'Didn't Quite Hit The Need': Bill De Blasio's Complicated Two-Term Legacy as Mayor of New York City

December 31, 2021
Samar Khurshid & Ben Max
Gotham Gazette

Bill de Blasio rode into office on the big promise of ending “the tale of two cities” by reducing the gaps between the haves and have-nots. He was the first Democrat elected to lead New York City since David Dinkins won his one and only term in 1989. De Blasio, a former aide in Dinkins’ City Hall, pledged a progressive correction to the 20 years of Giuliani and Bloomberg rule that were marked by aggressive “broken windows” policing, friendliness to big business and real estate developers, and streaks of liberal governance in a city that has grown more and more diverse and Democratic over time.

Running against the excesses, inequities, and policies of the Bloomberg era, de Blasio promised the dawn of a new progressive era in New York City. He brought together a multi-racial coalition to win a tough Democratic primary by a surprisingly large margin, avoiding a runoff, then the general election in a landslide. He inherited a city with a booming economy and low crime, but exploding socioeconomic inequality and communities of color deeply resentful of the police; with flush municipal coffers but expired municipal labor contracts; with record tourism but a growing homelessness crisis and crumbling public housing. 

De Blasio pledged to institute universal pre-kindergarten to give students an earlier learning foundation and aid struggling families that needed assistance. He promised to reform the police department, end the abuses of stop-and-frisk policing, and create a new culture of accountability and mutual respect among cops and communities — and all while keeping crime trending downward. He set out to ease the pressures of gentrification and displacement by building and preserving affordable housing on a large scale across the city. He promised to infuse equity into the work of every city agency and initiative, to turn the massive municipal government toward lifting up the most vulnerable and making life easier for everyone in the working and middle classes.

Either during his 2013 campaign or in the early months of his administration, de Blasio also pledged to improve struggling schools without closing them or turning to charter schools, be a friend to organized labor, significantly reduce traffic deaths, expand park space in low-income neighborhoods, strengthen the social safety net, prevent hospital closures and expand community health centers, fortify CUNY, reduce arrests for marijuana possession, increase contracts for minority- and women-owned businesses, ban horse carriages, and more.

Along with flush coffers, de Blasio had a City Council that he was largely in lock-step agreement with, particularly in his first term after he helped to secure the selection of progressive Melissa Mark-Viverito as the Council Speaker. Through both terms, de Blasio and the Council advanced de Blasio’s agenda, with the Council several times pushing him further in a progressive direction to move priorities of its own, like closing the Rikers Island jails, which Mark-Viverito convinced him to do, and providing half-priced Metrocards to low-income New Yorkers, which the second City Council Speaker he worked with, Corey Johnson, insisted on.

After two terms, Bill de Blasio leaves office with a long list of promises kept, to varying degrees, many accomplishments, and, undoubtedly, a 'fairer' city than he inherited. He has done a great deal on early childhood education, worker protections, and climate change. But he has come significantly short of creating the progressive city many who elected him hoped he would leave after eight years in charge, struggling to address several long-standing crises like homelessness, public housing, and street congestion. City schools have improved overall, but hundreds of thousands of mostly Black and Latino children remain segregated and behind.

For the most part, de Blasio only seemed to enjoy his job in his first and last years. He leaves many New Yorkers believing that he was a bad and distracted manager of city government. Indeed, he attempted to have a national profile from early in his tenure, launched a misguided and embarrassing effort to influence the 2016 presidential race, ran a misguided and embarrassing campaign for president in 2019, then returned to deliver a 2020 State of the City address, early in his seventh year as mayor, with the theme “Save Our City.”

That agenda focused on small businesses, affordable housing, climate change, and more in a fairly explicit acknowledgement that de Blasio had not been bold enough on major challenges facing New Yorkers, especially those with limited means.

Soon after that February 2020 speech, the COVID-19 pandemic devastated New York City.

De Blasio’s tenure ends with half his second term overtaken by the pandemic, which, though New York City was abandoned by federal negligence, he nevertheless struggled to prepare for, react to, and adapt to. Many New Yorkers have credited him for a relatively strong finish based on his work to boost covid vaccination rates and keep schools open. He leaves the mayoralty also having failed to curb pandemic era spikes in gun and road violence, both part of national trends.

De Blasio has repeatedly cited universal prekindergarten, neighborhood policing, and the city’s ThriveNYC mental health initiative as his top three achievements. “I think these were three areas where we rewrote the playbook, I believe in my heart, and I think they'll be built upon much more going forward,” he said, in a December Q&A at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute with Professor Joseph Viteritti.

And he has taken pride in the fact that there has been quantifiable improvement in the lives of the poorest New Yorkers. “If you had to crystallize what I came here to do, it was to fight inequality and reverse what had been a long trend of more and more money going to those who are already doing very well and less and less reaching the hands of working people,” he said in a December 13 appearance on NY1’s Inside City Hall. “And look, we've gotten a huge number of people out of poverty. Over half-a-million New Yorkers have come out of poverty during my administration – more to come. So, that, to me – you know, that sense of satisfaction, that was the mission.”

Over eight years, de Blasio, like any mayor, faced challenges large and small — some inherited, some of his own making; some that grew over time and others that came out of nowhere. Governor Andrew Cuomo and President Donald Trump both loomed large over de Blasio’s tenure, giving him far more trouble than help, including during the pandemic. He battled, mostly unsuccessfully, with Uber and Eva Moskowitz; horse-carriage drivers and police unions. Even when he appeared right on the merits, de Blasio often failed to build the necessary political coalitions to win political battles.

While he made significant progress on a number of fronts he made limited advancement on various elements of the city’s multi-faceted housing crisis, including much-needed property tax reform, as well as in dealing with fundamental issues like school segregation, public transit availability and reliability, and workforce development.

Whatever the crisis or opponent, de Blasio often — though certainly not always — proved his own worst enemy, struggling to build alliances, getting mired in ethical scandals and misguided political pursuits, being unnecessarily combative with the press corps that covers him, and attacking problems either too late, too timidly, or (nearly) not at all. In the end, de Blasio was an incrementalist addressing crises in dire need of bold action, a landscape he often diagnosed properly but could not treat effectively. By many accounts he was a mix at various times of a micro-manager, indecisive, and aloof.

De Blasio was almost always in campaign mode, sabotaging himself and many other New Yorkers in prioritizing his political standing over fixing problems. He struck divisive stances that even other Democrats rejected, promising to be a class warrior taking on the wealthy on behalf of everyone else, but while he vilified a subsection of elites, many of his most progressive early supporters felt he went nowhere near far enough on issues like affordable housing and police reform. He often preferred talking about things under the control of other levels of government. He governed with both imperiousness and softness.

While he does have a long list of accomplishments accrued over eight years with mostly low crime and flush city coffers, de Blasio leaves office deeply unpopular overall, having ticked off the rich and let down the poor, alienated the right and the left, and frustrated the middle with his lack of attention to basic city services. To many, he never overcame the reputation for tardiness, and the disrespect it shows, that he cemented for himself in his first months in office.

“Every mayor has a volcanic experience. None of them has a calm time,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic consultant, who worked in the Koch administration. “When you sit in the chair in City Hall, one of the things you can expect is that your life will never be the same. Bill de Blasio, I feel it appears that he always thought this would be some kind of ceremonial activity. But it wasn't. He had major challenges.”


Policing, Public Safety and Race
Mayor de Blasio was lauded when, in his first term, he dropped the Bloomberg administration appeal of a federal court ruling that found the NYPD was using stop-and-frisk in an unconstitutional, racially-biased manner.

He attempted to revamp the city’s approach to public safety through neighborhood policing, meant to encourage familiarity between police officers and the communities they patrol, and precision policing that directs resources to crime hot spots around the city and targets gangs and crews. When in 2015 the City Council argued that the new paradigm required the hiring of 1,000 new police officers, de Blasio first pushed back, only to accede to the demand and even go further to add another 300 officers.

From the start, police reform advocates were wary that the mayor would follow through on his campaign promises of being a reformer. As a proponent of so-called “broken windows” policing, which requires cracking down on low-level offenses to prevent major crimes, de Blasio hired a pioneer of the practice, Bill Bratton, as his first NYPD commissioner. The mayor attempted a rebranding as “quality of life policing” and he and Bratton did make significant adjustments to how the city was policed, particularly in the reduction in arrests.

“At the end of the day, most people will have the stance that what de Blasio was known for when he first started his administration was more posturing and campaign promises than an actual shift in policy and approach,” said Mark Winston Griffith, former executive director of Brooklyn Movement Center and a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition group.

The mayor’s first major test on policing came when a white police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, killed Staten Island resident Eric Garner, who was Black, by holding him in a chokehold banned by police rules. Garner’s death and his repeated cries of “I can’t breathe” were caught on video and galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement across the nation. But Pantaleo remained on the force for the next five years before being fired by the police department. De Blasio blamed the slow disciplinary process on a Staten Island District Attorney’s Office investigation followed by a pending U.S. Justice Department probe, an excuse that didn’t pass muster with police reform advocates.

After a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo, de Blasio said the matter was “profoundly personal” for him and spoke of conversations he had with his biracial son, Dante, about interacting with police. “With Dante, very early on, we said, ‘Look, if a police officer stops you, do everything he tells you to do. Don't move suddenly. Don't reach for your cell phone,’” de Blasio said. "Because we knew, sadly, there's a greater chance it might be misinterpreted if it was a young man of color."

A few months later came what may be one of the few defining moments of de Blasio’s tenure and his approach to the NYPD. In December 2014, NYPD Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were shot and killed on duty in their patrol car in Brooklyn by a man who had traveled there from Baltimore. Police unions, already angered by the mayor’s earlier comments about warning his son about the police, blamed what they saw as the mayor’s anti-cop rhetoric. “There's blood on many hands tonight," Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said at the time. "That blood on the hands starts at City Hall in the Office of the Mayor.” At the hospital the night of their killings and at Ramos’ and Liu’s funerals, dozens and hundreds of officers turned their backs to the mayor in protest.

For observers, every cautious move de Blasio made afterwards regarding the police seemed to be informed by that series of incidents and the notion that he had ‘lost the police.’ Out of the killings of Garner, Ramos, and Liu, and how he handled them, de Blasio was seen by many as anti-police and by many others as unwilling to hold the police accountable. Since de Blasio’s campaign had made him an apparent police reformer to both sides of the equation, those most alienated were the New Yorkers hoping he would overhaul the NYPD.

“When you see that the people, the very people who are enforcing the law are not expected to face the same level of accountability and are expected to not face discipline when they do something wrong, it makes the entire system feel hypocritical and corrupt,” said CPR’s Griffith. “And at the end of the day, de Blasio, I think his legacy, he will be known really more for his attempts to maintain the status quo than to change the system.”

For nearly seven years, the mayor argued that neighborhood policing was a success. But he had virtually no concrete causal evidence to support his assertion. It was only in November this year that the city released the results of a study on neighborhood policing by the RAND Corporation, based on surveys conducted in November 2020 and May 2021, in the middle of the pandemic. Broadly, the surveys, of more than 1,000 people each, found that people who lived in areas with higher crime were less likely to trust the police or engage with them than those who live in neighborhoods with lower crime.

Among de Blasio’s greatest successes was bringing crime down to historic lows over most of his tenure before the pandemic upended the trend, and doing so while the police department scaled back arrests and summonses.

There were 111,335 “major index crimes” — meaning the major felony categories of murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny and car theft — in 2013, the year before de Blasio took office. That number was down to 95,593 in 2020. There have been 98,580 major crimes this year so far.

Murders dropped to an all-time low of just 292 in 2017, but have skyrocketed in the wake of the pandemic, a trend that’s also reflected nationally. There were 468 murders in 2020 and there have been 464 this year as of December 19. Though shooting incidents fell from 1,339 in 2013 to 967 in 2019, they also increased dramatically in the next two years. In 2020, there were 1,490 shootings and, in 2021 through December 19, there have already been 1,526.

There are fewer interactions between New Yorkers and the criminal legal system, in part because of reforms passed by the City Council that decriminalized several low-level offenses. In total, criminal summonses fell from 424,940 in 2013 to just 55,589 in 2020; arrests decreased from 393,809 to 140,413 in that same time. Consequently, the city’s jail population has also fallen significantly. In 2013, the average daily jail population was 11,696. In November of this year, there were 5,373 detainees in city jails. The plan to close Rikers necessitates reducing the daily population to 3,300 by 2027.

Though he came into office as an ardent reformer, bent on confronting a police force accused of rampant abuse of power, de Blasio has little to show in terms of tangible improvements in police-community relations, especially after he so forcefully defended the NYPD amid violent crackdowns on Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020.

“I really think that that was one of his worst moments as mayor,” said Neal Kwatra, founder of Metropolitan Public Strategies. “And I think it was because there was such a profound disconnect between what and how people were feeling and he brought an incredibly, I thought, academic and cold approach to that reality.”

De Blasio did react to the resurgence in that movement by working with the City Council on several pieces of legislation, agreeing to some cuts to the NYPD budget, and establishing his racial justice commission that is putting city charter change proposals to voters on the 2022 ballot.

Among the series of legislation ushered into law in 2020, de Blasio signed a new “disciplinary matrix” system to give more clarity to the NYPD accountability process for officers who break the rules, and a law, vehemently opposed by police unions and their allies, making police chokeholds illegal and also banning the compression of the diaphragm, as Officer Derek Chauvin had done in killing George Floyd. That law, along with bail reforms passed at the state level, led to a great deal of pushback from law enforcement entities and some calls for officers to pull back from pursuing criminals.

Overall, de Blasio’s approach left him in something of a triangulated no man’s land where he is seen as both anti-cop by many of those to his right and a timid police reformer to many of those on his left.

That view was also acutely apparent in his stance on the state bail reforms. Since their 2019 passage, de Blasio has continued to repeat his calls, first issued in 2015, for the state Legislature to include a ‘dangerousness’ standard for judges to order defendants held pre-trial either without bail or by setting bail high enough that most would be unlikely to be able to pay. De Blasio allowed his police commissioner, Shea, to assail the bail reforms, without evidence, for causing a spike in gun violence. That rhetoric, to some, played into fear-mongering narratives about progressive criminal justice policy that de Blasio had often been trying to dispel about his own policies and record.

“The danger there has been that the quote-unquote ‘progressive’ thought in governing takes a hit for things that actually never happened,” said Public Advocate Williams, an ardent police reformer, referring more specifically to defunding the police. “And so, you get blamed for the way certain things are going on in the city when what people were asking for never really happened.”