Donovan Richards is the latest progressive voice to join the New York City Council. (Courtesy of DonovanRichards2013.com.)
New York City’s newest elected official, Donovan Richards, did two things immediately upon joining the City Council this March: demand faster action by the City to remediate the mold festering in the homes of his low-income constituents in the Rockaways; and sign onto the bill requiring that workers in New York City get paid sick days, adding momentum that helped move the bill closer to passage.
Richards’s commitment to a more just New York City started from his own experience. At age 19, one of his childhood friends was killed in a gun homicide. Vowing to do something about it, he got active in local politics. Ten years later, when Hurricane Sandy hit, he spent days in the shelter with his neighbors whose homes had been ravaged. He saw that many—especially those with low-wage jobs and no sick leave—had to go back to work immediately, despite being ill from exposure and exhausted from trauma.
Richards didn’t get to the City Council alone. He won a close special election this February with the support of a coalition of progressive allies—labor unions like 1199SEIU, community groups like New York Communities for Change, the Working Families Party, and the new Progressive Caucus Alliance, the political arm of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus (which I co-chair).
The Progressive Caucus was formed in 2010 to create a more just and equal New York City. We’re inspired by our city’s history of visionary public investments like the subway and free public higher education, and leadership on issues like workers’ rights and affordable housing. But we are deeply troubled by record-high homelessness, gaping inequality, and persistent segregation in our schools and neighborhoods. Contrary to the bromides offered by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, we know that New York City can be economically vibrant, safe, and livable—goals the mayor has rightly emphasized—while doing far better to share the benefits of the city’s prosperity across lines of race, class, and neighborhood.
The “modern” New York City Council was created in 1989, after the United States Supreme Court declared the city’s old Board of Estimate unconstitutional. (The Board of Estimate was a powerful, eight-member governing body that embraced a decidedly smoke-filled-room style of politics.) The Council was given more power over budget and land-use matters, and expanded from 35 to 51 members, in the hopes that it would become more diverse and representative.
Since then, however the Council has rarely led the way toward progressive goals. Despite representing a huge Democratic majority of New Yorkers (47 of the 51 members are Democrats), the Council has played second-fiddle to powerful Republican mayors, and frequently yielded to real-estate and big business interests.