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March 01, 2014 4:02 PM The Progressives’ Image Problem

By Martin Longman

It’s fascinating to read Nikita Stewart’s write-up on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s hiring practices. On an informational level, the article is thorough and enlightening. Mayor de Blasio is creating a very progressive city government filled with people he feels are ideologically aligned with him. He tends to pick the people he wants first and then figures out the job they should do after.

But, on another level, the way this information is presented is one more example of how progressives are portrayed negatively in the Bigfoot media. Take a look:

In Bill de Blasio’s City Hall, it seems more and more, there is only a left wing.
The mayor, who advanced in politics by grass-roots organizing, has built a team filled with former activists — figures more accustomed to picketing administrations or taking potshots from the outside than working from within. His administration is heavily populated with appointees best known for the fights they have fought.

Do you sense the implied criticism? He is only appointing people who agree with him, and these aren’t the kind of people who have any experience in government or management. His administration is filled with professional leftists. The outsiders have infiltrated the realm. Progressives are supposed to be anti-Establishment; “don’t they know their place?”

Watch.

On Friday, Mr. de Blasio appointed Steven Banks, who is the attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society and a longtime critic of city policies affecting low-income residents, as commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration. Mr. Banks recently praised the new mayor for transferring hundreds of children and their families from two homeless shelters cited for violations that made the facilities unfit and unsafe for children.
Mr. Banks has spent his career facing off with city government at public meetings and in the courts. But he is embraced in a de Blasio administration.

Ms. Stewart, who just joined the City Hall desk for the New York Times, appears to think that putting an advocate for homeless children in charge of the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) is suspect. Let’s take a look at what the HRA does:

HRA serves more than 3 million New Yorkers through essential and diverse programs and services that include: temporary cash assistance, public health insurance, food stamps, home care for seniors and the disabled, child care, adult protective services, domestic violence, HIV/AIDS support services and child support enforcement.
Its 15,000 employees help provide unique individual services that offer sustainable employment along with self-sufficiency plans to overcome barriers to unemployment. HRA’s Employment Services offers job programs and training to help people gain employment. Programs like Back to Work and Business Link allow clients to improve basic skills and English proficiency, and move cash assistance recipients into the working world.
HRA’s commitment to move cash assistance recipients to employment has resulted in the lowest cash assistance caseload in more than 40 years. By providing essential work supports such as food stamps and public health insurance, former cash assistance recipients have a greater ability to stay employed and out of poverty.

Perhaps it is ironic that Mr. Banks is now heading an organization that he previously pilloried for its inefficiencies, but I fail to see how this experienced lawyer and expert on social services is unqualified for the position.

Yet, this idea that progressive activists are supposed to be working against the government rather than serving in the government is a theme in this piece.

Carmen Farina, his schools chancellor, had quit the Bloomberg administration in protest over its emphasis on standardized test scores. The mayor’s top political strategist, Emma Wolfe, rose from campus activist to organizer for the advocacy group Acorn, the health care union 1199 SEIU and the Working Families Party before helping Mr. de Blasio get elected public advocate in 2009.
His wife’s new chief of staff, Rachel Noerdlinger, was the longtime gatekeeper for the Rev. Al Sharpton. And his new counsel, Maya Wiley, was most recently in the running to lead the N.A.A.C.P.

Ms. Farina served in the Bloomberg administration, so it is only her ideological opposition to over-testing that merits a mention here, not her managerial skills.

Ms. Wolfe (like me) was an organizer for the dreaded ACORN, a housing advocacy group. You know who else was a community organizer? That big-eared guy in the White House.

Ms. Noerdlinger worked for Al Sharpton? Egads!

At least Ms. Stewart didn’t bring up Tawana Brawley. But she did bring up the N.A.A.C.P., an organization that considered Ms. Wiley for their leadership position, meaning (I infer) that she might have some leadership skills.

Laura Santucci, his chief of staff, is a former acting executive director of the Democratic National Committee and a former political aide at 1199 SEIU. Zachary W. Carter, his corporation counsel, was an appointee of President Bill Clinton as the United States attorney in Brooklyn and led the prosecution of police officers in the beating of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant.

Ms. Santucci was an executive director. Mr. Carter was a U.S. Attorney. But they are mentioned here because of their connections, respectively, to unions and a controversial legal case involving the NYPD. Is there something wrong with unions and prosecuting police brutality?

Maybe we should pine for politicians who cower before the Fraternal Order of Police?

This next bit makes the explicit case that progressives are only supposed to make progress in court or (somehow) in the streets:

In any case, Mr. de Blasio’s mayor’s personnel choices are just one means by which he appears to be easing the mayoralty from the practical details of governing into a platform for the kind of social change usually achieved on the streets and in the courts.
It is a far different approach from that of his predecessor, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who favored agency heads and staff members with button-down business backgrounds.

I also want to note that Ms. Stewart has created a false dichotomy in which a mayor must choose between the “practical details of governing” and achieving “social change.” A mayor cannot conceivably do both. And then she enlists former mayoral candidate Mark Green (whose liberal credentials she says are unimpeachable) to stick a knife in de Blasio’s ribs.

“Old habits die very hard,” said Mark Green, a former public advocate and mayoral candidate, and no slouch himself as a liberal. “Giuliani was a prosecutor, Bloomberg was a C.E.O., and so far, Bill’s a political labor activist.”
…Mr. Green, who was Mr. Bloomberg’s opponent in the 2001 election, warned that New Yorkers needed “more of a leader and manager than activist and advocate.”
“He’s been preparing for years to run for mayor but not to be mayor,” Mr. Green said. “The most-asked question I get from earnest citizens is, ‘Can he manage the city?’ ”

That is how Ms. Stewart concludes her piece, but not before taking another shot at progressives.

Last week, Mr. de Blasio turned City Hall’s stately Blue Room, the venue for countless announcements by generations of sober-toned mayors, into the scene of a boisterous rally to celebrate a legal settlement that could decide the fate of Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn.
Mr. de Blasio had been arrested during a protest of the hospital’s potential closing. Now he could not resist praising each labor leader and activist who had helped in the fight — including a councilman he called “the best damn cellmate an inmate ever had.”

Over the years, I have written repeatedly about the problems progressives face in getting power because they emerged out of the counterculture and are so suspicious of power institutions. I have said that the goal of progressives should be to take over our institutions and implement our ideas, not to stay on the outside forever throwing rocks. I have argued that we will not be trusted to run organizations like the Pentagon or the NSA if we are perceived to be hostile to those organizations. It’s part getting ourselves to believe in our institutions again and part getting others to see us as the natural leaders of the country again. We can’t do that as anti-establishmentarians. We can’t be the counterculture; we have to be the culture.

What we’re seeing in New York City is the most high-profile effort at this project that we have yet seen, but the way we are treated in the pages of the New York Times shows how far we have to go.

It’s insulting to read this coverage, but it’s part of the price we pay for giving the impression that we’re more interested in being critical than in governing.

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