As Bill de Blasio's tenure as mayor of New York City concludes, it is worth examining how he dismantled the foundations of the city's decades of success. Studying de Blasio's tenure can give incoming mayor Eric Adams a road map for doing things differently—and differently, in this case, means better. Understanding New York's recent history can also help provide the city with a long-term direction. A resurgent Gotham would send a powerful message of confidence, nationally and internationally. Looking closely at the de Blasio years can help expose not only what the mayor did wrong but also what should be done to reverse the city's slide.
The mayoral tenures of Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg—de Blasio's immediate predecessors— were successful for one overarching reason: both leaders focused on the first priority of government, the rule of law. Ensuring citizen safety and maintaining order led to significant and sustained reductions in crime. During the early 1990s, when David Dinkins was mayor, New York City was suffering from more than 2,000 homicides a year. Criminals, as well as the law-abiding, knew that the city had a decidedly unsafe feel. The high crime rates and menacing atmosphere discouraged tourists, investment, business development, and newcomers.
When Giuliani won the 1993 election, he resolved to apply groundbreaking policing strategies— many championed in the pages of this magazine. The strategies, some of which started under the tenure of Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly in 1992, included a renewed focus on data to determine where crimes took place— especially via CompStat, a computerized system that tracked crime by neighborhood and held local precinct commanders accountable. They also included bolstering the department's anticrime unit, which pursued known criminals more aggressively. And the NYPD put into action a Broken Windows policing approach that cracked down on aggressive panhandling, the notorious "squeegee men" who menaced drivers coming into Manhattan, and subway fare-beaters, who were often found to have committed other crimes as well. This comprehensive effort helped initiate a city-saving 80 percent crime drop over the next few decades. Mayor Bloomberg maintained these approaches and accelerated tactics like stop-and-frisk to get guns off the street.
By contrast, de Blasio took a more skeptical view of the police. He campaigned on ending stop-and-frisk. He spoke openly of warning his biracial son, Dante, about interacting with the police. And, while he had hired Giuliani's first police commissioner, William J. Bratton, to serve a second stint as head of the NYPD, de Blasio seemed to encourage protests against the cops following the police-related deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York in 2014. When, in the aftermath of those protests, two New York City police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, were murdered at point-blank range as they sat in their patrol car, Police Benevolent Association head Patrick Lynch told the press: "There's blood on many hands tonight. That blood on the hands starts at City Hall in the Office of the Mayor." Hundreds of police officers turned their backs on the mayor at Liu's funeral.
After this strong message from the men and women on the front lines of the fight against crime, de Blasio tried to modulate his progressivism, at least on law and order. He reaffirmed his desire to "put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love" but admitted that doing so depended on keeping the streets safe. He toned down his criticisms of the police. According to the New York Times's Dana Rubinstein, the Ramos and Liu backlash proved "a turning point in the de Blasio administration, making the mayor more eager to accommodate the department." Few ever mistook Blasio for a police lover, but he generally allowed them to do their work, and crime in New York remained under control through 2019.
Then came the coronavirus. De Blasio was a Covid- 19 skeptic in the pandemic's early stages. In February 2020, he admonished people not to avoid Asian neighborhoods, saying, "New York City's Chinatowns are open for business!" His health commissioner, Oxiris Barbot, added: "While it is understandable for some New Yorkers to feel concerned about the novel coronavirus situation, we cannot stand for racist and stigmatizing rhetoric."
Though de Blasio should have known better by March, he was still complacent in the face of the threat. On March 5, after New York governor Andrew Cuomo had issued a stay-at-home order, de Blasio told New Yorkers to go about their business as usual—even as he faced a near revolt from his health department. According to Lawrence Wright's The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid, the health department complained: "Every message that we want to get to the public needs to go through him, and they end up getting nixed. City Hall continues to sideline and neuter the country's premier health department." Another official complained of the mayor: "He doesn't get it. . . . [He's] not convinced there's a volcano about to blow beneath us." In the end, New York City was devastated by the virus, logging more than 1 million cases and more than 35,000 deaths.
As the pandemic continued, New York's underlying problems worsened. Following the George Floyd protests in the spring of 2020, de Blasio took the slogan "defund the police" seriously and pledged to cut $1 billion from the police budget and reduce the size of the force by 1,100. Crime exploded—burglary surged 42 percent, car thefts rose 67 percent, and shootings nearly doubled, leading to a 44 percent rise in homicides. Crime numbers came nowhere near the highs of the pre-Giuliani days, but the spike was enough to make crime a prominent public issue again. New York residents rated crime as the Number Two issue of concern in an April 2021 poll, trailing only the pandemic. And adding to the sense of dissolution in the city was the growing presence of the homeless in public spaces—not just on street corners but in parks and other public facilities, as well as on transit systems. Like other worsening problems that affected everyday life for New Yorkers, however, the homelessness issue did not seem to trouble the mayor terribly.
On education, always an issue of high importance in the city, de Blasio proved as divisive as he was ineffective. His vision of educational equality appeared to mean closing off alternative pathways for kids in New York City's poorly performing traditional public schools, where a majority of African-American and Latino students don't score at grade level in math or reading. Parents understandably sought other options; de Blasio obstructed their efforts. He had a particular aversion to charter schools. Though charters are public schools—albeit ones that often get much better results and thus have long waiting lists of parents clamoring to get their children in—de Blasio tried to make charters pay rent to the city, as if they were private-sector entities.
In his anti-charter efforts, de Blasio often found himself impeded by New York governor Andrew Cuomo, with whom he had a relationship of mutual loathing. De Blasio had actually worked for Cuomo at Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton administration, but that did not stop them from becoming mortal enemies later on. The New York Times's Shane Goldmacher and J. David Goodman wrote that the two men were "engaged in a feud so nasty, petty and prolonged that even in the cutthroat politics of New York, few can remember ever seeing anything quite like it."
Lots of politicos have rivalries, but the Cuomo– de Blasio feud would have policy implications. In 2015, Cuomo even shut down the subways in anticipation of a winter storm without warning de Blasio, and he mocked the mayor's haphazard plans for closing Rikers Island prison. The two Democrats fought over de Blasio's efforts to thwart charter schools until late in the mayor's second term, when Cuomo faced his own problems—political fallout from his mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis, along with several sexual harassment accusations, which led to his resignation.
De Blasio also sought to eliminate the tests for New York's elite schools, such as Stuyvesant and Bronx Science. These public schools, which base admissions strictly on entrance exams, have long been a ticket to a better life for children from lower-income and immigrant families. The insistence on the exam as the sole criterion ensured that every child who made it felt that he belonged in the school and could compete in the high-level classes. Alleging that the schools' standards produced unfair demographic outcomes, de Blasio tried to stop their reliance on the merit-based test. Fortunately, de Blasio was thwarted in these efforts as well.
De Blasio's other main foray into education policy came in his cooperation with teachers' unions on keeping public schools closed longer than necessary during the pandemic. Private schools and public schools elsewhere figured out how to manage the Covid threat, but de Blasio seemed uninterested in doing so. Since the teachers' unions were among his main political benefactors, he was generally willing to collaborate with them against public school parents.
For all de Blasio's bluster about equity, the results of his educational policies were abysmal. The racial achievement gap worsened during his tenure. Enrollment in New York City's public schools plummeted, from nearly 1 million to fewer than 890,000 students. Half of the city's public schools have seen an enrollment drop of at least 10 percent since 2017, reflecting parental interest in exploring other educational options for their children. Some of those options were private schools in the city, but others represented a more dramatic choice: an exodus from de Blasio's increasingly unlivable city.
Stories about departures from New York did not start with Covid-19. Census figures for 2018 demonstrated significant out-migration from the New York region, which led the nation in that category. New York's high cost of living was a factor, with rents skyrocketing even in the outer boroughs. Covid accelerated the departures. Bloomberg News reported a doubling of people looking to leave the city. A Manhattan Institute survey revealed that only 23 percent of Bronx residents said that they were happy with their neighborhood, and 26 percent of Staten Islanders reported an interest in moving "somewhere far away from New York City." United Van Lines reported a serious disconnect in New York–linked long-distance moves: 70 percent were made by people leaving the state, while 30 percent were people coming in. Rents dropped 7.8 percent in the third quarter of 2020, and office vacancy rates approached 20 percent. Hedge funds closed their New York operations and decamped for Florida.
Everyone seemed to have stories of people who had left. Yet while 1.4 million people reportedly had moved out of the New York metro area since 2010, the census revealed that New York's population had actually grown relative to 2010, to 8.8 million—an increase of more than 600,000 from the previous decade. De Blasio, of course, took credit for this development, crowing on Twitter: "The Big Apple just got bigger!"
One factor in the population increase was the Department of City Planning's addition of 265,000 previously missing housing units, which city officials explained as part of an effort to improve the count. City demographer Arun Peter Lobo told the New York Times: "This allowed the Census Bureau to enumerate half a million people which they would have otherwise missed." It's optimal to get the best possible count, of course, but the move raises the question of whether population comparisons from the beginning and the end of the de Blasio term are apples-to-apples comparisons.
Regardless, New York will need the maximum number of citizens to maintain the tax base required to support de Blasio's blowout spending. Municipal unions were rewarded for their support, with gushers of taxpayer dollars. De Blasio boosted spending by $25 billion, an astonishing 34 percent increase, almost quadruple the inflation rate of 9 percent over that period. He fattened wage and benefit spending at the Department of Education, which pays teachers' union salaries, by $4.6 billion. He even gave teachers retroactive pay increases dating back to the second term of the three-term Bloomberg administration. The budget crunch precipitated by Covid did not slow down his spending, either. From spring 2020 through summer 2021—the peak of the pandemic—New York City's back payments to teachers totaled $1.5 billion.
The profligacy had serious fiscal implications. Under de Blasio, New York's debt increased by $40 billion. To put that in perspective, this $40 billion growth is the equivalent of approximately 40 percent of New York's bloated current budget. New York has a history of carrying unmanageable levels of debt—most prominently, in the 1970s, during the Abe Beame administration. Back then, an $11 billion debt threatened to push New York into default, and President Gerald Ford refused to rescue the city without the promise of significant fiscal reforms. The crisis prompted the legendary Daily News headline "Ford to City: Drop Dead" and epitomized the depths to which the city had fallen in that period. Today, de Blasio's debt—vastly larger— threatens the city once again, though it will be his successors who have to deal with it. Whatever solutions they come up with will have to consider that New York is already the nation's most heavily taxed city, with a tax burden 90 percent higher, on average, than other large American cities. Increasing that burden to deal with the debt crisis risks driving out more New Yorkers, further eroding the tax base.
De Blasio also helped drive away New Yorkers by making it clear that he disfavored certain populations. His most prominent target was Orthodox Jews. An upsurge in hate crimes against the Orthodox did not lead him to direct more police resources, or even strong rhetoric, to address the problem. But he came down hard on the Orthodox community—and here, he did call for more police—for violations of his Covid-19 protocols. This is not to say that there were not protocol violators in the Orthodox community; there were. But violators in other communities seemed not to attract the mayor's ire comparably. De Blasio had police weld shut park gates in Orthodox neighborhoods and send out officers to monitor compliance by Orthodox institutions. In a tweet, he even called out Jews by name, saying, "My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed. I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summon or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period." Democratic congressman Max Rose responded: "For him to paint the entire Jewish community as uncooperative was breathtaking. Words matter. Threatening every Jewish New Yorker with arrest was beyond insensitive."
Asians had their problems with de Blasio, too. He appeared to avoid visits to Chinese neighborhoods, and he didn't make his first appearance at a Chinatown Lunar New Year parade until 2019, well into his second term. In August 2020, he turned his back on an Asian-American bakery manager suffering under Covid restrictions, saying, "We're all hurting."
Hate crimes against Asians rose during de Blasio's tenure, especially during the pandemic, when, according to NYPD statistics, they exploded by 1,300 percent. De Blasio wasn't to blame for these racist attacks, but some in the Asian community felt that he was not doing enough to stop them. In a March 2021 vigil for victims of anti-Asian hate crimes, protesters chanted, "What are you going to do about it?" as de Blasio spoke. When the mayor went to leave, they surrounded his motorcade. Asians had their problems with de Blasio's education policies, too, but their protests that his moves against meritbased testing would hurt low-income members of their community—and cut Asian elite-school enrollment in half—fell on deaf ears.
De Blasio also created the impression that he didn't much like taxpaying, law-abiding, business- running New Yorkers, either. Journalist Seth Barron felt that this was a deliberate strategy to shape the electorate that de Blasio desired. As Barron wrote in The Last Days of New York, "[Only people] who tolerate the politics of racial resentment, onerous business regulations, and a school system dedicated to equity over excellence stick it out." Despite a 72 percent disapproval rate in June 2021, de Blasio was doing okay with the people who matter to him. "He's only a failure by the standards of the 90 percent of the city who want to have a livable city with economic opportunity, good schools, and safe streets," Barron writes.
Bloomberg and Giuliani attacked the mayor's job with zeal and dedication, but de Blasio had a questionable work ethic, showing up late, finding time to go to his gym in Brooklyn—at taxpayer expense—for two hours nearly every day, and even engaging in a pointless run for president, in which he barely registered with Iowa voters. As Edward-Isaac Dovere wrote in Battle for the Soul, at one Iowa rally, "A little under three dozen people came to see de Blasio that day. More people tended to show up to protest him at rallies back home." Near the end of his tenure, the mayor would take long, aimless walks—and New Yorkers being New Yorkers, they would tell him what they thought of him. "No one wants you," a man with his young son screamed at de Blasio, in a scene chronicled by Politico. "You're the worst. YOU'RE THE WORST!"
In the end, de Blasio did not appear to like his job, the city, its residents—or even, as a Red Sox fan, its sports teams. He treated New Yorkers accordingly, making their city less safe, less livable, less fiscally sustainable, and less united.
With the de Blasio years finally ending, the hope is that Eric Adams, who positioned himself as a moderate in relation to the extreme progressives in the Democratic primary, can chart a better path. The New York Times has reported, however, that de Blasio is expected to serve as an advisor to Adams and that the two men speak often. This is bad news for New Yorkers who want a livable city again. Adams has also been talking to Bloomberg, though—a more promising sign.
The next mayor's primary focus, ambitious as it sounds, must be nothing less than restoring the public safety and civic flourishing of the Giuliani and Bloomberg years. In a way, de Blasio offers a template for how to achieve this: just do the opposite of what he did. Such an approach would include backing the police; spending less on giveaways to municipal unions; supporting charter schools and New York's successful elite public schools; treating all New Yorkers equally; and working hard at the job of mayor of America's greatest city. A rejection of de Blasioism implies the very agenda that could help bring New York back.