Friendless Mayor Faces ‘Uphill Climb’

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Mayor Bill de Blasio’s staunch defense of police conduct when Black Lives Matter protesters suffered an onslaught of brutality last month has left him friendless at a time when he will need help reopening the city and making it a more just place. 

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The mayor claimed “out of town” agitators riled up police and praised officers for exercising “tremendous restraint” to maintain order in city streets, without acknowledging cops pepper sprayed protesters and drove their vehicles through a crowd in a dramatic confrontation in Brooklyn last month, according to CBS 2 New York. Then, he imposed a citywide curfew for the first time since World War II.

“I’m not going to blame officers who were trying to deal with an absolutely impossible situation,” de Blasio said at a press conference on May 30. “I wish the officers had found a different approach but let’s begin at the beginning — the protesters in that video did the wrong thing to surround that police car, period.”

That infuriated former de Blasio staffer Cristina Gonzalez who joined the Park Slope politician’s mayoral campaign in 2013 partly because of his vision to rein in discriminatory police tactics like stop-and-frisk.

“It was really disappointing seeing his response to the police violence,” Gonzalez, a former portfolio manager in the Mayor’s Office of Appointments, told Commercial Observer. “Where is the line for him? What will it take to speak out about injustice and hold police officers accountable? Where will he take the side of people he represents and hear our pleas and do something about it with the enormous power and responsibility he holds?”

Gonzalez and hundreds of her colleagues signed onto a letter expressing their disappointment with the mayor’s leadership and urging him to slash the NYPD’s operating budget, fire those who used excessive force at protests, and release police disciplinary records.

“We have joined together in writing this letter because we could not remain silent while the administration we served allows the NYPD to turn our city into an occupied territory,” the letter stated. “Our former boss might not hear the cries for justice from Black and brown New Yorkers, but we do.”

De Blasio downplayed the uprising, saying on a conference call with staffers that those objecting to his stance no longer work at City Hall and he is working to address the crisis with current employees, a person familiar with the call said.

By then, several of de Blasio’s allies outside the administration, including former Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, former Civilian Complaint Review Board chairwoman Maya Wiley, his top communications adviser BerlinRosen founder Jonathan Rosen, and Open Society Foundations president Patrick Gaspard, made their displeasure with the NYPD and the mayor known on Twitter. De Blasio again waved off the criticisms, telling reporters, “I’m not sure they understand the depth of the reality of what we face.” 

But staffers who organized the letter-writing campaign and a subsequent march say the mayor has lost those most loyal to him.

“So many people who worked on his campaign and in his administration because they believed in criminal justice reform and wanted to show in a powerful way that this is not okay,” former de Blasio aide Essence Franklin told CO. “People feel that he is being very dismissive of those out there day-to-day marching and know for a fact that the police are not showing restraint.”

The mayor couldn’t maintain his position for long. On June 5, civil rights and immigration groups threatened to sue the mayor to curtail the curfew which they claimed led to unwarranted arrests, according to Politico. Hundreds of staffers held an unprecedented rally at City Hall against police brutality three days later while state legislators banned the use of chokeholds and repealed a law shielding disciplinary records from the public.

He finally started to make concessions on June 9, lifting the curfew and promising to support City Council bills criminalizing chokeholds and barring cops from obscuring badges. But de Blasio opposed removing school safety agents from schools and transferring traffic cops to the Department of Transportation. He also wouldn’t commit to lowering the police budget by a set amount or fire abusive cops, according to the New York Times, to the consternation of advocates. 

“It’s always been befuddling to see him kowtow and refuse to hold NYPD accountable,” Gonzalez said. “Maybe these are his principles and maybe he does these things because he believes in them. He can’t not be hearing it, it’s everywhere.” 

The de Blasio administration is at a crossroads. He’s been in lame duck mode since ending his quixotic bid for the Democratic presidential nomination last September yet the city needs direction as it confronts a once-in-a-century public health crisis, a looming economic slowdown, and daily demonstrations over an unbridled and violent law enforcement system. 

Some Council members are even pushing for a no-confidence vote to be held this month and others are openly calling for the mayor to step down amid tense negotiations over a budget that is due July 1. 

“We need to make sure New York City will be the capital for attracting and retaining the talent we have and maintain a certain level of quality of life,” RXR’s David Garten told CO.

The mayor closed schools and offices three months ago to limit the spread of COVID-19, which has hospitalized more than 53,000 people and claimed 22,000 lives. A majority of the public approved of the mayor’s handling of the shutdown amid the outbreak — de Blasio had a 66 percent approval rating in an April Siena poll — but it is unlikely to be that high now.

After several meh-years capped off by failing to meet the moment through COVID and protests, Mayor de Blasio has an uphill climb,” SKDKnickerbocker managing director Jon Reinish told CO. “However, he has a chance to get back to neutral at the very least — and show bravery, leadership, decisiveness, compassion and a profound sense of understanding and selflessness.”

During the pause, the temporary halt on commerce blew an $8.7 billion hole in the city budget and put 900,000 New Yorkers out of work. One out of five New Yorkers could be unemployed by the end of June, according to the city comptroller’s estimate.

The city’s public health, financial, and policing crises have fallen disproportionately on New Yorkers of color. Black and Latino New Yorkers are facing higher unemployment rates than whites during the pandemic and they have been dying of COVID-19 at twice the rate as their white counterparts. Police have continued to target people of color unequally, issuing the vast majority of social distancing summonses to Blacks and Latinos this spring, according to Politico.

De Blasio famously ran his first mayoral campaign on a platform of a tale of two cities. Now he must once again grapple with a widening rift of inequality that threatens to plunge millions into poverty.

“Now we are a tale of two cities that’s grown 10 times as wide,” Warburg Realty broker Jason Haber told CO. “You have people getting very rich and people getting very poor and a lot of those people aren’t coming back. What do you do with a city with a diminished tax base? There’s a huge economic calamity ahead.”

Real estate executive Don Peebles, who once raised money for de Blasio’s mayoral run and later ran against him, said the mayor should prioritize city investment in businesses run by people of color for the rest of his term.

“There’s a reason why Atlanta, Washington D.C. and Chicago have significant African American entrepreneurship and that’s because Black people elected politicians willing to fight for them,” Peebles said. “Part of it is using power. Being the chief executive officer of America’s largest city, in a strong-mayor form of government, he should have done much better.”

Some people are already returning to work. The city began the first phase of a four-phase re-opening in early June which revved up construction sites and factories. Building new housing projects, renovating schools, and rehabilitating properties will boost the economy in the short term. But the city must continue to spend money on infrastructure over the long run to provide a middle-class existence for laborers, real estate industry leaders say.

“We have to invest in the capital and infrastructure of New York — that’s what’s going to get people to work fast,” New York Building Congress president Carlo Scissura told CO. “For an industry that’s over 60 percent non-white, this will put people to work in communities of color where we want to give jobs. Now is the moment to do this.

Capital could be scarce at a time when the city could use an injection. Congress could offer a lifeline if it passes another stimulus package, but if there isn’t any federal aid coming, the city could be forced to borrow billions while slashing services.

“Borrowing for operating has gotten the city into a lot of trouble in the past,” former Bloomberg aide and Durst Organization spokesman Jordan Barowitz told CO. “If you borrow $7 billion next year you have the same size budget gap plus the debt service. Any proposal for borrowing money has to be coupled with a financial plan that shows how you get out the other end of it. “

That isn’t the only pressure the city is under before the July 1 budget deadline. Council members have been scrutinizing the NYPD’s budget in hearings this month and called for a billion dollar reduction earlier this month. 

“We’re going to cut the fat from the NYPD. That’s a good place because they’re naturally bloated and they haven’t proposed any cuts,” Queens Councilman Donovan Richards told CO. “There’s overtime and attrition too so you can move dominos around without layoffs.”

A de Blasio spokeswoman said the mayor promised to shift funds from the NYPD into youth programs but wouldn’t specify how much money.

Earlier this year, the NYPD proposed a $5.9 billion annual budget — about 1 percent less than what they received last year.

The vast majority of the department’s budget, nearly 90 percent, is dedicated to covering salaries and benefits for 36,782 uniformed officers and 17,059 civilian staffers, according to the mayor’s management report

The department hasn’t asked for more officers but it was only five years ago when Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and the mayor decided to hire 1,300 more cops at a cost of $100 million. The move was done to curb overtime but costs grew to $635 million in FY 2020, making up 44 percent of all overtime worked in the city, budget records showed.

Slashing $1 billion from the NYPD would likely mean layoffs for 7,500 to 8,000 officers, according to a Citizens Budget Commission analysis. 

“We’re in a very severe final crisis and there can’t be any sacred cows so you have to make cuts to balance the budget,” Citizens Budget Commission vice president Maria Doulis told CO. “The cuts should be focused on improving efficiency and not cutting services and part of achieving this is shrinking the size of the workforce including the NYPD.

De Blasio has instead emphasized that the city may need to furlough or eliminate 22,000 municipal positions by the fall due to the pandemic, but budget analysts say he should look for savings elsewhere.

Part of that belt tightening could also be achieved by shifting certain jobs from the police department to other agencies involving youth services, mental health, school safety, and homeless outreach to different agencies. That will limit the role police have in, say, screening students while entering school and sweeping the subways for homeless people while getting New Yorkers the resources they need, advocates say.

“There are many fraught interactions between the NYPD and homeless people,” Jacquelyn Simone, a policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless, told CO. “It’s very costly from an economic and social standpoint and if you increase police encounters with homeless New Yorkers you push them further away from getting services. People don’t need to be forced into shelters, they need permanent housing.”

Richards, who leads the Council’s public safety committee, would also like to see the mayor expand the powers of the Civilian Complaints Review Board, fire cops with a misconduct history, purge records like the DNA database and gang databases, and re-examine the need for a heavy police presence in public schools.

“We’re not looking for cosmetic changes, we’re looking for systematic changes,” Richards said. “When you go to school and have to go through a scanner and it turns red and you have to put your hands up, it subconsciously impacts you. Do you have to feel demeaned walking into a school building and go outside and see police waiting for you and get stop-and-frisked on the way home?”

Doing nothing isn’t an option. Cuomo signed an executive order mandating police departments detail how they will overhaul strategies and tactics with more community input by next April or lose state funding. 

The mayor hasn’t shown if the mayor can take the lead on ending structural racism in law enforcement — and reduce the NYPD budget by 17 percent or so —  it will go a long way toward restoring public trust in city government, former aides say.

“If he starts to show he’s there to hold the NYPD accountable, acknowledge that police don’t necessarily make us safer in any way, and use his power to diminish role of the NYPD in communities of color so that Black and brown people are not brutalized, then yes that will regain some of my trust,” Gonzalez said.

He could also reassure the public that he understands their fury and promises to root out racism on the police force.

“Has the mayor apologized? The first step to healing is to do it. You have to get up and say to New Yorkers I’m here to apologize,” Richards said. “The mayor is stubborn, we all know it. But if he’s looking to leave a legacy with this city and repair the damage and heal the city that’s the first step.”