In his successful run for mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio was often described as the “anti-Bloomberg.” A large majority of New Yorkers welcomed his populist, unabashedly progressive stances as an antidote to Michael Bloomberg’s twelve-year reign over the city.
After all, when people call Bloomberg a billionaire, they aren’t just describing his bank account. They are also describing his persona. He made billions of dollars by inventing a computer system that helps Wall Street bankers make money faster. He is cold and technocratic, caring more about data points than the people those numbers represent. He is unashamed in his admiration for fellow members of the city’s moneyed class, telling New York Magazine last September, “If we can find a bunch of billionaires around the world to move here, that would be a godsend.”
But if outside observers want to find an anti-Bloomberg in America’s urban politics, they don’t need to limit their search to de Blasio. They could just as easily look northeast to Boston, where voters chose Marty Walsh as their next mayor.
Walsh was born to a working-class family in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. At 18 years old he went to work on Boston’s waterfront and joined Laborers Local 223, the same union to which his father belonged. He ascended through the union and was eventually chosen as the head of the Building and Construction Trades Council of the Metropolitan District [i]. Due in part to his modest roots, Walsh was able to reach voters on a personal level while on the campaign trail. He drew from his troubled past, which included bouts with alcoholism, in order to connect with voters in a way that was unimaginable for Bloomberg.
Perhaps the most striking difference between these two men, however, is the perceived influence of “special interests” in their elections. In an argument as maddening as it is illogical, Bloomberg supporters, including the inimitable New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (read: sarcasm), maintain that Bloomberg was able to remain impartial to the clamoring of interest groups during his tenure as mayor. He was not beholden to anyone, the logic goes, largely because he was able to fund his own campaigns.
Walsh, on the other hand, had to fight off accusations throughout the campaign stemming from his ties to organized labor. Unions spent large sums on Walsh’s behalf, leading his opponent, City Councilman John Connolly, to say, “You can’t have $2.5 million pour in from across the United States on behalf of labor unions and say you’re going to be able to be independent.”
It is frustrating that Bloomberg, a mayor of and for the wealthy, can be painted as impartial due to his own immense wealth. It is equally frustrating that Connolly – a “progressive” Democrat, according to the New York Times – finds it so undesirable for his opponent to be connected to the strongest institutional representative of America’s workers. However, it should be heartening for progressives to see these familiar tropes fall flat on voters in two of the country’s most iconic cities. De Blasio was able to win by running against Bloomberg’s legacy, while the attacks on “big labor” failed to derail Marty Walsh in Boston.
Walsh is not perfect. His education stances, among other things, deserve scrutiny from organized labor and the broader progressive community. But when combined with de Blasio’s resounding victory in New York City, Walsh’s election as a proud unionist should give progressives hope. In an era when corporate interests dominate both parties, the ascendency of these two men shows that the budding revival of economic populism within the Democratic Party just might have some staying power.
[i] All biographical facts come from here.
Zach Cunningham is a first-year Master’s student at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. In 2008 Iheworked as a field organizer for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in Youngstown, Ohio, and after graduating from Indiana University in 2010 he taught high school in Arkansas and participated in the City University of New York’s Union Semester program. He blogs at I Hear Them All.