As Republican obstruction keeps anything from moving in Washington (except, of course, the package of corporate tax dodges known as “extenders” that are likely to glide through with bipartisan support), populist movements and leaders are moving at the local and state level, from New York City to Seattle, Maine to Minnesota.
“Fate loves the fearless.” Quoting the fierce 19th-century abolitionist James Russell Lowell, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio summarized his first 100 days in office in a speech last week at New York’s historic Cooper Union. Embattled but unbowed, the mayor detailed what he’d been able to move of the populist agenda that he ran on.
De Blasio, no one’s fool, began with the good news on the nuts and bolts vital to running any city: Crime is down, pedestrian deaths are down, potholes are being filled faster and the winter’s record snowfalls got cleaned up.
He then announced success in gaining the most state funding in history for his pledge of universal pre-K. De Blasio’s previous call to pay for this by raising taxes on those making over $500,000 a year was sabotaged by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, a stalwart of the Wall Street wing of the party, but de Blasio still got much of the money he sought. Beyond this success, after-school programs are being made available to ever more students. The mayor announced a move away from high-stakes testing, with educators empowered to make more comprehensive assessments as to a child’s progress. Paid sick leave has been extended to half a million more New Yorkers. More affordable housing is being built, as the city made it a requirement for luxury developers.
Unfortunately for New Yorkers, Cuomo swatted away de Blasio’s effort to get authority to raise the city’s minimum wage. But across the country, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is championing a $15-an-hour minimum wage, with a commission set up to work out the details. Murray, considered a moderate in a city that just elected a socialist city councilperson, quotes Franklin Roosevelt on the need for “bold, persistent experimentation.” In addition to pay, he is pushing on public housing, renewable energy and universal pre-K.
San Francisco now has a minimum wage of $10.55, indexed to Bay Area inflation, and a working families tax credit to supplement the federal one. The city requires employers to provide paid sick leave, and has a Healthy San Francisco plan, that essentially offers universal health care with a public option to city residents.
And while Republicans refuse even to allow a vote on raising the minimum wage in Congress, Minnesota, Maryland and Connecticut have all recently passed minimum wage increases, with more states likely to follow.
Congress has blocked any major effort to capture a lead in the green industrial revolution, but cities are filling the gap. Seattle, blessed by plentiful dams, is carbon neutral. Portland gets half of its energy from renewable sources. Austin aims to be carbon neutral by 2020 and has devoted 10 percent of the city’s land to parks.
While national leaders continue to bolster the banks at the same time as they abandon underwater homeowners, in Richmond, Calif., a Green Party mayor is pushing to use eminent domain to take over underwater mortgages, refinance them at current value and allow families to keep their homes. The city has fined banks for not maintaining the homes that they’ve foreclosed on. Wall Street has retaliated, essentially boycotting the city’s last bond offering.
While efforts to shut down the offshore tax dodges used by multinationals have been blocked in Washington, Oregon just enacted a bill to tax the state’s share of profits stashed in 39 countries and territories; Maine’s state legislature just approved similar legislation and several other states are considering the same.
In his Cooper Union speech, De Blasio noted the “resistance from some powerful interests . . . people who have a stake in the status quo and don’t want to see these changes.” But he noted, “This administration is a product of movement politics. . . . A movement of people who share a vision . . . We believe we are at our best when everyone gets a shot at fulfilling their dreams.”
And the only vehicle for that is aggressive, progressive governance. De Blasio closed by quoting one of his heroes, Robert F. Kennedy, “Everything that makes our lives worthwhile — family, work, education, a place to raise one’s children and a place to rest one’s head — all this depends on the decisions of government. Therefore, our essential humanity can be protected and preserved only where government must answer — not just to the wealthy, not just to those of a particular religion or a particular race, but to all its people.”
The new populism is just beginning to form. In cities and states across the country, people are beginning to be heard and beginning to find leaders who will stand with them. And that offers some promise for the future.