My Women’s Rights Platform

Despite the knowledge I’ve accumulated as a journalist and cynical New Yorker, I’ve learned in the past few weeks just how naive my conception of the world has been. In part that was because of my own life experiences, living with the privilege of being someone who has never been sexually harassed, raped, or demeaned. I knew, intellectually, sexual harassment was a problem, but always assumed most people knew better. Mad Men was over. We had evolved.

Of course that isn’t the case. I don’t have to recount for you the disturbing revelations, one after another, that have rocked just about every industry imaginable over the last month. Predators like Harvey Weinstein deserve to suffer for what they have done. And the people who enabled and tolerated his behavior — the many actors, producers, and friends who shrugged it off — deserve to be punished too.

When I put together my women’s rights platform for my State Senate campaign, I knew I had to address this. The culture in politics is no less misogynistic than the entertainment culture. Powerful people, particularly men, too often abuse their positions, instilling fear and ruining lives. We have to do much better.

Below, in full, is my platform. If you feel an issue went unaddressed or have a critique, feel free to email me. I am always looking to improve.

Enact Universal Health Care

Health care is a human right, and providing universal health care is a feminist issue. Bringing Medicare for All to New York will especially benefit women and people of color and will combat the inequities suffered by low-income women. Women pay more for their health care, they’re less likely to have a job that provides health care, and they earn less than men, making them less able to afford their health care.

The New York Health Act, which is stalled in the Republican-controlled State Senate, would guarantee free health care to every New Yorker, including essential reproductive health services like contraception and abortion. I will also fight to guarantee it covers hormonal therapy, sexual reassignment surgery, and all sexual health services to ensure no New Yorker has to pay more because of their sexual identity or orientation. Private insurance companies would not be allowed to discriminate against New Yorkers any longer. True justice for women can’t be achieved without access to free healthcare. We must pass the New York Health Act and make Medicare for All a reality in our state.

Institute a Statewide Ban on Asking for Salary History

New York City recently banned employers from asking about a prospective employee’s salary history. This was a major milestone in the fight for pay equity. Women and people of color, who routinely earn far less than white men in the workplace, are penalized for their past employers’ discriminatory decisions. Employers perpetuate past inequities and make hiring decisions and set pay rates based on discriminatory data. Public Advocate Letitia James, who sponsored the legislation, should be commended for her tireless advocacy.

Now we must take this policy statewide. There is no reason women and people of color in other cities across the state must suffer this form of gender and racial discrimination. I will fight for a statewide ban on inquiries about salary history and help to make all of New York a fairer, more equitable place.

Pass the Reproductive Health Act Into Law and Stand Up to Trump Republicans

Reproductive rights in New York are being threatened by President Donald Trump and other Republican, anti-choice extremists in Washington — making it more important than ever to stand with Planned Parenthood, fight for a woman’s right to choose, and pass the Reproductive Health Act (RHA) into law as soon as possible. The RHA, which has been repeatedly blocked by Republicans in the State Senate, would protect fundamental reproductive rights by making the right to abortion recognized in Roe v. Wade part of New York law. This crucial and commonsense step forward would safeguard New Yorkers in the event of federal attempts — now seemingly inevitable — to restrict abortion access. Last updated in 1970, our state’s law on abortion falls woefully short both of constitutional protections established in 1973 and does not reflect current medical practices. I would also seek to codify into law the regulator action taken by the state government in January that guaranteed contraceptive drugs and devices are covered by health insurance policies without co-pays, coinsurance, or deductibles regardless of how Donald Trump tries to gut the Affordable Care Act.

Pass the Gender Expression Non Discrimination Act (GENDA) Into Law

In many parts of New York State, it is permissible to discriminate based on gender identity because of our outdated and immoral laws. I will fight to pass GENDA as soon as possible. GENDA would outlaw discrimination against transgender persons in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, and credit. GENDA would do this by adding gender identity and expression as protected classes under existing state human rights law. Trans New Yorkers are especially vulnerable without GENDA. Now more than ever, with a bigoted president and an empowered Republican Party, New York must be a haven for anyone who faces discrimination.

Speak Out Against Sexual Harassment — No Matter the Circumstances

There is no denying that women face unacceptable sexual harassment in workplaces throughout New York and across the nation, whether it is at large corporations, media conglomerates or in the halls of government — including the New York State Legislature. It’s time for that to end — and it’s time for men to stop pretending they somehow don’t know what’s going on. As more women speak out every day to tell their stories, men have a responsibility to step up and call out any colleagues — including friends — who are engaging in unacceptable behavior.

I am making a clear and simple pledge — if I am elected to serve in the State Senate and sees workplace harassment in the Legislature, I will (with consent of the victim or victims) call it out. Whether the harasser is a lawmaker, a staffer or anyone else, I will not be silent. I will not protect men in power from being held responsible for unacceptable, sexist behavior. And if Albany power brokers don’t like that, I don’t really care.

Ban Revenge Porn

For years, legislation banning revenge porn has languished in Albany. This is inexcusable. I would prioritize passing legislation that brings New York in line with many others states that have recognized the urgent need to address this serious problem. The bill would criminalize the nonconsensual disclosure of sexually graphic images. Targets of revenge porn are overwhelmingly women. Right now, these women have no recourse, beyond suing in civil court, if someone makes their images public without permission. Many women find their career prospects and personal lives ruined. They are endlessly harassed and demeaned. The State Legislature must finally act to address this situation.

Institute a “Baby Box” Program to Help New Mothers and Protect Infants

We must do everything we can to decrease shockingly high infant mortality rates in New York City and across the state. In many countries, every pregnant woman is gifted with a box of essentials, including diapers, a bath towel, a thermometer, and a picture book. Once the items are removed, the box can be used as a bassinet. Finland, where the program was begun more than a half-century ago, has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world.

A free baby box program in New York would go a long way toward aiding new mothers in the crucial first months of childrearing. A baby-box program would also help to combat sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS. Ohio, New Jersey, and Alabama already offer baby boxes to parents of all newborns, in exchange for completing online educational materials about safe sleep. SIDS has sadly been on the uptick nationwide. If New York truly wants to be a progressive leader, a statewide baby box program is essential.

Coupled with this program, however, should be the right to free prenatal and postnatal care for all women in New York State. The State must be legally obligated to provide maternity and child health clinics. We need a robust home-visiting program for women after birth.

https://medium.com/@RossBarkan/my-womens-rights-platform-8aa06ecca3d7

My Transportation Plan

One of the fun things about running for office is proposing solutions for serious problems. As a journalist, I could do this all the time, but it always came down to someone else — an elected official, an empowered bureaucrat, or some other influential person — listening to these ideas and weighing whether they should even consider implementing them. Now, as a State Senate candidate, I can create a platform and campaign on it myself. This is liberating.

Transportation is obviously going to be a centerpiece of this campaign because getting around Southern Brooklyn is such a nightmare. The buses are slow, the trains barely run, and nothing is accessible for people with disabilities. Pedestrians are at the mercy of automobiles. It can take many hours to move just a few miles. My campaign released a video yesterday to illustrate some of that frustration.

I truly believe the failure of our transportation grid poses an existential threat to Brooklyn and the rest of the city. New York is only so exceptional, and if the trains and buses don’t show up, the cost of living can only be justified for so long. Mobility is the lifeblood of this city. Without it, what are we?

I hope other politicians begin to take transportation much more seriously. I know I will. Without further ado, here is my 10-point Transportation Agenda for Southern Brooklyn.

(Marty Golden, are you listening?)

· Upgrade Our Dilapidated Subway System Now

We must force the MTA to upgrade the subway’s nearly century-old signaling system so our trains can actually show up when they’re supposed to show up. Breakdowns due to “signal delay” are unacceptable. A vast majority of the MTA’s resources must be geared toward installing a computerized signaling system (CBTC) on every train line in the next decade. CBTC would dramatically expand the system’s capacity without building a single new tunnel or piece of track. At the MTA’s current pace, upgrading the subway system’s entire signal network would take a half century and cost $20 billion. Right now, a vast majority of train lines rely on antiquated “block signaling” to coordinate the movement of trains. Decades of disinvestment and a dysfunctional state government has damaged our economy and ruined the commutes of millions. Only with a laser-like focus on CBTC — prioritizing new signal networks above all else — can we get the modern transportation system we need to keep New York City from backsliding to the bad old days. If stations need to close to end delays as we know them, this is acceptable — as long as rapid shuttle buses replace lost trains and no money is spent on superficial upgrades.

· Spend Money the Right Way, Not the Wrong Way

We must push for an official, independent audit of the MTA — a failed bureaucracy — and its profligate spending. Everyone knows that the Second Avenue Subway is the most expensive subway in the world and that the MTA’s costs are unmatched. If money were spent more efficiently and allocated more judiciously, we could have much needed upgrades in service across Brooklyn and the other boroughs. The State Senate, in conjunction with the Assembly, must hold emergency hearings on the state of the subway system, which is something they have refused to do. The sad truth is, no one quite knows why MTA capital costs are out of control. Transit experts free from the meddling of politicians must be empowered to seek solutions. After a comprehensive report is produced, MTA reforms must be implemented immediately. We are living a transportation emergency, and every day spent not reckoning with this hard truth is a day wasted.

· A Transformational Train Line

For a lot less money than a few stops on the Upper East Side, we could have a transformative train line that would start right in Bay Ridge. The “Triboro” is a viable transit line that would connect communities in South and Central Brooklyn to Queens and the Bronx because it would run for 24 miles on already existing freight line. Our subway map is outdated because it does not account for how often we travel between the outer boroughs for work and pleasure. It is radial, not circumferential, and is no longer suitable for a 21st century workforce. The Triboro would take a passenger from Bay Ridge through Midwood, Central Brooklyn, Maspeth, Astoria, and the Bronx. A dream of the Regional Plan Association, the Triboro must be made a reality — and it would only cost a little more than one billion dollars, according to expert estimates. There is no reason we can’t think big and pursue this project immediately.

· Make Our Transit System More Accessible

It is a travesty that Bay Ridge residents have suffered through months-long shutdowns of train stations for cosmetic, and ultimately meaningless, upgrades. All subway stations in Southern Brooklyn need to be compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act as soon as possible. Whether it’s the Sheepshead Bay B/Q lacking an elevator or the R line discriminating against our seniors and people with disabilities, the MTA has proven it doesn’t care about a large segment of Brooklynites. Along with signal repair, building elevators must be a top priority, and taken seriously by MTA leadership. The MTA needs a “rapid repair” program for elevators to accelerate this process and ensure that it doesn’t continue to break federal law. In the meantime, we must reform the Access-a-Ride program — increasing reliability and funding — because it fails commuters every day. There must be more data produced on quality of service, a more transparent complaint process, and on-service demand. Riders should not have to book a day in advance and wait for a vehicle that never shows up.

· New and Necessary Revenue Streams

MoveNY’s congestion pricing plan is a logical solution for Southern Brooklyn’s transportation woes. It will dramatically lower tolls on the Verrazano Bridge, cut down on pollution, and keep vehicles from clogging Manhattan streets — freeing space for commuter buses we rely on to get to work. In conjunction with placing tolls on the East River bridges, state lawmakers must ensure a lockbox is created for the MTA, so all new revenue is channeled toward transit upgrades and nothing else. Trepidation over imposing new tolls is understandable because politicians have raided the MTA’s funds repeatedly. This is why the lockbox is needed. With this revenue — and the goal of freeing roadways for buses and pedestrians — crucial upgrades to our transportation system can be paid for without taking on staggering debt.

· Half-Priced MetroCards for Low-Income New Yorkers

We need to support a millionaire’s tax on everyone in the regions served by the MTA in New York State, not just New York City, and use this revenue to subsidize half-priced MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers. Our transportation system should be accessible to everyone, regardless of income. These taxes would not be onerous, particularly in New York City. Our current RPTT (Real Property Transfer Tax) for residential transactions is 1 percent under $500,000 and 1.425 percent over $500,000, paid by the seller

Adding another one percent for transactions above $2.5 million — above the median home price, even in Manhattan — would yield real revenue that could be dedicated to transit projects. Again, this new revenue must be paired with spending reforms. One cannot exist without the other. An independent, competently-run MTA deserves more cash.

· Increase Bus Service Reliability

We know how insufficient our subways are. More bus lines must be converted to Select Bus Service with Traffic Signal Priority (TSP) to fill the glaring gaps. When possible, protected barriers must be installed for buses. Additionally, the MTA must introduce a new card that could allow for all-door boarding on all buses, and not just Select Bus Service lines. This would speed up travel times significantly. The B82, which will be converted to SBS in 2018, is a decent start — but obviously it is not enough, especially as more people travel between the outer boroughs and around Southern Brooklyn. Bus rapid transit is far cheaper than building a new train line from scratch, subsidizing ferries, or throwing down a wasteful streetcar in a flood zone. Buses are ADA-compliant, but they are horribly slow — speeding them up will mitigate the ways the MTA already discriminates against seniors and people with disabilities.

· Support Legislation to Protect Students from Dangerous Drivers

We need to back legislation to install speed-enforcement cameras in our school zones in an effort to protect our children from dangerous and speeding drivers. This is something Senator Marty Golden refused to support because he thought slowing down drivers’ commutes by a few minutes was more important than saving the lives of schoolchildren. This hits very close to home for me: a recent study found that 92 percent of drivers were speeding on a weekday afternoon outside of PS/IS 30 on the corner of 4th Ave and Ovington in my home neighborhood of Bay Ridge.

· Make it Safe to Walk and Bike in South Brooklyn

We need to make our neighborhoods more adaptable to alternative modes of transportation, including walking and biking. We must push for bike-share expansion, prioritizing dock-less bike shares in an effort to bring a responsible and equitable biking network to Southern Brooklyn. This also means pushing for more Vision Zero Complete Street Re-Designs, which have successfully reduced the number of traffic fatalities and injuries by putting the safety of pedestrians and cyclists ahead of the convenience of drivers. There are far too many pedestrian deaths in Southern Brooklyn, and too many roadways that are perilous for children, seniors, and people with disabilities. “Road diets” (adding wider medians, curb bulbouts, and bike lanes where sensible) are appropriate throughout our neighborhoods, particularly on roads where drivers routinely flout the speed limit. These proposals are not about attacking those who own cars — they are about an equitable sharing of the streetscape.

· End Truck Traffic

We must cut down on the absurd amount of truck traffic in Southern Brooklyn. Large trucks are responsible for a tremendous amount of congestion and air pollution and are a safety hazard to pedestrians, bicyclists, and other car drivers. We can review the way we coordinate shipments, in part, by exploring possible toll pricing changes at major crossings depending on the time of day. We can and will find a way to make sure our businesses receive their goods on time while reducing double parking and making South Brooklyn’s streets safer. More frequent night delivery should be considered, though weighed with the noise trucks might generate as residents try to sleep.

https://medium.com/@RossBarkan/my-transportation-plan-3bf24b02c478

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.