“It’s Politics, That’s Life”

City Council Lulus

From the New York Daily News this morning, a quote from City Councilwoman Rosie Méndez, who made the mistake of being too late to support the candidacy of the new City Council Speaker and was not rewarded with a plum committee assignment and lulu. “It’s politics,” said Méndez. “That’s life.”

I imagine this is true but it sure seems more like high school to me. After several weeks of high-minded rhetoric about Latino representation in city government, the way that “reality” plays out in the City Council is less about ethnic, or even ideological solidarity, than who asked you to the prom and who said no, I’m going with the captain of the football team.

One could make the argument that this is all ideologically motivated and that a rift has developed between the mainstream Democratic party, represented by Governor Andrew Cuomo and his party machine allies in the Bronx and Queens, and the upstart Progressive wing, which is aligned behind de Blasio and his recently designated #2, Speaker Mark Viverito. Witness the intensely confrontational stances taken by the governor designed to take the luster off of de Blasio and the Progressive wing’s shining moment in November.

So far the battle has been around universal pre-K for the city’s youth, although in context the fervor over this issue seems a bit disproportionate considering the massive budgetary problems faced by the city school system as a whole. There is also a very strong focus on solidifying a bottom line around wages and working conditions for union employees, featuring commendable participation by various electeds in high-visibility demonstrations.

Still the new alignment in the City Council seems to reflect more cliquishness than ideological differences, particularly in the case of Méndez, who is not part of the Bronx machine and whose politics seems as progressive as anyone in the progressive caucus. Despite whatever specter could be raised by the Bronx crew, which seems to have had the most bitter and recalcitrant reaction to recent events, there’s something cloudy and obscure about this political power play.

It’s possible that the Progressive alliance does not share the business as usual perspective of the Cuomo-led Party apparatus, with an upcoming battle over the disposition of the Fresh Direct move from Queens to the South Bronx possibly an illustration. Job-creation has been the mantra that have pushed such tax-abatement projects for “job creators,” but while Boro Pres. Díaz Jr’s pet project ice hockey rink in the Bronx Armory may have gotten through, blocking the Fresh Direct move could become a Progressive line in the sand.

Still the new progressivism is still clouded by questionable alliances and campaign contributions. The recent appointments reflect this ambivalence. David Greenfield, named Land Use Chair, for example, has several large contributions from real estate developers, most notably Edel Family Management, a notorious Washington Heights slumlord. Julissa Ferrera, Finance Chair, has threatened to use eminent domain to remove struggling business owners from Willets Point in favor of a sweetheart deal for New York Mets’ owners, the Wilpon family to develop into an Atlantic Yards-style mall/apartment complex. Even the under-the-wire Jimmy Van Bramer, new Majority Leader, has had some big money come in from Chelsea and Long Island City real estate developers.

It’s politics, that’s life, I guess. Even though de Blasio was basically behind the Atlantic Yards project, which has fallen far short of its goals in developing affordable housing and permanent jobs, I’m going to have to have faith in his underlying Progressive vision. What would Letitia James do? Am I supposed to be relieved that she hasn’t let it get in the way of working together with the new mayor, or concerned that she’s not going to oppose him effectively enough, and come to think of it, it’s amazing de Blasio got elected mayor when he was basically invisible as public advocate in the first place.

Maybe the best thing to be said here is, we all have a little growing up to do. I’ll get more adult about the necessary evils of political deal-making and maybe the City Council (and the New York Democratic Party) will finally graduate from politics-as-high-school.


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