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Eye on the News

Seth Barron
Power to the Progressives
What effect will a wave of new members have on the New York City Council?
5 December 2013

As the incoming New York City Council takes shape, the Progressive Caucus and its penumbral “progressive bloc” is emerging as a powerful force within the 51-member legislative body. Caucus membership is expected to increase from 11 to between 18 and 20 when the new council is sworn in January 1; the leadership is exuberant about enacting its left-leaning agenda.

Formed in 2010 by a council cohort enjoying strong support from the Working Families Party, the Progressive Caucus’s purpose was to advance policies favoring unions (especially SEIU, DC 37, and the UFT) and minority-oriented community factions (ACORN, Make the Road, and others) allied with the WFP. Many staunchly liberal members of the council felt miffed that a coterie of Young Turks had arrogated to themselves the label “progressive” and the political high ground that seemed to come with it. “We had been pushing these same policies for years or decades,” says one term-limited council member well known for his liberal convictions. “We just didn’t see the need to formulate a special name for ourselves.”

Caucus membership will expand most within the Manhattan borough delegation. Currently only two Manhattan council members, Margaret Chin and Melissa Mark-Viverito, are Progressive Caucus members. They will be joined by at least four and possibly five of their delegation colleagues once the new council is seated. And out of a total of ten council members, as many as seven of Manhattan’s total delegation will have declared themselves progressives—by far the highest ratio of any borough in the city.

Manhattan is so overrepresented in the Progressive Caucus in part because the borough lacks a strong Democratic Party county organization to give its members direction and provide political support. Brooklyn and the Bronx have relatively robust party machines, though they’re not as cohesive as the Queens County Democratic organization (known simply as “county” among insiders). It’s led by Congressman Joe Crowley and maintains a Tammany-like grip on borough-wide political matters. The organization leverages resources to help the faithful and punish the disloyal, and it exercises significant control over key matters, such as how the delegation will vote for council speaker.

Manhattan, by contrast, has a relatively weak political machine. Manhattan being Manhattan, local politicians typically have less trouble raising campaign money than candidates in the outer boroughs do. They have less need for party machinery that funnels support and spreads the wealth. Manhattan has also played a dominant role in city politics for years. Mayors Wagner, Lindsay, Beame, Koch, and Dinkins all had their political base in Manhattan; Rudy Giuliani was from Brooklyn but became famous as a federal prosecutor in New York’s Southern District, which includes Manhattan; and Mayor Bloomberg is perhaps the apotheosis of the Manhattan elite. The last two council speakers, Gifford Miller and Christine Quinn, were Manhattanites as well. But now, with the election of a Brooklynite as mayor and the possible ascendancy of an outer-borough speaker, Manhattan’s outsize power may be on the decline. Perhaps the Manhattan delegation sees political safety in joining the Progressive Caucus, which is positioning itself as an alternative political machine based on affiliation, not geography.

Progressive Caucus members have vowed to vote together to “elect a progressive speaker of the city council,” in the words of incoming council members Mark Levine, Helen Rosenthal, and Ben Kallos. This progressive bloc is positioning itself as a kingmaker in city politics, along with the county organization bosses. Yet their bet is clearly hedged: their vow is not to elect a Progressive Caucus member as speaker, but merely to elect a “progressive” speaker. This gives them political wiggle room, since the term “progressive” is so broadly defined as to include almost anyone.

In expanding outside a vanguard of hardcore labor supporters, the Caucus seeks to influence both the council’s legislative agenda and the selection of its new speaker. But it could easily become a victim of its own success. The county organizations that currently control such matters are not dependent on pledges of ideological purity; they merely require that members go along with broad pragmatic currents. Should its membership become too broad, the Progressive Caucus may be forced to spread itself too thin ideologically. Already, members have been unable to agree on whether discretionary funds should be distributed equally or based on need. (Some believe that equal distribution reinforces existing inequalities.)

The Progressive Caucus was designed as a left-wing counterweight to Speaker Quinn’s centrist leadership. Its members will soon learn that repeating slogans and shibboleths about social justice is easier than governing.

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