Interview with Mayor Bill de Blasio

Mayor Bill de Blasio faces his first reelection as one of the strongest incumbents in a generation. Leveraging his leftist populism with a man-of-the-people persona, the first Democratic mayor of New York City since 1993 is positioned to sail to reelection if the polls are to be believed.

The mayor began his political career on the edges of Boro Park, representing the Orthodox neighborhood up until 13th Avenue in the City Council until 2010. In an interview City Hall has assured us was an exclusive to the Jewish media, de Blasio discussed with Hamodia his plans for expanding pre-K to the city’s three-year-olds, defended his frequent contention that the Big Apple is as safe as it ever was, and shared a vision of a time when his progressive base would recognize Israel as compatible with their ideals.

He also suggested that if a progressive such as himself can win over supporters of President Donald Trump in Boro Park, then maybe there’s a chance for the right progressive candidate to win the White House. 2020, anyone?

“I am a fan of your publication, as we know — Hamodia, very intelligent publication,” the mayor began the interview, which took place in a room outside his City Hall office. “I have enjoyed the relationship for a long time.”

Let’s start off with education, a big issue in our community. You announced last week the expansion of 3-K to another five districts…

Six districts.

Right. So far, none of them are in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. When they expand there, there’s been conflicting reports about how yeshivas will be impacted. Will the standards and the rules for 3-K be the same as pre-K to allow yeshivos to be eligible?

First, a factual point: I don’t know if the district that includes Rockaways has all of the Rockaways; I just don’t know the district lines. I think it does. So that would connect to one meaningful Orthodox community.

But anyway, to your question. Look, we believe that the success of the pre-K initiative was directly related to the fact that we worked with yeshivos, Catholic schools, community organizations, charter schools — we worked with everyone. And we needed to make it work in every sense — to get the quality right, to get the reach into communities, to get the space we needed. And it turned out to be a great blessing. We want to repeat that model with 3-K. We got a lot of enthusiasm from parents all over the city and a lot of schools and organizations that want to participate.

So, the goal is, in the fourth year of the buildout, to be truly universal, [to include] all 32 school districts in the entire city. Obviously, that means reaching a number of communities with large Orthodox neighborhoods. And we think that pre-K has been a great example of cooperation. The relationship with yeshivos has been very good. There were initial concerns I think we worked through well. I think we can do the same again with 3-K.

I’ll take that to mean that the process is still being worked out, but the goal is to have everybody on board, to have it universal.

Absolutely. More than the goal. The buildout, we’ve said from the beginning, is a series of stages in the fourth year — in September 2021 we go full universal. Now, it will take a lot of work, particularly finding the space and the partners to work with us. And I’ve been very explicit, we’re going to need state or federal funding or both to make it work, based on what we know today. I also remind people that September is a long time from now and the environment in Albany, environment in Washington, might be very different.

But I think the most important fact to remember from the experience with pre-K was, as it became a reality, it became extraordinarily popular and meaningful to parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles; a huge constituency developed for it. I think that will happen with 3-K as well.

Even your opponents are talking about continuing it.

That’s right, exactly. You are a wise man. When at first it was said to be an impossibility and no, no one will touch it, that proves the meaning of it and the popularity. I think you’ll see it again. Because so many parents, of every kind of community need more support. Parents are working very hard. Whether they have employment or whether they’re taking care of kids at home, parents work very, very hard in this city. They need more support. And the modern lifestyle for all of us has created extraordinary pressures on parents. I think the city stepping in and providing more options is something that has tremendous support.

You cut a special education deal three or four years ago, in 2014. I know that on paper parents should be having an easier time getting reimbursements. How is it from your end?

I think we’ve made progress.

Do you have statistics showing how many cases are now being settled early rather than litigated?

Not at the tip of my fingers, but we can get them to you. There’s no question we made a lot of progress.

Look, this was a good example. There was good work done in the legislature. Senator Felder was very actively involved then, [as was] Speaker Silver. They were pushing us and we also wanted to do better. When I was public advocate, I focused on these issues quite a bit, that it was clear we had a conflictual approach to the Department of Education, rather than a consensus-driven approach, to try and figure out what parents needed and get it to them. And not make them have to pay for lawyers, not make them go through a long, bureaucratic process.

We’ve made a lot of progress. I’ve talked to a lot of parents who have indicated how different it is now, including recognizing if a child has basically an unchanged IEP (Individualized Education Program) and needs the same placement on an ongoing basis. We don’t want the parent to have to go through a long, elongated process every year. We’ve tried to simplify that. Again, that was something that Senator Felder was very focused on, to his credit, and we agreed that we wanted to simplify things for parents whose kids’ situation really wasn’t changing much.

So I think it’s really different. Now, you are talking about a bureaucracy that did something, I think, the wrong way for decades. And we are retraining that bureaucracy and retraining those lawyers in how to do things a different way. So I think every year it will get better.

But my message to the Department of Education is: This is not about money. This is about our kids. This is about what they need. In the past, we all know the motivating factor was money, that the Department of Education litigated to try and reduce costs. I don’t accept that. I want to make sure kids get what they need.

You mentioned before that funding remains the same as long as the IEP basically stays the same. I think the biggest frustration that parents mention today is that IEPs do change every year slightly. So the Department of Education uses that slight change to say — “Now you have to start all over from the beginning.”

That’s what we’re trying to move away from. When it’s slight, when it’s no change or a slight change, to not go through a full process and [rather] simplify it. So, again, my colleagues will get you more of the statistics and all, but we agree that we want a simpler process for parents.

Now, when IEP changes a lot, that’s legitimate that we have to go through a deeper process. But not when it’s very, very minor.

I want to talk about public safety. You’ve held quite a few press conferences over the past couple of years. Lately you are saying that the city is the safest it’s been in modern history.

Safest big city in America.

Safest big city in America. That has been for many years already, but for some months it’s been the safest city in modern history?

Yeah, we’ve consistently had the safest months on record, the safest first quarter on record, the safest summer on record. This is not getting the attention it deserves as something New Yorkers should be very proud of and it’s been done by the NYPD and with many, many active community partners. This is now record-setting progress. And what it means is a very human thing. Every time a murder is stopped, a shooting is stopped, a robbery is stopped, that improves people’s lives. That keeps a family whole.

What’s happening now is something we’ve never seen before, to be able to drive crime down this rapidly. You’re talking in the case of homicides and shootings of an over 20 percent-plus decrease since the same time last year. I mean, just staggering.

And I do think it is because, with the City Council, we put 2,000 more officers on patrol. Which I think has also been under-reported in the mainstream media. Two thousand more officers on patrol has changed everything. It’s made crime fighting more effective. It’s given our officers more backup and support in terms of their safety. It’s allowed neighborhood policing as a strategy and a philosophy to deepen. It’s allowed us to create the critical response command with over 500 anti-terror officers — full-time, fully trained, fully armed.

So, the amazing thing is, we’re at the safest we’ve ever been and we actually expect to get safer.

Why do you think it’s underreported? Is it because the media is just reporting more crimes now? Is it because there are a few sensational crimes that are blown out of proportion?

Look, any crime is one crime too many, and we have to feel deeply when someone’s lost to a murder or when a family suffers violence; that’s very, very meaningful. We don’t ever belittle that.

But I do think it’s the sensationalism. I think we live in a tabloid-dominated city, and that’s part of the reality. And we just don’t see enough looking at the big picture that really affects people’s lives. This kind of massive reduction in crime really affects people’s quality of life.

Look, you can talk to so many people who feel more comfortable walking down the street or being out at certain hours of the day because their experience is just different than what it used to be. Now, you’re right, that’s been progressing over almost a quarter of a century in this city. But the amazing thing is, when I first came into office, there was a serious conversation of whether we had already reached the lowest point, whether it had already gotten to the point where crime could no longer be driven down anymore. In a city of 8.5 million people, it’s a legitimate question, right? At some point, 8.5 million people, there will be some bad apples, you can’t stop all crime.

Well, here’s the shocking thing: Four years of steady crime reduction, the most intensive being this last year, as we got the full impact of those new officers on patrol. Remember, January of 2017 was the first time we had all 2,000 officers on the streets. And it’s made a huge difference.

So I think what we’re finding is, we haven’t touched the bottom of the pool yet. There’s more safety to be achieved and that will improve people’s quality of life even more.

And one more point: Every time the NYPD doesn’t have to deal with a violent crime, that time and energy can go into quality of life issues in the neighborhood. And so now, 2,000 more officers on patrol plus, thank G-d, many fewer violent crimes for them to deal with, and, since we moved away from the overuse of stop-and-frisk, which was also very labor-intensive, that time and energy goes into quality of life issues. It’s allowing us to solve a lot of the day-to-day issues in communities better.

But there’s still this perception that the city is unsafe. How do you battle that perception? I will note that I interviewed Commissioner O’Neill a couple of months ago. He did discuss this, that battling that perception is just as important as battling the crime itself.

Friendly amendment, with the deepest respect for my commissioner, who I think is doing an amazing job; I think the material facts are the most important things, because that’s what affects people’s lives.

I think we also have to battle the perception. Look, I think most people would say, if you are safe, but people were still worried, isn’t that better than if you’re not safe and the perception is real? Right? We here are very happy to say people are getting safer all the time. Their property is better protected than ever. There’s a huge difference in the quality of life.

The perception issues relate to, once again, the sensationalist tabloid media; the overhang of history, that for a long time people were not safe, and of course it’s hard to believe a change has happened until it is sustained over a long period of time. I am very comfortable that Job One is to keep driving down crime. I think, as we do it, we will start to move that perception. We will start to show people more and more that they can really rely on that level of safety.

So, we’re never going to stop addressing the perception, but I can also tell you, I speak to a lot of people, everyday people, community leaders who do feel something different in life. There’s no question, I speak to some who think crime has gone up, even though it’s gone down. I speak to some who think it’s kind of the same. But I’ve talked to a lot of New Yorkers, everyday New Yorkers, who will tell you very distinctly they feel the difference in their lives compared to even a few years ago.

I want to talk about the city’s finances. You’ve added to the city’s Rainy Day Fund every year for the past four years, past four budgets. The city’s budget has increased by $17, $18 billion over the past four years.

From $72 to $85 billion, so about $12, $13 billion.

There’s been some concern that, if there’s a downturn, the government will have to have massive layoffs.

Remember, almost half of that increase has been the reserves. When I took office, reserves were quite low and they were almost used on a revolving door basis. And I don’t blame the previous administration; they had a lot of challenges with 9/11 and then the Great Recession. But they rarely could sustain any kind of reserves. We started over the last four years creating deep reserves and then building on them all the time.

They are there to protect us for the long-term. G-d forbid there was a downturn in the economy, we have the ability to maintain that high level of policing, to maintain things like pre-K for the foreseeable future. G-d forbid there are policies passed in Washington that took away revenue from the city, from affordable housing or education or mass transit, we can protect ourselves in the immediate term.

So that budget growth people have raised concerns about… I remind you of a couple of things. That, one, we have the highest reserves we’ve ever had. Two, the growth has been largely adding to those reserves. And, three, we have the highest bond ratings we’ve ever had. So the folks who professionally determine the fiscal health of a city have been very positive about New York City.

I want to talk about something local a little bit. You probably heard about it: Over here in Boro Park we have a park that has a bathroom that cost $2 million.

Ha.

You heard about it?

I didn’t hear about that one, but I’ve heard about too many like that and they drive me crazy.

I just took my kids last week to that park. The bathroom was flooded, the pipes in the sink were on the floor, there was no toilet paper. It frustrates people — for $2 million you could almost buy three homes in the area, and Boro Park is a high-priced neighborhood. And people look at this and say, “Oh, wasteful government. Who knows what else they spend it on?”

Look, I would say there’s a problem there, there’s no question. And this is about the Parks Department and the Department of Design and Construction — they need to do better. We have in the last couple of years sped up the timelines for these projects and started to reduce the cost, but we have to do a lot better. People have the right to be frustrated with that and I don’t accept it.

Now, by comparison, the money we’ve spent on police clearly has had the positive and effective impact; the same on pre-K; the same on repaving, we’ve done a historic level of street repaving. That’s been done very efficiently, very good use of taxpayer money.

School Construction Authority is another great example. That used to be a horrible sinkhole in terms of wasteful spending, wasteful government. Now it is a very modern, efficient agency that has done a great job building new schools, building early childhood education centers, etc.

So I think the bottom line is, New York City government is much more effective than it was. I think we’ve added effectiveness in the last four years. But there’s still some pieces that are out of sync. And these bathrooms in particular have been, I think, crazy. I don’t understand why it takes so long, why it’s so expensive, and I want a better product, especially for that money we’re spending. So this is going to be something we focus on going forward to fix that.

What would you consider the typical price of a park bathroom?

I don’t know, I’m not an expert, but, like you, that price seems too high.

Let’s talk about affordable housing. You talked about adding or preserving 200,000 units by the end of 2020?

Well, no, we started the program in May of 2014 as a 10-year program, so basically into the end of 2025.

It seems like this whole program bypassed the Orthodox areas. Perhaps it’s because Boro Park had no land to build more housing on. But also property taxes have gone up, pricing people out of their own properties. And, when people get married today, they’re more likely than not to move to other areas, to Monsey, Lakewood. What can be done?

I’m going to challenge that. The Culvert El project, even though it’s taken a long, long time, is still an example of where there was space available. There’s also the Pfizer building in Williamsburg, and in some other communities around the city.

I want to separate the pieces of the plan. When it comes to building new, affordable housing, we will do that where there is space available, and we will do that where there’s private development that activates our mandatory inclusionary housing option. (This requires some large developments to include a certain amount of cheaper housing in return for a building permit – Ed.) And so that can obviously include a number of locations in Orthodox communities.

We also are preserving a lot of housing in place. So, we’re giving people subsidies to keep the housing they have. And that’s happening all over the city, as well.

We’re helping people avoid evictions; that’s for every community. There’s a lot going on here. Obviously, the rent freezes for the two years reached almost two and a half million people, including a lot of people in Orthodox communities.

So, the plan reaches every part of the city. It is a true statement that the parts of the city that have more open land, there’s more we can work with. But, remember, where there is private development, that often allows us an opportunity to act as well, because of mandatory inclusionary housing.

About Vision Zero, the numbers have gone down, fatalities have gone down…

Yes, consistently.

Besides for a crackdown on unsafe driving, there’s been, at least to people I’ve spoken to, an uptick in other quality of life driving offenses. Like drivers who go into the crosswalk, block sidewalks, force people with carriages to have to go around.

Failing to yield to pedestrians.

Has the city decided not to pursue those types of violations?

No, we pursue those, too. The central concern of Vision Zero is protecting life and reducing fatalities, reducing injuries, which has been a very productive effort, because obviously those fatalities and injuries have gone down pretty steadily over the last three years.

The focus then with the NYPD is to stop speeding and to stop failure to yield to pedestrians. Those are the two most dangerous types of activity. That being said, I agree with you, a car that blocks an intersection puts the pedestrians in harm’s way, particularly parents with strollers. Of course we will enforce that — I talk to the precincts all the time about enforcement of people who block driveways. Again, the good news is, the precincts have more and more time and energy for those types of things because they are dealing with less and less violent crime.

So those quality of life issues, like the parking, matter a lot to us and it is a priority. But anything that endangers a pedestrian is going to get focus, including, by the way, a reckless car or a reckless bicycle. Or an electric bike. We’re going to enforce all of those.

Vision Zero enforcement continues to climb. And I have instructed NYPD to keep intensifying.

I want to ask a couple of questions about yourself as a leader of the national progressive movement. First of all, on Israel, you challenged the progressive movement to stop talking about boycotting Israel.

Correct.

Israel was born in the progressive movement. Liberal Democrats were the force behind Israel for the first 20, 30 years of its existence. Do you think a time will come when that will come back?

Yes. Look, you’re exactly right. Harry Truman, who supported the creation of the state of Israel, and all the progressive Democrats for decades, considered support for Israel a foundation of our view of not only what’s right to do in the world, but what was morally right to do. That’s the argument I make about BDS everywhere I go and I’m going to keep making it more vehemently going forward. Anyone who calls themselves a progressive or a liberal or a Democrat should oppose BDS, period. It is inherently opposed to our values because it’s trying to undermine a state which is there as a refuge for an oppressed people.

And also because the effort to undermine the economy of Israel also undermines the pathway to peace. I am convinced that there still is a pathway to peace going forward and that economics will play an important role. Trying to give everyone in the region economic opportunity is a pathway to reducing tensions. So, if you undermine the Israeli economy, that only makes it harder to get to peace.

I’m going to make that argument and I think there are a lot of Democrats and a lot of progressives who will understand that and will support that. I think what we’re seeing is a fairly small set of voices, particularly, obviously. on some campuses, that have rallied to BDS’s side, but it is not the majority view in the Democratic Party, it’s not the majority view among progressives. I think progressives have to do a better job of being loud in opposition to BDS, and that’s what I’ll do.

Progressives have been piling on President Trump, allowing condemnations of his policies to go into personal attacks — calling him a white supremacist, a racist. What’s the line that the Democrats must draw, in your opinion, between condemning a president’s policies and respecting the office of the presidency?

I don’t think we’ve ever been challenged in this way on that question. Even with Richard Nixon, I remember vividly the Watergate years, he was still a mature, intelligent figure who had done something horrible. And we’ve never seen a president, in my opinion, denigrate the office as we have with Trump. And I think, it’s clear now, more and more Republicans share that view.

I don’t think it’s about name-calling, though. I think if he says or does things that suggest racism or support for white supremacists, that has to be addressed very publicly and aggressively because it cannot be allowed to be normalized.

Look, after the horrible events in Charlottesville, Virginia, to have a president of the United States seem to be sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan and other really divisive forces, that can’t be ignored. And I think it is bluntly part of the evolution of our country that this is all coming out very openly. It’s not about personal name-calling. It is about addressing the things he says and does that have a huge impact on the lives of New Yorkers and Americans.

So I’ve said I’m very comfortable that we don’t have a model for a president like this. We’re in uncharted territory. But I think he must be confronted when he’s wrong. And I also think the only way to limit him is to confront him rather than placate him.

Just to add to that question — you have a lot of supporters in Boro Park who are going to be going to the polls very enthusiastically to vote for you [next] week. And they support President Trump at the same time. How do you explain that?

Look, I can say this. In terms of myself, I think people in the community know that I have a warm and close relationship with the community, that I understand a lot of the community’s needs. That I feel a bond, a personal bond, appreciation for the close relationship with the community, recognition that there’s been a lot of unfairness to the community that has to be rectified. When we got the Priority 5 vouchers back, for example, that was righting a wrong from the previous administration. When we acted on the sanitation routes in Boro Park or the parking meters on Shabbos, that was trying to do something good to recognize the community deserves that respect and deserves that flexibility. I think people in the Orthodox community know that is my heart and my belief structure.

As for what they feel about national politics, I can’t fully analyze it. I think many people around the country looked at the two alternatives and were disappointed and made their own choices in the last election. But in the end, my view is, if I, as a progressive Democrat, can reach members of the Orthodox community with a series of actions that are relevant to their lives, show them that pre-K can be good for their children, show them that we’re doing smart things to protect the security of yeshivos, well, that says that progressive Democrats could be doing that everywhere, right? What progressive Democrats have often failed to do is make tangible to people the ways we’re going to improve their lives.

So I’m proud of the relationship I have with the community. I look forward to it deepening. But I think it’s something that’s been about — a phrase we have in Italian — it’s called tachlis.

I’m familiar with that.

We talked about policy till now, but there’s an election coming up. Do you have a closing message to the community?

My message to the community is: I humbly ask for the vote of members of the community because I think we’ve shown in the last four years we can make the city safer, we can improve the quality of life — that’s what we’ve done for four years — respect the community’s needs and have a very open door. I’m proud of the fact that this City Hall, unlike the previous, this City Hall has had an open door to the community. Countless times community leaders have been here.

We’ve worked on issues of real concern to the community. It doesn’t mean we agree 100 percent of the time, but I think what you’d hear from leaders in all five boroughs is they never lacked the ability to pick up the phone, reach me and reach my colleagues, come in and have a real conversation, and find productive ways to move forward, to support the needs of what is one of the biggest, growing communities of our city. And it makes us strong.

So I think, if you look at the last four years, we’ve made a lot of progress for all New Yorkers and for this community and I ask people to help me continue that progress.