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’Wise up! We’re trying to run a city, not a damned democracy,” barks Deputy Mayor Warren LaSalle in one of the best Big Apple movies ever made, 1974’s “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” — a plaintively hilarious, essentially timeless and all-too-rare capture of the frictions generated when politics collides with governance.
So, nearly five decades on, this question: What is the state of democracy in New York as the city enters the final year of Bill de Blasio’s stunning shipwreck of a mayoralty?
Vibrant, it seems, but still very much at odds with competent governance — not that Gothamites would have it any other way.
There are, of course, more Red Sox fans than Republicans in New York, the GOP lately being the kitchen fire extinguisher people keep for emergencies. Yet even given Gotham’s one-party playing field, there is some surprising diversity in its politics: multiple shades of left, to be sure, but diversity nonetheless.
There are at least five wings of the Democratic Party in the city — six, if you count the United Federation of Teachers — which makes for a very strange-looking bird, indeed. The factions are well-illustrated by, but not limited to, the current mayoral field and include:
- The Dilettante Wing, perhaps best represented by mayoral aspirant and erstwhile presidential gadfly Andrew Yang, who has never voted in a city mayoral election; who sat out the brunt of the pandemic in New Paltz and who, if elected, would be the first person born in Schenectady to become mayor. Among other things, he wants a universal basic income for all city residents, a magnet guaranteed to attract the poor from all over the Northeast to the detriment of the municipal fisc.
- The Progressive Wing, personified in former de Blasio aide and adviser Maya Wiley, who thinks the city has too many cops, who wants to confront gun violence with social workers and who basically favors an indefinite ban on residential evictions. She is another-worldly mirror-image of the current mayor, which, given how he’s worked out, should be disqualifying. But this is New York, so she is doubtless a contender.
- The Perpetual-Presence Wing, represented by city Comptroller Scott Stringer and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. Both are 60 years old, and each has been on one public payroll or another since age 23. If either had any answers, New York would have heard them by now, but in this faction, longevity trumps creativity; players start young, bind to supportive special interests and wait. It’s how de Blasio became mayor, so don’t discount these two, either.
- The Principle-Fluid Wing, most notably led at present by de Blasio himself. He transitioned seamlessly from Perpetual Presence to Progressive to short-attention-span Dilettante in what seemed like the blink of an eye. He is an unmoored person for whom no left-wing niche is too obscure for pandering — and his number is legion in New York politics. (Exhibit B here is state Sen. Brad Hoylman, a candidate for Manhattan borough president now strongly supporting the decriminalization of public prostitution, because that’s what some transgender activists want — and because, hey, you can never have too much street disorder, right?)
- The Wrath of God Wing, solely populated at the moment by the endlessly glowering Andrew Cuomo, who isn’t actually mayor but who acts like he is — and who is ready, able and eager to hurl thunderbolts at City Hall. The feckless de Blasio is the author of many of his own problems, but Cuomo’s ceaseless hectoring, and his my-way-or-the-highway approach to Albany-Gotham cooperation, has done colossal damage in recent years. If you doubt it, take a closer look at New York’s chaotic vaccine roll-out.
Again, the UFT can’t be discounted, nor can the other unions, the real-estate industry, the city’s hospitals and universities, its supremely self-serving not-for-profit industry and its always-grasping activist communities. These are all players who are interested in good governance only when it suits their purposes.
Notwithstanding the focused, sanity-centric but overmatched mayoral candidacies of former city Veteran’s Affairs Commissioner Loree Sutton and one-time Citi executive Ray McGuire, New York City’s political class doesn’t seem overly interested in good governance, either — at least judging from the quality of its top-tier mayoral candidates.
They’ve got their damned democracy down pat, but are any of them up to running a city laid low by pandemic? Where have you gone, Deputy Mayor Warren LaSalle?
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