Mayor Bill de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)
As the clock winds down on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s second term, he is exploring his political future, reflecting on his tenure, and laying the final pieces of his legacy. But as de Blasio celebrates some of his signature accomplishments and continues making grand pronouncements and attempts to shape his image, promises made were not always promises kept, major crises are festering, and a long list of unfinished business looms.
The devastation of Hurricane Ida, increases in gun violence and traffic fatalities, and the crisis on Rikers Island -- all of which have seen vulnerable New Yorkers dying at alarming rates -- are just some of the issues that halted what had been a rare run of good public relations for de Blasio, who has embraced his job in recent months like never before over nearly eight years. For most of those problems and others the mayor has blamed the pandemic and other forces that he says are largely out of his control while he’s also announced steps to try to mitigate them.
Though de Blasio has a number of opportunities ahead to shape or cement aspects of his legacy, and he has overseen a choppy but mostly positive start to another challenging pandemic school year, the city’s endemic problems continue to haunt him. Homelessness has bedeviled de Blasio’s administration throughout and the city’s affordable housing crisis remains immense. The city’s property tax system, which he promised to overhaul, remains untouched and as inequitable as ever. City schools are still some of the most segregated in the country and city streets are clogged with congestion.
As he eyes his two-term legacy, and possibly because he is gearing up for a run for governor in the June 2022 primary, de Blasio has spent the last several months all over the city making announcements, cutting ribbons, taking in meals and sights, and doing on-the-ground mayoral work he has often eschewed.
In his final roughly 80 days on the job, there is plenty of business that de Blasio could take across the finish line, some that he has even promised to do. For example:
After a years-long delay and after blowing past his own recent deadline, de Blasio just unveiled reforms to alter gifted and talented programming, in part to help desegregate city schools and improve education throughout them. He now says the city will embark on months of community engagement to shape the final plan, which will really be left up to his successor.
The mayor and NYPD are implementing 133 police reform measures as part of an overall package approved by the City Council in March – as his office pledged, all the initiatives have been launched and are in progress; 29 have been completed. In conjunction, the mayor and police commissioner are working to bring gun violence back down toward pre-pandemic levels after it skyrocketed in 2020 and into this year.
In December, the city is mandated to release its first “Streets Master Plan” under legislation championed by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and signed by de Blasio into law in November 2019.
The administration is pursuing major rezonings in Gowanus and SoHo/NoHo, both of which would be significant accomplishments for the mayor as part of his affordable housing plan. The Gowanus rezoning, which has been decades in the making, was recently approved by the City Planning Commission and is headed to the City Council for its approval. The SoHo/NoHo rezoning is before the Commission but has yet to be put to a final vote. The two neighborhoods would signify the first wealthier, whiter areas of the city rezoned for more housing under de Blasio after his administration has rezoned a series of lower-income communities of color to pursue more housing and community improvements.
In Queens, the Department of Transportation in September began building two busways in Downtown Jamaica, which are the final two of five busways that the mayor announced last year in June as part of his “Better Buses Restart” plan to speed up bus service.
The mayor also promised in his State of the City speech in January that he would ban any new gas hookups in buildings by 2030, but City Council legislation with a much shorter timeframe has not budged since May (the mayor’s top climate policy advisor recently indicated to Gotham Gazette that a 2025 compromise may be in the offing).
Those are just some of the initiatives de Blasio may try to see to fruition in his waning days, while there are a number of other challenges he could try to address in the near-term and even as he continues to announce new long-term plans.
There are, of course, the ongoing public health, economic, educational, and housing recoveries from the pandemic. The city continues to “climb the ladder,” as the mayor is fond of saying, with covid vaccine mandates.
“Some stuff I don't think you can put at his feet. Like frankly the fight over vaccine mandates, I think Bill de Blasio is on the right side of history,” said Neal Kwatra, founder of Metropolitan Public Strategies, in a phone interview. Indeed, the city’s vaccine mandate for Department of Education employees was recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and well over 95% of school workers have gotten at least one dose.
While Kwatra did say de Blasio should shoulder responsibility for the crisis at Rikers, he otherwise had praise for the mayor’s early accomplishments like successfully advocating for and implementing, with state funding, universal pre-kindergarten and expanding on it in his second term.
“I think there's a tendency right now at the end to just kind of beat up on him, which I don't think is entirely fair. I think he's earned a lot of the criticism he's gotten but he's also done some good things,” Kwatra added. “Pre-K is an unequivocal, legacy-defining issue that not only created a whole new class for kids and essentially a de facto subsidized child care benefit of sorts. Early childhood education, these are all hugely, hugely important things that will have an impact for decades into the future,” he said, referring to de Blasio’s extension of free public schooling to three-year-olds.
In a Spectrum News NY1/Ipsos poll from June, the mayor’s approval rating was flat-lining. Only 37% of city residents approved of his job performance while 47% disapproved. Yet, for the first time since early in his tenure, the mayor seemed to be enjoying his job. As he promoted the city’s recovery from the pandemic, he took pleasure in cultural pursuits he had long seemed to disregard. A more affable and energetic mayor seemed to emerge from his dour, self-serious shell.
In an interview with Politico Magazine in June, de Blasio walked the grounds of Prospect Park and expressed some regret for how he has carried out his mayoralty. His lament, however, did not stem from any policy failure but rather that he had let the job “tighten him” and seemingly alienate his constituents.
But for most other failures of his administration, the more recent ones as well as those years in the making, de Blasio has had little to say by way of contrition. As shootings and murders went up, he cited the disruptions of the pandemic but also incorrectly attributed it to a change in state bail laws and ‘closure’ of the court system. When traffic fatalities increased, he blamed the pandemic for turning people away from public transit. When the number of detainees dying at Rikers – which he hadn’t visited once in his second term until September 27 – this year kept growing he blamed nearly everyone but himself.
“His general pattern throughout his mayoralty has been to blame other people. His great nemesis is no longer there to blame,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran political consultant, referring to former Governor Andrew Cuomo, who resigned in disgrace in August.
In recent interviews, the mayor has provided an expectedly rosy reflection of his two terms. He has touted his signature accomplishment, universal pre-kindergarten, and its ongoing expansion to 3K. In an October 1 appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, he reiterated his oft-cited mea culpa in acknowledging his lack of progress on homelessness.
“The thing I've struggled with – I've been honest about it, Joe, and we finally are making some more profound progress, but it’s homelessness,” he said. “But I'm happy to say that after some absolute early misunderstandings and missteps on my part that I've owned up to, we found some new strategies that are working much better to get people off the streets...We're getting people off the streets with intense engagement that we didn't realize how to do previously. And I think we figured out how to do it going forward, but that was a tough learning curve for me.”
“It's about his future,” Sheinkopf added, as he summed up the mayor’s last few months of frenetic activity. “The guy knows nothing else but running for office and being a political guy so he's preparing for the next move, whatever that might be.”
De Blasio has been mulling a run for governor, and may even announce his candidacy before his mayoral term ends. But he has lost the support of a significant portion of his base, particularly white voters, both moderates and progressives, who voted for him in 2013. He has also been in pitched battle over vaccine mandates with labor unions, some of which have been close allies in the past. He does continue to retain support from Black voters, who helped propel him to victory and were instrumental in the win of his likely successor and Democratic nominee for mayor, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. But he may be eyeing a race that includes either New York Attorney General Letitia James or Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, both Black Brooklyn leaders.
There appears to be no clamor for de Blasio to run for governor, though that did not stop him from launching a short-lived presidential campaign in 2019 that took his attention away from his job for several months.
It's yet to be seen what kind of legacy tour de Blasio may go on in his final months or weeks, or what kind of organized effort he may undertake to shape how his tenure is viewed.
His approach to his waning days hasn’t been marked by the same efficiency as his predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who literally counted down the days left in his second term and had digital clocks placed in agency offices to motivate municipal employees. By his highly-controversial third term, after winning a term-limit extension through the City Council over the will of voters, he instituted new count-up clocks to discourage workers from wasting time in meetings.
“At this point you're really wrapping things up,” said Chris Coffey, a consultant at Tusk Strategies who worked in the Bloomberg administration for nearly all 12 years. “There's less than three months left...You're not going to start any new things. You might be able to roll out plans that you were supposed to make.”
While his time in office is running thin, de Blasio has appeared less focused on wrapping up ongoing work and more on new announcements, like his plan for universal accelerated learning instead of the current gifted and talented program.
He’s been making grand pronouncements, with more on the way, of policies that will then have to be implemented by the next mayor, who could either take ownership or even reject them, potentially wasting significant time and money spent getting de Blasio’s ideas off the ground.
Some of what de Blasio has announced is only possible because the city is flush with federal relief funds, a one-time infusion that he has been urged to use more wisely.
For example, the mayor has, in recent weeks, launched the new NYC Public Health Corps and announced the selection of Columbia University to run a new Pandemic Response Institute. He released a $2.7 billion blueprint for the city to respond to extreme weather events. He announced a $191 million 15-year plan to build offshore wind infrastructure and the hiring of new civilian “precinct greeters” at all NYPD precincts to improve relationships with communities. He launched the city’s “baby bonds” program, expanding on the existing NYC Kids RISE Save for College Program.
On Thursday, the Racial Justice Commission that de Blasio created to suggest changes to the city charter released its preliminary report, which will be followed by a final report in December containing ballot proposals that will appear on the 2022 general election ballot. The commission is perhaps the boldest move de Blasio has made to set in motion a virtually irreversible set of policies, pending voter approval, that he will not be tasked with implementing at all but could have major implications for the next mayor and future of the city.
It’s hard to gauge the mayor’s priorities for his remaining time, Kwatra said. “I think if I’m him, I'm probably going to do somewhat of a reputation bolstering, kind of farewell tour where he talks about things he did get done from pre-K to affordable housing to other things he wants to tout.”
Advocates say there are still significant decisions the mayor can make in the next few months, even if he will be hard pressed to reverse any mistakes he has made.
Criminal justice reform advocates, who had high hopes for a mayor who ran on the very issue of police reform, have been particularly disappointed by the mayor’s record. “It would be a tall order to undo the harm he has caused in the past eight years in the next three months, but he still has the power to ensure that the NYPD fires the officers who killed and engaged in cover-ups related to Delrawn Small, Kawaski Trawick, Antonio Williams, Eric Garner, Mohamed Bah and Allan Feliz,” said Loyda Colon, executive director of the Justice Committee and spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition group . “He should also order the NYPD to change the Disciplinary Matrix so that the demands of 16 families whose loved ones were killed and nearly 70 groups are incorporated to ensure that officers who engage in misconduct are fired.”
Cory Epstein, director of communications for Transportation Alternatives, praised the years of success that Vision Zero displayed in making street safety changes. “However, the mayor has not scaled the success, brought it to more neighborhoods across the city; has not built upon what works and has not meaningfully reclaimed space from cars to really protect vulnerable street users like pedestrians and cyclists,” he said.
Epstein pointed to an especially egregious failure when a driver killed a three-month-old and critically injured the child’s mother in September. “The mayor, in the following days, has blamed everybody but himself,” Epstein said. “He said it's a covid problem. He said it’s an Albany problem. But the buck stops with him when it's our streets, and he has power to make an intersection safer.”
Epstein said the mayor could, as one of his final acts, expedite the streets master plan to respond to the traffic fatality crisis. “The current mayor has the power now to make sure the plan is ambitious, bold, funded and is not rearranging the deck chairs of how we make streets safe, healthy, and ready for the climate crisis.”
On Tuesday, Transportation Alternatives released a new study showing that a large number of the “open streets” in de Blasio’s pandemic era program to give more of the streetscape to New Yorkers and away from cars are not in fact being kept to their intended purposes by the city. It’s the type of management failure that many advocates, lawmakers, and others want de Blasio to address in his final months. Instead, it appears he’s more focused on headlines and his possible run for governor.
“Stupid, he's not. Has he run the city well? The answer is obviously no,” Sheinkopf said of de Blasio. “Is he trustworthy? Depends on your point of view, but none of the problems that had to be resolved have been resolved…But his time in office has been about creating the choreography of his leaving for the last six months or so.”