September 28, 2018
Brian Rosenthal: Hello, welcome everybody. I am Brian Rosenthal, I'm a reporter at the New York Times, and welcome to the Texas Tribune Festival and our one-on-one interview with New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio.
This panel is presented by H and K Strategies. I've been asked to say that while corporate sponsors underwrite this event, they play no role in determining the panel's content, panelists, or line of questions.
In fact, the Trib has also not given me any direction about what questions I should be asking. This panel will last an hour, including about 40 to 45 minutes of us talking up here and then 15 to 20 minutes of questions from the audience. If you would like to Tweet about this panel, the hashtag is #TribFest18.
The instructions for the Q-and-A, which we – will be posted on that board, when we get there. It's a little different. Instead of lining up, we're asking you to text any questions you have to Ask – text AskTrib to 5126920689 or tweet using the hashtag #AskTrib. Okay.
Mayor Bill de Blasio: That's a lot of instructions.
Rosenthal: It is. There will be a test later.
Rosenthal: Bill de Blasio is the 109th mayor of New York City. He's a Democrat, first elected in 2013 and re-elected last year. Previously, he had served eight years as a City Council member and then four years as a public advocate of New York City. He's originally from Cambridge, Massachusetts and is a very big Red Sox fan, famously. Started his career working – started his career in politics working for then-Mayor David Dinkins before working in the Clinton administration as the Regional Director of Housing and Urban Development for New York and New Jersey. Then in 2000, served as campaign manager for Hillary Clinton's successful bid for the U.S. Senate before going into politics himself.
Please welcome Bill de Blasio.
Mayor: Thank you.
Rosenthal: So, I want to start with the obvious question, which is, you live in Manhattan now, in the Mayor's –
Mayor: I'm a Brooklynite who's been temporarily transferred to Manhattan.
Rosenthal: Right. I live in Manhattan as well. What the heck are we doing down here, in Texas?
Mayor: Brian, I wanted to ask you why are you here? But –
Rosenthal: I'm here for the barbecue.
Mayor: There you go.
Rosenthal: But why did you come?
Mayor: Damn good reason.
Look, right now in New York City we are creating a progressive vision and implementing a progressive vision that I think has huge ramifications for cities around the country and in fact for the country. We're creating a vision of a society that actually tries to include everyone, that aspires to a vision of fairness that creates a stronger social fabric.
And the message of this whole term ahead is we want to be fairest big city in America. We want people to feel they are treated fairly, that their government is on their side, that their lives are being addressed, what they're really going through is being addressed.
So, for example, the biggest affordable housing initiative in the history of New York City, pre-K for all of our children – universal free Pre-K and soon thereafter 3-K –
We're going to extend that right to three year olds in the next few years as well, a vision –
Rosenthal: So, so –
Mayor: Just to finish real quick – a vision of a society that actually works for working people and while all the dramas are going on in Washington, this is happening on the ground in New York City and a lot of other places. These are the building blocks of what America's going to look like in the coming years. I think it's important to talk about it and to help people understand what we can do in cities and states around the country.
Rosenthal: So, you want other people to see what's happening in New York. That's your goal is to make sure that everybody knows what's happening in New York?
Mayor: It's a model that's working. Look, we are the safest big city in America because we brought police and community together with a neighborhood policing strategy. We're going farther with early childhood education than any city in America.
We're addressing mental health. My wife, Chirlane, is leading the Thrive initiative to create a mental health system that actually can give people access to mental health care. One of the great gaps in America is that one in five Americans have a mental health condition and yet there's very little access to care.
These, again – this is what the future should look like not only in cities around America, in all parts of America, and we happen to be a great laboratory. A place where big ideas, bold ideas can be implemented quickly. And instead of, I think, getting lost in some of what can't happen in Washington D.C., we need to talk about what can happen on the ground all over this country.
Rosenthal: What is your biggest accomplishment for New York, from your travel?
Mayor: Excuse me, the biggest accomplishment in five years?
Rosenthal: What have you accomplished for New York through travel?
Mayor: Oh, through travel? It’s spreading ideas that are now being picked up all over the place. Look, and it happens – I want to be very clear, we gently borrow ideas from all sorts of other jurisdictions. Everyone does it to support each other.
Rosenthal: What's an example of that? Something you've –
Mayor: IDNYC, which I'm very proud of. Over a million New Yorkers have a local ID card, whether they have a documentation status or not in terms of our national government, they have a local ID card that helps them get a bank account, lease an apartment, visit a kid in school, visit a relative in the hospital. It's something that has really told half-a-million New Yorkers that happen to be undocumented that they belong too. They're our neighbors. That was an idea that originated in New Haven, Connecticut and Oakland, California.
But, the ideas that we're initiating – the Thrive initiative on mental health has been picked up all over the country. And in fact, London, recently adopted outright. They call it Thrive London, the same philosophy; they're applying it so it has even international ramifications.
The pre-K initiative and now 3-K is being exemplified in parts and acted on in other parts of the country.
The affordable housing plan.
Certainly neighborhood policing. We have people from all over the country say, "We want to understand why the NYPD is succeeding." Crime's gone down five years in a row. We say, "Come see how neighborhood policing works, this vision, because it's creating a real dialogue between police and community. It's de-escalating a lot of the tensions that have existed."
It's important to show it, it's working, and everyone's looking for ideas that will work.
Rosenthal: Right, no. I'm generally interested, I think people are generally interested, there was a headline today in New York about your travel. In the last year you've gone to California, Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Washington, Illinois, of course, Iowa. What have you learned about America in all of that travel?
Mayor: America is a progressive nation waiting to happen. That's what I've learned.
There's a horrible misunderstanding of the 2016 election in my book. First, for all of you scoring at home, Donald Trump lost by three million votes. So, let's start with that. That's sort of been lost in too much of the dialogue, but more importantly, what was happening in the Democratic Party and all over the country, exemplified by the campaign of Bernie Sanders but it has lots of roots before that too, was real focus on income inequality and real actions. Efforts to raise wages and benefits were happening all over the country, including referenda that passed raising minimum wage in red states.
Things like pre-K are starting to spread in red and blue states. Mental health is actually an issue that unites people across the aisle more than is recognized.
There is, I think, a progressive impulse in this country. Look at the immigration issue, which is supposed to be the great divider. Vast majority of Americans believe DREAMers have a right to stay. Vast majority of Americans believe we need comprehensive immigration reform and the vast majority of Americans thought the family separation policy was wrong.
So, my view is, this is a progressive nation becoming more progressive. It's counter intuitive if you look at Donald Trump's tweets. It's counterintuitive if you look at a 51-49 Senate at this moment or a House largely constructed on inappropriate redistricting and voter suppression efforts. That's why there's a Republican majority in the House right now.
If you look under the hood at what's happening on the ground all over the country, before you even talk about demographic change and generational change, the trendline in this country is more progressive in many ways than is every recognized.
And what I'm trying to do is say, "Okay, let's live up to that. Let's now harness that." And the place where we can do that best is cities. That's where the action is right now in this country in terms of real social change and real policy change, to some extent in some states. But let's get to work because we can build the models on the ground that then become the templates for the whole country.
Rosenthal: So, if it is all about, in your mind, spreading progressive values, I have to ask you because you mentioned the 2016 election. You endorsed Hillary Clinton.
Mayor: I did.
Rosenthal: Over Bernie Sanders. More recently, you endorsed Joe Crowley over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Last month you endorsed a moderate State Senator, Martin Dilan, over the progressive challenger, Julia Salazar. All of those three candidates lost. What do you say to people who claim that you were talking a big game on progressive values but not actually standing up for progressives in your own city?
Mayor: Look, I would say, first of all, very humanly, I was an activist long before I ever thought of running for office. I got involved even in high school in social activism and carried it on throughout my life.
From my point of view, we have a society that's still fundamentally unfair. And so, I sought to affect change from outside and I came to the realization at one point that I thought I could do some things in elective office and, look, when I look at Pre-K for All, when I look at neighborhood policing, when I look at IDNYC, a host of initiatives, these are big progressive changes that almost to a one people said were impossible.
When we said we were going to do neighborhood policing and get rid of a very broken and regressive policy of stop and frisk, the punditry in New York City said crime would shoot upward. We'd go back to the 1970's, chaos would ensue. In fact, crime went down as police and community were brought together.
So, argument is don't worry about a few endorsements, look at the question of what we've achieved and what a break from the past it is and how effective it's been.
Those examples are right. I did endorse people in part because I had direct personal relationships with them. And I thought in each case they would help New York City. But the question in judging anyone is, "What have they done?" And I look at New York City today and from the perspective of someone who, as you said, served years ago in David Dinkins' administration and the things that are changing now so rapidly, the big changes we were able to make would've been unimaginable not only back then, they would've been unimaginable in the Bloomberg years.
That's what I'm trying to say to people is I lived it. I say always, I'm more optimistic today than I was five years ago, despite running the biggest city in the country, a job that has often been called the second toughest job in America. I could feel worn down. That's not how I feel. I feel optimistic because I've seen change. I've touched the current of change. I know what can happen. That's what I want to spread. We're on the verge of doing a lot more, not only in New York but all over the country.
Rosenthal: We just had an election in New York, a primary election that was seen by many as a test of progressive Democrats versus more moderate Democrats. There was a primary for governor where the incumbent governor was challenged by somebody to the left. There was a established attorney general candidate who was challenged by somebody to the left. There was a lieutenant governor who was challenged by somebody to the left. Just focusing on those, setting aside the State Senate, where other things happen, as someone who's focused on progressiveness, were you disappointed by that result?
Mayor: No, I think the central thing that happened in the Democratic primary in New York, first of all, the "breakaway Democrats," the Democrats who coalesced with Republicans in the age of Donald Trump up in Albany in our State Senate were soundly defeated and I was involved in three of those races. They were soundly defeated and that sent a message that Democrats had to be real Democrats and that the progressive wing of the party was [inaudible].
Rosenthal: So, you're saying the State Senate races are more important than the governor or attorney general?
Mayor: No, I'm saying that what happened established fundamental change in the state and in the party because it ended what I think was the fundamental problem and one that I had to confront in many ways of a group of Democrats giving the State Senate Republicans their majority.
In terms of real, immediate, tangible impact on New York City, there's probably nothing more important than having a Democratic State Senate and a true Democratic State Senate with progressive values. This election, I think, consolidated that pathway.
On the other elections, this was an extraordinarily productive primary season. You know the age old discussion of whether primaries hurt the general election campaigns of Democrats or help them? This is unquestionably one where the primary generated intense energy. Turn out was about three times what it was four years earlier. That's going to carry over to the general election. That's going to have a huge ramification in the State Senate races, in the congressional races in New York.
Also – and I give credit to Cynthia Nixon, I've said this before – she raised issues that changed the entire discussion in the state. Because of her, I think the energy really turned rightfully against those breakaway Democrats. The demand for Democrats staying true to our values consolidated, I think that forced the hand of a lot of other people to have to fold in with that.
It also – her campaign put a variety of issues on the map more squarely. There will be criminal justice reform in Albany next year. I believe that in part because the issues she raised. I think there will be election reform and campaign finance reform, in part because of her presence. So, I think this was a very productive primary season for Democrats.
Rosenthal: So, you didn't endorse in the governor, lieutenant governor, or attorney general race. All three of those progressive challengers lost. Do you, is the reason you didn't endorse because you felt like they were, they had already been successful in pushing the establishment candidates to the left?
Mayor: I think it's two things. That is part of it that I believed in many ways the mission of progressive change had already been accomplished but also, look. Governance is the first responsibility I have. I'm responsible for the lives of 8.6 million people. If New York City were a state, we'd be the 12th largest state in the country by population. I have the third largest government budget in the country. It's $89 billion each year. Those are the things I have to focus on first.
I felt that getting involved in those statewide races was not going to help me to achieve what I had to achieve for the people of New York City. But I was very struck by how much change occurred in the context of that election year. And what it says going forward.
You know, I think there's a bit of a mythology about how change is made. And sometimes, of course, the winning campaigns dictate the path of things. Sometimes the campaigns that don't prevail fundamentally change the way we do things. I could say that about Howard Dean in 2004. I could say that about Bernie Sanders in 2016. I certainly could say that about Cynthia Nixon in 2018.
The change is happening. My job now is to help make sure it turns into action for the people of New York City.
Rosenthal: Last question on politics and then we'll talk about a few issues. Sticking on Cynthia Nixon because I think that that is a race that was followed by a lot of people around the country. She's a very close friend of yours.
Rosenthal: For years. You've called her the architect of your first campaign for mayor.
Mayor: One of the architects.
Rosenthal: One of the architects. Yes. She lost by a lot. She lost 66 percent to 34 percent. You're a former campaign manager. Is there anything you would've done differently if you were running her campaign?
Mayor: Look, I think, in the context of someone who was outspent ten to one and was not – not only not a professional politician, had never run for office before. You know, she had one debate with the governor. It was the first debate in her entire life. I thought she acquitted herself very well and raised important issues.
I think she went into the race understanding, I'm sure, what she was up against but to make a point, to change the political dynamics of New York State, to raise a set of issues. to demand a set of reforms, and I think she succeeded at that. Now, we have to make it happen.
The real moment of truth in New York State will be first in November, will we have a Democratic State Senate or not? I really believe we will given everything we're seeing. And then, are we going to make the changes we need to?
New York State is a state that should be one of the most consistently progressive in the country and yet it is backwards, in so many ways, including we do not have the most fundamental electoral reforms. We don't have same-day registration. We don't have early voting. We don't have vote by mail. There's a whole host of things.
We have one of the least progressive campaign finance systems in the entire nation. No public financing to speak of on the state level. In the City of New York, we have public financing elections that we actually intend to deepen. We have a referendum on the ballot in November in New York City, which I've supported, to –
Rosenthal: So, you think, though, 35 percent is the most she could've done in that environment?
Mayor: I'm not a pundit or an electoral analyst. I am looking at what she achieved. I believe in my heart she ran to achieve a version of progressive change and from what I can tell, she did that.
Rosenthal: Okay. On some issues, I guess first of all, going back, your predecessor as mayor was Mike Bloomberg, who's now being talked about as a potential candidate for 2020. What do you see as his single biggest failure as mayor?
Mayor: Look, I have a complex view of Mike Bloomberg. There's some areas where I thought he did, not only important things and meaningful things, but things I was comfortable continuing, particularly in areas of public health, for example. And environmental climate change. Immigration. There's some areas where I thought he was quite strong.
I think the two areas I honestly can't say which is more important, so I'll just note them both. The two areas that he couldn't understand, possibly because being the richest man in New York City at the time, and I got to tell you, I just have a little bit of a hang up. It feels a little bit too, you know, days of the 1880s is when I would think the richest guy in the city got to be mayor. I hope that's not where we are today and I don't think it is in most of the country.
Rosenthal: You do know who the president is, right?
Mayor: Well, first of all, he's not the richest guy in the country. But, he lost by three million votes and there's a host of other things we could say. My viewpoint is that Mayor Bloomberg did not understand the income inequality crisis. He did not understand what the Great Recession had done to the people of this city and obviously the country. And that we had to as a city had to aggressively address it the way. I mean, look, the template we had it’s staring us in the face, back then was what Roosevelt did in the country, Laguardia did in the city in the context of the Depression.
Here was the second biggest economic crisis in the history of our nation. It hit New York City very hard and I don't think Bloomberg had a vision for how to address the growing income inequality and the hurt that people were going through.
That was the central message of my campaign in 2013, that we were living a tale of two cities and we had to do something fundamentally different.
I think the other obvious area was on the relationship between police and community where he clung to a broken policy of stop and frisk, even when a federal judge said it was unconstitutional, and missed the fact that here's what was going on in New York City for years. Young men of color and often young women and older people of color too, but particularly young men of color were being stopped constantly and treated like criminals, treated like suspects for crimes they had nothing to do with. Ninety-plus percent of the people stopped, there was no connection to any offense of any kind. It was corroding the social fabric of the city and relationship between police and community.
When we stopped that, when we said that we're not going to allow that anymore, it was extraordinary how quickly we could not only change that relationship but get safer. I think that although so many people appealed to Mayor Bloomberg to understand that from a community level, I don't think he could hear it.
Rosenthal: Okay. What's your, in your biggest failure as mayor?
Mayor: The thing I am most frustrated with, and I have to say it's a failure because we're not where I wanted us to be, is on homelessness. I look back with frustration with myself. This is an issue that I had worked on for a long time and care about. I thought we were implementing some of the right policies and now look back and say we were missing pieces of the problem entirely, just weren't seeing the whole picture and were too slow to make the adjustments that we had to make.
You have to learn in these jobs. Not only do you have to be humble, you have to say, “Okay, if I make mistake I got to learn from it.” Well, what I learned from it was – acknowledge the problem more. I think I was defensive, and what I should've said was, “Yeah, this is not working the way we planned, and we've got to do something different. We've got to address it more forthright." It took me too long to understand that, too long to say it.
The problem of homelessness is different, honestly, than the one I first worked on. The one I first worked on was pre-recession and it was primarily single males with mental health problems and substance misuse problems. By the time I became mayor, it was more and more working families, or families who had recently been working and lost their apartment because they just couldn't afford the rent anymore, or they had a low wage job and it wasn't enough. It took me too long to understand that and to adjust our policies to address that.
Rosenthal: When you took office, there were 50,000 homeless people living in homeless shelters, today there are over 60,000. You talk about it took you too long to address it, but you have put out a new plan now, and since you put out the plan there has not been a dramatic reduction in that number. It is still at basically the same level that it's been. So why has that plan not taking off?
Mayor: Well, the plan was put out a year-and-a-half ago. I think because I learned from the previous experience, I tried to be like scrupulously honest with people and say, “This is not going to be a quick turnaround because it's now a structural problem.” That structural problem was growing for years and years. Again, I underestimated it, but now I understand it better.
We have a city where the price of housing keeps going up. We have a city where finally wages are starting to grow, and we've done a lot to push the state. Finally, we've got the $15 minimum wage. We've done a lot to improve benefits, like Paid Sick Leave. We're doing a whole host of things, creating a lot more jobs. We have the most jobs in the history of New York City. But we've got to do a better job of getting people better opportunity, and the kind of wages and benefits they can live on.
We also are creating a huge amount of affordable housing. The plan that we are implementing right now, which is ahead of schedule, I'm proud to say, will reach 700,000 New Yorkers with affordable housing. Those pieces are going to actually help to turn the tide over time. But what I said a year-and-a-half ago is this is going to be a long battle. It's a structural problem. It's rooted in free market economics. We've got to look it in the face and understand what it is. It will be constant, I believe, incremental improvement. But it's going to take a long time to really get to the core of the problem.
Rosenthal: You feel like there's been incremental improvement in that first year-and-a-half? Are you satisfied with the progress?
Mayor: I'm satisfied that the building blocks are moving. We're creating shelters in the parts of the city that need them. That was one of the crucial pieces of the plan, get people back to their home communities so they have maximum chance of getting out of shelter and continuing their lives. We've gotten about 90,000 people out of shelter, into affordable housing over five years. So the ability to actually create and connect people to affordable housing is there.
I mean, look, I've talked to a lot of these families. I really hope people hear this, because I think it's true in a lot of parts of the country. These are working people, these are people doing everything right. It's not because they have, for example, a substance abuse problem or mental health problem. They're trying to do things right. Our economic system today does not reward them sufficiently for that. We're at least finding that we can get a lot of people to affordable housing, we can create the shelter capacity where we need to do it. We're also finding we can get people off the street. This is the most emotionally searing part of the equation. No one can see someone homeless on the street and feel at all good about what's happening in our society. When we see that, we have to break through.
What we've found in the last two years, if you really focus attention on a single homeless person, with professionals who are trained to do it, and you keep coming back, maybe dozens of times, maybe hundreds of times, and engaging that person, eventually you crack the code on why they choose to live on the street and what can give them the comfort and the confidence to come in off the street and stay. We've now done that with about 2,000 people in the last two years – gotten them off the street and convinced them to stay off the street. That's a building block of something that could be a bigger change.
Rosenthal: You mentioned affordable housing. This city comptroller, Scott Stringer, put out a report two days ago about this. He looked at apartments that were renting for $900 or less. He looked 2015 versus today, and he found that 452,000 fewer apartments renting for that amount. He said that was a major problem. Was he wrong about that?
Mayor: I think there was some immediate problems with those numbers. I have not read the report, but my understanding is some of the initial estimates may have been off. But, let's go to the fundamental question. Have we lost a lot of affordable apartments in New York City? Unquestionably, because our rent laws aren't strong enough. We're a place that has rent regulation, which I'm very proud of, and we need to actually strengthen it, which is one of the biggest opportunities we have next year in Albany.
This is something, by the way, I think should be thought about all over the country, too. If we've got an untenable situation where the price of housing is going up all over America, all over urban America in particular, it's excluding working people in a way that's destructive. You actually can put some controls on that situation, and I think it's time for that. It's working in New York City when we are able to apply it. We've got now over two million people whose housing is protected because of rent regulation. We actually should expand that and strengthen that.
So it's true that we've lost a lot of apartments. It's also true that that rate of loss has come down substantially because we put in a host of measures, including legal services to stop illegal evictions and rental subsidies to help people stay in their apartments. We're building at a very, very rapid clip, the fastest rate of building affordable housing in the history of New York City. It used to be a real mismatch where the number of affordable apartments we were losing was like a torrent, and the amount of affordable housing created could not keep up. It's actually balancing out substantially now. If we get stronger rent laws, we can actually get to the point where we're net gaining going forward.
Rosenthal: Okay, I want to ask you about marijuana. Recent polls –
Mayor: I don't have any on me.
Rosenthal: Sorry to hear that.
Mayor: I don't think it's an appropriate setting, even if I did.
Rosenthal: We'll discuss afterward. A recent poll found that 63 percent of New Yorkers support full legalization of marijuana. That 63 percent includes your wife.
Mayor: He has done his research. I'm impressed. It's true.
Rosenthal: It does not include you, however.
Rosenthal: You've expressed concerns it might be a gateway drug. What would it take for you to support that?
Mayor: I just want to call you out on that, respectfully. I don't think that's what I've said. I said there are real ramifications to how we open the doors to a whole new industry, if you will. I look at it this way, tobacco was wildly under regulated, including all the advertising and everything else, and had a devastating impact on this country. Opioid manufacturers ran wild for a long time, and we're paying for it with an opioid crisis, and now trying to undo what they were allowed to do. There's a vast absence of rules and regulation. I would say, in a very different vein, the same thing about autonomous vehicles. Why are we going to introduce something potentially negatively disruptive without creating the rules and the regulations and the guardrails and the compensating policies first?
So when I look at marijuana, I'm like, okay, I believe ultimately it will be legalized. But why don't we figure out the policies first? How are we going to educate young people? How are we going to address the health considerations? How are we going to make sure there is economic opportunity that comes from this new industry, that actually some of the people who suffered from mass incarceration for all those years have an opportunity at some of the economic opportunity? Why don't we think before we act and put the ideas and the policies up front? That's what I'm saying. I don't have a doubt in my mind that there will be legalization in New York State, and then eventually the country. Although, I think it will take longer, for sure, for the whole country to get there.
Rosenthal: What's your prediction for when it will be legal nationwide?
Mayor: Nationwide? I can't see five years. Probably ten or more is my gut. You're talking about the truly nationwide. We would do ourselves a service to figure out how it should work first.
Mayor: Deep response, wasn't that?
Rosenthal: Yeah. Thought provoking, indeed.
Mayor: Should've said, word.
Rosenthal: Want to ask you about the MTA, the subway system in New York, as well. You have said a million times that you don't control the system and it's controlled by the Governor.
Mayor: You agree, don't you?
Rosenthal: I agree that the Governor does run the subway system, absolutely.
Mayor: Thank you, Brian. Brian's a man of truth, insight.
Rosenthal: Although, there is more that I think the city could be doing, and I want to ask you about that. If you did, if tomorrow the Governor said, "This is yours," what's the very first thing that you would do?
Mayor: Well, let me separate that into two questions. Seriously, because I think the, “If you had it,” is a different question from, “What would you do right now?” I just want to quickly say. I talk to New Yorkers all the time. I ride the subway a lot. I'm on the subway, I hear from people directly, and they do know, by the way, that the Governor and the State are in charge. They didn't necessarily know that a few years ago. They do know it now. But they are, if I could just summarize the view of straphangers in New York City, they are pissed off because they –
Rosenthal: I can confirm that.
Mayor: The trains don't run on time. It's as simple as that. They break down a lot, they don't run on time. What should've been done to avoid this crisis should've happened decades ago, but it didn't happen. Could've, didn't, because no one was visibly in charge. I believe this is the crux of the matter. No one has been assigned responsibility, everyone said it's someone else's.
Finally, we have the precondition for change in that it's understood who's in charge, the Governor and the State. We have a chance, in this next legislative session, to get the measures in place to fund the MTA properly, make the big changes we need. I believe the millionaire's tax is the way to do it. Other people have other ideas. But this will be the decisive moment, the legislative session in Albany next year.
To your question, look, it dovetails. I've said, if the State cannot get its act together next year, or they have to make a major change. If they can't do it, then at some point in the future the question of whether New York City should have to opportunity to take it over is a fair question. But only, of course, if all of the resources came with it, that are currently devoted to it, and the opportunity to do it right.
The notion right now of missing this kind of golden moment – I think if we have a moment that change is actually consolidated, the demand is there, everybody understands who's in charge. There's going to be a new senate, I believe, in Albany, and it's not going to be an election year next year. It's a good time for people to do bigger, smarter things. That golden moment should be seized and we need one of those big plans, like a millionaire’s tax, or others would say congestion pricing, to finally fund the subways. That is the best and most effective way to resolve this issue.
Rosenthal: Here's one thing you could do. You talk about the importance of finding funding. We have reported, at the Times, about how much the MTA spends when it constructs, when it does much of anything, really, and found that in New York City building a mile of subway track cost five to seven times more than any other subway system in the world.
Rosenthal: If they could reign in those costs, they would have more funding to spend on the types of things we talked about.
Rosenthal: You have a veto on the board that improves capital spending. Why have you not used that to force addressing this issue of inefficiency?
Mayor: I really appreciate the question because it portrays the kind of complex decisions we have to make. But the essence of what you say is we have an MTA that has not worked historically, has not used New York City's money – we fund the MTA directly in all sorts of ways, and the people of New York City fund it in all sorts of ways. That's where most of the funding comes from. Money has not been used effectively. By the way, that comparison that the Times did, to your credit, was with big cities around the world with similar infrastructures and with union labor and the whole thing. So something's wrong here. We have not vetoed in some cases because the specific project had to happen. We didn't think that was the way to effect change.
But what I've made very, very clear, and my appointees are going to say – I don't have a majority, but I do have appointees – we're going to increasingly be ready to stop things that we think are bad uses of money. We've said very openly. We did actually vote against plans to focus on aesthetics and sort of feel good projects rather than actually fixing the things that would make the trains run on time. So we have exercised that power. We will exercise it more in the future if we don't see reform. And we put in about $400 million, as you know, in the last budget, on the condition that it was supposed to be spent in New York City and spent effectively. We've asked for accountability. We haven't seen those numbers yet, we haven't seen those facts yet. So if your question is, are we ready to use a veto when necessary in the future? Absolutely.
Rosenthal: Let me ask quickly a question about pre-K. As you mentioned earlier, it's one of your big accomplishments and priorities. The actual richest person in the country, Jeff Bezos, just came out with a plan for pre-K. Have you talked to him about that?
Mayor: No, I have not. But I'm thrilled that he's focused on it.
Rosenthal: Yeah. I was going to ask what you think of his approach.
Mayor: I'll never tell a lie to a reporter of such earnest. I have not read his approach and his plan. But I think it is very healthy if prominent people in this country are focusing on pre-K because here's the bottom line, and I learned this with my own children, Chiara and Dante, is that it is a struggle for parents in today's society to find a way to make sure their children are taken care of when they're very young. We've got a society with a huge number of two income families. We've got a society with a huge number of single parent households, and a society that's built exactly sort of opposite of that reality in that there's not enough options for what to do with younger kids and to make sure that they're getting a strong start in life.
So, from my point of view, we're not only addressing the question of how do we get kids well educated from the beginning and open up all the possibilities of all their intellectual development, we're also addressing the economic needs of families who are struggling by giving them free early childhood education. Something they depend on, something that's universal. This is a kind of structural change we need in the whole country for the way our society has evolved. It's amazing. And we found that we struggled to find places that we could afford, and a lot of places just aren't enough seats for kids. That should be a universal right. It should be a universal right that when your kids are young, there's a safe place, and a place that's provided, that's affordable, for them to learn and grow so parents can get to the work they need.
Rosenthal: Last issue I want to ask you about is one that I'm very passionate about, so I'm going to use my prerogative here. It's government transparency. I was a reporter in Texas for three years. I've now been in New York for a year-and-a-half. I can tell you, by far, that Texas has a much more transparent government and much better records laws. This is something that you have talked about. You talked a lot about this, as public advocate, about the records response, public records response times. You, I think, zeroed in on NYPD because 28 percent of their requests were taking longer than two months to respond to. There was an analysis that was done that found in your office there were 38 percent of requests that were taking longer than two months, so it was even slower. If this was such a problem that you saw when you're a public advocate, why is it not a problem today?
Mayor: Oh, it is. It's something we need to do better on. I want to remind you, I can't speak to the reality in Texas. We have a huge government, as you know. I have 380,000 employees. A huge amount of activity. I mean, let's face it, the state of Texas chooses, structurally, not to do a lot of things that we think is important for government to do in New York. How was that? Was that gently put? Was that diplomatic? We think it's right to have a strong government that supports people's lives and helps families. But, with that comes a vast amount of activity.
Then, of course there's going to be FOIL requests related to all of that, and we've seen an explosion with more and more digital outlets and more and more organizations making requests. You can't just say, “Oh, okay, here's your request.” Whatever it is, bang. There's all sorts of legal issues that have to be considered. There's stuff that has to be looked at appropriately before you provide the information.
So I want us to do more, I want us to go faster. But I will tell you, it costs money to have lawyers and everyone review all those documents, and some of these requests are sprawling. We got to keep improving our response. But it's not because people don't want to do it, it's in part because it's just an avalanche of requests that we're doing with that.
Rosenthal: But you could hire more lawyers to address that, could you not? If this is a priority, why don't you?
Mayor: Look, a lot, a huge amount of resources goes into it already. I think what we're trying to do now is try to figure out how to do it more efficiently with the many people who are already applying to it. I don't think it's a question of just constantly hiring more people. I think given the reality we're facing today, which is very different than even 10 years ago, we got to figure out how to do it better with what we got. That's the first thing I want to achieve.
Rosenthal: I'm going to open it up to questions in a minute. But I just want to ask you a couple of things very briefly. First of all, you met with the president of Cuba two days ago. When was the last time you met with somebody in the Trump administration?
Mayor: Well, I will tell you, in the beginning, I had a rather interesting meeting with Donald Trump about a week or two after the election, with all sorts of dubiousness and concern, but trying to see if there was any grounds for dialogue. I came away very disappointed, but tried then to work with cabinet members. I have met with and talked to a number of the cabinet members. But I will say that sort of followed a similar pattern. In the first year I talked to General Kelly a number of times and Secretary Mnuchin and Secretary Chao. I can go down a whole list of people. Very little came of it that actually helped New York City. So, it's just been honestly less of a priority because we're not seeing the kind of follow through.
It's actually troubling because you'd like to believe whoever's in the presidency, that there's some ground rules that say, “Okay, we're still going to have a dialogue that leads to something.” That part of what we sort of bond, the agreement we make with the public, is regardless of who's in power, which party, there's still going to be a dialogue, and there's still going to be a product. Even in some of the worst moments dealing with a Republican governor previously in Albany or Republican State Senate in Albany, there's still a dialogue and there's still some productive outcomes. I haven't [inaudible] –
Rosenthal: So you can't remember the last meeting that you had?
Mayor: I'm sure I could tell you the last meeting. I'm saying I can't remember anything coming of any of the meetings.
Rosenthal: Yeah. Can you name a single good thing that President Trump has done as president?
Mayor: No, I actually can. I would say I have seen some movement on opioids. It's very hard to keep an open mind after how divisive he's been and how harmful he's been. But that issue is a life and death issue, and I've seen some movement on the federal level, and he seems to have some actual interest on the issue.
Rosenthal: Last question. Then, we'll open it up. Your good friend, the Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo was asked about his presidential ambitions. He said that he would serve his full term as governor, meaning not run for President. He said the only condition was if God strikes me dead.
Mayor: Wow. That's severe.
Rosenthal: Will you make the same pledge?
Mayor: I am really asking God not to strike me dead and let me complete my term and hopefully get some good things done for people. My plan to fill out the term. I have until the end of 2021. Look, I'm blessed. I said the job is often considered the second toughest job in America, but it's also a job that comes with extraordinary capacity for change.
We did pre-K, as we started with this discussion, we did pre-K. In one year, we went from 20,000 kids in pre-K to over 50,000, and now it's almost 70,000 kids each year getting full-day pre-K for free. We were able to do that. There's a lot more like that we're going to be able to do. So it's exciting to have an impact, but I will tell you I'm going to keep spreading the news of what we're doing because I feel an urgency about social change. We've got to fuel it. We've got to move it.
I'll give you one other example, climate change. We announced, I'm very proud of this, New York City announced we are divesting all of our assets from fossil fuels, all of our investments from fossil fuels –
Which is $5 billion we're taking out of fossil fuel investments. We're going to do $4 billion into renewable energy investments. We're going all around the country getting others to do the same.
Texas just must be a hard sell. But I will say in many parts of the country, there's really a critical mass now to get public money out of the dying and broken fossil fuel industry that's killing us all and put it into renewable energy. That's one of the things I'm excited to spread the word about.
Rosenthal: All right. Well, let's take questions from the audience. I guess the instructions may be up there to text or tweet, and Brandon's going to read that.
Question: Yeah, you actually kind of set up this first question.
Mayor: I'm here to help.
Question: Fossil fuel industry especially in a state that spends roughly 97 percent of its transportation money on roads. Despite the problems with public transit in New York City, do you have counsel to our city, Austin, about the dramatic impact that having a true and effective multi-modal transit system can have on affordable housing access, mobility, and diversity?
Mayor: 100 percent beautiful question. Okay. Here's a simple fact, and it goes together. New York City today has 4.4 million jobs within the five boroughs. We have an extraordinarily dynamic economy, the strongest economy we've ever had. We are – for example, have explosive growth in our technology community. It's over 350,000 jobs now.
When you ask people why they want to be in New York, particularly folks who are creating companies, building companies, a lot of talented professional folks, invariably, you get some of the same answers. People want to be close to culture. They like diversity. They like being able to walk around and getting to things by walking. They like being able to take mass transit to where they need to go. This is the way of the future, and so when I talk about New York City as a positive model, I'm telling you this is where we all need to go. This is what's going to help ensure opportunity. If you have a whole lot of mass transit, there's much greater opportunity for people to access all that, including folks who have been often left out. It does encourage interconnection and a more diverse and understanding society.
But if you just want a practical argument. First of all, it would be nice if we were able to live on the Earth and our children and grandchildren actually had a place to live. So if we're serious about that, we must invest in mass transit, and we must get out of our cars.
But second, if you want a place that actually can grow economically, a car-based culture is a dead end. It's only going to work with a mass transportation-based culture in the future.
Question: This one's from [inaudible]. So what is your take on congestion pricing, given your comments about funding, transportation, and –
Mayor: Well, I still prefer the notion of a millionaire's tax as the way to fund mass transit in the city going forward. Many of you may know, we have a lot of millionaires, and yes, they can afford to pay a little more. I think that would be the most renewable, most consistent way of dealing with it.
Congestion pricing have evolved over the years. I have to say the most recent proposals are far superior to those that were put forward, for example, by Mayor Bloomberg over a decade ago. I've said, my mind is open because, for example, the most recent proposal did not penalize people for taking the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge. That was very important to me as a Brooklynite understanding why people in the outer boroughs feel that would really be negative for their lives, but I think the newer proposals are actually starting to address some of the equity questions that I want to see addressed.
I don't want to see a congestion pricing that is de facto a regressive tax. If there is a congestion pricing proposal that addresses some of these fairness issues, I think it's something a lot of people would be interested in who were not previously.
Rosenthal: Do you support the latest version that came out of congestion pricing? If you were a Senator, would you vote yes on it?
Mayor: No. Not yet.
Rosenthal: Not yet.
Mayor: I would say there was a big step forward – and by the way, there is no formal plan. You're a Albany watcher. There is a piece of a plan. There is no proposal on the table. But getting off the bridges was really important.
Rosenthal: But not enough. You still don't support –
Mayor: No because I – here's the concerns. Again, how do we avoid a regressive tax? How do we address the hardship issues for folks who need to go to hospitals and other vital services in Manhattan they have no choice but to access if they're low income? Is there some kind of income adjustment we make for lower-income and working people? I don't think these are impossible things to think through, but I'm simply being rigid, in a good way, I hope, about I got to see these questions answered, and there is not a proposal on the table. Let's put a proposal on the table. If folks in Albany who ultimately have to pass it, and that's why I think it's best it come from them, if they want to address this issue, take these equity issues into account, and I think a lot of people might open their mind on this, particularly in the outer boroughs.
Question: This comes from [inaudible]. Norway decriminalized all recreational drugs. Due to this, overdose rates and HIV incident rates have sharply declined. What methods are you implementing in New York City to drive down overdose and HIV rates?
Mayor: So we've had really – I mean considering how horrible and painful the HIV-AIDS epidemic was in New York City, and we bore the brunt along with a few other parts of this country for decades, it's amazing to see what a turnaround has taken place. I give community activists and community organizations and our public health officials a lot of credit. The goal now is to end this epidemic once and for all. We believe we're within a few years of doing that.
On the question of what we're dealing with most notably with opioids, we are trying to be aggressive about getting people the help they need. This is why we have a really powerful tool. I'm going to encourage people to implement this all over the country. It’s my wife's Thrive initiative, but one of the most important parts of it, there's a single phone number anyone can call, whether they have a depression problem or a deeper mental health problem or whether they have a substance abuse problem and a addiction problem. In New York City, it's 1-888-NYC-WELL. You call that number, 24 hours a day, and you get a trained counselor who can actually set up your appointment to get the ongoing treatment you need.
So these kind of things, we hope are really going to change the situation. But the other thing we did recently, it's controversial, but I think it's necessary. It's what we call overdose prevention centers otherwise known as supervised injection facilities. We all agonized over this. This was a deep, deep debate including with the NYPD, but we looked at the facts from around the world, including most especially Canada, and we saw that God forbid anyone is an addict, if they're going to take these drugs, better they be someplace where they can be supervised and where there's a maximum chance of getting them to the help they need, the mental health help, the drug counseling help they need and hopefully getting them out of a life of addiction without help. These are the strategies I think we have to implement over time everywhere if we really want to address this crisis.
Question: How is New York preparing for future flooding and other effects of global warming?
Mayor: We take this about as seriously as you possibly can because we bore the brunt with Hurricane Sandy in 2012. I say that was the worst natural disaster in the history of New York City. It was 44 lives lost, $19 billion in damage, just horrific damage in some of our neighborhoods. I say bluntly and I hope evocatively that right after Sandy until today, you cannot find a lot of climate change deniers in New York City anymore. People lived it. I think it's happening around the country. I think it's happening in the Carolinas right now. I think it's happening in California with the wildfires. Even people who doubted before are not doubting anymore.
We're putting an immense amount of resources into resiliency. The good news is some of them have already made an impact. The way you build a building in New York City is entirely different today than it was six years ago. A lot of what we've done, the Rockaways in Queens were really hard hit. We had a boardwalk there that was a part of the Rockaways, we rebuilt it, but it's 5.5 miles long. It is not just a place to walk and have fun. It's literally built underneath it with a resiliency barrier that protects the entire peninsula or most of the peninsula.
The fact is this is the norm now that we have to build resiliency into everything we do, but I also caution people. I think this is true all over the country. There's no federal vision for protecting coastal America. Just doesn't exist. We're kind of in this degraded politics of the moment, clawing for small progress at the federal level again, while locally and in many states, there's a whole lot of progress going on, but this one only works with a federal solution, a federal answer.
In the 2020 election, this should be a really frontal issue. America not only needs an infrastructure plan, we need a resiliency plan for this country to protect coastal America, which is where most Americans live. Right now, our federal government is literally not even at the table in a meaningful way. This is the kind of thing we can change and we should change.
Question: This is from Erin Rogers. How can rural areas –
Mayor: You mean the quarterback?
Question: No. E-R-I-N.
Mayor: I'm like I just want to tell you, Aaron, how much I admire you.
Question: How can rural areas emulate progressive ideas that you are modeling in New York? Which ideas are they typically most receptive to?
Mayor: I think there's an amazing interconnection between urban and rural America right now. The solutions can work in both places. I'll give you an example. Right now, I was shocked when I was last in Iowa. Des Moines Register just on a poll, the number two issue among Iowa voters was mental health because the Republican governor had cut back a whole host of mental health services because she was a incessant budget cutter. Well, people of all background, rural and urban, Democrat and Republican, were seeing the negative effects on their families.
Look, one in five Americans has a mental health condition. If you're in rural America, access to care is a lot harder, so having these kind of universal access approaches like we've been developing in New York City, huge positive for rural America. Opioids, obviously, I've talked to a number of my mayoral colleagues in West Virginia to talk about what the opioid crisis has done to that state, the kinds of solutions they're working on, we're working on the same. Intensive outreach to communities, making treatment available in a much more consistent way. These are the kinds of things that are just as powerfully felt in rural America as urban America.
Certainly, when you're talking about the whole host of education issues, I mean rural America education is public education overwhelmingly. In urban America, you have proportionally more religious schools, charter schools, etcetera. In rural America, it is overwhelmingly the public school. But folks in rural America are struggling economically, and they need early childhood education for their kids too. For their survival so they can work and to take that burden off them and to give their kids a chance to participate in the modern economy by getting an early strong education, maximizing their intellectual development.
I think there's an artificial sort of construct that's been created over the years, acting like different parts of the country, red, blue states, urban, rural have these really different needs. There's actually tremendous commonality. A lot of people in rural America, I think the more they see that these solutions could change their lives, they will demand them.
Question: You talk about the need for affordable housing and using more rent control as a tool to achieve that. If implemented, how do you encourage private industry to build new housing if they know their returns are capped?
Mayor: Because look, you're still talking about a structure that allows for profit and allows people to have property in a place where property values have been increasing for decades, and that's going to be one of the great global cities. I think though this is true in a lot of the rest of urban America in particular as well. If people can't afford to live there, it destroys the entire equation. It's not only unjust. I mean you got so many people in my city struggling to make ends meets who have done everything right, who are working-class people, even middle-class people. I think it's true all over the country.
What kind of society tells people, "Well, do what you're supposed to do, but you'll never see any reward for it?" So we have to create housing that people can afford. It's the only way to have a workforce. If you want economic expansion, you need a workforce that's there and available and trained. It's a matter of justice. But everything we construct acknowledges that private sector folks need to make enough profit to do their work. We've been able to strike that balance.
And, by the way, we also, when it comes to affordable housing in general, one of the best things we did, we passed a law, I encourage other cities to do the same, we said if you need to come to the city for permission to build private housing, we will grant that permission if you grantee in writing, legally binding, that you will create affordable housing as part of it. And depending on the formula, it's between 20 and 30 percent of the apartments have to be affordable, and it's literally you either guarantee and build the affordable housing for working people or you don't get to build anything.
It's structured in a way that still allows folks to make a buck. There's no question about it. A lot of private sector folks are taking us up on it. But it's 2018. We are in a different reality. If we just allow market forces to be the only factor, there won't be any place people can afford. We have to step in and create some balance.
Rosenthal: This will be the last question.
Question: This is from Zoey Long. What advice do you have for engaged college students who plan on working in government after graduation?
Mayor: I say, look, I think it's a almost miraculous time right now in our country because of what's happening on the ground. The level of involvement and engagement is extraordinary. I just want to – I will answer the advice question, but I got to put this personal perspective.
I was born in 1961. I saw, especially through my family, I had older brothers and a lot of family members who were affected by all of the issues and the turmoil of the '60s and '70s, and I saw people very intensively engaged in the process of creating social change and achieving it. I saw the Vietnam War stop. I saw all the reforms after Watergate. I saw what the Women's Movement, Civil Rights Movement, go down the list achieved in real time. I don't think it's fair to say nothing happened since then, but I think it is fair to say we have not seen such an extraordinary concentration of folks working for change simultaneously – the Me Too Movement, Black Lives Matter, the Parkland students. I mean you can go down this extraordinarily list of new and strong movements that are changing the country.
Their hope, I believe, is in a re-engineering of our democratic society to maximize participation. That definitely requires people of good will, people with real talent to get involved in the public sector. There's a lot of other ways to achieve social change that are not about government jobs, for sure. Some of the best ways are not about government jobs. But we need the next generation to understand that they can use the tools of government to actually address these issues. Most urgently, most fundamentally climate change.
So I would say to anyone who's interested, we need you. You can make a huge difference. It's extraordinarily rewarding. I have been at this now non-stop in one form or another since I left college, and I would never do anything different. This is what I hope to do until, I don't want God to strike me dead in the middle of my term, but I would like to live a long time and do this work for a long time because it's incredibly soul-satisfying and rewarding. But we need it. There's a time limit on these issues. There's a time limit on climate change. If we don't act urgently, we won't make it. But there's still time to do it. We need all the talent we can get our hands on to make that difference.
My answer to – my advice to anybody thinking of doing it is jump in. We need you. Thanks, everyone.
Rosenthal: Thank you very much.
Mayor: Thank you, Brian. Do we walk off?
Rosenthal: Yeah, I think so.
Mayor: We are now walking off. Brian and I have come to an agreement. Walk off. Take care.