“I wouldn’t urge anyone to be mayor of New York City,” the 109th mayor of New York City said this week, half-joking. “It’s a very, very challenging moment.”
For once, Bill de Blasio was clear and to the point, though you’d never have known that listening to the crowded field whistling past the graveyard in the hopes of being elected our 110th mayor.
Just 254 days before New Yorkers — okay, registered Democrats — will almost certainly set the city’s course over the 2020s by electing a new mayor and a mostly new City Council, the political conversation here remains frozen in February’s amber, when Gotham’s biggest problem was that it was too damn rich.
Yes, the presidential race is sucking up the oxygen and some help might be coming if Democrats reclaim power in November, but no one here is talking very much or very honestly about the deep hole New York is already in and not yet at the bottom of, with little chance that Washington or Albany or circumstances will dig us out this time.
There are hard choices coming.
Yet to the extent that the mayoral candidates are talking to the public, and not just powerbrokers and donors, it’s been mostly about the dangers of gentrification and policing with hardly a nod to the flight of the wealthy from Manhattan or the spike in shootings across the city that began this summer, let alone the huge budget gaps caused by the virus and shutdown.
I’m not naming names, since no one has made much of an impression so far. I suspect that’s in part because none of the candidates see much advantage in taking each other on or standing out too much in the first big test of the city’s new ranked-choice voting system — where voters’ second and third choices matter — for primaries and special elections.
So amid an ongoing public health crisis where corpses were piling up just months ago, Midtown has become a ghost town and the money tide is finally receding for better and worse, our would-be leaders have been talking more about de Blasio’s many past failings than about their own plans for the future at this transformational moment.
With the primary moved up to June, it’s getting late early here, as a wise New Yorker once warned.
De Blasio’s half-joking warning to his successors was his way of avoiding a direct answer to the question: “Do you think the governor is usurping your authority as mayor? Do you think he secretly wants to be mayor?”
Spoiler: It’s not so secret, and the governor’s authority is likely to be the challenge that defines the next mayor. Andrew Cuomo — who famously mocked George Pataki for having “held a leader’s coat” by letting Mayor Rudy Giuliani speak for New York City after 9/11 — is not interested in sharing power.
He has a lot of power, accumulated as New York’s coffers spilled over, and he’s likely to collect more as those coffers are emptied. The city depends directly and indirectly on state money and the state allowing the city to collect its own money. Cuomo has also taken operational control when he can, bringing state troopers into the city in recent years and just last week demanding that “local officials” (meaning the mayor) give him control of their “personnel” (meaning NYPD officers and Health Department workers) to implement the state’s policies within the city.
Maybe because one of the object lessons of de Blasio’s administration is that there’s no upside to a mayor fighting Cuomo, none of the mayoral candidates have had much to say about the governor. That might be tactically wise, but it’s a sign of a field that’s more ambitious about running than about governing.
Like de Blasio said, it’s a challenging moment — and the city could use a mayor that’s up to the challenge. It would help if New Yorkers spared some attention for this race and thus forced the candidates to address the city at large.
In our last open election, de Blasio was a distant fourth in the Democratic field in June before shooting up late after kneecapping presumed frontrunner Christine Quinn with the help of a shady campaign financing scheme while his competitor in the progressive lane, John Liu, was undone by his own shady campaign finance scheme and that year’s former MSNBC star in the race, Anthony Weiner, kept heating up in the polls only to melt himself back down.
Then, too, the primary was the game, and after breaking 40% to avoid a runoff in September, de Blasio swept into office after a Globetrotters-Generals November general election.
There are 250 days left for these mayoral wannabes to step up and answer another wise New Yorker’s old question: Can’t anyone here play this game?
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