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De Blasio Opens a New Front as First-Term Battles Grind On

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers his fifth State of the City address at the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn.

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“It’s our mission to define what a fair and just society looks like, to show it through our deeds and in our everyday lives. To take that quintessentially American egalitarian spirit and make it come alive again, we have to be the keepers of that flame. We have to ask ourselves, if not here, where? We, in fact, have to be the antidote to the sickness that is gripping our nation.”
–Mayor de Blasio, in his 2018 state of the city address

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Mayor de Blasio on Tuesday night committed his administration to saving democracy in New York City, announcing a 10-point plan that includes appointing a commission to amend the city charter to permit deeper public financing of campaigns.

“We can’t lead the way to a restored democratic society if our people are discouraged from voting at every turn,” de Blasio told the crowd at the Kings Theater in Brooklyn in his fifth annual address. “We can’t keep doing things the same backward way and somehow expect a better result. No, that won’t work. It’s time for radical change in New York City and New York State.”

De Blasio’s 10-point plan would also boost voter registration, introduce participatory budgeting to high schools and appoint a chief democracy officer.

The mayor’s call for elections that are” funded primarily by public dollars, thereby greatly reducing the power of big money” comes only weeks after The New York Times revealed that one of his own campaign donors pled guilty to trying to bribe the mayor. And his focus on declining turnout implicitly raises a question that de Blasio has dismissed for five years: Does the very low turnout in both his mayoral elections in any way erode the otherwise impressive mandate he won at the polls?

But those were hardly the only issues raised about the mayor’s speech.

“We cannot promise New Yorkers a fair city when the current state of NYCHA is freezing,” said Afua Atta-Mensah, the executive director of Community Voices Heard (CVH), in a statement emailed out after the speech. “With their track record of serious missteps and flouting of the health and safety of residents, we cannot trust that NYCHA can fix this problem on their own,” she added. CVH is demanding a $2 billion investment from the city this year to be used for heating system repairs.

Katie Goldstein, the leader of Real Affordability for All, was harsher: “Mayor de Blasio again focused on his effort to build housing but failed to mention the affordability crisis that’s threatening the very survival of our city. He failed to offer any new policies or ideas to help the growing number of New Yorkers who can barely afford to live here. That’s wrong and unacceptable. His speech was both a moral and political failure.”

De Blasio did talk about affordable housing and NYCHA—and pre-K, policing, mental health and more – during the first part of his address, as he ran through a 12-point booklet that had been distributed to audience members and that focused on initiatives launched during his first term.

But while the mayor made clear that work was continuing in many of those areas, he didn’t suggest any new efforts or shifts of direction. The newest items were the recently filed lawsuits against Big Pharma and Big Energy over opioid abuse and climate change.

This meant that huge and pressing issues were given relatively short shrift because, as far as City Hall is concerned, adequate efforts are underway. NYCHA is a perfect example: De Blasio has done more than any recent mayor to shore up the agency’s finances and operations, but the authority’s enormous needs and the increasing indifference of the federal government demand a deeper dive. That didn’t seem to be what de Blasio was promising:

“We’re going to continue to make big changes through our next generation NYCHA plan, and we’re going to show the success that we reached in our largest development, Queens Bridge houses, is what we can do all over this city. We’re going to show that real change can come, that safety can be achieved that roofs can be fixed, that Internet access can be provided opportunity opened up. It happened in Queens Bridge houses, and we’re going to systematically make sure it happens all over this city for the residents of public housing.”

The mayor took the same approach to discussing his affordable housing plan, which is incredibly large and has taken real steps to push affordability lower, but not as low as many advocates want. “In the last few months the biggest affordable housing plan in the history of New York City got even bigger,” he said. “[W]e will reach more New Yorkers in the next four years than ever before in our history. So they can be New Yorkers for a long time to come. ”

De Blasio said little about transit except to endorse a millionaire’s tax again. On education, which the mayor promised post-election would be a focus for him, de Blasio talked about universal 3-K (which he unveiled about a year ago and is not yet funded) and added, “In the coming weeks I will speak to the people of this city about our next big ‘Equity and Excellence’ goal: increasing the number of children reading on grade level by third grade.” That’s actually a goal the mayor set in September 2015, when he called for 100 percent third-grade literacy by 2026.

He spoke briefly about closing Rikers, emphasizing the need for changes in state law on bail and speedy trials. (A state report out this morning slams the city’s 10-year timeline for closing Rikers as too slow, but there’s also news that the administration has selected a site for a Bronx jail to help replace Rikers’ capacity.) The mayor made glancing mention of homelessness and did not discuss the crisis facing public hospitals.

The State of the City speech is not an official governing document. It is meant to inspire, not itemize, and it’s always a recitation of past accomplishments as much as it is an exercise in goal-setting. De Blasio did accomplish much in his first term. But the event didn’t generate much energy celebrating that work, perhaps because of the lengthy undercard. A rendition of “God Bless America,” an official welcome speech from the theater’s head, four separate opening prayers, the pledge of allegiance, the singing of the National Anthem, an introduction of the first lady, the first lady’s speech and a promotional film all preceded de Blasio’s entrance. The mayor then spent several minutes honoring heroic first responders he’d invited to the event.

Each preliminary element was impressive and valuable, but the sheer length of it seemed to sap some of the emotion out of a speech that was often eloquent. The mayor said New York has “to be the antidote to the sickness that is gripping our nation,” and his speech suggested that his first-term policies on housing and policing are worthy ingredients of that elixir, and that a focus on declining civic participation is the missing element.

There’s no arguing that civic alienation and social inequality are interwoven: people iced out of the economy are likely to give up on democracy too, meaning they lose their say in shaping the rules that allow people to get iced out of the economy. While De Blasio’s democracy agenda targets some low-hanging fruit, it also includes some heavier lifts. But win or lose, it allows the mayor to talk in bright lines and grand principles, not the nitty gritty details of which income groups really need subsidized housing or how to desegregate schools.