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A campaign lesson for progressive leadership in Australia

By Gerard May - posted Monday, 24 November 2014

There is something remarkable happening in New York that aspiring progressive leaders who seek to make a mark on the political landscape in Australia can learn from.

The current Democratic Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, won the mayoral election last year by a landslide gaining 73% of the majority vote becoming the first democratic mayor of the city since 1993.

De Blasio is not your typical democrat that we are used to viewing from the other side of the world; like Bill Clinton or Barrack Obama. Instead, he is a genuine progressive.


Mayors in the United States have great responsibility and power. They have overall responsibility for departments like sanitization, police, fire, corrections, education, paramedics and much more.

I learned about the mayor's influence first hand while attending a political rally where high-powered politicians spoke, including two United States Senators. The Mayor had top billing.

Even picking up the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times or any other daily you regularly witness the mayor holding the political center stage.

The reason is the New York mayor is one of the most powerful political positions in the world. The numbers speak for why. With 8.3 million people and GDP of 609.4 billion dollars, New York City has a budget of a staggering 67,533 million dollars. Now for the first time since people can recall - there is a genuine progressive in charge.

Living in New York for the past three months I've witnessed him sticking true to his progressive agenda. This led me to do some research. To ascertain whether during his 2013 mayor campaign de Blasio played the safer middle ground that we are so used to seeing those on the left running to be elected in Australia.

After completing my research I found he ran a strong leftist campaign. De Blasio called his campaign a "Tale of Two Cities".


De Blasio preached a hike on income tax on New Yorkers earning $500,000 or more from 3.8% to 4.3%; to pay for universal pre-school. His opponent, a republican named Lhota would not.

Lhota wanted to continue the previous mayor's policy of closing failing schools, while de Blasio said failing schools should be fixed, not shut down.

Lhota vowed to keep Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, while de Blasio pledged to replace Kelly, calling him "the architect of the overuse of stop-and-frisk that has had such a negative effect on the relationship between police and ... many communities of color."

De Blasio said he wanted the city, not the state, to set the local minimum wage and to raise it from $7.25 an hour. While Lhota wouldn't saying it would hurt business.

De Blasio wanted to expand coverage of paid sick days for workers. Lhota, mindful of business community opposition, would not.

After winning the election in a landslide de Blasio stated: "Make no mistake, the people of this city have chosen a progressive path." He has already stuck to his word on most of the policies above.

De Blasio exudes empathy for those who struggle to pay the rent or put their children through college. He came from a broken family - his father walked out on his mother and later shot himself rather than die of cancer.

Since coming into power it hasn't been any easy ride. He and his allies have been attacked. However, instead of distancing himself from political allies like we have witnessed time and again by leaders of the left in Australia. De Blasio has not. For example, political ally and leading civil rights leader in the U.S Al Sharpton is often the center of hate-filled criticism in the media. De Blasio recently made his support clear: "Al Sharpton has been a blessing for this city. The more people criticize him, the more I want to hang out with him."

De Blasio doesn't distance his association from unions either. 60 percentof the 350,000 New York City employees that former mayor Michael Bloomberg left to work under expired contract deals between their unions and the city reached new agreements, thanks to successful negotiations between the de Blasio administration and seven labor unions. All within six months of taking office. The deals have been praised by independent monitors like the city and state comptrollers' offices(the respective governments' Chief Financial Officers), the fiscally conservative Citizens Budget Commission and several bond rating agencies.

Union chief Michael Mulgrew who couldn't get a contract signed for his members for the five years during the previous mayor's time – stood next to de Blasio in announcing a new contract and said he couldn't "thank the mayor enough."

This doesn't mean he hasn't stood up when he believed the time called for it. This has been evident during his public battles with the powerful police union.

The mayor has inspired others. A host of progressives are now following the mayor. Their agenda: Seeking to increase the minimum wage, enact fairer campaign financing laws, and legislate a Women's Equality Act to ensure women get paid the same as men.

They have been inspired by de Blasio's success and have a unified message: The playing field has been geared for the rich to succeed at the expense of everyone else.

The lesson for progressive leaders in Australia: when you target the unfair wealth of the top 1% it resonates powerfully with the other 99%. When a leader in Australia on the left with support from a major party, who has intelligence, conviction and the guts to say what the rest of us are thinking - a landslide is there for the taking.

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About the Author

Gerard May was a union official in Australia before moving to New York where he has had opinion pieces published in City Limits New York Magazine. He can be followed at @GerardMay5.

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