Progressive Pow-Wow Presents Hopes for Next Mayor’s Administration

Short on bombast and long on analysis, left-leaning academics and the co-chair of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus took to

Panelists discuss a progressive vision for New York City at the CUNY Graduate Center.
Panelists discuss a progressive vision for New York City at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Short on bombast and long on analysis, left-leaning academics and the co-chair of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus took to the stage at the CUNY Graduate Center last night to outline their alternative vision for a city in the twilight of the Bloomberg era.

“We’ve been in a kind of sitting in the laboratory, mixing the chemicals phase in the past nine months and we hope to go out and cause a few explosions in the coming months and after the elections,” said John Mollenkopf, a CUNY political science professor and co-organizer of the panel discussion, “Progressive Policies for the Future of New York City,” which the New York Times’ Michael Powell moderated.

Rather than simply hammer away the 12-year reign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg like some of the candidates hoping to succeed him, the panel at the CUNY Graduate Center, including Brooklyn Councilman Brad Lander, sought to soberly critique the Bloomberg administration on the educational, criminal justice and economic development front. In particular, they offered solutions to what they ultimately viewed as the most glaring social ill of the last decade: rising income inequality.

“There’s a sense put forward in many spaces that there is some sort of contradiction between, or opposition between, the pragmatic needs to run the city and the progressives goals of a more inclusive and more equal one,” Mr. Lander said. “As though as if you really care about combating poverty … you won’t get the garbage picked up effectively. And we believe this is fundamentally false.”

The panel discussion, organized by Mr. Lander and Mr. Mollenkopf, drew some of its rhetorical firepower from their 51-page progressive blueprint for the city. The report, titled, “Towards a 21st Century City for All,” proclaimed that New York City has been governed by “relatively conservative” mayors, with the exception of Democrat David Dinkins, since 1977. Praising Mr. Bloomberg for hiring adroit deputy mayors, focusing on environmental sustainability and upholding the tenants of social liberalism, the report and the panelists nevertheless argued the city’s billionaire mayor has failed to address a surging income inequality gap between the city’s working class and top earners.

While calling some of Mr. Bloomberg’s economic development policies “nothing short of magnificent,” Laura Wolf-Powers, a city and regional planning professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said low income residents had missed out on much of the gains made under Mr. Bloomberg’s mayoralty.

“Under Bloomberg, policies to promote growth and to activate the city’s creative energies and celebrate entrepreneurship have taken place in a very different space from policies to help low income residents become less poor, have access to more opportunity and access to higher quality of life in their neighborhoods,” she said, citing statistics like the city’s 2011 poverty rate of 21 percent and nearly 50 percent of city households that are “near poor,” meaning they are below 150 percent of the poverty line. Medium income, Ms. Wolf-Powers said, actually fell by 6 percent between 2008 and 2011.

Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University, further critiqued the market-oriented approach to education that has been a hallmark of the Bloomberg administration.

“There’s been a rhetorical shift from a great school system to a system of great schools,” Mr. Pallas said. “And much of these reforms hinged on the invisible hand of the market as the key to fostering innovation and sustaining successful practices in the form of mandates, incentives … the alternative metaphor I want to put forward is the helping hand. A vision of a system that is hell bent on capacity building, capacity building in the form of professional development and support for school leaders and teachers.”

Weighing on any reforms, the panelists said, will be the city’s still precarious fiscal health. With a fragile national economy, the potential damage that sequestration could inflict locally and unresolved union contracts, the next mayor will be inheriting a comparatively robust city that nevertheless remains on precarious financial footing.

“I don’t think you can actually overstate the fiscal situation that New York’s gonna be in, it will be in fact incredibly dire,” Mark Jacobson, former director of the Vera Institute of Justice, said.

Whether or not the next mayor will take up their solutions, of course, remains to be seen. Progressive Pow-Wow Presents Hopes for Next Mayor’s Administration