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Ocasio-Cortez and Democratic Socialists Boost Each Other

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez NYC DSA socialism

Ocasio-Cortez and DSA (image: NYC DSA)

Donald Trump was a boon to the Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA. The organization, founded in the early 1970s, had comfortably maintained between 5,000 and 10,000 members for most of its existence. But on the first day following Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, over 1,000 individuals joined DSA. Between November 2016 and July 2017, DSA gained over 13,000 new members. As of now, there are over 30,000 Democratic Socialists of America, and, after a shocking upset in last Tuesday’s New York congressional primaries, one appears headed to the United States House of Representatives.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over Rep. Joe Crowley — the “King of Queens,” ten-term incumbent, chair of the House Democratic Caucus and shortlisted successor of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — stunned the political world, and it all but guarantees that the 28-year-old member of DSA’s New York City chapter, NYC-DSA, will head to Washington, D.C., in January.

Ocasio-Cortez’s win is another big boost to DSA, especially its New York City branch, and DSA helped her pull off the event that sent shockwaves throughout local and national politics. NYC-DSA co-chair Abdullah Younus told Gotham Gazette that the local chapter canvassed for Ocasio-Cortez and provided her with political guidance.

“This is nothing short of a political earthquake,” said Younus. “Every corporate-funded politician should be terrified.”

In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Younus described the Democratic Socialists of America as a “grassroots, member-driven organization.” It is not a political party, but an activist organization with an array of chapters in 47 states and Washington, D.C., united under the rule of the 16-person National Political Committee, which guides and helps implement DSA’s political goals.

The New York City chapter is the nation’s largest, with over 3,000 members as of last November. It describes Governor Andrew Cuomo as “a major roadblock for any progressive agenda,” the New York State Legislature as “corrupt to its core,” and Mayor Bill de Blasio as “a major disappointment.”

It endorsed Ocasio-Cortez in late April. She had been running for the Democratic nomination to represent District 14, covering parts of Queens and the Bronx, in the U.S. House of Representatives since the previous May, and approached NYC-DSA for its endorsement.

Ocasio-Cortez’s platform largely aligns with DSA’s leftist values. She centered her campaign on racial, social, and economic justice, with a heavy focus on housing affordability, and has called for universal health care coverage, a federal jobs guarantee, and the abolition and investigation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). She regularly provides variations of her belief that “in a modern, moral, and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live," as she said on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and has said, “to me, what socialism means is to guarantee everyone a basic level of dignity,” according to NYC-DSA.

NYC-DSA runs a citywide Electoral Working Group that recruits and supports socialists running for local election, operating what Younus termed a “candidate recruiting pipeline.” The Electoral Working Group contacts individuals interested in running for public office and discusses with them the prospects of a political run, focusing efforts on women, people of color, and working-class New Yorkers.

Once she’d received the approval of the Electoral Working Group, different organizational branches, and, ultimately, the citywide group, Ocasio-Cortez gained access to NYC-DSA’s veritable army of canvassers. NYC-DSA members knocked on “thousands of doors” throughout District 14 in support of Ocasio-Cortez, collected voter data, and assisted with funding, according to Younus. Ocasio-Cortez was buoyed by small-dollar donations and used the comparison to Crowley’s heavily-corporate-funded campaign to make her case as someone in tune with the community who would not be influenced by large donors.

NYC-DSA has offered its endorsement sparingly. The only other candidate in New York City currently endorsed by the organization is Julia Salazar, an organizer running for New York State Senate in Northern Brooklyn’s District 18, where she is attempting to unseat state Senator Martin Dilan in the Democratic primary set for September 13.

“We keep it generally limited so that we don’t just do paper endorsements,” Younus told Gotham Gazette. “We do real endorsements...our strength is our ability to knock on doors. If a person approaches us that we’re willing to endorse, we’re going to donate our labor.”

Nationwide, DSA is emerging as a significant political force. Dozens of DSA members are running for elected office, according to The New York Times, and “socialism” is hardly the dirty word it once was, especially among young Americans. DSA appears to be part of the energy moving the Democratic Party, and many of its elected officials, leftward, while also working to replace some of them. On the other hand, the presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders, who was endorsed by DSA, and, now, the victory by Ocasio-Cortez have heightened public criticism by many on the right of “socialism,” where it is typically conflated with communist, authoritarian regimes, like Cuba’s, as opposed to modern European models, like in Sweden, that are guided by socialist principles. Those critics have also raised questions about Ocasio-Cortez's and other Democratic Socialists' views on raising taxes and allowing more immigrants into the country, among other issues.

The New York City chapter of DSA is “absolutely” expecting to see an uptick in interest from prospective candidates seeking its endorsement and resources, said Younus, and the infrastructure to handle an influx in electoral work is said to be in place.

“The more we rattle the establishment,” he continued, “the more we empower people who otherwise would not have considered seeking office because of the entrenched power involved.”

These remarks echo Ocasio-Cortez’s, delivered as she watched the results from the primary election roll in: “We meet a machine with a movement.”

by Daniel Yadin for Gotham Gazette

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What's The [Data] Point? 75%, with Marisa Lago, Director of the Department of City Planning

whats the data point

What's The [Data] Point? Episode 45 -- 75%, with Marisa Lago, Director of the Department of City Planning [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

marisa lago cbc

New York City alone accounted for 75% of the jobs created in the New York metropolitan region since the recession, according to a forthcoming report from the Department of City Planning. Marisa Lago, Director of the Department and Chair of the City Planning Commission, joined CBC to discuss some of the report's findings as well as neighborhood revitalization, housing affordability, and resiliency and sustainability.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Chair Says Charter Commission Will Step In Where Politics Has Slowed Reform

bill charter

(photo via the Mayor's Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s charter revision commission, convened to examine the city’s central governing laws, concluded the second leg of its public input process last week with a series of forums where they sought expert opinions on campaign finance reform, electoral access, civic engagement, redistricting of City Council boundaries, land use decision-making, and community boards. As the commission continues to narrow its tentative list of proposals to present to voters on the ballot in November, Commission Chair Cesar Perales, a former secretary of state of New York, said in a phone interview that commission members are not looking to “invent the wheel” but rather are focused on improving the functions and structure of city government where they can.

The mayor formed the commission with specific ideas in mind, that it explore ways to minimize the impact of money in elections and increase electoral participation in a city increasingly known for low voter turnout. “[O]ne of the things we’re going to do in this city is we’re going to present to the people in November a ballot initiative for public financing of elections to take our already very progressively public finance system for elections and build upon it even more deeply to get big money out of politics,” de Blasio said in his weekly appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on Friday.

Though de Blasio made his priorities understood before naming the 15 members of the panel, any charter commission created by mayoral fiat has unlimited reign over its agenda and can consider all issues pertaining to what is essentially the city’s constitution.

After a first round of open-ended public hearings, the commission homed in on four major areas on which subject-matter experts provided testimony: election administration, voter participation, and voting access; campaign finance; community boards and land use; civic engagement and independent redistricting. “I just had a series of conversations with individual commission members and I think there’s a universal sense that we’ve identified the right issues,” Perales said in the interview on Wednesday.

“We don’t have to invent the wheel,” he later added. “There are things going on out there...If it’s a good idea, then it’s something we as the members of the commission ought to be thinking about. Is it something that belongs in the charter? Is it something that ought to be done citywide?”

The mayor’s announcement about the commission initially raised eyebrows, with City Council members and government reform groups questioning the rationale behind it. Changes to the campaign finance system are usually made legislatively through the City Council and are largely based on recommendations from the independent and nonpartisan New York City Campaign Finance Board, which issues a detailed report after each four-year election cycle.

Perales said the commission was justified in taking on that role. “You’re saying the City Council could do this. The reality is, they haven’t,” he said. “The reality is that there may be political reasons why it’s much more difficult for somebody who’s concerned about reelection to become engaged in campaign financing. I’m not running for reelection. I listen to people and come to the conclusion as to what is fair, what would work better, how do we get money out of our elections.”

Perales also cited the commission’s focus on redistricting, a process in which experts insist that incumbent elected officials and those seeking office should be excluded. “There’s another example where we can look objectively as to whether or not the way districts are being drawn today is the best way to do them,” Perales said. “We don’t have to worry about running on those lines. We can listen to, for example, the Asian community saying ‘We are disadvantaged by the way lines have been drawn in the past and there must be a better way.’”

At the same time, the commission’s creation has led some City Council members to hold off on legislation lest it become a part of the agenda. For instance, Council Member Brad Lander’s proposal to create an Office of Civic Engagement -- for which he introduced a bill in the Council -- has been front and center in the commission’s discussions and Lander has said that he will avoid pushing it forward if it is taken up by the commission. Lander testified at length at the commission’s expert hearing on civic engagement.

Other bills at the Council on campaign finance have similarly been static as the commission could potentially propose the same or additional reforms. On campaign finance particularly, government reform groups have privately expressed concern that the commission could propose a drastic overhaul of the existing campaign finance program, which is considered a national model. “Clearly we’re looking to use this opportunity to improve the way things work that need to be improved,” Perales said. “Whether it’s a major overhaul or a minor overhaul, we will ultimately find out and it’ll be in the eyes of the beholder as to whether or not it is major overhaul.”

On electoral access and participation, there’s less latitude for the commission to make major improvements since those fall under state law, a factor the commission has kept well in mind. “Of course, we certainly don’t want to do something that is going to run up against the state Board of Elections or violate the state constitution,” Perales said. “We’re doing a lot of talking to the lawyers as to what we can do and how far we can push the envelope...Anyone who’s been at these hearings will know that lots of things that people want us to do are things that we don’t have the power to do. And we’re trying to figure out what it is we can do.”

The commission is expected to again foray into the five boroughs to solicit opinions on the more narrower list of issues. Internally, Perales said, there is no final consensus on any one issue, nor is there major disagreement and no ideas have been rejected outright. The commission staff is currently preparing a preliminary report with the pros and cons of a number of proposals, he said, which will then be aired to the public.

Perales himself is “piqued” by Lander’s OCE proposal while participatory budgeting received “universal praise” from members, he said, referring to the City Council’s current program carried out in select districts and suggestions that it be expanded citywide. He was also impressed with Comptroller Scott Stringer’s testimony before the commission on community boards, wherein Stringer recommended that each community board hire a professional urban planner and train members in issues related to land use.

There has been debate, of course. One idea that has overwhelming support among good government groups and also prominent elected officials is instant runoff voting, also known as ranked-choice voting, which helps avoid costly and laborious run-off elections with low turnout. Most believe it is a no-brainer. Perales disagrees.

“I don’t know that it’s a no-brainer,” he said. “I think there are some people who still like the idea that everybody would get to vote for the two finalists,” he said, speculating that in an instant runoff, voters choices might be invalidated completely if they fail to pick either of the top two vote getters. “So there are arguments. On the commission, there is not a total agreement on an issue as complicated as this,” Perales said. “Just as there is no total agreement immediately on what the campaign limits ought to be in terms of contributions. This is a lot more complicated than people like to think.”

It is widely expected that the commission will recommend lowering the maximum contribution amount allowed by an individual to a candidate. There are also expectations that the commission will propose an increase in public matching funds that candidates can earn.

An ironic aspect of the entire exercise is that even as the commission delves deep into suggestions around improving civic participation to get New Yorkers informed and engaged across the city, the commission hearings have received little attention in the media. “I’ve been around long enough to not be surprised by this,” Perales said, expressing some disappointment. “Most people don’t understand what the city charter is, how it gets changed and what it does...Obviously I would have preferred greater attention to it but I’m not surprised. It’s certainly not going to affect the way I approach it, and I don’t think it’s going to affect the way any of the commission members approach this.”

[Read Gotham Gazette’s full coverage of the mayor’s charter revision commission here]

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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