JAM News
Wednesday, February 17, 2021

A Conversation With the Mayor of New York


In the coming weeks, I plan to interview the candidates for mayor in New York City. But first, I wanted to talk to the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, about his tenure and his views on the future of America's biggest city. Here is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion we had this week; for more interviews in this series, click here.

Howard Wolfson: I watched the film that you posted online as your last State of the City address. What would you say the state of the city is in 2021?

Bill de Blasio: I think we’re in recovery. I really do. I think we are coming back. It’s very interesting. I’ve noticed some of the commentary about Midtown suggesting that there’s not four other boroughs and whole swaths of Manhattan that are already alive and strong. And I think we’ve got to recognize the incredible resiliency. And then we’ve got to recognize that folks stood and fought, and we talked about health-care heroes, but something happened: People made a decision to stand and fight and did really tough things. They did the social distancing, learned a whole new way of life. And there’s a truly heroic story of 2020 that segues into what I think will be a strikingly fast recovery in 2021. 

HW: So the theme of the video was "A Recovery for All of Us.” What does a “recovery for all” look like, and how do you plan to achieve that?

BdB: I think it is a recovery with fairness, it’s a recovery with a sense of equity. It means, for example, as we are creating anew, distributing better, the resources come with it. We talk in the speech about things like putting more money in the hands of minority- and women-owned businesses and getting legislation in Albany so that we can hire community members when there’s new development. Things that are about direct redistribution to the communities hardest hit. The whole city has to come back. And recovery has to be for everyone, including folks who have done well, obviously.

But what we have to recognize after the many truths that came out in 2020 is people have to feel like it really does especially help those who bore the brunt. And I think that’s going to actually be something that gives people a lot of hope for New York City. I don’t think it’s just a matter of justice or feeling pain for those who lost so much. I think it’s also what creates a sustainable city — if there is a sense that we’re here for each of us and that folks who got the short end of the stick are brought into the recovery. And one of the things I talk about in terms of the future’s public-health capital of the world, I truly believe that — I give [the Michael Bloomberg administration] credit by the way — that your vision of making New York City a technology capital ... you had a vision, you made that vision happen. I’m gently borrowing some of the same concepts in terms of how we can be the public-health capital, how we can be a life sciences capital. Well, that is both about how our economy grows, but it’s also how we bring people into that economy. So there’s opportunity for folks, including in a lot of communities that have had less and how we played a public-health division that’s grass-roots-oriented. So New Yorkers are benefiting from the new approaches, not just those of means, but everyday people are benefiting from the lessons we learned in this pandemic. So it’s inclusive. And I think that makes the city stronger for the future. 

HW: One of the keys to recovery, I think you would agree, obviously, is that we get as many New Yorkers vaccinated as possible. You talk in the film about a pledge to ensure that 5 million New Yorkers are vaccinated by June. Are you confident that we’re going to have the supply to get that done? 

BdB: Yes. I would like to have more guarantees and flexibility from the federal and state government — there’s things I’d like to see improvement on. However, as of this evening [Feb. 15], we’re around 1.4 million vaccinations. It’s the middle of February exactly. We’re now at a point where we can do 50,000 a day effortlessly. We’re about to get the Johnson & Johnson with single dose. There’s a lot cutting in our favor. Now, it does depend on what the Biden administration has said about the kind of increase they expect to see month by month and vaccines, but certainly, in terms of our capacity, we can do that unquestionably. If you’ve got 5 million fully vaccinated people out of 8 1/2 million — you’ve got a functional community immunity. That’s the plan, on top of all the people, bluntly, with antibodies who have some form of immunity anyway, there’s overlap there, but I think that’s a point where you’re really able to reopen a lot. And that gives me hope of a summer that the city really comes alive deeply with a whole host of activities. That’s part of why I pegged June, because I don’t want to wait until fall for recovery. I want to see the summer be the pivot of the recovery. 

HW: So you know that Governor Andrew Cuomo is enmeshed in a bit of a scandal over the number of New Yorkers who died of Covid in nursing homes. I know you weighed in on this a little bit on Friday, but I want to ask you if, given the facts and circumstances as you know them, do you think there should be some kind of independent Moreland Commission to look at what happened? [The Moreland Act allows the governor, in person or through those appointed by the governor, to investigate the management and affairs of any department, board, bureau or commission in New York state.] Should the legislature curtail some of the governor’s powers around Covid policy? What specifically should happen in order to get to the bottom of this? 

BdB: I think we need both. This whole thing has to be examined. We need the full truth. It’s extraordinarily troubling on a human level because we don’t even know what it would’ve meant — how many lives might’ve been saved if things had been done differently. And it certainly is not just about looking backward. It’s about looking forward. We need to learn these lessons now — what happened here and what needs to be different in the future. These are our seniors; these are our elders. They were left in an incredibly vulnerable situation, and there was not enough accountability. And it begs the larger point of whether there’s enough accountability when it comes to the state of New York and its actions in general. And certainly, it’s time for the state of emergency powers to be curtailed and restore control to localities who are much more accountable by nature. And I think this is an object lesson of why we’ve got to get localities positioned again to address the needs of their people and not be hamstrung constantly by the state.

HW: You know, I talked to a lot of my friends here who have no idea whether the governor or the mayor determines Covid policy around any specific issue. I’m sure that is frustrating for you. When you talk to New Yorkers who are frustrated by restaurant openings or confused by who is in control of what, what do you tell them? 

BdB: First of all, I think you’re absolutely right. People do not recognize the differences between different levels of government, and why should they be experts in that? For all of us who have spent our lives in the public world, that’s one thing, but I don’t blame anyone with a whole busy life to lead, that they don’t know the nuances of each level of government. What I would say is it is not an unchangeable situation. And one of the really interesting experiences in these last seven years was managing the dialogue about the MTA. And I came to a very sharp conclusion that we have to set the record straight because we couldn’t make progress until there was an ownership structure around the MTA that was broadly acknowledged. And I’m actually proud of the fact that in these last few years, people have come to understand the state runs the MTA. And by the way, that made the state have to act. You’ve seen night and day levels of responsibility. I don’t agree with everything they’ve done, but they certainly have taken more responsibility and have to own it, and that’s a good thing. So that’s a broad point: that I don’t think these things are always static. I think on things like restaurants, it has been confusing, and I think it would actually be a lot better if people knew the power had devolved down to the local level and they could hold us accountable. But I try to give people a sense of which.

HW: One of the impacts of Covid is on the budget. You’ve got a roughly $5 billion deficit. What’s the plan for closing that gap in the coming months? 

BdB: We did a budget that did not assume a single dollar of stimulus. The governor did a budget that assumes you got $6 billion minimum, and they did another scenario, which is much more generous stimulus, but his budgets all involved a stimulus scenario. It’s another example of how we have to take responsibility at the local level and we actually have to balance our budget — so without stimulus, which is still something we have to be ready for. We’ve done a certain amount of attrition. We did furloughs for senior managers, myself included. We have found a lot of deep savings, including health-care savings over time, working with labor. We still need to find more labor savings going forward. And even though I very much want to do everything to avoid layoffs, we have been clear with labor that we have to keep finding savings each year. 

HW: Does that mean that layoffs are conceivably on the table for this year if certain savings targets aren’t met?

BdB: They’re not on the table for the current fiscal year. We’ve been able to now formally avert that. But for the next fiscal year, there’s a billion-dollar labor savings need, which we would obviously strongly prefer to achieve through many creative things we can do with labor and time savings. And generally, I would say that overwhelmingly, unions have been at the table in that dialogue throughout this crisis. No one’s acting like there’s not a problem here. So in that scenario, we would work to achieve those savings. Now imagine there’s an absolutely, positively, no-stimulus scenario. Then, that will lead to huge state cuts. You’ve seen the state rob money from localities before — it would be to the tune of easily $2 billion, $3 billion just for showing up in terms of city budget. In that scenario, everything goes back on the table.

HW: Since before you were elected, you have been a very strong advocate of raising taxes on the wealthy. Has your thinking at all changed given how much easier it is for people to work outside the city now?

BdB: No, and not because I can’t conceptualize the changing environment or the new concerns that might come with it. It’s compositing everything. OMB did this analysis for me a year-plus ago. I asked them to compare outflow and inflow of millionaires and billionaires, and their answer was the rough equivalency of outflow and inflow of people who are already millionaires and billionaires. But the more interesting pattern was how many New Yorkers had become millionaires in recent years, pre-pandemic. I think that pattern will repeat going forward. I think there’s a thousand reasons why people come here going back many generations; I think that will just continue and deepen. So I don’t worry about the vibrancy or autonomy.

Again, I’ll tip my cap because I know how to disagree with my predecessor, but I also have said many times that diversifying the economy so consciously was a really fantastic move for the city. And we’re trying to now build on that further with life sciences, but we’ve got an extraordinarily diverse economy. This is one of the few places in the world where you can literally access every major industry simultaneously. People are still going to want to be here and have to be here. And then when you talk about the individual reality, I think there’s a lot of events. Historically, the wealthy folks don’t move over marginal changes in the tax rate, and they just got a huge tax break from Donald Trump a few years ago and the stock market is booming. So it doesn’t add up to me as an environment that people would want to run away from. I think there’s a lot of people that are going to want to be a part of the comeback in New York City.

HW: So one of the industries that is the bedrock of New York, despite the diversification, is Wall Street. What’s your view on a financial transaction tax that some in Albany are proposing? 

BdB: I think it has to be done on a federal level. I think it should be done on a federal level. There are a number of specific proposals for raising taxes on the wealthy in New York state. I think there’s plenty of others that are straightforward and would raise appropriate revenue to help us have the recovery for everyone. But that particular one could create inadvertent competition between states and cities and disadvantage us in the process. And I don’t think that’s the right way to do it. I think it can and should be done, but should be done federally.

HW: I don’t think any sector of society has been more impacted by Covid than our school system here. How well do you think the city schools are serving parents and students right now? 

BdB: I think in-person instruction is strong. And as a strange, unexpected byproduct of this crisis, you have the smaller class size everyone dreamed of — I’ve heard this directly from educators. No one would ever want it to happen this way, but it’s happening. I’ve been in New York City school classrooms. That is just the strangest thing to see — nine desks or 10 desks or 11 desks in a classroom. As we have moved back to a five-day-a-week model, you’ve got kids learning, in many cases every day with a third of the students that used to be in a classroom. Imagine the amount of individualization that’s now happening in their education. And on top of that, the impact of digital education, which again was “necessity is the mother of invention.” The amount of innovation and digital education that’s happened in wartime battlefield conditions has been breathtaking. That’s going to allow us to individualize instruction in amazing ways, but it’s already happening in person with kids having so much more time with their teachers. That’s the good part. The remote side is a double-edged sword. For some kids, it’s worked well and obviously offers a lot of flexibility, but it just cannot do what in-person education can do. And it’s very hard to create enough momentum with each child. And a lot of kids have gone through tremendous mental-health challenges being isolated from their peers. So that’s a part of why I’ve been adamant about trying to maximize in-person education. I think we have an opportunity to go a lot farther this year, this school year. Middle school [reopening] is 10 days away, high school after that. And then I’m hoping for the kind of change in the health-care situation, even by April or May, where we can bring back a lot more kids. 

HW: In your State of the City address, you pledge that you’re going to “end street homelessness as we know it.” What does that mean exactly, given that there are about 3,800 street homeless on any given night? Are you really going to get that number down to zero? Is that the goal? 

BdB: No, and I want to be very straightforward about that. When we put forward the plan, which did get some important attention, it was just weeks before the pandemic hit so it never really got to take off as much as we wanted. The Journey Home plan focuses on getting people off the streets and into safe havens in a very different strategic way than we ever have before. We just committed, in the State of the City now, to 2,000 additional safe-haven beds because they’ve been working. What the Journey Home does is very intensive outreach, and this is why it really is different than anything we’ve tried before. We will have an outreach worker, or teams of outreach workers engage a street homeless person, a dozen, two dozen, a hundred times, whatever it takes to crack the code on what’s going to convince them to come in. And oftentimes we’re finding it is a safe-haven bed in the right location, at the right moment, when they’re willing. And then once you get them into that safe-haven bed, convincing them to stay long enough that they benefit from the mental-health services or the substance-misuse services, and their life starts to open up and change.

That kind of very hands-on, labor-intensive, right-moment-right-place kind of approach, we think will start to profoundly reduce the number of street homeless, particularly the folks who’ve been out there multiple years. When I say “as we know it,” it’s because we believe this approach will allow us to fundamentally reduce the number of people who have been on the streets for a long time. When New Yorkers experience street homelessness, it’s that group of people who have been out there three and four and five years each that define it for most people — the person they see constantly out on the street. That’s the person we believe we can get in once and for all.

HW: Murder was up 40% last year. It was the biggest one-year increase since World War II. Your police commissioner, Dermot Shea, has blamed the increase on changes to the state’s bail laws. Is that your view as well? 

BdB: Respectfully, I don’t think that’s the fullness of his view. He is the first to say, as I do: We have experienced the perfect storm here in 2020. We had an absolute profound social dislocation. People lost work. Their kids weren’t in school. Houses of worship were shut. Everything that anchors society fell apart in short order. That created a lot of dysfunction that expressed itself in violence in too many cases. And all of that’s being reglued right now, and rapidly. We’re seeing the changes happening on the ground in neighborhoods. And meanwhile, NYPD is doing a hell of a lot more gun arrests. I am really confident that 2021 is going to look and feel and be very different. That to me is the central reality. When you think about both my six years previous and the experience your administration had, we obviously had proven, even going back to CompStat in 1994, New York City was on a steady crime-reduction trajectory. You can’t say one year in a global pandemic means that everything we learned for a quarter-century was wrong. So I really feel strongly that we’ll be able to come back. But the single biggest factor in that comeback of public safety is deepening trust with communities, because one of the things NYPD leadership will say is that we need more people to come forward as witnesses or, God forbid, they’re victims of crime. We need that sense of trust to deepen. 

HW: Can I ask you about that, Mr. Mayor? You were a profound critic of a lot of the policing tactics and strategies of our administration. And I think it’s fair to say that that was important in your election. Honestly, given that, I was surprised to hear you say in your State of the City and surprised to hear it just now that seven years into your term, you’re still talking about deepening and improving police-community relations. Isn’t that something that has been, or should have been, a focus of your administration from Day One? 

BdB: Yeah, and I feel up until the pandemic, I feel there’s a pretty consistent through line of improved trust. I certainly think neighborhood policing has worked as a strategy on many levels, and we saw crime go down with fewer arrests. We saw less incarceration, a lot of really sharp metrics that proved you could combine more trust with more safety. But the pandemic created massive disruption. And obviously the pandemic also was, I think, the No. 1 contributing factor to the deep social unrest that occurred in 2020. Which is not for a second to negate 400 years of broken history that was the true foundation. But the pandemic supercharged everything. And I think it unfortunately makes sense that if people have been through that much disruption and so much anger has been expressed, that doesn’t go away overnight. It takes time to deepen trust. But you’ll remember after the protests, there were some very tough months and we did see communities start to come out and really coalesce with police because everyone had a common interest in safety. I think we need to deepen that in 2021. 

HW: Let me shift gears a little bit. We talked a fair amount about policy to the upcoming mayor’s race, which is going to be the focus of this interview series. I think a lot of people are interested in whether or not you’re going to endorse in the Democratic primary for mayor. Do you have plans to do that? 

BdB: I am reserving my rights at this point. I’m watching carefully and I want to see how things develop. I’m very concerned that we continue the progress that the city has made in recent years. But I do not start with an assumption either way of getting in or not getting in terms of my voice. I’m just going to watch and wait for a while.

HW: What do you think of the field so far and what do you think of the campaigns so far? 

BdB: It’s a crowded field, so I would say it’s hard to hear the particular visions breaking through at this point. I’m trying to compare it to my year in 2013, but it’s hard to compare because we’re in the middle of this deeper crisis and that’s where so much energy and attention is. But it does feel crowded. It feels like it hasn’t really developed at this point as a larger public discourse. There’s some talented people for sure, but I think in terms of the magnitude of what we’re up against and on actual discussion of what it’s going to take to create a recovery for all of us, I think we’re only scratching the surface right now in this campaign debate. 

HW: I’ve been struck at how critical the three people who worked for you have been of you in the context of the campaign. And I realize they may have their own political imperatives or different set of policy critiques, but does it bother you that the folks who worked for you who are now running for mayor have been so critical? 

BdB: That’s politics as usual, and I’m not a big fan of politics as usual. Is that the oldest trick in the book? Of course, to differentiate. Whether it is sincere or disingenuous is another question. Whether it is an accurate understanding of what the public feels and the voters feel is another question, but it doesn’t surprise me.

HW: So, I’m actually an undecided voter, and I suspect that I will have a fair number of readers of the series who are undecided. What question should I ask the people who are running that you think would help me and would help other people make up their mind about who to vote for?

BdB: Show us how you’re going to do the things you say you’re going to do. I think that’s the central question. There’s a wide range of people in this field, but this is the major leagues. Convince us that you have what it takes and that you can actually take ideas and put them into action. Where are the proof points? I think a lot of folks have their sort of understandable glib, immediate proof points, but this is a crisis. This is not a typical year. Show us how you are actually going to move the levers of government on behalf of the people and bring the city back strong in an equitable fashion. How — not sound bites — are you going to actually do that? That would be my question. 

HW: How has the change in the media landscape informed your communication strategies as mayor? Are the tabloids less important? Are “mainstream” media less important than they were?

BdB: That would be the topic for a one-hour interview. So I will only say something very, very basic. I think communicating directly to the people is more important than it’s ever been. I think we’re all just beginning to understand how to do that. I think it’s tragic that Donald Trump developed one version of that, and such a destructive version of that. But I think for saner, more responsible folks, figuring out what that ongoing communication directly to the people looks like is still an unwritten book.

I’ve never been able to do this scientifically, and I’m not the person to go to for an analysis of social media, but in 2013 our campaign was doing better than any normal sort of listening stations or normal metrics would indicate. And I kept trying to figure out why. I felt it. I knew it was happening and I knew it was aligning to our plan, but I kept trying to say, Show me the pieces. And I came to a realization that it is not seeable and it’s not knowable. When word spreads, it happens through parent blogs and it happens through union newsletters, and it happens through word of mouth and a thousand permutations of social media. It’s not traceable anymore. We came up in a world where we thought we could actually see, and we thought we could actually assess, and you cannot assess anymore in my opinion. But if you have something truly important to say, if you build it, they will come.

HW: I don’t know if you remember, but in one of the dark moments of the [2000 U.S. Senate] campaign where Hillary Clinton was really taking it on the chin from one of the tabloids, she proposed an idea that we would print our own newspaper. We would call it “The Truth” or something like that. And we would have little kids hand them out in Midtown, like the scene from “Newsies.” And I think you and I managed to convince her that that might be somewhat impractical, but the idea of going around the media was certainly one that existed then. The means to do so didn’t exist in the way that they do now. 

BdB: The media is important, and it’s in many ways richer and more diverse than it ever has been. But there is something beyond the media and I don’t think anyone fully understands it, but it is important to think of all the ways to communicate to people and the many ways to directly say something.

HW: I’ll ask one more question. If you look back on the last year of living with Covid ... given what you know now, is there anything that you would have done differently?

BdB: That’s a huge question. Obviously all of us in this country were flying very blind. We didn’t have testing, we didn’t have facts. Well into the crisis, the evidence came out that the disease was already pervasive in the city in February. We had no clue of that. This is so hard to think about because even to this day, we don’t fully understand Covid, the scientific community doesn’t fully understand Covid, but back in the beginning, what we didn’t know was striking and troubling. I was one of the first to call for shelter in place; if I had known more, I would have called for it even sooner. But I am glad I did it when I did. I can question anything I did or anyone did in different ways. But I think the central thing I learned fairly early on was that we had to be very cautious in our approach, very data-driven. I had interesting interactions with Albany, as you will remember, but it became clear to me pretty early on — I think the day I called for a shelter in place, this was the 16th of March, something like that — it was clear to me that we had to take a much more rigorous approach. You’ll remember, there was a period of time when people were talking about reopening schools in the last school year, and I was quite clear that couldn’t happen. It became clear to me it had to be health first and then everything else would come from that. And that I think has proven to be accurate. But if you said, What would we have done if we had the full knowledge we have now? We would have done so many things differently. It’s striking what all of us didn’t know and is humbling. Let’s learn the lessons now is all I can say. 


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