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After years on the sidelines, New York's liberals retaking control

Liberal Democrat Bill de Blasio gestures as he walks onstage during his election victory party at the Park Slope Armory in New York November
Liberal Democrat Bill de Blasio gestures as he walks onstage during his election victory party at the Park Slope Armory in New York November

By Victoria Cavaliere

NEW YORK (Reuters) - With Bill de Blasio taking office as mayor in January, New York City appears poised for a resurgence of liberal policies.

After 20 years of Republican leadership, not only will America's largest city have the most liberal mayor in a generation, helping him implement change will be a progressive-leaning City Council and a longtime liberal ally in the new public advocate.

The city was governed for the last 12 years by Michael Bloomberg, a political independent who was first elected as a Republican, and for eight years before that by Republican Rudolph Giuliani.

To observers as well as Democratic legislators, the last election marked a major change in New York City politics, with a new breed of highly liberal politicians ready to enact a series of progressive policies that would have been dead on arrival under Bloomberg or his predecessor Giuliani.

"It's seen as an opportunity by progressives to do something different," said Douglas Muzzio, an expert on New York City politics and a professor at Baruch College at the City University of New York. "People projected their frustration, their anxiety, their expectations, their dreams on Bill. In that sense it wasn't dissimilar from the 2008 election of Obama. Now he's got to deliver."

Pledging to address the gap between the rich and poor that grew wider as the city prospered while those at the bottom of the economic ladder struggled to pay for basic services such as housing and mass transit, de Blasio won a resounding victory in November with more than 70 percent of the vote.

Over the last decade, apartment rents in New York City increased about 44 percent and the cost of a monthly subway card rose by 60 percent.

De Blasio has vowed to set a new tone at City Hall, and his agenda includes reforming police tactics, offering universal access to early childhood education, expanding the city's paid sick leave rules and improving the living standard for the 46 percent of New Yorkers at or below the poverty line.

"I would definitely define this as a movement," said progressive Democrat Laurie Cumbo of Brooklyn, who was elected to the City Council in November. "This idea that somebody has to be on the bottom so somebody can be on the top, which is somewhat of a global business model, doesn't have to be that way."

PLAYING IT DIFFERENTLY

The shift in tone in city government is already apparent.

Earlier this month, the City Council took the rare step of rejecting a rezoning of Manhattan's East Side, delivering a blow to Bloomberg and developers who had forcefully backed the plan.

Then, the city's mass-transit agency announced it was cutting its planned fare increases for 2015 and 2017 by nearly half. The agency cited an improved fiscal outlook, but Gene Russianoff, a lawyer and the spokesman for the New York Public Interest Research Group's Straphangers Campaign, said he saw the move as reflecting a changed political climate.

"They realized in the current political atmosphere it's unsustainable to raise the fare a lot every year," Russianoff said. "Bloomberg's attitude was, 'Everything goes up.' I think de Blasio will play it differently."

One early test for left-leaning politicians will be the race for the next City Council Speaker. Progressive members of the council, who saw their numbers double from 10 to 20 in November, have formed a Progressive Caucus and vowed to vote as a block for the next speaker.

"The mayor-elect has been very clear about his top priorities and they all line up very well with the goals of progressives in the Council," said Councilman Brad Lander, a co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus.

On many issues, the liberals will find an ally in the city's next Public Advocate, former councilwoman Letitia James. While James and de Blasio endorsed one another for the respective posts during the campaign, the new public advocate has pledged to keep rigorous checks and balances on the mayor.

James, a champion of minority and women's rights, vocally opposed big development in her section of Brooklyn during her 10 years in the City Council, including the Atlantic Yards development and the recently opened Barclays Center, home to the Brooklyn Nets professional basketball team.

As liberals prepare their political wish lists, the city's Republicans, outnumbered six-to-one by Democrats, are wary.

"We've had 20 years of success under Republican mayors," said Manhattan Republican Party Chairman Dan Isaacs. "Improved safety, crime is down, business and real estate is thriving. But in some ways we were victims of our success. It's hard to impart to people that the gains we've made could be lost very quickly."

Muzzio said the challenge now is maintaining the progress logged under Bloomberg while making the city more inclusive.

"Bill isn't a bomb-thrower," he said. "There's going to be a lot of continuity with Bloomberg. There has to be."

(Editing by Edith Honan and Gunna Dickson)

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