Report — From the April 2017 issue

Defender of the Community

Bill de Blasio gambles on doing the right thing

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Just before the holidays, as many of us here in New York City wanted nothing more than a brief reprieve from politics, our mayor, Bill de Blasio, killed a deer. It was a small, furry, single-antlered, white-tailed buck that had appeared in Harlem. For much of December, the deer became a kind of mascot for the neighborhood, spreading Christmas cheer — until it hopped a fence into a local public-housing project and de Blasio, citing safety issues, sentenced it to death. Although this was an ultimately rational decision, the image of a powerful official euthanizing a lost animal had miserable optics. Making matters worse, our governor, Andrew Cuomo, who is always eager to humiliate the mayor, seized the pro-deer high ground and issued an immediate stay of execution. But even as a team of state officials was sent to save the deer, the little creature died from stress, frightened and alone, at a city shelter on East 110th Street.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

In the end, the sad affair was blamed on the dispute between the two politicians, which would have been an accurate assessment were it not perhaps more accurate to say that the mayor had allowed his more conniving rival to turn what should have been a harsh but good decision into murder. If Cuomo’s curse as a leader is to frequently be rewarded for his Machiavellian ways, de Blasio’s is to often suffer the consequences of doing the right thing. He has an almost tragicomic genius for finding political injury in well-intentioned policies. When he took over City Hall three years ago as the first progressive mayor in a generation, there were apocalyptic whispers that New Yorkers would soon be hunting game in Central Park to feed their children. But so far at least, the city’s pigeon population is all right — and so are many of us. Our economy is humming, our tourist industry is booming, stop-and-frisk is all but gone, and crime is at historic lows. De Blasio has meanwhile established free preschool for tens of thousands of four-year-olds, made available municipal-I.D. cards for thousands of undocumented immigrants, passed a paid-sick-leave law for city workers, and developed a groundbreaking plan to combat mental illness. Even the disaster of his fellow New Yorker Donald Trump moving from Fifth to Pennsylvania Avenue has played into his hands. The mayor has spoken out against the president, needled him persistently on social media, and threatened to sue if the White House cuts off funding to New York because it is a sanctuary city — which is to say, he has succeeded in using Trump as a whetstone on which to sharpen his positions.

Given de Blasio’s record of success and a resurgent climate of liberal dissent, you would think he would be sailing gracefully and without much competition toward reelection in November. But that is not the case. Several challengers have already declared that they will run against him, and an ever-growing army of more serious opponents — among them Scott Stringer, the city’s comptroller, and Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx borough president — is waiting in the wings. In January, a Quinnipiac University poll found that while de Blasio would beat both Stringer and Diaz, he would be trounced by Hillary Clinton, whose chief weakness is not having declared that she is even running.

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is a staff writer at the New York Times and the author of Over There: From the Bronx to Baghdad (Counterpoint).

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