A Local Vote for Economic Justice Nationwide

Why the election of Bill de Blasio as the next mayor of New York is good news for economic progressives nationwide.

By Imara Jones Nov 06, 2013

Yesterday’s landslide election of Bill de Blasio as the next mayor of New York is perhaps the most significant popular vote for economic justice in more than a year and is good news for economic progressives nationwide. Given that New York has been led since 2002 by a billionaire, Michael Bloomberg, that city’s "1 percent first" economic ways have become the model for cities in the United States and across the world. Mayors from Atlanta to London to Rio have all cited the current mayor’s economic policies as the blueprint for their own. But de Blasio’s victory built upon a repudiation of Bloomberg’s "billionaires before everybody else" economic approach could signal a new way forward for the half of the world’s population who live in urban settings far and wide.

De Blasio swept to this massive win by pledging to turn back New York’s developing-country level of income inequality. New York’s gulf between the rich and everybody else is all the more staggering given that the city’s economic output exceeds that of wealthy nations like South Korea or The Netherlands, with trillions of dollars flowing through its municipal boundaries each day as the capital of global finance. Throughout his campaign, de Blasio encapsulated his point with the theme of a "Tale of Two Cities," and constantly hammered away at the fact that half of all New Yorkers–six out of 10 of whom are people of color–are either poor or near poverty.

The economic orientation of Bill de Blasio when compared to that of Michael Bloomberg is as different as chalk from cheese. As I have written before, during his dozen years as mayor, Bloomberg has recast America’s largest city into a luxury product aimed primarily at attracting the world’s billionaires and multi-millionaires to live there. The mayor’s neo-trickle-down economic theory holds that government services are necessary but are only made possible by presiding over a haven for the wealthy. He sums it up this way, "Who’s paying our taxes? … It comes from the wealthy!"

The problem is that Bloomberg did not always modify his belief in a billionaire-funded urban utopia to the emerging economic realities of what this meant for everybody else. Even as the data poured in on the results of his plan, the man who became rich off of selling data to Wall Street stuck to his guns. That’s why during the Bloomberg years New York has become the city with more billionaires than any other urban area on the planet, but also a place where one out of six of its residents is unemployed or underemployed. Indeed, apartments now go for as much as $80 million but homelessness has never been higher. One out of three of the city’s 50,000 homeless hold down at least one job, with some working two.

These tilted economic policies have had consequences not only for New Yorkers but have been exported to cities across America and around the globe. New York’s position as the world’s media and financial capital has given Bloomberg a unique platform to extoll his views, and the mayor’s own significant efforts to evangelize them have transformed his economic approach into a key center of gravity for urban policy.

Bloomberg’s vast philanthropic empire, valued at over $3 billion dollars, has awarded tens of millions of dollars to cities in the U.S. and around the world through its government innovation and Mayors Challenge initiatives. These awards, along with others on education policy, public health and the environment, seek to institutionalize Bloomberg’s vision in places such as Atlanta, Chicago and New Orleans. Mayor Bloomberg announced an expansion of grants to Europe before an audience in London earlier this year.

The impact of Bloomberg’s thinking on his global colleagues is hard to deny.

Mayors Rahm Emanuel of Chicago and Kaseem Reed of Atlanta have both lauded Bloomberg’s economic stewardship of New York. Not unlike Bloomberg, Reed has been accused of putting billion-dollar projects ahead of the interests of the mostly black neighborhoods in which they would be located. London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, has heaped so much praise on his New York counterpart that the UK’s Guardian Newspaper labeled their 2009 meeting the "Mike and Boris Show."And former Newark mayor Corey Booker, who sits on the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies, often cited Mayor Bloomberg as the example for the rest. It’s no surprise that Bloomberg’s political action committee donated $1 million to Booker’s successful senatorial campaign.

The bottom line is that over the past dozen years New York’s mayor has built up a network of powerful municipal emulators.

That said, it’s important to note that there are an array of non-economic policies of the Bloomberg administration that many progressives believe in and have backed. Mayor Bloomberg has been an undisputed leader and force for good on climate change, public health, gun control and LGBT rights.

But his economic legacy, mimicked the world over, will be perhaps be his enduring imprint on the city he’s lead longer than all but three others in New York’s 400-year history. The mayor has rezoned 40 percent of the city with 40,000 new buildings dotting the city as a result. Yet in the process, 400,000 affordable housing units have been lost and there are now more people waiting for public housing units in New York City than actually exist.

What Bill de Blasio will actually do in office remains to be seen. At some point along the way he is likely to fall short and disappoint. The process of turning campaign promises into policies is a fraught and difficult one.  But it is also clear that his election represents a sharp departure from the past with reverberations the world over.