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It's Not Just New York: The New Era of Progressive Urban Politics

Amy Traub

Staging imaginary competitions between cities and their elected leaders certainly makes for catchy headlines: “Step Aside, New York City. Los Angeles's Populism Is for Real” asserts the title of Nancy L. Cohen’s recent piece in the New Republic. “Later this month,” Cohen explains, “two [Los Angeles] City Council members will introduce a motion to raise the minimum wage to a nation-leading $15.37 an hour for hotel workers—nearly double the California minimum wage of $8.” Very welcome – but that’s just hotel workers. In Seattle, meanwhile, Mayor Ed Murray is vowing to start paying all municipal employees at least $15 an hour, and told Salon’s Josh Eidelson that “I think that we are gonna get to $15” for all of Seattle’s private sector workers as well.

The headline of that Salon article? “Move over, de Blasio: Meet the big-city mayor vowing to get his city a $15 minimum wage.” It appears that New York City, with its much-heralded progressive mayor (and the less-recognized but critically important new city council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, a deeply committed fighter for social and economic justice) has a lot to live up to. And it’s not just cities making wide-eyed promises and setting ambitious goals:  Seatac, WA raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour last year, while in Washington DC, the City Council voted unanimously to boost the minimum to $11.50 an hour and also expanded the city’s paid sick leave law to restaurant workers, who were previously excluded. Jersey City instituted paid sick days.

But New York will not be left in the dust. While Mayor de Blasio’s highest profile salvo against inequality is a plan to raise taxes on wealthy households in order to fund universal pre-school as well as free after-school programs for middle school students, that proposal faces barriers in the form of tax-averse Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Republican-dominated State Senate. Luckily, de Blasio’s agenda is loaded with plans he can implement without Albany’s approval. Mayor de Blasio has already signaled his eagerness to expand New York’s paid sick days law to 300,000 more working people and expand the city’s living wage law to cover employees that work at businesses renting space in city-subsidized developments.

In a city of many renters, de Blasio’s plans to enact mandatory inclusionary zoning to promote more affordable housing will provide a major boost to low-income New Yorkers as well. The mayor has also vowed to “stop credit discrimination in employment,” ensuring that New Yorkers who struggle to pay their bills are not shut out of the job market as a result. New York City’s bill preventing credit discrimination,  sponsored by Councilman Brad Lander, mirrors the latest legislative push by Senator Elizabeth Warren and is stronger than the laws in place in several states.  

But renewed big city progressivism is not just the flavor of the month. As Cohen notes in the New Republic, “L.A.’s populist moment has been long in the making…  the culmination of two decades of progressive labor and immigrant-led organizing” by groups like the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE).  What Cohen misses is that this is the case in New York as well, where organizations like Make the Road New York and the Working Families Party (whose decades-long rise was recently chronicled by Harold Meyerson in the American Prospect) built a deep progressive infrastructure that is increasingly producing results. In cities across the country, labor unions and organizations descended from ACORN have laid the groundwork for today’s big city focus on fighting inequality to succeed.

At the same time, the progressive turn was far from inevitable. Let’s not forget that just a few months ago, the headlines were dominated by a very different kind of competition between cities: Philadelphia closed 23 schools, displaced 10,000 students, and laid off 3,700 teachers and other school personnel, according to a tally in Labor Notes.  Not to be outdone, Chicago closed 47 schools, displaced 12,700 students who were forced to walk through dangerous neighborhoods, and laid off 2,000 education workers. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s emphasis on high-stakes testing and school closures is one of the major policies Mayor de Blasio vows to change.

Whatever happens in New York, Los Angeles and Seattle, it looks unlikely that Chicago’s mayor Rahm Emmanuel and Philadelphia’s Michael Nutter will regard themselves any time soon as part of a competition to lift low-wage workers and fight inequality. (Although if Chicago activists succeed in putting a $15 an hour minimum wage hike  before city voters, the mayor’s position may be moot).

Still, a headline in the Journal Sentinel caught my attention. Inspired by Bill de Blasio’s plans to fight inequality, Milwaukee school board member Larry Miller had a simple message: “Milwaukee needs a bolder vision.” Competition or no, that's exactly the way America's cities should be inspiring each other.