After my last post about Margaret Chin and her acceptance of Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) support, I started wondering about what it means in New York for an elected Democrat to label herself as “progressive.”
By the standards of legislative bodies in this country, after all, the New York City Council as a whole is about as far to the left as you could go. The Speaker, hewing to her agenda, has prevented most legislation from proceeding to the floor for a vote, but if the Council were a more democratic institution then New York would find itself, in certain respects, in Pyongyang.
Consider, for example, the fact that the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus of the Council already constitutes an absolute majority of the entire body. If minority representation is a proxy for a leftish, social justice style agenda, then surely the Council is already “progressive” enough, no?
It is when we look, as Chris Bragg did in Crain’s recently, at the precise political history of the members of the Progressive Caucus, that we understand that the Caucus represents the high water mark of the Working Families Party, circa 2009, before the implosion of Data and Field Services. The Caucus was organized as an elected vanguard to further the WFP union-left agenda. It is more of a Montagnard clique representing a strategic tendency, than it is an ideological movement of visionaries or particularly committed liberals.
I spoke this week to Council Member Brad Lander, Co-Chair of the Progressive Caucus, about what it means to be on the caucus, and what it would take to be thrown out of it, and whether Margaret Chin is in danger of such exile.
The always affable and somewhat verbose Lander, of District 39 representing Park Slope and environs, told me about the loose requirements for joining the Caucus. “People send a letter saying they would like to consider joining,” Lander said, “and then we have a conversation, and there is the matter of dues, we do have rather heavy dues…and then we take a vote, though we have never rejected anyone. I believe we do have a clause pertaining to expulsion based on ethical misconduct, much as the Council itself….”
I explained that I was less interested in the mechanics of the Progressive Caucus than in what would constitute political grounds for expelling someone. I asked Lander what he made of the independent expenditures that REBNY has made, through their Jobs for New York PAC, on behalf of Council Member (and fellow Progressive) Margaret Chin, and if that violated the Progressive Caucus’ stated principles on affordable housing.
Defending Chin, Lander said, “I don’t think Margaret Chin has signed on to the REBNY platform…it is hard to know what the relationship is. I don’t think that Mark Levine has signed on to the REBNY platform, and I don’t think that Ritchie Torres has signed on the REBNY platform either.”
Mark Levine (running in CD 7) and Ritchie Torres (candidate in CD 15) are both WFP candidates, and presumably prospective Progressive Caucus members, though neither of them has received any help from Jobs for New York. In fact, so far, the only elected Council Member who has received substantial help from Jobs for New York is Margaret Chin, avowed fighter for affordable housing.
(Correction: Mark Levine and Ritchie Torres have been endorsed by Jobs for New York. Levine has disavowed the support, while Torres, according to Tenents PAC, has issued ambivalent statements regarding Jobs for New York.)
I pointed this out to Lander, who grew defensive of his fellow Progressive. “I am not going to criticize Margaret Chin’s campaign,” he said. “There are several races where Jobs for New York has supported the front-running candidates in hopes that they will be grateful later. There is no way to solicit or refuse the help, so who is to say whether Margaret Chin even wanted it…”
The notion that the people at REBNY, who comprise some of the savviest investors in the world, are making random political contributions, either in befuddlement or out of earnest good will, seemed so ridiculous that I was forced to interrupt the council member to say so. I asked him, If you will not draw lines against an organization such as REBNY, whose position is anathema to that of the Progressive Caucus, then what does it mean for there to be a Progressive Caucus?
CM Lander softened his tone: “I share the concern implied in your question. I am against large independent expenditures, and many of the battles I have fought for affordable housing and inclusionary zoning--I am sure that REBNY would be on the other side of them.
“But at the same time we have not discussed REBNY. There is no set of specific questions and criteria that we have developed about them. There is not a defined agenda regarding REBNY, as there is for Students First.”
Students First is a pro-charter school PAC founded by Michelle Rhee, which the Progressive Caucus has specifically drawn a line on. Any endorsement of or by Students First, it appears, will sink endorsement from the Progressive Caucus/WFP front.
Which makes sense, if you think about it. The UFT opposes anyone who doesn’t take the position that the only way to be pro-student is to be pro-teacher, and that the only way to be pro-teacher is to salute the UFT. The UFT has a lot of money, and highly disciplined voters as members. On the other hand, REBNY, while an unsavory type of organization for people who call themselves progressives to be associated with, has no organized opposition worth fearing. OK, there is Tenants PAC, but Tenants PAC has given away in total about $130,000, ever. That is, a little more than one percent of what Jobs for New York is planning to disburse this summer.
So the Progressive Caucus may see Margaret Chin’s refusal to denounce REBNY’s support for her campaign as an embarrassment, but not a significant one. It isn’t as though she offended anyone important, like Michael Mulgrew or Lillian Roberts. And as Co-Chairman Brad Lander told me, “I am sure that Margaret Chin will continue to be a committed member of the Progressive Caucus.”