By Jonathan Lemire
Pledging on Friday to oversee an activist government that will touch the lives of everyday New Yorkers, Mayor Bill de Blasio linked his administration's work in fighting inequality to the accomplishments of a trio of liberal titans from the city's past: Al Smith, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Fiorello LaGuardia.
De Blasio, a Democrat who took office in January, compared the city's current economic plight in the aftermath of the Great Recession to some of its more dire crises of the past century, believing it calls for a sweeping liberal agenda.
"Against that backdrop, we come into office with the notion that our forbearers are exemplars," de Blasio said in a major speech. "They did things boldly, did things audaciously, they did things quickly, because there was no other choice. They didn't wait."
De Blasio rarely shrinks from the chance to place his young mayoralty in the same framework as the city's most revered political figures. In a speech earlier this month to mark his first 100 days in office, he invoked Robert F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln while standing near the spot at Cooper Union where Lincoln delivered a famed 1860 speech that previewed his presidency.
On Friday, de Blasio stood within the city's Ivy League school, Columbia University, at the behest of one of his predecessors, David Dinkins, and reverentially remembered the Democrats. He praised Smith, a 1920s-era governor, for his work in reforming dangerous workplace conditions; Roosevelt for the New Deal; and LaGuardia, the three-term mayor, for creating the city's public housing authority amid the Great Depression.
"I marvel at the creativity of those who came before us," the mayor said, "and I aspire to reach some of their level and hope I can follow their footsteps."
De Blasio touted his efforts to expand paid sick leave and, in particular, his success in extracting money from the state to fund universal prekindergarten this fall. Again invoking his predecessors in public life, he seemed to again bristle against the notion put forth by some critics that he spent too much energy on pre-K and failed to fund it via his original idea, a tax hike on wealthy New Yorkers.
"They didn't worry that it may not all be perfect or the criticism that come from missteps," the mayor said. "They said if you don't experiment and act now, if you don't press forward, if you don't create, that pain only deepens."
De Blasio also previewed his administration's next bold initiative: a plan, which will be formally unveiled next week, to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing.
"It is the outer limit and that's what we have to reach for and we will get there," he said.
De Blasio, who has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia, gave the keynote address at the David Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy forum, an annual event hosted by the former mayor, who now teaches at Columbia. Previous keynote speeches have been delivered by former Vice President Al Gore, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg.