NYC Race Focuses On Income Gap, But How Much Can A Mayor Do?

Nov 4, 2013
Originally published on November 4, 2013 7:42 pm

Voters in New York City go to the polls Tuesday to choose their next mayor, and it appears all but certain that they'll elect Bill de Blasio, the city's public advocate.

The Democrat has built a wide lead in the polls by distancing himself from the incumbent mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg. In fact, de Blasio has made income inequality the central issue of his campaign, name-checking the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities dozens of times at debates and stump speeches.

"It always falls back to, 'It's a tale of two cities,' " Republican candidate Joe Lhota complained in a recent interview with MSNBC. "There's nothing more divisive than saying we are two cities, whether it's rich versus poor, black versus white."

But de Blasio won't back down. "There's nothing divisive about acknowledging the struggle that so many New Yorkers face. It's not class warfare," de Blasio said in a speech last month to a group of business leaders. "It's arithmetic. And it's reality."

For the stock market and the real estate business, these have been the best of times, or pretty close. But de Blasio argues those gains haven't been spread equally among all New Yorkers, including the record number of 50,000 people in the city who are homeless.

De Blasio has been eager to emphasize his differences with outgoing mayor Bloomberg. De Blasio lives in Brooklyn, where he sends his children to public school; Bloomberg is one of the richest men in the country, who used his personal fortune to win three terms in office — first as a Republican, later as an independent. And Bloomberg did his best to make the wealthy feel welcome in New York.

"If we could get every billionaire around the world to move here, it would be a godsend," Bloomberg said in September during his weekly radio interview on WOR.

"They're the ones that spend a lot of money in the stores and restaurants and create a big chunk of our economy," Bloomberg said. "And we take tax revenues from those people to help people throughout the entire rest of the spectrum."

But polls suggest voters are ready for a change. De Blasio is poised for the kind of landslide win New York hasn't seen since the 1980s.

Still, as mayor, de Blasio may find there's not much he can do to narrow the income gap.

"Great as New York is, it is not actually the federal government," says Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association.

The mayor "does not control the Federal Reserve, much less taxation and trade policy," Vitullo-Martin says. "And it is very hard for a local jurisdiction to redistribute income."

New York's mayor can't suddenly end the city's dependence on the financial industry — or replace disappearing jobs that pay middle-class wages. But de Blasio's supporters say there are things the next mayor could do to reverse decades of rising inequality.

"There are two cities. And the way that the new city is being built is only increasing the gap between the two cities," says Tom Angotti, a former aide to three New York mayors, during an interview on the waterfront in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

This area is one of several places in the city where Angotti says high-rise luxury developments are changing the composition of whole neighborhoods.

"It has jacked up the rents and land prices and housing prices around. And that has displaced many, many people," says Angotti, who now teaches urban affairs at Hunter College. "People who have lived in the city for years and generations are concerned that they're not going to be able to stay."

On the campaign trail, de Blasio has pledged to build more affordable housing, and to give all New Yorkers access to universal prekindergarten, paid for by raising taxes on the highest earners.

"When so many New Yorkers are being priced out of their own city ... it's a crisis of affordability," de Blasio said last month. "I don't accept this as our destiny. I am committed to tackling this crisis."

De Blasio has been committed to that message as a candidate. But he may find it's a lot harder to bring the two cities closer together.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Tomorrow, voters in New York go to the polls to choose their next mayor. And it appears all but certain that they'll elect a Democrat for the first time in 24 years. New York public advocate Bill de Blasio has built a wide lead in the polls by distancing himself from current mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg. In fact, de Blasio has made income inequality the central issue of his campaign, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. That's how Charles Dickens opens his famous book about London and Paris in the late 1700s. But for Bill de Blasio, Dickens could've been talking about present-day New York.

BILL DE BLASIO: We are living a tale of two cities. That New York had become a tale of two cities

ROSE: De Blasio has repeated the book's title all year at debates and stump speeches, a fact that has not been ignored by his main rival, Republican Joe Lhota.

JOE LHOTA: It always falls back to it's a tale of two cities. There's nothing more divisive than saying we are two cities, whether it's rich versus poor, black versus white...

ROSE: But de Blasio won't back down.

BLASIO: There's nothing divisive about acknowledging the struggle that so many New Yorkers face. It's not class warfare. It's arithmetic and it's reality.

ROSE: For the stock market and the real estate business, these have been the best of times or pretty close. But de Blasio argues those gains have not been spread equally among all New Yorkers, including the record number of 50,000 people who are homeless.

BLASIO: We cannot resign ourselves to the mindset that says rising inequality is a necessary byproduct of urban success.

ROSE: That's the sound of tepid applause at a speech de Blasio gave to the city's business elite. For the most part, they've been happy with outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of the richest men in the country. Bloomberg used his personal fortune to win three terms in office - first as a Republican, later as an independent - and he did his best to make the wealthy feel welcome.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: If we could get every billionaire around the world to move here, it would be a godsend. They're the ones that spend a lot of money in the stores and restaurants and create a big chunk of our economy, and we take tax revenues from those people to help people throughout the entire rest of the spectrum.

ROSE: But polls suggest voters are ready for a change. De Blasio is poised for the kind of landslide win New York hasn't seen since the 1980s. Still, as mayor, de Blasio may find there's not much he can do to narrow the income gap. Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association.

JULIA VITULLO-MARTIN: Great as New York is, it is not actually the federal government and does not control the Federal Reserve, much less taxation and trade policy. And it is very hard for a local jurisdiction to redistribute income.

ROSE: New York's mayor can't suddenly end the city's dependence on the financial industry or replace disappearing jobs that pay middle-class wages. But de Blasio's supporters say there are things the next mayor could do to reverse decades of rising inequality.

TOM ANGOTTI: There are two cities. And the way that the new city is being built is only increasing the gap between the two cities.

ROSE: Tom Angotti is a former aide to three New York mayors, who now teaches urban affairs at Hunter College. We met on the waterfront in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It's one of several places in the city where Angotti says high-rise luxury developments are changing the composition of whole neighborhoods.

ANGOTTI: It has jacked up the rents and land prices and the housing prices around. And that has displaced many, many people. People who have lived in the city for years and generations are concerned that they're not going to be able to stay.

ROSE: On the campaign trail, Bill de Blasio has pledged to build more affordable housing and to give all New Yorkers access to universal pre-kindergarten, paid for by raising taxes on the highest earners.

BLASIO: I don't accept this as our destiny. I am committed to tackling this crisis.

ROSE: De Blasio has been committed to that message as a candidate. But he may find it's harder to bring the two cities closer together.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.