Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Not All in the Family

According to Jacob Gershman in New York Magazine, a movement is growing to mount a challenge to the political dominance of the Working Families Party: "With the pro-labor Working Families Party on the rise, a coalition of New York business elites is laying the foundation to counteract its influence with a political operation of their own. The plan is to collaborate with the Independence Party, which just backed Republican Mike Bloomberg, to push what they see as fiscally responsible positions.”

A challenge it certainly is, since the WFP has become one large tail wagging NY State's Democratic dog-witness the success locally of John Liu and Bill deBlasio. But the even greater hurdle is to create a coalition that will not be seen as a revival of the kind of permanent government that has always ruled in NYC-often to the detriment of small businesses and homeowners.

This is, however, trickier than it seems-and labor loyalist Mike McGuire understands the problem: “The problem is who is their constituency,” notes labor lobbyist Michael McGuire. “Unions are all member organizations. Who are the members of ‘business’?”

McGuire is correct, but the problem isn't insurmountable if it is approached in the right manner. That approach needs to view the effort as a grass roots organizing campaign-the very kind that the Alliance has conducted over the past three decades. The greatest danger is for this effort to be perceived as elitist-and there is some redolence of this already: "It’s being advised by Jay Kriegel, a longtime Democrat and member of the city’s Establishment who started his career as a hotshot 25-year-old aide to Mayor Lindsay. Most recently, he was executive director of Bloomberg’s failed 2012 Olympics bid. (Today, he works as an adviser to developer Stephen Ross.)"

There is nothing wrong with a coalition of interests-one that includes businesses both small and large-but there needs to be more of an effort, if the campaign is to really gain traction, to build the coalition from the ground up. It needs to be more tea party than tea room-and it needs to utilize a more populist (dare we say, Alinsky-style) approach.

And there is certainly some common ground here-and that commonality devolves from the expansion of government in the state and city, and all that the expansion entails in the way of taxes, fees and regulations: "The movement began taking shape after lawmakers in Albany passed a $133 billion budget in April, increasing taxes and fees by $7 billion and raising spending by 9 percent. Deficit projections have risen to nearly $30 billion over the next three years. While Governor Paterson has warned lawmakers that the state may not be able to pay its bills by the end of the year, the Legislature has spurned his attempts to slash education and health care."

These are trends that really hurt the small business backbone of the state and city's economy-and send tax paying homeowners fleeing to less burdensome environs. But using the mayor as a paragon is, in our view a mistake: "They want to help elect Bloomberg-like candidates statewide. The problem is going to be convincing voters that what’s good for the capitalists is good for them too. Their tentative slogan? “It’s Your New York.”,

That's a huge barrier to entry for any grass roots movement because it's perceived elitism precludes tapping into the kind of populist sentiment that will provide the ground troops necessary in order to compete with the union-backed WFP. Gershman hints at this: "Challenging the WFP, which is allied with a sophisticated army of operatives, canvassers, and pressure groups, is not going to be easy. The Independence Party lacks the same boots-on-the-ground infrastructure. Crosson says his new coalition knows what it’s up against: “They’re very effective and entrenched. The business community will be playing a game of catch-up for a long time.”

The Alliance has been doing precisely this for years-and by doing it successfully by tapping into small business and local neighborhood unrest at large and out-of-touch, and, yes, elite-driven government; a style of governing that the current mayor has been emblematic of. So the challenge is to find a way to tap into the funding of larger business interests while, at the same time, finding a way to inspire and mobilize the troops at the grass roots level.

If the latter isn't done properly, than the entire campaign will lack genuineness; and will appear as little more than an Astroturf effort by the rich folks to reassert their former dominance-a methodology that is almost guaranteed to end in failure. Still, the effort needs to be started and soon-or else we will all be singing in chorus; "California Hear I Come."