Let's remake democracy in NYC

As I write on September 27, 2018 democratic institutions are crumbling in Washington, D.C. So much attention (my own included) is focused on the painful circus of federal politics. I do not have anything to add to that discussion. Instead, I’d like to share my testimony to the 2019 NYC Charter Revision Commission, which is currently considering changes to the governing document of our local democracy.

I believe in the chance to remake democracy into something more participatory, inclusive, and just, and I believe that our best chance is to do it on the local level.

To learn more about the radical potential of the charter review commission, start with this blog post from Noel Hidalgo from BetaNYC: https://beta.nyc/2018/09/19/nyc-charter-revision-commission-and-you/#Join_Town_Hall

Learn how to submit your testimony on the official website here: http://www.charter2019.nyc/, where they ask the simple question: “What is your vision for our city for the next 30 years?”

Check out my testimony below.

Will you join me in remaking democracy in NYC?

I’d like to focus my suggestions on how the 2019 commission can pick up the work on improving civic life and democracy, as identified by the 2018 commission.


First, transparency must be a guiding principle. The city charter is incomprehensible to most NYers because of its format and content. The charter’s official text is maintained through proprietary software that makes it difficult to parse or collaboratively annotate. NYC take inspiration from the city of Washington, D.C., and make our charter and metadata about changes to the charter available through open source software maintained by the city (see https://code.dccouncil.us/dc/council/code/). A member of the civic tech community has created an example project to host the NYC city charter text in a legible format (see https://nyc-charter.readthedocs.io/).


Transparency is also needed in the content of the charter. There are many conflicting, redundant, and confusing sections of the charter. To identify ways the charter can be made more legible, the civic tech community has formed a charter reading group and is using tech tools to collaboratively annotate (see http://bit.ly/peoplescharter). The commission should support and engage with this effort.


Second, listening at scale needs to be an objective of the charter revision commission, and of all civic engagement processes run by the city. The black box of submitting testimony in person or through a web form and waiting for a report should be replaced with policy co-creation strategies inspired by recent successful experiments in places like Madrid (https://decide.madrid.es/), Taiwan (http://bit.ly/2xVry0j), and many others (see also https://crowd.law). NYC should raise the bar for what we expect from civic engagement, and the charter revision process is the perfect place to do this. The commission should engage with experts in new techniques for engagement and should employ listening at scale tools like Pol.is (see http://bit.ly/NYCcharterPolis).


Thank you.

Hope

The last week of June 2018 was an apocalyptic week in US politics, but I feel hopeful.

 

It started with the Supreme Court bombshells of upholding of the Muslim travel ban, a major blow to unions, and backing of anti-abortion pregnancy centers. And then Justice Kennedy announced his retirement, paving the way for a solidified hard-right supreme court that will very quickly revisit Roe v Wade, as well as many other decisions. All while no meaningful plan exists to reunite the over 2,000 children separated from their parents at the border, held in cages, and then sent to places where they know no one. A story that barely registered in the news cycle this week was the Trump administration’s plan to reorganize the federal government, massively slashing budgets for social services, privatizing public assets, and consolidating power. As I write this on Thursday, June 28 I receive another breaking news update: a white male has killed at least 5 people in the 195th mass shooting in the United States in 2018, this one at a newspaper in Maryland.

 

Someone close to me said “I haven’t felt this bad since the election. This week has felt impossibly dark.” Someone else I know pasted the word FUCK as many times as the character limit would allow in Facebook. Other people I know stopped what they were doing and joined occupations of ICE offices (some are still there). I had the familiar conversation with some friends over beers lamenting the state of the world and wondering if the announcement of the intention to eliminate due process for border crossing was the first actual step into fascism. People who have lived through fascist governments have said, yes, the United States is already in the first stages of fascism.

 

Then in the middle of the week something remarkable happened that gave me hope: Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez won the primary for the Democratic party for the 14th Federal Congressional District that encompasses parts of the Bronx and Queens. There is a lot that is remarkable about Ocasio-Cortez and her campaign: she is a 28 year old latina woman who defeated a 10 time incumbent who outspent her by more than 25 times. Ocasio-Cortez took no corporate money and ran as a Democratic Socialist with a campaign with bold progressive ideas including abolishing ICE and free Medicare and college tuition for all. Overnight, Ocasio-Cortez’s victory rewrote of the rules for how to win on the left.

 

I don’t live in Ocasio-Cortez district and I had only been following her race out of the corner of my eye. Her victory is a reminder of what I’ve believed since the beginning of my political life -  local grassroots organizing matters. I donated to her campaign, but I didn’t expect her to win. Ironically, I have been spending the bulk of my organizing time over the past year learning about radical grassroots movements in cities in Spain, in Taiwan, and in Jackson, Mississippi to help the effort to network local places of resistance together to collectively fight repressive national policies and exploitative capitalism. I almost missed the revolution in my own back yard.

 

Many political analysts are also pointing out that Ocasio-Cortez radically changed local politics in New York state and New York City. The opponent she defeated was not only the fourth highest ranking Democrat in the US House of Representatives, but is also the head of the locally powerful Queens County Democratic Party that often played the decisive role in deciding who assumed positions of power in local government. Ocasio-Cortez showed us that it is possible to defeat the political machine and replace it with something else. The ideas are progressive and socialist, but the organizing tactic is just as important: grassroots organizing can form the basis of a left populism that can win elections. Tellingly, Democrat Minority leader in the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi arrogantly dismissed the significance of Ocasio-Cortez’s victory.

 

Three important lessons from recent progressive grassroots electoral victories (Ocasio-Cortez is not the only one):

  1. Progressive ideas can drive turnout in Democratic primaries

  2. Higher turnout for local elections can swing state or federal elections for democrats (see Lee Harper, a marine who identifies as a democratic socialist who won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates and helped drive up turnout for the 2017 Virginia governor's race)

  3. In “safe” democratic districts grassroots progressive candidates (even open socialists) can successfully challenge status quo democrats (even democrats who claim to be progressive)

 

So pay attention to the congressional midterms, but don’t forget the city and state elections. Grassroots organizing on the local level was the tea party strategy that worked for the right, and it was the Bernie Sanders campaign strategy that energized new voters.

 

Let’s create a new politics we can believe in, a politics of progressive ideas rooted in grassroots movements. To me the minimum requirement for someone to be considered a progressive movement candidate (as opposed to a progressive sounding candidate) is for that candidate to refuse all corporate money, and instead rely on small donations and passionate volunteers. Almost everything else flows from this minimum requirement, as a small donation funded campaign must rely on connecting with voters on issues that really matter to them. To motivate enough people to participate, as Ocasio-Cortez did, the ideas must be bold and the support grassroots.

 

The no corporate money clause disqualifies most democratic politicians from claiming the progressive mantle. So let’s elect new politicians! Two elections in New York to consider are Julia Salazar for New York State Senate and Cynthia Nixon for Governor of New York. Both meet the no corporate money test, but we can go even further if we trust in the long, hard work of movement building. So let’s shake up the Democratic party machine control of New York on September 13th, but let’s set our sights even higher.

 

We can learn a lot about what is possible on the local level by looking to places around the world where experiments in radical democracy have taken hold. The citizen platform elected governments in Spanish cities, including Madrid and Barcelona were driven by grassroots left populist campaigns that emerged after the Indignados Movement that held public squares in Spain in 2011, a few months before Occupy Wall Street. The local and central governments that have existed after the 23 day occupation of the parliament in Taiwan in 2014 have operated under radical transparency and a sincere commitment to maximizing public engagement (lest the populace revolt again and occupy the spaces of government once more). The election of Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a socialist mayor from the black liberation movement in Jackson, Mississippi in 2017 came after decades of movement building from the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement that included the “promotion of participatory democracy, solidarity economy, and sustainable development“ in addition to “progressive community organizing and electoral politics.”

 

To learn more about these examples and others in North America, join me in New York City July 27-29, 2018 to learn more about the network of Fearless Cities setting a new path for politics. Tickets on sale at fearlesscities.nyc.

 

We can win. We will win. Let’s shift our focus to the local, and build from there.

What now New York?

On November 7, 2017 I voted for the Constitutional Convention because I thought it was our best chance to fix the broken political system in New York, and our best chance to advance a progressive agenda at the local level. Most New Yorkers did not share this belief. Only 17% of New Yorkers voters voted in favor of the ballot proposition to hold a constitutional convention. Most of the registered voters in New York stayed home - in NYC, less than 14% of registered voters turned out to the polls. For those who voted, the resounding reason for voting against the ConCon was fear that the process would be manipulated to attack things like pensions that are currently protected.

The argument of fear was simpler than the argument for hope. Most of the political organizations trusted by New Yorkers were making the fear argument, and spending many millions more than the pro constitutional convention advocates. On the other hand, the pro ConCon argument was nuanced and complicated. When I was evaluating the potential of a ConCon I went through the following arguments:

  1. Policies at the state level effect things I care about (scroll to the bottom to see a list of things I care about)

  2. Progressive policy changes at the state level are thwarted by the IDC and a culture of corruption

  3. Many policies at the local New York City level cannot be enacted without permission from the state (through a state law, or change to the state constitution that devolves more power to the local level)

  4. Political structures imbedded in the New York State constitution encourage corruption, suppress voter turnout, and perpetuate gerrymandering, making it very difficult to push for “ethics reform” at the state level

  5. The once every 20 year ballot proposition for a constitutional convention was a unique opportunity to sidestep the imbedded political structures

  6. The ConCon process was likely to produce progressive results, and there were enough safeguards in place to protect against disastrous outcomes like pension clawbacks

I was convinced that the opportunity of a ConCon significantly outweighed the risks. But when I encouraged people to vote for the ConCon I had to fight an uphill battle convincing people that the risk to pensions being cut was overblown, and that progressives had a bigger advantage than big right wing money. Since every union and many progressive organizations (ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Working Family Party) was against the ConCon, it was hard to make the case that what the ConCon could accomplish was not a pipe dream and that it was the best chance we had to fix the structural corruption in state politics that is thwarting progressive politics at the local level.

In the end it got boiled down to hope vs. fear. Most New Yorkers (including some or many of my progressive friends) voted on the fear side or did not vote at all. The chance at another ConCon initiated by the people will not come for another 20 years. I am disappointed, but in the lead up to the vote I had some of the most interesting political conversations I’ve ever had in my life. Many people I know were willing to get into the nuance of the arguments, and it was awesome to have debates about grand changes to the political structures around us that were not connected to the specifics of electing an individual to represent us.

I respect the fear vote on the ConCon. But if we want to fight for grand changes in New York, corruption and election reform at the state still needs to be addressed. Now that the ConCon path is closed, all paths to remake New York electoral politics go through elected officials. I hope that my friends who did not vote for the ConCon (and all of the progressive organizations that spent large sums to defeat it) devote the energy needed to fix New York state politics through other means. It is important that we all educate ourselves about the paths now available. ConCon was complicated; the paths open for reform now are even more so.

Here’s three baby steps we can do now to remake politics in New York.

Step 1:

Register to vote in New York in the Democratic party. Most elections in New York are decided in the primaries, and the Democratic party is the only game in town in most places.

Step 2:

Learn about corrupt New York state politics. If you aren’t already upset about the IDC, learn more. Then donate $5 to the No IDC campaign.

Step 3:

Organize a phone bank for the No IDC campaign, or come to my next phone banking party.

What will taking power away from the IDC accomplish? It will give the power in the State legislature to the Democratic party, which would be much more likely to enact corruption and voting reform, as well as pass a whole slew of new progressive legislation. I do not see electing more Democrats as the path to systemic change, but rather as an important tactical step in New York.

Electoral politics still not your thing or seems like a waste of time? I get it. See my list of some things that I think are important to do. If you are doing any of these things, great. Just also vote in local elections.

 

We need to fight fascists and actual nazis.

We need to defend our neighbors from ICE.

We need to hold police accountable for shootings of black and brown people.

We need the courage to add our voices to the #metoo movement, or support those holding toxic masculinity accountable.

We need local resiliency and action in the face of climate change.

We need to build a solidarity economy.

We need a sustainable local food system that nourishes us all.

We need to protect lands sacred to native peoples.

We need compassionate responses to the most vulnerable amongst us living on the streets, struggling with addiction, battling for mental health.

We need to desegregate our schools.

We need to protect pedestrians and cyclists by rethinking our city streets.

We need to fight cuts to health care, public housing, and all existing safety nets, and build new ones at the local level when the federal government is failing and falling apart.

We need to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, not the reverse.

We need to engage deeply in the localities that we care about.

We need to vote in local elections.

 

Voting is small, and there is a lot it cannot fix. But there is so much that we care about in New York that is being held back by broken state politics. We need to vote in local elections, and tactically engage in local elections throughout the state that can change the makeup of the state legislature.

Sign up to stop the IDC and advance progressive values in New York.