Bill de Blasio, New York City’s first Democratic mayor in a generation, is winding down his first year in office, which saw success at fulfilling many of his liberal campaign promises but has at times been overshadowed by events beyond his control, most notably the recent killings of two police officers amid a wave of protests against police conduct.
De Blasio has appeared triumphant against some of those outside forces — notably during the Ebola scare — and has become a national progressive voice, but the police shooting has pushed his young mayoralty into its biggest crisis yet. The double slaying has heightened his efforts to support arguably his most important city agency, the New York Police Department, yet also defend the rights of the protesters who share his liberal values.
As 2014 draws to a close, his balancing act is teetering. Three times in a week, officers mourning their fallen brothers turned their backs on de Blasio, a searing display of contempt and an omen that de Blasio’s struggle with police could cripple his agenda.
“It’s extraordinarily tense and it’s not sustainable,” said David Birdsell, dean of the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College. “If the police dominate the headlines and his political capital rather than, say, his plan for affordable housing, it will remain a massive problem.”
De Blasio’s problems with the police run deep. Police rank and file heard his campaign promise to curb the use of stop-and-frisk as an allegation of racism. They watched warily as de Blasio forged close connections to Al Sharpton. After the Garner grand jury decision, the mayor spoke about cautioning his own son, who is half-black, about contact with police, and he permitted anti-NYPD protesters to march freely.
And when the two officers were gunned down Dec. 20 by a man who cited Garner as one of his motivations for violence, the unions said de Blasio had “blood on his hands” for fostering an atmosphere of anger toward police.
Last Jan. 1, out went Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman who reshaped New York with his data-driven management style that made the city safe and glamorous yet economically stratified. In came de Blasio, who took the oath of office in front of his modest Brooklyn home, surrounded by his biracial family.
Laws were passed to expand paid sick leave and the first steps were taken to create the nation’s largest municipal ID program.
His affordable housing plan aims to create or preserve 200,000 units in the next 10 years. And he struck labor deals with more than half the city’s workforce.
But the centerpiece of his agenda was a plan to massively expand universal pre-kindergarten. He aimed to fund it with a tax on the city’s wealthy, an idea that died in Albany.
However, his advocacy loosened $300 million from the state budget to launch the program, and 53,000 four-year-olds entered the new pre-K classrooms in September.
There were stumbles along the way: A few snowstorms weren’t effectively plowed, the mayor has constant struggles with tardiness, and one campaign promise he has yet to fulfill — to ban horse carriages — drew cries of anger.
His legislative accomplishments and big stage have turned him into a darling of the political left, a rising figure often cited as a leader of the Democratic Party’s most liberal wing. That position, plus his close ties to presumptive presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, could place him in a visible role in 2016, particularly if his bid to land the Democratic National Convention in Brooklyn is successful.
“He is not hiding who he is: He seems very willing and able to push his liberal agenda forward,” said Matthew Hale, political science professor at Seton Hall University. “But he needs to manage this crisis. If he weren’t mayor, he’d be out on the picket lines. But he can’t be seen as leading the charge against the police.”