Could de Blasio's NYPD Problem Cost the City the Democratic Convention?

When police have taken a starring role at the parties' quadrennial festivals, things have not gone well.

New York City mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and a group of newly-elected mayors from across the country speak to the media outside of the West Wing of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Dec. 13, 2013.

Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

Bill de Blasio is on the hunt for "beautiful faces ;)." New York’s Mayor is behind the bid to host the 2016 Democratic National Convention, in Brooklyn, and a staffer from his Community Affairs Unit has sent out a call for “everyday New Yorkers,” in their motley, swaggering glory, to star in a pitch video. 

The 2016 DNC should be hosted in NYC, de Blasio’s website announces touts, for a variety of reasons, including “every language is spoken here," “Broadway—'nuf said," “Hold the convention anywhere else? Fuhggedabout it," and "The MET, ever heard of it? We've got culture." 

These ideas may be a bit watery, but the point is taken that New York is an electric, distinctive American meeting place. As the New York Daily News reported, a convention at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn would help de Blasio and his populist ideals ascend upon the national stage. The Clintons are said to support the idea, and no wonder: what better optics for nominating Hillary, resident and former-Senator of the Empire State? Bill Clinton himself accepted the Democratic nomination in New York himself back in 1992. 

But in other ways, New York is a complicated proposition for the Democrats. Economic inequality could well be the main talking point of the campaign—the quest to get some real wage increase for the still-hurting middle class—and New York may not be the best backdrop to that discussion. According to CNN, the New York metropolitan area is home to the most billionaires in the world, and also four million people living on $12,300 or less—below the poverty line, for a family. The Occupy protestors are out of Zuccotti Park, but New York still oozes inequality.

On this tip, the homemade limeade and fresh chard and cheese curd shops near Barclays seem ideal elitist fodder for Republicans to mock mercilessly (remember arugula-gate?). Gentrification may not be a good narrative for champions of the middle class.

More pressing, however, is the ongoing tension between the mayor and the police. De Blasio, once an unlikely mayoral contender, cruised into office on strong condemnation of the NYPD policy of stop-and-frisk. After Eric Garner was killed, on video, by NYPD officer's chokehold—and after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict the cop—de Blasio voiced sympathy. He said that he and his wife, Chirlane McCray, who is black, worry about their son, Dante, and have long warned him of the dangers that he may face “because of the history that still hangs over us.” Law enforcement officers, public servants themselves, were enraged. After the execution-style shootings of two police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, in Bedford-Stuyvesant as they sat in their patrol car, by a troubled man who cited the Garner case and Ferguson as his motive, the head of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, accused de Blasio of having “blood” on his hands. At both funerals, the police turned their backs on the mayor, and staged a days-long unofficial work slowdown.

The lingering animus could metastasize. Top New York Democrats are reportedly worried over what this might mean for the city’s chances at the DNC. Last week, Bill de Blasio told reporters that he didn't think it would stop the convention from coming to town. According to the Observer, he said:

“This is a police force that can handle anything so it’s been a painful few weeks because we’ve lost a few good men and yes, there’s been some politics in the background. In the foreground is an incredible year of success for this department. In the foreground is an extraordinary example of this department protecting people’s democratic rights and really being an example to the entire nation and I think that will be on the minds of a lot of people in this country.”

Robert Zimmerman, a New Yorker and a 14-year member of the DNC, told the Washington Post that New York is “booming economically,” and is “the safest large city in America.” But he admitted that “the mayor will certainly have to work out the issues” with law enforcement.

This might seem to be a parochial squabble that wouldn’t get in the way of the cameras—except, of course, a convention's most thrilling drama often takes place off the main stage. The police have played starring roles at several conventions before, both Democratic and Republican. Most famously, the so-called “police riot” at the 1968 Democratic convention, in Chicago. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley boomed that “Law and order will be maintained.” Six hundred arrests were made, and 100 protestors and 119 police were hurt. Last January, New York City finally settled the outstanding lawsuits filed by about 1,600 plaintiffs who were arrested for peacefully demonstrating outside the Republican Naitonal Convention in 2004. New York agreed to pay out $18 million, without ever quite admitting wrongdoing.

Then there’s the very real question of security, the most important thing a city can provide. For New Yorkers, the events in Paris this week have underlined this. And a central argument for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy will be her national security credentials, which means she can’t afford any mistakes.

The issues surrounding the DNC and the police focus many of the conundrums about New York’s mayor. A progressive who’s a former Hillary Clinton operative; a former activist who supports the right to peaceful protest, but has pleaded for the suspension of protests—who is presiding over the safest large city in the country, yet whose cops are on work slow-down.

If the convention comes to Brooklyn, Patrick Lynch and his Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association would be in excellent position to embarrass and squeeze the mayor. And if he’s hosting the convention, with relations anywhere near their current state, one imagines it would be hard for them to resist.