For nearly 30 years, Juan González used his column in the New York Daily News to expose massive corruption scandals and further the cause of social justice. He retired his column last year, but has continued his work at Democracy Now! and as a journalism professor at Rutgers. In his new book, Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America's Tale of Two Cities, González argues that Mayor de Blasio, who is likely to win a second term, is the leader of a nationwide movement for progressives to take back municipal government, and recently wrote that de Blasio has presided over a $21 billion infusion of progressive benefits targeted at the New Yorkers who need it most.
We spoke with González about Mayor de Blasio's first term, how he fits into the progressive movement nationwide, and whether the mayor is doing enough to fulfill his initial campaign promise to end the tale of two cities.
I don't know if you saw that New York Magazine interview with the mayor, but he said that given that all he's accomplished, “You’d assume they’d be having parades out in the streets.” So, does the Mayor deserve a parade for his first term?
[Laughs] No, certainly not. He doesn't deserve a parade. I think he is doing a lot of what he promised, which I think is unusual for most politicians. In his first three years, he accomplished much of what he promised to accomplish—except, I believe, on the issue of affordable housing, and I've told him that. I think that on affordable housing, he simply has not confronted the depths of the crisis, or what it will take to build sufficient affordable housing. Because even if you take the 200,000 units that he claims he's gonna build and preserve, most of which will not be affordable to the people who need them, New York City, between 2010 and 2015 increased its population by 375,000 people. In five years.
So even if he were to get almost 200,000 units, it's not enough given the startling increase in the population of the city. So there's gotta be a much more dramatic and deeper effort at building affordable housing, to ensure affordable housing. And he's not there yet.
When you hear the mayor tick off his major first-term victories, he mentions that crime is still falling, how universal pre-K is changing people’s lives, and how the Rent Guidelines Board issued a rent freeze. These are substantive accomplishments, and you detail them in your book. But isn’t the core issue of de Blasio’s tale of two cities campaign—one that can afford to live and spend money here and another that cannot—affordable housing? Should that not be the biggest metric for his success so far?
Well, I say that what he has done isn’t sufficient. It's not that he hasn't done anything. The rent guidelines board increases were enormously important for those 800,000 people. Because I think the median rent in New York City back in 2014 was like $1,100 a month. So, do 3% per month, 3.2% was what they were getting increased over those three years. That's a 9% increase. Do the math. Do it by 800,000. That's how much money tenants are saving. So, those people who are in rent stabilized apartments are doing well under de Blasio.
Those people who are in public housing, he's put a lot of money into 185,000 units to try to do more capital improvements in public housing. So, public housing and rent stabilized tenants are in better shape. The City Council passed legal assistance to tenants. The number of evictions have plummeted under de Blasio. The problem is new housing. You know, the new housing or the housing that he preserves. It's not enough. It's not enough and the affordability levels are not low enough. And I think that's the problem and he doesn't want to recognize it, because this Alicia Glen is like, she's bad news.
Explain why you think Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen is bad news.
Because she's still a part of that—they're called the enlightened Wall Street crew, that believes in the growth machine, in the urban growth machine. She believes that the only way you can build affordable housing is by incentivizing developers to build higher. And so, his whole policy is let the developers build higher and they'll we'll require them to build more affordable housing. But the requirements are not tough enough.
If you go back to the 1960s, with President Johnson's commission on the cities, they were saying back then, to believe that the private sector will build affordable housing on its own, is wishful thinking. It's never gonna happen. Why would any developer want to build, basically, the same apartment, that they can get luxury rates? It's asking them to give up profit. They're not gonna do it. So, unless there's government involvement, and government expenditure, or the use of government zoning and land policies to incentivize affordable housing, it's not gonna happen.
There are some things the mayor can do, like mandatory inclusionary zoning. He claims that forcing developers to make 30% of their new units affordable is the most we can ask for or nothing will be built. But the Essex Crossing project on the Lower East Side is 50% affordable, and that’s a Bloomberg-era plan. Why isn’t he arguing for higher rates of affordability? Or why isn’t he using his bully pulpit, as he did with the MTA issues, to point out that Albany could give New York City its right to regulate its own rents again, as it did before the Urstadt Law was passed?
Well, he tried that. You know, he tried that in the first time around and that's when he got in all the hot water on the upstate contributions. I'm astonished that there's not more of an uproar over the fact that the Senate is holding the public school management hostage every year, requiring de Blasio to grovel for another year extension. When Bloomberg got it just like that. You know? He got mayoral control just like that, and what the heck does the State Senate have to do with whether the mayor of New York can control his public schools?
I think that he tried to fight the state legislature and they keep exacting revenge for that. Both the state, the Republicans in the Senate, and the Governor. Both keep exacting revenge on de Blasio for his daring to step outside of New York City and attempting to build a movement to unseat the Republicans in the Senate.
To some degree he's gotten a little gun shy. But I've told him, directly, you need to fire Alicia Glen. You need to get rid of her. You know? And until you do, you're not going to really reshape your housing policies.
There’s other issues, such as closing Rikers Island or the Fair Fares program to provide half priced MetroCards for low income New Yorkers where the mayor has initially hesitated. And then people push him and then he comes around. Do you think that if he wins a second term, he will be more inclined to support more progressive agenda items?
I think that's a possibility. And even on the affordability issue, he did lower the affordability levels and deepen the subsidies and require more of the lowest income levels, in the second half of 2015 because he had so much pressure. And that's my argument to all the leftists, with all of these folks.
Because Betsy Hodges is under enormous pressure in Minneapolis, because she didn't handle the police abuse situation very well. And Peduto is under pressure in Pittsburgh, because his housing stuff is even worse. You know? So my argument to the leftist is yes, criticize them, pressure them, protest against them, but don't mistake the person who is in power now, for the people who used to be in power. Because you couldn't get anywhere with Bloomberg on these issues, or Giuliani. And so at least you have to opportunity to pressure these folks to change their policy.
And in the case of criminal justice, I think the best thing, the most important thing that the City Council, and Melissa [Mark-Viverito] did was on criminal justice reform stuff. And especially Rikers Island. When she named Jonathan Lippmann to that commission, I said, "This is not gonna go anywhere. This Jonathan Lippmann's not gonna do anything." And then he came out with this incredible report. I mean, that report is unbelievable. It really just laid out the case why Rikers has to be closed. So the Council pushed de Blasio to the left on that. And that's good. That's why it's not just de Blasio, but it's an entire government that's operating here.
I would take it further back. As I said, I do believe this is the most left-leaning government in New York City history. More so than even the La Guardia period, because La Guardia was a Republican who really didn't have the City Council behind him. So here you have a situation where you have, not only the City Council, and the mayor, but then, you've got Tish James, a public advocate who's more radical than all of them. And she’s constantly pushing on certain issues. So you have an alignment of the branches of local government that are really battling with each other over what's the most progressive position.
I do think, overall, this whole wave of progressives, nationwide, you have to go back to the 19-teens and twenties in the United States, during the old progressive era. And that progressive era was a coalition of various forces. It was a coalition of progressive Republicans. Teddy Roosevelt, the Bull Moose party, the people against the big trusts, and then you had the farm labor Democrats, and the populist Democrats. You had the socialists, and you had the budding communist movement. You know, one way or another, they were all in alliances, and at one point there was something like 1,200 socialists holding office in the United States, including 79 mayors. In Milwaukee, and Buffalo, and all those areas.
So there was actually a bigger progressive movement back then, than there is now. Local Progress, a group that I talk about now, I went to their last conference in Austin in July. They now have 600 and change, local elected officials who are all part of the local progress movement. Back then they had 1,200. And there was less people in the country. I think that this progressive movement is not even at the level of the progressive movement of the teens and the twenties. That progressive movement accomplished a lot. They got food safety laws, they got a lot of municipally owned utilities. You go out west, all these cities have municipally owned utilities. They were pushing anti-monopoly laws. They got a lot of stuff done. And so I think that this progressive movement, it's not guaranteed that it's gonna continue to grow. It could start splintering and dividing.
Also, the progressive movement of that period started electing Governors and Senators. This one really hasn't yet. There’s Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but there's not really a body of Senators, and Governors. I think that's the next step. Not only must the cities get more involved, but then they have to start electing a couple of Governors, then I think they'll have more impact.
To compare our mayor to some of the other mayors you write about. Gayle McLaughlin, from Richmond County, California, she has a program to give ex-felons $1,000 a month stipend. I think de Blasio would have a tough time supporting that. Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the son of the most radical mayor you wrote about who succeeded his father as the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, recently spoke at the Democratic Socialists of America conference. I don’t see Mayor de Blasio doing that anytime soon. He didn't endorse Sanders, or Zephyr Teachout. The mayor doesn't even support the legalization of marijuana when 60% of Americans do. He’s to the right on some issues these other mayors are taking up. Is de Blasio the leader of this nationwide progressive movement because of his ideas, or just the fact that he’s the mayor of New York City?
And Gayle McLaughlin is running for Lieutenant Governor now. She’s trying to move a step higher. I'm not saying de Blasio is the most radical of the bunch. But I'm saying that because he is at the head of America's most powerful and influential city, he certainly is the most representative of the movement. And he has the most influence, because he employs 300,000 people. You know, he could hire 30 people and hide them away some place, and it would take the reporters, like, a year or two to find them! [Laughs]
And his election that year in 2013 really was the turning point for that movement.
But here in New York City, that was the lowest mayoral turnout in history. The primary had a middling sort of turn out. So how much did the city’s voters really sweep him into office, as you argue? Or did he just survive as other candidates dropped off, and then ran a pretty good campaign at the end?
Yes, the highest voter participation level in New York City's history as I recall were the two Dinkins, Giuliani races. They were high participation because there was a racial battle going on in the city at the time, and much stronger than the racial battles that were occurring in 2013. I’m not saying that de Blasio has overwhelming support in the city, but I think the fact that no one ran against him, despite all the criticism—folks read the poll numbers. I mean, the biggest garbage campaign I've ever seen, is the horse carriage campaign. The Daily News participated in every effort to create a narrative to kill this guy and they didn't succeed. Because African Americans and Latinos for the most part, still support his mayoral seat. And you cannot as a Democrat, win a race without the support of the African American, Latino community. Because his programs have benefited folks, those folks have stuck by him, despite all the noise. And there's been a lot of noise.
I love Marcia Kramer [CBS Reporter], but she'll make any little thing into a major story. You know? And Willy Rashbaum [New York Times reporter] I love Willy, too. But Willy's pissed off that his articles didn't result in indictments. So he's continuing to write stuff to go after De Blasio. And the reality is that if the policies are to be implemented, and he implemented them so rapidly, it had an impact on people, and they're sticking with him.
Is it that perfect? Absolutely not. Is he the most, as you say, is he the most leftist of all these progressive mayors? Absolutely not. Now the interesting thing will be, who comes after de Blasio. Whether there is an actual movement, that will be interesting to watch.
You mention that people of color continue to support the Mayor despite all the noise, and I heard you recently mention that you think the next big thing to watch is Trump’s federal government versus the sanctuary cities. Do you think the mayor's staunch support for broken windows policing will affect his support amongst communities of color? People are still at risk of deportation when they are stopped and arrested for minor offenses.
I did not agree with him choosing Bratton for Police Commissioner. However, I understood why he chose Bratton for Police Commissioner. Because, remember, de Blasio had been an aide to Dinkins, and he had seen the police riot against Dinkins that actually helped propel Giuliani into office. So he understood that he was not going to be able to implement his social program unless he had the police department under control. And so he believed that Bratton would keep the police department under control while he implemented his social program.
What happened? The police department rebels in the first year of his office. And he suddenly has a major crisis on his hands, and Bratton helped him through that. Bratton helped keep the department from complete insurrection, from another 10,000 cops arriving in front of City Hall.
So in that sense, while I didn't agree with his choice, I understood that he was trying to learn the lesson of history from the past. His support of broken windows basically lasted as long as Bratton did. You know, broken windows is dead.
Really? The mayor keeps saying he believes in it. O'Neill is Bratton's hand-picked successor.
Right. But I think that when the Council passed these laws decriminalizing of all these quality of life offenses, that basically takes the legal support from broken windows. You can't stop somebody for being in the park after dark or urinating in an alleyway or stuff like that. You can no longer throw people in jail for that. Even though it wasn't declared, that effectively meant the end of the broken windows policy in New York City.
Yes, there are people that are critical and deservedly so, of [de Blasio’s] less than thorough going approach to police accountability. But when you look at the stuff that he did, that he and the Council accomplished in a short period of time, I think that it's generally positive. And New York City didn't have any kind of Baltimore situation, or Ferguson situation where things of out of control.
What do you think a second term would hold for the Mayor, and the Council?
I think it's gonna be a big battle over sanctuary cities, and I give the example of the 1950s and 60s. You know, President Eisenhower called federal troops out in Little Rock to opposed desegregation. Kennedy called federal marshals to Ole Miss to let James Meredith into the University of Mississippi. They had to occupy the town for, like, two years while Meredith was in school. So the confrontations between the federal government and the southern states over integration were really at a high level.
I think there's a potential for that kind of stuff to happen again. It's gonna happen first in Texas over SB-4, when the state government tries to implement this new law where you can theoretically arrest a local sheriff, or the local mayor for refusing to cooperate with immigration enforcement. So, Texas I think is going to be the proving ground for that. But it could potentially spread to other cities. I do believe that the federal government, that Jeff Sessions and Trump are on a collision course with the cities over immigration.
Will the federal government actually try to impose its will on the local cities? To what degree will the local cities resist? One of the guys I concentrate on in the book is Greg Casar, the councilman from Austin. You know, he's ready to go to jail over the issue of sanctuary cities. Will you start getting councilmen and mayors locked up because they're refusing to go along with the federal government?
You were a member of the Young Lords, and you were an activist and an organizer before you were a journalist. There's this whole idea that in the age of fake news that reporters should be very objective and point at the truth and that’s it. But you have supported social justice issues and fairness in your reporting. Is it a kind of bias for reporters to have a set of values that the reader is aware of when we’re doing our reporting?
I think reporters have values and points of view, regardless of whether they declare them or not. You know, you express your values and your points of view when you go to some event and you choose who it is you want to interview, or whose quotes you want to use. So you're always utilizing your values and your judgements to figure out what is it that the reader should know or wants to know about a particular news event.
In fact, the whole theory of objective news reporting is a relatively new theory in American journalism, because throughout the 18th and the 19th century, all journalism in America was partisan. When you bought a paper, you knew the political perspective and outlook of that paper. It wasn't until the early 1900s, when the Hurst and Pulitzer and Scripps chains became so powerful and so one-sided and so corrupt.
Upton Sinclair's The Brass Check is a great exposé of early 20th century journalism and the corruption of early 20th century journalism. The press recognized that they had to change the way they presented themselves to the public. So that's when journalism schools began to get created, when Columbia School of Journalism and all these others started to be created. The American Society of Newspaper Editors created their first code of ethics, because they were being constantly attacked by the public for their corruption and their partisanship, and very similar to what Trump is doing now, with the “fake news.” But there were people, everyone was furious at the press. So, they tried to reform themselves.
And then, the second stage happened right after World War II when Henry Luce, the founder of the Time Life, created the Hutchins Commission, which examined the role of journalism in American society. And it was the Hutchins Commission who first began to put forth the perspective that journalism had to provide all different points of view, an objective view of American life.
So the journalism schools all took up the Hutchins Commissions' recommendation, and starting after World War II, they started producing this model, objective journalist. However, you then had the development of cable and talk radio. It was part of the overall economic development of newspapers as more and more newspapers died. And as every city in America became a one newspaper town, or a two newspaper town, the problem for the owners was, how do you get everybody who used to read separate partisan newspapers read your paper? Well, you have to make your paper the paper of the community. The one that everyone has something in it that they believe responds to their needs. So therefore, you have to have more objective journalism, so that you will not turn off readers, and therefore, anger advertisers.
The monopoly nature of American newspapers in the different cities laid the basis for an objective journalist. Cable and talk radio segmented the market all over again, and gave rise, once again, to partisan news or partisan commentary. And so, now, you have increasingly gone back to journalism the way it used to be in America. The way it was in the 19th century. The way it was in the 18th century, where the way you get your news is you go to those news organizations that you most trust. That means they're more in line with your thinking. And then you check out the opposition as well, if you want to be educated to find out what others are saying. Journalism has gone back to what it used to be, and it has veered away from that late, post World War II temporary theory that there is such a thing as objective journalism. There is no such thing as objective journalism.
The cliché is that everyone just checks their own Facebook feed, and that we're trapped in these bubbles—
I think the problem is that you have to understand that you need to get your sources of news and information from more than one place. Right? You have to have a diversity of sources coming into your brain, so that you can figure out for yourself what is truth and what is accurate.
This interview has been edited and condensed.