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 a writer for the Guardian based in 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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage