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DeBlasio: A Midterm Evaluation

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Josh Greenman provides a midterm evaluation of Bill DeBlasio. The evaluation and the evaluator are both mixed, as Greenman tends toward conventional wisdom sorts of platitudes that help generate valueless narratives that can dog good politicians.

Start with de Blasio’s record so far. It’s mixed.

On the positive side of the ledger, homicides remain near historic lows while overall crime, the key indicator of the city’s health, continues to drop; this, while the NYPD has stopped and frisked far fewer New Yorkers, reducing to a bare minimum the tactic that drove a wedge between cops and the people they serve. Thank de Blasio for bringing back Bill Bratton, and for ultimately agreeing with his call to add 1,300 new patrolmen.

Civilian fire fatalities are down to historic lows.

Far fewer pedestrians are dying on the streets, an early mark of success in de Blasio’s Vision Zero rethink of the speed limit, intersections and traffic enforcement.

The economy is healthy, with job creation outpacing the rest of the state and the nation. That is not exactly the mayor’s doing, but it’s something for which the chief executive of a city gets credit.

De Blasio carried out his campaign pledge to create a universal pre-K program in one year almost out of whole cloth; 68,500 kids are now enrolled, with nary a hiccup in the rollout.

He’s created a city ID that’s already provided two-thirds of a million people, including undocumented immigrants, identification and free access to museums, zoos and more.

He’s shifted money to neighborhood parks that had fallen into disrepair, even as a few high-profile jewels of the system glistened.

He’s strengthened the safety net for those at the lower end of the economic spectrum by making paid sick leave the law.

He handled public health crises, including the potentially debilitating appearance of Ebola, with competence and calm.

And, with tax collections surging, his fiscal stewardship has been better than many expected from an allegedly wide-eyed liberal. He settled outstanding contracts and has done a “fair to good job” balancing budgets, in the words of one city fiscal hawk. “He deserves lots of credit for not spending it all — he replenished and added to the retiree trust fund and created other reserves.”

That seems pretty bloody good to me. What’s the downside?

Despite an improving economy and a mayoral pledge to wield smart new strategies against homelessness, more unfortunates have shown up on the streets, in parks and on grates. Often abysmal shelters are bursting. Having decried Mike Bloomberg for supposedly callous neglect, de Blasio is so far failing what turns out to be a crucial management test.

His plans to turn around struggling schools have been blurry. In many cases, he has vowed to achieve ambitious if not impossible goals far in the future, even after two terms would be over.

Violence at Rikers Island, the city’s jail, has exploded.

He wasted time and political capital on a failed campaign to freeze the growth of Uber, a car service that threatens political allies in the yellow cab industry but otherwise fills a real need for real New Yorkers.

He’s loosening work requirements in welfare, threatening to turn back a reform that got thousands of poor New Yorkers off the dole and into the workplace.

His political thrusts in Albany — where he’s alienated both the Republicans who control the state Senate and Gov. Cuomo, a fellow Democrat (though, to be fair, both have been out to get him from day one) — have hurt the city.

And he’s had trouble running his own shop at City Hall, with long delays filling key slots and top members of his administration abruptly exiting. As a political veteran who works closely with the administration told me, City Hall is “thin at the top,” so “execution is weak.” And “political agenda trumps substance.”

That’s the record, in a thumbnail. Then there are the promises.

To build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing within a decade. To get all second-graders reading at grade level over that same span. To extend mental health help to thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers who struggle with everything from depression to schizophrenia. To reengineer the city for a future of climate change. To create streets on which no one dies in a car crash, ever.

And, not least, to wrestle with and pin down national and global economic forces whereby rich people keep getting richer, the middle class struggles and the poor are losing hope in economic mobility entirely.

Goals are good. Ambitious goals, maybe even better. But de Blasio’s pledges are so seismic, his language so grandiloquent, that he gives the impression of being insufficiently grounded, destined to overpromise and underdeliver.

This seems slightly unfair to me and I think DeBlasio has been treated unfairly throughout his administration by a cynical media who feels a lot more comfortable with the centrist pablum of Andrew Cuomo than DeBlasio’s crusading liberalism. DeBlasio hasn’t been helped either by the abandonment of some of his allies on the left who expect immediate transformations and who damn politicians to hell the first time they have to compromise or slow down. Here, this isn’t too different than the left response to Obama. If you believe that just electing the right leader will solve your problems, you will always, always, always be disappointed. If we want campaigns that promise transformative change, whether from Obama or DeBlasio, Warren or Sanders, we have to know that they will not actually lead to immediate transformative change. That is on us.

Now, there’s no question that homelessness is a major problem–one that has New York’s rental market at its roots. That’s a hard problem to solve that takes real planning and political acumen. The violence at Rikers is hardly on DeBlasio, but of course he’s going to get blamed for both individual and structural police and correctional officer violence even though those people hate him. His actions against a racist welfare reform system and Uber are largely positive. And opposition from Cuomo and the New York exercise in corruption state legislature should be held in his favor.

So it seems to me that DeBlasio has done as well as can be expected given the circumstances. One certainly wishes for a strong managerial style at the mayor’s office, but providing that immediately can be a problem for an outsider campaign, including Obama’s first year when appointments dripped out and time was wasted as candidates were vetted.

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