Opinion: De Blasio should give activists a bigger role in policymaking
There’s a reason elected officials like the term “grass roots” – it’s reliable shorthand, a way to show they grasp the concerns of everyday people, and to signal they understand what moves voters to act.
Here in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has regularly spoken about the need to keep government connected to the grassroots.
Last April, to mark his first 100 days in office, de Blasio offered an ardent account of what that connection would look like and how it would influence him.
In a soaring speech, he emphasized that the “grassroots of the city” would be the driving force of his policy agenda, because “the people are always ahead of their leaders.” With a clear nod to the many activists who helped elect him, he presented his administration as a product of “movement politics.”
But over the past year or so, real questions have emerged about whether our first Democratic mayor in more than 20 years is taking or rejecting the necessary steps to realize this vision of progressive governance.
As mayor, de Blasio’s record has been mixed: Several key accomplishments stand out as examples of a real collaboration between government and groups on the ground, while significant, but avoidable, failures to embrace solutions from affected communities have diminished the early legacy of his first term.
Let’s first briefly consider a few examples of what he has done well.
His paid sick leave law, the most expansive in the country, is a response to the thousands of vulnerable workers across various industries, especially in restaurants and food service, who first championed the idea after experiencing the blatant unfairness of having to choose between their health and their job.
His municipal identification program is a response to the many immigrants who first argued that making identification cards available to all residents would foster greater inclusion; reducing barriers between the identified and unidentified will make it easier to live, work and contribute to the future of the city.
And his universal pre-kindergarten program is a response to the many parents and educators who organized around the substantial long-term benefits of greater investment in early childhood learning.
But the same dynamic is noticeably absent from de Blasio’s efforts on affordable housing and policing – two areas where he is falling behind, rather than leading, because he is growing more detached from the grassroots and ignoring policies that New Yorkers directly impacted by these issues are proposing.
So far, the de Blasio administration has largely ignored thoughtful proposals from low-income New Yorkers to require real estate developers to build more deeply affordable housing and create good, career-oriented union jobs in neighborhoods that will be rezoned. The most economically vulnerable New Yorkers should be able to gain employment building housing they can afford.
At a time of growing concern about the affordability crisis and homelessness, the mayor should make it a priority to find ways to implement these smart solutions.
Meanwhile, when it comes to the NYPD, proposals to increase accountability for police misconduct are overlooked or dismissed. The officer who killed Eric Garner is still on the job, while abusive and discriminatory policing continues. Many local residents in communities of color have demanded that officers face actual consequences for the use of excessive and deadly force, arguing that behavior won’t change if police are allowed to act above the law.
The mayor should give affordable housing and police accountability activists a bigger role in policymaking – not through occasional, face-saving meetings or superficial access but through a regular seat at the table of decision-making. He should use constructive criticism and tough challenges from his progressive base to improve how he governs and to achieve better results.
Every week, de Blasio and his staff should engage deeply with activists and reformers at the community level who want to align policymaking with the unmet needs of struggling and disadvantaged New Yorkers. His Community Affairs Unit can play a key role in this regard.
As de Blasio once said to me before he was elected, “You know we won’t agree on everything.”
Indeed, he doesn’t need to agree with the grassroots on everything to stay connected and bring about substantive change. But he should be more open to passionate dispute and productive argument with thoughtful, concerned New Yorkers who want policymaking on urgent matters to be handled differently and better than it was under Michael Bloomberg and previous mayors.
Mayor de Blasio has talked at length about inequality and the unprecedented concentration of wealth in New York City and elsewhere. He should keep talking about it, but he also should listen much more intently to those who are disproportionately harmed by it.
Bottom line: At City Hall, the voices of activists and organizers should be heard more often.
Hugh Hogan is executive director of North Star Fund, a leading activist foundation in New York City.