The smart line on De Blasio, from just about the beginning of his rise in the polls, has been that he’d picked a fight that he cannot win. Inequality, after all, is a product of global economic forces and national policy choices. And mayors, like presidents, have more rhetorical power than direct control—taxes and major laws run mostly through Albany; control of even the MTA and Port Authority is shared with representatives from the foreign cultures of upstate and New Jersey. For a mayor to make it his mission to force some meaningful consolidation of “two cities” into one seemed a little grand. Adam Davidson, the economics writer for The New York Times Magazine, surveyed the data and the experts and concluded that against the broader forces of inequality De Blasio was, basically, “powerless.”
Powerless—that’s a little extreme. Immigration, after all, was also a product of global forces, mediated by national policy, and though the Progressive Era reformers did not have the power to change the flows of immigration, progressives nevertheless did something even more important, and within their control: They made life more decent for the immigrants. The mayor of New York is the chief executive of a city that is bigger than Israel or Switzerland; the government directly under his control is larger than that of 43 separate states, and the economy under his supervision is roughly the size of Canada’s. Even a partial authority over that much power is a very great deal of power indeed. Consider how radically the last two mayors, by the ends of their terms, had remade the city in their own distinct images.
And yet a program of the scope that De Blasio has begun to sketch out—a symbolic remaking of the city under the banner of affordability—is at least as vast an undertaking as Bloomberg’s or Giuliani’s and arguably more complicated. The first trade-off De Blasio has proposed is about the simplest that he will confront—a somewhat higher marginal municipal tax rate on those making over $500,000 a year in return for universal prekindergarten, which is both an expansion of services to the poor and a cost saver for middle-class parents. Increasing the stock of inexpensive housing and improving our public schools are knottier problems, and it’s far from clear whether this coalition of the emotionally disenfranchised—those making $10,000 and those making $100,000—really does agree on what a better city looks like, or even on a definition of affordable.
But a mayor’s greatest power, says Jonathan Soffer, a scholar of city government in both the Koch administration and the Progressive Era, is often political, “the power to change the corporate culture,” the way the city’s government and the city itself behave. That, yes, and also the power of precedent, the memory that something very similar to his project to correct the excesses of a gilded age has been accomplished, right here, before.