Gotham Gazette

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Democratic Challengers Fire Away at De Blasio. Is Anybody Listening?

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Mayoral candidate Sal Albanese (photo: @SalAlbaneseNYC)

Mayor Bill de Blasio won the mayoralty in 2013 on a progressive platform deriding the “Tale of Two Cities” that had developed in New York. He identified an unsustainable level of income inequality and biased police department, and promised an activist government focused on creating more opportunity for all. In some respects, de Blasio has followed through. But the mayor has also dealt with criticism from various corners on what have been deemed the failures of his administration.

As de Blasio seeks a second term this year, the Democratic incumbent is facing some vocal critics, especially the candidates seeking to replace him.

When two law enforcement investigations into behavior of the mayor and his associates resulted in no charges, several Democratic heavyweights considering a mayoral run -- headlined by Comptroller Scott Stringer and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. -- decided not to challenge de Blasio.

Now, with two months before the primary, the mayor faces two main Democratic challengers, former City Council Member Sal Albanese and police reform activist Bob Gangi. While de Blasio is a heavy favorite come September 12, neither Albanese nor Gangi is pulling any punches as they attack the mayor and try to see their respective campaigns lift off.

Both challengers recently discussed at length their candidacies and de Blasio’s record on the Max and Murphy podcast, a joint effort between Gotham Gazette and City Limits. (De Blasio has an open invitation to join the podcast and his campaign team has said they would get back to Gotham Gazette about the possibility. Republican Nicole Malliotakis and independent Bo Dietl, both mayoral candidates, are booked for upcoming podcasts.)

Gangi has never run for office before, but is no stranger to city politics and policy, having spent his career in activism. While his campaign is motivated by the issue of policing and criminal justice reform, on which he calls de Blasio a moderate, he has expanded to address other issues, like affordable housing and transportation equity. Albanese, meanwhile, is more of a seasoned politician, though he has not held elected office in many years. He unsuccessfully ran for Mayor in 1997 and 2013. Albanese is known as an independent-minded reformer who doesn’t easily fit an ideological label, while Gangi flanks de Blasio’s left on almost every issue.

“I’m to the left of Gangi on political reform,” Albanese said on the podcast, where he explained his number one issue is campaign finance reform. “He never talks about it...maybe on “law and order” issues, I’d be considered a moderate, I guess, because I don’t spend 24/7 beating up our uniformed forces.” Albanese has been vocal deriding de Blasio on the mayor’s fundraising practices, his overall ethics and management, and his lack of support for the NYPD.

Albanese’s number one policy proposal is “democracy vouchers,” a type of campaign finance reform in which a fixed sum of money is granted to each citizen to donate to political candidates. The goal, Albanese explains, is to totally remove private money from elections. Albanese also supports non-partisan elections and calls for pension system reform, to streamline management of the city’s sizeable public pensions.

Albanese is also talking a lot about the subways, seizing on the city’s transit woes and saying he wants to be “the mass transit mayor.” Albanese frequently tweets pictures of the subway car he’s riding in to contrast himself with de Blasio, who takes the subway infrequently and has weathered criticism for taking an SUV from Gracie Mansion to his gym in Park Slope on many weekday mornings. Albanese believes that, despite control of the MTA being largely in the hands of the governor, the city can still play a bigger role in fixing its transit issues; he has pledged to add $1 billion in city money to the MTA capital plan, in order to fix the subway’s ailing signals, among other things.

Other proposals by the Albanese campaign include new Mitchell Lama development in place of the mayor’s proposal to build 90 new homeless shelters, a tax on real estate purchased by foreign individuals and corporations as investments rather than residences, and consolidating “programs like Head Start and pre-K under a single city agency.”

Gangi’s defining campaign issue is criminal justice reform, and he is highly critical of de Blasio’s failure to comprehensively reform NYPD practices, especially so-called broken windows policing, which relies on intensive enforcement of low-level offenses in the effort to prevent major crimes. Gangi points to bias in law enforcement, citing data that shows while stop-and-frisks or arrests for certain offenses may be down, racial disparities remain, with people of color stopped or arrested far more often than white people.

He has also called for the dismissal of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer whose chokehold led to Eric Garner’s 2014 death and is currently on desk duty after he was not indicted. There is a federal inquiry into the incident that is ongoing. Gangi has called for the NYPD budget to be slashed, to establish an independent agency to investigate police abuse, and for transferring traffic enforcement from the NYPD to another city agency.

On the podcast, Gangi said that when the mayor was elected in 2013, he was hopeful that policing and criminal justice reform would be achieved, based on de Blasio’s campaign rhetoric. When de Blasio appointed Bill Bratton, an architect of the broken windows policing model, to again serve as police commissioner, Gangi wanted to “give him a chance,” against the wishes of his compatriots in the police reform community.

“Bratton, as you guys know, was Mr. Broken Windows. And, a group formed right away, New Yorkers Against Bratton, and I disagree with that strategy,” Gangi said. But, Gangi explained, he quickly found that de Blasio and Bratton were not what they advertised themselves as. Gangi maintains that the NYPD practices “quota-driven policing,” which the department has fervently denied many times.

Aside from criminal justice reform, Gangi has also made smaller class sizes, which he says improve student and teacher performance, a central plank of his campaign. He has also called for immediately increasing the minimum wage in the city to $15, which it is scheduled to reach by 2019; free subway and bus fares for low-income New Yorkers, to be paid for by “jettisoning” de Blasio’s BQX streetcar plan; establishing a “New York City Land Bank”; ensuring a right to counsel for undocumented immigrants; and prohibiting ICE from being in the vicinity of city buildings.

While Albanese comes from a different camp on policing, there are several issues where de Blasio’s two main Democratic challengers agree, such as providing free tuition at CUNY and using a revised local median income to make determinations for affordable housing.

Above all else, it seems, the two find common ground on their mutual distaste for the mayor. Both believe that he is not the progressive that he says he is, or even a progressive at all.

“He claims to be a progressive, he wears that mantle easily,” Gangi said. “Most of the press keep calling him progressive, and he’s not progressive.” He called universal pre-kindergarten and rent freezes for rent-stabilized apartments the only two progressive things the mayor has done, criticizing his non-committal stance on providing reduced transit fares as “regressive.” He also criticized the mayor’s Rikers Island jails closure plan, and the plan to build new jails in the boroughs, as insufficient; on his website, Gangi proposes closing Rikers within one year of the start of his administration. Gangi believes the city can reduce the incarcerated population much more quickly by moving away from broken windows policing.

Albanese believes that one can claim to be a progressive all they want, but the mayoralty is not really about political philosophy or grand rhetoric, but about management of city government and services; in other words: being the pothole mayor.

“He talks a good game,” Albanese said of de Blasio on the podcast. “‘I’m a progressive, we want to address income inequality.’ But at the end of the day, it’s about putting your resources in the right place and executing, and he’s failed dismally on that.” He cited the mayor’s failure on the Build It Back Sandy recovery program, which he referred to as “Build It Broke,” a name used by NY1 television, as a prime example of the mayor’s managerial failure, unfavorably comparing him to his predecessor Michael Bloomberg. “Bloomberg, whatever his other flaws were, he was a manager. He hired top flight talent, and he held people accountable. I mean, Build It Back, he didn’t do a good job there, but he was a manager. And, [de Blasio] just does not execute.”

Albanese has criticized the mayor for management failures related to a wide variety of city agencies and services, including the school system and Department of Correction. He’s said the mayor has been ineffective because he is too focused on his own political brand, taking too many trips outside the city and attempting to influence national politics.

While Gangi and Albanese both have policy platforms of their own and sharp critiques of the mayor’s record, they have each struggled to gain media attention and to raise money, though Albanese has raised significantly more than Gangi. The next campaign finance filing, due by July 17, will tell a lot more about the challengers’ viability in running a strong campaign over the coming months. They must each also hit certain thresholds to qualify for a city-sanctioned primary debate against de Blasio, of which there can be up to two.

As of the latest Campaign Finance Board filing date on May 15, Albanese had raised $82,838 and had $76,918 on hand to spend. Gangi had raised $51,404, including $45,000 in loans from himself, and had $47,491 cash on hand.

The most recent Quinnipiac poll on the mayor’s race, in May, did not include any questions about either Gangi or Albanese, which Albanese criticized.

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, the de Blasio campaign touted the mayor’s record, but declined to comment directly about either or both of the mayor’s main Democratic challengers.

“Mayor de Blasio expanded Pre-K for every 4 year-old and will do the same for every 3 year-old.  Crime is at record lows, jobs are at a record high, New York City is building affordable housing at a record pace, and rents were frozen for more than 2 million tenants. That is the Mayor’s record, and it is one that New Yorkers are rallying around.”

The lack of comment on Albanese and Gangi comes in contrast to statements put out by the de Blasio campaign about the presumptive Republican nominee, Nicole Malliotakis, an Assembly member from Staten Island. The de Blasio campaign has attempted to tie Malliotakis to Republican President Donald Trump, and criticized her positions on a variety of issues. The campaign appears to be ignoring Gangi and Albanese, however. De Blasio is popular among fellow Democrats and Democratic elected officials, and has widespread support from labor unions, which typically help drive turnout in city elections.

The two Democratic candidates acknowledge the tough road facing them, but both are forging ahead. Albanese has also secured the Reform Party ballot line, so he will be on the November mayoral ballot no matter the outcome of the Democratic primary.

“My bigger concern, and I’ll get to the concern about damaging de Blasio,” Gangi said on the podcast when asked if he had any qualms about potentially hurting the incumbent in a general election, “is that we don’t get a sufficient lift off for our campaign so that people could say ‘well look, you know, Gangi made this effort, he had some people behind him, and clearly there are not enough New Yorkers who care about these issues, who want to eliminate racism from the police department, who want to provide decent housing for homeless people and poor people, who want to provide better education, free fares on the subways and the buses.’”

Albanese acknowledges the very uphill primary battle but claims that he has a path to victory. He says that low turnout would be his death knell, but that the mayor has “paper thin” support throughout the city.

“There’s a lot of, as I said, negative feedback around Bill de Blasio,” Albanese said. “And if there’s an option, people will gravitate to that option. As long as you present a decent option.”

[Listen to episodes of the Max & Murphy podcast, including those with Gangi and Albanese, here]

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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