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The Zeitgeist Tracked Down Bill de Blasio | The Nation

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The Zeitgeist Tracked Down Bill de Blasio

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Bill de Blasio campaigns at a subway stop in New York, Monday, November 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

In this larger context of the apparent exhaustion of the dominant economic paradigm, it should have come as little surprise that de Blasio’s message resonated so strongly with New York City’s largely of-color, liberal primary electorate. What’s more, de Blasio’s campaign built upon the long-term endeavors—and policy proposals—of a variety of grassroots organizations that, largely off the mainstream radar screen, had been challenging the city’s most powerful interests for decades.

Foremost among them, perhaps, was the New York City chapter of ACORN, the national community organization of poor and low-wage working people. (Since the national group folded, the New York chapter reorganized as New York Communities for Change.) Founded in 1982 by the late Jon Kest and his wife Fran Streich, New York ACORN mobilized low-income residents from across the city in countless struggles for affordable housing, improved public schools and higher wages. Kest and Bertha Lewis, who became New York ACORN’s executive director, were both longtime collaborators with de Blasio; even in the days shortly before his death from cancer in December 2012, Kest was urging de Blasio to sharpen his message for an uncompromising populist challenge to the Giuliani-Bloomberg status quo. 

ACORN, along with unions like the Communications Workers and Auto Workers, and allied community organizations like Citizen Action, also played a key role in the formation of New York’s Working Families Party. Since its inception in 1998, the WFP has organized around an agenda that challenged market fundamentalism, electing progressives and pushing a program of increasing minimum and living wages, raising taxes on the wealthy, getting big money out of politics, and investing in healthcare and education. The WFP helped de Blasio in his come-from-behind victory for public advocate in 2009 and has been instrumental in forging a Progressive Caucus in the City Council that successfully challenged Bloomberg on policing policy and paid sick days. Thanks to extensive organizing, nearly two dozen of the Council’s fifty-one members will identify with the Progressive Caucus when it convenes in January, and, as this article goes to press, one of its founders, Melissa Mark-Viverito, seems poised to become speaker.

Other tributaries fed the rising progressive current that lifted de Blasio to victory. For a decade, police accountability organizations and groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union raised questions about the skyrocketing frequency with which the police were stopping and frisking innocent young men of color. These groups, along with the Rev. Al Sharpton and several progressive unions, eventually coalesced into Communities United for Police Reform, which, through legislative efforts and organizing, put stop-and-frisk at the center of political debate. (When de Blasio’s opponents failed to take clear stands on anti-stop-and-frisk legislation pending before the City Council, the issue, coupled with de Blasio’s compelling multiracial family, helped him capture nearly half of the African-American vote in the primary.)

Public education, meanwhile, became a major battleground, as Bloomberg and supporters of his corporate reform agenda sought to blame the failures (real or imagined) of public schools on the fact that they are public enterprises staffed by unionized teachers. Chancellor Joel Klein, who would eventually leave to run Rupert Murdoch’s for-profit education services subsidiary, pushed charter schools, high-cost technology and high-stakes testing, but faced powerful opposition from a coalition of groups that included New York Communities for Change, the Coalition for Education Justice, the teachers union and parent advocates (among them de Blasio, who is the first mayor in recent history, perhaps ever, with a child in public school).

In labor, a new generation of leaders like Vinny Alvarez at the Central Labor Council and Héctor Figueroa of SEIU Local 32BJ and George Gresham of SEIU Local 1199 emerged on the scene, determined to save the movement from extinction by forging once unimaginable alliances and broadening its agenda beyond the short-term needs of its members. This shift was paralleled by the rise of an increasingly savvy band of activist-oriented community groups like Community Voices Heard, Good Old Lower East Side and Make the Road New York, which battled for immigrants’ rights and affordable housing.

As the age of Bloomberg wore on, these disparate community and labor players began joining forces with increasing frequency, forging coalitions that became a defining feature of the era—and fixtures on City Hall’s steps. Together, they took on key issues for New Yorkers, from immigration reform to paid sick days, raising living wages, fighting Bloomberg’s term limits extension and, most potently, workers’ rights. It was, in fact, a coalition of several of these labor and community groups, including 32BJ and New York Communities for Change, that began organizing the fast-food worker strikes that have seized national press attention and helped put the “labor question”—the issue of fair treatment of workers—back on the national agenda. As recently as October, de Blasio was protesting alongside them, declaring his support for their unionization drive.

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