Top Legal Aid attorney Steve Banks was flush with victory after another successful battle with City Hall when he made up his mind to run for City Council. It was the winter of 1999 and Rudy Giuliani, in a stunning turnabout, had agreed he would not evict five community programs from a Brooklyn building and replace them with a homeless shelter. Banks and the Legal Aid Society had fought the eviction and won.
“After that experience, people approached me and asked me to run,” Banks recalls. And the lawyer, who’s been a thorn in the side of three mayors while fighting for the rights of the underdog, agreed.
For advocates of social change like Banks, the time is ripe to seek elected office in the city. The combination of term limits, which has opened 35 Council seats come 2001, and the availability of matching campaign funds has resulted in a spirited run for elected office by New York’s activists. These candidates come from all walks of activist life, from housing and homeless advocates and human rights and civil rights champions to proponents for more youth services in the city.
Not since 1991, when the Council expanded from 35 to 51 seats, has there been the promise of someone other than party apparatchiks representing New York’s neighborhoods in the Council. Political observers point out that given the packed field of candidates, it will be nearly impossible for party machines to control the council elections in 2001. In the old days, the party machine threw its formidable fundraising capabilities behind a favored candidate, leaving the insurgent scrambling for money. Now, the city’s campaign finance reforms assures the aspiring councilmember an extra four dollars for every dollar he or she raises. And the success of both the Working Families Party and the Green Party in winning spots on the ballot has given candidates the possibility of multiple nominations. For activists, this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for them to get into City Hall.
Their philosophies on issues and their experiences navigating government and building coalitions make them feel certain that they can rewrite legislation and change budget allocations. These changes, they hope, will reflect the needs of the people for whom they have been advocating, and for constituencies they believe have been shortchanged for too long.
For Banks, challenging laws is nothing compared with the power of shaping the city’s finances. “We spend more on police overtime than we do on the entire Parks Department budget,” he said on a recent Saturday afternoon before heading to a campaign stop in Carroll Gardens and then on to Queens for his son’s soccer game. “That’s an outrage.”
The changing laws aren’t the only opportunity that has dropped in the lap of the new crop of would-be politicians. They have been blessed with eight years of Giuliani, whose retaliatory venom has had an effect the mayor surely didn’t intend: It has put many of New York’s fiercest activists squarely in the public eye.
Giuliani’s will to wreak retribution on anyone who opposed his policies has brought New York’s activists, many of them political neophytes, more ink than if they’d hired top flack Howard Rubenstein. Liz Krueger is living testament. This September, she steamrolled her opponent in the Democratic primary and stands a fighting chance of unseating 11-term State Senator Roy Goodman come November.
Krueger had years of practice for the challenge, as she fought with the mayor over the city’s food stamp and welfare benefits as associate director of Community Food Resource Center. With the arrival of the Giuliani administration, she says, “we had to change strategies and it helped hone our skills.” Another valuable lesson: “You had to learn to work with the press.”
Michael Benjamin, a housing and job development activist with his sights on the council seat from Highbridge and Morrisania, agrees the Giuliani administration has helped the activist cause. “The media thrives on conflict, and Giuliani provided that. The progressives got a much larger audience than they’d normally have.”
Banks profited from the power of the press when he had to run interference for Councilmember Stephen DiBrienza, who is vacating the Brooklyn seat Banks now hopes to occupy. DiBrienza was the chief sponsor of a bill improving conditions in homeless shelters–legislation the mayor saw as an affront to his own authority. Giuliani retaliated by threatening to evict community programs from a city-owned building in the councilman’s district and replace them with a homeless shelter. Faced with Banks’ legal ferocity and the bad press the case was attracting, Giuliani backed down.
Banks’ activism over the last two decades has included an arrest last year for protesting the police shooting of Amadou Diallo, his challenge of organized crime in the courts, and his filing of so many lawsuits against the city for “bureaucratic inertia and wrongdoing” that he’s lost count. At a recent fundraising house party for his race–he’s raised over $50,000 to date–former Mayor and Giuliani foe Ed Koch noted that he was sued more by this public interest attorney than by anyone else during his 11 years as mayor. “And he was often successful,” Koch said. “I admire him.”
It’s difficult to imagine Rudy being magnanimous to a former adversary. In previous administrations, activists had their share of problems but were often able to reach working compromises with the people running City Hall. These days, there’s little but ill-disguised hostility between the two sides.
Indeed, much of the allure of these aspiring councilmembers is that they are political outsiders, armed with the resilience that comes from years of negotiating unpopular causes. These are not party functionaries nominated to the ballot on the strength of their allegiances to political bosses. In most cases, they’ve proven their credentials by doing real work with lasting consequences in the communities they seek to officially represent. Now they’ve been presented an opportunity to help write the laws instead of fighting to change them.
Officially, the Council is responsible for approving the city budget, drafting legislation, overseeing and proposing changes in the operations of the city agencies and weighing in on land use issues. But in practice, how effectively one does those jobs has everything to do with building strong and supportive relationships with constituents–something many current councilmembers don’t bother doing.
Some of the recently emerging candidates say their independence from the city’s traditional political structure–from community boards, political clubs and the offices of elected officials–give them insight into how to use these powers more effectively. “Somebody working on the ground knows what’s needed and what’s worked so far,” says Majora Carter, program director at The Point, a community development group in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. Carter plans to run for Pedro Espada’s Council seat next fall with the hope of influencing the city’s budgetary and land use policies, particularly as they affect minority communities. Elected in 1998, Espada is one of the few councilmembers citywide eligible to run for re-election next year.
“You’ve got to make a connection with people,” says Carter, who brought together 500 neighborhood residents in March to protest the threat of a waste transfer station in Hunts Point. Because Espada comes from a political family, she says, his approach to working the system has been “working with it rather than working for the people who elected him.”
Others, too, have dreamed of changing the system from within. Errol Louis, a community development consultant from Fort Greene, is poised for a second try at his neighborhood’s Council seat. As the co-founder of a Brooklyn credit union, he remembers the late nights sifting through loan requests from nonprofits trying to stay afloat. “Here I am writing out a loan for a measly $23,000 for an incredibly effective program,” Louis recalls, “and I’m listening to people make a mess of things, people selling out their constituents.”
Louis’ first Council run, against Mary Pinkett in 1997, ended with him getting just 30 percent of the vote despite a fistful of endorsements, including one from The New York Times. This time, Louis doesn’t have to deal with a party-backed incumbent; instead, he has a field of at least six candidates to contend with. Laments Louis, “I really don’t care for the horse race.”
The more the merrier, says Charles Barron, who is making his second bid for Priscilla Wooten’s East New York seat. “This is long overdue,” Barron exults. “Democracy has opened up at last.”
Of course, getting elected is just the beginning. Koch predicts that the Council chambers will provide ex-activists with a rude awakening: “It would be nice to bring the people who have been throwing rocks at the government to come inside the government and realize that their demands have been too great.”
Steven Banks says fellow advocates have warned him that he will not make as much of an impact from an elected position as he would as a Legal Aid attorney. “I think that’s wrong,” he contends. “People like me have to be willing to be a part of government to make it work if we’re going to make changes. And if not now, we’re never going to have this opportunity again.”
He says he’s as prepared to govern as run, pointing to his success in helping create a coalition of lower and middle class New Yorkers around homelessness and mental health issues–groups with very different interests and perspectives.
Krueger, too, says her advocacy work adds up to the perfect résumé. “It has been an enormous advantage to have been an activist,” Krueger says. “I’ve learned to work with coalitions of people, and it is not uncomfortable for me to disagree with people or for them to disagree with me.”
Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf is encouraging advocates to put the issues they stand for front and center in their campaigns. “With a lot of people competing, it’s essential to have one thing to run on,” he points out–and expertise on an important neighborhood issue could be a deciding factor.
Joe Presley has lobbied for HIV and AIDS-related programs for nearly a decade. Now the director of public policy for the New York AIDS Coalition, he sees his bid for Mary Pinkett’s seat as an extension of that work. “I have been able to accomplish a lot,” he says, pointing to his most recent victory–winning an increase in state and city funding for AIDS services after organizing lobbying trips to Albany and City Hall. “I see myself as a coordinator, and city government is lacking coalition politics.”
After the election, the strength of any new progressive councilmembers will likely come in numbers. “You can’t just have one person–they’ll be eaten up, or at least ignored,” emphasizes the Same Boat Coalition’s Leslie Cagan, a longtime social activist who has worked on Democratic political campaigns. The coalition, founded in 1995 as a counterattack to the newly elected Republican mayor, governor and Congress and their cuts to social programs, hopes to “lay a foundation” by helping elect at least a half dozen new progressives to the Council in 2001. Ideally, they will be politicians who will ensure financial support for social programs and stop “tremendous giveaways to the corporations,” she says.
But with many of the city’s more influential activists queueing up for Council seats, some observers fear a fall in the number of good watchdogs. Filling the city government with these advocates is as important as maintaining vocal and effective activists organizing in the community outside City Hall, Cagan points out. “What’s important is building stronger links between activists not in the elected arena and those in elected office,” she says. Politicians, even if they start the job with best of pedigrees and intentions, need to have someone to keep them honest.
Jill Grossman is managing editor of the Riverdale Press.