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Community Voices on the Recovery: Sandy and the Election, Part 2

By Ned Crowley

1. Democratic Nominee for Mayor, Bill de Blasio, at a Faith in New York event in Far Rockaway.  Image by Faith in New York.

1. Democratic Nominee for Mayor, Bill de Blasio, at a Faith in New York event in Far Rockaway. Image by Faith in New York.

Democratic nominee for mayor Bill de Blasio fulfilled his first campaign promise last weekend, touring the Rockaways with the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding and Faith in New York. De Blasio committed to this tour over five months ago at a forum for mayoral candidates hosted by these organizations and the Sandy Regional Assembly; together these coalitions represent community and climate justice groups, labor unions, and congregations organizing around Hurricane Sandy recovery and long-term social justice issues in New York (see Daniel Aldana Cohen’s post on these groups and their platforms).  It was still anyone’s race in June, and predicting the specific effects of Sandy on the election was as yet impossible. Now with the primaries behind us, this post considers the Democratic race for mayor between June and September, 2013, with an eye on the candidates’ platforms on Sandy recovery, disaster preparedness, and resilience and their respective performances in New York’s hardest hit communities.

Returning to Faith in New York’s mayoral forum in June, there was little indication that Bill de Blasio would emerge as the decisive frontrunner in September. In fact, several outlets reported that Anthony Wiener won the day, garnering the most vocal approval from the audience (approval that was reflected by his lead in the polls that week). But from my estimation, the candidates’ platforms were broadly similar. Moderators from Faith in New York quizzed candidates on how they would leverage recovery funds and the mayor’s office to increase access to affordable housing, bring jobs to economically depressed communities, and advance sustainable infrastructure in New York. Candidates all claimed they would create more affordable housing and retrofit them for sustainability, adapt infrastructure (particularly transportation) and emergency response systems for future extreme weather events, and require local hiring and living wages for reconstruction projects. Christine Quinn and Bill Thompson also emphasized that the City should prioritize minority- and women-owned companies in the reconstruction. Faith in New York has more detailed notes on candidates’ positions.

Electoral results map. Credit to New York Times, Full interactive map here.

Electoral results map. Credit to New York Times, Full interactive map here.

I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t discern an obvious frontrunner over the summer. The Democratic establishment, labor unions, and community groups were uncharacteristically split in their endorsements. Interestingly, little consensus existed even among member organizations of the major post-Sandy coalition, Alliance for a Just Rebuilding. Quinn, the early favorite, gained the endorsement of SEIU 32BJ, representing 60,000 property workers, and LIUNA. Thompson took the TWU Local 100 endorsement. And the city’s biggest union, 1199SEIU, representing 200,000 healthcare workers, joined the prominent community organizing outfit NY Communities for Change in endorsing de Blasio. Whereas Alliance member organizations were unified around their recommendations for Sandy recovery, they were divided about which candidate would best pursue those goals.

How did voters in the neighborhoods most affected by Sandy come down on primary day? The results are somewhat surprising. Lacking individual voter data, let’s compare a map of primary results by election district with a map of the city’s flood evacuation zones. Bill de Blasio’s power base was the majority black neighborhoods in central and eastern Brooklyn and Harlem. Among precincts most affected by Sandy, de Blasio did best in Red Hook, the majority-minority districts of Coney Island and Far Rockaway (areas with high public housing), and the northern coast of Staten Island. By contrast, Bill Thompson won the wealthier, whiter neighborhoods of Breezy Point, Queens, and the Sea Gate community on Coney Island, both of which are majority homeowner districts. Thompson and de Blasio went tit-for-tat in Midland Beach districts, the community on Staten Island that saw the largest death toll and property destruction during Hurricane Sandy. Third place finisher Christine Quinn only did well among wealthier districts, capturing only the Financial District in Manhattan among the city’s flood zones. John Liu won each of the city’s Chinatowns, of which only Manhattan’s was seriously affected by power outages after Sandy.

The spatial breakdown of flood zone districts won by de Blasio and Thompson, respectively, reveals an important pattern. Thompson won more affluent districts with higher concentrations of homeowners. De Blasio won poorer districts marked by public housing. Even though all of these types of communities experienced the same hurricane on October 29th, 2012, their long-term recoveries have been substantially different, as are their resilience needs going into the future. On social resilience factors, such as housing and jobs, de Blasio out-polled all of his competitors in advance of the election. Meanwhile, Quinn, whose disaster preparedness platform centered on physical adaptations like sea walls, performed poorly among Sandy-hit communities.

The Democratic primary can hardly be seen as a referendum on Sandy recovery. However, we are reminded that experiences of disaster hew closely to racial, income, and spatial inequalities. It seems that voters who know all to well the “slow hurricane”[1] of poverty and inequality chose the candidate whose platform most resembles a social resilience program. But will de Blasio stick to his campaign platform? After clearing the hurdle of the primary– likely his biggest hurdle on the road to City Hall– de Blasio’s Sandy-recovery plans continue to encourage. After his visit to Far Rockaway last weekend, de Blasio reaffirmed his commitment to the social resilience platform advanced by the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding. With labor and the Working Families Party securely in his corner, de Blasio could have taken the opportunity to pander to the finance and commercial real estate sectors (where his Republican rival may yet gain ground). That he’s still responsive to his “sure thing” constituency bodes well. For substantive accountability to be achieved, however, it is imperative that community coalitions like the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding and the Sandy Regional Assembly stay organized and keep pressure on City Hall for the long run.

[1] Credit to Diego Ibañez, Occupy Sandy organizer, for this phrase.