New York’s Sea Change

TPM Reader MA captures a lot of my sense of where New York City is right now …

It’s been 20 years since Giuliani was first elected mayor, and 12 years since Bloomberg bought his first mayoral contest. Twenty years of white Republican mayors – mayors that have been liberal on some social issues but very much aligned with Wall Street and the city’s wealthy – in a bright blue, largely blue-collar and majority non-white city. And they’ve held power in large measure by leveraging white anxieties, from Bay Ridge to Borough Park to the Upper East Side, and the memory of the chaos of the ’70s and ’80s (okay, Bloomberg’s buying off every political professional in the city and flooding the mediaverse with advertising spend probably didn’t hurt him any either).

It’s still early days, but as laughable as New York Democrats might be, and as divided as their constituencies are, it sure looks like an uphill climb for any Republican candidate – even a genial subway-loving moderate like Joe Lhota, around whom the smart money is currently pooling. The memories of the bad old days have faded. The city has gone from postindustrial hot mess to playground for the super-rich. Wall Street won, even as it blew up the national economy.

Assuming that the Dems don’t knock each other out or run a candidate inept enough to lose against a Republican lacking Bloomberg’s deep pockets (totally feasible scenarios, sure), there’s some very big issues at stake here, starting with schools. Bloomberg’s bear-hug embrace of a radically pro-charter schools/anti-teachers’ unions StudentsFirst agenda might be completely upended by a Democratic mayor. It’s hard to imagine a Democrat carrying over his less-than-compassionate approach to social services (Bloomberg’s approach to homeless services is predicated on not letting those in need – many of whom are families with small children — get too comfortable). Will Bloomberg’s visionary “complete streets” approach to transportation be expanded on, or will tabloid blowhards prevail and the car again reign supreme? Will his apartheid policing policies continue, perhaps with a little rebranding and a kinder, gentler Ray Kelly?

And then there’s the shortage of housing affordable to most New Yorkers, the living wage bill that Christie Quinn has been holding back in the City Council, the big picture stuff like the concentration of the city’s economy in finance and media – a whole morass of issues begging the question, in short, of whose city is this? Today, it’s Mike Bloomberg’s city, a city for which catering to the needs of hedge funders, bankers and media execs is the unquestioned prime directive. Tomorrow? Maybe, for the first time in a long time, a city of janitors, construction workers, educators and subway conductors as well. Either way, the city’s political actors are bracing for a possible sea change.

It’s a big story — and one that I’ve seen surprisingly little big picture coverage of.

There are so many dimensions of this. But the key one for me is that the Guiliani/Bloomberg era got off the ground, as MA notes, because of out of control crime and deep racial and cultural polarization. It’s a concentrated, New Yorkized version of what happened in America at large in the 70s and 80s and into the early 90s. Guiliani was the master of it. Bloomberg came in on the coattails of it, helped by the political curveball of 9/11, but also just piped in tons of money. But that crime-ridden, ungovernable, crisis-bound city simply doesn’t exist anymore.

I saw an interview with Rudy Giuliani a few days ago in which he was making his pitch for his favored candidate, Republican MTA Commissioner Joe Lhota and he said, Look the city’s in a crisis. We need Joe Lhota! But the comment is almost comical. The city’s not in a crisis. But all sorts of measures it’s healthier and safer and more vibrant than it’s been in decades. Not that everything’s perfect by any means. But to live here and think the city is in a crisis is comical. That’s just the only way Rudy’s able to think and the only way you can make the argument for the kind of urban politics he embraces.

So the premise and anchor of a whole mode of government doesn’t either. It’s the massively obvious reason why the Guiliani-backed candidacy of Republican city official Joe Lhota is such a joke.