De Blasio and Progressives to Put Forward an Inequality Contract for America

At Gracie Mansion, the mayor announces a bid to change the conversation in 2016.

New York City mayoral frontrunner Bill de Blasio (L) and his wife Chirlane McCray speak at a campaign rally at Brooklyn Borough Hall on November 1, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

(Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

On Thursday, a day on which many New Yorkers were squinting in what seemed like the first full sunlight in months, New York Mayor de Blasio announced at Gracie Mansion that he, along with a number of other leading progressives, was putting forward a vision for how to address income inequality. Speaking first, de Blasio said that the group had come together to formulate a template for how best to conquer income inequality, which, he said, is worse  today than it was at the height of the Great Depression. “We've got to change the politics of the country to change inequality,” he said. The aim, in his words, is “making sure income inequality is at the forefront of the national discussion.”

De Blasio, the first liberal to lead New York’s City Hall in two decades, said that the progressive group's “vision” will be announced in May, likely in Washington, D.C., and will explicitly parallel the Republican Party's 1994 Contract for America.

Van Jones, the  environmental activist and attorney who founded the nonprofit Rebuild the Dream, spoke of the stakes, and of the size of the gathering. “The mayor is a big man,” he said. “This is a big house, and this is a big deal." De Blasio’s team, which he expects to grow to “hundreds,” plans to sponsor a bipartisan presidential forum, the details of which are not set, to which they will invite all presidential candidates.

One by one, those who appeared behind de Blasio at the podium took the microphone. (Ted Strickland, Sherrod Brown, and others had attended the meeting but not the press conference.) First Lady Chirlane McCray spoke of being moved by the prayers of poor and working people.

Dannel Malloy, the governor of Connecticut, pointed to a famous adage of Kennedy's, which Malloy quoted as “A rising tide should raise all boats.” But many boats have not been raised, he said. “No one,” Malloy stressed, “should work 35 or 40 hours of labor a week and be in poverty.”

María Elena Durazo, the vice president for immigration, civil rights, and diversity for the labor union UNITE HERE said that "one family owns the wealth of 43% of Americans.” “Too many people work too hard for too little.” Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva spoke of his experience as a first generation America. He said he wanted to make sure the door that was open to him would be open to young citizens, poor citizens. The stuff of the very American dream. Heather McGhee, the president of Demos, warned of the “yawning chasm of opportunity.” The lights are dimming on our dream, she said.

 Between walls of powder blue, in a room of Corinthian columns, a ritzy Steinway & Sons grand piano, the mayor and his guests spoke with optimism of the momentum for progress. “Something is happening on the ground,” he said. “Political leadership better catch up.” The mood, appropriate for spring, was of blossoming and possibility.

De Blasio badly wanted to host the Democratic National Convention in Brooklyn, to take the national stage and thrust New York as high as city-ambassador Taylor Swift's reaches in the charts. But by pushing to spearhead this push on inequality—he was careful to say that he was convening these progressives, not leading them—de Blasio is finding his own way to influence the national agenda. He also intends to have an impact on his party.

The mayor said that Hillary Clinton’s team has not been involved in this conversation on inequality, and said that if she does decide to run, he will expect her—like every candidate—to express address the template and the issue. He like Elizabeth Warren, is a vocal part of the presently-energized progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which Clinton realizes she must please.

On the GOP side, de Blasio said that it was a “telling sign,” that income inequality has become a talking point even among Republicans like Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul—and Mitt Romney, who made notably little mention of the issue in the latest presidential race. A “bellwether,” the mayor said, that Republicans—“even conservative Republicans”—felt it imperative to address the issue. But he said that he didn’t take their words too seriously, since there wasn’t much by way of policy behind it. Likely he hopes to put the GOP on the defensive, and aims to push his party.

It may be an upward climb, but de Blasio speaks like the anti-Sisyphus. He said, “You change the policies of this country by bringing the idea to the people.” The people then bring the ideas to their leaders. He pointed to the success of minimum wage referendums—successful even in red states. “I do remind you,” he said, with the vocal equivalent of a wink, “we got the resources for pre-K.”

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