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De Blasio, Lhota: A Tale of Two '80s

Sunday, September 29, 2013

When it comes to the mayoral campaign, it's back to the future, or really, back to the 1980s. The decade shaped both Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota — and is having a big impact on the debate this election season. 

In the early '80s, Bill de Blasio was an undergrad at NYU, where he co-founded The Coalition for Student Rights, a group that lobbied for increased transparency, health services, longer library hours and safety on campus. He and his roommate rocked out to the Talking Heads, The Clash, B-52s and Bob Marley. They posted the lyrics to Marley's "Redemption Song" in their dorm room.

Joe Lhota had just graduated from Harvard Business School and was starting a job as a banker in municipal securities at Paine Webber, where he worked on the financing of low and moderate-income housing. He loved The Allman Brothers Band.  The song "Jessica" was a favorite, as was "Rambling Man."

De Blasio became an Urban Fellow during the Koch Administration, went to graduate school at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and organized for a slew of causes, from nuclear disarmament to aid and activism on Nicaragua. Lhota shifted his focus from housing to infrastructure, including public projects in Houston, Texas and the New York City Municipal Water Finance Authority. Both candidates say those early experiences shaped their political perspectives. 

"I think it's all added up for me in a way that says if I want to be a progressive change agent, the place I can be most effective is through government but never forgetting the urgency that comes with being an activist," de Blasio said. 

Lhota said he learned the importance fiscal discipline: "One of the things I became expert in is municipal finance, understanding the budgets."

Joe Lhota at his 1988 wedding

(Lhota at his 1988 wedding. Photo courtesy Lhota campaign)

Kenneth Sherrill, a professor emeritus at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, says the two candidates are archetypes of their generation. "It's honestly exactly what you would expect from a Republican and a Democrat," he said. "And for people who want to say there's no difference between the two parties, these guys are living testimony to the fact that there is a difference between the two parties."

But if the '80s were instrumental in defining the candidates vision for the city, the decade has also made an imprint on the campaign.

At Lhota's victory party on primary night, Scott Ostro, a director of sales and marketing at a software company, said he was worried about the city backsliding into the bad old days of joblessness, crime and trash. 

"I have a concern the city may fall back to where it had been when I moved to the city in 1984," he said. 

Lhota seemed to be invoking the same image in his speech that night. "I'm hearing a lot from the other side about a Tale of Two Cities and how they're going to tear down the progress of the last 20 years," he said. "This tale is nothing more than class warfare, an attempt to divide our city. It's a feeble retreat to the old playbook that promises a perfect world but delivers only special interest dominated politics. It's this kind of thinking that brought our city to the brink of bankruptcy, and rampant decay."

In a recent interview outside a campaign stop visiting small businesses in Queens, he said what he meant is that we should be looking forward, not back. "I'm talking about the future of New York," he said. 

As for de Blasio, he said he has mixed feelings about '80s New York. He sat down with WNYC to discuss his memories from the 1980s after an appearance at NY1 in Chelsea. "I remember the subways with no air conditioning. I remember the squeegee men. I remember a lot more homeless folks on the street, a lot of the bad things. I also remember a sense of community, and certainly the exclusivity that we've become used to in recent years was unheard of back then," he said. 

But he said he doesn't want to go back to those days either, and he rejects any notion that addressing inequality would erode the city's progress. "I actually argue that if you allow the current inequalities to deepen, that's what's going to create instability. That's what's going to create problems for the future of this city," he said. 

Two candidates. Different ideas. One job. As the Talking Heads would say, same as it ever was. 

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Comments [6]

Tommy from Times Square

Bring back the top flight street hookers buying their pimps Rolls Royce's And Benz's, bring back the three card monte dealers and pickpockets. Bring back cheap rent and a cheaper cost of living. Bring back the bad old days without the violence! The hell with a boring disneyfied 42nd St bring back the bad old days!

Nov. 23 2013 04:24 AM
bene from Bronx

yeah... in the OLD days in New York they used to pick up garbage twice a day.. can't go back to THAT horror now that we have a New York where people pay $500 dollars for a meal at an outdoor cafe while the wafting stench of a mountain of garbage on the corner adds that certain income gap je ne sais quois to the proceedings.

Oct. 24 2013 09:19 AM
Jack Gladney from New York

Something tells me Jessica Gould is a millennial. Did she seriously call the Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime," "Same as it Ever Was?" It's not like it was their biggest hit or a has long since become a cultural cliche.

Sep. 30 2013 04:29 PM
Tom. A native New Yorker from Manhattan

DeBlasio will take us back to the bad old days . Lets keep New York clean and safe

Sep. 30 2013 10:35 AM
john from office

I am waiting for the video or audio where DeBlasio shows support for the PLO and blames Israel for what ever the wrong was at the time. DeBlasio was the Blowhard I detested in College, always looking for a cause and blaming America for everything.

Sep. 30 2013 07:09 AM
Paul from Brooklyn, NY

The comparison between the favorite bands of both of these candidate gave me pause. Back in the eighties I enjoyed both The Talking Heads and The Allman Brothers. Today I still enjoy a wide variety of music from Hip-Hop to Electronic to Bluegrass. Are these two so narrow in their ideology as represented by their favorite music? Do I vote for either one based upon their music choices? The comparison made here is much too simplistic. I'm personally not happy with either candidate and knowing what music they enjoyed in the eighties obviously is not going to make me lean towards one or the other.

Sep. 30 2013 06:52 AM

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