America has no more left-wing executive serving more people than New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who cruised to re-election on Tuesday with 66 percent of the vote. De Blasio has more constituents than all but 11 governors; he is the primary steward of an economy the size of Canada’s. He’s also a proud progressive who worked with the Sandinistas, honeymooned in Cuba, and recently yearned for an all-powerful municipal government that could dictate private property development down to the rent rolls. You can see why he thought, in 2016, that he might make a compelling national figure.
But his re-election does not feel like a working-class triumph. In what ought to be a banner year for any kind of anti-Trump display, de Blasio tiptoes into a second term with just over 700,000 votes in a city of 4.3 million registered voters. That makes his 2017 re-election the lowest-turnout election since his 2013 election, which was itself the lowest turnout mayoral contest since “at least the mid-20th century,” per the New York Times. Another very quiet victory behind him, the mayor enters his second term without much of a mandate.
It’s a sign that he will reprise the role he carved out for himself during his first term: A competent manager with little interest in overthrowing the system, despite what his critics would have you believe.
As Josh Barro observed in an endorsement of de Blasio on Monday, the mayor is a kind of upside-down politician, a capable policymaker who is both irritable and irritating in public appearances. His administration has had substance without style.
He has basically fulfilled the finer points of his 2013 platform: policing, preschool, and housing. It’s easy for white New Yorkers to forget that random search by police was a reality of New York life for their black and brown neighbors during most of Michael Bloomberg’s three terms. De Blasio has driven it to record lows. The promise to provide free preschool to city kids—which, in addition to making kids’ lives better, makes parents’ lives much better—was enacted by a governor who seemed to wish he’d come up with it first. The homelessness crisis is worse than ever, and the housing crisis may not be much better. But a substantial barrier to homelessness has been erected at City Hall by de Blasio and Councilman Mark Levine, whose bill will provide indigent tenants with lawyers to fight eviction proceedings. The snow got plowed, the streets paved, the garbage picked up. Incredibly, the murder rate is slipping lower still in 2017, down to almost 10 percent what it was in 1990.
So, hats off to de Blasio, who becomes the first Democrat to win re-election in New York City since Ed Koch in 1985. But for a candidate whose 2013 campaign slogan was a reference to the French Revolution, de Blasio has not thrown up barricades on Wall Street. He has been most ambitious in the venues where he can do nothing—calling for a millionaires’ tax, for example, or signing the Paris climate agreement—and least aggressive in areas where he can change lives, like land use, transportation, schooling, and public space. Asked, for example, whether the city’s public schools were “segregated”—they are—he declined to answer. “I don’t get lost in terminology,” he said. At times he seems content to tinker, to “fuss … around the fringes of New York life,” as Justin Davidson writes in New York.
In his defense, there are structural obstacles to being a local-level power player in American politics. Conservative statehouses pre-empt local initiatives, from gun control in Tallahassee to the minimum wage in St. Louis to a plastic bag tax in New York City. The municipal toolbox is limited by state law regardless. Schooling and zoning, arguably the country’s two most pernicious drivers of racial inequality, are third rails that not even the most left-wing city and county politicians will challenge.
Even allowing for that, de Blasio has made few great plans. The mayor has refused to seriously consider congestion pricing, and he seems content to let the governor fumble with the city’s subway network—so long as people know it’s definitely not his responsibility. All of it adds up to a kind of conservatism about the capacity of municipal government—a natural pessimism stuck in a feedback loop with that of voters, whose scarce turnout resolutely doomed the reformist bid for a constitutional convention.
This is supposed to be the era of the mayor, the time of the Metropolitan Revolution, a period in which solution-minded local pols lead Washington from below. Many mayors certainly seem to believe it; they’ve reached for national and international stages. Voters do not seem to place the same importance in the position; big-city mayoral turnout has declined dramatically from midcentury.
The lack of competitive elections doesn’t help. Hakeem Jeffries, the Brooklyn congressman who had been considered de Blasio’s most formidable primary challenger from the left (he did not run), told the New York Times that the lackluster 2017 mayoral race was part of a Trump effect. Jeffries meant that infighting between two like-minded candidates would have felt like a sideshow, though competitive primaries usually produce stronger general election candidates. What did happen: The cakewalk made the mayor even more cautious than usual.
Are we looking, then, at the limits of urban progressivism in America? The thought is depressing. Especially looking at some of our international peers: A few hundred miles to the north, Montreal’s mayor-elect Valérie Plante has promised a new subway line. For Bill de Blasio, a stroke of lame-duck inspiration may lie in wait. For now, New Yorkers ought to ask: Is this it?