The Passion (Or Lack Thereof) For Mayor De Blasio

To begin by stating the obvious, when it comes to successful political leadership, people vote for personality, not numbers.

For New York City, the prerequisite for the job of mayor has historically demanded a larger-than-life character to embody the loftiest hopes and lowest complaints of millions of residents as well as the millions who love, hate, and love-to-hate it.

The traits that people have tended to look for in a New York City mayor has remained fairly static since Peter Stuyvesant first governed New Amsterdam: defiant, independent, captivating, willful, engaging, creative, resolute.
 
 In a wide-ranging and combative interview with New York Magazine’s Chris Smith ahead of his clear primary victory (which drew underwhelming turnout in general), Mayor Bill De Blasio’s main traits were on full display: pettiness, whining, laziness, neediness, and a self-absorbed, frustrated tendency to blame others for his administration’s shortcomings and problems, while craving undue credit.

What’s Your Mayoral Type?

Looking back at most identifiable qualities of his most recent predecessors, Koch (irascible), Dinkins (fretful), Giuliani (raging), Bloomberg (aloof), most observers would agree that De Blasio’s go-to temperament is exasperation.

As such, Mayor De Blasio’s often inspiring rhetoric and intentions — who’s against universal pre-K and reducing traffic deaths, while championing New York as a haven for people of all backgrounds? — have consistently collided with an uninspiring persona.

In the same NY Mag interview, the mayor dejectedly mused that with crime rates so low, he’d receive a “parade in the streets” at any other time in history. And that attitude is at the core of New Yorkers’ dampened enthusiasm for the mayoralty for Bill De Blasio.

That said, I voted for him in the primary and will dispassionately, unexcitedly vote for him again for mayor. This is the case despite the fact that I did not vote for him the first time out of protest against what I felt was a disingenuous alliance with a murky animal rights group NYCLASS.

Plus, I resented his clumsy attempts to mask a decent record of pragmatism with puffed up progressive populism. One could make the argument that candidate Barack Obama pulled some similar trickery during his first run for the presidency. But anyone who’d read his books or watched his rise from state government to the U.S. Senate could clearly see the judicious balance between his incrementalism and idealism.

Like Lindsay

De Blasio is much like Mayor John Lindsay in terms of where his heart is. Like Lindsay, De Blasio does well with grand gestures. And his concern for the way racism and discredited, cruel practices like stop-and-frisk has harmed this city is genuine, admirable, and moving.

But he comes up lacking when forced to confront the managerial realities and details of governing a city.

Perhaps it’s that “If you can make it here…” thought process that sets mayors dreaming of something even bigger. But some position themselves better to take the next step while still slogging through the first term.

Like Lindsay, who desperately wanted to be president, Koch (at least La Guardia waited until he was dead to have his life made into an abysmal off-Broadway musical!), Giuliani (“America’s Mayor For President”); and Bloomberg (“The World’s Mayor”), De Blasio’s gaze always seems drawn to some higher calling somewhere else.

But the real problem with De Blasio is not his considerable ambitions. It’s that he seems feckless and controlled by events. Rather than being the one who sets the agenda (unlike Koch, Giuliani, Bloomberg, La Guardia, and my personal favorite mayor and governor, DeWitt Clinton — the 1811 Grid Plan! Did that inspire parading throngs down Fifth Avenue?)

New Yorkers of all stripes not only expect things to go well, they expect to complain about it all anyway by right.

Despite the inarguably successful stats — major crimes continue to trend downward, Vision Zero succeeds as traffic deaths decline, school test scores are up — two main things seem hopelessly out of control to many New Yorkers.

And of course, they’re two things that De Blasio has little to no control over at all: income inequality and MTA transit system decay.

On inequality, De Blasio promised way too much when he claimed he would soften the edges of gentrification that exploded neighborhoods during the Bloomberg years.

On the transit issue, although he’s rightly blamed the Cuomo administration for basking in the glow of opening up the long-awaited Hudson Yards and the 2nd Ave. lines while subway delays skyrocketed, De Blasio has simply embraced his sideline role in the process.

In contrast with De Blasio (and in an ancillary way, with what Lindsay faced on his first day on the job in 1966) there wasn’t much Koch could do about the 1980 transit strike. But Koch was able to change the perception from one of helplessness to one of collective resistance. Although you could argue that Koch’s actions were pure political posturing as opposed to substance, his defiance went far to solidifying his hold on the city. He could have simply resigned himself to an impossible situation and absorb the deep discontent of stranded commuters.

Still, however one feels about the totality of Koch’s tenure, marked as it was by daily combativeness, arrogance, and showboating, it proved that in NYC, chutzpah makes all the difference between passively accepting the populace’s best and worst convictions or channeling those feelings into the successful wielding of political power.

Can anyone imagine De Blasio demonstrating anything close to kind of command? I can’t imagine you were interested enough to read this far. If you did, perhaps there is some cause for hope to light the city’s passions for De Blasio’s second term.

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