Opinion

The Great Debate

How to build on the Bloomberg legacy

New York City is engaged in a highly contentious general election campaign for mayor. One of the fascinating turns in this race is how both candidates have chosen to distance themselves from the city’s current mayor, Michael Bloomberg. Bill de Blasio, the Democratic party candidate, has articulated a progressive agenda that might sound to some New Yorkers like 1960s liberalism. Echoing John Lindsay’s aspirational New York, de Blasio argues that the city must refocus public policy in support of the American Dream. Government continues to be important in de Blasio’s New York, but it must change its focus from supporting the wealthy to doing more for its poor and middle-class population.

Joe Lhota, the Republican candidate who served as Deputy Mayor during the Rudy Giuliani administration, is too smart to run a campaign on his former boss’ coattails. After all, Democrats have a 6 to 1 registration advantage in New York City, so the simple math dictates that he needs Democrats and independent voters to win the mayoralty. So, Lhota’s message is dark: New York’s economic health and civic peace is fragile and we can’t revert to those “bad old days” of high crime, economic decline, middle-class flight and a broken city government. Lhota also promises to cut taxes.

While it is not surprising that the campaign rhetoric often sounds anti-Bloomberg, the next mayor must understand that at this critical moment in the city’s history, our future will depend on continuing much of Bloomberg’s successful policies. I say this because there are an extraordinary number of changes that Bloomberg put into place that are vital for both the future economic well-being of the city, and for achieving the policy goals that both de Blasio and Lhota are advocating.

Here are the aspects of Bloomberg’s legacy that must continue under the next administration:

The next mayor must continue to support government that is accessible to individuals and businesses, and accountable for high-quality services.

A year after Sandy, food and fuel supplies are as vulnerable as ever

A year ago, Hurricane Sandy revealed harrowing realities about the basic systems New Yorkers rely on every day. We now know, for example, what happens when fuel supply lines get cut and electricity goes down: mob battles at gas stations and, more terrifying, empty shelves at food stores. Worse, such breakdowns tend to cascade. No power means whatever food is left will rot. No gasoline means delivery trucks can’t restock stores.

It’s a domino effect, one that last year brought New York to the edge of real disaster. According to numerous resiliency experts I interviewed, at the moment Sandy hit, New Yorkers had only about three days of food on hand.

In the months after, city and state officials tended to focus on reinforcing the infrastructure that’s under their direct control. In New York, this means public facilities like Hunts Point Food Cooperative Market in the Bronx, which was forced to shut down temporarily.

Sandy +1: Preparing for the storms ahead

One year ago Tuesday, Hurricane Sandy, perhaps the largest Atlantic storm ever, began its path of destruction in New York City. It ultimately killed almost 300 people across seven countries. In the United States alone, the fierce storm left an estimated $70 billion in damage in its wake, the second-costliest storm in U.S. history.

Substantial money and effort has now gone into rebuilding the areas most devastated by the storm. The truth is, however, that many other areas of the world, including in the United States, are just as vulnerable to intense flooding.

Existing flood protection in most countries is simply not fit for this purpose. Even in our native Netherlands, a world leader in flood management, roughly one-third of the defenses is sub-standard.

Bill de Blasio, the Not-Bloomberg

Bill de Blasio, whose strong support in New York City’s Democratic primary for mayor may have averted any runoff, had a secret weapon — and I speak not of his delightful Afro’d son, Dante, but of the very man he wants to succeed, Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Yes, if anyone handed de Blasio a win — besides de Blasio, his campaign and his feckless opponents — it was Bloomberg. He has never fully understood the art of politics, governing stubbornly with his head, never his heart. He has been substantive and steady, he has had many successes. But his inability or unwillingness to empathize with the public, especially on such gut matters as the policing policy of stop-and-frisk, gave de Blasio an opening. The public advocate campaigned as the anti-Bloomberg — and it worked.

The mayor can be persuasive, one on one. But it is a Bloomberg the public barely glimpsed. I recall thinking this a few months ago, when I was visiting a friend at Bloomberg News, and the mayor walked in. Within seconds he was lecturing me about the effectiveness of stop-and-frisk, urgently defending the policing policy, making his familiar arguments about deterrence, the importance of reducing gun possession through the police stops, which a federal judge has since said violates the constitutional rights of minorities.

New York’s election suggests the waning of identity politics

To most Americans, the results of New York City’s local elections don’t matter much and often shouldn’t. Yes, there are City Hall occupants who manage to command a national stage, notably incumbent Mike Bloomberg, but in the 2013 race there have been no candidates even approaching his stature (or his wealth). The candidate who received the most votes in Tuesday’s primary, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, is unknown outside New York City and until recently not well known inside it.

Yet there is an aspect of the 2013 campaign that might resonate well beyond New York’s five boroughs: voter behavior suggests that the era of identity politics may have ended or at least peaked.

Throughout the modern era, politicians in New York City (and many other places) have seen elections as a competition among voting blocs determined by ethnic and racial identities: African-American, Latino (which until the 1990s in New York City was primarily Puerto Rican), Jewish, white (which can be further broken down into the larger nationalities represented in New York, such as Italian, Irish, etc). Strategic alliances, endorsements, and policy choices could be used to deliver, somewhat reliably, these groups of voters to chosen candidates. As nonwhites became a majority some time in the mid-1980s, and the pool of viable candidates more diverse, most nonwhite voters saw a path of empowerment through supporting one of their own: that is, given a choice, African-American voters would usually vote disproportionately for the African-American candidate, Latino voters for the Latino candidate, and so on. In recent decades, women and LGBT-identified voters also became important self-aware constituencies, although the LGBT vote is difficult to measure and its effects have been seen more on neighborhood races than citywide ones.

Rebuilding post-Sandy: Whole greater than parts

President Barack Obama asked Congress for more than $60 billion to help repair and rebuild infrastructure damaged by Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast. The House of Representatives finally voted Friday on a small down payment, roughly 10 percent.

As in the past, engineering experts will likely seek to build in added protections for the specific pieces of the infrastructure that failed in the storm – for example, flooded subway lines or power substations. What they don’t usually address, however, is how to protect networks as a whole.

Ignoring how everything works together is short-sighted. No matter how much money is spent, one part of the system can always go down again. As Sandy demonstrated, a failure at any point can have a cascading effect.

The retail price of America’s income inequality

Retail is considered one of the bright spots in the American economy, one of only six job categories projected to grow nationally through 2018. But a survey released this week makes clear that many of these are jobs in name only, offering poverty-level wages, highly restricted access to benefits, part-time work when full-time is desired, and a workforce so cowed that it routinely accepts working conditions that make work-life balance, or the chance to upgrade skills and move into better-paid work elsewhere, all but impossible.

The survey, conducted by Retail Action Project, a New York City-based workers’ advocacy group, offers frank data from 436 workers in 230 stores across the city’s five boroughs, from the luxury purveyors of Fifth Avenue to discount outlets in the Bronx. With 242,000 retail workers in Manhattan alone, the data – the first ever gathered directly from these workers – offers a telling and sobering look at this important industry.

The report’s highlights:

    The median wage in New York is $9.50 an hour, 52 percent lower than the citywide average for all industries. If associates in one of the nation’s costliest cities can’t even earn a living wage, who can? Black and Latino workers surveyed are more likely to be hired part-time and given worse schedules than their coworkers. Based on average wages and hours worked per week, white workers’ income is 12 percent higher than that of their black colleagues. Just over half of workers surveyed earn less than $10 an hour. But more than three-quarters of female Latino workers – 77 percent – fall beneath that threshold. While 54 percent of white workers received a raise or promotion after six months on the job, only 39 percent of black workers and 28 percent of Latino workers did.

The irony of retail work for many of these employees is that they can’t afford to buy much of what they’re selling. When I worked as an associate for 27 months at The North Face, a $30 hat, even with an employee discount, cost more than an hour of my labor.

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