Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first State of the City speech had spartan production values — no rollicking salsa bands, no bags of popcorn, as in the Bloomberg years. There wasn’t any truly big “news” in the speech. Probably his most extravagant rhetorical flourish was yet another gushy introduction of his wife, Chirlane McCray.
Which is not to say today’s event was underwhelming, exactly. It’s simply that De Blasio has been declaring his central and bold goal for more than a year: to reduce the city’s inequality of income and opportunity. His 42-minute speech this afternoon, inside the seafoam green walls of the La Guardia Community College auditorium in Long Island City, attached more spokes to that hub.
Some were worthy and small-bore, like a municipal I.D. card for undocumented immigrants. Some were expansions of policies already in motion, like an increase in the number of city-subsidized jobs required to pay a higher wage. Some were sketchy promises to be filled in later — like an affordable housing blueprint that De Blasio says is due May 1, and a pledge to “reexamine” Sandy recovery programs, which would surely be helped by the mayor hiring a new parks commissioner. Some seemed like premature declarations of victory, like De Blasio’s claim to have stopped Brooklyn hospital closures.
Another major subject received only brief attention, but the tone was familiar. The more De Blasio bemoans the awful, brutal, horrendous challenge of settling the 150 — or maybe it’s 150,000,000 — open union contracts, the more I’m starting to think that he is being sly, that he’s confident the negotiations really aren’t going to be too difficult after all.
The mayor is no doubt right that the number of open contracts is “unprecedented,” and he will certainly encounter some tough bargaining. But De Blasio is not talking about layoffs, and he’s got a budget surplus that may be as much as $4 billion. Back in the bad old seventies, teachers were being axed and New York was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Mayor Abe Beame would have swapped crises with De Blasio in a heartbeat.
Yet today those issues were all detours. The overriding message was that De Blasio is staying tightly focused on inequality, and on his signature effort to win higher taxes on the rich to pay for expanded prekindergarten and after-school plans. Even today’s freshest proposal — to gain local control over the city’s minimum wage — is best viewed as another chip in his poker game with Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature. De Blasio seems to believe that by asking Albany to cede power on multiple fronts he increases his chances of winning the hand he cares about most, the funding of pre-K. Besides, De Blasio might eventually get the minimum wage increase anyway; it’s just that state politicians would prefer to take credit.
As De Blasio spoke in Queens, the state Senate Republican leader, Dean Skelos, was declaring that he’ll block a vote on De Blasio’s tax increase. So even if the mayor’s speech today was lacking in theatrics, the next few weeks won’t be.