With all the chatter and excitement surrounding New York City’s black first lady, Chirlane McCray, you’d think it was verboten to talk about anything else when it comes to Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio. To hear the pundit class talk, you wouldn’t think de Blasio was elected—you’d think his wife was.
Which is just fine—if all you’re paying attention to is the strobe lights, bells and whistles that come with such novel political stories.
Sure, it’s a great narrative, reading something like a side script out of faux political thriller Scandal. And speaking as the Gen X child of a black mother and white father, I’m glad to see folks finally coming around to what is really nothing new. Growing up in racially polarized Philadelphia all those years, I watched my parents busily fending off bigoted cops, disapproving glares and the ugly racialism of a society that couldn’t bear to fathom an inevitable social norm. Maybe Dad should have just run for mayor.
But back to politics: That doesn’t exactly resolve the question of what to expect from the next mayor of the largest city in the United States. Remember, anything that goes in a city of nearly 9 million is pretty consequential for the rest of the nation, not to mention New York’s global ramifications as a planetary center of commerce.
And while people of color, particularly African Americans, are currently fixated on the biracial first family of New York City, there’s little attention being paid to what’s certain to be a very dramatic and somewhat volatile transition from 20 years of mostly Republican and/or independent rule in the Big Apple to a Democratic mayor who campaigned—and now might be slipping on—a progressive agenda.
Getting rid of New York City’s infamous stop-and-frisk rule was a top-three campaign priority, a promise that catapulted de Blasio from polling obscurity to a very public political love affair with the city’s blacks and Latinos. But he rushed to hire former New York City police commissioner and stop-and-frisk originator William Bratton as current chief Ray Kelly’s replacement—his first high-profile Cabinet hire.
Bratton, keeping it real in a May New Yorker article, says he views stop and frisk as “one of the most fundamental practices in American policing.” Which is what we already knew—but it’s hard not to notice that it’s a 180-degree turn from de Blasio’s banner campaign rant.
What that shows is de Blasio is very quick on optics, eager to relay tailored messaging to the doubters. Going old school with Bratton’s hire shows that he’s willing to adjust on stop and frisk: OK, OK—don’t get rid of it; just reform it. But in the meantime, he’s slow and deliberate on selecting a schools chancellor, despite the urgency of only 12.5 percent and 15.7 percent, respectively, of black and Latino high school graduates in New York considered ready for college—against an overall statewide rate of 35 percent.
It’s rather commendable and only right that de Blasio addresses inequality, especially in a city rife with it. More candidates and politicians should. But the problem here is sorting out the salad from the dressing. Campaigning on it is one thing—but how he’ll govern through it is an entirely different matter that’s not getting nearly enough analysis from the black intelligentsia.
BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith made a strong point recently: “In Mike Bloomberg’s New York, the mayor bribed you, buying the silence or cooperation of individuals, cultural organizations, and social service groups with hundreds in millions of dollars spent on small personal favors—a legal payment here, a medical procedure there—and charitable contributions.”
This charge obviously deconstructs the charm and political-throwback appeal of de Blasio’s urban-proletariat revolution. But the new mayor, absent access to Bloomberg’s personal billions, will have to wrestle with the city’s public-sector unions demanding $7 billion in retroactive pay raises during contract negotiations. Plus, with the city just recently eliminating its $2 billion deficit into fiscal year 2015, he’ll face a tough choice: the possibility of painful budget cuts in crucial city services or, potentially, a paralyzing citywide strike.
Navigating all of that will require dropping a campaign pledge or two—the same ones that got him elected in the first place. But we’re all so enamored with the black wife and Afro-blazing biracial kid in campaign commercials that we hadn’t gotten around to that yet.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and frequent contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. You can reach him via Twitter.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.