Saturday, 19 Sep 2020

Inside the Clash Between Powerful Business Leaders and N.Y.C.’s Mayor

The tensions burst into the open when 163 executives joined to criticize Bill de Blasio’s leadership. Others think their portrait of the city is overly bleak.

By J. David Goodman, Emma G. Fitzsimmons and Jeffery C. Mays

With conditions decaying in New York City neighborhoods and business districts, a powerful corporate executive traveled to Gracie Mansion in July to meet with Mayor Bill de Blasio. He briefed the mayor on a plan — prepared by 14 consulting firms — for how City Hall could work with business leaders to overcome the pandemic downturn.

Mr. de Blasio appeared supportive. The executive, Steven R. Swartz, head of the Hearst media conglomerate, left feeling hopeful, as he later told others from the Partnership for New York City, a top business group.

But weeks then went by, and the corporate leaders began feeling that Mr. de Blasio was ignoring their concerns.

On Thursday, they struck back in the form of an open letter that publicly upbraided the mayor for neglecting “public safety, cleanliness and other quality-of-life issues,” which they said had led to “widespread anxiety” among New Yorkers.

The letter was signed by 163 chief executives and leaders, a striking array from some of the biggest companies in New York City, including Goldman Sachs, JetBlue, Mastercard, Morgan Stanley, Pfizer and Warby Parker, as well as from top law firms and real estate developers. They called on the mayor to take “immediate action to restore essential services.”

From the start of his mayoralty in 2014, Mayor de Blasio has prided himself on championing the working class and spurning the city’s business elite, drawing a sharp contrast with his predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg, a billionaire with close ties to corporate leaders. That antagonistic posture rankled many top executives, but they mostly kept their criticisms private during the economic boom years that characterized most of Mr. de Blasio’s tenure.

Faced with a pandemic and its devastating economic consequences, the mayor and the city’s top business leaders now have little record of working together to draw upon. The letter from the chief executives underscores how the years of distrust are creating new obstacles for what Mr. de Blasio had hoped would be the start of the city's “rebirth.”

The relationship is further complicated because Mr. de Blasio is term-limited. He leaves office at the end of 2021, so both sides have less incentive to patch things up.

For now, the companies say they need Mr. de Blasio’s leadership to help persuade workers that it is safe to return to the office and assure them that any quality-of-life problems that may have worsened during the pandemic will be addressed. The city needs the companies to return to help begin to restore the huge loss in tax revenue.

“It’s all a chicken-and-egg problem. Until the people come back, the streets aren’t safe. If the streets aren’t safe, the people don’t come back,” said Kathryn Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, which sent the letter. “So somebody’s got to break the egg.”

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