By Adrian Flynn
Photos by Kareem Sidibe & Adrian Flynn
On Wednesday, May 16th, NYC Council Member Brad Lander spoke to Beacon students about his experience in city government as part of an event organized by Model Congress minority leader Divine Ndombo. In her opening speech, Ndombo noted Lander’s support for youth involvement in politics, a theme that became clear through Lander’s advocacy for community-based change. While Lander touched on a multitude of issues he dealt with as a Council Member, one message was particularly prominent: “All politics is local.”
This sentiment underlines Lander’s belief in community activism. After graduating from college, Lander spent over a decade in community development with a focus on affordable public housing. He worked for 10 years at the Fifth Avenue Committee in Gowanus and Park Slope, an organization he stated “helps organize tenants, build affordable housing, help people find jobs, [and] do prisoner re-entry work for people coming back to the neighborhood.” He added that his first “taste into politics” was assisting people in getting organized to participate in public policy campaigns, mostly dealing with gentrification. In Park Slope, Lander recognized that a growing number of individuals were being forced out of their homes by rising prices due to increased development, an issue that he asserts “has grown and still persists today all over the city.”
As Lander tried to deal with these issues, he says that he found that “the public policy tools we needed just weren’t there… [laws] were just too weak to be protecting tenants from displacement.” He subsequently found that his work entailed more effort to change public policy than he had initially envisioned. Over time, he built up his skills in community organizing and applying pressure on politicians to make stronger laws on tenants’ rights. He discussed “inside-outside strategies for making change” and how, while he believes in what government can accomplish, he does not think that change happens just from “good people running for office, getting elected, and making good things happen.” Rather, it is a combination of grassroots organizers and politicians who understand the complexities of moving a piece of legislation that can be effective in bringing about real change.
After weighing the pros and cons of running for public office, Lander decided to take a look at the district he was living in, which was then represented by “somebody named Bill de Blasio.” In 2009, de Blasio was term-limited, so Lander decided to run for Council Member in the Democratic Primary and he won with just over 40% of the vote. He was then endorsed by both the Democratic Party and the left-wing Working Families Party, and easily won the general election with about 70% of the vote. Upon entering the Council in 2010, Lander and Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito formed the Progressive Caucus. Lander said the reason for this was that he noticed that even with the Democrats’ overwhelming majority in the Council, there was much “diversity of opinion.” In that first term, the Progressive Caucus decided to focus its work on three core issues: winding down “stop and frisk” procedures, ensuring at least five paid sick days per year for workers, and passing a “Living Wage” bill to make sure that businesses receiving subsidies or grants from the city were not paying their workers poverty-level wages. All three of these initiatives passed before the end of Lander’s first term, an accomplishment he says was due to the overwhelming public support that each initiative received and the ability of the Progressive Caucus to work with outside coalitions of citizens.
In the 2013 elections, the progressive platform again proved successful, with Bill de Blasio winning the mayoral race and the Progressive Caucus doubling its representation. Lander’s Progressive Caucus co-chair Melissa Mark-Viverito was also elected as Speaker of the City Council. With this new sphere of influence in his second term, Lander helped enact many progressive policies. These included persuading the Mayor to announce his intention to close Rikers Island Prison and to ensure that low-income tenants in housing court who are facing eviction could access a lawyer, which Lander states 95% of them did not have. In 2017, Lander got elected for a third time with a whopping 98.49% of the vote. In 2021, Lander and 36 other Council Members will be forced to vacate their seats. Lander remarked to Beacon students that “there will be a lot of openings… it’s a good place to start!” He stressed once more that we need “good leaders” to write public policy and that we should not be intimidated by the prospect of running for elected office.
At one point, Lander recalled the biggest humiliation of his political career. He even remarked that a student was “triggering” him when asked about his relations to the New York State government. He then explained how he had introduced legislation last year to put a five-cent tax on environmentally-damaging plastic bags. The City Council vote was the closest that he has seen so far on one of his pieces of legislation, but the bill passed. However, the state government in Albany overruled the bill, striking down the plastic bag fee. Lander explained: “States are the foundational element in this country,” both giving cities their power and taking it away.
When asked how young people can make change without being able to vote, Lander shared his hopes of “expand[ing] the sense of what civic obligation is” beyond voting, noting how he wants to establish an Office of Civic Engagement to help people take “shared responsibility for the city.” Lander also expressed support for the activism of Beacon students and encouraged them to continue organizing for the causes that they care about. He also emphasized that we should strive to “build relationships across lines of difference,” as “we’re not going to be able to solve problems unless we build that capacity for working together.” This applies to both working in a bipartisan manner and bridging the gap between politicians and community activists.
To end, Lander reiterated his main message, urging students “to stay engaged at the local level.”