(photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)
Candidates running for mayor have begun to gather signatures to get on the ballot, bringing election season into full swing. Mayor Bill de Blasio is in a relatively comfortable position and polls show that he is likely to sail to reelection, but it is still relatively early, with September primary and November general elections on the horizon. Anything can happen in a political campaign.
As the mayor prepares to spend the next six months asking New Yorkers to give him another four years, he will also have to defend his first term record and set out a vision for a second term. As is often the case with incumbents, the election will largely be a referendum on de Blasio’s mayoralty.
Much of the focus of campaigns can be on polls, endorsements, and fundraising numbers, all of which have some importance. But the issues matter the most, and while there are some topics that will always be essential to a New York City mayoral election -- schools and public safety, to name two -- the particular candidates and context of an election also determine the major issues dominating the political discourse.
Sometimes, the issues can be different as things shift from primaries to the general election. Other times, it’s simply the frame of the conversation. For example, de Blasio will have to fend off criticism from his left in the primary, then from his right in the general, assuming he wins in September -- as Republicans say de Blasio is soft on crime, his opponents on the left argue his policing policies are too harsh. “That’s politics,” said Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College. “Welcome to the profession. You can’t win.”
There can always be something unforeseen that takes center stage, a crisis or scandal of some kind, a singular event that demands significant attention.
Experts and political observers say that on a few issues, de Blasio finds his record largely unassailable, while on others he is vulnerable. How the race shapes up will depend on how challengers highlight those issues, and which concerns are likely to resonate with the electorate. Several other candidates vying to be Mayor have begun to define their campaigns on certain issues, while others are always key to the mayoral discussion.
The Democratic Primary
In the Democratic primary, de Blasio faces a slew of candidates but only two of them, former City Council Member Sal Albanese and police reform activist Robert Gangi, seem to be raising funds to run competitive campaigns. While they’ve both been eclipsed by de Blasio’s fundraising -- the mayor has millions in his reelection account while both Gangi and Albanese have yet to break $100,000 -- the two challengers are mounting issue-focused campaigns, hoping to gain traction by criticizing the mayor from the left, perhaps appealing to some of de Blasio’s progressive supporters who are displeased by the mayor’s record.
Albanese and Gangi are also critical of the mayor not from a political philosophy, but regarding management and ethics, two aspects of de Blasio’s record that he will have to answer to throughout the campaign, including during the primary and, if he moves on, the general.
Gangi, a veteran activist, has based his campaign largely on criticizing the mayor’s record on police reform, saying that de Blasio has not gone far enough in reforming the NYPD and its practices. Although crime has continued to drop to historic lows under de Blasio and stop-and-frisk has been significantly curtailed, the NYPD continues to employ “Broken Windows” policing with de Blasio’s blessing, targeting low-level offenders to prevent more serious crimes. It is a practice that Gangi says he would abolish, pointing to racial disparities in arrest and summons data.
The mayor has also been questioned when it comes to officer accountability. Of particular focus is Officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose chokehold led to the death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner. Pantaleo is still on the force, though on modified duty. De Blasio has said the NYPD is awaiting the end of a federal inquiry into Garner’s death and that the department is ready to take disciplinary measures if no federal civil rights charges are brought. The incident is part of a larger trend where de Blasio has agreed to shield the disciplinary records of police officers, citing state law as a barrier.
Gangi has stressed that the NYPD’s use of broken windows is abusive and discriminatory against communities of color, and has vowed to end it. He also says the NYPD uses quotas in policing, which the department has consistently denied, and proposes decriminalizing fare evasion, marijuana possession, sex work, and gravity knife possession. Gangi’s points on NYPD accountability and transparency, and de Blasio’s policing record, are symbolic of a not small group of activists who are unhappy with the mayor’s police reforms.
“I don’t think that’s gonna resonate,” said Douglas Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, of criticism of the mayor’s police reform record. “[De Blasio] has certain constraints governing...He can only do so much and the purists are gonna say he’s never doing enough. The perfectionists, the people who are committed to certain policy positions are never gonna be happy.” It’s an argument de Blasio has made while pointing to the policies he has put in place, including neighborhood policing, retraining of the entire NYPD force in de-escalation techniques, and a body camera program that has just launched in pilot.
A pack of issues that Gangi has been vocal about is reducing school overcrowding and class sizes, promoting desegregation of schools, and hiring more teachers. Education is always a mayoral campaign issue. While de Blasio has touted higher graduation rates and lower dropout rates, higher standardized test scores, and a wide-reaching “equity and excellence” agenda that seeks to foster more opportunity and progress across all city schools, there are still many schools that show shockingly poor results. While de Blasio has infused significant funds into his Renewal Schools program and attempted to make the most struggling schools into community schools that have wraparound services, the Renewal program has shown lackluster results. Class sizes and school overcrowding continue to plague many schools.
Sal Albanese, a former school teacher and elected official, has also made education reform one of his top agenda items and has proposed a number of improvements to the schools system. Among them, consolidating early childhood education programs under one agency to reduce fiscal waste and increase access, creating more early childhood programs, ensuring wage parity for early educators, improving teacher recruitment and training, and enhancing accountability for principals while affording them increased authority.
Albanese has also pledged to expand community policing -- a citywide expansion is already underway in phases with most precincts already covered under the new Neighborhood Coordinating Officers (NCO) program -- and has vowed a more equitable distribution of resources and personnel to precincts. Albanese, who also ran in the 1997 and 2013 Democratic primaries for Mayor, regularly says that morale in the NYPD is terrible and that as Mayor he would improve it dramatically.
Albanese has also been a fervent critic of de Blasio’s relationship with special interests, particularly the real estate industry, and has called the mayor’s a “corrupt and incompetent administration.” He cites numerous conflicts of interest, including through de Blasio’s now-shuttered Campaign for One New York, a political nonprofit that accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from entities with city business and was a focus of a federal investigation, for which the mayor and his associates were not brought up on charges.
Albanese also criticizes the city’s public campaign finance system, which is seen as a model by many. He proposes reforming the system and establishing “democracy vouchers” that would be given to voters who can then use those vouchers to make campaign contributions to the candidate of their choice, fully eliminating private money from the process and giving each voter the same financial influence in campaigns.
On his campaign website as of June 6, Albanese features briefly outlined plans on mass transit, housing, animal care, public safety, political reform, and education.
One major question hanging over the Democratic primary is whether there will be any formal debates, which can be an important way for candidates to get their messages out, raise key issues, and criticize the frontrunner. The Campaign Finance Board will run two primetime, televised debates in the primary if the candidates meet the thresholds, which are different for the first and the second. The first debate requires candidates to raise and spend at least $174,225 and can also include additional criteria such as a minimum polling average.
Dr. Christina Greer, political science professor at Fordham University, decried a lack of a competition on the Democratic side. Saying “it doesn’t really seem like there’s gonna be a robust Democratic primary,” Greer lamented that de Blasio may not “be tested” on four issues she believes many New Yorkers, especially in the mayor’s base, are thinking about: “affordable housing, homelessness, Rikers and all the things that come underneath Rikers, and transportation.”
Greer points out that without a competitive primary challenge, “we’re sort of leaving the mayor to rest on what I think is a pretty legitimate record, but at the same time there’s no one to push him to do and say more... And while I do think that de Blasio deserves a second term, I would like to see a competitive primary where he articulates not just what he’s done but a new vision for the next four years which, I don’t really know if we’ve heard that just yet.”
The Republican Primary
On the Republican side, the race is shaping up as a head-to-head battle between Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis and real estate executive Paul Massey. The two candidates have taken largely similar policy positions, though Massey is running as more of a centrist, “non-political” manager who calls himself “independent-minded,” and Malliotakis is running as a more traditional Republican, even more conservative than many New York City members of the GOP. Tellingly, Malliotakis has the Conservative Party endorsement while Massey has the Independence Party endorsement.
Neither candidate has defined themselves on any issue or set of issues. Massey has been closer, painting himself as a seasoned executive who would run the city with ideas from “across the political spectrum” a la Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Both GOP candidates criticize de Blasio on a wide variety of topics, a list that seems to grow by the day. They have regularly taken on the mayor’s approach to public safety, especially for reducing penalties for certain low-level nonviolent offenses, and generally raising the spectre of worsening quality of life in the city.
Both have condemned the city’s homelessness crisis and de Blasio’s management of it. They point to the mayor’s proclivity for spending more money to get what they call meager results. Education has been a top priority, both calling for more school choice and better management of “failing” schools.
Where they differ is on certain social issues -- Malliotakis is generally more conservative than Massey and voted against same-sex marriage in 2011 in the Assembly. Malliotakis also opposes New York’s “sanctuary city” status while Massey has called for the policy to remain as it is, pointing to the need for new federal immigration policy.
Massey has begun releasing policy papers, including on education and public safety, while Malliotakis, who joined the race much more recently, has promised more detail in her policy plans.
“Malliotakis and Massey, they haven’t made an impact,” Muzzio said of the Republican field thus far, in an assertion supported by recent poll numbers. “Now the Republicans are gonna say that, ‘[de Blasio’s] a wildly spending liberal, he’s giving the store away.’ You know, typical Republican critique of a Democrat.” Muzzio is correct, especially given that the mayor and City Council just announced a new budget agreement that again raises city spending. Both leading GOP candidates released statements criticizing the mayor for continuing to grow the city budget, throwing good money after bad, they say.
Their critique of the mayor’s policing policy is also typical of the ideological right, said Muzzio. “Those people that are committed ideologically to stop-and-frisk and Broken Windows aren’t happy with him,” he said. “And they’re predicting gloom and doom. It hasn’t happened yet and it might not happen but they’re still gonna charge him with softness on crime.” Both candidates point to specific areas where crime is up, whether through de Blasio’s term or one year to another. They also point to a mostly vague sense that the city is slipping backward.
Greer believes the Republican candidates will have to establish where they stand vis-a-vis their party’s top elected official, President Donald Trump. “They’re just gonna have to figure out how close or far away they’re going to position themselves to Trump,” she said. It’s a certainty that de Blaiso, if a winner in his primary, will seek to paint his general election GOP opponent with a Trump brush.
Massey has repeatedly said he does not want the mayoral election to be a referendum on Trump, which he believes would play into the mayor’s hands as he uses the president as a foil. Malliotakis is a vocal Trump supporter and voted for him after supporting Marco Rubio in the GOP presidential primary. Massey has said he wrote in Michael Bloomberg for president in November.
Greer points out that Republican arguments about rising crime are often based in “falsehoods” and says that the mismanagement critique of de Blasio may not stick, given some of his successes, like universal pre-kindergarten, and that people respond to pocketbook and kitchen table issues.
“I think the Republicans will be jockeying to figure out their messaging as far as whether or not they’re going to double down and support the president or try and distance themselves, to try to look a little bit more moderate,” Greer said. This may take a different shape in the primary than the general election.
Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, doesn’t believe that the Republicans will be able to make crime an issue in the general election. “I think with the crime issue, it’s hard for the Republican candidate to make a case that de blasio isn’t doing a good job on crime,” she said. “I think people feel generally safe, I think certainly compared to 15 years ago or longer than that.”
Although Gelinas said that public safety would be an important issue in the debates, she doubted it would gain traction. “There’s always lots to criticize any mayor about policing, there’s always examples of police incompetence and corruption, there’s always crimes,” she said. “But can [Republicans] make this into a systemic crisis?...on the one hand crime hasn’t soared, on the other hand although there’s always problems of police brutality and so forth, nobody can make the case that it’s systemically gotten any worse under de Blasio and it’s probably gotten better with the number of stop-question-and-frisks having gone down. So I don’t think that’ll get very far.”
Gelinas said the top three issues, on both sides of the aisle, “are always jobs, education and housing.”
She pointed out that retail job growth, which recovered faster than most of the country after the recession, is slowing with a national trend, but wouldn’t be a serious issue before the September primary or the November general election. On housing, she said candidates have yet to express concrete proposals that go beyond the mayor’s stated goal of creating and preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing over 10 years. For Massey, housing has been a particular priority and he is pitching his decades of experience in the real estate industry as necessary to solve it. Massey ran a commercial sales business that took a neighborhood by neighborhood approach at a very opportune time in the city’s renaissance.
Gelinas did say that de Blasio has not been responsible with the budget and would face criticism for it. Spending under the mayor has increased by about 20 percent since Mayor Bloomberg’s last budget, with the mayor and City Council agreeing on an $85.2 billion budget just last week. It’s one of the main Republican critiques, including by Malliotakis who has called de Blasio the “tax-and-spend” mayor.
“But it’s hard to get voters to pay attention to that when there’s not a budget crisis,” said Gelinas. “I mean Bloomberg was elected partly because of 9/11 and people thought the city is going to have a huge budget crisis and we need this business person to address it. And it’s hard to see anyone thinking that anytime before September or November.”
On issues of quality of life, such as traffic congestion, noise and illegal construction work, Gelinas said de Blasio is vulnerable. “It’s still hard to marshall a critical mass of voters on these issues partly because people get so used to it,” she said.
The General Crisis
What should be the main issue in the election, Gelinas said, is transit infrastructure, “because elections sometimes are driven by crises. “The last time it was the perception of the inequality crisis, the elections before that, ‘Would the city recover after 9/11?’ Before that the crime crisis and the budget crisis.”
De Blasio is already dealing with the inequality crisis, she said, by implementing and expanding measures such as universal pre-kindergarten. But there seems to be no plan for the ever-worsening transit, particularly the city’s subway system. “This is affecting everybody’s quality of life,” she added. “If you go to work, if you go to school, if you’re looking for a job, if you’re poor, middle class or wealthier. It does hit the poor and middle classes the hardest. Because if you’re wealthy you have other options of getting around but most everybody else is stuck on the mass transit system that isn’t serving them well anymore.”
The mayor has been at pains to emphasize that the MTA, which serves the most commuters in the city and hence draws the most ire, is controlled by a state authority and Governor Andrew Cuomo, his longtime political rival. In doing so, the mayor has also laid the transit issues at the governor’s feet, washing his hands of the problems and hence the responsibility, though he is not completely without any. The city contributes billions to the MTA capital plan, and the mayor appoints members to the MTA board. While his power is nowhere near the governor’s, many fault de Blasio for being too quick to ignore the subway woes, saying that he should be talking about it constantly, riding the subways more, and working with the governor and MTA for solutions.
And, over the budget season, City Council members and transit advocates pressed the mayor to fund the “Fair Fares” proposal to provide discounted MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers and he repeatedly refused to do so.
“The mayor obviously doesn’t control the MTA but he does make a capital contribution to the MTA,” Gelinas pointed out. “Should the city be making a bigger contribution to build a better signal system? Also the city does manage all of the street level transportation and that’s not being managed very well either. It doesn’t seem like the mayor walks around, understands what’s going on on the streets...I think it’s good that the mayor did the ferries but even the ferries are being overwhelmed [initially] which show you how much demand there is for transportation that’s not being met.”
De Blasio often highlights his transportation agenda of a new ferry network, expanded Citi Bike service, and the looking Brooklyn-Queens Connector, or BQX, light-rail streetcar.
Greer agreed that transportation in the city is in crisis, and that the mayor must take some responsibility for it, even if it’s not under his purview. “Transportation affects so many New Yorkers across class lines,” she said. “There’s a sense of frustration because the mayor and the governor can’t ever agree on anything and get along.”
Poor New Yorkers in particular, she said, are looking to de Blasio to relieve them of this particular financial burden. “To me this is a relatively low-hanging fruit issue,” Greer said, “where he could distance himself from the governor, he could be a champion for the poor...So I think the frustration is that de Blasio’s by far the most progressive of everyone who’s running, by far the one who cares the most about poor people in New York of all the candidates. So for him to ignore the issue in the way he has is frustrating and I think should be one of the primary issues moving forward. It’s just difficult because there’s no foil for him that helps push it.”
Of all those seeking to unseat de Blasio, Albanese has taken the most interest in the subways, riding them daily and tweeting pictures and comments. He’s said he plans to be “the transit mayor.” He blames de Blasio for not being vocal enough on the issue, while others have pointed out that de Blasio’s bad relationship with Gov. Cuomo is hurting the city on a variety of fronts.
It is to be seen whether Albanese can galvanize activists and regular New Yorkers who are frustrated by public transit to oppose de Blasio and support his candidacy. The same goes for Gangi and the issues he’s focused on, like police reform, and the Republican candidates, Malliotakis and Massey, who are still working to define their candidacies as other than anti-de Blasio.
“You used the term ‘race,’” said Muzzio, of Baruch, when asked about the key issues in the mayoral race. “There is no race either in the Democratic primary or the general election. So the issues will probably be understated, they won’t be widely publicized because of the nature of the competition.”
Muzzio said de Blasio is likely to talk about his accomplishments including implementing universal pre-kindergarten, lowering crime and creating affordable housing. “He’s gonna push all the issues that surround equality,” Muzzio added. “Opponents are going to hit him for more stylistic and political reasons, you know his questionable ethics, his chronic lateness, his arrogance, et cetera.”
As de Blasio’s campaign gathers momentum, a few of his priorities have become clear. He has already pledged a renewed effort to tackle the city’s affordability crisis, chiefly through a housing plan already underway and a new jobs plan announced in his State of the City earlier this year. Although the mayor has been slow to reveal an actual plan to create 100,000 “good-paying” jobs over the next ten years, it is likely to be a talking point that candidates on both sides of the aisle will address.
Another pressing issue, one that de Blasio was late to, is the closure of the Rikers Island jail complex. After facing significant political pressure from City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and others, and years of consistent advocacy by criminal justice reform activists, the mayor announced his intention to close Rikers jails in ten years. However, his administration has not created a blueprint for accomplishing that goal and nor has he provided sufficient clarity on how he would achieve the alternative of setting up community jails across four boroughs (He’s already promised that no new facility would be sited on Staten Island). Still, the mayor is already touting his Rikers decision on the campaign trail.
Other issues may also be forced upon the race by developments at the national level, including President Trump’s recent announcement of the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Accord on tackling climate change. De Blasio signed an executive order Friday for the city to voluntarily adhere to the accord’s benchmarks, not a stretch given the city’s prior commitments to larger environmental protection goals, but which thrust climate change into the city political discussion.
A variety of other topics will at least be touched on during the mayoral campaign, such as the city’s public housing authority, NYCHA, and public hospital system, both of which are in financial crisis, and de Blasio’s plans to rezone up to 15 neighborhoods as part of his affordable housing plan. It's clear, though, that the discussion will almost always center around de Blasio, his record and his character.
The race could also potentially be affected by the wild card candidacy of Bo Dietl, a private detective and retired NYPD officer. A brash Trumpian character, Dietl has invited controversy with his off-the-cuff, and off-color, remarks. He initially sought to run as a Democrat against de Blasio in the primary, and then attempted to get on the Republican ticket after making a mistake in his party registration. That effort failed as well when Republican county leaders refused to allow him to run on their party line (he’s still attempting to join one of the primaries, but may continue on as an independent, influencing the general election campaign). Dietl has raised most of the same issues as Massey and Malliotakis, with a focus on public safety, and has wealthy donors willing to back him, giving him the chance to play a somewhat disruptive role in the race.