De Blasio biographer plots mayor’s pragmatism

Photo by Jeff Coltin
Joseph Viteritti.

De Blasio biographer plots mayor’s pragmatism

A Q&A with Joseph Viteritti, author of “The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York”
September 5, 2017

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s running for reelection this fall, and everyone seems to be drawing comparisons. Republican Nicole Malliotakis is comparing de Blasio to Mayor David Dinkins, who was in office when the city’s crime rate hit a peak. De Blasio is comparing Malliotakis to Donald Trump, the man she voted for. And independent candidate Bo Dietl keeps calling de Blasio “Big Bird”.

Now  Joseph Viteritti, a Hunter College public policy professor, is jumping in with a new book, comparing de Blasio to past mayors of New York. It’s called “The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York,” and it looks at the city’s history of progressive politics while examining the life and times of de Blasio.

Viteritti joined the City & State Presents podcast to talk about the provocative title, which mayor de Blasio is most like and more.

RELATED: Read an excerpt from “The Pragmatist"

You can stream the full interview below, on iTunes or Stitcher (for Android), and read on for an excerpt:

C&S: The book’s title, “The Pragmatist,” was that deliberately provocative? Many think of de Blasio as a bleeding heart liberal, a proud leftist who sometimes takes unrealistic positions. Can you explain that?

JV: He’s a pragmatist in the sense that, unlike some people who started out with such a strong, leftist disposition, rather than stay on the outside of the system and prod it to move along, he decided to make things happen. And once you’re in the political process at that level, then you’re in a situation where you’re constantly challenged to make decisions that on the one hand will advance your agenda, and on the other hand deal with the realities of politics around you. And the realities of the politics that surrounded him when he came here – as I said to him when we met, I said, ‘You’re trying to live LaGuardia’s dream in Bloomberg’s city.’ And the way the power system is set up these days, it really is predisposed to help people who are better off. And you’re sitting at that table with that hand to play and it will require negotiation and compromise, and it’s a very difficult proposition for a new mayor. 

C&S: De Blasio has been associated with third parties like the Working Families Party. Since then, he’s jumped into the Democratic Party, and it’s worked well for him – he’s now very powerful. Do you think he misses being so tied to third party politics? Is he constrained by the Democratic Party?

JV: He’s the consummate insider/outsider. And that’s what interesting in watching him. You’re never quite sure what he’s going to do in a situation. And he goes back and forth in terms of being very pragmatic and dealing with reality of situations at the time, and at times doing things you wouldn’t expect from an elected official.

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C&S: I was interested in how many members of de Blasio’s family were at one point writers and journalists – including his wife Chirlane. Does his animosity towards the press surprise you, given that history?

JV: I’ve never picked up the animosity, but I’m not looking at it or hearing it from where you are. In the days of Trump, there’s a different standard to measure that by, I guess! It was interesting, being an academic, seeing the strong academic roots and intellectual roots in his family and his wife… I found a lot of similarity between his wife and his mother – and his mother’s a very important figure in his life – in the sense that they were both very bright women who both were writers. Intellectual, very principled, a real sense of who they are. And there’s a deep well of intellectualism in his family that involves his father and his uncle, who were very well educated and who were prolific. His mother wrote a couple of books, one of which was reviewed in The New York Times on the Italian resistance. I wish I had the chance to meet her. She sounded like a really interesting woman.

C&S: You also draw connections to past mayors, like John Lindsay. There are a lot of similarities between the two, and not just their height. What mayor is de Blasio most like?

JV: I’ve been studying John Lindsay for a long time. I wrote my master’s thesis and my doctoral dissertation on him, my first book actually. And a couple of years ago, I published a book on Lindsay that was a book of essays, which had some very fine contributors. And that’s what actually got me into writing this book … people started asking me, how would you compare the two? They’re both progressives, they both see a clear commitment to people who are in need. And I would continue to explain to folks, it’s very hard to compare mayors because they each functioned in different times and they faced different challenges, so you have to understand them in that perspective. And the more I talked about it and got into it, the more interested I got into saying, well maybe this is an interesting story to tell … it finally clicked. I could use Bill de Blasio as kind of a mechanism to access that history and tell the story of the city and how the city has gone through great changes.

Jeff Coltin
is a staff reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.