NEW YORK — Mayor Bill de Blasio looked like he had finally hit his groove, trumpeting New York City’s recovery from the pandemic as he reveled in a “Summer of Bill."
Archenemy Andrew Cuomo was forced out of office amid scandal, and the two-term mayor was at work shoring up his own legacy and eying a run for governor.
But a series of long-simmering problems exploded into full-blown crises in recent weeks, putting the mayor back on the defensive just as he looks to his next act in New York politics.
De Blasio is now presiding over a humanitarian emergency on Rikers Island, the city’s main jail complex, where a shortage of guards led already poor conditions to collapse into scenes of chaos and death.
His signature Vision Zero initiative, which set the goal of reducing traffic fatalities to zero, fizzled this year as car-related deaths reached their highest point since de Blasio took office nearly eight years ago. The death of a 3-month-old baby this month sparked protests against the mayor.
Powerful labor unions the Democrat has long counted as allies — and would need in his corner if he has any hope of winning a Democratic primary for governor next year — are hauling him into court over his vaccine mandate for city workers and publicly bucking his push to end remote work. On Friday, those unions won a victory after a federal court judge put a hold on de Blasio’s inoculation requirement, days before it was to go into effect.
And a deluge brought by Hurricane Ida laid bare the city’s long-standing struggles to steel itself against storms and climate change, causing the deaths of 13 New Yorkers, most of whom drowned inside basement apartments. The mayor responded, in part, by blaming shoddy weather forecasts.
The recent troubles led the New York Daily News to blast the mayor on its front page as “BILL DE FAIL-SIO.”
While some issues, such as climate-driven extreme weather and pandemic-related traffic, are largely beyond the mayor’s control, others, such as Rikers and city infrastructure, fall squarely on his desk. His critics contend the troubles he’s facing stem from problems that have not been adequately addressed for years and are coming back to bite the mayor in his last 100 days.
“When I think about de Blasio, I think about this tri-part combination of negligence, laziness and distraction,” said Fordham University’s Christina Greer, a political commentator who co-hosts a podcast on New York politics. “An overall lack of interest in the nitty gritty, day to day.”
The mayor gave a more positive assessment as he brought up his legacy during a press briefing last week. He cited a higher high school graduation rate, the building or preservation of 200,000 affordable apartments, the construction of 500 miles of new bike lanes and the long-term decrease in crime. Those milestones are reflected in an annual report of city statistics.
“All of these things — they said couldn’t be done,” de Blasio told reporters. “As I’m preparing to leave office, I’ll be speaking about some of the lessons learned. Don’t believe the naysayers is one of the biggest lessons. Because all of these massive changes were supposed to be, in the eyes of many observers, impossible, and yet they all happened. And that gives me such hope for this city.”
Rikers in crisis
At Rikers Island and other city jails, the rate of violent incidents surged by 22 percent in the 2021 fiscal year compared with the previous year. Assaults on staff jumped 24 percent, and use of force by guards was up 10 percent.
Things have gotten only worse recently as a large share of correction officers have called in sick or failed to show up to work. Many of those who do report are forced to work triple shifts.
Eleven people have died at Rikers so far this year. Lawmakers who recently toured the jail described overcrowded cells, cell blocks dirty with human waste and vermin and a man who attempted suicide in their presence.
“The inmates are running the jail. … Inmates are beating each other practically to death, and correction officers are doing nothing. They are left to fend for themselves,” said Gisel Pineyro, whose 28-year-old son is incarcerated at Rikers. “Inmates are dying. Inmates are getting raped at a scale he has never seen before. … He does not sleep because of the amount of inmates getting raped and he is genuinely afraid for his life.”
De Blasio has not visited the jail complex in his second term, something Public Advocate Jumaane Williams — another potential Democratic candidate for statewide office — this week called a “dereliction of duty.” The mayor said Friday he would tour the jail within the next week, that he understands the problems and is “trying to fix them.”
De Blasio’s plan to close Rikers, approved in 2019 but since delayed, calls for sharply reducing the population of inmates and housing them in four smaller jails around the city. He’s overseen the release of many inmates early in the pandemic to slow the spread of Covid-19, but the jail population has crept back up and now stands around 6,000.
“One of the most significant reasons we are in this crisis is because the mayor has failed to take the steps necessary to advance his own legacy of closing Rikers,” said Corey Stoughton, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society.
Earlier this month, de Blasio unveiled an emergency plan for Rikers including suspensions for correction officers who fail to show up and replacing correction officers with NYPD officers at courthouses so more guards can be sent to the jail complex. Last Monday, the city sued the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, charging the mass absences amount to an illegal strike by the union. And on Tuesday, de Blasio insisted he is acting with urgency while announcing additional measures, including a plan to bring in private security.
But the mayor has rebuffed calls to release inmates serving sentences of less than a year, whom he has the authority to let out on work release.
“Good mayors handle crises on parallel tracks: They solve the problem at hand, and they set the city up for success down the road,” mayoral spokesperson Mitch Schwartz said. “That’s what connects everything the mayor has done recently,” he said. “Some of these problems are decades — even centuries — in the making, and they won’t get fixed overnight. But New Yorkers can know that their mayor is using every single tool at his disposal to move this city forward.”
The mayor is contending with these challenges amid an exodus of staff from the highest levels on down, as the administration closes out its final months. De Blasio lost his emergency management director and his transportation commissioner to the Biden administration. His sanitation commissioner quit last year and ran for mayor and his press secretary recently announced he’d be stepping down with three months to go in the de Blasio era.
Vision Zero reversed
The number of New Yorkers killed in car crashes, meanwhile, has surged to its highest level since de Blasio launched his signature Vision Zero policy in his first year in office, vowing to eliminate traffic deaths altogether.
One of the most recent victims was a 3-month-old baby girl killed in a Brooklyn hit and run — stirring outrage after it was revealed the driver had racked up 160 traffic violations. Activists with “ghost strollers” picketed the mayor outside City Hall.
“These are Mayor de Blasio’s streets. Vision Zero is not failing — Mayor de Blasio is failing,” said Danny Harris, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group. “And he has this incredible legacy on which he should have been building — projects that lead the nation. This mayor has lacked the political will.”
In the 2021 fiscal year, fatalities jumped from 211 to 275 — increasing in every category for pedestrians, drivers, car passengers, motorcyclists and bicyclists.
Yet the number of tickets for moving violations under Vision Zero plummeted in the 2021 fiscal year, to 307,783 from 551,645 the year before, according to the management report. Police gave out 28 percent fewer speeding tickets and 63 percent fewer tickets for failure to yield to a pedestrian.
Under legislation passed by the City Council and signed by de Blasio, drivers who rack up enough violations are supposed to be forced to take a safety class or have their cars seized — a law that would have applied to the driver who killed the infant in Brooklyn. But City Hall has not yet launched the program.
De Blasio vowed to “intensify” enforcement against dangerous drivers.
A long-delayed overhaul of Queens Boulevard, dubbed the "boulevard of death" for the high number of people killed there, should be completed next month, the mayor announced Wednesday. It had been put off after a local City Council member objected to the loss of parking spaces.
But Harris said the bigger problem is that de Blasio has not capitalized on his administration’s successes — such as creating a mostly car-free busway on 14th Street and a new protected bike lane on the Brooklyn Bridge — to make such design features ubiquitous across the five boroughs.
“It’s the disappointing story that didn’t have to be disappointing,” he said.
De Blasio was thrown for another loop when the remnants of Hurricane Ida hit the city with unusual force this month, causing widespread flooding, damage and loss of life.
The mayor says the city was caught by surprise by the amount of rain. But at least since Hurricane Sandy nine years ago, the city has been acutely aware of the need to increase its resiliency against powerful storms.
Now, de Blasio acknowledges there is little he can do about the estimated 50,000 illegal basement apartments in the city, which don’t meet housing regulations but are the only housing many low-income New Yorkers can afford.
“It is a massive structural problem in the city. It has been for decades. We don’t have an immediate solution to this one,” he said.
Neal Kwatra, a longtime Democratic operative, said de Blasio isn’t solely to blame.
“Too much of his mayoralty ignored climate mitigation and resilience, but our aging infrastructure is hardly his fault alone,” he said. “State and federal leaders over the last 20 years, given that is where most of the funding for infrastructure comes from, are just as responsible if not more for our aging and decrepit infrastructure.”
Kwatra also defended the mayor in his battle with city worker unions over mandating school workers get vaccinated and pressing city employees to return to their offices.
“The public sector unions are being pretty obstinate and recalcitrant on vaccines and the mayor is on the right side of history with the push for mandates,” he said.
Still, the fights over vaccine mandates for school workers and the return to offices for others have put some distance between the union-friendly mayor and labor leaders at a time when de Blasio can’t afford to lose friends if he’s serious about running for governor.
Henry Garrido, head of District Council 37 — the largest public workers union in the city — has accused the mayor of putting his members in danger, violating their constitutional rights and using them as “guinea pigs.”
De Blasio has dismissed the criticism and won a victory last week when a state court allowed his vaccine mandate to go into effect. That victory was reversed on Friday when a federal court judge temporarily blocked the mandate just days before it was to take effect.
“It’s time for people to be back at their offices doing the jobs they were hired to do,” he told reporters earlier this month. “We feel confident both in our legal position but also in our moral position that this is the right thing to do for the people of New York City.”
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