Dear Mr. De Blasio,
I respect you, I support you, and I have every hope that you thrive as a successful mayor. But I have my reservations.
Throughout your campaign, your “tale of two cities” rhetoric fell on eager ears. The fifty-point landslide victory that carried you into office was a resounding declaration that New York had spoken – we upheld your beliefs and trusted your intentions. Exit polls showed you drew majority support across virtually all demographics. Though we comprised only 11% of total voters, Millenials, 18-to-29-year-olds, gave you a 72% share of their vote.
In a recent column, Peter Beinart reminds us of a notion sociologist Karl Manheim proffered: that political generations form from historically disruptive events that occur in the teen and young adult years; a period in which views and attitudes are particularly malleable. If this is the case, ours is a generation born from the Great Recession.
I’d venture to add another source responsible for activating our engagement. As much as the economic insecurity of these times has shaped our political identities, we have been equally impressionable to the inadequacy of Washington.
For the past several years, we have played spectator to a government that sat idly by while a cancerous banking system collapsed and triggered a global financial crisis; a government then quick to reprieve the culprits and slow to implement reforms; a government frequently a step behind on the road to recovery.
Each new failure has been a testament to the insufficiency of our political system; a blow to its legitimacy. Then came the budget wars over sequestration. Then came the farcical political gridlock and an entirely humorless 16-day government shutdown. Even on the issue of student loans – where there has been no shortage of well-publicized sentiments on the importance of education – bouts of bipartisan bickering necessarily preceded any eventual deal. Meanwhile, our generation stumbles forward with the weight of student debt strapped to its back.
Suspect political actors have long been chided for prioritizing their own interests over the wishes of their constituents. In mid-November, Gallup announced that Congress’s approval rating had dipped to 9%. What remains of the government’s reputation is crumpled, beaten, and sad.
But you already knew this. Your campaign gave voice to those who have been stepped on and swept aside by these conditions. It targeted the wealth gap and called attention to rampant income inequality. It pledged to bring forth systemic change because that is the only logical remedy to systemic problems.
The problem is, we’ve heard it before.
In the historic 2008 presidential elections, Barack Obama told us to hope, and for brief moments, we did. Here was a leader who, as a young man, had worked as a community organizer and lifted the standards at the bottom. A leader who, as a younger man, had even smoked weed – yes, had even inhaled – yes, even frequently. For a stretch, it seemed he could do no wrong. Panicked Tea Party officials crying socialist only added luster to his shine. We hoped because Barack Obama had his finger on the pulse of what it meant to be one of us; in fact, he was one of us.
One term later, that hope had dimmed. Four years of meager progress can do that to any flame, however bright it once burned. However, as Obama geared for another run, it was hard to ignore the possibilities of his reelection, tempting to contemplate a reignited spark.
A highlight of the 2012 National Democratic Convention was Michelle Obama proclaiming, “Being President doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.” Her speech was incredible, both a fiery affirmation of Barack Obama’s fortitude and a rally cry that jolted new life into the campaign, fresh hope into the voters.
But over 12 months and a reelection later, the number of injustices that the President has either neglected to fix or outright condoned continues to grow. Pakistan drone strikes, NSA spying, sluggish Wall Street reform, the botched healthcare rollout – sometimes I wonder how Barack Obama at my age would feel about the President he is today.
So, Mr. de Blasio, you have a past filled with convictions and flush with activism. From staging political protests to speaking out at rallies – even getting arrested for doing so – you have proven to be someone driven by the passion for change.
At twenty-six, you went to Nicaragua and thrust yourself into the middle of a polarizing civil war, a humanitarian worker on paper, a supporter of the leftist revolutionaries at heart. There are few things in my mind more admirable than an idealist with the courage to act. For these reasons and more, I am proud that you are mayor.
But as you begin to prepare for your term, the odds seem to be stacked against you.
On paper, raising taxes to fund universal pre-K may be just what the doctor ordered. It is a prescription targeted at both income inequality and education, two symptoms your campaign promised to address. But obstacles stand in your way – not the least of which is a governor with other intentions. Also on your plate are rising pension and healthcare costs, union demand for retroactive raises, and a host of other commitments.
Your stance on social issues has always been crystal clear – end stop and frisk, introduce living wages, build affordable housing. Less clear is how you intend to navigate the fiscal waters to make these reforms work. The 69 billion dollar question: where will the money come from?
In 2010, an article in Mother Jones covered a campaign you organized against the Citizens United decision. The story praised your efforts but described its impact as “likely to be more symbolic than substantive.” Recently, the appointment of Bill Bratton, a strong backer of stop and frisk, as police commissioner has puzzled many. In both these cases, you’ve established your sentiments but the actual blueprint for change remains ambiguous. It is distressing to think these might be more than isolated incidents.
The past few months have seen an increasing share of media coverage allocated to cover your political ascent. That attention is unlikely to disappear. Among the roster of caricatures we’ve already been introduced to – Bill the indecisive leader, Bill the shrewd negotiator, Bill the father of the most recognized Afro in the Tristate area – but the one I like the most is Bill the great progressive hope.
The legacy of your time in office will not stop at the regulations you enact or the policies you introduce. For better or worse, you also carry the burden of reinvigorating a generation increasingly disenchanted with the extent to which elected office can be used as a force for good. If politics is a playing field dominated by entrenched interests, you may be our best hope for disruption.
Granted, it is always easier to call out problems than to fix them. Making that transition may be one of the hardest things in politics. Your narrative of the great divide has already been rehearsed to perfection. Your challenge now is to write a new story: the tale of piecing two cities back together.
Mr. de Blasio, please do not let being mayor of New York City change who you are. Let it reveal who you are.
Citizen, New York City
About the author: Daniel Huang is a student at New York University where he is studying politics and journalism. He writes for the Washington Square News, Gould Standard, and other internet publications.