The Political Education Of Bill de Blasio


On Monday, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio held a press conference near the Saudi Arabian consulate here to call attention to the fact that the kingdom’s airline, which flies out of New York’s JFK airport, will not accommodate anyone with an Israeli passport.

A staff member in de Blasio’s office, alerted that Israel does not exist on the drop-down menu of countries on the airline’s web site, called posing as an Israeli and tried to reserve a flight and was essentially told to get lost.

That’s an issue for the city, not the State Department, because “anything that happens in the five boroughs, our human rights laws apply. If they’re going to break our laws against discrimination based on race or national origin they don’t belong in our airports.”

A solid pro-Israel gesture from a public official with extensive backing from Jewish donors.

But the 6-foot-5-inch tall former councilman, who stands out in the crowd of other Democrats vying for the mayoral nomination, has been struggling to get his message across, despite the fact that he has been part of the New York political scene since the early 90s, when he was an aide in the administration of David Dinkins, the last Democrat to run the city.

After a stint working as the New York head of the Clinton Administration’s Housing and Urban Development he signed on to run Hillary Clinton’s successful 2000 Senate campaign. The next year, de Blasio, ran for City Council and spent two terms representing a polyglot Brooklyn district that included many Orthodox Jews, but also a fairly large contingent of Muslims.

In a wide-ranging interview with editors of The Jewish Week, de Blasio described the City Hall and City Council experience as his key credentials in his quest for the Democrat mayoral nomination.

“The district I represented was 20 percent Orthodox Jewish, very substantial chasidic, we also had a very substantial Bangladeshi community in Kensington,” he said.

He said that speaking out in support of Israel never harmed him politically because, as volatile as Middle East politics can be, “I think the majority of voters are listening for what their leaders will do on bread and butter issues.” With the city’s Muslim population growing in size and influence, de Blasio said “I found most people are concerned about bread and butter issues such as safety, quality of life and the public schools … I did not find divisions day to day on the kind bread and butter issues that are most important to city government.”

The Middle East has surfaced on a small level in the race after Anthony Weiner and Christine Quinn were asked recently about their views on the status of the West Bank, and both said the status must be decided by the parties.

De Blasio declined to comment directly on that issue, but said “I think the office I’m running for is one where you expect opposition on every issue. You have to be at peace with who you are and what you believe in but from my point of view … most people are less concerned about what’s happening overseas. And if anyone doesn’t like my stance in favor of Israel, they can vote for someone else.

This is the fourth in a series of interviews with major candidates for New York City mayor.

Previous articles:

Lhota Grapples With Giuliani Legacy

Catsimitidis Stresses Interfaith Ties

John Liu: Defender of Tradition

Defiant Weiner Staying In Race

Thompson: 'We're Not Going Backward On Crime'

“Our obligation as New Yorkers is to stand by the State of Israel and its security. Like so many people I hope one day to have a fair two-state solution that defends Israel’s security, but in the meantime I’m less concerned about semantics and more concerned about the fact that the State of Israel is still threatened.”

Having cut his political teeth as an aide to deputy mayor Bill Lynch in the Dinkins City Hall, de Blasio says he is proud that administration was “clean” of corruption scandals, but admitted that it could have been more effective at governing.

“The intention of the administration was very good … there were historic achievements in policing with the Safe Streets, Safe City campaign which helped turn the city around,” he said. “At the same time, I think there were a number of missteps. I don’t think it was a particularly unified administration internally and I learned some very powerful lessons abut what to do and also some powerful lessons about what not to do.”

Such as?

“Bringing on a lot of people who really cared about public service and were not prone to self-interest,” he said, on the positive side. “If you look at the history of what was done at other administrations that did have corruption, it came down to who you chose.” The idea of a temporary tax to pay for the addition of more cops and afterschool programs to reduce crime also vindicated itself, he insists.

“Those were good approaches to public policy. On the negative side, I learned a lot about the fact that your team has to be on the same side … Too much hesitancy in the administration and, whether you're talking about some of the need for the mayor to very quickly assert his views, policies and his approach and stick with it … I think it’s what led to the decline of the administration.”

That view is at odds with the former mayor, who writes in a memoir due this fall that racism was behind his 1993 defeat by Rudolph Giuliani, according to Tuesday’s New York Times. Dinkins, does however take some responsibility for insufficient action during the Crown Heights riots of August, 1991, though largely blaming then-police commissioner Lee Brown.

The violence, widely believed to have cost Dinkins a second term, “obviously wasn’t handled right,” de Blasio told The Jewish Week. “Not because there wasn’t a very strong effort try to deal with it. It was a perfect storm and was a very painful time and a very difficult time. I think any of us who could do it over again would say the police response should have been stronger, earlier, more resolute.”

De Blasio has raked in from donations from a wide range of Jewish supporters from the secular, chasidic, haredi, Modern Orthodox and Sephardic community, according to Campaign Finance Board filings. They include, former Dinkins aides Herb Block and Philip Saperia, who served as Jewish liaisons, as well as Reform Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Aloha on Park Slope; chemicals magnate Jack Bendheim of Riverdale; Paul Levine, former CEO of the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services; Rabbi Yechezkel Pikus, director of the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush; Koch administration housing and finance commissioner Abraham Biderman; Orthodox Jewish music star Steven (Shloime) Dachs; a range of Sephardic community businessmen as well as celebrities such as author Amy Sohn and music icon Paul Simon.

De Blasio says his time in the Council gave him an extensive education in Jewish issues of all kinds and he worked closely with chasidic and haredi organizations, which is why he’s confident that as mayor he can find a compromise that eluded the Bloomberg administration: a solution to the metzitza b’peh circumcision conflict that satisfies all sides.

The Board of Health’s current consent decree, strenuously opposed by a coalition of Orthodox groups “is a stop-gap measure” that does not sufficiently address the problem, dei Blasio said.

“Our current policy I don’t think goes far enough to support and protect our children. A form per se is not going to do that. I would keep the form while we work on a policy that will be more effective. I believe we can reach consensus with community leaders on the proper procedure …”

Unlike himself, de Blasio said, Bloomberg approached the issue with “precious little experience with grassroots when becoming mayor. The average friend of his was a millionaire or billionaire. I spent eight years representing a large Orthodox community and developed deep relationships and strong alliances. I got to know hundreds of community leaders working on Priority 5 and Priority 7 vouchers … I have a lot of faith there are smart, creative leaders all over the Jewish community who can find a better solution.”

In the interview, de Blasio also addressed a U.S. attorney’s investigation of the Working Families Party based in part on its role in his 2009 Public Advocate campaign, in which Data and Field Services, an agency linked to the left-leaning alternative party, provided services for below-market rate. Critics argued that amounted to an in-kind contribution. The investigation ended with no charges filed.

“Things were obviously legal, we have evidence of that,” he said. “There was an extensive investigation. I don’t have the support of the party during this campaign, but since then they have changed some of their practices so they recognized that things have to be changed.”

Representing his Brooklyn district also taught de Blasio abut the impact of yeshiva and day school tuition on observant families, which he called “a crushing dynamic,” even before the onset of the fiscal crisis in 2008.

He said he opposes tax breaks for tuition families and believes public schools are he priority, but supports funding for security, transportation, special education and other secular needs. “But it’s a question of whether we have the money,” he said, noting that city unions are putting off contract negotiations for the next administration. “The fact is we are about to have a new kind of fiscal crisis …no one can remember a mayor leaving all contracts open simultaneously.”

On the subject of the police department’s embattled stop and frisk policies, de Blasio, like other candidates, said excessive stops of people of young people of color counter crime fighting efforts by eroding public trust of the police in crime-plagued neighborhoods.

“In military history, a lot of the great victories were based on intelligence gathering,” he said. “For the police to stop serious crime they need o know where the criminals are and where the weapons are, they need to have that line of communication. In order to do that law-abiding people have to be treated like law-abiding people and that’s just not happening right now.”

A Quinnipiac poll of registered voters released Monday had former Congressman Anthony Weiner neck and neck with Council Speaker Christine Quinn, 25 and 22 percent respectively, while de Blasio is statistically tied with former comptroller William Thompson, at 10 and 11 percent. The fifth major candidate, John Liu has seven percent of the vote with 21 undecided.

A Siena College/New York Times poll this week gave de Blasio 11 percent of the vote. However, in potential good news, he had a lower unfavorable rating than both Quinn (26) and Weiner (37), with just 10 percent. Forty-five percent of respondents said they didn't know enough about him.

De Blasio ranks third behind Quinn ($7.2 million) and Weiner (nearly $6 million) in fundraising, with $4.1 million raised as of the last filing.

De Blasio declined to say much about the impact of of Weiner entering the race two years after his scandalous exit from politics and his quick vault to the top of the polls, except to dispute the conventional wisdom that it harmed de Blasio most by picking up outer-borough voters.

"It has been numerically proven otherwise,” he said. “If you look at the polling the biggest impact has been on Quinn.”

"The public really hasn’t focused on this. Its amazing how unfocused people are." He blames the “residue of the Bloomberg years, an unusual 12 years which was one-hand clapping. He dominated in a way very, very few mayors have … people are just beginning to think about the choice ahead of them. Polls of likely voters will begin to tell us something.”

Ester Fuchs, a professor of public affairs and political science at Columbia University, said de Blasio is correct that the polls of registered voters at this stage do not necessarily reflect a clear picture.

“At this stage people have not really focused on the race except for the circus aspect of it with Weiner and [Eliot] Spitzer running again,” she said. Spitzer, the former governor, is running for city comptroller.

“But I think that being this low at this stage is an indicator that he hasn’t gotten through with his message at all.” She said the endorsement of the 1199 United Health Care Workers, which has 200,000 members was important, but it remained to be seen if it could help him get the word out.

Fuchs, who was a special advisor to Bloomberg during his second term, said de Blasio has staked out a place as the most left-leaning candidate in the race and focused on attacking the mayor’s policies, tacking left on issues such as taxing the rich to improve schools and giving union members back pay. Meanwhile, he is the only major candidate in the race without a large, natural constituency based on identity.

“He doesn’t have an ethnicity that matches one of the larger ethic or religious or racial groups in New York and so he doesn’t start out with a group that pays more attention to him."

De Blasio said he isn’t entirely critical of Bloomberg, crediting him for reducing the tensions and division of the Giuliani years; establishing mayoral control of schools, which eluded Giuliani, and properly focusing on public health and the environment.

But he said that as his tenure drew on, the incumbent failed to deal with economic issues such as housing affordability and shrinking wages and benefits, despite seeking a third term in order to address the financial crisis. “It’s a tale of two Bloombergs,” he said. “During the second half of this time has done precious little to address the inequities.”