A year ago, Bill de Blasio proclaimed the beginning of a new era in City Hall. He put forward an ambitious agenda; one that would correct the perceived injustices of the outgoing administration, which he far too gleefully sent packing without so much as a thank you.
As he marked the first anniversary of his inauguration, Mr. de Blasio could say with satisfaction that he made good on his early promises. He implemented universal pre-kindergarten, the centerpiece of his campaign, albeit without the higher taxes he sought to impose on the rich (Gov. Cuomo put an end to that idea). He negotiated fair contracts with unions representing more than 70 percent of city workers without breaking the bank. He made a good start toward his goal of creating or preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing. He halted stop-and-frisk while presiding over yet another significant drop in crime. The number of murders in his first year, 321, was the lowest in decades.
So the mood in City Hall should have been quietly triumphant as Year One of the de Blasio era drew to a close. But we all know better. The mayor is embattled and is on the verge of losing control of his police officers. Polls show that New Yorkers believe the city is heading in the wrong direction. That kind of pessimism invites comparisons to the bad old days of the early 1990s, when the city certainly did seem headed for bad times.
Had Mr. de Blasio been able to make a smoother, smarter transition from political operative to chief executive, his first anniversary would have been cause for greater celebration. But even as he put together a decent rookie season on substantive matters, he simply couldn’t get out of his own way rhetorically. When in doubt, he played to his base, forgetting that he was elected mayor by a small fraction of the electorate in an election notable for its scandalously low turnout.
He continued to divide rather than unite New Yorkers with his sneering references to the successful. He picked fights with charter schools advocate Eva Moskowitz for no reason other than personal animus. He made it clear that he agreed with those who considered police officers reflexively racist (never mind that the NYPD is among the most-diverse police departments in the world). He offered Al Sharpton, an unelected demagogue, a place at the table of governance, where he was joined by his protégé Rachel Noerdlinger, whose loved ones’ repeated disrespect for the NYPD helped set the table for today’s poisoned city-police relations. He pandered to animal rights advocates by putting horses ahead of humans.
None of this had to be. If Mr. de Blasio had focused his energy and abundant intelligence on practical matters, even those with an ideological tinge, skeptical New Yorkers would find themselves admitting that the worst-case scenarios had not come true, that Bill de Blasio was not, after all, the second coming of Daniel Ortega.
Instead, the mayor continued to operate as a professional advocate rather than a judicious executive, at least in his words and gestures. Behind the scenes, he and his team might well have been shrewd negotiators, aware that they had a responsibility not to interest groups but to the city as a whole. But the public saw a man who seemed to be talking not to 8 million people, but to a few hundred thousand true believers convinced that New York was on the verge of becoming a progressive paradise, whatever that might mean.
Bill de Blasio has three years remaining on his term, but if they are to be meaningful and successful, he has to turn around his administration this year. He has to establish a working relationship with the police. He has to convince decision-makers that he is calling the shots in City Hall, not his more-dubious allies.
And, more than anything else, he has to act like the chief executive of the world’s greatest city, not as a neighborhood politician from Park Slope.
Bill de Blasio is smart and he is shrewd. Nobody better captured the mood of the city’s motivated voters (the proud and the few) in 2013.
He can be a good and effective mayor. But that will require change—perhaps not the kind of change he envisioned when he was merely a candidate.