Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Publication Date: April 2012
The 2013 mayoral election may represent a watershed in New York City’s history that goes far beyond the end of 20 years of rule by mayors elected as Republicans and Independents. The election may end a philosophy that has dominated City Hall since Ed Koch’s victory in 1977. When Koch entered office, New York was at its nadir. Not only had it narrowly escaped bankruptcy by giving up the right to run its own affairs, the city was mired in its worst post-war era recession.
New York lost 620,000 jobs in the downturn, which lasted from 1969 to 1977 (by comparison only 140,000 jobs were lost in the most recent financial crisis). Just as bad, New York was hemorrhaging people in the 1970s when its population declined by almost 1 million. Much of that disaster was the result of the policies of Koch’s predecessors Abe Beame and John Lindsay and those who preceded them, mayors who saw business as merely a resource to be taxed to redress the city’s social and economic ills.
Koch soon decided that the only way he could save the city was by reviving the economy and the way to do that was to spur development. Looking back on his accomplishments a few years later, he summarized his view for a New York Times reporter. “Past administrations did not talk about jobs and profits,” he said, “but how to get New York City to be the No. 1 welfare city in America. The whole business of our city is how do you get people to stay here, how do you get people to come here, how do you get business to thrive.”
Ever since Koch walked into City Hall in January 1978, that philosophy has been embraced by every mayor, with the possible exception of David Dinkins’ short four years in office. It is one of two major reasons the city has prospered so dramatically in the last three decades. (The other is the ever-increasing riches Wall Street produced for the city.)
This era in New York’s history appears to be drawing to a close. Not one of the leading Democratic mayoral candidates embraces the Koch philosophy, the Republicans have no viable alternative and no Bloomberg-like businessperson has stepped forward to continue his agenda. The top priority of all the candidates—whether Comptroller John Liu, Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, former Comptroller Bill Thompson and yes, even City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, is to use city government to redress inequities, primarily through demands on businesses such as living wage and paid sick leave. All oppose Walmart’s entry into New York, a sign of how much they distrust the market. All believe in New York exceptionalism—that the city is different than the suburbs or the rest of the country and can adopt its own economic and social agenda.
The reasons behind this philosophical shift are clear. The Koch-Giuliani-Bloomberg philosophy has worked so well that New Yorkers have come to believe their prosperity is assured. The focus on inequality—a product of Wall Street’s success and of the decision of so many rich people to call New York home—has exacerbated the feeling of being left behind.
No one should expect the candidates to admit this. Rather they will do their best to convince the city’s business people that they understand how important they are. The last thing they want to do is alarm the people who could recruit a Bloomberg-like candidate to run in the general election in November 2013. But anyone who listens closely to the upcoming campaign will understand the decisive change that could occur when a new mayor walks into City Hall on Jan. 1, 2014.
Greg David is a columnist for Crain’s New York Business, where he was previously editor and editorial director. He also serves as the director of the business and economics reporting program at the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.