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The Globe and Mail

In New York, de Blasio’s focus on inequality a sharp contrast with Bloomberg

Mayor Bill de Blasio, middle, and New York City's first lady, Chirlane McCray, mark the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday by bagging meals with Girl Scouts from Brooklyn Troop 2260 at the Distribution Community Kitchen and Food Pantry in run by New York's Food Bank the Food Bank in New York's Harlem neighborhood, Jan. 20, 2014.

Susan Watts/AP

Attention New York: left turn in progress.

Less than a month has passed since Bill de Blasio became mayor of New York, replacing billionaire Michael Bloomberg, and there's no mistaking the change in direction and tone.

Where Mr. Bloomberg was short and sometimes grouchy, Mr. de Blasio is tall and shows flashes of goofiness. Yet he appears entirely serious about his central goal: chipping away at the city's inequalities.

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Mr. de Blasio, 52, has embraced his status as the most liberal mayor of any major American city. Last week, he unveiled a bill to expand paid sick leave for New Yorkers, a move vehemently opposed by his predecessor. And he is mounting an all-out push to deliver on his signature campaign promise of free prekindergarten for every child in New York.

On Tuesday, that goal appeared within reach. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York State, announced a plan to fund prekindergarten classes statewide. However, the state plan does not include any new taxes, unlike Mr. de Blasio's initiative which revolves around an additional tax on wealthy New Yorkers.

While much wrangling lies ahead over the prekindergarten plan, it's clear that Mr. de Blasio's election shifted the terms of the debate – and not just in New York's five boroughs. Mr. de Blasio's campaign refrain that New York was a "tale of two cities" helped increase attention to income inequality nationwide. Now experts are watching closely to see if his administration can adopt policies to mitigate such disparities.

Mr. de Blasio's election is also part of a resurgence in the "progressive" wing of the Democratic Party – a reference to the party's left flank – ahead of the 2016 presidential contest. "The issue of income inequality has the potential to be the kind of issue that could really galvanize large clusters of voters, most of them living in urban areas," said Tad Devine, a Democratic political consultant in Washington.

If Mr. de Blasio is to act as a trailblazer for other politicians, he will first have to succeed in New York. His first major policy move was to propose a significant expansion of the city's law on paid sick leave to cover more than half a million New Yorkers working at every business with more than five employees. For years, Mr. Bloomberg, a Republican-turned-independent, staunchly rejected any such law, saying it placed undue burdens on businesses.

To further his pursuit of liberal-leaning policies, Mr. de Blasio helped install an ideological ally as the new speaker of the City Council. "This city hall is going be on the side of working families all over this city," he said at an event to announce the sick-leave bill.

One big question mark: how far will Mr. Cuomo, New York's governor, support the city's new leftward shift? The state holds many important levers of power in the city's affairs, from transportation to taxation, and Mr. Cuomo is running for re-election in 2014 as a centrist Democrat. "The governor is the governor. Cities are creatures of the state," said Basil Smikle, a Democratic political consultant and former candidate for state senate.

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Mr. Cuomo and Mr. de Blasio are friends who both once worked for former president Bill Clinton – and both men have a reputation for pragmatism. Since his election, Mr. de Blasio has worked to reassure a jittery business community that his administration will be practical and realistic, not revolutionary.

So far, Mr. de Blasio has avoided any major controversy. The only flap of his young mayoralty occurred when he was witnessed eating a slice of pizza in Staten Island with a knife and fork, a strict no-no for purists in New York (Mr. de Blasio maintained that he was adopting a custom from Italy, where his family has roots).

As he continues to announce new appointments to city government, Mr. de Blasio is also giving New Yorkers a glimpse of his slightly corny sense of humor (or what his staff reportedly call his "Dad jokes"). Mr. de Blasio, who is six feet, five inches tall, teased one new appointee about the dramatic difference in their heights. He promised another new city official – who wears an eye patch – that he would refrain from pirate jokes. And he dryly referred to parking meters as "the eternal in the civilization of our city."

For now, New Yorkers are feeling good about their new mayor. A poll earlier this month by Quinnipiac University found that two-thirds of voters were optimistic about the next four years of Mr. de Blasio's administration.

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