Magazine article Commonweal

Enlightened Self-Interest: Why New Yorkers Made Bill De Blasio Mayor

Magazine article Commonweal

Enlightened Self-Interest: Why New Yorkers Made Bill De Blasio Mayor

Article excerpt

"Bloomberg fatigue" is the explanation frequently presented for progressive Democrat Bill de Blasio's landslide victory in the New York City mayoral race. But voter ennui hardly explains why New Yorkers, having elected pro-business candidates running on the Republican line for the past twenty years, this time chose a mayor inspired by liberation theology--and by a 3-to-1 margin, at that.

It's a dramatic change in direction, and "Bloomberg fatigue" is sometimes a coded way of minimizing its significance. The phrase implies that the public's desire for change sprang from attention deficit rather than any shortcomings on the part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "I liken it to hemlines--you know, hemlines are fine, but next year they move them up or down, because people want a change," Bloomberg said in an interview with WOR Radio.

Please. Let's give New Yorkers some credit for recognizing what their own interests are. De Blasio won because he appealed to the many New Yorkers who had come to feel alienated in their own city. Voters were given very clear choices on issues at the core of local governance--how to run the police department and schools, and whom to tax--and roundly rejected the Bloomberg approach.

The result is likely to resonate across the country. Any mayor of New York quickly becomes a national figure, and the Big Apple's experience has been nationally influential on matters such as policing, housing, health policy, and education. When voters clearly reject a key strategy of the NYPD--in this case, a massive stop-and-frisk program that Bloomberg says is essential to maintaining low crime rates--it's bound to have an effect on the national conversation about policing.

De Blasio recognized that the Police Department's stop-and-frisk program was one cause of the public's estrangement. What began in the 1990s as a more focused effort to get guns off the streets had swollen into a massive, quota-driven intrusion into the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. That those subjected to searches were rarely white (9 percent of the 685,724 stops in 2011) and were mostly under twenty-four years old meant that many minority voters knew that they or their children were constantly at risk of having a rattling encounter with the police.

De Blasio, married to a black woman, was in a good position to respond to that anxiety. His campaign highlighted his wife and two children, featuring an ad in which his fifteen-year-old son Dante called him "the only one who will end a stop-and-frisk era that unfairly targets people of color." (An admiring President Barack Obama said of the impressively coiffed Dante: "My Afro was never that good.")

De Blasio split the black vote in the Democratic primary with Bill Thompson, a black candidate who was the former city comptroller, and took an astonishing 96 percent of it in the general election, according to exit polls. (The city's first African-American mayor, David Dinkins, won 91 percent of the black vote.) Eighty-seven percent of Latino voters also supported de Blasio. That suggests once again the rising influence of black and Latino voters in many places across the country. It also shows that populist surges are not limited to the Tea Party; there is a left-wing version that in this case swept aside some well-established Democratic contenders.

Beyond the stop-and-frisk policy, there were other reasons large numbers of voters felt alienated from city government. One is that many parents of the city's one million public-school students had come to feel voiceless as Bloomberg made abrupt changes in the schools. Bloomberg is a leading proponent of the corporate-backed, foundation-supported, bipartisan national school-reform movement that champions charter schools, tougher teacher evaluations, and heavy reliance on standardized testing. He succeeded in winning mayoral control of the schools, and eliminated the venues where parents and community groups could exercise influence or just vent their frustration. …

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