In Embattled Mayoralty of John Lindsay, Lessons for de Blasio

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New Yorkers Elect Tall Man With Liberal Record To Succeed Three-term Mayor

The headline obviously describes Bill de Blasio. But it also rang true almost 50 years ago, after John Lindsay won the mayor's race in 1965, succeeding Robert Wagner. Lindsay's New York was radically different than the one that Bill de Blasio now leads. But several major issues from Lindsay's time are back, in mutated form, to confront the new mayor.

"Nothing can compare with the way Lindsay came into office."

So says former Lindsay staffer Jay Kriegel, referring to a strike of the Transport Workers Union, which shut down the city's subway and bus system before the sun had even risen on the mayor's first work day. "The traffic jam started at four in the morning and ended at about ten at night," Kriegel recalled. "It was a kind of a rude welcome to governing New York City."

Kriegel joined Lindsay's staff as a freshly minted Harvard Law School graduate. He said he could've clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall but chose instead to work for the photogenic, 44-year-old Lindsay, a reformer from the Upper East Side.

Kriegel, who today works for real estate developer Related Companies, recalled the tumult of those times: "There was a great sense that the city was in terrible crisis: slums, crime, pollution and bad finances all added together. So there was an enormous sense that the city was in deep trouble, run amok, couldn't be run."

Take Lindsay's adversary in the Transport Workers Union strike, Mike Quill. During negotiations, Quill called the mayor "pipsqueak" and "an amateur." The strike lasted twelve days and resulted in a paralyzed city — and a big raise for union members.

No one as colorful as Mike Quill will be battling Mayor de Blasio during contract talks. For one thing, the transport workers no longer negotiate with the city but with the MTA, a state authority. And de Blasio doesn't seem to be bracing for the kind of labor unrest that tormented Lindsay throughout his first term — a term that saw transit, sanitation and teachers' strikes. That's a lot of empty subways, piles of garbage and locked up classrooms.


Above: In the mid-1960s, Mayor John V. Lindsay acts out his political vision for a crowd in Manhattan. Below: Mayor Bill de Blasio at a rally with his wife and two children. (WNYC / Courtesy of the Office of Public Advocate)

Above: In the mid-1960s, Mayor John V. Lindsay acts out his political vision for a crowd in Manhattan. Below: Mayor Bill de Blasio at a rally with his wife and two children. (WNYC / Courtesy of the Office of Public Advocate)

Union Talks Ahead

But Kriegel pointed out that de Blasio has even more bargaining ahead of him than Lindsay had. "There really isn't any parallel for what Bill de Blasio faces," Kriegel said. "I don't think any mayor has ever faced the need to negotiate all contracts simultaneously with all the municipal unions."

Today, three hundred thousand city employees are working under expired contracts. They're demanding more than $7 billion in retroactive pay at a time when the city is facing a projected $2 billion deficit. (The Transport Workers Union, which has been without a contract for two years, will be following those other negotiations as a guide to their bargaining stance with the MTA.) 

Sarah and Victor Kovner, who have been active in Democratic political circles since the mid-1960s, point out that Lindsay came into the mayoralty with a dim understanding of the local political culture. Sarah, who is a member of the Democratic National Committee, says Lindsay "didn't really understand politics. He wasn't involved in politics, particularly." By contrast, she says, "Bill de Blasio is a political operative, basically. He ran campaigns, he understands coalition politics." De Blasio has also worked the city's political trenches as a councilman and public advocate.

Race Redux

Lindsay did have a feel for race relations, a critical issue in 1965 — as it was for de Blasio in 2013, when he made a campaign promise to curtail the use of stop-and-frisk by the police.

In 1966, one of Mayor Lindsay's first acts was to push for a review board to monitor police conduct. Victor Kovner remembered that many African-American and Puerto Rican New Yorkers supported a review board, while many whites, in a time of rising crime, did not. "There were bitter disputes on the streets and the review board was defeated," Victor said.

But Lindsay's effort earned him goodwill in New York's minority communities. That made a difference in 1968, when the assassinations starting coming: first, Martin Luther King, Jr., in April and then, in June, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy.

After the RFK assassination, riots broke out in many large cities, including Baltimore, Kansas City and Washington, DC. But New York City avoided a major riot. Sarah Kovner said Lindsay had a hand in that. "He went right uptown, right to Harlem, and walked the streets just with a couple of his his aides, not flanked with police, to keep the city quiet," she said. "And he was given a lot of credit for doing that. Because they didn't do that in a lot of cities and a lot of cities burned."

City Of Wealth, Beset By Poverty

Another problem common to both eras is income inequality. Peter Quinn — a contemporary of Kriegel and the Kovners, and the author of several historical novels set in New York — says it was no less of a challenge for John Lindsay than it will be for Bill de Blasio. "A tale of two cities is an old story," he said. "If you look at the poverty rate in New York in 1966 it's over 18 percent. It's not far from where it is today." (A recent report put the city's federal poverty rate at 19.3 percent.)

Quinn says many New Yorkers are watching Mayor de Blasio to see if he can help lower the poverty rate. "He's already created a set of expectations, and it's more a set of expectations at this point than specific plans," Quinn said. "He has to offer achievable, demonstrable things that will affect people's lives."

Lindsay's Legacy And de Blasio's Lesson

John Lindsay left office in 1973 after two terms, with the city on the verge of bankruptcy. He ran for president and the U.S. Senate and failed both times. Lindsay died in 2000, and is generally remembered as a decent man who at times was overwhelmed by the pace of the city's breakdowns. At least de Blasio learned one lesson from Lindsay — and from Mayor Bloomberg:

Don't blow the snowstorm.

Voters raged at Bloomberg in 2010 and Lindsay in 1969 when it seemed like the city was taking forever to plow the streets, especially in the outer boroughs. That's why Mayor de Blasio, on his third day in office, invited the press to assemble outside his Park Slope home at dawn to watch him shovel the sidewalk. He scraped at the ground for a couple of seconds before he turned to the cameras and, with mock-seriousness, said, "I urge all New Yorkers, don't lift with your back, lift with your knees."

It was a bit of folksy symbolism that the patrician Lindsay could have benefited from.