Scott Stringer's People-Centered Politics

(cross-posted from WNYC's It's A Free Country)

The crowd for Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s State of the Borough Address Tuesday night was so large that it filled the auditorium at the CUNY Graduate Center in Midtown and three overflow rooms across the hall. It’s not common to command such a turnout when you hold an office most New Yorkers don’t know much about. But this audience didn’t just come to hear about Manhattan; attendees were looking forward to hearing Stringer’s vision for the city in what many assumed would resemble an opening pitch for the 2013 mayor’s race.

The substantive, wide-ranging and pointed speech delivered what the audience wanted: an outline of Scott Stringer’s vision for New York City. (Full text here). The remarks refreshingly pushed beyond criticism — which any blogger can offer — to promote ideas that will ensure New York not become “a city like any other, instead of a city like none other.” It also offered an alternative approach to leadership that many New Yorkers have longed for through the three terms of Mayor Bloomberg.

The Borough President heaped ample praise upon the mayor, highlighting the administration’s competence, professionalism and efficiency. But he didn’t waste time before offering a provocative assertion that framed his speech and may very well infuse his speeches for the next three years: “There is a troubling view taking hold that to set high standards and achieve good outcomes, we must rely on a closed, top-down model of government.”

Mayor Bloomberg didn’t need to be called out by name for everyone to understand at whom this salvo was aimed. After a decade of decision-making that rarely welcomed and often ignored public comment, it’s not just a narrow sliver of jilted parents, ideological progressives and good government groups who are tired of the mayor’s style. The controversy following Cathie Black’s appointment was as much about the secretive process as about the ill-prepared appointee. Following the questions about the mayor’s whereabouts during the December blizzard, City Council is considering legislation that require him to “sign out” when he leaves the city. Even the mayor sensed the public’s restlessness, which is why he dedicated real estate in his own annual address to the concept of “crowdsourcing,” suggesting he was more willing to listen to the public.  

Stringer doesn’t need to run against Mayor Bloomberg, which is fortunate for him. Even the pugnacious Anthony Weiner was finally intimidated by Bloomberg’s moneyed and massive campaign machine last time around. But New Yorkers are ready for more elected officials to challenge the mayor. The Progressive Caucus of the City Council has been finding its voice. The Public Advocate had been vocal in calling out the mayor over the past two months of controversies. And Borough President Stringer — while being careful not to paint the mayor as an adversary, and while being respectful of what Bloomberg has achieved — has laid out a different approach to governing that New Yorkers need to remember can exist. 

Stringer returned again and again to themes of collaboration: partnerships between residents and developers in zoning processes, compromises between city agencies and neighborhoods, middle ground between workers and businesses on paid sick leave. These weren’t just rhetorical flourishes: Stringer pointed to past examples of success and upcoming plans. He spoke about his Bank On Manhattan program to help low-income New Yorkers get the benefits of bank accounts. “Many said we’d never get banks to work together with community based organizations,” but the program has now helped over 4,000 families save an average of $500 each — $2 million that’s not being paid in check-cashing fees and other predatory financial maneuvers.

He also noted that he was working to help Queens elected officials expand the program – not the only mention of another Borough in the course of the address.

Another success was especially well-timed: his work with Upper West Side officials and community members in building a compromise around bike lanes on Columbus Avenue. It may not be the top issue on most New Yorkers’ minds, but it allowed Stringer to point to a productive process at a time when bike lanes have become a target of such high-profile opponents as Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who mocked the city’s bike-friendly measures in his State of the Borough, and Senator Chuck Schumer who has been lobbying against the Prospect Park West lanes behind the scenes. Eschewing theatrics and quiet lobbying, Stringer’s office engaged in a much more public, democratic process that seems to have made everyone happy…or at least a little happier.

Building on his office’s successes — the West Harlem rezoning process, the new asthma center in East Harlem, the “Kill the Drill” anti-fracking campaign — he laid out ambitious goals for the next several years. From immigration reform to an infrastructure bank, he wants to be an advocate for a progressive agenda. He understands the limits of his role as BP, and doesn’t claim he can solve it all.  But he also understands his capacity: he has a platform to push progressive ideas, urge other electeds and engage the community…all of which we want him to do both as a Borough President, and potentially as a candidate for higher office.

For the overflow crowd that wanted a speech tilting toward Stringer’s mayoral ambitions, he delivered…but not entirely as they expected. He provoked, he talked big (he echoed President Obama’s “we do big things” at several moments) and this State of the Borough covered all five boroughs. But more than a citywide perspective, lofty ambitions and heightened rhetoric, what really made him sound mayoral were the substantive ideas.

If he can pursue half of those ideas in the next three years, partner with our competent, professional and efficient mayoral administration and inspire other candidates to be just as substantive and collaborative, the 2013 campaign will be good for New York City.

February 10, 2011

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