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OPINION: Comparing de Blasio and LaGuardia

Early 20th century New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

It is tempting to make a comparison between 1930s and ‘40s-era Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and new Mayor Bill de Blasio. Both are considered “outsiders” who were not part of the political machine, both are Italian-American, and both were considered left of center, although a hard-core leftist would certainly contest that. LaGuardia was called a “Red’ during the campaign, although he wasn’t one, while de Blasio was called a socialist.

Both espoused pro-labor policies. LaGuardia, as a congressman in the 1920s,was one of the authors of the Norris-LaGuardia Act, which forbid federal courts from issuing injunctions against non-violent labor actions. De Blasio’s advocacy of the “living wage bill,” which mandates “prevailing wages” for businesses that have contracts with the city, and of paid sick days for all but the smallest of small businesses is well-known.

Both have been critical of U.S. interventions overseas—interestingly, they both protested U.S. intervention in Nicaragua, but in instances that were 70 years apart. La Guardia reorganized the city’s police force. Similarly, de Blasio changed city policy on “stop-and-frisk.” And both are seen as advocates of multiculturalism. De Blasio made his biracial family a centerpiece of his campaign. In LaGuardia’s time, the population of the city was radically different – it was a city of European immigrants – but LaGuardia spoke German, Italian and Yiddish, as well as being a big supporter of Irish independence.

Still, there are some very important differences between the two men. LaGuardia was a semi-authoritarian, domineering leader who went on personal “crusades.” Some of these included his drive against slot machines (because they were owned by the Mob), his fixation on eliminating trolley cars from the city’s streets, his single-minded campaign to ban organ grinders (because anti-Italian bullies during his childhood compared him to an organ grinder), and his successful drive to shut down the city’s burlesque houses.

De Blasio, on the other hand, is very much a “group man,” part and parcel of the city’s liberal Democratic organizations. He sees the Democratic members of the City Council as his indispensible allies.

More importantly, LaGuardia’s agenda was much more ambitious. He wanted to restore the financial health of the city, expand the federally-funded work-relief program for the unemployed, end corruption in government, replace political patronage with civil service and modernize the city’s transportation system and its parks.

The reason LaGuardia could have such a wide-ranging agenda was that he had a powerful partner in Washington, President Franklin Roosevelt. During the 1930s, Roosevelt kept federal funds for work programs pouring into the city to the tune of $1.1 billion. Roosevelt also helped LaGuardia defeat the conservative Manhattan Democratic machine, which had also opposed Roosevelt when Roosevelt had been governor of New York. When World War II came, Roosevelt made LaGuardia the national head of the new Office of Civilian Defense.

By contrast, de Blasio’s Washington partner is Barack Obama, a weak president who has trouble getting even a fraction of his legislative proposals passed. While Obama won both presidential elections, his popularity is nowhere near that of FDR. For support of his programs, de Blasio must rely on Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a much more conservative Democrat; his commissioners and his friends in the City Council. Unlike LaGuardia, de Blasio can’t hitch his wagon to a star. That doesn’t mean he won’t be a good mayor, but his expectations need to be more modest.

February 3, 2014 - 2:30pm


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