There is no question but that New York’s new mayor, Bill De Blasio, owes his landslide victory in the November election to the Occupy Movement.
It was Occupy Wall Street’s minions, hemmed in by thug-like NYPD officers armed with sidearms, clubs and pepper spray cans, who in 2011 abruptly changed the national conversation about capitalism, introducing the concept of “We are the 99%,” and focusing attention on the enormous enrichment of the top 1% of Americans at the expense of the other 99% over the past several decades, as a direct result of public policies on taxation and bank deregulation.
And it was that new focus on the country’s yawning wealth and income gap that provided De Blasio with his winning campaign theme.
It’s a sad commentary on the diminished influence and power of the left in America that De Blasio and Kshama Sawant, who won a little city council seat in the second-tier small city of Seattle (pop. 635,000) as an openly socialist candidate, are being hailed as the heroes of a resurgent progressive movement. (I don’t mean to diminish the victory that Sawant has achieved, merely to point out the fact that the left in the US has to be pretty weak for us to see one city council seat going to a socialist as a big deal nationally.)
The truth is, it’s hard to know how progressive and “left” De Blasio really is. Certainly his background as a backer of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua beats Barack Obama’s short stint as a “community organizer,” and there are other reasons, not least the evident lack of greed in his personal life, that suggest De Blasio may be the real deal and at least a worthy heir of New York’s last truly progressive mayor, Fiorello La Guardia. But there are also troubling signs that he may not be all that he presents himself as. The most troubling of these is his chumminess with former president Bill Clinton — the man whose presidency brought us war in Bosnia, the unravelling of habeas corpus, the beginnings of the war on terror (see Effective Death Penalty Act), the “end to welfare as we know it,” and of course, the elimination of the Glass-Steagall Act that converted banks into casinos.
Inviting Clinton to administer his oath of office was a bad sign. There were so many New Yorkers who would have been better suited for that symbolically important job — for example Ruth Messinger, former New York City Councillor and Manhattan Borough President and a life-long fighter for progressive causes in the city, or Heidi Beghosian, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, whose minions struggled mightily over 12 years to defend civil liberties under the onslaught of Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his riot-clad centurions. Instead of someone like them, De Blasio handed the job to a man who, like the current president, spent most of his time in office betraying whatever progressive principles the Democratic Party may have had since the time of FDR.
My suggestion for New York’s new mayor is that he make a clean break with the prior Bloomberg administration by announcing that as soon as it warms up a bit, Occupy Wall Street is invited to return to the Financial District. Instead of an army of beligerant cops, and endless harassment, denied permits and endless bureaucratic impediments, he can promise them plenty of PortaPotties and only a minimum police presence as required, not to control the occupiers but to protect them from any security goons hired by the local banking establishments. He should also promise to spend some time down there with them, maybe bringing along his family and some sleeping bags to join activists as they continue to expose and denounce the predations of the “too-big-to-fail” banks that populate Lower Manhattan’s narrow canyons.
While he’s at it, De Blasio should also immediately propose legislation offering significant bounties to financial industry whistleblowers who spill the beans on any misconduct that is contributing to the city’s financial struggles, or to the illegal enrichment of the city’s financial elite.
Given that the mayor and the city council in New York determine the budgets of the district attorneys offices for each of the city’s five boroughs, De Blasio might also put the word out to Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr. that he should stop pussyfooting on prosecuting financial fraud in the banking industry. Vance’s office has only brought one criminal indictment against a bank to date, and that was against a tiny privately-owned Chinese bank based in New York’s Chinatown — one that, interestingly, boasts one of the lowest mortgage default rates in the nation. Although four of the nation’s largest banks — JPMorganChase, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup — are all headquartered in Manhattan, and are all serial criminal fraudsters, Vance has not brought a criminal case against any of those institutions and their top executives, seemingly taking his cue from the non-prosecution stance of the US Justice Department. Yet New York State’s financial laws give Vance the authority to go after criminality of any bank in his district. De Blasio should use the power of the purse to try and change Vance’s mind about his prosecutorial focus, when it comes to financial crimes.
It’s great to be optimistic, and I’m happy to see De Blasio, a man of modest means, in Gracie Mansion, and billionaire Bloomberg, America’s 10th wealthiest person, taking his leave (albeit with his net worth of $31 billion now somehow almost eight times the $4 billion it was when first won election in 2000!).
But as Ronald Reagan famously said during his nuclear weapons negotiations with the Soviet Union, it should be “trust but verify.” I want to see hard evidence that New York’s new mayor is a real progressive, and not an impostor like the man who swore him in, or like the man now in the White House.
There are good ways he can prove his leftist bonifides, and I’ve named a few of them here.