so bluntly.
If the goal was to prevent Thompson from consolidating black voter support behind the only black candidate in the race, it succeeded wildly. The latest polls show de Blasio leading Thompson among black voters by double-digit margins: 37-26 according to Quinnipiac, 42-26 according to PPP, 39-25 according to Marist.
The Politics of Stop and Frisk
But de Blasio’s push is about more than just identity itself; the bigger element of the ad is the racial wedge issue of “stop and frisk.” Now, it’s important to stop here for a minute and do what Bloomberg and so many others fail to do, and define our terms, because talk about race in politics is chronically beset by confusion over words that have distinctly different meanings:
Racism is a set of ideas and beliefs, about the superiority or inferiority of different groups of people as defined by “race.” Of course, race itself is largely an artificial set of distinctions among people who are biologically different only in superficial ways, which is one reason (not the only one) why racism is idiotic nonsense. In practice, it’s less important what you believe than what you do – Abraham Lincoln and his generation of Republicans had many beliefs that would strike us today as racist, but what mattered was that they put their blood and treasure on the line to improve the lives of enslaved black people. That said, voters are rightly interested in the beliefs of political candidates, which are often more enduring than their promises. The problem with accusations of racism in politics is not that they’re unimportant but that they’re non-falsifiable: that is, there’s no type of evidence that can be presented to disprove them (indeed, citing any available type of evidence is usually regarded as additional proof that you’re actually a racist).
Racial discrimination is the real offense: treating people differently because of their race. That’s the case whether the discrimination is individual or whether it’s a systematic structure of discrimination like Jim Crow or apartheid. In theory, everybody’s against discrimination – except, you know, racial preferences in education and employment.
Disparate impact is treating people the same, but in a way that affects people within different racial groups differently. To use a recent and fairly mild example of this, some people have referred to a tax on tanning beds as “racist,” which is ridiculous; that said, for obvious reasons tanning is mostly a thing white people do, so if you’re against every possible form of disparate impact, that’s the kind of thing you end up crusading against.
Racialism is the habit of viewing everything through the lens of race, a terribly destructive habit but – of course – a hard one to shake when you attempt to write about New York City politics, or national politics in the Age of Obama.
Racial wedge issues, or race-baiting, or the race card, or any number of similar terms refer to pressing political issues or appeals that divide people along racial lines, and that’s where we get to what’s really at stake with the stop-and-frisk debate and how we talk about it.
The NYPD has – using crime data and statistics – conducted an increasingly active campaign of preventive law enforcement built around stopping individuals on the street for questioning (a tactic blessed by the Warren Court in 1968 in Terry v Ohio so long as there is “articulable suspicion”) and frisking them for weapons when deemed appropriate. Beat cops have been concentrated in high-crime areas. A lawsuit charging the NYPD with discrimination did not produce evidence of any policy of racial profiling (thus, no overt evidence of racial discrimination on a non-isolated basis), but relied on statistical evidence to argue (persuasively, to the district judge) disparate impact and an inference of discrimination. In a nutshell, the evidence showed that black New Yorkers were stopped in numbers far disproportionate to their numbers among the population – while the City noted that the demographics of people stopped matched well with the actual population of criminals (as determined both from arrests and victim reports). The evidence also showed that the NYPD was more likely to have “false positive” stops of blacks – ie, stops without a well-explained basis or a resulting arrest.
Bloomberg’s view of the stakes in the stop and frisk debate is blunt:
We have not racial-profiled, we’ve gone where the crime is….
The sad thing, which nobody’s willing to talk about, is that most of our crime is in two neighborhoods: southeast Bronx, central Brooklyn. All minority males 15 to 25. We’ve got to do something about that. And unless you get the guns out of their hands, you’re not going to ever be able to do anything.
The merits of the debate demand a more detailed look than space permits here; Slate’s Eric Posner explains why the decision got the wrong result:
Twelve percent of the stops resulted in an arrest or summons…So, police stopped black people more often than they stopped whites even though whites constitute a larger fraction of the city’s population; they used force against blacks more often; and yet they found weapons and contraband less often when they searched blacks than when they searched whites.
…Judge Scheindlin concluded that at least 200,000 stops…violated the Fourth Amendment because the officer checked boxes that indicated only generalized grounds for suspicion like “High Crime Area”; that the actual number of stops lacking individualized suspicion was probably far higher given that the police did not always complete the forms, and their form-filling was likely biased; that many more thousands of stops were unconstitutional because descriptions like “Furtive Movements” are too vague and subjective to demonstrate individualized suspicion; and that the police department pressured officers to make as many stops as possible and that many officers were poorly trained. Finally, the fact that only 12 percent of stops resulted in arrests or summonses (and this number probably overstates the true rate because charges were sometimes later dismissed, among other reasons) means that most people who were stopped were innocent of any crime.
Does this behavior violate the Fourth Amendment? Judge Scheindlin does not estimate the number of stops lacking individualized suspicion, and does not explain how many errors justify the striking down of a government policy. But any policy will predictably result in errors. The “reasonable suspicion” standard of Terry v. Ohio is far weaker than “beyond a reasonable doubt” (required for conviction) and “probable cause” (required for a search more intrusive than a frisk) – all of which necessarily result in a large number of false positives. Why doesn’t a 12 percent hit rate (or even lower hit rate) justify the considerably less intrusive tactic of briefly stopping a person and asking him questions? Judge Scheindlin does not identify the error threshold that distinguishes a valid police tactic from an invalid one.
She also ignores an important factor – the baseline criminality of the population subject to stops. If 12 percent of the relevant population engaged in criminal activity, then a hit rate of 12 percent would be no better than random – meaning that police who stop people randomly will be right 12 percent of the time. But if the rate of criminal activity is lower – say, 1 percent of the population – then a hit rate of 12 percent is impressive, and suggests that police do stop people only with reasonable suspicion and score misses only because criminality is so rare. Although Judge Scheindlin does not discuss this point or provide data, it seems likely that baseline criminality is much lower than she implicitly assumes.
There’s the rub: an ideal stop-and-frisk policy will never be error-free, and liberals of all people should know better than to denounce any government program that’s not error-free. The question is whether the errors are worth the benefits, and whether they are fairly distributed. As to the former, it’s hard to look at New York today compared to the Dinkins years and not want to give a lot of leeway to the NYPD’s nearly-miraculous record of crime reduction, a record few government programs in any field can match. As to the latter, an ideal policy will produce a rate of stops that looks like the actual criminal population – that’s not a Bayesian fallacy but a recognition that the distribution of errors should mirror the distribution of successes. If the impact on innocent black men is disproportionate, it’s because – unfortunately – they disproportionately live in neighborhoods victimized by black male criminals. Any effort to skew the numbers away from the proportions they would hold if they were 100% accurate, simply for purposes of spreading the pain to other racial groups, is not fairness, but its opposite.
For political purposes the question is less about the merits than about how it resonates with the voters – and despite being the major beneficiaries of lower crime rates, black voters are especially hostile to stop-and-frisk and particularly receptive to explicit political appeals arguing that it’s racist, discriminatory or at least racially unfair. Is it fair to raise a political issue that divides voters so explicitly on race? I’m no fan of racial politics, for a lot of reasons: playing the race card and gaining voter loyalty on racial lines is often a way of distracting from the real issues and insulating inept or corrupt politicians from accountability. But fundamentally, public policy issues like stop-and-frisk are important issues, just as things like prison furloughs or racial preferences are important issues the voters should be heard on. Liberals who spent two decades freaking out over Willie Horton and the famous Jesse Helms “hands” ad against Harvey Gantt have no moral standing to defend de Blasio’s use of a similar racial wedge issue – but even if de Blasio’s wrong on the issue and his supporters are hypocrites, that doesn’t mean it’s an illegitimate issue. Indeed, the parallel to the Helms ad is pretty obvious: in both cases, the candidate is appealing on explicit racial lines to the group that is asked to have innocent members pay the cost of a government social policy (the difference being that preferences are a true zero-sum issue, whereas lower crime rates benefit everyone). That may be ugly and it may be divisive, but at some point, it’s still the voters’ business.
The Dinkins Legacy
With de Blasio and the other Democratic candidates vowing to put an end to stop-and-frisk (all they’d need to do is drop the City’s appeal of the ruling), there’s little question that this election will now put at stake 20 years of thinking about law enforcement. The Wall Street Journal reports that it’s already taking its toll on the cops’ willingness to perform stops.
If all of this seems like de Blasio is trying to overturn 20 years of Giuliani/Bloomberg consensus on law enforcement – and all the crime-fighting success that entails – it’s no accident. De Blasio appears to be already looking down the road to make the general election against Lhota a referendum on relitigating the Dinkins-Giuliani races, as evidenced by his reaction to a report (denied by the Lhota camp – “David Johnson has zero affiliation with our campaign and no one on our campaign has ever heard of him”) that a Georgia pollster had been polling the public’s reaction to de Blasio’s interracial marriage:
“I did see the Lhota campaign try and distance themselves from it,” Mr. de Blasio replied when asked about the report. “I hope that’s true. Because I know who Joe Lhota worked for. He worked for Rudy Giuliani; he was the top deputy for Rudy Giuliani when Rudy was dividing this city as a matter of political strategy.”
Mr. de Blasio – who worked for Rudy Giuliani’s predecessor in the mayor’s office, David Dinkins – further warned Mr. Lhota that there would be a price to pay if he made racially divisive attack during the general election.
“I was in both campaigns, serving Mayor Dinkins fighting against Rudy Giuliani. We saw the worst appeals to racial bias and division. I hope – I hope! – Joe Lhota doesn’t think he’s going to replay that playbook…”
Given the relative public standing of Dinkins and Giuliani, de Blasio’s desire to refight those elections and tie himself and Lhota to Dinkins and Rudy seems mystifying. But by his own admission, de Blasio is a Dinkins guy all the way down:
[After working on his campaign as a volunteer coordinator, w]hen Mr. Dinkins won, Mr. de Blasio secured a job as a City Hall aide, a four-year position “foundational for everything I’ve done since then,” he said. Not only did Mr. de Blasio acquire a taste for politics, he made a series of instrumental contacts, including another young Dinkins aide named Chirlane McCray, whom he met in 1991 and eventually married.
A key element in de Blasio’s appeal to liberal activists and older African-Americans has been attempting to revive the reputation of Dinkins, New York’s first black mayor. The Dinkins mayoralty meant a great deal to de Blasio, who met his wife and came of age in local politics while both were working for the Dinkins administration. Dinkins, according to de Blasio, was, unbeknownst to the public, a staunch and effective crime fighter. His problem, argues de Blasio, was communications, not substance, though many who lived through the paralyzing fear of the Dinkins years would probably disagree.
Talking to Salon, de Blasio gives Dinkins credit for expanding the number of cops in New York City with the “Safe Streets, Safe City” program and for bringing the great crime fighter Bill Bratton to the fore. But neither is true.
Ironically, Dinkins himself – playing to caricature to the end – joined Charlie Rangel in endorsing Thompson rather than de Blasio.
Higher Taxes: What Can’t They Do?
The other area where de Blasio has stuck out is taxes: while the Democratic candidates have mostly been non-committal on property taxes, de Blasio pledges to raise income taxes on the City’s top tax bracket. There are two obvious problems with this, even beyond the usual problems with tax hikes. One is that these are the very same taxpayers who were already hit when President Obama raised the top federal tax rate by letting the Bush tax cuts expire in 2012, and when Andrew Cuomo raised the top state tax rate in 2011; going back to that same well could push the top marginal rate to a very bad part of the Laffer Curve. And second, for reasons of New York state law and economics, the City can’t raise income taxes without the permission of the State Legislature in Albany, and so de Blasio’s plan would be dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled State Senate.
That leaves the other big piece of de Blasio’s economic message, union organizing in the private sector, an approach that won him the endorsement of SEIU Local 1199, the largest union in the City:
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, the front-runner in recent polls, has been most explicit about the role of the mayor in such efforts. Asked on Wednesday about his approach to private-sector unionization, he said elected officials “have to think like community organizers.”
“It’s clear the decline of the union movement in this country has correlated with the decline of the middle class,” Mr. de Blasio said. “And we have to strengthen the labor movement, particularly in the private sector if we’re going to have a chance of having a strong middle class again.”
Mr. de Blasio said that as public advocate he supported fast-food workers who want to unionize and telecom workers who battled their employers – causes also embraced by other Democratic candidates.
His community-organizer approach has come with predictable downsides. Though it’s gotten less attention than Liu’s campaign finance scandal, de Blasio is dogged by his own scandal, deriving from his support by the Working Families Party, an all-but-socialist third party (the WFP is closely akin to the PIRGs, ACORN and similar groups). The US Attorney’s Office launched an investigation into the WFP and de Blasio shortly after his 2009 election as Public Advocate, based on accusations during the campaign that the WFP was pervasively violating campaign finance rules. In 2011, the WFP paid $100,000 to settle state and federal lawsuits charging it had used a for-profit arm to provide below-cost services to campaigns as a facade to provide unreported contributions, something the City’s campaign finance board had warned de Blasio and other WFP-backed candidates about during the 2009 race. In 2012, a special prosecutor was appointed to dig further. Earlier this spring, the WFP itself went to court to fight subpoenas in the special prosecutor’s investigation.
(de Blasio’s other job after the Dinkins years was with Andrew Cuomo and Kirsten Gillibrand in the Clinton-era HUD, which started the nation down the road to the 2008 housing crisis. It’s not hard to see why de Blasio would be hesitant to tout that.)
The City’s 20 years without a Democratic Mayor is a vivid illustration of Robert Conquest’s First Law (“everyone is most conservative about the things he knows best”); even leading liberals like Josh Marshall aren’t willing to claim that de Blasio’s economic policies will actually work:
The interesting thing about de Blasio…is that he is running as an unabashed progressive….[F]or three decades rising economic inequality has been a cornerstone of the Democratic critique of the direction of the country. It’s been a theme of many campaigns. Yet most elected Democrats, particularly those in executive positions, have shied away from implementing the set of policies that might actually change or ameliorate the trend…I don’t know if those ‘things’ will work in the big picture. (That’s not just a throwaway line. I’m cautious and somewhat skeptical about our ability to shift these trends through policy….)…
How much you can really move the needle on these questions in a single city with two other states nearby is a very open question. But New York, given its size and the relative immobility of some of its major industries, is perhaps the only city where you could take a stab at it. So it will be interesting to see how this all plays out.
Where is the GOP in all of this? With a much more low-key 3-man race of its own, but really two-man:the most conservative candidate, George McDonald, has drawn positive notices everywhere he’s gone but hasn’t gained any traction and lacks the resources to get his message out. That leaves the unpronouncable against the unspellable: Lhota (the “H” is silent), endorsed by his old boss Rudy, against Catsimatidis, a Greek-born self-made grocery billionaire endorsed by George Pataki. Catsimatidis’ immigrant-makes-the-American-dream bio may be inspiring, but as a candidate he’s been prone to all the well-known pitfalls of clueless-rich-guy, consultant-meal-ticket GOP politics, and has made his closing argument that Lhota can’t win because he doesn’t have enough money. Catsimatidis also doesn’t sound like a guy who is willing to go for de Blasio’s jugular. Then again, the “Cats Man” did manage to put Lhota in the position of having to make this classic debate denial:
Lhota was forced to answer for a controversial statement he made to New York before Labor Day, when he said he would not have stopped train service to rescue beloved vagrant kittens August and Arthur. “I’m not the anti-kitten candidate,” Lhota insisted. “Let’s talk about the facts, let’s talk about the real facts here. First off, as you all know, I have pets. I love pets. I grew up with cats … We have thousands of cats, literally thousands of cats, that are in the subway system every single day, day and night, scurrying across the tracks and they don’t get killed.” The remark removed all doubt that lost and adorable cats would be left to fend for themselves under a Lhota administration.
We get daily mailers from both these guys, and the latest Lhota mailer has more pictures of Rudy than of Lhota; at the end of the day, while Lhota knows he needs Democratic votes to win, he can’t avoid the shadow of his old boss and shouldn’t try. Lhota isn’t a perfect fit for conservatives (given his stances on abortion and same-sex marriage) or libertarians, given his support for stop-and-frisk, but he’s easily the best thing GOP voters could have hoped for after Police Commissioner Ray Kelly declined to run. Matt Welch of Reason Magazine argues that Lhota would actually have something to offer to fans of smaller government; as Lhota told the NY Post:
Asked how he differs from Bloomberg, Lhota cites health initiatives in general and Bloomberg’s bid to bar sales of super-sized soda in particular.
“I believe in many of the things that Mike has done, but I believe we should be educating the public before we ban things.
“The role of government is to steer us in the right direction,” he said, “not do all the work for us.”
Tomorrow, we find out if this three-ring circus is finally ready to reduce to a two-man race.