How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Changes Everything

It was, apparently, as Joe Crowley, the 4th-highest ranked Democrat in Congress, belted out an off-key rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” in honor of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old organizer who throttled him in a primary Tuesday night. Crowley, who liked to play avuncular music man when he wasn’t gnashing behind the curtain as one of New York’s premier power brokers, suffered a defeat that rightfully seized national headlines but will matter just as much in the city he barely called home.

It cannot be overstated just how seismic Ocasio-Cortez’s victory can be within New York City politics and what a drastic reordering of power it represents, a jolt on the scale of Tammany Hall’s defeat more than a half century ago. Crowley used his standing as a House speaker-in-waiting to convince just about every elected official, staffer, and interest group in the state that he was someone worth paying deference to.

His tentacles were everywhere. They reached into the City Council, where his Queens Democratic Party crowned Speaker Corey Johnson and stuffed the legislative body’s central staff with patronage hires. They wrapped around the State Senate Democratic conference, where a consulting firm closely linked to Crowley, Parkside, does much of its business. They snaked into the Real Estate Board of New York, perhaps the state’s most influential lobby, which counted Crowley as a dear ally. And they effectively controlled one of the largest judicial systems in America, picking judges and enriching top allies in Surrogate’s Court, where the estates of those who die without wills are processed.

Just about every contender for higher office aggressively courted Crowley’s endorsement. Mayor Bill de Blasio fought for it in 2013 before it was handed to Christine Quinn. Carl Heastie quietly won it on his path to replacing Sheldon Silver as Assembly speaker in 2015, consolidating Queens’ sizable Democratic bloc behind him.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State Democratic Party was also a Queens County creation. Michael Reich, one of three lawyers who with Crowley’s blessing have controlled the Queens Democratic machine for 30 years, is the State Party’s longtime secretary. He is maybe best known for helping to snuff out any support for Bernie Sanders at a party convention two years ago.

And now it is Ocasio-Cortez, a former Sanders organizer, who is poised to replace Crowley and dismantle the Queens Democratic Party’s machine for good. In retrospect, “machine” was always too strong a word.

It was a vestige of a time when party bosses actually controlled votes, filling city offices with far more patronage than is available today while roping newer voters, particularly immigrants from Ireland and Italy, into the political process.

The old machines were anti-democratic but at least did the work of making politics relevant to the working class. The new machines, Crowley’s in particular, subsisted entirely on a smoke-and-mirrors operation: there was no “get-out-the-vote” effort, no clubs jammed with loyalists, no foot soldiers ready to ride into battle for their man Crowley.

When you opposed it hard enough, you beat it, but then Crowley always found a way to co-opt you. He excelled at turning former rivals into friends. Though he was handed just about everything in life — his mentor, Thomas Manton, bequeathed a congressional seat after the petitioning process so young Crowley would never know a real primary until now — he proved adept at the inside game, climbing the D.C. ladder while stoking the proper amount of fear so no one, until Ocasio-Cortez, rebuked him in a serious way.

There are generations of elected officials, operatives, and staffers who built their lives around utter servitude to Crowley, the ultimate paper tiger, and looked the other way as corruption swamped the borough. Gerard Sweeney, Reich’s law partner and a close friend of Manton’s, raked in millions from Surrogate’s Court as the counsel to the public administrator, profiting off those who die without wills.

The same law firm, Sweeney, Reich and Bolz, profited handsomely off foreclosed homes. Queens, especially the heavily African-American region in the southeast, was ground zero for the foreclosure crisis a decade ago.

With Crowley gone, the three law partners will likely lose their raison d’être. So entrenched was Crowley, so seemingly approaching political immortality, that no successors have emerged yet to replace him as county leader. (As an elected district leader, he can continue to chair the party, but with all his power gone, why would anyone listen to him?)

Crowley and Manton were known for whipping Queens council members in a bloc to vote for City Council speakers, and earned the unflagging loyalty of those they picked, like Quinn and Johnson. Those days appear over. So too may be the stranglehold of three white right-leaning Democrats on a sprawling legal system that largely serves people of color.

I write this as a proud supporter of Ocasio-Cortez. Her victory doesn’t only represent the downfall of a political dynasty but a return of a certain type of local politician that had appeared to have gone all but extinct: the unabashed leftist.

Before neoliberalism swept New York in the wake of the 1970’s financial crisis and the pro-big business consensus enveloped our politics — from Democrats like Koch to Republicans like Bloomberg — radicals roamed the firmament. A socialist, anti-war congressman, Vito Marcantonio, repeatedly won re-election in Manhattan. Bella Abzug, who nearly became New York’s first female senator, was a national leader in the women’s rights movement and something of a pop culture icon as she held down a House seat.

New York was once the city that guaranteed free college for all and an enormous stock of rent-regulated homes and businesses. Labor unions were unapologetically radical, and did not define themselves in relation to whatever elected official was simply most powerful.

In recent decades, New York’s Democratic class has grown increasingly tepid, lashed to a centrist consensus out of rhythm with the preference of voters. There are too many New York Democrats who, like Crowley, voted for the Iraq War. There are too many unwilling to confront the status quo. Mayor Bill de Blasio, a friend to real estate developers everywhere, serves as the totem of today’s progressivism, but as Ocasio-Cortez proved last night, we can go so much further.

She is now a national figure, but she is first a daughter of New York. There’s much work to be done. Replacing a frail, undemocratic Democratic apparatus is a nice start. Thanks to her, that is actually, finally possible.

Corruption Is Destroying New York State

Zephyr Teachout, a 2014 candidate for governor, with Joe Percoco and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (Screengrab: NY True)

The news today that Joe Percoco — a man who was like a brother to Gov. Andrew Cuomo — was convicted of collecting cash bribes is another embarrassment for New York and our democracy, or what passes for one here. Corruption means waste, fraud, and abuse — it means a government that can’t work the way it should and therefore fails our most vulnerable citizens.

I do not want to understate the importance of this conviction or its disturbing nature. Corruption is a cancer on democracy. Anytime a person so central to the functioning of a government is found guilty, it’s distressing. We don’t root for this. We want our democracy to work.

Albany is not beyond redemption, but it is clear after today that the corruption endemic to the State Legislature has also infected the Governor’s Mansion. This is not simply a Republican or Democratic issue. This is something we all need to be concerned with as New Yorkers and Americans.

What I am deeply troubled about, as a candidate for State Senate in Brooklyn, is the future of New York. Corruption trials have rocked Albany before. What comes next is a good deal of moaning and groaning and nothing else. Laws do not change. We are stuck in the same bad movie.

There are good lawmakers in Albany who have been trying for years to alter this insidious status quo. They have repeatedly been stymied by a Republican-controlled State Senate and a Democratic governor in Cuomo who has taken no interest in their efforts. I hope today that changes.

Let’s start with the LLC loophole. Because our election laws are some of the very worst in America, millionaires and billionaires can easily circumvent donation limits by creating LLC’s. So if you are Joe Billionaire and want to buy off a certain governor, all you need to do is create a few LLC’s. Maybe four. Maybe twenty.

Under state law, corporations are limited to political donations of $5,000 a year. But limited liability companies are allowed to donate $60,800 a year to any statewide candidate, just like individuals. Cuomo has collected millions from LLC’s. Since 1999, according to the New York Times, LLC’s have funneled over $100 million to political candidates.

It’s important to remember that New York’s campaign finance system was broken long before Citizens United. It’s important to remember New York’s corruption problem long preceded the chaos in Washington. Our backyard reeks. We have to take out the trash.

I echo Zephyr Teachout’s call for Cuomo to close the LLC loophole in this state budget and return all his LLC contributions before he runs for re-election. Considering the campaign cash that will be lost and how Republicans still have a significant say over the budget process, I don’t imagine this will happen.

Do not let Cuomo mislead you. Joe Percoco was not just an aide and not just an employee. He was *the* aide, a foundational figure central the functioning of Cuomo’s administration. He was the enforcer, the kingpin.

This is a tragic day for our democracy. It is also a very important day.

We will decide this fall whether to give State Senator Marty Golden, my opponent, another term. We will also decide this fall whether Gov. Cuomo deserves a third term.

I know I can’t choose this status quo.

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Bigotry and Politics

How does a politician represent people? How does a single individual with a single upbringing and worldview entirely influenced by a particular culture, class, religion or race seek to speak for, stand up for, or listen to everyone?

It’s not a simple task. It’s especially a challenge for a politician who hasn’t endured the discrimination, harassment, and bigotry faced by people of color and women. I’m a white man. I’ll never know what it’s like to be a truly marginalized person.

As I run for State Senate in an increasingly diverse Southern Brooklyn district, I try to remain cognizant of what I know and what I don’t know. I seek to be an ally of those who feel the political process has left them out. I try to be sensitive to the many cultures living here.

I grew up in Bay Ridge, white and Jewish. I didn’t endure the anti-Semitism of my ancestors, who fled Russia for a better life here. I did deal, however, with the occasional jokes about my religion. Most of the kids around me were not Jewish. They didn’t understand why I didn’t celebrate Christmas. They asked me why my people wore “funny hats” and beards, or why we were all so “cheap” or “into money.”

I tried to shrug it off. I tried to be self-deprecating. I was rather secular, after all, and told myself I was an American first. But, as my mother would tell me, if you ever forget you’re a Jew, an anti-Semite will remind you.

As the summer of 2001 wound down, I was playing baseball for the Dyker Heights Knights, manning the outfield and occasionally pitching. I had a plucky teammate named Mohammad who, like me, lived in Bay Ridge and loved the game of baseball. Mo, as he was called by everyone, was a catcher and a power hitter who would rack up his fair share of strikeouts. When he whiffed, he would moan loudly, but when he got a hold of one, it was something to behold.

September 11th happened shortly after my summer ball season ended. I’ll never forget my father saying to me, very sadly, that things might get a lot harder for Mo now. I didn’t quite understand. He was a kid like me who lived in Bay Ridge his whole life, whose parents came to all the games like my parents came.

It was because, my father said, racists would start to blame all Muslims for what happened. They would look for scapegoats. Patriotism surged after 9/11, but so did hatred.

When my Republican state senator, Martin “Marty” J. Golden, who has represented my neighborhood since 2003, said last year that the 9/11 hijackers came from Bay Ridge, I felt a hot surge of anger. It came from an old place, from the memory of that summer and Mo behind the plate, catching fastballs and pounding his mitt. Mo and his family were just like everyone else.

Mo wanted what I wanted. To get the big hit, to win the game, to go home to a warm dinner, to grow up and play in the Major Leagues.

“A number of them that drove the planes into the, 9–11, into the building at World Trade Center that killed 3,000 Americans — are you ready for this? They were in this community, they lived here in Bay Ridge, they were visiting in this community,” Golden told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer in 2017.

This is untrue. None of the hijackers came from Bay Ridge. None of them had ties to Bay Ridge. Like his favorite president, Donald Trump, Marty Golden never lets facts get in the way of good old-fashioned bigotry.

On September 11th, 2017, I went to the 9/11 ceremony at the 69th Street Pier in Bay Ridge. I wasn’t yet a candidate for office — I went to watch, to remember, to reflect again on that day of cataclysm.

Golden was the sponsor of the ceremony. I knew because his name was attached to the little American flags that were handed out. As the ceremony began, and the religious leaders came forward, one by one, I was struck by what was missing: an imam. No one from the Muslim faith was there to offer a prayer. I would later learn that none was invited.

Golden seems to forget he’s representing 318,000 people in his Senate district. Many of them practice faiths that aren’t his own. Many of them come from communities that have been marginalized. Many of them want politicians to stand up for them but turn away from the political process because they are ignored, again and again.

With politicians like Golden representing them, I don’t blame them.

I promise to be a state senator for every person in my district. To represent not just people like myself, but everyone — Arab-Americans, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Latinos, the LGBTQ community, and all people who feel they don’t have a voice in government.

We can’t build any kind of progressive future without them.

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Who Is Fit to Hold Office?

I have lived in Bay Ridge for almost my entire life. I’ve walked in Ragamuffin Parades, pitched in the 68th Precinct little league (team Gold), and spent many an afternoon and night biking this lovely neighborhood, winding down from the promenade to Shore Road and up 3rd, 4th, and 5th Avenues, taking in the place I am proud to call home.

In 2002, Martin “Marty” J. Golden was elected to the State Senate. It was shortly after my Bar Mitzvah. He’s been there ever since. When Democrats were trying to overthrow the deleterious George W. Bush regime in 2004, Golden ran unopposed. When Democrats took back the House in 2006, Golden ran unopposed. When Barack Obama became our first Black president and inspired millions, Golden ran unopposed.

In 2016, when Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States, Martin J. Golden ran unopposed.

I’ve long been embarrassed by my state senator, and I know many of my neighbors feel the same way. This was why I decided to run against him.

He doesn’t think gay people should get married. He doesn’t think women should have the right to choose. He doesn’t think landlords and real estate developers should have to care about working class people. He doesn’t think our public transportation system matters. He doesn’t think our Arab-American community should be a part of our neighborhood. He doesn’t think we should have access to affordable healthcare. He really, really doesn’t think we should have any campaign finance laws.

People make fun of Southern Brooklyn. Usually they’re in the brownstone or hipster belts — nothing against those folks! — and they wonder what’s up with us. Why does this guy Golden keep winning? Why does someone who unabashedly supports Trump and disrespects so many people get to hang around?

On Monday night, many people learned what we in Bay Ridge have known for a long time — that Golden is not fit to be a state senator. His vehicle sped through a bike lane, menaced a cyclist, and ran two red lights. He pretended to be a police officer. When confronted about his disturbing and despicable behavior, he blamed it on “cyclist road rage,” whatever the hell that is. The Department of Investigation and the Attorney General’s Office should investigate Golden’s actions, at the minimum.

What galled me most, perhaps, was how Golden flagrantly violated traffic laws. He believes he’s above the law. He doesn’t think speed cameras should be installed in school zones. Remarkably, in 2005, he ran over a woman with his car — it was ruled an accident — and his driving habits have remained what they are because he just doesn’t care.

I do care. In October, my campaign released a comprehensive transportation platform that puts pedestrians, seniors, cyclists, and everyone who uses public transportation first. I support making it easier for people to get around safely. We need to cut pedestrian deaths to zero and drastically improve our trains and our buses.

I drive a car. I’ve gotten my fair share of tickets. I know the frustration of getting hit with a ticket by a red light camera or struggling to find parking. But I also understand why these cameras exist, and how they keep motorists from speeding. I am grateful a red light camera has slowed down cars next to Ft. Hamilton High School.

Automobiles are machines. Automobiles can kill. When you get behind the wheel of a car, you have to be cognizant of this fact. You have to respect the power you have and understand that one mistake can end a person’s life.

Golden proved on Monday none of that matters to him. His message? If you are on a bike or just walking, you don’t really matter. You are an impediment. A bike lane, for him, exists as another driving lane, a way to beat the traffic.

This is disgraceful. Luckily, 2018 may be the last year we have to tolerate this kind of behavior.

And if you want to defeat Golden, please consider helping me.

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Why I’m Protesting the MTA Tomorrow

I’ve covered a lot of protests in my life and taken part in my share of actions — I traveled to D.C. for an anti-Iraq War protest, once upon a time — but tomorrow, I’ll be attending a protest in a new capacity: not as a journalist or bystander, but as a candidate for State Senate.

The MTA is reopening the Bay Ridge Avenue R station after six months of renovation. There will be a ribbon cutting of sorts, and Joe Lhota, the MTA chair, is slated to attend. In theory, this should all be exciting. Many construction workers have worked incredibly hard and they should, rightfully, be commended for what they have done. The R station is going to look much prettier. There will be a nice countdown clock, tiles, modernistic benches, and the station will be much less dank.

But I don’t imagine too many people in my neighborhood, Bay Ridge, will care, because ultimately the trains are about one thing, and one thing only: getting you where you need to be, on time. And this doesn’t just mean making trains show up. This means ensuring everyone can use the station.

The new Bay Ridge Avenue R station will not have an elevator. It is not compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. In fact, a vast majority of subway stations in the five boroughs, since they were built before the passage of the ADA in 1990, do not comply. As my friend, the disability rights activist and journalist Michael Harris has told me, riding the subway for anyone in a wheelchair or with any kind of physical challenges is nightmarish. Most subway stations are simply off limits. Trips must be planned well in advance and gamed out to the MTA’s fickle maintenance schedule. The message from the MTA is simple: if you are a person with disabilities, you aren’t welcome here.

Photo with construction worker on side

This isn’t something the South Brooklyn Progressive Resistance, the group I am joining tomorrow, will tolerate, and neither should you. The MTA apparently has hundreds of millions of dollars for “tunnel towers” (yes, these are real) and gaudy bridge lights that do nothing but stroke the ego of our governor. Imagine if the resource were invested in elevators for the hundreds of subway stations that remain inaccessible to a significant share of New Yorkers.

On one hand, it’s understandable that not every one of the subway system’s 400-plus stations has an elevator yet, though universal access for people with disabilities must be the ultimate goal. What’s disturbing to me is that the MTA shows little interest in getting there, and our political leaders have been mostly silent on this issue.

Anyone with a wheelchair or a difficulty with mobility knows how daunting living in this city can be. Sidewalks are perilous. If subways have elevators, they often don’t work. Access-a-Ride and buses are too slow.

The incumbent state senator, Republican Marty Golden, doesn’t care. Public transit was never a priority for him. Our transportation infrastructure decays by the day and it seemingly makes no difference to him. Luckily, we voters will get a chance next year to make him understand what exactly is happening in Brooklyn.

Running for office has exposed me to issues that are too often overlooked. If you have time tomorrow, and you’re in Bay Ridge, stop by at 11:30 am. Let Marty and the MTA feel your wrath.

Why I’m Running for Office

I never liked politics much growing up. I was obsessed with baseball and, later on, literature. I spent a long time wondering why anyone would waste their time thinking too much about politics. I didn’t join a Democratic club in college or canvass for extra cash. Back then, I couldn’t tell you anything about the state legislature. I assumed anyone who ran for office was disturbed, egomaniacal, or just badly needed a hobby.

I jumped into journalism because I loved writing and wanted to make a living off my words. I am writer — first and always. I am a journalist, too. Nothing about me will change after today. I will be writing words and pissing people off. I won’t stop writing columns. Holding this political class — too often milquetoast and spineless — accountable is what I do and will continue to do.

But I’m going to be trying something profoundly new. I will be running for a State Senate seat next year in the Brooklyn district I grew up in, which spans the neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Marine Park, Manhattan Beach, Gerritsen Beach, Bensonhurst, Gravesend, and parts of Midwood. The general election is in November 2018, the primary a couple months before.

I’m not going to tell you I’ve spent a lifetime dreaming of public service, dutifully working on the staffs of elected officials, pining for this day. You aren’t going to hear about how I founded political clubs, earned merit badges, or joined a community board as a teenager.

You will hear about issues. Our healthcare system is predatory and inhumane. Our subway system is crumbling and our buses are inadequate. Our tenant protections are repeatedly gutted. Our political process is horrifically dysfunctional. Our Brooklyn public schools are terribly underfunded. The opioid crisis, which has received far too little attention in southern Brooklyn, must be treated like the medical emergency it is — people with addictions must be treated, not criminalized.

If you’ve read my columns in the Village Voicethe GuardianGothamist or any of the other outlets I’ve written for, you can imagine what this campaign will be about. My values have been laid bare and will guide everything I do. What I’m finding is, you can only try to hold the system accountable for so long from the outside. Sometimes, you have to break in and do it from the inside.

I know how to hold power to account. I understand why politicians do what they do, and why they fail. I know why most of them are cowardly.

I’ve lived in the neighborhood of Bay Ridge just about my entire life, but that’s not the point. This campaign won’t be about me reading my resume off a piece of paper. This campaign will be about telling the truth. I will say what others are afraid to say — or can’t. I will fight for the issues that matter. I will stand up to anyone who tries to screw the people of New York City. Unlike just about everyone else elected to office in this city and state, I don’t peddle bullshit.

I promise you, this will be a very different kind of campaign. Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Republican-controlled State Senate have no answers, only a myopic defense of the status quo. The Independent Democratic Conference must be chased from power. I won’t be afraid to say any of these things.

Obamacare is an imperfect creation that must give way to single-payer, universal healthcare. The State Assembly has repeatedly passed a bill to create a single-payer healthcare system in New York. Not surprisingly, a State Senate run by Republicans and the IDC has failed to bring the bill up for a vote.

Healthcare, like police protection and sanitation, is something any rational and moral government should provide for all its people, regardless of income or well-being. We need to be free from predatory insurance companies. This campaign, above just about everything else, will be about bringing universal healthcare to New York State.

And we need other obvious reforms, like the state government assuming the $5.4 billion in Medicaid costs New York City unfairly pays for. New York is the only state in the nation that forces local governments to pay healthcare costs normally taken care of by the state and federal governments. With these savings, we can lower property taxes or pay for programs we really need.

My state senator, a Donald Trump-loving Republican, has stood idly by as Cuomo’s MTA fails everyone in southwest Brooklyn and across the city. Delays have reached crippling levels. The very future of the city is at stake. Rather than stand up to the governor, my state senator — like most politicians in this city, in both parties — has taken the coward’s way out, doing nothing for straphangers who pay escalating fares for service that is nothing short of catastrophic.

Few politicians are taking our transit emergency seriously. The MTA needs a real lockbox so our misguided governor doesn’t keep raiding its funds. The MTA needs a dedicated revenue stream through a new and permanent tax on millionaires in the regions served by mass transit, as well as cash raised from the closure of the carried interest loophole. Other options should be on the table, too, including Move NY. The MTA needs to invest the lion’s share of its resources in upgrading a signaling network that predates World War II — and our gutless political class needs to hold the MTA to account.

No more stupid, wasteful projects. No more spending on cosmetic upgrades as our trains tumble off the tracks. No more bridge lights. No more toys in front of the tunnels.

Neither the Senate nor Assembly has held a hearing dedicated to the state of our subway system. My senator has been absolutely silent. We need hearings and audits to uncover how the MTA spends far more on construction costs than just about any transportation agency in the world. No new revenue should come without reform to the MTA’s spending practices. That much is obvious.

We need to be thinking about a future built around public transportation and, as much as I like driving my car, away from polluting automobiles. We need to cut down on congestion and protect the lives of pedestrians. After signal upgrades and spending reforms, we must think big. A train line from Bay Ridge to Queens to the Bronx. A train line to Kings Plaza. Significant expansions of bus rapid transit, not streetcar boondoggles.

Going hand-in-hand with our transportation future is resiliency. Brooklyn is woefully under-prepared for the next superstorm, the next hurricane. The shoreline of the 22nd District, particularly in Manhattan Beach, Gerritsen Beach, and Sheepshead Bay, has no serious buffering against future storm surges. The lack of initiative and imagination from my state senator is disturbing, to say the least.

As a lifelong Brooklynite, I will be committed to returning as much power to the city as humanely possible. I will fight for a repeal of the Urstadt Law so we can greatly expand the rent stabilization and rent control programs without the approval of right-wing legislators from Oneonta and Plattsburgh. We must place a hard cap on the rents tenants everywhere can be charged, and strictly regulate how quickly landlords can hike them. We must stop the victimization of tenants.

My state senator could care less about getting rid of political corruption. The epidemic must end, and it will be up to the state legislature to change our awful laws — not just grandstanding prosecutors. State lawmakers must be banned from taking outside income. Donation limits are far too high and the LLC loophole must be closed. We need same-day registration, early voting, and nonpartisan elections to encourage voter participation in New York, which lags behind most states in America. We need full public financing of elections, and a ban on non-campaigncampaign expending.

New York’s retrograde criminal justice system must be fixed on the state level. Our discovery laws punish innocent defendants and cash bail criminalizes poverty. Corrupt, racist parole boards enabled by Senate Republican leadership keep people who shouldn’t be there behind bars.

I’m running, as you can probably guess, as a Democrat, but I’m new to the party and don’t have any particular affinity for its leadership. I don’t revere the people who’ve worked in the establishment for decades and accomplished little other than making nice livings for themselves. I’m an actual progressive — the word itself is too anodyne to me, but I’ll go with it for now — and I’m not beholden to any power brokers. I’m not going to talk in platitudes or feed you tired talking points.

What you’ll find is that the issues I’m talking about in this campaign reflect the arguments I’ve made in my reporting and my columns. I haven’t been shy about telling you what I believe in. You know where I stand. Just because I’m running for office doesn’t mean I’ll stop writing. It’s what I do, and what matters to me. If lawyers and billionaire businessmen get to campaign for what they believe in, why can’t a journalist?

As a journalist who writes about politics, I hope to shine a light on this opaque process for my readers. What the hell is it like to run for office, anyway? What is it that the candidates never tell you? Political journalists write about politics, but can only pretend to understand so much.

And let’s be real — too many politicians are afraid of taking risks or having a shred of personality. I promise I won’t put you to sleep. I can’t say the 22nd Senate District should be the 51st state — maybe I should? — but you have permission to put me out of my misery if I start mumbling about “prosperity and progress” and do that thing where politicians don’t answer your question, just repeat a talking point a little louder.

This next part is never easy — and not something I’ve done before — but if you want to support me, please consider donating to my campaign. It goes without saying that the real estate lobby, insurance companies, dying political machines, and hedge funders won’t be plying me with gobs of cash anytime soon.

I’m not friends with the ultra-rich. I’ll need money from real people. To be honest, I’ll need to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to compete with the Republican incumbent. I know how the game works. I’d also rather not call up that dude I barely knew in high school to shake him down for $500 because LinkedIn says he’s a financial analyst. That’s not a fun way to spend the day.

If you feel so motivated, pitching in $10 or $20 or even more can go a long way. Anyone who wants to get involved, email rossbarkan2018@gmail.com. Or just tweet me.

The Village Voice: City Democrats Point Fingers Everywhere but Cuomo on Subway Crisis

“I don’t believe in taking sides,” Letitia James, the New York City Public Advocate, said this afternoon. “This is not a political discussion on ‘Whose side are you on?’ This is really about accountability, it’s about where the money has been spent.”

James was responding to a simple question from the Voice: Should New York City’s government, which does not control the subway system, have to pay for half of the MTA’s $800-some-odd million “rescue” plan for the subways?

“We should not be taking sides,” James continued, elected officials to the right and left of her. “We should put politics aside. We should focus on what is in the best interest of New Yorkers.”

And so it went outside the City Hall R stop, where a group of politicians, including James and City Comptroller Scott Stringer, had arrived to announce that they would spend a full day riding the subway. The apparent brainchild of Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, a Manhattan Democrat and chair of the body’s transportation committee, the tour will last 24 hours, from August 3 to August 4, and allow politicians and transit advocates to hear directly from riders about the sorry state of the subway system. People on the subway will presumably recount the catastrophic delays the catastrophic delays and derailments they’ve been screaming about on Twitter. This will be called the “Riders Respond Transit Tour,” something of a table-setter for an MTA oversight hearing the City Council is planning for August 8.

What really defined the press conference, however, was how a class of city councilmembers, state assembly members, and leading city Democrats failed to hold Governor Andrew Cuomo, who appoints the MTA chair and controls much of what the state authority does and does not do, accountable for the subway crisis. It was a careful verbal dance, naming problems without naming names, as if the MTA were controlled by an amorphous, wholly invisible being. One could imagine space aliens laying waste to Manhattan and these elected officials blaming bad weather or the Department of Transportation’s misguided road-paving policies for the immolation of the city.

James maintained that the MTA needs to find dedicated revenue streams to pay for the billions in infrastructure upgrades — the signaling network predates World War II — that will be required to make the massive subway system functional again. She pointed out that the state government has a nasty habit of raiding transportation funds to pay for other things. “We also need to look at this notion, this word that’s only talked about in Albany, called the ‘lockbox,’ ” she said. “Who has the key to that lockbox? Who opened that lockbox?”

To answer James’s question, the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, has that keyDesigned as an independent authority, the MTA functions as the opposite. It has evolved into another Cuomo subsidiary.

If this glorified photo op amounted to an exercise in accountability, the governor and his MTA chairs — Joe Lhota and his predecessor, Tom Prendergast, despite their reputations, have been virtually indistinguishable — would have been lambasted uniformly by the city’s political class long ago. What James fails to understand is that her job, and the job of virtually any politician anywhere, is to take a side. You represent people. You advocate. As the city’s elected ombudsperson, this is one of her sole reasons for existing — to call people out when they are wrong, to use a bully pulpit on behalf of New Yorkers. If she can’t do that, why is she there?

Like James, Stringer, the city comptroller, has been content to do Cuomo’s bidding and urge Mayor Bill de Blasio to use city funds to pay for half of the MTA rescue package rolled out last week. Since New York City cannot decide where a subway line gets built, how high the fare should be, when a station can get Wi-Fi or countdown clocks — or really anything at all — there isn’t a transit expert alive who has backed up Cuomo’s rationale in public. Never mind that Stringer himself has argued city residents, through taxes and tolls, already send the MTA an “invisible fare” of $1,560 per household each year.

“We’re gonna solve this crisis. It’s going to take both the city and the state,” Stringer told the Voice, insisting he wants the state to sign a memorandum of understanding that would stipulate which projects the city money is going toward. “You can be mad at Cuomo, and the other people can be mad at de Blasio, but it doesn’t mean a damn thing if we don’t bring them together and solve the biggest subway crisis we’ve had since the 1980s.”

Only one politician was entirely unwilling to play the game of false equivalency, and ready to lay the blame on the state. Councilman Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat, said Lhota should be “embarrassed” for blindly following Cuomo’s lead. He seemed plenty aware he was saying what others were too afraid to say.

“The primary responsibility lies with Governor Cuomo. I will continue to say that because it is a fact, because it is true,” Williams said. “The governor can’t come into New York City, go and invite the mayor or city representatives when you’re on the Second Avenue Subway, take pictures and be prideful for what you’ve done there, and then shirk responsibility when it comes to the destruction of the rest of the subway system.”

Originally printed in the Village Voice.

The Guardian: Donald Trump is ‘ill-mannered’. But this is less of a problem than we think

The handwringing over Trump besmirching the ‘dignity’ of the White House tells us that style, in the minds of pundits, will always win out over substance

“Every day, Trump wakes up and erodes the dignity of the presidency a little more,” David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, wrote recently, speaking for the not-insignificant faction of the country horrified by a president who tweets hatefully about Mika Brzezinski and shares a video of himself body-slamming a man with a CNN logo for a head.

The hallowed office of the presidency, dignity-drenched for a couple of centuries, is now held captive by a reality show star, so uncouth and erratic. “When,” Remnick wonders, “has any politician done so much, so quickly, to demean his office, his country, and even the language in which he attempts to speak?”

Following Donald Trump’s latest Twitter rampages, this is again the central preoccupation of the people who not only didn’t vote for Trump but who earn their livings cataloging, analyzing and broadcasting his every move to the portion of the nation that will listen, the mass not yet ready to lead a chant of “CNN sucks” inside a multi-purpose midwestern arena.

Trump’s behavior being beneath the “dignity” of his office has been one of the chief criticisms of his presidency, a bipartisan lament engaging all kinds of inside-the-Beltway creatures, some more well-meaning than others.

Remnick and his sympathizers aren’t necessarily wrong. Trump does act like a boor, use the vocabulary of grade-schooler, and show little interest in acquiring the deep working knowledge needed to govern the most supremely-armed superpower on Earth. There are many reasons to despise his presidency. No one quite like Trump has ever climbed so high.

“My use of social media is not Presidential – it’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL. Make America Great Again!” Trump boasted in a recent tweet. He isn’t wrong. He is president and what he does is by definition “presidential.” He is free to redefine the term. A victor can have his spoils.

What matters more is what he does with his mighty powers and how many people he hurts. The handwringing over Trump besmirching the “dignity” of his office ignores what’s really going on. It tells us style, in the minds of pundits, will always win out over substance.

To listen to Remnick and others tell it, the country would be better off if only Trump stopped acting like such an uncultured, impulsive slob. If only he comported himself elegantly, used larger and prettier words, spoke in a pleasing baritone and playacted like the real pros who came before him. If only he was Hollywood’s idea of a president, equally polite and portentous, grave when he needed to be, soothing otherwise.

Trump is deeply unpopular overseas. He doesn’t conform to any nation’s idea of a dignified leader. But what is dignity anyway? Did George W Bush invade Iraq with dignity? Was Franklin Roosevelt dignified when he locked up Japanese families for the crime of not being white? Was Harry Truman dignified when he gave the orders to murder hundreds of thousands of civilians with two atomic bombs? How dignified was Woodrow Wilson when he segregated the federal government and threw a civil rights leader out of the White House?

Imagine, for a moment, a Republican president as beholden to oligarchs as Trump, a president who wanted to demolish Obamacare, block Muslims from coming to this country, strip away environmental regulations and stack the supreme court with as many generation-defining conservatives as humanely possible.

Imagine this president as someone who only tweeted anodyne things, never lost his cool, and used the vocabulary of a college professor, or at least a fairly competent high school English teacher. How better off would our country be?

This is the crux of it all, what so many beleaguered pundits wish for in the dead of night, their heads bowed in prayer for the end of the Trump madness. Can’t a president just punish us nicely? The savior could emerge, maybe someone who appreciates a good book and a fine scotch and likes talking less and doing more.

The savior will look and sound something like Mike Pence, and he will, with great dignity, kill civilians overseas and brutalize the poor and marginalized back home.

But the president as benign paternalist is no more. This fiction overshadowed the reality of America, which functions more like a balkanized, fading empire of incongruous nation-states than the unified country schoolbook mythology has taught us is our heritage.

Your governor, state senator or small-town mayor has much more power to ruin your life, and always has. A nationalized media obsessed all hours of the day and night with the presidency obscures this truth and tell us to regard Trump tweetstorms as things imbued with far more relevance than an underfunded school system, a broken bridge or a predatory healthcare matrix.

If your one-bedroom apartment in a public housing development is rife with asbestos, or opioids are ravaging your town, or endless wars are leading your loved ones to die in remote lands, who cares about how dignified the president is?

For those not living so precariously, there is time to fret about how an office gets demeaned. For people with the money and freedom to gallivant on European vacations, or just those with some actual stake in the global order, Trump undermining the dignity of the presidency abroad is a real and tangible thing.

But understand this: a lot of people just don’t care, and have no good reason to.

 

Originally printed in the Guardian.

The Village Voice: Albany Will Stay Broken, and the Growing Independent Democratic Conference Is a Big Reason Why

On Wednesday, State Senator Jose Peralta, a man who owes his seat in Queens to the very hard work of many volunteers and Democratic operatives who fought for their party to one day control the State Senate, joined the Independent Democratic Conference. He became the IDC’s eighth member, cementing the caucus as a fixture of New York politics for years to come and guaranteeing that a beleaguered, anti-everything Republican majority will always have a lifeline.

First, let’s acknowledge Jeff Klein’s savvy. Klein, a Bronx state senator and the IDC’s leader, is a cutthroat tactician, as brilliant as he is disingenuous. In 2011, he and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose courtly scheming belongs in the Niccolo Machiavelli Hall of Fame, concocted the IDC as a way to keep regular Democrats from ever attaining a full majority in the State Senate. Cuomo, a centrist Democrat at heart, liked the idea of thwarting liberals, and Klein knew he could never be majority leader of a conference that didn’t care for him much and would prefer to elevate a man or woman of color.

In 2013, there were enough Democrats, with the IDC’s assistance, to throw the Republicans out of the majority. Klein instead allied his conference with the GOP and locked Democrats out. He paid no political price, because New York is home to a remarkably spineless retinue of elected officials, particularly in the five boroughs.

Cut scene to 2017, and Klein’s humble conference of four has grown to eight. Its three newest members are black and Latino, lending sufficient cover for the four white men and one white woman who prefer to empower conservative Republicans from the suburbs and upstate at the expense of New York City. If you are a progressive in the city, and wonder why New York can’t have single-payer healthcare, grow its stock of rent-regulated apartments, or offer tuition assistance for undocumented immigrants, you can blame Senate Republicans.

Most troubling about a breakaway Democratic conference propping up Republicans is that it serves as a blueprint for other states where a threadbare GOP majority may look to save itself. Republicans everywhere should make a study of New York. In Washington State, Republicans also control their Senate with dissident Democrats, and it’s not too farfetched to imagine a few right-wing billionaires (the Kochs?) investing real money in trying to create similar arrangements elsewhere, once the opportunities presents themselves.

Most policy of real worth, after all, happens at the state level.

Thinking too hard about the composition of our Senate will make your brain hurt. There are 31 Republicans, 23 Democrats, and now eight IDC members. One conservative Democrat, Simcha Felder, caucuses with the GOP. Going into 2017, the IDC aligned itself with the GOP after Felder decided to remain with the Republicans. They have pointed out the Republicans could’ve formed a slim majority without the IDC, which is true. But it’s also likely true that a unified Democratic conference spending enough money could have made a difference in races Democrats narrowly lost to the GOP, like in the Long Island showdown between incumbent Senator Carl Marcellino and Democrat Jim Gaughran. Cuomo, too, did not open up his campaign war chest in any significant way for Democrats.

The IDC fancies itself a progressive caucus. With Cuomo’s belated efforts, it forced the Republicans to agree to eventually hike the state minimum wage to $15 an hour, no small feat. It passed a paid family leave program. Thanks to its status as a non-minority conference, the IDC has the budget to release headline-grabbing reports, and all members enjoy committee chairmanships or vice-chairmanships—extra salary for themselves and staff.

Klein’s staff has told me many times they are only stewards now because the Democrats were too incompetent in the two years they held the majority, from 2009 through 2010. That’s not incorrect, since the period was marked by remarkable dysfunction. But the primary actors from that era, with one exception, are all gone. The two majority leaders, Malcolm Smith and John Sampson, are prison-bound.

Today’s Democratic conference, if milquetoast and uninspiring, is scandal-free. But the minority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, would do no worse than John Flanagan, the GOP majority leader, and Klein. New York’s Republican conference remains solely in power thanks to terribly gerrymandered districts rubberstamped by Cuomo in 2012 and the IDC’s gamesmanship. This is a Democratic state and Republicans don’t deserve to lead. A unified Democratic majority could accomplish all of the IDC’s progressive goals and do even more.

So what do Senate Democrats do now? Some have pointed out they have nothing but their own inept leadership to blame, and that Peralta simply wanted to get more done with an influential conference. Should Stewart-Cousins grovel to Klein and promise that one day, she will support him for majority leader in exchange for Democratic unity? Maybe, but given how Klein has twisted the knife, who could blame her for not coming to him on bended knee?

As I’ve argued before, Klein has skillfully exploited a vacuum of Democratic leadership in New York. No city or statewide elected official—Mayor Bill de Blasio, Public Advocate Tish James, Comptroller Scott Stringer, the entire City Council and most of the borough presidents—or labor union has thoroughly resisted the reality of a breakaway Democratic conference aiding Republicans. Some, like James, even endorse candidates pledged to the IDC. They’ve learned it’s far easier to rail about conservatives in abstract than take any meaningful action.

Now the IDC is all but unbeatable. Expect them to keep adding members and calling the shots. Klein is only 56. Nothing will keep him from playing his game as long as he wants.

 

Originally printed in the Village Voice.