De Blasio’s radical agenda
Democrat Bill de Blasio defeated Republican challenger Joe Lhota last Tuesday in the New York City mayoral race by nearly 50 points (73-24), giving Democrats their first mayor elected on the party line since 1993. De Blasio is a self-described “social democrat” in the mold of Europe’s socialist parties, and may turn out to be the most leftwing politician to ever sit in Gracie Mansion. He campaigned on an agenda to turn away from the policies of the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations and usher in an era of “substantial change” in the city. Whether he can turn his overwhelming victory into the progressive agenda he pressed for during the campaign is still unclear. He will have to deal with a state government in Albany with a Republican controlled Senate and overcome likely opposition from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a fellow Democrat.
In an interview on New York public radio during the campaign, de Blasio said in addition to the leftist politics of Europe, he was “very deeply influenced” by liberation theology, “which I learned about in the years I worked on Latin America.” Liberation theology is a movement with its beginnings in the Roman Catholic Church in Central America that seeks to assist the poor by affecting governmental change. The movement is often associated with communist and socialist revolutionary groups in Central and South America. De Blasio said New Yorkers should view him as, “a consistent progressive with a very strong activist worldview.”
That activist worldview was present in de Blasio from his days at NYU in the early 1980s. Bill Wilhelm – he later took his mother’s family name – was a well-known student activist at NYU, leading student protests against tuition increases and demanding student representation on the Board of Trustees. After graduate school at Columbia, where he earned a masters degree in international affairs, de Blasio took a job with the Quixote Center, a Maryland-based organization that worked to raise money and deliver humanitarian aid to supporters of Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. It was 1988, and the United States was supporting the Contra rebels against the socialist Sandinistas led by president Daniel Ortega. De Blasio traveled to Nicaragua to oversee the distribution of aid to families supportive of the government. He remains unapologetic about his support for the Sandinistas.
“I’m very proud to have been deeply involved in a movement that rightfully thought U.S. policy toward Central America was wrong-headed and counter-productive and not in line with our values,” de Blasio told New York public radio. “I’m proud to have been involved in the effort that was challenging that.”
De Blasio’s affinity for leftist politics was an issue in the campaign. He was forced to explain a 1983 trip to Soviet Russia and his 1994 honeymoon in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, in violation of the United States embargo against that communist nation. De Blasio’s campaign explained his Soviet trip as a part of NYU’s Presidential Scholar program, of which he was a member. De Blasio never directly answered questions about his honeymoon, saying only that he has believed that the U.S. embargo has been “counter-productive for a long time.”
De Blasio campaigned on a promise to bring his activist brand of progressive politics to City Hall. In his role as Public Advocate, de Blasio has been a crusader against proactive police tactics put in place under Giuliani that have been widely credited with transforming New York into the safest big city in the country. His office produced a report showing a disparity in the racial makeup of people stopped by the NYPD under the City’s stop and frisk program. De Blasio blames the gap on racial profiling and has vowed to “reform” the program. The City is currently appealing a federal judge’s order blocking stop and frisk. De Blasio vowed on the campaign trail that he would drop the City’s appeal, replace the leadership of the police force, and introduce a “strong racial profiling bill.”
On taxes, de Blasio’s central proposal is a 5-year increase in the City’s income tax on incomes over $500,000. The money raised would be used to fund universal pre-kindergarten and after-school programs for New York school kids. De Blasio promised to replace the tax after five years with another revenue stream or cuts in City spending. But he may not ultimately get his way on revenues. New York City’s income tax is subject to state legislature approval. Even if the bill makes it past the Republican controlled state Senate, Governor Cuomo, who has aspirations to run for president, will likely resist any tax increase in the run up to the presidential campaign.
De Blasio’s activism is most clearly seen in his plans for education. He has for all intents and purposes declared war on charter schools. Charter schools are public-supported schools operated by contract, or charter, which are exempted from many of the regulations governing traditional district schools. The contracting authority—usually the state—gives administrators, teachers and parents greater autonomy in exchange for greater accountability for producing positive and measurable educational success. Typically, charter schools receive less financial support per pupil because they are funded solely by the contracting authority, whereas public schools receive state and local funding. This funding gap can make it very difficult for charter schools to operate in urban areas, where the premium on space causes operating costs to soar. Many city school districts seek to balance the disparity by housing – or co-locating – charter schools inside public schools with available space.
Despite research that shows charter school students outperform their peers in City schools in both reading and math – especially among African-American and Latino students – de Blasio said he “does not favor” charter school education. He has vowed to make the process of co-location more difficult for new charter schools and said he would end the practice of giving co-located charter schools free space. Those comments sparked a protest by thousands of parents, who marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to demand that the City continue its support for the 700,000 students that attend the City’s 180 charter schools. De Blasio remains undeterred.
New York State granted the Mayor’s Office direct control of city schools under Bloomberg, meaning that de Blasio will get to appoint the next City Schools Chancellor. Reports have indicated that he is considering the radical head of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, for the position. Weingarten is a fierce opponent of charter schools, school choice, and even teacher evaluations. Weingarten’s AFT wants little accountability for teachers when students are not learning, and less power for parents to do anything about it.
It speaks volumes about de Blasio’s activism that he would even consider naming a career union head to run the City’s schools. Doing so would be quite literally putting the fox in charge of the henhouse and would have disastrous consequences for the City’s education system. But this is de Blasio’s brand of “strong activism” and “substantial change.” On crime, taxes, and education, de Blasio seems determined not to learn the lessons of the past 20 years in New York City, with the likely result that the New York of the late 1980s and early 1990s will return under his watch. Some progress.
Mark Impomeni is a freelance conservative opinion writer and blogger living in New Jersey.