Thousands of Bill de Blasio’s grassroots supporters—as well as the small inner circle of advisers who helped catapult him into office and will help guide the newly elected mayor as he tackles the challenge of governing the nation’s largest city—were at the Park Slope Armory in Brooklyn on election night to celebrate this momentous progressive triumph. But one important face was missing. Jon Kest played a key role in building the progressive grassroots movement that became the foundation of de Blasio’s political base and would have been a major player in his stunning landslide victory. But Kest, who died last December 5, didn’t live to see the most impressive achievement of his decades of activism.
For almost three decades, Kest was the most effective organizer in New York City. He helped found ACORN, the Working Families Party (WFP) and New York Communities for Change (NYCC)—three key components of New York’s progressive movement. But Kest’s genius was not only in building effective grassroots organizations but also in forging coalitions with unions, faith-based groups, neighborhood associations and environmentalists so that the groups were more powerful than the sum of their parts. He was a linchpin of some of the most critical political battles in the city that mobilized low-income residents against the corporate and political establishment.
De Blasio’s victory, along with WFP leader Leticia James’ triumph as the city’s public advocate, was decades in the making. Neither would have been won without the seeds planted by Kest and his coalition allies working together to reshape New York’s politics.
Kest was mostly a behind-the-scenes organizer, little known to the general public. He was the hidden architect of winning campaigns, monitoring from the back of the room. Most liberal politicians and activists knew him and admired his talents, even if they didn’t always agree with his sometimes confrontational tactics. He was highly respected by community, labor, and political activists who valued his strategic savvy and organizing talent. De Blasio was one of many activists and budding politicians who drew on Kest’s advice and support.
Kest, who grew up in White Plains, New York, met his wife, Fran Streich, at the University of Pennsylvania. As a student majoring in occupational therapy, Streich led a campaign to stop the university from shutting down the School of Allied Medical Professions, and recruited Kest to the battle. They lost that fight, but the struggle forged their commitment to grassroots organizing.
Immediately after graduating from Penn in 1977, they founded the Philadelphia chapter of ACORN. ACORN would grow to become the country’s largest community organizing group, known for improving inner-city neighborhoods and helping to lead nationwide fights to increase the minimum wage, end predatory lending and register millions of low- and middle-income voters. While building the Philadelphia chapter, they devised a national “squatting” campaign that led to the enactment of the National Homesteading Act, which allowed low- and moderate-income families to purchase abandoned buildings owned by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The couple moved to New York in 1982 to start an ACORN chapter in Wall Street’s backyard. In the 1980s, East New York and Brownsville faced a tidal wave of abandonment and arson, leaving families homeless and neighborhoods devastated. Kest and his wife organized a squatting campaign, which pushed then-Mayor Ed Koch to turn over a group of abandoned buildings to ACORN to run as low-income housing co-operatives. The campaign continued under Mayors David Dinkins and Rudolph Giuliani. By the end of Giuliani’s second term, 1,000 low-income New Yorkers lived in homes owned or managed by ACORN’s Mutual Housing Association of New York.