Past and present New York City government converged on Low Library on Friday, where Mayor Bill de Blasio, SIPA ’87, reflected on his political career in the keynote speech of the David N. Dinkins Leadership & Public Policy Forum.
In addition to Dinkins—under whom de Blasio first served as an aide in City Hall in 1990—de Blasio was joined by Ester Fuchs, director of the urban and social policy program at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and a former adviser to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and a panel of city officials and urban experts.
De Blasio spoke about his entrance into New York City politics, the effects the Bloomberg and Dinkins administrations had on his policies, and his future plans for the city.
“I don’t think I could have done the things I did if it weren’t for you,” de Blasio said, following an introduction by Dinkins. “You gave me my first real chance in government.”
“New York City Hall will teach you things very, very quickly. I would argue that it may be the greatest graduate school in the world,” he said.
SIPA Dean Merit Janow, who spoke before Dinkins, said that when de Blasio was studying at Columbia, he wasn’t necessarily on the track toward urban politics.
“I reread a SIPA profile of him from 2001 when he was running for City Council,” Janow said. “In that profile he says he intended to work in areas of United States foreign policy, but he was pulled into city politics by joining David Dinkins’ campaign in 1988.”
De Blasio said that Dinkins’ work as mayor was part of what inspired him in the first few months of his mayoralty this year.
The thrust of de Blasio’s speech focused on leadership and the history that has inspired him in the first few months of his mayoralty.
“Mayor Dinkins had the audacity to say that we could in fact address the problem,” de Blasio said, referring Dinkins’ Safe Streets, Safe City program, which greatly decreased crime in the early 1990s. “It would not have happened if Mayor Dinkins said we can only take small steps.”
De Blasio also said that he will soon announce a plan to build an additional 200,000 units of affordable housing within the next 10 years. He said this would be “as big and as bold as we can possibly reach.”
The event was dedicated to Basil Paterson, a former labor lawyer and the father of former New York Governor David Paterson. Paterson, along with Dinkins, Rep. Charles Rangel, and former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton made up the famous Gang of Four, a group of Harlem politicians who took on top leadership positions in city government.
Rangel spoke at last year’s Dinkins forum, which focused on gun control in the wake of the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
“It was the passing of Basil last week that led us to conversations and thoughts about dedicating this forum to the life that Basil lived,” Dinkins said. “To my friend Basil who is up there waiting for me now. Percy Sutton was the oldest, then Basil, then me, then Charlie. I’m ready.”
Following de Blasio’s keynote, Fuchs led a panel of urban experts that included Jennifer Jones Austin, co-chair of the mayor’s transition team, Bruce Ratner, developer of the Atlantic Yards, Richard Ravitch, former lieutenant governor under David Paterson, and Dorian Warren, a SIPA political science professor. Panelists discussed their priorities for the city and the effectiveness of proposed policies.
“You cannot maintain the capital integrity of our schools, our subway system, and our public facilities without spending money,” Ravitch said. “New York has enjoyed its greatest prosperity during a period when its tax rate was higher. I’m a bloody capitalist, I don’t like to pay taxes.”
Ratner said that it was important for both the city and businesses to support a higher minimum wage and union rights.
“The mayor is the mayor, business eventually comes around. We must do business with this city,” he said. “We have to have $30 and $40 workers building buildings.”
Austin said that the city should focus on “supporting communities, empowering them, and helping people invest in home ownership.”
Fuchs, who also serves on the city’s Sustainability Advisory Board, said that all aspects of the city should be addressed.
“The focus on crime needs to continue, we need to continue diversifying our economy,” she said. “Our focus on environmental policy should continue unabated.”
Warren, injecting realism into the conversation, said the group should remember that de Blasio, despite being mayor, still only has so much power.
“We need to understand the limits of any one person. He resides in a context in a set of institutions with constraints,” Warren said. “I think it’s actually incumbent on the city’s progressive forces to create the environment.”