Personal Voice: Don't Just Organize, Mobilize!
In one week, New Yorkers will vote for their next mayor. Mike Bloomberg is outspending his opponent 7 to 1 and will probably win, proving once again that in politics, like so many other aspects of our lives, money trumps all.
This summer I ran for New York City Council in an attempt to prove that democracy isn't dead. I am a multiracial 24-year-old, fresh out of Columbia grad school, and my district extends from the Upper West Side to East Harlem and the South Bronx. I didn't win, but boy do I have a story to tell!
It began on September 2, 2004. The 2004 GOP National Convention was more than just a huge annoyance for New Yorkers. It was a symbolic pissing on our collective stoop. How could this happen in New York, the supposed heart and balls of Lefty politics in America? What was so wrong that things could reach this point?
For one week, Manhattan was a tangle of organized sweaty confusion as Republicans strutted around in celebration of themselves and all their past, present and impending successes. That week, New York liberals, progressives, radicals, Democrats, whatever, (I'm just going to call them all Lefties), took a big slap across the face, and I wondered what we were all going to do about it.
The crowd at Madison Square Garden roared their approval of yet another crisply delivered George W. Bush sound clip, and I was one of many New York Lefties staring in gape-mouthed awe at what was playing out on my home turf.
Fast forward to July 11, 2005. Excited and confident I could pull off the impossible, I was emailing friends, family, associates and radio DJs about my decision to run for New York City Council as an Independent for the November general election.
I saw myself as an appealing candidate with a no-nonsense progressive agenda and a creative campaign planned to promote it. Not only did I want to use my campaign to get elected, I also wanted to inspire people into a raging fire for some serious social change.
Basically I would do everything Democrats weren't and kick-start an entire progressive movement all by myself ... and all in time to make the ballot petition deadline that was five weeks away. It turned out though that my planned campaign tagline -- 'the realest realist-idealist' -- wasn't as in touch with reality as I thought.
Not surprisingly, the run was an unspectacular failure. Very few people took me seriously, which made it hard to gather the money and volunteers I needed to execute my overly-ambitious campaign strategy. Even my mom didn't think I was serious! Time eventually ran out and I had to give it up.
But that's okay. Those five weeks taught me invaluable lessons about myself and the challenges facing progressives in New York City and the U.S. I share those lessons in the hope that we get it together before things get much worse.
Lesson 1: Politics is first about image, then connections, then policy.
For most people, politics are a silly clown show and a nuisance to be paid attention to only when absolutely necessary. We are also bombarded with more media and information than we can possibly make sense of. Getting the attention of the uninterested masses was difficult for an unknown, broke guy like me. It didn't matter how visionary and practical my agenda was because nobody was interested and people assume politicians lie anyway.
Honestly, people were more concerned with my ethnicity. What are the priorities of a multiracial politician? There were some major trust issues going on, which makes sense considering politicians' track record of keeping campaign promises.
That's why endorsements from organizations, politicians and unions are so important. If your union or someone else you voted for endorses someone else, you'll probably support the candidate whether or not you know what he or she is about. I tried to get a few endorsements, but all I got was being laughed at -- literally, in some cases.
As for policy, politicians are forced to give the least possible information about their stances on issues. That's right, even the honest ones are forced to lie! The more they reveal, the more ammunition they give opponents and the media to blow them to pieces. And since people are paying so little attention, a few carefully chosen buzzwords usually do the trick. The problem is these words often end up having little connection with reality.
In the district I was running in, gentrification is a big issue. The general sentiment is that politicians have sold out the community to developers building housing nobody can afford. That's why every candidate here talked about "affordable housing." Do they have a workable plan? Can anything even be done from the local level? It doesn't matter, the candidates' flyer clearly says that they're for affordable housing, next issue! And that's a problem, because there may be very little substance behind the talk.
How many candidates talk about education? One of the most important things I learned studying education policy was just how little substance there is to politician-talk about the schools. Case in point, "No Child Left Behind" is all about testing and failing kids, teachers and schools.
That's why I call politics a clown show -- it's all about image. My campaign failed partly because I didn't want to join the show. I almost capitalized on my dance background and danced around the district to symbolize my being the "new mover and shaker on the scene!" Looking back, I'm pretty glad I didn't dance up and down the streets of East Harlem and the South Bronx. The point is this -- if we are disappointed in the world politics is giving us, it's because we are allowing it to go down this way. Inform yourself about more than just the latest celebrity gossip and crap-you-don't-need-but-will-obsess-about-and-buy-anyway, and demand more for your vote. You realize we're destroying the environment at record pace, people are dying senselessly here and abroad, and our economy still sucks. It's serious out here, wake up!
Lesson 2: It's hard, but not impossible for the average concerned person to run for office and win!
My run failed because I didn't raise the money and support I needed to carry out an overly ambitious campaign strategy. By the time I realized that, it was too late to adjust. Plus I hadn't collected anything close to the 2,700 signatures I needed to make the ballot. That doesn't mean it's impossible to run and win public office, it just takes more time and support than I was working with. I ran because I thought I could win, and I still do think regular people with no political connections or money can do it. It just takes the right strategy, which leads me to the next point.
Lesson 3: Winning requires a strategy that fits the reality of the situation.
Sounds obvious, right? This is so important for us Lefties to get through our thick skulls. My strategy was a good one, and it came after a lot of consideration about what most middle-of-the-road and Lefty people need. The two things I focused on were information and inspiration -- people need to know the issues, what can be done about them, and they have to believe it can be done.
I planned issue forums, clever flyers, mixtapes, an in-depth reference section for my campaign site etc., but how could I put all that together and get it out to people, by myself, in five weeks? Good ideas maybe, but they didn't match the resources I was working with. I had about $2,000 in donations and some old laser printers. I should've just churned out material, hired some help and pounded the street to stir up some buzz.
Lesson 4: Winning elections requires money and volunteers.
Even if you're running for a local office with a guerilla strategy like mine, money and manpower matter. Everything costs money, there is a ton work to be done and the candidate needs to spend time out on the streets. You don't need a fortune and an army of volunteers, but some allies will help you run the campaign you want to run. Just to be on the ballot required 2,700 signatures from voters inside the district. Considering that an hour of soliciting may only yield five signatures, the importance of volunteers becomes crucial.
Lesson 5: Lefties need to unite around a clear agenda ... Now!
In New York everyone is Democrat. Nobody seems to know what that means, and believe me, I've asked around. New York City is supposed to be a base of progressive politics and we've had Republican mayors for 12 years and will probably have one for another four. What is going on?
Like most New York Democrats, I was pretty uninspired by the candidates we put out for mayor. How do they stand out? What's the vision? It seems like a system that encourages sound bite answers and contribution check hunting favors Republicans while the Democrats are too scared to stand for anything clear and different.
Well guess what? We control that system! If Lefties are going to balance out this country's politics, we better stop tearing each other apart on issues like race, loyalty and "who said or did what when" and start talking policy.
The difference between talk and action is a mile wide, so the regular folks better understand that difference and demanding media and politicians who do too. Knowing what you're for is much more important than what you're against.
Right-wingers don't do nearly as much infighting as us lefties do. It's a problem of our ideology. We like inclusion, we like everyone having a say, but that can also get messy if we don't stay focused on what's going on and where we want to go. In short, we are each the causes and ultimate victims of the mess that is politics. Fortunately, we are also the solution.
So what now?
I want to make changes that improve people's lives. As much as I hate politics, it seemed like the right place to start. I hate politics because it feeds into a cycle of social deception, division and distraction while real issues go unaddressed. As councilman, I wanted to show that it's possible for elected officials to advance an agenda grounded in the needs and aspirations of regular people (read: non-campaign check writers). I honestly thought I could win.
I'm still focused on making changes, but I'm now more interested in bringing people the inspiration and information they need in order to pressure the political system to shape up. (Does anyone out there in the media like my style? I need a job.)
I care more about solving problems than politics. Rightist and leftist ideas are not mutually exclusive and they often raise valid issues the other side ignores. Once we agree on the basic definition of the problem and are serious about fixing it, I'll hear you out. Conveniently denying the awesome power of circumstances is a right-wing tendency that I don't embrace, but the ultimate power of individuals to take control of their lives is something I do embrace. To use that power we first need to know we have it, and then we have to want to use it.