For Mayor Bill de Blasio, a ‘Year One’ With a Tragic Ending

A look at New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's first year in office.

Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers remarks at an NYPD promotions ceremony on December 19. (Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)
Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers remarks at an NYPD promotions ceremony on December 19. (Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)

No mayor wants to stand in the place Mayor Bill de Blasio stood on Saturday: a hospital where he met with grieving family members, where he stood over the bodies of two slain NYPD officers and prayed.

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As he walked down the halls of the hospital, where police turned their backs to him, he must have had some idea of the tension that would follow, deepening the chasm between his administration and the police officers who work for him even as he spoke of a need for unity. 

But this is the image that will linger at the end of Mr. de Blasio’s first year in office. It will eclipse in the public consciousness the many accomplishments he might have wanted to tout in the final, dark days of December. It is a stark reminder of how unpredictable governing a city like New York is: most of the people interviewed by the Observer about the mayor’s first year in office spoke to the paper before the murder of the police officers, which will amount to one of the biggest challenges the mayor will face in his first term.

“The true test of whether or not you run an effective government in New York City is handling the things you didn’t anticipate, and nobody could anticipate,” Peter Ragone, a senior advisor to Mr. de Blasio, told the Observer earlier this month, before the murders.

And this will be yet another test for the mayor.

Mayor Bill de Blasio addresses the media after the Eric Garner grand jury decision. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Mayor Bill de Blasio addresses the media after the Eric Garner grand jury decision. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images) (Photo: Andrew Burton for Getty Images)

It’s not the first unexpected thing to crop up for City Hall in Mr. de Blasio’s inaugural year, nor is it unrelated to another unforeseen circumstance: the death of Eric Garner, a black Staten Island man, as police tried to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes. The mayor could also not control the outcome of a grand jury inquest, which opted not to indict the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, who used what appeared to be a chokehold to bring Garner down.

“That’s the nature of the job, as being mayor—things happen that you don’t control, whether it’s a snowstorm or the Eric Garner case, there are things you have to respond to,” said Bill Cunningham, managing director at DKC who previously served as communications director to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “Mayors are first responders, as much as firefighters and police officers, because they respond in terms of the voice and the face that deals with the public.”

Garner’s death brought into focus a central point of Mr. de Blasio’s campaign: the increasing tensions between communities of color and the police over stop-and-frisk and instances of alleged brutality, which he vowed to ease. Mr. de Blasio has spoken movingly about the man’s death. He promised reform. He promised re-training. He promised to deepen understanding.

For some, the mayor went too far in inviting Rev. Al Sharpton to a roundtable, where the controversial leader sat along with Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, and went even further when he spoke of his son’s relationship with police.

For others, the mayor did not go far enough: Garner’s death led many on the left to lambast broken windows policing—practically invented by Mr. Bratton—as the next stop-and-frisk. 

“In the new year, into year two we’re looking for what that deeper reform looks like, beyond his very eloquent and right rhetoric of his own personal experiences,” said Hugh Hogan, executive director of the progressive North Star Fund. “Is this the right commissioner to lead that effort? I think a lot of us are asking that question.”

Mr. Ragone said criticism from the left and the right was not unexpected.

“It’s not uncommon for the stakeholders on different ends of the spectrum to be dissatisfied with reforms that you’re seeking to make,” Mr. Ragone said earlier this month. “The mayor believes the product will be what we’re judged on in the end—not the short-term criticism from advocates on either side. So if the city continues to keep crime trending low, and is able to make reforms of the police department, that will be what New Yorkers ultimately judge him on.”

And while his base may want more, Mr. de Blasio can point to several police reforms in his first year: a dramatic drop in the number of people stopped by police; a staggering decline in marijuana arrests thanks to a policy change; a plan to roll out body cameras in accordance with a federal lawsuit.

Mr. de Blasio’s public tussles with police unions began after Garner’s death, but heated up with story after story about his wife’s chief of staff, Rachel Noerdlinger, and the serious criminal past of her boyfriend. As the mayor defended her, story after story landed in the papers.   

“I think by next time he runs for office, it won’t matter. I don’t think it lasted long enough to do damage,” said David Birdsell, dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs.

It becomes more troublesome, Mr. Birdsell said earlier this month, if the same divisions embodied by the Noerdlinger story keep popping up.

“If there’s alway something like it to keep the rift wide, then it become a problem, because it becomes a pattern.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio visits a pre-K classroom. (Photo by Susan Watts-Pool/Getty Images)
Mayor Bill de Blasio visits a pre-K classroom. (Photo by Susan Watts-Pool/Getty Images)

Every mayor has had his problems police unions and the press. 

The rifts with the unions has become more pressing to resolve, at least publicly, in recent days. But when it comes to the press, many in Mr. de Blasio’s administration regard tabloid headlines as little more than noise (though the mayor was once angry enough about a New York Post story to call a press conference to bash it).

The mayor offers his staff a constant reminder, Mr. Ragone said: “do the work.” Preparation—for Ebola, for a grand jury verdict, for policy roll-outs—is a hallmark of the administration, Mr. Ragone said, as is the mayor’s focus on the ultimate outcome, the product, the long view. In the end, the product is what people will remember, he said, offering as an example one of the administration’s furthest reaching accomplishments: universal pre-Kindergarten. Many doubted the mayor’s plan was possible; others pilloried him for failing to secure an income tax hike in Albany. But children toddled into classrooms this fall.

“We took a lot of heat during the pre-K fight, and all of you guys and all of the pundits on the TV shows made fun of us, and criticized us, and called us rubes and amateurs. And the mayor kept saying, ‘Don’t play that game. Don’t play the political game. Don’t get into a political fight. Keep focusing on the work. Let us get the funding, and then work our asses off to execute and implement universal pre-K,’” Mr. Ragone said.

Some observers note the pre-K product isn’t quite finished, though it’s off to a strong start.

“Getting UPK was a huge achievement. Implementation of it will be a huge challenge,” Mr. Cunningham said. “We won’t know the academic benefits of it for about 8 or 9 years, until the children are in school.”

Mr. Birdsell called UPK a “masterstroke” for the mayor. “I think it will remain a happy symbol of the capacity that the administration does have to make change, in the face of criticism that they’re too slow,” he said.

While UPK is perhaps one of the most obvious education endeavors of Mr. de Blasio’s first term—“we added a whole grade,” Mr. Ragone noted—it isn’t the only one. The mayor has rolled out a policy for changing school progress reports (and as a public school parent, has sought to make them more user-friendly), a plan for struggling schools, and has had his share of battles with the likes of Eva Moskowitz over charter schools.

When it comes to charters, Mr. Ragone admits the administration made some mistakes, though in his view only in how they presented their position.

“We allowed the political forces behind the charter movement to define, for a brief time, to define the mayor’s educational policies. The mayor has never been anti-charter, the mayor is pro-public schools and charters are part of our public schools. The mayor feels that we need to improve all of our schools and the vast majority of our students are in traditional public schools,” Mr. Ragone said.

But many would say the mayor made his own distaste for charters perfectly clear during the campaign, when he remarked about the head of the Success Academy chain: “There’s no way in hell Eva Moskowitz should get free rent, OK?”

Mr. de Blasio took his share of knocks on the charter issue. On a day when he rallied in Albany for his pre-K plan, Gov. Andrew Cuomo—who has developed into something of a frenemy of the mayor’s—held an even bigger rally in favor of charter schools. Despite Mr. de Blasio’s “no way in hell” remark, the governor went on to enact a budget deal that barred the city from charging charter schools—Ms. Moskowitz’s schools included.

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a budget deal with Council members. (William Alatriste/New York City Council)
Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a budget deal with Council members. (William Alatriste/New York City Council) (William Alatriste/New York City Council)

Mr. de Blasio has remained an unabashed progressive, even as he sits inside City Hall rather than standing on the steps at press conferences calling for change. He’s cutting a new path as a left-wing Democrat in the office, said George Arzt, a political consultant and former press secretary to Ed Koch.

“The de Blasio administration is a revolution in the politics of New York. For the most part, almost all the mayors were centrist mayors,” Mr. Arzt said. 

The knock on progressives is often that they can’t manage government. But Mr. de Blasio enjoyed a relatively smooth budget process. He’s had a huge victory in reaching contracts with more than 70 percent of the city’s workforce, after every single union was without a contract on January 1. He earned plaudits for how he handled the city’s first case of Ebola.

“His first year was about proving that he could manage the budget and the labor stuff and all of that day to day stuff, but also reinforcing his constituencies—so when he gets pummeled in the press, he will have allies who support him,” Mr. Cunningham said.

Mr. de Blasio has many allies in government, including Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. With her help the mayor promptly enacted many pieces of progressive legislation that matter deeply to his base and will impact millions of New Yorkers: an expansion of paid sick time, a reduced speed limit as part of his Vision Zero program, a municipal ID program for undocumented immigrants. 

“All of us always say, ‘oh we want a politician who means what he says, tries to follow through. And then, to give de Blasio credit, he said he was going to ban horse carriages. You don’t have to agree with that, but he’s trying to do it,” Mr. Cunningham said.

So far Mr. de Blasio has received virtually no resistance from the body, and in his first year he has not vetoed a single bill. It helps that Ms. Mark-Viverito was his hand-selected choice for speaker, which in and of itself amounts to a “major success,” Mr. Arzt said.

“Never has a mayor put in his own person in as speaker. He’s changed the game of politics in New York City,” Mr. Arzt said.

Much of Year One is about setting up for Year Two-Through-Four. And while the mayor is unlikely to run into friction from the Council, much of his agenda requires approval from Albany. There, the mayor has made few friends. After he aggressively pulled for a Democratic takeover of the State Senate—only for Republicans to win an outright majority—Mr. de Blasio’s policies may not get much traction from Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who ran largely campaigns against what the mayor stands for.

“Trying to keep people focused and keep his ground troops organized around a vision, that will be harder to sustain when you’re getting your head kicked in up the Hudson,” Mr. Birdsell said.

It will also make it harder for the mayor to deliver on a key promise, his plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing in 10 years. Those GOP Senate candidates Mr. de Blasio battled were well-funded by the real estate industry.

If the administration can pull off the housing plan, the mayor will have housed over 500,000 people, and “have taken a big chunk out of the income inequality people feel in the city,” Mr. Ragone said, chipping away at another big promise the mayor made.

“Cities, more than any other form of government, you are judged in real time in the impact you achieve on people’s lives,” Mr. Ragone said. “And we have a deep, deep, we have a very deep commitment here to improve people’s lives every day.”

For Mayor Bill de Blasio, a ‘Year One’ With a Tragic Ending