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NYC Race Focuses On Income Gap, But How Much Can A Mayor Do?

New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio rides the subway while greeting commuters in New York on Monday.
Seth Wenig
New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio rides the subway while greeting commuters in New York on Monday.

Voters in New York City go to the polls Tuesday to choose their next mayor, and it appears all but certain that they'll elect Bill de Blasio, the city's public advocate.

The Democrat has built a wide lead in the polls by distancing himself from the incumbent mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg. In fact, de Blasio has made income inequality the central issue of his campaign, name-checking the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities dozens of times at debates and stump speeches.

"It always falls back to, 'It's a tale of two cities,' " Republican candidate Joe Lhota complained in a recent interview with MSNBC. "There's nothing more divisive than saying we are two cities, whether it's rich versus poor, black versus white."

But de Blasio won't back down. "There's nothing divisive about acknowledging the struggle that so many New Yorkers face. It's not class warfare," de Blasio said in a speech last month to a group of business leaders. "It's arithmetic. And it's reality."

For the stock market and the real estate business, these have been the best of times, or pretty close. But de Blasio argues those gains haven't been spread equally among all New Yorkers, including the record number of 50,000 people in the city who are homeless.

De Blasio has been eager to emphasize his differences with outgoing mayor Bloomberg. De Blasio lives in Brooklyn, where he sends his children to public school; Bloomberg is one of the richest men in the country, who used his personal fortune to win three terms in office — first as a Republican, later as an independent. And Bloomberg did his best to make the wealthy feel welcome in New York.

"If we could get every billionaire around the world to move here, it would be a godsend," Bloomberg said in September during his weekly radio interview on WOR.

"They're the ones that spend a lot of money in the stores and restaurants and create a big chunk of our economy," Bloomberg said. "And we take tax revenues from those people to help people throughout the entire rest of the spectrum."

Great as New York is, it is not actually the federal government.

But polls suggest voters are ready for a change. De Blasio is poised for the kind of landslide win New York hasn't seen since the 1980s.

Still, as mayor, de Blasio may find there's not much he can do to narrow the income gap.

"Great as New York is, it is not actually the federal government," says Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association.

The mayor "does not control the Federal Reserve, much less taxation and trade policy," Vitullo-Martin says. "And it is very hard for a local jurisdiction to redistribute income."

New York's mayor can't suddenly end the city's dependence on the financial industry — or replace disappearing jobs that pay middle-class wages. But de Blasio's supporters say there are things the next mayor could do to reverse decades of rising inequality.

"There are two cities. And the way that the new city is being built is only increasing the gap between the two cities," says Tom Angotti, a former aide to three New York mayors, during an interview on the waterfront in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

This area is one of several places in the city where Angotti says high-rise luxury developments are changing the composition of whole neighborhoods.

"It has jacked up the rents and land prices and housing prices around. And that has displaced many, many people," says Angotti, who now teaches urban affairs at Hunter College. "People who have lived in the city for years and generations are concerned that they're not going to be able to stay."

On the campaign trail, de Blasio has pledged to build more affordable housing, and to give all New Yorkers access to universal prekindergarten, paid for by raising taxes on the highest earners.

"When so many New Yorkers are being priced out of their own city ... it's a crisis of affordability," de Blasio said last month. "I don't accept this as our destiny. I am committed to tackling this crisis."

De Blasio has been committed to that message as a candidate. But he may find it's a lot harder to bring the two cities closer together.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.