As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Cities Rising is The Nation’s chronicle of those urban experiments.
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“Do I look like a politician to you?” asked Ritchie Torres, as he sat one afternoon in his Bronx district office. “I’m a 25-year-old college dropout who grew up in public housing. I’m gay. I’m Afro-Latino. I hardly have the characteristics people associate with a politician, but here I am.”
Torres is the youngest member of the New York City Council and the first openly gay elected official from the Bronx. Tall and slight, with just a hint of mustache, he has quickly become an influential council presence since being elected last fall. He is the only freshmen member to sit on the Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s leadership team. And in January, just weeks into his new job, he was named chairman of the Committee on Public Housing, a major role for a freshman city councilman and the first time a public housing resident has ever held the position. Still, as he ushered me into his Bronx office, he looked awfully young to be wearing a suit.
Torres is not the only unusual suspect recently elected to office in New York City. Over the past two years, three new leaders, all under the age of 35, have given New Yorkers a glimpse of what the next generation of politicians of this city will look like. There is Torres, of course, but also Carlos Menchaca, a gay man who grew up on the US-Mexico border, and Nily Rozic, the daughter of immigrants, who has become the youngest state assemblywoman in the history of New York. Other young progressives hold elected office in the city, but few took jumps as big and brazen into posts long considered rewards for political insiders.
The success of these three newcomers speaks to an evolution in how New York City does politics. Over the past decade, as a controversial mayor presided over an ever-more-unequal city, many New Yorkers became discontent with the way the city was responding to defining issues like the affordable housing crunch, the homelessness crisis and disaster relief. At the same time, machine politics began to lose its grip on city government, and community organizations began building a power base of their own.
“It’s very rare for politicians in New York City to be so young,” observed veteran journalist Terry Golway, who has covered New York City politics for over thirty years and recently penned Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics, about the city’s most famous political machine. “The party organizations were not very good gatekeepers in the mayoral elections, as they all backed someone other than [Bill] de Blasio in the primary elections. But you have to look at the very local races, for city council and assembly, to see that there is a new generation of leaders coming to the forefront of city politics—and it’s because of a new mix of party structure and advocacy.”