Nassau County GOP ram through redistricting plan aimed at securing majority rule

By Karen Rubin Long Island Populist Examiner

After a heated and contentious public hearing on Monday, May 9, the Nassau County Legislature is poised to vote to adopt the redistricting map at its Monday, May 16 meeting.

The intention here, under the guise of preserving “one-man-one-vote,” especially in the 2nd Legislative District, where racial minorities and the majority, is to shift population around, eliminate one of the districts, now represented by a popular Democrat, David Denenberg, and create a new District 19, designed to emerge as a third minority/majority district, but one where the Republicans think they will be able to elect their own minority candidate. The calculation is to reach 13 out of 19 seats on the Legislature (as it is, the two minority Legislators, both democrats, have virtually no power because this body is not interested in compromise).

In fact, 544,000 people, or 44% of Nassau County’s 1.3 million population, would be shifted to a different district – a scale of shift that is unparalleled. In fact, in 2003, during the last reapportionment (under the Democratic Majority), only 50,000 voters were shifted. Nonetheless, the Republican legislators constantly attacked the Democrats for being “brutal” when they had the reins.

Republican Francis X. Becker, Jr. (LD 6), declared angrily that Valley Stream, East Rockaway and Rockville Center were “split by Democrats in the last redistricting. So it depends on who is doing the  gerrymandering” He actually admitted what the Republicans were doing was gerrymandering.

This is all being orchestrated by County Attorney John Ciampoli, who was brought in by County Executive Ed Mangano expressly for his considerable experience (which he boasted of during the late-night public hearing) reapportioning districts.

John Ciampoli made his bones as a political operative for the Republican party. As Counsel for the New York State Senate Republican Campaign Committee, Albany, he was tasked with disenfranchising potential Democratic voters such as college students at Bard and Vassar and poorer people who may have moved residences in order to shift the balance to Republican candidates.

But during a public hearing lasting 14 hours and only winding up shortly before midnight, Ciampoli, speaking in velvet tones, presented himself as the noble knight protecting minority voting rights, preserving the cherished principle of “one man-one vote,” and the County’s guardian against a lawsuit which he contended would be imminent if the County did not address reapportionment.

He cited Sec 112 of the county’s charter, which requires that six months after receiving the Census data, the Legislature describe a plan for reapportionment.

That’s six months, not six weeks, as Ciampoli and Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt are trying to do.

But the “race card” itself is a red-herring, designed to give cover and somehow avoid the smell test of gerrymandering when the plan comes to court, as the Republicans acknowledge is likely. This isn’t about preserving or creating minority representation – because even two or three minority members of the board would have no power to actually do anything. It is about carving out a Republican majority for generations. And how goes Nassau County may well go New York State and even the Congress and White House.

On April 25, just two weeks after unveiling the “map” for re-districting, prepared in secret by Ciampoli and two consultants he hired on his own without the Legislature’s knowledge or authorization, Schmitt called for one solitary public hearing, on May 9, at 10 a.m. Ostensibly, you are supposed to believe that Ciampoli only began work on the new map on April 15, after being entreated by Schmitt to save the County from a Constitutional catastrophe. That would be just 10 days to create a plan that shifts nearly half of the population into new districts, as described and defined in a 200-page bill.

Despite the fact the meeting was held when most people are at work and in a room with a capacity of only 251, huge contingents from Great Neck, Hempstead and the 2nd District turned out, filled the room, and during an extremely contentious hearing (at one point, police were called to threaten arrest after one man raised the specter of White Hoods and voter suppression), 150 people stood up to oppose the plan, including a few self-declared Republicans. (After 8 hours of public statements, there was only one statement of support, in the form of a letter which Schmitt read into the record).

While most of the speakers accused the Republicans of engineering districts that would “pack” and “crack” to dilute or weaken minority power, and otherwise gerrymander districts to weaken Democrats, what no one noted was that the aim was also to “pack” and “crack” Jewish votes. Besides Great Neck being severed in two, the plan is also to split the Five Towns (2 1/2 Towns), with Woodmere, Inwood and half of Cedarhurst put into a newly created “minority-influenced district” together with parts of Elmont and Valley Stream, leaving Hewlett, Lawrence and the rest of Cedarhurst in the district now represented by Republican Howard J. Kopel.

No one mentioned this. Apparently the fact that Jews are a mere 1% of the population doesn’t warrant consideration as a minority worthy of protection in terms of representation. But Jews are targeted as a political and financial base for Democrats. The Republican scheme – manifest across the country – is to weaken whatever source of Democratic influence there is. In Wisconsin and Indiana, it means going after public unions; in Michigan, it means empowering the governor to dissolve villages and install his own “manager”; in Florida, it is a new law making it harder to register and to vote. The reapportionment tactic was used very successfully by Tom DeLay in Texas, helping to turn a Democratic state into a Republican stronghold, which rippled into giving Republicans control of Congress, as well, in 2003.

You may think that Ciampoli’s Machiavellian tactics here in Nassau County are just local politics, but already, we have seen how replacing Democrat Craig Johnson with Republican Jack Martins returned the State Senate to Republican control.

“Nassau is the linchpin for the state,” attorney Cynthia Kouril, of the New York Democratic Lawyers Council, commented to me. “They are destroying the [Democratic] party.” Kouril, an expertise in election law, voter protection and fair elections who told the Legislature that Ciampoli “misrepresented the statute” in order to justify this rush to reapportion,  added it is inconceivable for a reapportionment plan to affect 44 percent of voters. “You would have had to have a cataclysm” like a Hurricane Katrina uprooting entire communities, to warrant that scale of redistribution.

While Ciampoli kept reiterating his refrain that his plan complies with the Constitution, and satisfies the requirements of “compact” and “contiguous,” Kourcil pointed to the map and the odd shapes of the newly drawn districts – a T-Rex, a telephone receiver –  the fact that in one district, you would have to travel over water (no bridge) and through two other districts to get to the other side – as the very definition of gerrymandering. (Later, Republican Legislator Francis X Becker admitted as much.)

Ciampoli and Schmitt kept insisting that the census shifts mandated the County act immediately to change the boundaries.

No one actually disputed that the new census figures required reapportionment. The only point that was made, over and over, is that the county charter allows six months for this first step (of a three-step process), and that the process requires input from local communities, with consideration for alternate plans. That’s what happened in 2001, when Democrat Judy Jacobs was in charge, with a final plan adopted in 2003 after a series of hearings and alternative plans with the result that 50,000 people were shifted, compared to 544,000 in this plan.

Ciampoli had pointed out that all around the state, counties had come up with new maps – but he failed to mention that each and every one, including Westchester, Rockland, Erie, Albany, had has many as 11 public hearings before adopting their new map.

After the public had cleared out, around 6 pm, the Legislature reconvened just after 8 pm. with Ciampoli now answering questions from the Legislators. None of the Republicans asked questions – reserving their comments to attacks on Democrats who did.

The Democrats attempted, with little success, to get at what process, what method was used to derive this map, when Ciampoli began the process and whether he had discussed reapportionment with the County Executive or Republican leadership at the county or state level.

Campoli conveyed the impression that the map and the 200-page legislation to define the new districts were accomplished in a mere three-weeks time, after the 2010 Census data was reported on April 1,  but gave contradictory statements. At one point he said he had been working on the plan for a year, then he said he had been “thinking about it” and studying case law, but began the process of actually re-drawing maps on his own initiative, before receiving an official request from Schmitt, on April 15. He at first said he had no discussions with Republican leadership and then said he probably did “in passing.”

But there were questions I wanted to ask, and I was disappointed that the Democrats didn’t. For example, Ciampoli indicated that he relied on more than the census data – demographics, ages of people – and was fully well aware of voter registrations and voting patterns in terms of “making sure” the sanctity of the minority/majority districts were preserved. He knew exactly what proportion of a district voted for Obama, Schumer, Rice, Weitzman in 2008 and under the new plan. But no one asked how he applied that information to redrawing Great Neck, the Five Towns, and the other Democratically-controlled districts, particularly the district represented by David Denenberg, who is a particular target for elimination.

In fact, no one has explored the difference between population – which is what the Census is all about – and voter numbers at all.

Indeed, LD2 district is being split so that black sections are being sent to a predominantly white (and affluent) district, while a section that is Hispanic and known to have a large non-citizen (therefore non-voting) population is being kept in.

As Legislator Judi Bosworth pointed out in her questioning of Ciampoli, the shifts proposed by his map, changing from a north-south to an east-west configuration, seemed more calculated, than just trying to reach the ideal population of 70,637.

“Our District 10, has 70,502 population, when 70,637 is the target, so it is off by 135 people, which is 0.2% deviation. So for a point-2 deviation, you are changing almost half the district,” she asserted.

“In District 11, where there is 72,724 population, the deviation is 3.2%, after redistricting. In fact, though the 10th actually was almost at ideal, after redistricting, there would now be difference of only  1,557 with a deviation of 2.2%, so it would be worse in the 10th, and the 11th would be only marginally better. So it is difficult to understand.”

Ciampoli argued that the overriding issue was to “protect town lines” – and reduce the number of cuts from 7 in the 2003 redistricting, to only 3.

Legislator Wayne Wink challenged Ciampoli on his justification of carving up districts in order to reduce the number of town “cuts,” noting that throughout New Yor State, most townships have 10,000 to 15,000 population – akin to Long Island villages – but here in Nassau, 250,000 is the smallest township. “This is not matter of town lines being sacrosanct, because village lines are more closely akin to town on state level, when village lines being severed, but that apparently doesn’t merit consideration by town attorney.”

Ciampoli replied, “Town lines are part of guidelines enshrined in state law; village lines don’t have the same deference, and accordingly I followed that hierarchy.”

“It’s hard to believe that though you are now respecting the town line, because you have not only cut Great Neck Peninsula in half, but also divide villages, which is unthinkable,” Bosworth retorted. Great Neck Plaza is just one-third square mile, but it is the downtown, the transportation and commercial hub for the entire Peninsula. Yet,  under Ciampoli’s plan, this tiny village is split along Middle Neck Road, the main shopping street and thoroughfare. “That is  very problematic for the mayor and one could understand why.”

Pleading for More Time, More Input

But that is the bigger point that all the opponents made during the course of this solitary public hearing:

“It might have been nice to see different choices, so with public input, we might have been able to avoid splitting Great Neck Plaza, Great Neck Estates and Thomaston in two, and splitting Lake Success off entirely. That’s of great concern to my community. This is what happens when you don’t have the benefit of proper community involvement, or understand new boundaries, which from my perspective, don’t have any rhyme or reason.”

She was being kind, suggesting it was just Ciampoli’s lack of familiarity with the communities he was slicing and dicing, rather than a more politically strategic intention.

Consider, though, what diluting Great Neck’s votes and our political clout that comes with being a unified community would mean: County Executive Ed Mangano would have been able to close the 6th Precinct and shut down Long Island Bus service (still a possibility with Mangano’s plan to privatize the service), and Tom Suozzi would have been able to force us to shut down our waste treatment plant here and pipe our waste to Cedar Creek on the south shore.

Ciampoli, the Karl Rove of Nassau County politics, knows that Great Neck Peninsula is one of the most unified communities in the country and splitting Great Neck also dilutes one of the most significant power bases for the Democratic party left on Long Island.

Legislator Judi Bosworth stated, “Mr. Schmitt and the caucus are attempting to rush redistricting whereby more than half-million voters, 44% would be moved to new district. It’s plain wrong, most likely illegal, and should not be lauded by the county attorney who has a long history of voter suppression.”

Meanwhile, Democrat Robert Troiano, Legislator for LD 2, with a sly smile at Vincent Muscarela, the Republican Legislator for LD 8, warned that he is in for a new world, should he pick up that portion of LD 2 that is presently virtually entirely minority.

Amazingly, with all the census data that Ciampoli said he used, he said he did not consider median income when drawing the new districts, and did not see any problem, whatsoever, in pulling out a portion of Old Westbury into LD2, the minority/majority district, or breaking off the Village of Hempstead, and putting it in the same district as Garden City.

Ciampoli tried to divert attention away from the process or underlying strategy used to create the new map, telling the lawmakers this was “irrelevant”. The only thing that should is relevant, he claimed, was the map itself, that it comply with constitutional requirements and standards for “one-man-one-vote” so that the County not be subject to a lawsuit. He said the fact that the 2nd LD, now represented by Democrat Robert Troiano, had a 14% deviation (that is, 14 percent more population than the ideal number of 70,637), was sufficient “crisis” to warrant immediate action – not even waiting the allowed six months, as per the County charter.

Legislator Wayne Wink, though, pointed out the flaw in that argument, citing Supreme Court decisions which disregarded the “deviation” (by as much as 80% in Wyoming), in favor of an opportunity for public input and due consideration. He said that the case law all pointed to the fact that Sec 112 required only that the county demonstrate that it was acting to remedy the disparities in the districts; that the creation of a bipartisan commission to create the new lines in a deliberative way, would be sufficient to shield the county from a lawsuit. but more significantly, Sec 112 which Ciampoli and Schmitt keep citing as the imperative to adopt the new map now, without bipartisan or public input, allows for six months to act.

“This is intended to be a roadmap with public participation, with a bipartisan commission, and you are obviating that by denying public participation outside the 18 hours today…and you expect 7 days from now we will make this law,” He called the public hearing “a charade” and then said Ciampoli’s legal “counsel” was suspect.

“Ever since the hearings to appoint you, we have heard time and again about voter suppression and voter intimidation you have participated in directly, that’s what taints this entire process,” Wink said. “You, without any public input, shift 44% of entire population, 544,000 shifted under your tutelage, your guidance, with no public input, and based on your record on voter intimation in Yonkers, at Bard College, and all over the state, that is what has pre-ordained the outcome of these lines- your involvement in them, your history.”

This prompted moans from the Republican side and a rebuke of Wink from John J. Ciotti (R-LD 3), who otherwise asked no other probing questions of the County Attorney.

Schmitt said he fully expected a lawsuit over the reapportionment map, and in fact, “That’s fine with me too.”

This is the guy who justifies cuts in programs that benefit the poor, the elderly, children, disabled, and would happily see cuts to bus service because Nassau county is broke (another “crisis”), and yet has money to fritter away on a failed lawsuit to keep out NIFA, and now a reapportionment plan where the new districts look like a Rorschach test.

Ciampoli indicated that with his handy-dandy computer program, he could probably make amendments to the map PDQ (“I live to serve,” he quipped in answer to a question from Legislator Kevan Abrahams). Schmitt, who during the hearing professed no understanding of the term “bloodsoaked” used by a Hempstead resident to reflect concern over loss of voting rights, also gave the barest hint that he might be open to making some changes in light of the virtually unanimous opposition expressed during the public hearing.

“Based on the outpouring of folks,  it’s quite possible you will be taking a look at different avenue?” Abrahams said hopefully “It’s quite possible,” Schmitt replied, possibly more to end the hearing. “I am well aware I am taking my cue from tenor and tone of public comment – the Democrats comments, Great Neck, Uniondale. They are not too happy with what is proposed, I am aware.”

But Schmitt also steeled himself, manifesting that wonderful (that is, obnoxious) machismo that Republicans are strutting around the country, saying d he fully expected a lawsuit over the reapportionment map, and in fact, “That’s fine with me too.”

At points, the public hearing disintegrated into a shouting match, and the comments turned on Schmitt and the way he was handling the hearing.

“I am shocked and appalled at how you have addressed the public with no concern for our needs,” declared Regis Thompson, NY Democratic club. “It shows me hatred, not love prevails on this committee… Your neighbors must be shocked you have taken off the sheets.”

To which Presiding Officer Schmitt retorted, “if you are the best that the Hempstead Democratic Club can offer….” sparking a huge uproar. Two Hempstead men rallied to her side, Ramel Smith and Dennis Jones and police were summoned, threatening to arrest them, and escorted them out to the lobby. The situation cooled off  and all three returned.

Later, Ramel Smith addressed the board from the podium saying, “My grandmother and grandfather were Gertude and  Johnny Smith. In the 1960s, they were beaten by police with bolts at the bottom of their clubs. They fought for me to have a right to have my vote heard, as well as my mother and my son. You telling me today, to hell with my grandparents, mother, son.”

More Highlights from the Hearing

Here are some highlights from the testimony at Monday’s sole public hearing on the plan for reapportionment:

Minority Leader Diane Yatauro: “As I look out at huge crowd gathered, I am both encouraged and deeply angered – encouraged to see so many of constituents care so deeply about what is about to transpire, and are here to fight to stop this madness: cynical, hastily drawn map, in secret by couple of Republican operatives, Ciampoli at the direction of County Executive Ed Mangano and Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt, angry at so-called public hearing is held at the County seat rather than out in the community, and on a weekday morning, when most can’t attend because of work, angry because this hearing is nothing but a farce. The Republican caucus are going to hear you out, make some nice dip0lomatic phrases.

“The move of over 44% of the population, at the expense of hundreds of thousands of tax dollars, ishurried in direct contradiction of the charter, but business as usual [for the Republicans]. This is how the self-serving Republican protection plan will play out.

“I know Schmitt will claim to be the great protector of minority, despite voting against their judges, commissioners and community interests… He would turn the Five Towns into 2 ½ towns, sever villages, dilute communities, and the rights of veterans, union workers…

“This will end up again, in court – that’s where we will fight. We want to use the right process – a nonpartisan redistricting commission, with hearings in the very communities that are affected and redraw the lines for 2013,” Yatauro said.

County Attorney John Ciampoli: “This is a historic moment in this County’s history. It presents an opportunity for enfranchisement and empowerment, this is not a county subject to Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, yet this legislature pursuant to your directive has chosen to create a new minority/majority district in the western end, and to level the playing field in that part of the county to choose a representative of their choice.”

Valerie Fineman, Great Neck: “I appalled at what is being done here today… This redistricting is proposed with undue haste, rushing the allowed time available from the 6 months you have available…. It also demonstrates the blatant, unlawful, and illegal power grab…. This doesn’t represent the will of the people involved. The equal franchise is not represented by this plan, every community is hurt or divided by it. Time is needed to respond to local community needs and interests.”

Louise Hochberg, Great Neck United Parent Teacher Council: “The County Attorney relies on Sec 112, but it is Sec 113 that tells us how to accomplish the redistricting mandated by 112: 113 says there shall be a temporary redistricting advisory commission established each legislative term in which the legislature is required to apportion the county legislative districts as a result of the federal decennial… You can’t pick and choose which sections of the charter you will follow and when you will follow… Why are  you circumventing the bipartisan spirit in which our charter tells us to approach the redistricting issue?”

Continue reading on Nassau County GOP ram through redistricting plan aimed at securing majority rule – Long Island populist |

The Conversation: President Obama and the Left

Last week angry House Democrats, meeting to discuss the tax deal President Barack Obama negotiated behind their backs with Senate Republicans, chanted, “Just Say No!” at a meeting in the basement of the Capitol. In exchange for extending unemployment benefits the president agreed to keep the lower tax rates on America’s richest 2 percent that President George W. Bush had helped enact a decade ago—tax rates candidate Obama had promised to let expire. Those on the Left felt betrayed. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent/socialist Senator from Vermont, filibustered the bill for 8½ hours on the Senate floor, saying that Obama’s “credibility has been severely damaged.” The president did not appreciate opposition to the compromise from within his own party, calling them “sanctimonious” and unrealistic “purists.” Now there’s talk of someone from the left-wing of the party actually running in a primary against the incumbent, shades of Eugene McCarthy jousting with Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968! Has the Left been so dissed it’s time for a third-party challenge? Here to discuss are Lisa Tyson, executive director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition; Janine Melillo, regional coordinator for; and Nassau Legis. Kevan Abrahams (D-Hempstead).

Lisa: The idea that we’re purists is just wrong. This is a bad bill, and it’s basically giving everything away to the wealthy. The estate-tax component of it is a bitter pill that we are being forced to swallow. But does that mean we’re going to run a third-party candidate against him? No. What it does mean is that the grassroots need to build our own power, and we need to be more vocal and more organized just like the Tea Party is right now. Look at the health care bill. The president definitely took the Left Wing for granted on that one. We didn’t get the public option. He could’ve pushed harder to make sure that it was a requirement. He has never been a progressive. When he was coming into office, we always knew that. The question is how much to the right or how much in the middle is he. This latest bill really is scary for us because what’s going to happen in the next two years? How much to the right will he move?

Kevan: Well, during the campaign I will say that Barack Obama probably came across more as a progressive guy than I thought. I don’t know if I would technically agree with Lisa because he’s gone to the center on this one issue. He’s been more than progressive, I think, on health care reform. Again, he had to structure a deal with moderate and progressive Democrats. At the end of the day it’s something that other presidents hadn’t been able to do. I think he’ll have an opportunity to prove to progressive Democrats that he is definitely in line with their policies and what they’d like to see from their president.

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Janine: Progressives need to keep reminding Obama that he was elected quite convincingly by a majority of the voters because he talked explicitly and confidently about moving this country forward in a progressive direction.  This is what people wanted; this is what people expect. And so there is a lot of disappointment around his preemptive capitulation on the fight over the Bush tax breaks for the rich. MoveOn members have been extensively surveyed since the tax deal was announced, and most members oppose it. For starters, the lion’s share of the benefit will go to the very rich, and this is not an effective way to create jobs, according to most economists. What’s more, the deal would cut payroll taxes, endangering the long-term funding of Social Security−giving Republicans just the opening they want to gut or even nix the program.

Kevan: My response to progressive Democrats is: What would you have done on January 1 if there’s no deal in place? What do you say to those millions of Americans who are no longer going to be receiving job benefits? I don’t think that now is the time that we should be challenging within our own party. The president’s only been there for two years. From my standpoint he should be judged on his full term. America spoke on Nov. 2nd. Republicans took back the House. And it’s important that progressive Democrats, independents, everybody listen.

Janine: The most frightening thing is that we know this isn’t the end, or even the beginning of the end, of the Republican tactic of holding the middle class hostage to demand huge and unnecessary bailouts for the rich. Rewarding this tactic now will only encourage them to do it again. As for the president, we will keep urging him to articulate and fight for the progressive agenda he ran on in 2008. And whether he does or not, we will keep doing that ourselves.

Lisa: Right now he has basically put his name on a redistribution of wealth. But a third- party challenge won’t help. We need the left to be stand up and be organized in every district across the country. Having a third-party candidate could give the Republicans the win in the next presidential election. We saw the Ralph Nader effect in 2000, and that’s the last thing we need.

Citizen Action of New York’s History

by Alan Charney

Understanding the history of Citizen Action of New York (CANY) can only be done by looking at the origins of Citizen Action as a national effort in the 1970s to consolidate an anti-corporate strategy and program as the basis for progressive politics. What I propose to do is first look at the economic and political, the institutional and ideological context in which Citizen Action was founded as a national federation of state organizations. Then, I will point out those economic and political, institutional and ideological factors peculiar to CANY. Finally, I will argue that the overall context previously defining Citizen Action has changed radically – posing a host of new challenges for us. This can only mean that the strategy and program of CA must change accordingly.

The economic and political, the institutional and the ideological context for Citizen Action strategy and program.

  1. The economic and political context. Citizen Action, as a national federation of autonomous state organizations, was founded in the mid-1970s at pivotal point in post-war history. It was the point at which the longest period of sustained economic expansion in the history of capitalism was coming to a close. It was a period from the late 1940s to the early 1970s that was based on corporate dominance of the national economy along with mass prosperity for the majority. It was built on a virtuous circle of rising productivity, rising profits and rising wages. During this period, trade unions were significantly stronger than they are today, and working class communities were much more stable. An expanding tax base and an economic orthodoxy of deficit spending promoted an expanding welfare state. Indeed, many corporate interests were supportive of greater government intervention in the economy…unlike today.The strategy and program of Citizen Action were shaped during this time of corporate liberal hegemony. The strategy of CANY was fundamentally anti-corporate: that is, it was based on the premise that the national economy was controlled by large national corporations whose interests were almost always opposed to the interests of poor and working people. Furthermore, the main countervailing institutions opposing corporate power were organized labor, and poor and working class communities, primarily unorganized. The program of CANY was fundamentally pro-government: that is, it was based on the premise that government power was necessary to regulate and control the excesses of corporate power. Thus, unions and communities together would organize state and national campaigns from legislation that would reign in the corporations.So, by 1978, CANY had initiated the Citizen/Labor Energy coalition to combat rising gasoline, electric and national gas prices. Later, there were campaigns against toxic wastes, and of course, the campaign for single-payer health insurance. Ironically, almost the entire history of CANY, from the mid-1970s to the mid 1990s unfolded during a period of economic decline for poor and working people and one of ascendancy for corporate power. It was a period in which trade union membership and influence also declined and stable working class communities were in eclipse. During these twenty years – and continuing today – there has been a retrenchment of the welfare state, a great reduction in taxes for the corporations and the top 20% of income-earners, and a right-wing assault on government activism. Except for four years (1977-1978, and 1993-1994), this has been a time of conservative hegemony.
  2. The institutional context. In its origins, Citizen Action was fascinating amalgam of the Old Left and the New Left. Its Old Left side included both an understanding of the institutional importance of the trade unions, even if many of them lacked progressive leadership, and the institutional necessity of organizing poor and working class communities. Saul Alinsky had been the leading advocate of bringing the lessons of organizing the mass industrial unions in the 1930s and 1940s to bear directly on organizing communities as countervailing institutions to corporate power. His approach to community organizing became the basis for Citizen Actions approach to organizing for social change. At the same time, CANY’s New Left side – primarily due to the influence of the Civil Rights movement — included an emphasis on community empowerment and direct action politics, as well as a greater reliance on government programs as the solution to endemic problems of social and economic injustices. In this regard, the civil rights and social welfare laws passed from 1964-1965 served as a model.
  3. The ideological context. CANY was conceived and organized by a cohort of New Left activists, many who had first become involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. Indeed, a disproportionate share of them had been members and leaders of Students for a Democratic Society, the premiere student New Left organization of the 1960s. In advocating a “citizen action” approach to social change, they were explicitly rejecting what they viewed as excesses of New Left politics, such as ideological sectarianism, a radicalism of thought and action that seemed to put off a majority of Americans and issues such as the Indochina war which couldn’t help but divide a broad poor and working class constituency. The citizen action approach was based much more on organizing poor and working people around their immediate interests, which were almost always opposed to corporate interests and avoiding potentially divisive social and ideological issues.We believed there was a majoritarian strategy, based on a program of economic justice, that could organize poor and working people to win progressive legislation, which would both expand the welfare state (as with national health insurance) and regulate corporate power (as with energy prices), as well as elect many more progressives to public office at all levels of government. Moreover, Citizen Action, as a national federation of state multi-issue organization, was central to the realization of this majoritarian strategy. This strategy was bold and flexible, but it also had its major shortcomings. Foremost was its “strategic” neglect of communities of color. A majoritarian strategy did not require a concentration on building bases in communities of color. It also meant that many of our issues were important, but not central, to the interests of people of color.

The economic and political, institutional and the ideological factors peculiar to CANY

  1. The economic and political context. During CANYs first 12 years existence – from 1983-1994 — state government was dominated by liberal Democrats. Only the State Senate was Republican controlled. Moreover, in a period of corporate conservative hegemony on the national level, key corporate interests in New York were oriented in a more liberal direction. (The fact is that Wall Street – that is, the finance sector — has remained the only capitalist sector with some loyalty to the program of liberal democrats.)Historically, corporate interests in New York have always been less resistant to social reform than corporate interests in many other states. (I know it is hard to take this in, but comparatively speaking it is true.) Thus, there was a political climate more favorable to a “citizen-action” economic agenda, particularly around health care. Also, the Republican control of the State Senate determined, to a significant degree, CANYs political focus.The State Senate was the roadblock to the passage of progressive legislation. Most of the Republican State Senators were from Long Island and upstate. Therefore, it made sense for CANY to organize its political base on Long Island and upstate in order to put pressure on these legislators. Indeed, for many years CANY was one of the only statewide organizations, along with the CWA and UAW, openly and actively to oppose Republican control of the State Senate during election time.
  2. The institutional context. CANY was founded in 1983 as an amalgam of a chapter-based organization called the Citizens Alliance, and the statewide affiliate of the Citizen/Labor Energy Coalition. The Citizens Alliance was a membership organization of poor and working-class people, similar to ACORN. C/LEC was primarily a coalition of trade unions. (In other states, Citizen Action affiliates were either organized on a community chapter model, or on a statewide coalition model.) For the first year, we stayed primarily a chapter-based organization, but we quickly realized that in a populous state like New York with many powerful institutions it would be exceedingly difficult to influence state politics from an exclusively community base. So, in our case necessity led to innovation, for we wound up combining the chapter and coalition models. Thus we were able to involve both local bases of citizen activists and influential statewide progressive organizations. And, we have had the capacity to intervene on both local and statewide issues and elections.
  3. The ideological context. Another distinguishing factor of politics in New York State is that it is carried out at a higher ideological level that in most other states. This difference is due partially to the historic influence of the organized left, like the Socialist and Communist parties, as well as the former prevalence of many left-wing unions. But it is also true that the right wing has, for many years, had a distinct ideological presence through the Conservative Party. Ideological identification is not only less of a problem in New York State. Many times it can even be an asset in building coalitions and involving activists. Indeed, our regional chapters are made up of many self-identified progressive, and left, activists. The Working Families Party adds further support to CANYs overt progressive character.

Changes in the context: challenges for the 21st century.

  1. The economic and political context. In the last 25 years, there has been a transformation from an era of national corporate capitalism to one of global capitalism. Overall, transnational corporations, whether American or foreign, operate on a planetary scale. They are more powerful and control more wealth than national corporations ever did. Moreover, national governments by themselves have less capacity to regulate and control corporate behavior and less ability to redistribute wealth in favor of poor and working people.Communities are much more transitional and diverse than before, and unions are no longer organized in the today’s leading sectors of the economy – finance and information-like they were fifty years ago in the mass production industries. This means that the “citizen-action” majoritarian strategy, at least on a national level, will be even more difficult to achieve. But, it does point to the necessity of a new approach – based on transnational organizing, transnational coalitions, and transnational issues. This approach may appear absolutely daunting at first, but so did the idea of national organizing one hundred years ago. So, here is my first prediction for the 21st century: a progressive majoritarian strategy will have to be trans-national to succeed.
  2. The institutional context. In our political activity, we are facing an increasingly diverse and pluralist population. This is so obvious it needs no enumeration. Moreover, communities will continue to get more and more diverse. There may no longer even be a possibility of constructing a simple majoritarian strategy and program around any key issues, save for a few “tried and true” ones like Social Security. We need to think more in terms of a complex majoritarian stategy and program. We need to invent institutional models based on an expanding plurality of constituencies. For, when we add up the myriad of constituencies and communities demanding social and economic justice today, it is actually a larger potential majority than the old one.The key is looking for a program which better encompasses this complex majority. Education is certainly one basis for this new program because it is institutional in nature. A diversity of interests from a plurality of constituencies can be accommodated and coordinated but only if the institution – in this case public education — is protected and enhanced. The struggle over the future of the institution comes first. So, here is my second prediction for the 21st century: a majoritarian strategy will have to be institutional to succeed.
  3. The ideological context. In the 21st century, there will be a “return of the ideological.” In large part, we have the right wing to thank for this resurrection. For one, the right wing has organized its constituencies more around values and ideas than around interests. More importantly, the right wing has mounted powerful ideological assaults on democratic institutions, particularly government. It is obvious that a democratically run, activist government is essential for the realization of a progressive program. How else can we effectively redistribute wealth and expand the welfare state? So, progressives are compelled to defend the integrity of government as a precondition of winning any serious social reforms.Moreover, the collapse of liberalism has left the broad left as the only principled defender of public values and institutions. There is no other way to beat back to right-wing assault on democratic institutions except through ideological means. Indeed, what is most fascinating is that the roles of left and right have reversed. Traditionally, the right has defended the “impartial” character of public institutions against the assaults from the left, which viewed public institutions as subservient to “ruling class” interests. Now the right argues that government is subservient to the interests of our constituencies. In effect, by attacking government, the right is attacking democratic participation and the values of citizenship. That’s why, in the long run, our defense of government will greatly enhance the persuasiveness and prestige of our progressive viewpoint. So, here is my third prediction for the 21st century: a majoritarian strategy will have to be ideological to succeed.Finally, we are the bearers of a noble strain of American life – the inheritors of all those social movements that have instigated changes for more justice and less inequality in American society. The truth is that at no time in our history did a progressive stance really encompass more that minority of the American people. Today, our viewpoint represents about 15% of the population. But, there are several other viewpoints out there. None represents more than a plurality. Ours is hardly the smallest. I believe that our viewpoint – the progressive one – has the greatest potential to expand. But, only if we understand the opportunities afforded by the new context, and only if we are willing to make the changes necessary to succeed.