The Fire Next Time

Print More

I was busy all last summer knocking on doors in the Fort Greene housing projects, trying to become a City Councilman. During one of those long days, I met a middle-aged woman who invited me into her apartment for a look around.

There were cracks in her walls that let in water, cold air and insects right next to the bunk beds where her five foster children slept. One of the children, a nine-year-old with a heart condition, faced a life-threatening situation every time the elevator went out of service (which was often) because she had to climb the nine flights of stairs to the apartment.

The woman waved letters at me–unanswered pleas she had sent to her elected officials and various government agencies asking that she be moved, at the very least, to an apartment on a lower floor. I did what her current council representative had failed to do–took down all the information, made a few phone calls and got someone to give her a hand. We didn’t get her into a new apartment right away, but we did help her figure out how to maneuver through the bureaucracy: Her daughter’s doctor had to write a detailed note to guarantee a medically justified change of apartment.

The woman became an enthusiastic supporter of my campaign. And through her I re-learned a simple lesson that sometimes gets lost in the blur of poll data, consultants and newspaper editorials that can disorient even a humble City Council campaign. The way to take back the city for the people is to deliver the goods to the people–and then have them deliver their votes to you. There’s nothing cynical about this attitude. Helping poor people is what progressive politics has always been about. And it can be the foundation of our political renaissance.

This year, I was one of about a half dozen progressive young people who ran first-time campaigns rooted in such principles. We were all trying to remove entrenched incumbents or nudge aside the favored insider candidates of the county Democratic machines.

Like many of the insurgents, I came from a community service background and sought to link my good deeds with good politics. As the cofounder and manager of the Central Brooklyn Federal Credit Union, I had spent five years building a neighborhood banking institution to provide credit to people of average and lower income.

My contest against 23-year incumbent Mary Pinkett took place in the neighborhoods of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights and Crown Heights. Although my district has a unique racial and cultural mix, the race was similar to those run by Charles Barron in East New York, who hoped to unseat Giuliani-backer Priscilla Wooten; education activist Stanley Kinard, who ran for an open seat in Brownsville; and Margarita Lopez, who battled on the Lower East Side against a longtime aide to the powerful speaker of the New York State Assembly, Sheldon Silver.

With the notable exception of Lopez, all of us lost. In many cases, the candidates were done in by a lack of money and organization. In my case, the anti-incumbent vote was split by a third candidate who won both the Conservative and Liberal lines.

Scanning the wreckage, it’s easy to become depressed. For now, the City Council will look pretty much like it has for years, and it will no doubt continue to take timid, stumbling steps on critical issues such as school reform, job creation and the environment.

Yet, far from being a setback for progressive politics, the wave of insurgent campaigns gave the city a dress rehearsal for 2001, when nearly every city office will change hands, thanks to term limits. That is the real, unwritten story of the 1997 elections.

_______

Most observers seem to think the election of Rudy Giuliani was a decisive mandate that signals the death of liberalism in New York. They couldn’t be more wrong. First of all, the mayor had no coattails to speak of–his running mate for public advocate, Jules Polonetsky, was never a serious contender. The mayor has no successors waiting in the wings; few people think there will be another Republican elected mayor in 2001. There hasn’t been a dramatic surge in GOP enrollment; New York City remains a solidly liberal town where Democrats retain a five-to-one citywide advantage over Republicans.

Giuliani’s departure, coupled with the fragmentation of the Democratic Party and the upcoming City Council free-for-all, will create a power vacuum the likes of which the city hasn’t seen for decades.

How should progressives take advantage of that opportunity? Consider the victory of Margarita Lopez, a savvy community organizer who built her candidacy around the needs of public housing residents. She took a long-term view of political change. While organizing tenants over the last four years, she also ran successfully for District Leader and became the official local representative of the Democratic Party (although that didn’t stop the Manhattan machine from working against her in the council race). When election season rolled around, Lopez didn’t have to change her job, her alliances or even her daily schedule. She’d already been building a reputation for herself in the neighborhood’s largest housing developments–even as she learned the ins and outs of the Democratic machine.

Thanks to her talent as an organizer, her visibility in the community and her ability to speak directly to constituents’ honest concerns, she won.

_______

One of the great trite truths of politics is that there is no Democratic or Republican way to pick up trash, police the streets, or put out fires. For progressives, electoral success will require that we become more efficient and innovative–and that we take better advantage of skills that many of us already have.

As progressives, we should be prepared to supply a high level of constituent service far in advance of any political run. In many instances, we are already doing this. Nonprofit managers and neighborhood organizers are, for the most part, smart, progressive people who have already spent many years figuring out how to build affordable housing, run homeless shelters, manage day care centers and otherwise provide for people. Who better to develop and promote new ways of improving the city? Who better to accumulate political power from good works?

Still, until now, what has been missing is an explicitly political side to this work. When a community program succeeds, progressive candidates should study it, spread the idea and take credit for it–just as Giuliani does with anything he can describe as a “quality-of-life” success.

Old-line machine politicians understand that nonprofit community organizations are a key element to building their electoral base. We don’t have to be cynical to believe that such an approach has merit. The difference for us is that we want to build organizations that work well and effectively serve their communities without becoming simple bureaucratic patronage operations like the ones so many Democratic Party hacks have built over the years.

You don’t have to be corrupt to strategize politically and work toward power.

Progressive Democrats need to become a force of innovation. We need to be at the forefront of building and supporting institutions at the cutting edge of public policy. And we need to be vocal and eloquent advocates for ideas that work in practice. Not only will this help our constituents, it can have an immediate political payoff.

Take housing policy, for instance. Over the last 20 years, thousands of tenants and homesteaders have used their smarts, nerve and hard work to turn abandoned buildings into a network of cooperatives and mutual housing associations. Today, there are thousands of owner-occupants of these buildings–a fairly sophisticated constituency that progressives should be organizing. Yet where are the voter registration drives? Where are the candidate nights? Clearly, we’ve got a lot of organizing to do.

_______

In African-American, Caribbean and Latino neighborhoods, where many people feel like they’ve been let down and left behind by the Giuliani administration, the task will be tough. Most people express their alienation by simply avoiding the whole process. But last summer I found that some voters were waiting to give a piece of their minds to the only visible political figure they could actually yell at: Me.

Typically, while knocking on doors, I encountered people who would blast me simply because I was a politician. One retired school teacher gave me a 30-minute lecture about the failings of the public housing authority, the Board of Education and the elected officials who never show their faces in their districts between elections. In the end–largely because I was willing to hear him out–I got the man’s nominating signature, and I’m sure I got his vote too. But this where-the-hell-have-you-politicians-been response was a real hurdle for me–and helps explain the miserable turnout in many neighborhoods.

Nonetheless, this is where I believe progressive political candidates will find their biggest chance to get back into power. As many an organizer has discovered, the orneriest people can often be converted into the most dedicated volunteers.

Fortunately for progressives, the cheapest way to reach people is also the most effective: door-to-door canvassing. In addition to saving money, the grassroots approach brings a message directly to the voters in a personal way–a distinct change from the stale “Report to Constituents” that most elected officials send out at taxpayer expense.

For me, this was the fun stuff. I once wandered into a church picnic and found myself roped into a game of musical chairs with the church deacons. Toward the end, it was basically me (in a suit) and a bunch of old men (in T-shirts and shorts) scrambling frantically for a seat to the beat of gospel music. (A tip: Don’t go all out and start knocking down seniors to get that last chair.)

For volunteers, campaigns are basically an excuse to walk around the neighborhood, meet people and make new friends. At least six different romances blossomed among my campaign workers, along with some enduring friendships. But this is also basic hands-on organizing, getting to know the constituents and their concerns–and showing them you are smart enough and capable enough to work for them.

_______

Still, no matter how much street work gets done, there is an inescapably high dollar cost to running even a City Council campaign.

A whole industry of lawyers, advisors, public relations gurus and other “experts” are dying to get money from a first-time candidate. I call them the election-industrial complex. Their specialty is to make you feel like you are naive, hopeless and doomed. Unless, that is, you pay (and pay, and pay) for their services.

For a mere $12,000, I was told, a specialist would meet with me once a week and give advice about what kinds of pamphlets to prepare. For another $10,000–a steal!–I could have the services of a professional writer to actually draft a few well-honed words on a campaign flyer. Did I want to conduct a small poll to see what 400 of my neighbors thought about local issues? No problem–just send a check for $11,000. I tried to keep from getting fleeced, but I still think I spent too much.

Some of this is inevitable. My council district has 116,000 residents and more than 64,000 registered voters, of which 52,000 are Democrats. Just sending a simple postcard to all of the Democrats in my district would have cost more than $10,000 for printing and postage.

If it’s very easy for people to feel disconnected, it’s also very hard for someone outside the system to reach them. This is a basic fact that outside commentators always lose sight of–in New York City, even a small council district has more people in it than some American cities.

Luckily, running for the council happens to be blessedly low-tech–TV and radio spots are rare luxuries and not a significant factor in most council campaigns.

Yet, according to my campaign treasurer, we raised more than $40,000 during the six-month campaign, from small contributions and from a few larger donors–and we spent all of it. In all, I spent about $14 per vote received in the primary. As one of my friends in the private sector pointed out, it would have been much cheaper to skip the posters, flyers and mail and just offer a flat $10 payment to anyone who could prove they’d pulled my lever (an idea that happens, among other drawbacks, to be illegal).

I prefer to reverse the equation: If you can attract a supportive base of 2,000 people and get each of them to contribute just $20, you can run a very competitive race.

So let the fundraising begin. And while we’re at it, let’s start doing what grassroots organizers do best: meet with people, find out what they want and start working on it. Reserve that church basement or union hall, distribute some flyers and start holding meetings.

But keep this in mind: great promise comes with great peril. The elections in 2001 hold great promise for progressives, but they will also lure all kinds of charlatans, crooks and hustlers–not just those selling their services, but those running for office themselves. Right now, with 200 weeks to go before the next race, these people are planning their next move. We need to be doing the same.

Errol T. Louis is a City Limits board member.