The Legislature goes home. What next for progressives?


New York City taxi cabs, August 1973 (Photo: Dan McCoy/National Archives)

When I was a member of the New York City Council in the early 1970s, the Council was responsible for setting fares and other working conditions for the taxicab industry. On one occasion we had before us a measure that was violently opposed by the cab drivers. We were besieged at City Hall by lobbyists for the drivers and by their union representatives, all to no avail. The Majority Leader had made his deal with the Mayor, and the legislation was going through.

Then one day a colleague from Brooklyn, Howard by name, came into the area reserved for Council members, and he was looking very uncomfortable. It seems that the previous night, a Monday, he had strolled over to his local Democratic club (Monday was traditionally “club night” in New York politics). He climbed the stairs, opened the door and was met by the angry faces of 300 cab drivers. Over the next hour they proceeded to tell him, in eloquent Brooklyn accents, what they thought about the Council’s bill and what they were going to do to him if he continued to be a sponsor of the legislation. This was an epiphany. Howard had a vision of 300 cabbies working for his opponent in the next election, with the same zeal he had seen. The next morning he marched into City Hall and proclaimed to his colleagues “I’m going to tell Tom (the Majority Leader) to take my name off that bill!” He had learned the truth of Tip O’Neill’s aphorism about all politics being local.

I thought about this experience when I read a progressive friend’s post about the shortcomings of the Legislature in the last two years. She was understandably angry about the Legislature’s failure to protect immigrants by passing the Safe Communities Act and by the not so “Grand Bargain” that forced Sunday workers to give up their premium pay in a devil’s bargain for minimum wage improvements and paid medical and family leave. Add to that the failure to change a school aid formula that short-changes some of the poorest communities in the state, and it’s enough to make anyone spitting mad.

It would be a mistake to leave things there. Too often we progressives are satisfied with occupying the moral high ground and leave the hard slogging of practical politics to the professional pols. If we do that, we shouldn’t be surprised if the Legislature treats our causes shabbily. From now until January, when the new Legislature comes back into session, we have five months to prepare (yes, along with a primary election and a general election).

The foundation of our preparation is the building of strong local organizations. We talk a lot about grass roots organizing, but how often does it really happen? The election season focuses attention on politics and provides a good opportunity to recruit. In planning our electoral efforts, we should always look beyond November and ask ourselves, what comes after the election? How can we retain in our progressive group the other volunteers with whom we have been working? Democratic politics is, to a considerable extent, a numbers game, and the one skill that all politicians seem to have is the ability to count. State Senators and Representatives are sensitive to the numbers where they live, their home districts. It’s up to us to make sure that we have the numbers.

Beyond that, we have to make legislators aware of our existence and of our ability to make their lives difficult or easy. How many of us know our legislators personally? Do they associate our faces with particular issues or is our relationship only with a staff member who picks up a telephone? Do they know and respect our abilities as political organizers? Do they have an ongoing, even if rocky, relationship with our group? It’s not necessary to be as confrontational as the cabbies in my story (that was Brooklyn, after all), but it is essential to get their attention.

Perhaps if we build our power, our skills and our relationships, we may have a better result at the conclusion of the next legislative session.

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