Bill de Blasio has a reputation in the city’s business community as being somewhat to the left of Noam Chomsky. It’s based on everything from his time as an aide to Mayor David Dinkins to his deep ties with labor unions to, most recently, his support for legislation that would mandate a “living wage” and paid sick leave. That image is unfair — de Blasio is as much a political pragmatist as another one of his mentors, Hillary Clinton — but it’s nevertheless a real political problem as de Blasio, currently the city’s public advocate, prepares to run for mayor in 2013.
So this morning, de Blasio gave a very interesting speech.
There were some useful policy proposals — increase the amount of money the city spends on loans to small businesses; decrease the number of petty fines imposed on small businesses; give priority in city contracting to companies that employ New Yorkers. But the significance was in the tone and the context.
De Blasio delivered his nearly hour-long address at an NYU event sponsored by the Rudin family, one of the city’s best-connected real-estate dynasties, with patriarch Bill Rudin in the front row. He ripped “heavy-handed, rapacious bureaucrats” getting in the way of development, and beat up on the city’s land use approval process and its buildings department, two eternal villains in the business community. And as a badge of business-friendly courage, de Blasio cited his support of Atlantic Yards despite the fierce opposition the project provoked in Park Slope, the neighborhood he represented in the City Council.
“When it came to the criteria that mattered above all others — good jobs and affordable housing,” de Blasio said, “it was clear that Atlantic Yards would help stanch the bleeding in an area facing huge problems of affordability.”
If only that were how things have turned out. The Barclays Center arena will open this fall, but its construction has generated far fewer jobs than promised; the housing at the site — affordable and not — hasn’t materialized at all. De Blasio blamed the economic downturn, Governor George Pataki, and even — to his credit — “my friends at Forest City Ratner,” an allusion to the thousands of dollars that the Atlantic Yards developer has contributed to his campaign.
Today’s speech probably gained de Blasio a few more business friends, and it was an earnest attempt to sketch out how, as mayor, he’d forge a partnership between private industry and government. It was an also an illustration of how he still has plenty of tricky straddling ahead of him.