A bitterly cold, gray New Year’s Day greeted New York City’s new government leaders on Wednesday afternoon in front of City Hall. The standard political party mix of Bruce Springsteen and various Motown and soul numbers thumped from the sound system, though if there were any dancing it was likely an attempt to keep blood flowing to the extremities. City and state dignitaries and several celebrities were in attendance, glad-handing, smiling through chattering teeth, and waiting patiently for the man of the hour: Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Inaugurations are held to celebrate new beginnings, but the swearing-in and subsequent speeches given by de Blasio, City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Letitia James at times felt like a repudiation of the mayor’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, who sat looking glum ten feet away on the dais as the progressive triumvirate offered their vision for the city and a clean break from his policies. In fact, Bloomberg was not acknowledged directly until former President Bill Clinton took the stage to introduce de Blasio and thanked him for his service.
But for all of the accomplishments of the Bloomberg era, in the eyes of the progressive movement the city’s growing income inequality gap is just as much a part of his enduring legacy as his landmark public health policies and environmental advocacy, and creating a more equitable city for the neediest New Yorkers was the theme that carried the day for de Blasio and company.
To that end, James’ remarks were the most pointed, and she picked up de Blasio’s public advocate legacy of criticizing Bloomberg, though in this case not by name. James was joined on stage by Dasani Coates, the young girl profiled in The New York Times’ recent series on the city’s homelessness problem. James called Coates her “new BFF” and she held the Bible as James was sworn in. Dasani’s compelling story has been mentioned repeatedly over the last couple of weeks by de Blasio and even by Bloomberg, and in this case her and her family’s presence on the dais provided a timely impetus for James to sermonize on the city’s income disparity.
“We live in a gilded age of inequality, where decrepit homeless shelters and housing developments stand in the neglected shadow of gleaming multimillion-dollar condos; where long-term residents are being priced out of their own neighborhoods by rising rates and stagnant incomes,” James said.
Stringer was the first to be sworn in, and largely eschewed lofty rhetoric for a more pragmatic speech, asserting that “pursuing a progressive agenda and being fiscally responsible is not mutually exclusive.” Stringer is the big unknown of the three, a Manhattan liberal to be sure, but as the city’s chief financial officer he has been thrust into a role that has included being a thorn in the mayor’s side, an aspect of the job in which his predecessor, John Liu, delighted. In his speech, Stringer held fast to his commitment to the same values James and de Blasio have espoused for months, and pledged to make the comptroller’s office “a think tank for innovation and ideas.”
De Blasio began his speech by thanking both Bill and Hillary Clinton, but also tried to establish himself on equal footing as Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who sat next to the Clintons, instead of as his subordinate. De Blasio mentioned working “with” Cuomo at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (de Blasio worked under Cuomo, who was HUD secretary), and expressed his honor in serving “shoulder-to-shoulder” with him again. It was a subtle yet bold turn of phrase, and the implications bear watching as de Blasio will need Cuomo to advance much of his legislative agenda.
De Blasio reaffirmed his notion that progressivism is “in our DNA,” invoking the names of liberal icons and former New York governors Al Smith and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as one of his political heroes, former mayor Fiorello La Guardia. He also doubled down on his main talking points from the campaign trail—expanding paid sick leave legislation, modifying the police department’s stop-and-frisk policy, creating affordable housing—firmly stating that these are promises he intends to keep, once more referring to his Dickensian campaign slogan.
“Now I know there are those who think that what I said during the campaign was just rhetoric, just ‘political talk’ in the interest of getting elected,” de Blasio said. “So let me be clear. When I said we would take dead aim at the Tale of Two Cities, I meant it.”
Of course, no de Blasio speech would be complete without mentioning his signature policy proposal of raising taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers in order to fund a full-day universal pre-school and after-school programs for every middle school student. Striking a populist tone, de Blasio explained that those earning between $500,000 and $1 million annually would see their taxes increase by an average of $973 a year, “about the cost of a small soy latte at your local Starbucks.” He scoffed at the pushback from conservatives that “preach the virtue of trickle-down economics” and their emphasis on the path of “rugged individualism” by quoting La Guardia and assuring that his intention is not to punish success, but “create more success stories.”
“Fiorello La Guardia—the man I consider to be the greatest mayor this city has ever known—put it best. He said, ‘I, too, admire the rugged individual, but no rugged individual can survive in the midst of collective starvation.’ ”
It will be a difficult road ahead for the mayor to address and bridge the equality gap, a problem far too complex for any one piece of legislation to fix. De Blasio, James and Stringer have four years to prove that their words on Inauguration Day were not just “political talk,” but the foundational gospel for a new era of government.
Tags: affordable housing, Al Smith, Bill Clinton, Comptroller Scott Stringer, Dasani Coates, Fiorello La Guardia, Franklin Roosevelt, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Hillary Clinton, homelessness, Inauguration 2014, John Liu, Michael Bloomberg, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York Times, paid sick days, Public Advocate Letitia James, stop and frisk, universal preschool