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.”
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Torres’s election provides a useful sketch of this new mix. Raised in public housing, he became active in community organizing while still in high school by talking with neighbors about the dreadful state of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). “I saw just how hard it was to get anything fixed in our homes, how disorganized everything was, and we just didn’t have a strong enough voice in local politics to be heard,” he said of life in the long-neglected projects.
Unfortunately, the neighborhood’s political leadership has rarely seemed up to the task. The council seat that Torres won was previously held by Joel Rivera, who inherited the seat from his father in 2001. That meant that the same family had held the seat for almost twenty-five years. At the state level the district was partially represented by Eric Stevenson, who was found guilty earlier this year of taking bribes while in office.
Torres decided to run in February 2013, only a few months before the primary. He joined a crowded field, with little fundraising experience or personal wealth from which to launch a campaign. In the past, this might have doomed his campaign. But what pushed him to the front this time was the support of the city’s growing progressive infrastructure, most notably the City Council’s Progressive Caucus and its political wing, the Progressive Caucus Alliance (PCA).
The Progressive Caucus was formed in 2009 by a group of council members who were fed up with the council’s pro-Bloomberg agenda. With the help of the PCA, which supports promising candidates, it has grown rapidly in size and influence. Of the council’s fifty-one members, nineteen belong to the caucus, including the council speaker, Mark-Viverito. Its mission: to “advance policies that will create a more just and equal city for all New Yorkers” by pushing for fully funded city services, the creation of living-wage jobs, affordable housing, high-quality public education and other policies that fight inequality.
Torres was endorsed by the PCA after reaching out to the group early in his campaign. The endorsement brought legitimacy as well as a mentor (in the form of the future council speaker, Mark-Viverito), campaign advice and access to the city’s broad grassroots base.
“The Progressive Council Alliance…adopted my race, and they gave me access to progressive organizations,” Torres said. “Keep in mind, the Bronx has no progressive infrastructure. Brooklyn is the epicenter of the progressive movement, and the Bronx has none. So the PCA was able to connect me to organizations like Make The Road and NYCC [New York Communities for Change], which are based in Brooklyn, and they became a tremendous resource for me.”
Other support soon followed, including a game-changing endorsement by the Central Labor Council, a labor organization that represents more than 1.3 million workers in the city. “Once I got that endorsement, once labor got behind me, I knew my campaign was real,” Torres said.
Now in office, Torres has kept his focus on the plight of city’s 400,000 public housing residents. He has advocated for more security inside NYCHA buildings, as well as speeding up the repairs process. And later this year, he plans to hold the first ever hearing of the committee inside of a public housing project. He also plans to focus attention on reining in misconduct by the NYPD, which has targeted poor communities like the one he represents.
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Only two years older than Torres, Nily Rozic is entering her second year as the assemblywoman representing a diverse area in Eastern Queens that includes large populations of Jewish, black and Asian immigrants. The daughter of Argentine immigrants who came to the United States through Israel, Rozic got her start working for Democratic Assembly member Brian Kavanagh. She became his chief of staff at 23.
“I knew from a very young age that I wanted to leave this city greater than I found it,” Rozic told me in a café near City Hall. Confident and sporty, she spoke in quick, Queens-accented bursts. “I had a typical outer-borough New York childhood. Politics were always something that my family discussed.”
When an assembly seat in the neighborhood she grew up in opened up, Rozic was unsure whether she should run. “For women, it’s that much harder to do these things, and for any young women full of moxie, you’re definitely going to hit some resistance. I was repeatedly told that it wasn’t my turn.”
Democratic Party insiders and senior politicians tried to talk Rozic out of it, she said. She ran anyway. Trailing the entire race, Rozic won the seat after months of knocking on doors every night for five hours. “People realized I was genuinely interested in representing them, which was new for a lot of these voters,” she said. In her first two years in office, she has sponsored and passed legislation that has focused on environmental issues as well as workforce development. And she has been working to improve public transportation for her district, which remains woefully isolated from the economic center of the city.
Rozic believes that the New York State Assembly, often ridiculed for its dysfunction, can become a more effective place simply by having more women in office. Right now, the State Assembly is 75 percent male, while the State Senate is 82 percent male. “It goes beyond achieving fundamental fairness,” Rozic said. “When women are in power and in office, they have been proven to be more effective politicians than men. That’s just the facts.”
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At 33, Brooklyn city councilman Carlos Menchaca is the oldest of the three young politicians. Yet the Texas native with the hip glasses and swoop of black hair has also broken ground with his election. When he beat his district’s incumbent last fall, he became New York City’s first Mexican-American elected official.
Raised by a single mother who had immigrated from Mexico, Menchaca grew up in El Paso, with a family living on both sides of the US-Mexico border. In El Paso, Menchaca saw firsthand the harsh conditions that many Mexican immigrants face, but he knew that just on the other side of the border, people were burning tires for heat. “I just couldn’t understand why this metropolitan area wasn’t a single city, why we were treated so differently than people just a few miles away from us,” he told me in his City Council office in downtown Manhattan.
After receiving a scholarship from the University of San Francisco to study physics, Menchaca quickly found himself involved in campus politics, becoming the Jesuit university’s first openly gay student body president. He then moved to New York City as a fellow at CORO, an organization that trains young people in political leadership, where he immersed himself in local politics.
“I immediately noticed an energy that is only in New York City,” he said of his arrival in the city in 2004. “It’s where survival meets inspiration.”
Menchaca soon found himself working as the capital budget director for Marty Markowitz, then Brooklyn borough president. “That job got me into disadvantaged places like East New York,” he recalled, “where the amount of need is just tremendous. But the community was able and willing to organize itself, it just needed somebody to be their technical assistant, to be their heartfelt public servant.”
Working in Brooklyn, Menchaca saw the power of community organizations with active, engaged memberships, like Make The Road New York. Make the Road started out in the late 1990s as a small neighborhood-based group, but as it has grown into a grassroots powerhouse, it has joined the web of organizations that are challenging the primacy of Democratic clubhouses. Menchaca was supported by Make The Road’s political action committee.
“It’s about organizing now. There’s nothing wrong with political clubs, but if they’re ignoring the real needs of the community, then that’s when young people have been going out in the streets,” Public Advocate Letitia James told The Nation.
What finally drove Menchaca to run for office was Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. After Sandy devastated his Red Hook neighborhood, he expected an aggressive response from local officials. Instead, he said, they were barely visible. “It broke my heart,” Menchaca recalled. “So I began organizing with other members of the community, and with the election on the horizon, I consulted with my partner and decided to run.”
Menchaca saw that the community wanted change, and that he could be the one to articulate what their needs were. “I wasn’t a sponsored machine hack. They recognized that.”
Menchaca also discovered that he was a formidable fundraiser. By bridging the gap between the political elite (who have the money) and the people in the community (who have the votes) Menchaca rallied the large Mexican community in Red Hook.
Menchaca, like Torres, has been given a significant amount of responsibility in the city council. As chairman of the Committee of Immigration Affairs, Menchaca successfully pushed for municipal identification cards to help immigrants, homeless LGBT youth and other disenfranchised New Yorkers open bank accounts and access services. And as a member of the Progressive Caucus, he has helped pass paid sick leave legislation and a spate of other forward-looking measures. He also wants to keep the city focused on preparing for the next big hurricane.
“We need to be ready for when the lights go out, and when they stay out for a substantial amount of time,” he told me.
In the coming years, Menchaca, Rozic and Torres are determined to keep pushing the city in the direction of equality and inclusiveness. Yet, as they grow older and more established, will they retain their fierce progressivism and community roots?
“I think it’s inevitable that these young politicians become part of the machine,” Golway, the veteran journalist, observed. “You can go down the list of people we regard as the epitome of the political establishment today, whether it’s Charlie Rangel or Sheldon Silver, who at one point in their lives were fresh-faced outsiders with energy and ideas. Now they are who they are—they become prisoners of incumbency.”
After seeing countless politicians drift towards the center, the City Council’s Progressive Caucus aims to keep the Council stocked with young progressives for decades to come.
“Being a forty-year politician is not in our DNA,” said Antonio Reynoso, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, and himself a young, freshman city councilman. “I think the reforms that we will put in place will make it so that our communities hold us accountable in the way that in the past couldn’t be done. Corrupt politicians stay in power for decades, but we took down those establishment politicians.”
He links the difference to a focus on organizing voters. “We did the work on the ground and are still organizers by trade, so what we’re doing every day is making sure we’re out in the communities and building coalitions. If the communities no longer agree with us, then they will let us know and vote us out.”
For their part, Torres, Rozic and Menchaca see themselves on the ground, fighting on behalf of communities dealing with injustice for decades to come.
“In ten years?” Ritchie Torres said with a wide smile. “I’ll be retired, man.”
Somehow that’s hard to believe.