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New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on Progressive Cowardice, Reagan’s Legacy and Why Phil Jackson Belongs in Manhattan

Danny Feingold

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Signature moment: Bill de Blasio at work.

Capital & Main: Do you see risk in Democrats running away from a populist progressive agenda?

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Absolutely. I think the biggest development we saw [in the midterm election] was Democrats not standing up for the ideals of the Democratic Party, not talking to the economic realities of our people, not being willing to offer real progressive solutions. I think there’s another model of Democrats who actually addressed these issues, who were willing to take on big corporations, who were willing to challenge the status quo, who were willing to ask those who are wealthy to pay their fair share, who were willing to talk about how we create living wage jobs and better benefits….

People are looking for answers to what is now a fundamental structural economic crisis. The middle class has been collapsing, people’s earning power has been declining rapidly…. I love that the conventional wisdom [about the recent election] is about a conservative tidal wave. That’s not what happened — what happened is that a lot of Americans stayed home, including a lot of Democrats because they didn’t hear a lot from their fellow Democrats in too many cases.

C&M: Given that not a lot is happening in Washington D.C. when it comes to the issues you just mentioned, are American cities where we should be looking to for progressive change?

Mayor de Blasio: We shouldn’t be satisfied for change to occur only in our cities. Cities are in a position to act forcefully on a progressive agenda, but that has to be…the beginning of something truly national that ultimately changes the reality of Washington.

Look at what we’re doing here in New York City. We provided paid sick leave to a million more New Yorkers. We had a living wage executive order that increased wages for people whose companies get subsidies from the city. We have an affordable housing plan to create 200,000 units of affordable housing over a decade, enough for half a million people, the number-one expense in people’s lives. These are the kinds of things the public rightfully wants to see from leaders. So I think cities are going to be the leading edge. But that is not enough. I expect cities to change the national debate.

C&M: Why are we seeing this progressive change right now in American cities? We’ve had the issues for a long time.

Mayor de Blasio: Something has changed because of the economic crisis and the decline of the middle class. People who in the past had some expectations that their economic fortunes would rise and that the next generation would do better, are now seeing a reality where they themselves are economically stuck and they fear their children will be worse off…. I started by talking about the tale of two cities in New York City, and it is very important for all progressives to acknowledge that we have an income inequality crisis in this country that will endanger the future of the entire United States of America. First we have to say it out loud, then we have to say what the solutions are in real time, we have to talk about the things we can do right now to help our people even while we wait for Washington to invest in infrastructure and education and all the things it should be doing.

C&M: What do you think of those who look at progressive movements in American cities and say they’re interesting but don’t really amount to national change?

Mayor de Blasio: Anyone who thinks this isn’t the beginning of national change is narrow minded because you look around the country, there were referenda for minimum wage increases in red states that passed handily, there were Republicans in this election talking about income inequality. The debate is shifting…the question is, are progressives and Democrats going to meet it and build upon it and create energy around it?

Now the cities are a great place for crystallizing social change, they always have been. When you look at the New Deal and so many other moments of change in our country, a lot of it started in our cities and then spread like wildfire across the country. So this is not a new reality.

C&M: Why don’t more Americans, including liberals and progressives, understand that we will never solve the education achievement gap, the affordable housing crisis or many of the country’s most pressing problems if we don’t address the economic inequality crisis?

Mayor de Blasio: Because we, sadly, as progressives have been taught a negative lesson over 30-plus years. I remember the day Ronald Reagan was elected, and I don’t think any of us on that day could have imagined how negative the impact would be. It’s not just the policies he put in place. It was that Reagan and Reaganism started to talk progressives out of their own power and capacity. And that has continued ever since… This is a problem that has been decades in the making.

The difference [today] is that the economic crisis crystallized the views of the American people…. There’s a lot of re-examination of what life is in this country and what the possibilities are – similar even to what was experienced in the Great Depression. Democrats and progressives have underplayed their hand when it comes to recognizing the intensity of the change that has happened on the ground and our need to meet and it respond to it and show a path forward.

[T]hose of us who have said out loud there is a crisis here, and only with very rigorous measures are we going to address it, have been rewarded with a lot of support from the public…because it’s sharp, it’s identifiable, it’s real, it’s meaningful, and that actually is what people have been waiting for a long, long time. The question is, are progressives going to meet the moment boldly?

C&M: Do you see any shift in the attitudes or behavior of corporate America, a recognition that economic inequality is threatening the fundamental basis of the American consumer economy?

De Blasio: Yes… it’s clear that even in the corporate sector there is now a discussion of income inequality. When the CEO of Goldman Sachs starts talking about income inequality you know that something is penetrating. But beyond that, the notion that there are more and more companies recognizing that if they don’t treat their workers decently in terms of wages and benefits they are going to have a consumer problem, a marketing problem, a PR problem to begin with, but secondly they are not going to have a lot of people to buy their products. This is as old as Henry Ford’s comments when he started Ford Motor Company about needing to pay his assembly line workers enough to be able to buy his cars.

The times we are living in are reframing the discussion. But again, how ironic that Democrats and progressives are not the ones leading the way in a lot of places on that discussion, that sometimes business leaders are ahead of the people who should be sounding the alarms and talking about the solutions. The day will belong to those who speak to the real solutions.

C&M: Many people, including strong union supporters, believe the American labor movement is in a precipitous, inevitable decline. What do you think of the labor movement and whether it can be part of leading a progressive resurgence?

De Blasio: Of course it can be and it must be. From my point of view the assumptions about the demise of the labor movement are incorrect. That doesn’t mean the labor movement shouldn‘t improve what it’s doing. There’s been a failure often times to be bold, to be sufficiently progressive, to organize on the ground. I think the elements of labor that meet these times squarely and organize with a clear spirit of progressive change will continue to grow. Those that offer only the status quo vision will continue to decline or be replaced by other approaches to organizing working people . . .

Progressives should be less negative in their assessment of this reality. I would like to again sadly suggest that this is still the overlay of the last 25, 30 years, that we’ve taught ourselves the wrong way to think. We should acknowledge that throughout history people who have been treated badly economically will organize themselves for change. It is historic fact, it has happened all over the world, it is happening more and more around this country. Look at the fast food workers – that is an example of a movement that didn’t exist a few years ago, that would have been considered impossible a few years ago, that now is an everyday thing. I think every elected official should think of himself as a community organizer.

C&M: You sound like President Obama.

De Blasio: Well on this point I think the President gets a lot of credit for pointing out that we all should be thinking about how to organize our communities for their betterment, but it should extend beyond community organizing to supporting labor organizing. What is better public policy than more and more families getting economic stability, good wages and benefits, a safe economic future?

C&M: You have been outspoken on charter schools. Why don’t more liberals and progressives recognize the threat that privatizing public education poses to the country?

De Blasio: Part of what I think has gummed up the works for progressives is we inherently believe in public education. It is a profoundly basic value that progressives hold. That doesn’t mean it was done right. That doesn’t mean it was approached in the way that actually represented our values…. [I]n so many cities in particular, it bore no resemblance to what we believe because so many kids were mistreated — particularly children of color or poor kids or both, didn‘t get the education they deserved.

There are many, many reasons for that, especially related to historical inequality and injustices, but I think what made this debate different from a lot of others is that as progressives we didn‘t figure out how to condemn the mistakes while still supporting the core and essential notion of public education. In Christian churches they talk about hating the sin but loving the sinner. Well, we love public education, it is our future, it will literally determine the future of our country, but we should be bold about saying that a lot of what happened was wrong and we won‘t stand for it.

C&M: Are you ever going to sing “I Love L.A.” on national TV again?

De Blasio: It was a traumatic experience, I hope to never have to do it again. I‘m not afraid of New York teams facing L.A. teams in championships, I just need to know these New York teams are going to win this time.

C&M: Will you promise here today that New York will stop stealing NBA legends like Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher?

De Blasio: I will not commit to that. In fact I look forward to stealing as many legends as possible. L.A.’s had so many, they can afford it. I believe in sharing and a more equitable society. L.A. can share more of its legends with New York.

C&M: Phil’s just coming back anyway, we don’t really have a claim on him.

De Blasio: Phil is an original New York Knick. So I think you’re right, that‘s even a better way to put it, we’re simply reclaiming that which is ours.

C&M: I know you‘re a big fan of The Wire. What’s your second favorite show?

De Blasio: After The Wire I’m going to go with a current one. Because there are so many shows I love, but The Good Wife I absolutely love. In fact I actually had the honor of appearing in an episode of The Good Wife. I think it’s one of the smartest, most creative shows I‘ve seen in a long time.


This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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