The former activist and New York public advocate looks back at his first year as mayor.
Interview with Eric Alterman
The Nation via Alternet
Jan 14, 2015 – In October 2014, Nation columnist Eric Alterman sat down with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in his City Hall office. Open and affable, de Blasio spent the hourlong interview reflecting on his whirlwind first year as mayor, his earliest political influences, the meaning of the word “progressive,” and why he sees no contradiction between movement politics and holding elected office. The interview, which has been edited and condensed for publication, was conducted as part of a study supported by the Center for American Progress, where Alterman is also a senior fellow. The study wlil be published as a forthcoming Nation eBook, Inequality and One City: Bill de Blasio and the New York Experiment, Year One, to be published in February.
Eric Alterman: Have you ever given any thought to why you are so focused on the issue of economic inequality? Obviously, it’s an enormous problem, but few, if any, politicians have made it as central a focus as you have.
Bill de Blasio: Like most things, I think it’s profoundly personal. My parents had me late—they were both 44—and they were quintessential children of the Depression, so that was part of the endless dialogue loop at family meals. And I think that notion of the people you’re closest to having experienced intense economic disruption left a lifelong imprint. There’s one piece, to begin.
I’ve come up in public schools throughout my life, and I think just the connection to every kind of person—including people who were grappling with poverty—gave me another perspective. A bit of it is academic: doing urban studies at New York University, doing Latin American studies at Columbia for my master’s that implicitly got into issues of disenfranchisement and poverty. Some of it is the work I did in Central America—being there, but also dealing with a lot of folks in the liberation-theology movement. It was a lot of different pieces. And then it kind of goes into overdrive through the Dinkins years, dealing with communities all over the city. So much of our foundation came from communities that were struggling.
Alterman: What was your exact job under Dinkins?
de Blasio: For most of the time, I was special assistant to Bill Lynch, who was the deputy mayor. So I just got incessant exposure to community leaders and activists. And then everything I’ve learned through twenty-three years with Chirlane [his wife]—everything she’s seen in her own life and what she’s experienced in her broader community. So I think it’s sort of one piece built upon the other. Even the eight years on the City Council—when you serve a distinct community or set of neighborhoods, a lot of that time is hearing people talk about their lives. Even pre–economic crisis, it was quite clear to me it was happening across a range of demographics different than might have been assumed. I had a huge Orthodox Jewish community; a lot of the folks within that community were really struggling economically, and that was a part of my constituency. I had a lot of folks who came to me, because you turn to your council member if you have some insurmountable personal financial problem or you can’t pay your mortgage. So all this was like a constant soundtrack. And then I was also the chairman of the General Welfare Committee, which was the social-services committee. So I had endless meetings with advocates and community leaders about the challenges they faced.
Alterman: So you would say it’s more experiential than wonkish?
de Blasio:Absolutely. I mean, some of it comes from study, both in terms of my brief academic life and as an adult—
Alterman: For the parts that were wonkish, what thinkers or sources would you say you relied on?
de Blasio:The Nation was one for quite a while—literally. That was a big influence, particularly early on. It’s not like I have a group of theorists I turn to regularly. I think I took an interest, and so when anything went by, I paid attention. But I really think it’s experiential; I really think it comes from personal stories, starting with my own life and then going out farther and farther into communities.
And, look, there’s a certain empathy that you should have in this work. I get very, very affected by the personal stories. I feel a bit like an oral historian: I’ve been out there just listening to thousands and thousands of people, and it really gives you a sum total. So, for example, the effects of the economic crisis—I had a real strong early imprint on how bad that was, and it was huge. I mean, I value public-opinion polling, I value focus groups—I don’t mean to sound hokey here. But I think it is amazing how much some of the trends that we later saw—for example, on the campaign last year—were evident through a lot of anecdotal information, just from human interaction. So I really lean on that.
Alterman: You often talk about yourself as part of a progressive movement. But a lot of people would say there is the potential for conflict between being a movement leader and being the mayor of New York City. So I’m wondering what you think is the role of the movement, and what is its role in your mayoralty?
de Blasio: So let me start by framing it—why do I say movement? My earliest political experiences were clearly in movements: the disarmament movement, the Central America movement, a lot of different things. That is the template that makes sense to me personally, and I think elected office is supposed to be an offshoot of that ideal. So, for me, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re a council member or you’re mayor. There’s a consistency to how you make change—in my view, progressive change—and how you connect it to the grassroots.
So I have never felt a contradiction. I have never felt there’s anything inconsistent about thinking in movement terms and having an executive office. I think there are elements of the executive office that demand a different skill or different priorities or create a much more nuanced reality than if you’re just in the movement and you’re just speaking to one issue, for example. But I don’t think there’s a fundamental contradiction. In fact, I would argue that, when done right, elective office—particularly executive elective office—allows movement ideas to really flower, to really take shape. And that’s exciting to me.
I certainly know my share of progressives who think the only way to push the spectrum is from the outside, or that the only way to make change is to organize it from the grassroots. I think it is a true statement that the most persistent and profound social change begins at the grassroots—there’s no question in my mind about that. But I don’t think government, elective office, is like a no-fly zone. I’ve always felt it’s a necessary part of making change, and the fact that we, as progressives, have not had as much experience in recent decades doesn’t negate the concept.
Look at history: La Guardia, whose desk is right there inspiring me every day, is one of the great examples locally. There’s a rich history—from the Progressive Era, 100 years ago, to the present—of progressive governors, progressive mayors, progressive legislators. So I’ve always felt that was normal and necessary.
Alterman: And you see evidence of a vibrant progressive movement in the city today?
de Blasio:I think there is a clear movement in this city today fighting inequality. Fast-food workers are one of the most obvious manifestations. The efforts of the more progressive unions to organize new sectors, the fight for paid sick leave—this is all pieces of a movement. Do they all meet in the same room? Not necessarily. Is there one coordinating council? No. But is there a coherence when you see a lot of progressive labor [unions] and a lot of advocates, nonprofits and media organizations fighting for bringing up wages and benefits? Absolutely.
I think it’s been incredibly effective. I think our job was to give a lot more shape in government to what that movement could achieve. But I’m quite convinced that a lot of people laid the foundation over the last decade so that this could happen now. So that has every element, to me, of what a classic and effective movement is. I think there was clearly a movement around policing issues—and, again, a very effective one, particularly around stop-and-frisk: very broad, lots of focal points of leadership, some better known than others, but it was quite a broad and deep movement. Lots of community leaders, clergy, elected officials, organizations—and it worked. It redefined the debate and forced action. (Continued)