VERY FEW PEOPLE could dispute the point that Boston and New York are the two American cities best known and loved by the Irish. Although their long-standing rivalry, which isn’t entirely dissimilar to the eternally fraught relationship between Cork and Dublin, remains as bitter as ever in certain quarters, the cities did the same thing last year. They elected new mayors to replace long-term incumbents.
In New York, voters selected Bill de Blasio to take over from Michael Bloomberg after 12 years in office. In Boston, the electorate chose the son of Connemara emigrants, Martin Walsh, to be their mayor. He succeeds Thomas Menino, who served an unprecedented 20 consecutive years as the city’s chief executive officer – or as he proudly became known, Boston’s “urban mechanic.”
As mayors, Bill de Blasio and Martin Walsh will face myriad challenges. Many of these are the same, and it is worthy of note that the two have spoken already at a meeting hosted by President Obama. They are likely to cooperate, where possible and appropriate, in future. Perhaps the greatest difficulty they and other mayors of large American cities face is income inequality.
An increasingly polarised society
For a variety of reasons, American cities are now populated by a relatively small number of very wealthy people and a relatively large number of poor people. Those in the middle have shrunk proportionally. Expanding that middle, both by convincing the middle class to stay in the city and by offering pathways out of poverty, must be a central objective for both new mayors.
Bill de Blasio made rectifying income inequality in New York a cornerstone of his underdog campaign. He pledged to raise taxes on all city residents earning in excess of $500,000 annually in order to help fund universal pre-schooling and is now coming under fire for it.
The governor of New York state, Andrew Cuomo, is seeking re-election this year and must appeal to all the state’s voters, not just those who live in the city. He is also cognisant that many of these wealthy city residents are key campaign contributors. As such, he plans to cut taxes for all New Yorkers. Who’ll win this showdown between the governor and the mayor is uncertain, but de Blasio’s stance is definitely a political winner and further endears him to his well left of centre base.
‘Stop and frisk’
In New York, the practice of “stop and frisk” – pursuant to which pedestrians are stopped, questioned and frisked for weapons by police – began during the mayoral tenure of David Dinkins in the early 1990s, became prominent during Rudy Giuliani’s mayoralty and was continued by Michael Bloomberg. Many observers attribute the city’s declining crime rate to “stop and frisk.”
As a candidate, de Blasio assailed the practice and promised to end it, citing its disproportionate impact on racial minorities, who rallied to his candidacy in overwhelming numbers. Yet as mayor, de Blasio has appointed Bill Bratton, the “father of ‘stop and frisk,’” to be his police commissioner. If the practice does continue, the mayor will be held to account by supporters in the minority community. If it ceases and there’s a spike in violent crime, de Blasio will likewise come under attack.
Boston and education
Meanwhile, in Boston, probably the most vexing substantive issue Martin Walsh must address is education. The city once had the best urban public school system in the US, but plummeted into chaos in the wake of court-ordered forced busing in the 1970s and has stumbled along, more often enduring failings than celebrating successes, ever since. Walsh’s chief opponent in the campaign, John Connolly, repeatedly touted the importance of education at every opportunity.
To his credit, Walsh has devised a plan to improve the city’s schools, has appointed very good people to the school committee and has demonstrated a willingness to listen to the main stakeholders: teachers, parents and students. Walsh also recognises that not all students will progress to higher education and that, accordingly, vocational training should be accessible in Boston’s high schools.
A less tangible, yet no less important, challenge for Walsh is creating the “One Boston” he references often in speeches and public forums. Walsh looks and sounds like the epitome of “old Boston,” but he has carefully and genuinely reached out to the tens of thousands of new Bostonians who have moved into the city in recent decades.
The newcomers are not monolithic. There are immigrants, some of whom don’t speak English; there is a growing LGBT community; there are young professionals from different parts of the country whose careers have taken them to Massachusetts; and there are many others now living in Boston. Retaining the wondrous essence of the old and maximising the limitless potential of the new will prove a delicate balancing act for the new mayor. And this is destined to be a work in progress for years to come.
It will be fascinating to gauge the impressions of visiting Irish people as to what impact Mayors Walsh and de Blasio are having on Boston and New York. Your neutral assessments are likely to be even more prescient than the views of those who live or are from there, especially people like me. Because when it comes to the city of my birth and the old enemy, I am utterly incapable of neutrality.
Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist for IrishCentral.com.