OF A GREEN ALDERMAN
Former Green Party Alderman
New Haven, CT
While many of us will
shy away from the conversation, a lot of us would probably acknowledge
that there needs to be discussion on the effectiveness of the
strategies associated with anti-corporate politics. In a recent
essay, Naomi Klein came close to broaching the subject in alluding
to the limitations of single issue, protest based activism, the
best known form of which she calls "meeting stalking."
The ultimate result of protest politics, she suggests, is a one
step forward, two step backward pas de deux where a victory on
one front - shutting down a WTO meeting, closing a sweatshop,
preventing the opening of a toxic waste incinerator, or preventing
the extinction of a species is inevitably accompanied by losses
on a whole range of issues where the corporate agenda moves forwarded
unimpeded by public pressure and with the active collusion of
The protest model marks
a sharp break with a long tradition of political engagement.
Radical politics has generally taken as its explicit objective
not influencing actors within government, but replacing them
with those who would take control of state power for the purpose
of implementing a comprehensive populist, egalitarian agenda.
That means, to be blunt, building a party, and competing and
winning in elections.
So my intention in running
as a Green for the New Haven Board of Aldermen was to contribute
a brick in the wall for the development of this kind of politics.
The way you insert your brick is by winning and then serving
It might come as surprise
that the first part of this - winning- was easy but in fact it
was. I won twice, both times by landslides. Furthermore, I am
far from an ideal candidate, so my victory should not be seen
as any indication of my strength as a candidate but rather of
the weakness of the Democratic opposition. And this raises a
more general point which needs to be better understood and that
is that the grassroots base of the Democratic Party is in an
advanced state of decay. This is attributable, in part, to the
Democrats being, as my constituent Adoph Reed trenchantly remarked
in a recent forum, "useless." But it is also attributable
to two structural factors. The first is that the old model of
locally based politics beautifully rendered in William Kennedy's
novel "Roscoe", one presided over by ward heelers,
precinct captains and which involved active participation on
the community level has been replaced by a top down, media driven
politics which primarily involves obtaining large contributions
and using these to purchase air time. The second is that neo-liberal
cuts in the size of government have seriously reduced the financial
means by which machines purchase loyalty. For everyone who was
cut into the action through a patronage position, there is now
someone else who has been laId off from the typing pool, been
cut from his position as a school janitor or food service worker.
The combinations of all these factors make local Democratic organizations
extremely vulnerable to insurgent candidacies like mine. The
Gonzalez campaign in San Francisco may have woken the national
party up to this but it may be too late.
That being said, machine
politics in its dotage continues its old ways of doing business
in places like New Haven. Primary among these is the selection
of "approved" candidates by ward committees on the
basis of loyalty to the machine. This is, of course, a guarantee
of political mediocrity and here my own campaign provides a relevant
case study. My opponent was fairly typical of what the machine
can be expected to offer up: a part owner of a local bar and
a site developer for Walgreens Drugs, his motivation for seeking
local office was transparently to achieve "access"
which he would use to advance his own business interests and
those of his friends and family members. "Access,"
i.e. having a seat on the board would put him in a position to
intercede with the city traffic commission to remove residential
parking zones and bus stops on the streets adjacent to his bar,
freeing up additional parking for the bar patrons. He could lobby
the zoning board to allow for variances for the expansion of
his bar and for special exceptions to local noise ordinances.
A seat on the board would also allow him to pursue favorable
consideration for a Walgreen's strip mall development, something
which, in fact, was already in the works before the city planning
board, though I didn't know this.
More or less the same
story can be told for most members of the board. Most receive
indirect financial compensation for their service, sometimes
through the private sector, as would have been the case had my
opponent won. More often, the compensation comes in the form
of patronage jobs for themselves or family members in one or
another city department, or in some cases through salaried positions
in non-profit service organizations which receive funding through
community development block grants administered through the city.
Add into this a small but influential cadre of Yale technocrats-in-training
who are using their positions in local government as a stepping
stone to positions in the national ranks of the Democratic Party
and you have a snapshot of how one big city machine operates
and sustains itself.
These quid pro quo arrangements
are usually not technically illegal but they are pretty obviously
corrupt and it doesn't take a highly sophisticated voter to recognize
this: all that's required to make these into a winning political
issue on a ward level is access to a Xerox machine. That, as
well as a decent organization which the Green Party has built
up here since economist Rick Wolfe first ran as a Green mayoral
candidate in 1988 (on the platform "Tax Yale, Not Us")
was enough to get me in.
The upshot is that I won
not in spite of the fact that I was a Green running against an
entrenched machine, I won because I was a Green running against
an entrenched Democratic machine. And it wasn't only me; following
my first win in July of 2001, in the general election in November
we elected a second Green in a predominantly African American
ward. A third missed winning by 15 votes. A fourth and fifth
garnered 42 and 25 percent respectively. All this was sufficient
to create a panic in the Democratic ranks who are, unlike most
political activists and political observers, acutely aware of
the tenuousness of their hold on power.
The Democrat's response
to our success should have been predictable: rather than triangulating
to the right as they have become accustomed to, they were forced
to triangulate to the left. This trajectory was charted by the
New Haven Advocate's Paul Bass:
Two years ago, a left-wing
Yale music professor made history in New Haven. He won an election
as a third-party candidate, the first such victory in generations.
He and his party, the Greens, called for publicly funded elections,
bike lanes, cleaner air, support for Yale unions--all positions
on which Democratic City Hall was either opposed or silent. The
Yale prof rode his bike on his new rounds as a city alderman.
He was dubbed "Alderman Bike." The city's Democratic
mayor, John DeStefano, drove around town in his taxpayer-paid
Lincoln Navigator SUV.
Fast-forward to fall 2003.
Democrat DeStefano has proposed the state's first municipal public
financing ("clean elections") law. He led a successful
fight to block the restarting of the English Station power plant--and
broadened it to take on other polluters. He joined forces with
Yale's unions and took on Yale. After Alderman Bike complained,
the city hired a cop to chase illegal dumpers full-time and arrest
them. City Hall has retrieved and dusted off an old bikeable-city
plan; the first of many promised bike lanes has appeared, in
Alderman Bike's neighborhood. And the mayor, running for re-election,
aired a commercial showing him riding his bike to work and lampooning
mayors who drive luxury gas-guzzlers instead.
While the focus is local,
Bass's observations can be generalized to other cities and to
other levels of government. The basic lesson is that the prospect
of politics escaping from elite control and the fear that it
induces among elites is what forces substantive, as opposed to
merely superficial, political concessions from the actors in
the two corporate parties who serve elite interests.
The historical precedents
for this view are well known. Bismarck's acceptance of national
health insurance is generally understood to be a concession in
the face of the revolutions of 1848. The success of West German
labor unions in the Cold War period is understood to have resulted
from the silent presence of a third negotiator at the table-the
eastern bloc. The threat posed by organized leftist politics,
both domestic and foreign, is what created the climate for the
passage of New Deal legislation. The ideological threat posed
by the artistic and cultural achievements of the Soviet Union
is what led to the network of subsidies for musicians, artists
and writers, documented in Francis Stonor Saunder's Cultural
And conversely, the waning of serious, organized oppositional
politics is certain to result in the dismantling of the gains
which have been achieved in period of progressive ferment - in
increasing concentration of wealth, assaults on civil and human
rights, inferior working conditions etc. It should not come as
news to anyone that we are suffering through one of these periods
now. While this is partly due to the increased organizational
effectiveness of the right, it is also a consequence of the failure
of a generation which is usually given credit for their political
engagement, and this returns me to the discussion I alluded to
at the outset.
The drugs and sex of the
of the sixties were undoubtedly, I would imagine, a lot of fun,
and some of the music, while overrated, is actually pretty good.
And on a more serious note, the new left's critique of the patriarchical
authoritarianism of the old left was more than a little overdue.
At the same time, much of what passed for "liberation"
in the sixties needs now to be seen as a hollowing out of the
organized core of oppositional politics - one which had, to be
fair, already been devastated by the McCarthy era. It was this
vacuum which allowed for the DLC takeover of the Democratic Party
and to the subsequent imposition of neo-liberalist austerity
presided over by Republican and Democrat administrations.
The single issue protest
model which we are saddled with should be seen as the legacy
of counter-cultural politics, one which, in its most extreme,
adolescent form takes for granted that that elites (read adults)
should take responsibility for the provision of goods and services,
public safety and the distribution of wealth and privilege. Our
role is relegated to spectators standing on the outside protesting
capital's worst excesses and dreaming up visionary schemes for
an unachievable future utopia.
In getting my hands dirty
in New Haven politics, I wanted to issue a challenge, not, as
is generally assumed, to the Democratic Party, but to other progressives,
by showing that effective radical politics is necessarily oriented
not towards protesting state power but towards participation
within it. This means competing for office and serving at whatever
level possible. I certainly didn't expect that my example would,
in isolation, make much of a difference outside of New Haven.
I recognize that the chances of a broader reorientation of left
priorities materializing is slim in the immediate or even mid
term future. And while there have been a few encouraging signs
in the years since, the most notable being the Gonzalez campaign
in San Francisco, it does not appear that my serving functioned
as a brick in the wall, as I had hoped. It was this recognition
which led me not to run for re-election in November.
The response to the current
presidential campaign is consistent with skepticism along these
lines. The climate of hysteria among leftists at the Bush administration
is understandable. But it is also dangerous and demobilizing
in that it reinforces precisely those tendencies which we need
to combat in the anti-corporate movement. Building an alternative
politics outside of the control of the two corporate parties
requires a sustained commitment. And while the corporate parties
would like nothing better, it cannot be abandoned every time
the greater evil assumes office. A pragmatic and effective left
recognizes that it needs to keep its eye on two objectives -
rolling back the worst excesses of the right while building a
foundation for a long-term insurgency. That it is failing to
do so is consistent with a left still mired in a prolonged adolescence.
Having said all that, I have no regrets about having served.
I would recommend it to anyone.