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New York City Politics Is Still a Bunch of Warring Ethnic Tribes

Bill de Blasio is having a rough time navigating the messy reality of transactional politics in the five boroughs.
March 26, 2014, 3:45pm

Mayor Bill de Blasio, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and a smattering of activists/elected officials at a "unity rally'" last fall. Photo via Flickr user Jere Keys

Though he was seemingly invincible after cruising to a landslide win over a joker of a Republican opponent in November, nowadays Bill de Blasio, the onetime progressive messiah and current New York City mayor, is struggling. Polls show his approval rating has sunk below 50 percent, and it's clear he's finding it impossible to satisfy the city's hodgepodge of competing ethnic factions and interest groups jockeying for influence. He's still polling relatively well among blacks and Hispanics, but whites are downright skeptical, with a plurality expressing pessimism about the city’s future under the Sandinista-in-chief. So after a mayoral race that appeared to unite the city—de Blasio won more than 70 percent of the vote, the most of any candidate in decades—his most committed supporters are naturally a bit nervous that the left-wing utopia they were promised is in serious jeopardy.

Some of the mayor's growing pains are natural given that his campaign was about calls for social progress, but his tenure so far has been full of the headaches inherent in mundane tasks like deciding whether or not to close city schools in anticipation of snow. Erstwhile fans of Barack Obama will recall how miserable the first few weeks of each term were, when the hope generated by his inspiring campaigns gave way to economic teams littered with alumni of Wall Street megabanks. De Blasio, who has spent most of his career as a Democratic political strategist, is playing the game by the same rules as everyone else—so far, he's made shameless appeals to every tangible constituency while publicly saying most of the right things to soothe the powerful elites who look back fondly on the days of Michael Bloomberg's luxury city.

“He is doing exactly what he said he would do and for the constituency that elected him,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran NYC Democratic political consultant. “New York City politics was ethnic before it was racial, and it has always been tribal: groups in competition with each other for limited resources.”

(We recently got a refresher in this dynamic from a New York Times investigation that showed how Sheldon Silver, now the speaker of the state Assembly, blocked affordable housing for decades in a temporarily successful bid to preserve the Jewish identity of the Lower East Side—and with it, his own political power.)

Beloved by minorities and white liberals, de Blasio was never going to keep three quarters of America’s largest city happy, not with an ambitious reform agenda that has already produced one of the more progressive paid-sick-leave laws in the country, which the mayor signed triumphantly at an artisanal ice cream factory in Brooklyn last week. Its beneficiaries will overwhelmingly be black and Latino, and the same goes for de Blasio's universal, government-funded pre-kindergarten initiative, which appears likely to come to fruition (albeit not by way of taxing the rich, as the mayor hoped) after months of maneuvering by Governor Andrew Cuomo and state legislators in Albany.

Meanwhile, one group the mayor has yet to deliver any real goods for is the city's Muslim community, which was systematically surveilled by the NYPD under Bloomberg and his police commissioner, Ray Kelly. We still don't know what will become of New York's global anti-terrorism apparatus: John Miller, the former journalist and press flack whom current police commissioner Bill Bratton tapped to head up the department’s Intelligence Division, told the City Council last week that he was having a hard time getting a handle on his new domain.

“To be honest with you, when I said I want to see our policies for intelligence collections and investigations, it was hard to get a hold of them. When I finally got them, [the manual] stood a foot tall,” Miller said when asked about Muslim surveillance. He suggested that an internal review of surveillance practices would take months to complete. In the meantime, an NYPD inspector general will be named in a matter of weeks, offering the prospect of at least some kind of police oversight. Even with that delay, Muslim and Arab American advocates who supported de Blasio's campaign are heartened by conspicuous outreach from Bratton and his deputies—they never got that kind of attention under Bloomberg.

“So far, they’re putting the lie to the idea that you can either have a safe city or a decent one,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former Brooklyn cop and prosecutor who advised de Blasio’s campaign on criminal justice policy and was involved in his transition this winter.

But balancing concern for the groups traditionally on the fringe of city life with the need to avoid upsetting more powerful interests like Brooklyn's massive and politically influential Orthodox Jewish community (which de Blasio has been courting for decades) will be tricky. There are a handful of Orthodox operatives with prominent roles in his administration, but so far, at least, no visible presence for Muslim or Arab Americans with the exception of Sherif Soliman, former communications director for the NYC Employees' Retirement System, who was chosen to act as the mayor's voice in Albany (which speaks to a desire to reassure conservatives in the Orthodox world more than anything else).

"Many of those who feared a bomb-throwing radical have been pleasantly surprised by his appointments," said David Luchins, a professor at Touro College in Manhattan and an expert on the city's Orthodox community.

You can't keep everyone happy all of the time, however, and de Blasio has quickly made his share of outright enemies. Charter-school advocates like former councilwoman Eva Moskowitz think he's on a quest to destroy them on behalf of his allies in local teachers' unions. Everyone from actor Liam Neeson to the AFL-CIO is miffed at his insistence on banning horse-drawn carriages. And a botched handling of one of this winter's many storms nearly sent the Upper East Side into outright rebellion—and provided the right-wing New York Post, which accused de Blasio of being a commie during the campaign, with another chance to call him incompetent.

His low approval ratings are likely frustrating to de Blasio's team, because New Yorkers actually agree with him on most issues. The easy part, they're finding out, was getting their guy elected—the hard part is figuring out how to force everyone to get along.

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