NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio Defends His First Term: “I’m a Good Progressive”

Christopher Robbins
Dec 19, 2017 · 21 min read
Mayor Bill de Blasio meets with reporters from Gothamist and DNAinfo New York (Photo: Scott Heins)

Last Friday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio met with a group of reporters from the recently-shuttered local news websites DNAinfo New York and Gothamist. Both had covered the city for eight and fourteen years, respectively, until they were shut down in November, but neither had ever been granted a formal interview with the mayor.

The 39-minute conversation at Gracie Mansion touched on a range of issues, including the relationship between the NYPD and sex workers, the least-affordable apartments in the mayor’s affordable housing initiative, and a state senator’s alleged abuse of a City Hall-issued parking placard.

The mayor, who was joined by his press secretary, Eric Phillips, and his deputy press secretary, Seth Stein, began the interview with a statement on local journalism.

First of all, I wanted to do this in solidarity with all of you. What happened to you was wrong, and was a very troublesome indicator of some things happening in our society and in our media. It shouldn’t have happened and I think it’s important to not let something like this get swept under the rug. The notion of ever-greater corporate concentration of the media scares me to death, and its taken a turn in the wrong direction, and I think something like this happening in New York City goes against our whole history as one of the places with one of the most vibrant and open media dynamics anywhere in the world.

We all have to start putting our minds to what the media will look like in the future, because we have to have a different model, with more emphasis on non-profit options and alternatives. Because what’s happening now in New York, if it were to continue, will undermine democracy. It parallels the concentration of wealth and power we’re seeing overall, the growth of the one percent as a phenomenon, and we can’t have the same thing happen in media.

The other thing I’d say is there’s a huge revocation in terms of labor here. The fact that the presumed rationale, or the stated rationale was to take down an entire company, in effect, because its workers wanted to unionize, is a very scary precedent. We’re not shocked when companies attempt to union bust — it’s not acceptable but we’re not shocked by it. But to say, you know, we’d rather close down then have unionized workers, literally goes against democratic values, it goes against the history of the city, and is something I think might have been considered so far outside the acceptable norms even a decade or two ago, that it would be seen by a company as an unacceptable thing to do. The fact that it is something they can get away with is frightening.

Obviously the loss of these two publications was a setback for New York City and a setback for civic dialogue. A lot of times you guys did more thorough and detailed reporting, much more local reporting, right down to the neighborhood level. We are feeling that absence. And I think it begs the question going forward, how much is going to be missed if these kinds of outlets aren’t around? How many important stories will be missed? And in particular, as I’m focused on the question of inequality, I think this is an example where having more energetic and diverse and localized media outlets, gets at that issue more. If you have fewer more concentrated outlets, it digs in inequality more. So what happened here needs to be remembered and needs to inspire people to look for a different model, because what we’re seeing now surely is not acceptable.

That’s a good segue into our first question. After our sites were shut down, Councilmember Rory Lancman of Queens wrote an editorial in the Daily News saying that the city “should get back into the business of funding local journalism,” just like it funded WNYC until Mayor Giuliani sold it off in the late ’90s. Is that something you support? And if so, how do you envision that happening?

I’m very intrigued by that. So I have this little strange, personal connection here. When Mayor Dinkins ran in 1989 I was on that campaign, and as I’ve often said, it was a wonderful campaign because for one thing no one actually thought we were going to win, because he was such an underdog for so long, so we were not sitting around thinking, “Ooh, let me think about my job in City Hall.” But then we won, so I was put on the transition staff and one of the agencies that I was involved with the transition for was WNYC, because literally the mayor named the head of WNYC. And they used to meet up in the municipal building, and it was really evocative of old New York, and obviously the traditions that we associate with Fiorello LaGuardia, et cetera.

What was really cool about it was that it was kind of sacred. Sure the mayor named the head of WNYC, but that was a no-fly-zone in terms of political influence, you had to choose someone very much above the fray, using almost the same sensibilities we would think about naming judges, for example. And it worked, and it was a great pillar of local journalism. Obviously WNYC today in a different model, is as well.

I think it’s a really good question, and one that intrigues me and one that I’d be open to actually seeing the city invest in. Publicly-sponsored, with appropriate grounds. The BBC model, not always a perfect example, but in the best sense — there’s definitely a place for that.

Is there a place for that in the New York City budget?

Today? It’s not part of our thinking. Is it something we could get to, in principle? Sure. It’s not, in the scheme of things, it’s not that expensive. So I’m not endorsing it outright, I’m saying, is it a worthy discussion, is it something I would nominate for consideration in the budget? Of course. And look, we have a TV outlet that doesn’t get as much attention as what WNYC got, for example, when it was the city’s.

But do I trust the public sector to crate fair and responsive media more than a bunch of rich individuals from multinational corporations? Of course. And if part of what we all need to do around the country locally is, the sort of do-it-yourself movement that is happening in cities around America on most issues, is thinking about fostering our own media, to create more balance, I think that’s a really interesting idea. We’d have to come up with really clear parameters, and yeah it couldn’t be too expensive.

On the night of November 25, a Chinese immigrant in Flushing fell out of a window during an NYPD vice sting. She died the next day, and there’s still lots of unanswered questions about what happened. I know there was a new initiative announced in February, and the notion was to arrest fewer women on prostitution charges in order to build trust. But having talked to the family of this woman, having heard the reaction in the community, that trust isn’t there yet. In neighborhoods like Flushing where there are a lot of these massage parlors, and in neighborhoods like Queens and Harlem, women and trans women feel unjustly targeted by the police. Community policing has been a major initiative during your first term, so how are you thinking about improving the dynamic between sex workers and the NYPD in your second term?

Yes, I appreciate the question, and on the incident, I’ve only heard the initial assessment of what happened, obviously there’s more work being done to investigate what happened. But the bigger question you asked is a very powerful one.

Neighborhood policing, to begin with, suggests a different approach that we have to take, and that is in process of being implemented. And it correlates to a whole series of changes, which I think are a reflection of what was missed over the previous years. Literally, we never should have been focused on the victims who were being trafficked, who were being exploited. We should always have gone after the true perpetrators. Building that trust and resetting that relationship is going to take a lot, there’s no question about it.

That being said, what I feel strongly from the different discussions I’ve had with the NYPD, is they very much understand that the core of the matter now is, we have to disrupt trafficking, and we have to have a trust dynamic to be able to do it. We also have to think about everything we do, not just addressing a crime or something that is upsetting to a neighborhood, as a place of prostitution is, but disrupting the pattern of trafficking, and making sure each individual as you said, typically a woman, is pulled out of that reality and never has to go back to it.

So it’s a different mindset entirely than what existed for a long time, and I think the NYPD has sort of stayed in the state of mind to figure out an approach that works consistently to fix that trust. What we want to be very careful about is not to have a situation where, we only do it in a cursory manner. In fact, they want to get a woman off the street and away from a pimp or anyone who is exploiting them. One positive use of police power is to be able to take that woman out of that situation but we have to do better at figuring out what are those next steps.

I don’t pretend to know all the nuances, but I would say there’s a high level of cognizance that we need to have a culture change and that we have to earn the trust to ultimately defeat and undermine the problem.

This woman, to the best of my knowledge, was not trafficked. She was engaging in sex work for a number of reasons. Speaking more generally, there are immigration reasons, there are socioeconomic reasons, for a woman or a trans woman to engage in sex work. She might not feel comfortable in any other kind of work. There’s a big push among some advocates to decriminalize sex work. The Lippmann report also recommended decriminalizing sex work. Would you ever consider supporting that?

I’m not there, is the honest truth. I’m obviously familiar with the fact that there are places in the world that that — you know, Amsterdam, there’s all sorts of models out there. I’m not there for a variety of reasons but I would say, and it’s an honest response, it’s been something of a profound challenge that has not been solved with traditional policing. One, within the context of our current laws, trying to take neighborhood policing approaches and trust-building approaches and seeing how that affects our ability to do better. But two, to study these other models.

It’s the same as folks who ask me about the legalization of marijuana. I’m not there yet either but I do believe I’m honest, as a matter of intellectual integrity, we need to go and study carefully the places that have done it, and you know really evaluate what’s worked and what hasn’t worked, and then see if that tells us something about what to do different. I would honestly look at it and see, is there something different to learn from these others models and I’m just not versed in that.

Even though, 72 percent of Democrats and a narrow majority of Republicans support legalizing marijuana — why are you so out step with your own party on this issue?

Well, I like to march to the beat of my own drum. But I think I’m out of step on some other issues and I’m proud of it.

One, I think that there’s mental health issues, that should not be underestimated in the equation, and I think trying to understand what the health impact is, particularly for younger folks, of it being much more widely available, because that’s what we’d be saying. And of course, look, I wish people wouldn’t use any drugs, but I understand it is pretty widely available right now. It would be more widely available if legalized, what does that mean in health terms? What would be the impact on the overall criminal justice situation? I could make an argument that there might be some pluses, but again, what’s happening elsewhere to see what some of the negatives might be? What does it mean in terms of other drug dynamics? I would look at it, but I’m not comfortable — literally I’m not comfortable — with the notion that if you open the floodgates it’s going to be an absolute net gain. I want to believe that before I ever took that position.

Have you read the Lippman report?

The whole Lippman report? No, same status as before. I sat with my team they went through the conclusions. I have not read every page I don’t need to read every page, if I read every page of every report I wouldn’t do a lot of other things I have to do.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, sitting between his press secretary Eric Phillips (left) and deputy press secretary Seth Stein, meets with reporters from Gothamist and DNAinfo New York (Photo: Scott Heins)

In September, following a raid in Brooklyn at which ICE arrested four immigrants who were facing misdemeanor charges, you encouraged New Yorkers to use court services without fear. Those raids have continued. According to the Immigrant Defense Project, statewide there have been 112 interactions with ICE, a majority of those have been in New York City.

In the court system.

In the court system, there have been somewhere around 60 arrests of immigrants at courthouses in New York City. I’ve been there for some of them — it causes chaos, it causes paranoia, it causes the justice system to be derailed for these people. And it’s not just criminal court, there’s also family court. Do you still feel like New York City courts are safe for immigrants? What can be done to ensure that everybody has the right to go to court without feeling like they’re going to be snatched up and sent across the river to New Jersey?

I’m not happy with the situation in the courts, and I don’t know why the courts haven’t created sharper ground rules. Obviously I don’t control the court system, the state does. When I said it originally, you’re right I was hopeful this was going to be a very aberrant dynamic and that there would be action. Look we had no problem as a city saying ICE could not come on Department of Education property or Health and Hospitals Corporation property — we have a blanket rule. I don’t understand why the court system won’t apply simple rules —

The Office of Court Administration is run by the state, but in terms of city stuff, these people are being sent there because they were arrested by the NYPD, and their fingerprints are eventually going to the National Crime Information Center —

[Crosstalk] You interrupted me and I’m gonna interrupt you, you interrupted me, and I’m gonna come right back to you.

The physicality matters intensely here. If you’re not allowed in the court building then you’re not allowed in the court building. And I still believe that’s the original sin here. I don’t understand why the state is not saying, “We need this to be a safe space.” Just like the NYPD and other police departments have said we’re not asking about documentation status. The court system should be an off-limits place to ICE, and that would allow for people to come and feel they can testify against a criminal and not end up being deported to another country as a result. So I think there’s something right there that has to be addresses. Now to the rest of your point.

A lot of advocates say that many immigrants who end up in the court system are there because of quality of life offenses and low level offenses that are a direct result of being poor. Jumping a turnstile — there was a lot of resistance from the NYPD to the turnstile to deportation thing, but it’s now clear that that can happen. If the state can’t reckon with the need for courts to be a safe space, is the NYPD prepared to change how they process immigrants in order to protect them from the feds coming and snatching them?

I don’t think we can change how we protect our city. This is the underlying thing. I’ve heard the critique from advocates approximately 1,000 times. I begin at the beginning: eight and a half million people. There’s a common good we have to think about. The common good is keeping people safe. We’re not going to say because of the needs of a subset of the city we’re going to ignore the needs of everyone else. We have to keep people safe. So for example with turnstile jumping, we’ve done a lot fewer arrests for turnstile jumping, across the board, regardless of immigration status, and it’s down about 25 percent in the last year. We don’t want arrests to be the go-to option for turnstile jumping if we can avoid it. PD’s been very clear about that.

But if someone repeats the behavior they will be subject to arrest. If someone, of course, has other outstanding warrants, they’ll be subject to arrest. We’re not going to fall into the trap of either extreme. One would be what too often pervaded0 in the past, where in a single instance of turnstile jumping leads to arrest. That’s not our goal. On the other hand, we’re not going to encourage turnstile jumping. I don’t accept the critique that says because we live in an unfair society economically — which I’m the first to say we do — that therefore some people can just walk onto a subway free, or jump a turnstile. That becomes an untenable reality. There is a public order and consistency matter that comes into play here too. So I fundamentally disagree with anyone who says that turnstile jumping should result in no negative sanctions. That destroy the whole concept of why people should pay a fare to go on the subway.

In September, people who were arrested at a DREAMer rally were given DATs without fingerprints — is that a possible solution?

I don’t know what PD thinks about that. I would only suggest that if you create — that was obviously a rally where it was explicit why people were there, right? There’s a whole history around political freedom of speech. I think you’re talking about day to day policing, and you’re creating what appears to be unequal treatment, that worries me. I think the goal in fact is, despite what’s happening in Washington, to create equality here and to continue equality here. This is local values, local governments, versus the madness of what we see in Washington. I don’t want to single out undocumented folks in any way shape or form. I don’t want it to be in the negative, I don’t want it to be something where anyone is favored. I want consistency.

I’m being very blunt, I’m a good progressive — I don’t accept the poverty argument, that people have to jump turnstiles because of poverty. No, you don’t have to jump turnstiles because of poverty. You have to make choices in a world where some things cost money, and I know that can be a really really tough choice. This is an incredibly compassionate city for people who are documented or not, we try to help people across the board with so many different services and supports. In this context, I don’t accept the notion that somehow it is morally OK to jump a turnstile.

Have you had conversations with the governor about getting him to step up and say that we don’t want ICE in courthouses?

No, I have not had that conversation with him, but I’m happy to re-double my efforts with him and his whole administration. I’ve obviously stated it publicly before and I’m, again, kind of shocked. I have not heard a rationale for why they haven’t acted. But I’m happy for me and my team to take another pass and see if we can make a breakthrough.

Pre-K was a success, and you’re expanding now to 3-K, but my question is about funding. You went to Albany and you lobbied hard for the early childhood education, but many parents and educators are still upset that K through 12 is not fully funded. How come you haven’t pushed as hard to fund K through 12?

I’ve tried a number of times and pushed back very hard. It’s obviously a very, very big goal and mission. The governor has made clear, I think absolute wrongly, that he does not feel he has to abide by the CFE [Campaign for Fiscal Equity] decision, I think it’s a binding decision that the top court in the state.

But I don’t think there’s a dichotomy. We continue — I want to be really clear, it’s a great question, because I’m not moving off the CFE worldview. My view is it’s a when and not an if. We’re going to keep fighting for a fulfillment of that obligation and no mayor should ever let go. You may remember that last year there was an attempt by the governor’s office to try and see if they could slip in some wording that would decrease the obligation, and we fought that back. No, that must be sacred, even if we’re not getting the material result we want, we have to keep the idea alive.

But in the meantime there’s no dichotomy of taking every opportunity to get whatever we can get that makes progress. For example, on some of the funding we’ve got in general we have improved the fairness between schools, and we brought up the floor in terms of the funding different schools get from where it was before, and obviously something like pre-K. It’s a long battle, is the answer.

But could some of the funding from pre-K instead be diverted to —

Strategic question, I would disagree why I would not do that. It’s a great, fair question one could argue, one could of said it with pre-K as well. I disagree. Because I think there’s a foundational, literally foundational, impact with early childhood that sets up everything else. And I think it was inane that we talked about education reform and improving our schools and did not invest in early childhood education. It’s literally ass-backwards. You can not achieve better outcomes for children if you don’t thoroughly invest in early childhood. Do I see disparity in school funding still? Of course. Are we getting justice on CFE? No. But when you talk about what’s going to have the biggest impact on longest term, the investment is early childhood, I’ll swear by it. It’s just a strategic matter.

In some ways though, are you writing off kids who are in the system?

No because it’s not an either/or on this level. Education funding has gone up. It has allowed us to create more equality between schools, and then there’s x-factors like 250 community schools, or renewal schools, or AP for all. There’s a bunch of other factors that are creating more equality at the same time. I would not mistake per-school funding, a very valid issue, with it being the only strategic thrust that affects the equation. When you look at all of these other key strategic pieces, a lot of them are creating a lot more equality in schools and neighborhoods that got unfair treatment. All those pieces matter disproportionately to communities that got unfair treatment, so I don’t think there’s a dichotomy there.

Around 100 units in the 18-story affordable housing tower at Atlantic Yards were not filled. As you know, tens of thousands of people apply for the city’s affordable housing lotteries. These apartments weren’t filled because they were either too expensive or people could find housing elsewhere. The apartments were at 165 percent of area median income — around $2,100/month for a studio apartment. We’re in the middle of a housing crisis. How do you justify that band of AMI as affordable housing in a complex like this one?

The way that we go about our plan is not that. Obviously Atlantic Yards was done in a different time and place. We live by our plan. There’s a chance to re-calibrate and reset that at Atlantic Yards, I would love to do that. But the essence of what was going on at the time at Atlantic Yards is you have an area that gentrification had essentially saturated, and if you didn’t put in some type of housing affordable to low-income people, working class people, middle-class people or any kind of combination thereof, you would have essentially nothing in the surrounding area — it would all go upper income. I still think that was the right impulse. If what was done ended up not reaching the income levels it should in today’s terms, let’s see if we can re-calibrate it. But that level is not consistent obviously with the way we go about things.

And would that be something you’d look at citywide, that income band, if people were not filling these slots?

That band is just, again, not the core of what we’re doing. It’s a very small reality. Of course you’ve seen in the last $2 billion investment was to move the existing housing plan to even more low income. The essence of our plan is really there’s a chunk of it that’s very low income — but that core, so people making between $30,000 and $60,000 is the essence of our plan. A huge, huge number of people will fall into that area.

The city recently reached at settlement with community groups over the Broadway Triangle development that would create 375 affordable apartments. But the United Jewish Organization has threatened to sue, saying they’ve been left out. Can you talk about what your vision for Broadway Triangle is, and how you’re going to incorporate all the different communities into that vision?

Look I think we came up with, first, a solution. And the worst of all worlds is just letting it sit for more years. Second, it was not done with any effort to exclude. Everyone has an opportunity to participate.

Except that no 3 or 4 bedroom apartments will be in that development if the developer builds the maximum number of units, so large families will be excluded.

Again, that has not been resolved yet, I think that’s an assumption. We’re looking for the most balanced outcome. One, leaving it in its static, unused reality would have been idiotic. Two, we attempted to create an open and transparent process that would allow for maximum involvement. Three, we have a lawsuit to settle and we have to come to terms that would actually settle the lawsuit, and we think we found that balance point. I know UJO, I respect them, I just don’t share their view that this has to be an exclusionary exercise.

Could you talk about your position on commercial rent control and its constitutionality?

I’m not a lawyer but from everything that I’ve seen and everyone I’ve talked to, we haven’t found a hook that would make it legally viable under the standard challenge, that’s what I keep getting back after many, many conversations. I think the answer is to take up a series of tools that are not so perfect, but still have an impact. Legal services for store owners or reductions in fines, helping with tax breaks that they can take advantage of right now, and obviously what we’ve done on commercial rent tax recently. There’s also some interesting stuff that potentially can be done on the state level, but I don’t think legally, I have not heard of it passing muster.

Mayor Bill de Blasio (right) and his press secretary Eric Phillips (Photo: Scott Heins)

When is the last time you rode a bike in New York?

Oh, god. The last time I rode a bike in New York City was certainly around Prospect Park and was at least six, seven years ago, if not longer, but I couldn’t peg it for you.

Brooklyn State Senator Marty Golden has come under fire this week after an alleged run-in with a cyclist in which allegedly impersonated a police officer. It’s since been revealed that his personal vehicle has racked up at least 38 traffic violations, including speeding in school zones. In 2005, he hit a woman in with his car, and she later died of her injuries. He’s also one of a handful of elected officials in New York who has a City Hall-issued parking placard. Should Marty Golden keep his parking placard?

The last piece I just don’t know — you’re the first person to say ever that sentence to me, I have no reason to disbelieve you, I’ve just never heard that before.

But knowing that —

No I’m not — with absolute and total respect, when anyone in the media introduces a fact that I do not know, I don’t say, “Oh you must be the only arbiter of truth in the world.”

You should believe everything you read in DNAinfo/Gothamist.

No I don’t. I don’t believe in any media outlet, because we’re still humans, and some are biased, present company excluded. [Pause] The New York Post.

Oh, come on.

[Turning to Seth Stein] Why would you say that? [Laughs] Why would you say that?

So —

So, not knowing the facts I’m happy to look at that. But literally that is the first I’ve heard of that.

Take an educated guess: what percentage of city residents own cars?

I never hazard guesses. I will say the obvious: much less than almost any city in America. But I don’t know the final answer. Do you want to tell me?

45 percent, roughly. Can you take a guess what their median income is?

I can not guess, will not guess.

It’s $85,000 per year. The median for New York City is around $50,000.

Alright. I’ve learned something new today.

As local reporters, we have a lot of friends who work at similar outlets, the Brooklyn Papers of the city. Aside from considering throwing more money at this endeavor, can you commit to do this with them, in the way that you meet with Ben Smith of BuzzFeed? Sit down with those local outlets in a way that is more calm and focused than an off-topic portion of a press conference?

Yeah, and I lived and died by the Brooklyn Paper for a substantial piece of my life because I was a school board member and a city councilmember. I think it’s a great idea. We have experimented over time with different models, one thing we have done for example is a focus on a lot of the ethnic media that doesn’t get as included in the typical availability. That’s been very positive.

I think you said something very interesting. “Calm” is the thing. I think the imperative is there — everyone’s looking for news and everyone’s looking for a scoop and all that, and there’s going to be tough questions. But there’s a more thoughtful imperative, in a sense, when you get out of the tabloid realm, and it would be a good addition to our lineup, so I’d be happy to do that. I dunno how often, but I’d be happy to do it.

This interview, conducted by Ben Fractenberg, Gwynne Hogan, Katie Honan, Noah Hurowitz, Jake Offenhartz, Kate Pastor, Christopher Robbins, Rachel Holliday Smith, Emma Whitford, and Amy Zimmer, has been edited and condensed.

Photography by Scott Heins.

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