Meet the Group of Feisty Urban Progressives Who Want to Transform the Country One City at a Time

Meet the Group of Feisty Urban Progressives Who Want to Transform the Country One City at a Time

Meet the Group of Feisty Urban Progressives Who Want to Transform the Country One City at a Time

At a Local Progress gathering in New York City, “pothole progressives” shared strategies for a grassroots, social justice revival.


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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A century ago, working-class radicals frustrated with the pace of change often scoffed at their more patient comrades in city government, calling them “sewer socialists.” The latter, however, numbered in the hundreds, and, in their heyday, were quite influential in cities both large and small. After being elected to municipal positions on the Socialist Party ticket, they labored mightily to improve local services, from public sanitation to street repair. They even encroached on private markets by expanding public housing and experimenting with municipal ownership of utilities.

The national expansion of popular democracy sought by these left-wing reformers was, sadly, never achieved under their party banner. But several decades later, their many ideas for putting government to work for the people found traction during the New Deal. Programs to promote social equality and economic opportunity first tested at the state or local level became a Depression-era lifeline for millions of Americans nationwide.

In the twenty-first century, many on the left still yearn for economic and policy victories on the scale of the 1930s and the emergence at the federal level of a counter-force that might one again curb the influence of corporate America. While waiting for that second coming, progressive activists have, like the “sewer socialists” of old, been forced to grapple with serious problems—national and even global in nature—at the municipal level instead.

Some of the bravest (or most ambitious) among them have sought and won local elected office. So, in city halls across the country, they are now trying to deploy the limited resources of local government to fight poverty, inequality and environmental degradation at a moment when higher levels of government have failed to address such problems or made them worse. To maintain public support, these reform-minded mayors, city councilors, county commissioners and allied civil servants must be as concerned about street paving and policing as saving the planet from global warming.

Until recently, most of these “pothole progressives” have toiled largely in isolation. They chipped away at local injustice or city hall dysfunction in ad hoc fashion with little national infrastructure to sustain or support them. But as their ranks have swelled in recent years, several networks have developed to promote greater coordination of this difficult work through systematic sharing of information, ideas, and technical expertise.

From December 4 to 6, the only of these groups to focus exclusively on cities, Local Progress, hosted a lively and racially diverse “convening” in New York City to celebrate recent municipal election victories and progressive policy wins, while laying the groundwork for more. Local Progress is funded by several national unions and social-change foundations. Its individual and organizational affiliates profess a “shared commitment to a strong middle and working class, equal justice under law, sustainable and livable cities, and good government that serves the public interest effectively.” Its mission? “To drive public policy at the local level—an area of governance that is too often ignored by the progressive movement.”

Among the “electeds” gathered in New York City for the Local Progress third annual meeting, there was little moping about the Democratic Party’s now much weakened condition in various state capitols and Washington, DC, as a result of last month’s midterm elections. Instead, they and their larger supporting cast of labor and community organizers, public policy advocates and social-change funders all resolved to expand their influence at the local level, where reform is still possible. To hasten this goal, the organizers distributed a sixty-page compilation of “case studies and best practices” from around the country, co-produced with the Center for Popular Democracy. This dense, well-documented guide provides an ambitious blueprint for improving local labor standards, housing and education, policing practices, environmental sustainability, treatment of immigrants, voting rights and financing of elections.

Local Progress has recruited 400 members in forty states; about a third turned up for its latest annual meeting, with impressive representation from the city councils of San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Tacoma, Denver, New Orleans, New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Mayoral participants included everyone from the high-profile chief executive of the host city, Bill de Blasio, to his far less well-known, but equally feisty, West Coast counterpart, Meghan Sahli-Wells. She hails from Culver City, California, a Los Angeles County enclave with a population smaller than some New York City neighborhoods.

But that difference in scale hasn’t stopped Sahli-Wells from making waves of her own, as an enviro-oriented “bike mayor” who helped secure a ban on single-use plastic bags and has been working tirelessly to ban fracking as well. Now her talk about property tax reform has local realtors organizing against her and wishing she had never been chosen by her council peers to be the city’s part-time mayor. “My Chamber of Commerce hates me,” she reported, but expressed confidence that “harnessing the power of community” would enable her to overcome business opposition to some of her future plans.

De Blasio welcomed such diverse colleagues amid the ornate surroundings of the New York City Council chamber. He was joined by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Brooklyn councilmember Brad Lander, who both described the salutary effect of having a Progressive Caucus of nineteen in the city’s fifty-one-member leadership body.

The Big Apple’s affable, lanky mayor quickly gave what an alarmed New York Post called, the next day, “a fawning shout-out to Seattle.” And indeed, de Blasio did hail Seattle city councilmember Nick Licata, chair of Local Progress, and others from “the Left Coast,” for their leading role in the nationwide minimum-wage campaign that has now bettered the pay of seven million workers. “We all reference each other,” de Blasio noted. “We all build on each other’s work…. Every time we succeed, it builds momentum for other cities.”

The job of Local Progress members, the mayor argued, is to be organizers, not just elected officials. As a result of the group’s collective efforts, “change is coming from the grassroots and working its way up—real, sustained and lasting change.”

In the smaller strategy sessions that followed, participants shared information and ideas on a wide range of topics. These included “participatory budgeting”—an experiment now underway in New York City to solicit neighborhood input on spending priorities—and multi-state efforts to expand public financing of candidates for local and county office. According to Emmanuel Caicedo, state affairs manager for Demos who spoke at the conference, this election reform was a key factor in making progressives more competitive electorally in New York City and enabling them, once in office, to expand the reach of paid sick day legislation. “Without this matching funds system, councilmembers would not be able to do the right thing for their constituents, “ he said.

Local Progress workshop turnout and the intensity of discussion were both driven, in part, by the momentum of events unfolding outside the gathering. The latest round of national fast-food worker protests and street demonstrations in Manhattan over the grand jury decision in the Eric Garner case provided an urgent backdrop for brainstorming about workers’ rights and major reform of US police departments.

On the labor front, city officials were reminded by several speakers from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the AFL-CIO that minimum wage hikes, statutory entitlement to paid sick days, and better enforcement of local labor standards still doesn’t give enough Americans the workplace voice that collective bargaining provides. More needs to be done, they argued, to help workers for government contractors or in public facilities, like airports, to win bargaining rights without management interference. “Having a union is necessary to sustain gains,” Héctor Figueroa, president of SEIU Local 32BJ, pointed out.

Few labor allies in Local Progress question the value of unionization—but some did express concern about unions being unhelpful in their own past municipal campaigns. For example, Anders Ibsen, an earnest 28-year-old city councilor from Washington State, sought advice from AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre about dealing with conservative “business unionists” who’ve tried to thwart progressive initiatives in Tacoma. In the same panel discussion, San Diego councilmember David Alvarez—a recent labor-backed candidate for mayor—recalled the initial opposition he faced from a major AFL-CIO affiliate. According to Alvarez, it took much patient relationship-building to win over this union, despite his strong commitment to local labor causes like taxi-driver organizing.

Before their gathering ended, most of the city officials present endorsed a Local Progress statement criticizing the “excessive use of force” by police officers in Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York City. They urged federal officials to ensure “that cities around the country end discriminatory policing practices and replace them with programs that respect and empower residents…”

Just how to do that, at the local level, was the subject of much debate at a session on “Winning Real Police and Criminal Justice Reform.” Panelists discussed remedies like requiring police body cameras, retraining officers, recruiting more from minority communities, and offering them financial incentives for local residency. Lisa Daugaard, policy director for the Public Defender Association in Seattle, cautioned against quick fixes, including indiscriminate body camera use and training programs unaccompanied by real institutional change. “It’s easy to hold a three-day training session. It’s very difficult to have training change behavior, habits, instincts,” she said.

Daugaard reported on Seattle’s Community Police Commission (CPC), an oversight body, which she co-chairs and includes two active members of the police force. According to Daugaard, the CPC has spurred a “deeply transformative” shift in the treatment of jobless, homeless, addicted, and/or mentally ill residents previously targeted for police round-ups and jailing, with a disproportionate racial impact. By expanding relevant social services and, in effect, decriminalizing vagrancy and low-level drug dealing, Seattle has been able to “re-humanize” at least some “daily interactions between police and the community.”

And just as cities like Seattle can’t arrest their way out of petty crime spawned by poverty and unemployment, Daugaard warned against a singular focus on prosecutions of police misconduct, after the fact. Many such cases are likely to fail, she noted, and, even if successful, don’t transform the departmental culture or quality of police-community relationships. Jumaane Williams, a New York City councilmember from Brooklyn, agreed with Daugaard that community policing done right “works better than the lock-‘em-up strategy” that still prevails in most cities, even some with Local Progress ties. “The problem, “said Williams, “is when we send policemen to do the job that everyone needs to do. Public safety is an everybody kind of thing.”

Turning the overall Local Progress agenda into actual public policy in more places is also “an everybody kind of thing.” As Seattle’s Nick Licata observed, urban progressives “need both an outside and inside game” to win because neither street politics nor electoral victories alone can change the status quo sufficiently. Instead, he said, “you need people on the inside and people protesting on the outside to provide insiders with backbone.”

By bringing both catalysts for change together, in one organizational network, Local Progress is not blazing an entirely new path or one as explicitly anti-capitalist as left movement builders a century ago. But, in a modern political landscape otherwise bereft of many bright spots at the moment, contesting for power locally, in ecumenical fashion, still makes sense for any group of progressives with higher aspirations and longer-term societal goals.


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