As is the case with most mayors less than two months into their administration, Mayor Bill de Blasio did not have a laundry list of accomplishments to point to during his State of the City address on Monday. But unlike his predecessor Michael Bloomberg’s first State of the City, which covered a wide range of topics and laid the foundation for his twelve years in office, de Blasio eschewed a long-term blueprint in favor of addressing the urgency of leveling the city’s economic playing field.
To that end, de Blasio repurposed a quote from his political idol, former mayor Fiorello LaGuardia that reflected his desire to act immediately on bridging the equality gap as a stepping stone to shaping his vision of a more harmonious New York City.
“Mayor LaGuardia said, quote: ‘A mayor who cannot look fifty or seventy-five years ahead is not worthy of being in City Hall.’ We must lay the foundation now for the strength and stability of New York’s future…a future of greater equality and opportunity,” de Blasio said.
The setting of de Blasio’s speech reflected a marked shift in tone from Bloomberg. Satisfying his campaign narrative as a “man of the people,” de Blasio delivered his State of the City at LaGuardia Community College in Queens in a plain auditorium with few frills other than a banner above his podium that read, “One New York Rising Together.” Compared to the location of Bloomberg’s final address, held in Brooklyn’s spanking new Barclays Center with championship banners of his accomplishments hanging from the ceiling, de Blasio might as well have been a guest lecturer in a college survey class, rather than one of the most powerful politicians in the nation.
Instead of projecting that power through the venue of his speech, or with gratuitous pageantry—Bloomberg had a dance troupe and the Brooklyn Nets’ mascot make an appearance last year—de Blasio wielded his oft-referenced “mandate” that voters gave him with his resounding victory in November, moving his legislative chips to the center of the table, and rebuking his predecessor’s approach in the process.
Consider that in Bloomberg’s first State of the City, he foreshadowed what would be a sometimes antagonistic relationship between the mayor’s office and the public sector unions by stating, “Currently, New York City’s municipal workforce has grown to be 1/7th the size of the whole federal government if you don’t count the military. Our people serve 8 million citizens. Theirs serves 250 million. Put directly, today we just don’t have the money to continue this level of staffing.”
After taking a thinly veiled shot at his predecessor early in his speech—“I know that these speeches have at times been used to attack the motives of our public employees,” he said—de Blasio went out of his way to recognize the services that the public sector provides, forecasting what will likely be a much friendlier relationship with the municipal unions, and one that might pay dividends for the city’s labor force during collective bargaining.
The first two legislative initiatives de Blasio mentioned also happened to directly disassociate himself from Bloomberg. He touted the Paid Sick Leave agreement forged with the City Council, which Bloomberg emphatically vetoed before the Council overrode him, passing a watered-down version of the original bill. In contrast, De Blasio announced that he would issue an executive order ending Bloomberg’s lawsuit blocking the Council’s Living Wage Law, which requires developers and businesses who receive at least $1 million in tax abatements or low-cost financing to pay city workers either $10 an hour with benefits or $11.50 without them. Bloomberg opposed the law on the grounds that it violated the state’s minimum wage law—a law that, coincidentally or not, de Blasio hopes to tweak by asking Albany to allow New York City to set its own wage floor.
Despite these headline-grabbing aspects of his speech, de Blasio’s State of the City was as significant for what it omitted as for what it included. Environmental and transportation issues that were central to Bloomberg’s agenda were scarcely mentioned by de Blasio. With the devastation of Superstorm Sandy not far in the city’s rear view mirror, to not put forth any strategy to harden the city’s brittle infrastructure, or even give credit to Bloomberg’s plan, as de Blasio has in the past, was a curious oversight.
The mayor also neglected to detail any sort of comprehensive strategy for his lofty goal of creating and preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing—which, it should be noted, is 35,000 more units than were created under Bloomberg in 12 years—saying only that he would require developers to build affordable homes “rather than simply multi-million dollar condos for the most fortunate among us.”
“We must build more to achieve our vision,” de Blasio said. “But the people’s interests will be accounted for in every real estate deal made with the city.”
Is this stick-without-the carrot approach the “fundamental reset” that de Blasio spoke of regarding real estate development in the city? If so, it stands in stark contrast to Bloomberg, who in his first State of the City, articulated a vision for rezoning the far West Side of Manhattan to turn old industrial waterfront sites into housing developments and parks that had developers salivating.
The one major similarity between Bloomberg and de Blasio’s inaugural State of the City addresses is that each made their respective case for a big education initiative. For Bloomberg, it was eliminating government bureaucracy and establishing mayoral control over the school system—a power play befitting the billionaire mogul with a grand vision for reshaping the city.
De Blasio, as was to be expected, concluded his speech with a passionate argument for his signature proposal—a dedicated income tax hike on high-income earners to pay for free universal pre-K for all four-year olds, and after school programs for every middle school student.
In perhaps the most striking portrait of two polar opposite leaders, Bloomberg centered his argument around restoring “accountability” and “reforming the governance” of the school system—a textbook businessman’s argument. Bloomberg presented his case as if he were making a presentation to the board of one of his corporations. De Blasio, on the other hand, ever the skilled Clintonian politician, told a poignant anecdote about a single mother whose life would be immeasurably improved by universal pre-K and an after school program, and emphasized the program’s universal benefit by reiterating the notion that the smarter and more prepared our children are, the better the chances of sustainable economic success for all of us.
In the end, de Blasio’s speech challenged the perceived “gilded” comforts of the Bloomberg administration by striking the populist tone for which many New Yorkers have been pining. While lacking his predecessor’s sweeping ambition, the speech showed that de Blasio has his political ducks in a row, at least for the next year, and showcased the new mayor’s ability to connect with an audience and electorate in a way that Bloomberg never could. But Bloomberg proved that he could execute his vision, while still governing a safe, healthy and productive city. De Blasio’s ability to merge his political chops with effective governance will determine whether he can one day hoist some championship banners of his own.
Tags: affordable housing, Fiorello LaGuardia, La Guardia Community College, living wage, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Michael Bloomberg, minimum wage increase, paid-sick-leave, public sector unions, real estate development, State of the City, universal preschool