Today I took a photo with the 50 carpenters that got the Staten Island beaches open again. If you take a look at what we did after Hurricane Sandy, it’s a phenomenal job. New Jersey—the Times writes stories about how they’re not done yet. Nassau, Suffolk, not done yet. In New York—in the Rockaways, Staten Island, Coney Island—it’s not perfect, but we got 20,000 homes heat and hot water within two months of starting work.
So I took pictures with these carpenters and each comes through, “Great job, love working for you, thanks.” They don’t have to say that. One guy glared at me. He really glared. He wasn’t sure he was going to shake my hand and have a picture. He did. And he walked away and I looked at the back of his T-shirt: UNION TIL I DIE. Maybe he thinks I’m not pro-union.
Is that a fair charge?
I’m the only one who’s defended the unions in the city. I think without them, it’d be very hard to govern.
Many New Yorkers who agree with the results of your policies don’t like the way the changes got done. They feel like it was forced on them.
Is it naïve to think big changes could have been done differently, with more consensus?
It’s called leadership! We did not take a vote on smoking first. You never would have gotten it passed. But everybody agrees that ban was one of the best things we ever did—saves 10,000 lives a year. Everybody loves it. I think history shows that strong leaders are the ones who make progress.
When you’re criticized for imposing a “nanny state”—
Oh, come on! Everybody loves it! Graydon Carter wrote the nastiest editor’s letter—now he will tell you I saved his life. Literally. His wife thinks I saved his life. Fran Lebowitz is probably the only person whose life I haven’t saved.
On schools, given the issues involved, and the importance of the teachers union, was it bound to be contentious and hostile?
I don’t blame everything on the union. The union’s job is not to educate the kids, it’s not to improve the school system; it’s to get the best working conditions, fewest hours, and the most money for its members. They will fight and die to prevent their members from ever being evaluated and pushed out of the job if the results aren’t there.
Bill Thompson, after getting the UFT endorsement, said he wouldn’t “demonize teachers” if he’s mayor. Have you demonized teachers?
No; the only ones that demonize teachers are the UFT. Most teachers, if you survey them, want to be treated as professionals. Mike Mulgrew [compared them to] truck drivers. I don’t think most teachers want to be compared to truck drivers.
No mayor has ever given as big of a raise to teachers as I have. I think it was something like 43 percent day one. Before, we couldn’t recruit and we couldn’t retain. Today, a teacher that started out five or six years ago making $60,000 can be at $80,000. We’ve done a lot for the teachers, and I think they appreciate it. They’ve done a lot too. They really have improved the school system. It is dramatically better.
You’re a believer in the empirical, in data. But after all the changes in standards, is there any credibility in the test scores and graduation rates?
It is very hard to explain complex numbers in a sound bite.
But when the numbers went up, you were very happy to say so.
Yes. Compare us to Rochester: I think we’re at 30 percent up to standards. Rochester is at 5—5 percent! We’ve caught up to the whole state!
You’ve been a Democrat. You’ve been a Republican. You’re currently an Independent. Which party do you feel closest to now?
I would describe myself as a social liberal and a fiscal conservative. But I think I’m too liberal for the liberals, because I actually try to deliver the services rather than just promise them. If they delivered everything they promised, nobody could afford it. I actually am a conservative more so than other conservatives in the sense that I think you could go and cut 2 or 3 percent out of the budget in every agency. We’ve done that twelve times, and we’ve cut roughly a billion and a half and there’s six-odd billion that’s recurring, and you can go and cut people or find other revenue sources. There are ways to do those things.
But given the Republican intransigence on things you care about, you can’t really be so evenhanded about the parties.
There are plenty of Democrats who I don’t agree with. I can’t get them to vote for a bill to stop this carnage with guns on our streets. I don’t see the party rushing out and trying to throw those members out. They’re not without sin, both sides.