Kathryn Garcia, Reclaiming the Neoliberal Lane

Politics, for many, is still about aesthetics

Since 1975, every mayor of New York City has been something of a neoliberal.

These men may have varied by party or vision—a couple hewing left while others took a more ruthless approach—but all ultimately governed under the constraints foisted upon them by the era we still live in today. The difference between the left-leaning Democrats (David Dinkins and Bill de Blasio) and the oligarch-friendly Republicans (Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg) could only be so dramatic when a certain segment of the power elite was determining the course of events.

The shock, of course, was the 1970s fiscal crisis, brought on by the collapse of blue-collar manufacturing, white flight to the suburbs, and poor fiscal practices. The social democratic era, buoyed by New Deal largesse under Fiorello La Guardia and continuing through a number of liberal Republican and Democratic mayors, abruptly came to a halt when the city nearly went bankrupt. The crisis mattered because it would reorder the city’s politics indefinitely: instead of expanding the social safety net and creating new services for the working class and poor, the new aim of the modern city would be to make it as attractive as possible to capital. Economic growth would be the new religion, with tax breaks showered on wealthy men like Donald Trump.

For the bankers and financiers who would be the de facto rulers of post-crisis New York, new investment would only come through retrenchment. Austerity was needed, they insisted, to return the city to health. Washington agreed, with Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter punishing New York, that liberal Sodom, for daring to aspire to an imitation of socialism. Teachers, firefighters, sanitation workers, nurses, and police officers were laid off in droves. Hospitals and firehouses were shuttered. In turn, banks would loan money to the crumbling metropolis once again, reluctantly funding the remnants of programs that kept the city’s Black and Puerto Rican underclass from succumbing entirely to poverty and violence.

For all the revolutions in politics today—the rise of the democratic socialists, the ascendance of AOC—the neoliberal approach, in municipal politics at least, has not left us. As predicted in the 1970s, CUNY never would be tuition-free again. The stock transfer tax, effectively ended in 1981, would not come back. The massive affordable housing projects of midcentury and earlier—Parkchester, Electchester, the Coops, Stuyvesant Town, Peter Cooper Village, the vast tracts of NYCHA housing—would be no more, replaced with market-rate development that would, from time to time, parcel out units to a few middle-class residents.

De Blasio, in 2013, offered a rhetorical break from this era, but could do relatively little to end it. What he did do was propose and implement the first significant expansion of the city’s social safety net in decades, universal pre-K, and sign into law a number of progressive reforms, like mandatory paid sick days and a right to counsel for tenants. On real estate, he was a kinder, gentler, and less effective Bloomberg, prioritizing affordable housing more but approaching development in largely the same way: courting private developers and hoping for the best.

In the 2021 Democratic primary, no viable candidate offers a radical departure from de Blasio, and several might want to move the city in a more conservative direction. Andrew Yang openly adores Bloomberg, and his top consultant ran Bloomberg’s 2009 mayoral campaign. Eric Adams is a de Blasio ally, but is more enthralled with charter schools, would further militarize the police, and has clashed repeatedly with progressive and socialist activists. Scott Stringer and Maya Wiley are the center-left candidates who could potentially go further than de Blasio did, but neither Democrat has an enthusiastic base.

Into this breach steps the New York Times-endorsed Kathryn Garcia. De Blasio’s former Sanitation commissioner and NYCHA head, Garcia has been rising in the polls, winning favorable coverage in prestige media outlets and courting many of the progressive voters who grew disaffected with Stringer after he was accused, with little evidence, of sexual assault. She would be New York’s first female mayor and her executive experience sets her apart from Wiley, who served as de Blasio’s counsel. She promises good and competent government; her platform has several progressive proposals, including building on universal pre-K and 3-K programs by offering free childcare up to age three for families earning less than $70,000 a year. She promises to create more than 250 miles of new bike lanes, installing thousands of electric car chargers and implementing a version of the Green New Deal for public housing, as well as build new housing for the homeless.

But there is another Garcia, a truer Garcia—a manager, a technocrat, a neoliberal skeptical of the most fundamental safeguards against the violence of the free-market in a city that is chasing out its working class and poor. She doesn’t hide this, exactly—she’s a blunt person—but it comes out only with enough prodding.

Garcia is a sudden convert to the cause of charter schools, which have become, over the last two decades, emblems of the neoliberal project. If government-run education is said to be failing, why not have the public pay for private schools and circumvent those nasty teachers’ unions? Charter schools did not exist in New York for almost the entirety of the 20th century. Now, we’ve been conditioned to believe that a school system can’t function without them. Yang and Adams are supporters of charters too, and the left-wing Dianne Morales actually founded one. Garcia had no history discussing any kind of education issues before this mayoral race. She’s made it clear, thanks either to her genuine belief in charters or her awareness that rich people who support charters will donate to local campaigns, that’s where she stands now.

Garcia’s neoliberalism comes across somewhat in her approach to policing, which is conventional by establishment Democratic standards—reform, don’t defund—and isn’t much of a departure from what de Blasio, her old boss, did for eight years. She’d require cops to live in the city, but it’s hard to see someone as sympathetic to the police as she is going to war with the unions over a cherished residency rule.

Where it matters, ultimately, is housing. The mayor of New York City, thanks to changes in law made in the fiscal crisis era, has relatively little control over housing policy. Rent regulations, if they are to be strengthened, must be changed in the state legislature and approved by the governor. Banning broker fees for tenants means changing state law, too. The laws governing whether you stay in your apartment or what means a landlord can undertake to make your life difficult are all under the dominion of the state. The rise of progressive Democrats in Albany has meant, for the first time in more than a half century, there are enough lawmakers to block any attempts to weaken laws protecting tenants. Until 2019, Republicans controlled the State Senate and Andrew Cuomo, the governor, empowered them. Hundreds of thousands of units of rent-stabilized housing were lost over the last 20 years.

But the mayor does matter. Despite his propensity for fundraising from the real estate industry, de Blasio was the first tenant-friendly mayor New York had in at least thirty years, maybe longer. He tried and failed to swing control of the State Senate to the Democrats in 2014 and 2016. He supported the strengthening of rent regulations in 2019, when Democrats finally had the power to do it. On the city level, he approved of changes to tenant law that he could control, like guaranteeing free representation to low-income tenants facing eviction. De Blasio also did his best to appoint tenant-aligned members to the Rent Guidelines Board, which decides every year how much more rent-stabilized tenants should pay. In 2015, when only de Blasio appointees had a chance to vote for the first time, the board decided to freeze rents on one-year leases, the first time in almost 50 years.

It is difficult to imagine Mayor Garcia allowing the same to ever happen on her watch. In a recent interview, she expressed skepticism about rent-stabilization and sympathized with landlords who she said have to contend with rising costs. “We need neighborhoods to be stable, and rent stabilization does that, but we also need to make sure that we’re not having unintended consequences of folks of not having the money to do the renovations on vacant apartments,” Garcia said. “We have a lot of small landlords. They control an enormous amount of the rent-stabilized housing stock and they have to be able to make it here as well.”

Someone who believes landlords with millions of dollars in equity experience struggles similar to what tenants, many paying most of their income to rent, endure is not going to side with the working class. Garcia is a Park Slope home-owner, which likely makes her a millionaire on paper. The suffering of a city tenant isn’t something she can possibly know. And it’s not clear she wants to know it. It’s a myth that small, hard-working landlords control most of the housing stock in the five boroughs. They are not lavishly funding the Real Estate Board of New York. Rather, it’s the enormous real estate firms and management companies that collect most of the rent. Expanding rent-stabilization is a threat to them because it’s one more step toward making real estate a slightly less lucrative industry. If Garcia is going to fret about landlords, her Rent Guidelines Board picks will likely share her view. Under Bloomberg, the board routinely approved large rent hikes. With landlords already a sympathetic constituency for her, Garcia could easily appoint a board to do the same.

Her answers to other questions in the real estate interview were no better. She doesn’t want to see a tax on expensive second homes. She doesn’t want affordable housing to be mandatory in new projects. She would not tax vacant lots or storefronts. She has no use for the cancel rent movement. As mayor, she would not use her considerable bully pulpit to buoy the cause of tenants in Albany.

Given these positions, which place her well outside the progressive housing movement, why are so many left-of-center Democratic voters now seriously considering backing Garcia? The Times, of course, is the main reason. More powerful, in this diminished media environment, than ever before, the editorial board chose to elevate Garcia over Wiley, who is running on an objectively more left-leaning platform. The editorial board, which prides itself on its liberalism, did not seem to know or care that Garcia’s views on housing are not very different than Bloomberg’s—or even Adams or Yang’s, for that matter. Voters who take their cues from the Times may not care either. If they’re affluent enough, the price of rent means nothing to them because they either own homes or don’t sweat the fees on a condo. It is far easier to fulminate against Donald Trump and neo-fascists in the GOP than care about the more material and banal ways the real estate industry punishes the working class and the poor every month and every year. The historic gutting of rent-regulations or the aspirations for social housing won’t show up on an MSNBC segment anytime soon.

What is politics about for these kinds of liberals? It is aesthetics before policy, a warm feeling before a law. It is very easy to like what Garcia represents. I, like many, want honest government and an experienced hand to guide it. I want someone who speaks their mind. I want someone who understands that a functioning sanitation department, in any large city, keeps chaos at bay. But none of this must come ahead of the tangible outcomes that political decisions will produce. If more tenants are burdened or evicted, it does not matter that a few more people in Windsor Terrace or the Upper West Side are content that their mayor matches whatever technocratic ideal lulls them to sleep at night.