Mayors are meant to mind the potholes, not mend the world. Lose sight of that, and risk losing your city.
Gotham has had two blatantly ideological mayors in recent times: John Lindsay and Bill de Blasio. Each ignored the basics, and each badly damaged the city.
And it has had two committed problem-solvers during that time: Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg. Each understood his proper role, stuck to it — and the Big Apple prospered.
Fiorello La Guardia, arguably New York City’s greatest mayor ever, sagely got it right 80 years ago: He said there really is no Republican or Democratic way of picking up the garbage. Amen.
But times change. La Guardia was speaking of partisan politics. These days, there really are no Republicans in New York, nor even centrist Democrats — only “progressives” of varying enthusiasms, none of whom shows much interest at all in the mechanics of garbage collection.
Or, for that matter, in the myriad mundane but vital chores that successful mayors wrestle with every day.
So with less than six months to go until the primary election that likely will chum up the city’s next chief executive, New York’s political roster is stuffed with would-be Lindsays and de Blasios, with nary a Giuliani nor a Bloomberg in sight.
This portends poorly.
De Blasio himself will be history in a year, thank goodness for small favors. But let’s note that the fellow whose ideological whimsies brought the city to crisis long before the novel coronavirus pushed it to the edge is both a little dumb and a lot lazy. Imagine how much damage he might have done if he had had an attention span. Or didn’t so love his naps.
Now consider that among the growing clutch of mayoral pretenders is the usual ration of fools and self-seekers — but also smart, energetic people dedicated to social goals that largely are incompatible with functional municipal governance.
True, there’s a former garbage collector in the gaggle — Kathryn Garcia, a recent de Blasio sanitation commissioner — but all she wants to talk about is the big picture, not nuts and bolts, and in this she is hardly unique.
There is time enough to examine the candidates individually, especially as the campaign proceeds, and the field naturally narrows.
But right now, it seems that nobody is discussing garbage collection as an end in itself. Or even clean streets in general.
Nor is public safety an issue, at least from the perspective of the city’s ever-expanding legion of crime victims. (It’s instructive that one candidate is considered a “centrist” because she is among the few who concedes at least a theoretical role for effective policing in a city of 8.5 million people.)
And who is talking about public schools in any terms other than those of “racial justice” — and even then, only as defined by progressive cant? Nobody.
Is there any discussion of “homelessness,” especially vagrancy, as a product of social dysfunction, addiction and mental illness, rather than as a housing issue? Not at all. And so far, to the extent that housing itself is spoken of, it’s only to hammer landlords.
Is municipal fiscal integrity — a balanced budget in times of great turmoil — anybody’s true goal? Or is the discussion to be about income inequality and redistributive tax increases?
Nobody should doubt that the golden goose’s neck already is on the block. The pandemic and lockdowns have seen to that, battering New York City’s employment base and, thus, its revenues in ways that will become increasingly, painfully, obvious in the weeks and months ahead.
The vaccines surely will make a positive difference, and it would be a mistake to discount the long-term allure of dynamic urbanism. But it remains that the lockdowns have underscored what has been clear for some time, but largely ignored: that big-city commerce is hugely costly; in the digital age, there are alternatives.
New Yorkers are a realistic lot. Doubtless they understand that their city will be hard put to recover from the double whammy of de Blasio’s mayoralty and a global pandemic, the preliminary effects of which they already see all around them, and which they resent and revile.
Much less clear is whether New York’s political monoculture — and its fossilized leadership both in Gotham and in Albany — is capable of responding positively to a historically unprecedented challenge. So far, it doesn’t even seem willing to try.
So maybe somebody should promise to pick up the trash — and see what happens next.
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