How Bill de Blasio became the mayor for the 99 per cent

“Bill de Blasio will be a mayor for every New Yorker – and I would say that even if he weren’t my dad.”

In the evening of 5 November, in the Brooklyn suburb of Park Slope, Bill de Blasio arrived at his victory party to an unusual tune. Political playlists are usually anodyne but de Blasio strode in to the thumping strains of a new pop song, “Royals”, by a singersongwriter from New Zealand called Lorde. The crowd, young, left-wing and delirious with success, went wild.

De Blasio is seen in Brooklyn – and in Queens and the Bronx – as an antidote to Manhattan’s politics-as-usual. He ran a Robin Hood campaign, promising to be the mayor for “the 99 per cent”, to raise taxes on the super-rich to pay for education and to build plenty of affordable housing.

“Royals” is about the excesses of the music industry rather than New York but it fits the zeitgeist well. “In a torn-up town,” Lorde sings, her soulful voice draped over a thick bass beat, “we’ll never be royals . . .” It was a neat choice. The song is an anthem of anti-consumerist counterculture that encapsulates de Blasio’s campaign narrative: a surge of progressive energy, the revolt of the outer boroughs against the glittering millionaires of Manhattan.

It is partly a quirk of circumstance that de Blasio is following two Republican mayors in liberal New York. Both were elected in times of crisis: Rudolph Giuliani in 1993 at the height of an epidemic of violent crime and Michael Bloomberg at the end of 2001 while the dust from the World Trade Center was still settling. In both cases, stability, safety and security were temporarily the most important issues.

As with Boris Johnson in London, personality is also a factor. Bloomberg is not your ordinary Republican. He infuriates the right and he governs in a European style, a centraliser and a paternalist. He brought in a smoking ban, cracked down on giant servings of unhealthy fizzy drinks, brought in regulation to reduce air pollution and brought the ailing public school system under mayoral control.

Boris would love to be able to copy Bloomberg’s style but his position is much weaker. New York and London are roughly the same size, with populations of around eight million people, but the mayor of New York has wide executive powers over the city’s education, sanitation, police and emergency services and a budget of $70bn, as well as the ability to levy some taxes. By comparison, the mayor of London controls only the transport and parts of the police authority.

Bloomberg’s philosophy was to make the city more attractive for the wealthy in order to fund philanthropic policies. It worked but while New York prospered, many chafed at the widening gap between rich and poor. They felt Manhattan had become a playground for the elite; that they were being priced out of their own city.

Enter Bill de Blasio. Born in Manhattan but raised in Massachusetts, he worked for the Clinton administration before running successfully for city council in 2001, then became the New York public advocate in 2009. That is a highly visible position, a sort of city ombudsman, but has no executive responsibilities, which makes it an excellent place to build a progressive platform without having to deal with realpolitik.

Yet in the mayoral campaign, it wasn’t de Blasio’s ideology that attracted people’s attention: it was his family. At the beginning of August, de Blasio was still lagging 10 points behind the city council speaker, Christine Quinn, and even half a point behind the scandalmired Anthony Weiner, in the race to be the Democratic candidate.

Then on 9 August, de Blasio’s campaign ran an ad featuring his photogenic – and biracial – teenage son Dante. It ends, touchingly: “Bill de Blasio will be a mayor for every New Yorker – and I would say that even if he weren’t my dad.” Its effect was sensational. In the next day’s polls, de Blasio leaped ahead.

After he won the primary, the campaign turned quiet – dull, even. His Republican opponent, a thoughtful but unexciting transport executive called Joe Lhota, failed to capture the public imagination. Just 40 minutes after the polls closed, Lhota called to concede. De Blasio had won by more than 50 percentage points.

Yet the new mayor-elect already faces a battle. The city’s nearly 300,000 municipal workers have been in deadlock with city hall over pay. Their contracts urgently need renegotiating and there is already a $2bn budget deficit. Finding a settlement will be the first test of de Blasio’s administrative mettle.

Meanwhile, “Royals” is still at number one in the Billboard charts. “Let me be your ruler,” Lorde sings from a thousand cab radios, melody climactic, beat pulsing. “And I’ll rule, rule, rule, rule.”

Nicky Woolf writes for the New Statesman website from the US

A newly elected Mayor de Blasio hugs his son Dante and his daughter Chiara. Image: Getty

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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What will it take for people to care about climate change?

A record-breaking heat wave in Rajasthan reveals how badly we lack the necessary infrastructure to cope with the human suffering climate change is already causing.

The question of whether or not climate change is real is rapidly becoming less urgent than what can be done to alleviate the human suffering it is causing. In Rajasthan, north-west India this week, the mercury hit 51 degrees celsius (123°F). That’s the hottest temperature on record in the country. Hospitals are swamped with patients suffering heatstroke and dehydration. The year’s harvest is shrivelling in the ground. People are cooking to death on public transport. Yesterday, a camel left alone in the sun went mad and chewed its owner’s head off. That’s how hot it is in Rajasthan right now. 

In rural areas, where there is no electricity, no fresh water, nothing to cool you but the breeze, citizens are demanding that the government take responsibility and offer relief, provide shelter, water and basic cooling facilities. That’s the sort of heroism that should be unnecessary in the middle of a heatwave: it takes enough energy to lobby local bureaucracy at the best of times, let alone when it’s hot enough that livestock have become homicidal. 

I’ve been obsessed with this story for days, because it’s my personal nightmare. I loathe the heat. The cold, at least, can usually be escaped; heat leaves me drained and frightened. I can’t sleep under duvets. I become a limp dishrag in summer, and temperatures of over thirty degrees celsius regularly see me with my head in an open refrigerator, cursing my grandparents’ decision to become citizens of a country that does not consider air conditioning a necessary artefact of civilisation. But air conditioning is also upsetting: when the merciful roar of the high-energy unit kicks in, you can practically hear the sizzling fossil fuels soothing you with the cool breeze of complicity. In the heat, all I can do is overthink. I would not cope in Rajasthan. I can barely cope with Brighton in July.

The British national sport of complaining about the weather is becoming increasingly insensitive. After three centuries of merrily conquering other nations and building bonfires out of their resources to light our way to a place of power in a burning world, we are still inhabiting one of the only landmasses where the weather isn't actively trying to kill us all the time. Pleasant as it is to carp and moan every time the temperature moves outside the ten-degree range I happen to find comfortable, the temperate, drizzle-through-the-sunshine British climate is pretty much as good as it gets, on a global scale. In fact, on that same global scale, Britain has some claim for having had the most benefit out of fossil fuels for the least climate cost. If we’re not going to cough up reparations, the least we can do is stop whining.

I mention all this for two reasons. Firstly, because the manifestations and implications of climate change are frightening wherever you happen to live, and I find sprinkle of weak humour makes the whole thing bearable, makes me less likely to panic and tap out of the entire discussion as something that's not relevant to me right now because for the meantime, at least, I’m comfy indoors and it’s raining outside.

Secondly, because when the lives and livelihoods of so many are at stake – when the topic for discussion is not tens or thousands but millions of people actually cooking in the unnatural heat – you run into a phenomenon that rationalists call “scope insensitivity”. Let’s say that my nightmare is overwhelming, inescapable heat. I can imagine, viscerally, physically, how it might feel to be trapped in a 51 degree outdoor oven. I can be scared and outraged that there are no emergency shelters being built, no cool water on offer, that so little is being done to alleviate that suffering, when I picture one, or two, or ten strangers sweltering through it. 

But the knowledge that the population of Rajasthan is 73.5 million does not make me 73.5 million times as frightened outraged. My heart cannot hold that much heat-terror. That’s not how the human heart is designed. And that’s what scope insensitivity is: on a species level, it is psychologically extremely difficult to summon the appropriate level of empathy and translate that empathy into action.

That doesn’t mean it’s not useful – vital – to try. Our understanding of urgency has got to scale up. Any useful response to the growing climate crisis will require precisely the sort of collective action on a global, state and local level that neoliberal governments around the world have turned their faces from, either actively destroying the necessary infrastructure to cope with human suffering or refusing to build it in the first place. In a burning world, the time has surely come for lifesaving infrastructure in which everyone is invested. 

As climate change becomes a reality for billions of people all over the world, what are the demands going to be? In Rajasthan, the immediate need is obvious: for tents, cold water, more reliable electricity, contingency plans to deal with coming food shortages, and better provision of amenities for rural communities. The longer-term need is much like everyone else’s: for the governments of the world to earmark enough resources to tackle the human effects of the inhuman weather we’re all going to be suffering through in the decades to come.

The question is no longer whether man-made climate change is actually a thing that’s happening. That’s not because the issue has been resolved in the minds of evangelical naysayers and their fuel tycoon besties. It’s because if you're standing in front of a burning house, the issue of who lit the match can be tabled for the meantime, while we decide how to get the kids out. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.