New York City Council Member and Progressive Caucus Member Jumaane D. Williams, of Brooklyn, joins Occupy Wall Street protesters in marching to Zuccotti Park Monday, November 7, 2011, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Anthony Weiner is headline gold. Since the ex-congressman made his candidacy official, the New York City mayor’s race is drawing attention from national outlets and local tabloids alike (though unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be Weiner’s policy positions that they’re interested in). While the headline-writers have a field day, New York progressives are grappling with some serious questions (including): Could we finally elect a progressive mayor? Which, if any, of these candidates would qualify? But too few of us are considering an urgent companion question: What about the City Council?
Because of term limits, almost half of New York’s City Council will be replaced in November’s elections, making this a moment of great opportunity for progressives. While a mayor can single-handedly fuel or obstruct progress, the council could play a crucial role in muscling issues onto the agenda, forcing the hand of the mayor, and forging a more just and inclusive New York. The council has historically been a fairly timid body, but it doesn’t have to be. The public is ready for more progressive representation. In a 2012 poll for the Community Service Society, New Yorkers by a three-to-one margin chose “help working New Yorkers and their families get ahead” over “make New York City a good place to do business” as a policy priority for the next mayor. Strong majorities supported raising the state minimum wage, spending more on education, and mandating paid sick leave.
In the year since that poll, New York City has passed paid sick leave, despite Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s previous recalcitrance, and Mayor Bloomberg’s predictable veto. That victory is due in no small part to the efforts of the council’s Progressive Caucus, whose members provided most of the signatures for the “discharge petition” that helped dislodge the bill. The caucus, first formed in 2010 and currently co-chaired by Councilmembers Brad Lander and Melissa Mark-Viverito, right now includes a fifth of the council.But it’s been punching above its weight class, providing critical leadership in bringing participatory budgeting to New York, expanding our living wage law to cover economic development subsidies, and driving forward the effort to strengthen our ban on discriminatory profiling and create an inspector general for the NYPD.
New York City has a history of national progressive leadership, from our subway system, to our public university system, to our campaign finance system. The caucus is out to restore that legacy, at a moment when it’s desperately needed. With progress so often obstructed or diluted in Congress, cities have a particularly crucial role to play in pushing policies that are both achievable in the short-term and scale-able as national models.
“13 Bold Progressive Ideas for NYC 2013,” a document proposing dramatic reforms: enfranchising legal immigrants to vote in municipal elections; banning employment discrimination based on credit; significantly expanding our bus rapid transit network; revitalizing our Commission on Human Rights.
As Councilmember Lander wrote at The Nation, “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. The goal of the Progressive Caucus is to change that.”
That won’t happen through an “inside game” alone, and the Progressive Caucus’ effectiveness can be traced in part to its deft embrace of an “inside-outside” approach, working very closely with unions, community groups and the Working Families Party, and marching arm in arm with low-wage workers trying to organize, and occupiers facing down Wall Street.
But to bring about the kind of change we need, the Progressive Caucus needs to grow its ranks. That’s why it’s launched an aggressive new electoral effort, the Progressive Caucus Alliance, aimed at bringing a new wave of true progressives onto the council. It’s an unprecedented effort: a visionary, ideologically coherent group with a broad and popular agenda pushing hard to reboot the council’s political realities. In the past, much of the council’s priorities, policies, and possibilities have been dictated by deals cut among the Democratic Country chairs of Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx, who hand-pick speakers in a conservative, spoils-driven process that keeps the council timid.
Working with grassroots allies, the Progressive Caucus Alliance is working to elect candidates who will put democratic rules reforms in reach, empower the body to be an independent, progressive check on the mayor, and enact those 13 Bold Progressive Ideas. That won’t be easy, and a report in Friday’s New York Times reveals an additional challenge: “A group of real estate executives and corporate leaders…plans to spend up to $10 million to make sure the City Council elected this fall is friendly to business.”
But the progressives passed their first test, electing Donovan Richards—a young leader drawn into politics after losing a childhood friend to gun violence—in a February special election. Now they’re going to bat on behalf of seven deserving candidates with grassroots credentials, with a few more endorsements likely to come.
They’ve set ambitious goals. Whether they can meet them depends in part on how many New York progressives sign up to knock on doors, make phone calls, do Get Out the Vote, and, yes, donate money (matched six to one for New York City residents). Hard work, but it’ll be more fun and rewarding than reading tabloid headlines about Anthony Weiner.