NEW YORK — Taking aim at the everyday tribulations and injustices of life in the United States, Mayor Bill de Blasio used his sixth State of the City speech to present his tenure in New York City and his promises of things to come as the alternative.
The hourlong address Thursday followed a vow by the mayor this week that he would embark on a national tour to “preach the gospel” of liberal governance, trumpet his accomplishments in his first five years in office and argue that his new proposals — such as requiring paid vacation for most private-sector employees — are a model for the Democratic Party nationally.
He spoke against a campaign-style backdrop of seated supporters in a relatively small Manhattan theater that was filled to capacity, giving the event a heightened energy that previous addresses had lacked. De Blasio railed against big business, promised to seize the buildings of scofflaw landlords and pointedly framed the argument over income inequality — long a theme of his rhetoric as mayor — in zero-sum terms.
“Here’s the truth, brothers and sisters: There’s plenty of money in the world. Plenty of money in this city,” the mayor said, flanked by screens with graphs of productivity outpacing compensation. “It’s just in the wrong hands!”
In the speech, de Blasio presented his mayoralty as one that has made streets safer and brought new protections for tenants and workers. He cast himself as an aspiring Robin Hood — aiming to take from the rich and give to the poor — even as he has been unsuccessful in his many attempts to raise taxes on high earners.
Major elements of the speech had been set out by de Blasio in recent days: a plan to improve customer service for the city’s public hospitals and better connect uninsured residents to primary care physicians; and legislation to require paid vacation for private-sector workers.
Others were new, if somewhat less grand. The ferry system would expand to include new routes to Staten Island and Coney Island. The city would create a program to help workers save for retirement, if the companies they work for do not offer savings plans.
De Blasio tiptoed around some of the thornier challenges of his administration, such as the soaring number of homeless and the city’s scandal-plagued and deteriorating public housing system, which he mentioned once and appeared to promise more than he could deliver. “The New York City Housing Authority has a plan to bring brand-new everything to 175,000 NYCHA residents,” he said.
The mayor also did not mention that he had secured the promise of 25,000 jobs by reaching a deal two months ago to bring Amazon offices to Queens, even though a pledge to bring 100,000 good-paying jobs to New York City was a centerpiece of his 2017 address. The deal to lure Amazon to New York City, at a cost of about $3 billion in state and city incentives, is deeply unpopular among some liberals.
The speech, at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side, capped an unusual spurt of activity for the mayor in the early days of 2019.
Since New Year’s Day, de Blasio has held five news conferences in which he took questions from the media — including ones last week about the census, crime statistics and half-price MetroCards — and made two announcements before his speech that garnered broad attention, on health care and paid vacation.
The MetroCard plan, pushed by the City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, and known as Fair Fares, did not get a mention in the speech, perhaps in part because the city’s initial rollout would reach only about 4 percent of those who could qualify.
“We have to make sure that progressiveness means effectiveness,” Scott Stringer, the city’s comptroller, said after the speech. “I hope, with new programs and new excitement, there’s going to be attention to detail to get some of these things done.”
The mayor’s pledge to seize buildings, which City Hall officials said would require legislation from the City Council and possibly at the state level, met with almost immediate headwinds Thursday. “The Council has serious concerns about whether or not this is the best approach,” said Jennifer Fermino, Johnson’s spokeswoman.
The mayor, in his address, continued to aim at a bigger target: the economic agenda of Republicans, from President Ronald Reagan to President Donald Trump, which he said had dominated the nation’s politics.
“This country has spent decades taking from working people and giving to the 1 percent,” he said. “This city has spent the last five years doing it the other way around. We give back to working people the prosperity they have earned.”
The speech concluded: “Those goals are not utopian or unreachable. They are achievable.”
De Blasio gave the speech at 11 a.m., rather than in the evening as he has done for the past three years. And he used a teleprompter, departing from his recent practice of allowing himself more freedom to improvise by relying only on bullet points for speeches that often ran long.
As he has in the past, the mayor employed rhetoric aimed at showing empathy for struggling New Yorkers who have not benefited from the city’s prosperity — sounding almost like a life coach.
“Are you spending enough time with your kids? Do you have time for that? When was the last time you and your partner could go out on a date?” he said. “Do you see your life getting better this year? Or are you just holding on?”
The questions echoed the tone of a five-minute video that preceded the mayor’s speech, featuring New Yorkers of various backgrounds talking about their struggles and their home lives.
The speech included the usual heralding of city workers who did exceptional work in the past year. The mayor also added a few moments of flair, using video to illustrate some points — like a silent scroll of nations that already require paid vacation — and signing an executive order on stage to create a new office for tenant protection that he said would step up enforcement against landlords.
As he signed the order, de Blasio punctuated the moment by holding the document aloft to the applauding room. “Who says government can’t act fast?” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.