State Budget Woes + City Council Progressive Caucus

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Local News


In-Depth: Progressive Caucus

Why do they exist?

The City Council Progressive Caucus was initially organized in 2009 by Council Members Brad Lander (Park Slope) and Melissa Mark-Viverito (East Harlem) to create a left-liberal bloc within the homogeneously Democratic City Council, in opposition to then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Largely aligned with and supported by the Working Families Party (WFP), the Caucus now comprises 20 of the 51 Members of the City Council (48 of whom are Democrats).

Born out of the ashes of a brutal 2009 election season that saw Mayor Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn engineer a temporary term limit extension which allowed the Mayor to win a third term, the Progressive Caucus came to citywide ascendance in 2013. In the 2013 election, the Progressive Caucus and the WFP won major victories in the two top citywide offices, with Bill De Blasio winning the Mayoral election and Letitia James winning the Public Advocate seat. Furthermore, with the Caucus gaining seats on the Council, they were able to elect Mark-Viverito as Speaker in a coup against the previous system of unelected Democratic county bosses handpicking a speaker. The Progressive Caucus and WFP also made more room for organized labor at the table throughout this process.

What do they stand for?

It its short life, the Progressive Caucus has illustrated both the promise and the bounds of Democratic Party-approved progressivism in the City. De Blasio and Mark-Viverito’s control over both branches of city government have yielded genuine improvements such as universal pre-K, paid sick leave, and a plan to finally close Rikers. The Progressive Caucus recently released an impressive and comprehensive policy agenda for 2018, which includes Free CUNY, strengthening Sanctuary City protections, Fair Work Week legislation, and more.

However, Speaker Mark-Viverito still has not allowed the Right to Know Act to reach the Council floor, even though it is listed prominently in the 2018 agenda. Furthermore, Progressive Caucus members continue to take money from real estate donors, complicating their stated desires to improve housing affordability. And finally, only two members of the Caucus – Jumaane Williams (East Flatbush) and Ritchie Torres (Central Bronx) – endorsed Bernie Sanders last spring, while the others all publicly supported Clinton, including Caucus co-founder Brad Lander who justified his endorsement with this unfortunate bit of hand-wringing. While the Progressive Caucus has broken with some longstanding traditions of Democratic city politics in welcome ways, some rings are just too shiny to avoid kissing.

What’s next?

The Progressive Caucus’ standing in city politics following this fall’s municipal election remains to be seen. Establishment labor unions cut ties with the WFP during the 2014 gubernatorial race, threatening the party’s influence in local races and calling into question if/how the Caucus’ size will change after November. At least six prominent members of the Caucus, including Corey Johnson (Chelsea), Mark Levine (West Harlem), Julissa Ferreras (Corona), Ydanis Rodriguez (Washington Heights), Jimmy Van Bramer (LIC/Woodside), and Jumaane Williams, have publicly announced their intent to run for Council Speaker to replace the term limited Mark-Viverito.

A major sticking point in the Speaker race is likely to be the Right To Know Act, as a future Speaker could abandon Mark-Viverito’s pact with the Mayor to stifle the Act, which is close to having enough support for both of its bills to reach a veto-proof majority. As Mark-Viverito’s position illustrates, a Council Member’s allegiance to the Progressive Caucus may not guarantee their commitment to the Right to Know Act, and it is possible that the Mayor could intervene or seek new alliances with Democratic County leaders to ensure that a speaker is elected who will continue to hold the bills back. The Speaker field may narrow in the months before and after the election, but it is being speculated that the Caucus’ power could wane if it does not coalesce around a single candidate.

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