City on a Hill: Waiting for de Blasio

October 24, 2013

“De Blasio wins a primary, Summers doesn’t get nominated, Peter Beinart writes an essay and suddenly the parliamentary left is resurgent?”

That was Cole Stangler, In These Times writer and my first editor at this fine publication, exercising his Twitter skepticism about a popular piece on the Daily Beast by Peter Beinart. In it, the City University of New York professor says the millennial generation, blighted by a sluggish job market and the Reagan-Clinton political dichotomy, will push the political spectrum back to the left in elections to come.

I’d have to agree with Cole’s skepticism, in part. A simple generational change won’t mean a progressive surge, even if millennials are more liberal than older folks. There is a resurgent progressivism in America today, but it’s far from the headlines, hidden in the daily plights of low-wage workers and those who organize them. How institutionalized liberalism in D.C. and around the nation reacts to this new New Left will define its success or failure in the next generation.

A series of strikes and walkouts at low wage retailers around the nation is capturing the imagination of writers and activists alike. This summer, hundreds of fast food workers and other low-wage laborers in 60 American cities walked off the job to demand the right to unionize without intimidation and a raise in the minimum wage. Before that, hundreds of Walmart employees went on strike on Black Friday last year for largely the same reasons. Surprisingly, the once-conciliatory Service Employees International Union has led and supported the movements across the country, proving that if labor wants, it can organize in this economy. The SEIU’s reach even extends onto our campus. As we noted last week, they’re behind last year’s adjunct unionization.

There are other signs of progressive resurgence in D.C. Unions and activists nearly scored a coup this summer with the passage of the Large Retailer Accountability Act. It may have died after Mayor Gray’s veto, but it was impressive to get eight councilmembers to stand up to the likes of Walmart in the first place. Now, living wage legislation of some sort is almost a foregone conclusion, along with marijuana decriminalization, and a citywide drivers’ license that won’t discriminate against undocumented immigrants.

All of these initiatives are the products of activism and protest, but D.C. is yet to witness the rise of an insurrectionist political candidate. In New York, the de Blasio campaign is the electoral incarnation of progressive social movements, a campaign with an informed, intelligent leader who hasn’t (yet) been co-opted by the financial interests of the town.

The District’s local political scene is different. We’ve had only Democratic mayors, while NYC’s gone two decades without one. But party affiliations only paper over a larger similarity—for years, progressives in both cities have been disappointed with City Hall.

Any way you look at it, voters and progressive groups are clamoring for a de Blasio-type figure to emerge ahead of next year’s mayoral election. The choices so far aren’t great. Gray has yet to announce if he’s running for re-election and would do so without the support of organized labor, which abandoned him after the LRAA veto. And he still could face charges for violating campaign finance laws. Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) is out of favor with labor and activists for opposing the LRAA as well, although he has a more modest bill of his own. Amazingly, that’s led some union leaders to throw in their lot with perpetual Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), a longtime business favorite, and relatively inaccessible old white guy.

Were a qualified, clean candidate to emerge from the rich D.C. activist corps to challenge the Democratic establishment from within, their performance could be impressive. All D.C. politicos pay lip service to inequality and workers’ rights, but none in the mayoral race so far can say they walk the walk. The stage is set for someone who can. I’m not saying I know who that is, but the folks fighting for a living wage, the right to organize, immigrant rights and environmental protections need to look around at themselves. The time for an insurgent candidate is now, in this city and others.

At the end of the day, any nascent resurgence of the Left is fragile, and it will take time to ascertain if it can ever move national politics. Ultra conservative organizations and the 1-percenters who fund them have enjoyed a rich run of victories since 2010 as well, and the gap in resources between management and labor hasn’t been this pronounced since the gilded age.

The good news is that progressives have public opinion largely on their side. De Blasio’s campaign priorities of universal early childhood education and after school programs, modest tax hikes for the rich, and humane community policing are all supported by a majority of New Yorkers. There’s reason to believe that Washingtonians would feel the same. Speaking on MSNBC’s All in with Chris Hayes de Blasio pushed his “Tale of Two Cities” message, saying he’s got a mandate to address the crushing poverty facing almost half of New Yorkers:

“People in this city want these statistics addressed … they will back up a leader who works for progressive change, and that’s the X factor. Maybe it wasn’t as true in the past politics of the city, but it’s true now.”

Hard to tell whether he’s talking about his city or ours.


Gavin Bade
Gavin Bade is Managing Editor of The Georgetown Voice


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