Election 2013: A Grassroots Resurgence

by Amy Goodman

The cable news channels wasted no time before crowing over the landslide re-election victory of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. According to exit polls, Christie won a majority of both women and Latino voters, traditional Democratic voting blocs. The political chattering class is abuzz with Christie as the GOP’s great hope to retake the White House in 2016. But they miss a vital and growing undercurrent in U.S. politics: grass-roots movements at the local and state level that are challenging the establishment, and winning.

Christie was expected to win, but he needed a major landslide to help him launch a 2016 presidential bid. That is where the special election came in. In June, Sen. Frank Lautenberg died at the age of 89. Christie ordered a special election to be held Oct. 16, three weeks before the general election. This decision cost the taxpayers of New Jersey an estimated $24 million in extra election costs. He could have let the voters decide the Senate race on the same day they voted for governor and everyone else, saving taxpayers millions.

Cory Booker was favored to win Lautenberg’s seat. For years, he had been the popular, African-American mayor of Newark and a rising star in the national Democratic Party. The Senate candidates would have been listed on the top of the ballot, since it was a federal office. Booker would likely have inspired a greater Democratic turnout on Election Day, and his position at the top of the ballot would likely have created a tendency for his voters to vote Democratic all the way down the ballot, hurting Christie. Without Booker on the ballot, Christie garnered a more substantial victory. When challenged about the cost, Christie boasted, “I don’t know what the cost is, and I quite frankly don’t care.”

What Christie and his party might care about are the substantial victories posted this election by progressive activists. In his own state, voters endorsed an increase in the minimum wage that Christie vetoed, raising it $1 an hour to $8.25, with annual cost-of-living increases.

Across the river in New York City, Bill de Blasio was elected mayor, the first Democratic mayor there in 20 years. “The challenges we face have been decades in the making, and the problems we set out to address will not be solved overnight,” he said in his victory speech. “But make no mistake, the people of this city have chosen a progressive path.” He supported Occupy Wall Street, got arrested protesting a hospital closure, and vows to raise city taxes on its wealthiest residents. De Blasio will start work as mayor alongside a supportive New York City Council, in what my “Democracy Now!” colleague Juan Gonzalez has called “perhaps its most progressive government in the past 50 years."

Beyond New York and New Jersey, progressive populist movements bore fruit on Election Day. In Colorado, the state’s voters approved a plan to tax the retail sale of recreational marijuana, which was legalized statewide last November. The voters of Denver, Boulder and Littleton also approved city sales taxes on marijuana sales, further entrenching the shift from criminalizing pot to mainstreaming it. Three cities in that state also voted on banning hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking is the natural-gas drilling process that many believe pollutes groundwater and air, and even causes earthquakes.

Voters in Portland, Maine, became the first on the East Coast to approve the legalization of recreational marijuana. In Washington state, voters approved a sharp increase in the minimum wage of most workers at Sea-Tac Airport, and the surrounding hotel industry, to $15 per hour. This is expected to put pressure on the city of Seattle to make a similar increase.

These and similar electoral victories grow from long-term grass-roots organizing, which has become all the more vital in the face of a gridlocked federal government. Corporate money still holds massive sway in our electoral system; also in Washington state, a popular referendum calling for the labeling of food with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) failed after corporate food and agriculture interests poured in $22 million to oppose it.

Politicians respond to pressure. “Make me do it,” Franklin D. Roosevelt famously responded to union and civil-rights organizer A. Philip Randolph, who wanted help for African-Americans and working people. Barack Obama has told activists the same. Bill de Blasio promises a progressive program for New York City, but history suggests that without constant popular pressure, establishment interests will assert their power.

Election Day should not be the end of people’s campaigns for change. It simply indicates a door has been opened a crack. As to whether it will be kicked wide open or slammed shut, that’s up to grass-roots movements, not the individuals they elect.

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
© 2013 Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman is the host of "Democracy Now!," a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on 1,100 stations in North America. She was awarded the 2008 Right Livelihood Award, dubbed the “Alternative Nobel” prize.

Bill de Blasio: Harbinger of a New Populist Left in America

Strong stances on inequality and policing underpin the New York mayor's win. If he holds true, he can shift the national debate

by Tom Hayden

The overwhelming support of New York City voters for Bill de Blasio is the latest sign of the shift towards a new populist left in America. De Blasio owes his unexpected tailwind to campaigning on issues considered by insiders to be too polarizing for winning politics.

One is De Blasio's promise to redress the "tale of two cities" inequalities among New Yorkers, an issue forced into mainstream discourse by the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement – not by New York Democrats aligned with Wall Street. The other is De Blasio's pledge to sharply curb police stop-and-frisk policies directed against young people of color – aggressive tactics favored by a majority of white voters and overwhelmingly criticized by African Americans, Latinos and Asian-American voters.

Despite its Democratic voter majority, New York in recent decades has been the political stronghold of the plutocratic Mayor Michael Bloomberg and, before him, the abrasive law-and-order Mayor Rudolph Giuliani – both Republicans with national, even global, reach. Democrats have lacked a progressive voice on the national stage of American politics often provided by the New York mayor's office – until now.

De Blasio will have a mandate for economic and social reform backed by a newly-elected 51-member city council, the most progressive in years. As Juan Gonzáles of Pacifica's DemocracyNow! put it:

I can't think of a time like this when so many progressives have been elected at once.

With American politics polarized between the Obama center and the thriving Tea Party, the only opening for the left is through state and local federalism serving as "laboratories of reform", to paraphrase former Justice Louis Brandeis. After the Gilded Age and the Great Crash of the 1920s, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (1934-47) and legislators like Robert Wagner created the first pillars of the New Deal before it become the national platform of the Democrats. They successfully fought not only Wall Street bankers, but a virulent and racist American right.

De Blasio is positioned to similarly shift the nation's dialogue, policies and priorities in a progressive direction – assuming he delivers on his campaign pledges. Since the financial crisis of 2008, the federal government has passed a loophole-ridden Dodd-Frank reform law, which failed even to regulate the trillions floating in the derivatives industry. Wall Street investors have been richly rewarded since then, while middle-class incomes stagnate and the numbers of poor Americans reach the highest in 50 years. A report last week from the respected American Community Survey noted:

No other major American city has such income inequality when it comes to rich and poor when it comes to New York.

Among De Blasio's first challenges will be prodding Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature in Albany to permit local tax increases to fund universal pre-kindergarten in New York City. Cuomo and most pundits say the De Blasio proposal is going nowhere, but seasoned reporters like Gonzales are not so sure. "It's hard but doable. I'm not sure that Albany will resist the home rule message from a new mayor with a large mandate."

De Blasio has direct power over New York City's $70bn budget and re-zoning policies, which, under Bloomberg, showered favors on a real estate industry bent on competing with London and Hong Kong at the expense of residential neighborhoods. An early test for De Blasio will be the Midtown East re-zoning project left unfinished by Bloomberg, which would erect Empire State Building skyscrapers from the East River to downtown. De Blasio wants to "fix" the proposal, while community groups are 100% opposed, saying they would be left in permanent shadows.

De Blasio also can tackle income inequality by signing the living wage ordinance on city contracts, or by preventing Wall Street developers getting special city abatements – measures that Bloomberg vetoed. De Blasio didn't flinch on the issue when confronted in closed meetings with developers during the campaign.

When De Blasio first raised his opposition to the police stop-and-frisk policies, according to Vincent Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights, the candidate began rising in the polls against other contenders in the Democratic primary. The stop-and-frisk policy, a variation of racial profiling against black and brown young people, is generally supported by white and worried New Yorkers and overwhelmingly opposed by communities of color.

De Blasio and his African-American wife have a teenager, named Dante, whose Afro style even caught the attention of President Obama. As Dante leafleted with his father at subway turnstiles, emotional memories of the murdered Florida teenager Trayvon Martin were palpable, if rarely mentioned.

New York under Mayor Giuliani fanned then popular American policies of mass incarceration towards youngsters who resembled Dante de Blasio. From 2008 to 2012, the NYPD stopped nearly 2.9 million New Yorkers, a majority of them young, about 85% black or brown. On average, 88% of those stopped were completely innocent of any crime or misdemeanor.

When a federal appeals court halted a judicial order ordering detailed changes in the NYPD last week, De Blasio expressed "extreme disappointment" and pledged to move forward on police reform from day one. How he will do so is procedurally muddled for the moment, but there is little doubt that another staple of the Bloomberg era is ready for the dustbin.

Will De Blasio adhere to his promises? He is, after all, a mainstream Democratic party operative and policy wonk who once managed Hillary Clinton's centrist campaign for the US Senate. Decades ago, he was deeply involved in the Nicaragua Solidarity Movement against Ronald Reagan's illegal contra war. De Blasio seemed nervous when this past association surfaced earlier in the campaign. But the Republicans could gain no traction on the issue.

It is reassuring that De Blasio has roots in past social movements instead of the usual pedigrees for a political career. If he has veered back to his lefty roots, it is enabled by a popular anger among voters. This anger was fanned by the growing gap between the haves and have-nots, reinforced by heavy-handed policing, in a city whose power brokers are addicted to opulence.

The media widely acknowledges that Occupy Wall Street "changed the conversation" in America. De Blasio won't represent the 99%, but a healthy majority will do. From Wednesday, Bill de Blasio will have the largest megaphone of any conversation-changer on the national scene.


Tom Hayden is a former state senator and leader of 1960's peace, justice and environmental movements. He currently teaches at PitzerCollege in Los Angeles. His books include The Port Huron Statement [new edition], Street Wars and The Zapatista Reader.


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