Bill de Blasio assumed office as New York’s 109th mayor yesterday, sworn in by former President Bill Clinton at a ceremony attended by thousands who heard him vow to dedicate his government to improving life for the least fortunate.
The first Democrat to run New York in 20 years pledged to move swiftly on an agenda that calls for affordable housing and community health centers. He renewed a proposal to tax the wealthy to pay for universal pre-kindergarten classes and after-school programs, a levy that would require state approval in an election year.
“We are called to put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love,” de Blasio, 52, said in his 18-minute address delivered on the steps of City Hall in lower Manhattan. “And so today, we commit to a new progressive direction in New York. And that same progressive impulse has written our city’s history. It’s in our DNA.”
Egalitarian themes from de Blasio, who officially took the oath of office hours earlier at midnight before hundreds of supporters outside his Brooklyn home, have already captured national attention. President Barack Obama invited him and other newly elected mayors to a White House meeting last month to focus on job creation and economic fairness, and he emerged from the 90-minute session as the main spokesman for the group. Democrats will run the 12 biggest U.S. cities this year.
“He’s part of a surge nationally among Democrats to shift policy away from fiscal austerity to an expansion of the social safety net and better-paying jobs,” said Robert Shapiro, a professor and former chairman of the political science department at Columbia University in Manhattan. “People are looking to the cities for solutions to these problems.”
De Blasio promised to push for a law extending paid sick leave to hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers working in small businesses, require “big developers” to build more affordable housing and expand community health services.
“We’ll do it now,” de Blasio said in his speech. “We won’t wait. We’ll do it now.”
Consistent with pursuing economic opportunity, de Blasio set aside 1,000 free tickets for the public for the ceremonial swearing-in. He intends to host an open house Jan. 5 from noon to 5 p.m. at Gracie Mansion, the official mayoral residence on the Upper East Side. Those wishing to attend signed up on the Internet.
Clinton attended the ceremony with his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former U.S. Secretary of State and a possible 2016 presidential candidate. De Blasio worked in the Clinton administration as a regional director of Housing and Urban Development and managed Hillary Clinton’s successful 2000 campaign for U.S. senator from New York.
“I strongly endorse Bill de Blasio’s core campaign commitment that we have to have a city of shared opportunities, shared prosperity, shared responsibility,” the former president told the gathering, which included Governor Andrew Cuomo, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, former Mayor David Dinkins and entertainers including Harry Belafonte, Susan Sarandon, Steve Buscemi, Cynthia Nixon and Rosie Perez.
Economic inequality, Clinton said, “bedevils the entire country and I can tell you from my work, much of the world.”
De Blasio won election in November focusing on inequality of wealth to an electorate that in past years voted for mayors who emphasized fiscal restraint and crime control.
Those political issues receded as his predecessor, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, presided over a resurgent city where crime rates were brought to historic lows; the $72.7 billion budget was balanced; jobs reached an all-time high and a record 54 million tourists pumped money into the economy last year. Homicides have declined by almost 50 percent since Bloomberg became mayor in 2002. Last year’s total of 333 through Dec. 29 is 20 percent below the record low set in 2012.
“He has committed so much of his life to this city,” Clinton said of 12 years served by Bloomberg, who also attended the ceremony. “He leaves the city stronger and healthier than he found it.”
The occasion also included the swearing-in of former Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, 53, as city comptroller, and former City Councilmember Letitia James, 51, as citywide public advocate.
De Blasio’s plan to finance early childhood and adolescent after-school programs hinges on the Legislature and governor permitting the city to increase taxes on income above $500,000 to 4.4 percent from almost 3.9 percent. For the 27,300 city taxpayers earning $500,000 to $1 million, the average increase would be $973 a year, according to the Independent Budget Office, a municipal agency.
“There’s no doubt that it’s the right idea and it’s where we want to go,” Cuomo told reporters before marching up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in the Nov. 11 Veterans Day Parade. Yet in an election year the governor has not said he would support de Blasio’s proposed tax increase, even though it’s limited to five years, and would only apply to the city’s wealthiest residents.
“That’s less than three bucks a day -- about the cost of a small soy latte at your local Starbucks,” de Blasio said yesterday of the plan. “We do not ask more of the wealthy to punish success; we do it to create more success stories.”
De Blasio has called for fewer city tax incentives to attract or retain large corporations in favor of more investment in small businesses. He’s also advocated spending more on the City University of New York for scholarships and work-force training. He favors a “living wage” of $10.50 an hour plus benefits to be paid to anyone working in a project that has received low-cost city financing or tax abatements.
In a City Council with 48 Democrats among its 51 members, de Blasio may count on support for his agenda, including a resolution asking the state legislature to enact the tax increase. De Blasio defeated Republican Joseph Lhota in the mayoral race by 49 percentage points, the widest victory margin by a non-incumbent in city history.
In de Blasio, New York voters chose a Cambridge, Massachusetts-bred Boston Red Sox fan who arrived in the city as a New York University undergraduate. He received a master’s degree in international relations from Columbia University. He then worked for a Catholic relief organization, for which he distributed food and medicine on a 10-day trip to Nicaragua.
De Blasio’s career in city politics began as an aide to Dinkins, the city’s first and only black mayor, in 1990. He first won election as a Brooklyn school board member in 1999, and served two terms as City Councilman from 2002 to 2009, where he focused on child abuse and the homeless as chairman of its general welfare committee, before getting elected to the citywide watchdog post of public advocate in 2009.
De Blasio’s first major personnel decision was the Dec. 5 appointment of William Bratton, 66, as police commissioner, a job he held for two years until he resigned in 1996 after a falling-out with Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Bratton’s 27-month stint heading the police department began a 20-year period in which crime dropped 74 percent. The new commissioner takes over a 34,000-officer department and must prove he can continue to reduce crime while refining stop-and-frisk street tactics that de Blasio campaigned against, saying they targeted blacks and Latinos disproportionately and damaged police-community relations.
De Blasio said Dec. 30 that he would drop the city’s appeal of a federal court decision finding that the stop-and-frisk practice violated the Constitution.
Bratton also will run a 1,000-officer division devoted to terrorism investigations and prevention that’s been criticized for its surveillance of Muslims. De Blasio has vowed to curtail the practice.
Bloomberg’s three terms included zoning changes that stimulated investment to build offices, apartment towers and parks on underused waterfronts; new baseball stadiums in Queens and the Bronx; and an arena that brought professional basketball to Brooklyn. He closed multibillion dollar budget gaps in the recession that coincided with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and after the 2008 financial crisis.
The city is on pace to reach a record 4 million total jobs in 2013, the mayor said last month. He is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Under Bloomberg, the city’s credit rating was raised three times, to Aa2, third-highest, by Moody’s Investors Service. As the change in administrations approached, investors on Dec. 17 accepted less extra yield on some New York general-obligation bonds compared with benchmark municipals with similar maturity. A security maturing August 2024 traded with an average spread of about 0.45 percentage point, compared with a 0.47 percentage-point when the bonds priced Dec. 12, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
De Blasio’s task, as he describes it, will be to focus on improving the lives of the 46 percent of New Yorkers with incomes at or below 150 percent of the city’s poverty level, or $46,000 for a four-person household in 2011. He seeks more income distribution in a city where the richest 1 percent took home 39 percent of all earnings in 2012, up from 12 percent in 1980, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute, a New York-based research group.
De Blasio’s also vowed to create 200,000 units of below-market “affordable housing” in the next 10 years, partly by using a $1 billion investment from city pension funds. On Dec. 23, he appointed Alicia Glen, the head of urban investment for Goldman Sachs Group Inc., as deputy mayor for housing and economic development to work out low-cost financing for the construction.
De Blasio’s election means that besides New York, there will be Democratic mayors in Los Angeles; Chicago; Houston; Philadelphia; Phoenix; San Antonio; Dallas; San Jose, California; Austin, Texas; and Jacksonville, Florida.
In some of those states, the legislatures are controlled by Republicans. As a result, when Democrats and mayors advocated issues such as higher taxes to support education and expanding Medicaid under Obama’s health-care overhaul, Republicans blocked them.
De Blasio may find a more receptive audience in Albany, where the Assembly is controlled by Democrats and the Senate by Republicans and a breakaway group of Democrats. Also, de Blasio has known Cuomo for more than 20 years, and de Blasio worked for him in 1997 and 1998 when Cuomo served in Clinton’s cabinet as housing secretary.
“We started as young guys many wrinkles and many gray hairs ago, and we shared the good times and we shared the bad times,” Cuomo, 55, said Sept. 16 at City Hall. “I’ve had a long experience with Bill; I’ve watched him personally grow, know what he believes. I know his agenda, and I think it will work very well.”
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