New York City Council Member and Progressive Caucus Member Jumaane D. Williams, of Brooklyn, joins Occupy Wall Street protesters in marching to Zuccotti Park Monday, November 7, 2011, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Anthony Weiner is headline gold. Since the ex-congressman made his candidacy official, the New York City mayor’s race is drawing attention from national outlets and local tabloids alike (though unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be Weiner’s policy positions that they’re interested in). While the headline-writers have a field day, New York progressives are grappling with some serious questions (including): Could we finally elect a progressive mayor? Which, if any, of these candidates would qualify? But too few of us are considering an urgent companion question: What about the City Council?
Because of term limits, almost half of New York’s City Council will be replaced in November’s elections, making this a moment of great opportunity for progressives. While a mayor can single-handedly fuel or obstruct progress, the council could play a crucial role in muscling issues onto the agenda, forcing the hand of the mayor, and forging a more just and inclusive New York. The council has historically been a fairly timid body, but it doesn’t have to be. The public is ready for more progressive representation. In a 2012 poll for the Community Service Society, New Yorkers by a three-to-one margin chose “help working New Yorkers and their families get ahead” over “make New York City a good place to do business” as a policy priority for the next mayor. Strong majorities supported raising the state minimum wage, spending more on education, and mandating paid sick leave.
In the year since that poll, New York City has passed paid sick leave, despite Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s previous recalcitrance, and Mayor Bloomberg’s predictable veto. That victory is due in no small part to the efforts of the council’s Progressive Caucus, whose members provided most of the signatures for the “discharge petition” that helped dislodge the bill. The caucus, first formed in 2010 and currently co-chaired by Councilmembers Brad Lander and Melissa Mark-Viverito, right now includes a fifth of the council.But it’s been punching above its weight class, providing critical leadership in bringing participatory budgeting to New York, expanding our living wage law to cover economic development subsidies, and driving forward the effort to strengthen our ban on discriminatory profiling and create an inspector general for the NYPD.
New York City has a history of national progressive leadership, from our subway system, to our public university system, to our campaign finance system. The caucus is out to restore that legacy, at a moment when it’s desperately needed. With progress so often obstructed or diluted in Congress, cities have a particularly crucial role to play in pushing policies that are both achievable in the short-term and scale-able as national models.