Reclaiming Politics

Solving Problems Washington Won’t

Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development (BUILD) protests after-school cuts. / Photo by Fern Shen, Baltimore Brew


Isn’t the whole national political scene just so depressing?

Our politicians have lost the capacity to govern. Congress resembles a UN meeting—more showplace than workplace, where assemblies and debates are ritualized reenactments and individual showmen and sound bites are more important than the larger political process. Members of Congress are unable to devote the focused attention and consistent effort that long-term social and economic challenges require.

The exhaustion of our politics is evident in the election campaign. Runners call it “hitting the wall.” It’s the moment in a race, sometimes well before the finish line, when energy and momentum drain away. Both presidential campaigns—candidates, surrogates, and messages—have nothing substantive left to offer voters. Both sides are made up of ideological sprinters, quick off the starting line but gasping for breath when the race runs longer than a cable news interview and they are forced to offer actual details on how they will govern or what they hope to accomplish.

Many will stay glued to their televisions for the debates, but I have decided to turn mine off. Instead, I’m taking the time to think about all of the constructive developments in community organizing that have occurred during this electoral season. There is politics outside Washington, a vital and vigorous alternative to the stale performances of our two main parties.



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In June Massachusetts passed the nation’s first health care cost-containment bill—a target for reducing the Commonwealth’s health care expenses. This follows the 2006 passage of a bill that made Massachusetts the first state with nearly universal health care. One organizer who worked on this issue, Cheri Andes, first learned of the challenges and opportunities of health care politics and economics in Chicago, where she worked for an Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) citizens group, United Power for Action and Justice, to expand health care access and help uninsured college graduates stay on their parents’ plans.

When Andes moved to Boston, she communicated those lessons to leaders of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization and to the senior IAF organizer there, Arnie Graf. Together with a moderate Republican governor named Mitt Romney, the team designed a Massachusetts solution to the health care challenge. Today, approximately 99 percent of state residents benefit from coverage. All major health care indicators have improved. More private employers provide health care coverage. And cost increases have been modest—far below the predictions of the law’s opponents. The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, an independent nonprofit research outfit, concluded that “additional state spending attributable to the health reform law accounted for only 1.4 percent of the Commonwealth’s $32 billion budget in fiscal 2011.”

A second recent political success through community organizing can be found in Baltimore. Most Americans experience Baltimore in one or both of two ways: as tourists around the Inner Harbor at the city’s world-class aquarium or its charming retro baseball field, Camden Yards, or as fans of The Wire, a searing, realistic HBO drama of murder and mayhem, manic heroin addicts and burned-out cops.

But there’s another Baltimore that outsiders rarely see. If you walk along some of the same streets featured on The Wire—streets such as Caroline and Broadway in East Baltimore—you find beautifully rehabbed or newly built homes and apartments. About 130 fresh units, each approximately 2,000 square feet, are already occupied by 330 residents. Another 50 units are under construction. They have lovely skylights, shiny kitchens, and smooth new stoops. And they are attracting a long line of renters in one of the worst housing markets in American history.

How will we make America work when its political parties have failed?

Who can take credit for this achievement? An IAF affiliate, Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development, is the local sponsor. BUILD has already constructed a thousand affordable homes in other parts of Baltimore over the past two decades. A housing and technical assistance group called The Reinvestment Fund provides expert support for this effort. A group of local investors has raised $10 million private dollars to underwrite this enterprise. And one of the city’s anchor institutions, Johns Hopkins University, has been a stalwart ally and partner. Together with the families that are buying or renting these homes—households headed by secretaries, city workers, taxi drivers—this unlikely team is reclaiming the city, building-by-building, block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood.

A third example, also with Baltimorean roots, was on display at the London Olympics—though it didn’t receive much media attention. This summer’s games were the first to employ staff earning a living wage.

The living-wage movement in the United States was reborn in Baltimore in 1994 when IAF organizer Jonathan Lange, the Reverend Vernon Dobson, and other local religious and civic leaders pushed for a living-wage standard for employees of contractors paid by the city. In that year Baltimore became the first American city in the modern era to pass such legislation. In 1996 Lange taught IAF’s New York organizations the ins and outs of this issue. Against then-Mayor Giuliani’s protests, the Metro New York groups successfully pushed for a prevailing wage standard for all the privately contracted janitors, food service workers, secretaries, and security guards who worked in city agencies.

When the Olympic bid became a prominent public issue in London, Lange was working with the growing IAF affiliate there. Organizers crafted a living-wage commitment that was accepted by Sebastian Coe, the head of the London Olympics and a former world-class middle distance runner of great stamina and grit. London won the bid, and its citizens shared in all of the triumphs—athletic, national, and social—that the games came to represent.

One final example. A few weeks ago, on a brisk Sunday afternoon, 500 East Brooklynites, most of whom had spent the earlier parts of the day in church, gathered to help cut the ribbon of a new public school in an area called Spring Creek. Twenty years ago Spring Creek was a dump for mountains of discarded tires and the occasional mafia shooting victim. The tires are now gone. The bodies are properly buried. The magnificent new school, which cost the city $73 million, will serve 1,200 students. It has two music rooms, a modern fitness center, science labs, libraries, auditorium, and more. At the grand opening, I walked in into the school with a Hispanic parent who had three young children in tow. “I can't believe that this is for us,” he said. “It’s so beautiful.”

It is for his family and for thousands of families like his. As are the 200 nearly completed affordable rental apartments along the street outside. And the 400 affordable homes on the blocks east and south of the school facility. And the 1,100 additional affordable homes and apartments, three new parks, new stores, new day care facility, and 600,000 square feet of new commercial space all in the pipeline.

But not only is it for him, it is by him—and by thousands of people like him. Three decades ago, about a hundred largely African American and Hispanic leaders packed a conference room in the Helmsley Hotel on 42nd Street in Manhattan and announced their intention to rebuild vast tracts of abandoned land in East Brooklyn. Religious leaders, funders, a builder, and others joined them that day. They had a map with them, and on that map were the acres of swamp that came to be called Spring Creek.

In 1983 the group began construction on the first 1,100 homes in Brownsville, west of Spring Creek. In 1987 the second phase of 1,100 homes began. In 1996 another 700 homes began to rise in an area not far from Spring Creek. And in 2008 construction at Spring Creek began. The old chain reaction of bankruptcy and near-bankruptcy, population loss, drug sales, spiking murder rates, and fecklessness from the liberal and conservative establishments has been stopped. A new chain reaction of construction and renovation, crime reduction and civic participation, living-wage work and equity creation has replaced it. Not everyone has felt its effects: the vast New York City Housing Authority system—180,000 apartments housing 450,000 citizens—continues to struggle, and nearly $1 billion in available funds, desperately needed for major repairs, are languishing due to dreadful and indifferent management.

Our country is ‘pragmatic in nature,’ and favors ‘a freedom at odds with ideology.’

Nonetheless, there are many successes to celebrate. These examples from Boston, Baltimore, Brooklyn, London, and elsewhere, share some key features. First, they are incremental and long-term. Each began as an experiment in one city or state and was refined and improved in other regions. Second, each depended on unlikely coalitions of institutions and leaders: mayors as different as Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani, and Bloomberg; moderate Catholics and conservative Lutherans; hard-nosed business investors in Baltimore; flawed governors and wary health care institutions in Illinois and Massachusetts. Third, each was accomplished, by and large, without charismatic leadership and without any of the media frenzy that surrounded the fading Tea Party and the fizzled Occupy Wall Street movements. Finally, each progressed without significant contact with Washington figures, the two political parties, or national politics in general.



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While this history of grassroots politics is largely unknown, the dysfunction inside the Beltway is, if anything, overexposed. Observers often point to polarization as both a cause and symptom of this dysfunction. There is no doubt that each party is increasingly uncompromising, homogeneous, and detached from the other. But bipartisanship reigns when it comes to the abandonment of pragmatic problem solving.

One party starts with a belief that government can’t and shouldn’t deal with real issues, except perhaps to cut checks to private contractors and return tax dollars to “job creators.” It is led by a group of relatively young men and women—figures such as Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and Mike Mulvaney, Jim Jordan, and Michelle Bachmann—who were sons and daughters of the period that William Schneider referred to as “The Suburban Century. They and many of their colleagues have only known sprawl and expansion, growth and prosperity, new housing developments, malls, schools, corporate parks.

The other party was shaped by the political culture of big declining cities, where politicians remained in office while the places they represented gradually eroded. Chicago has been losing population for more than half a century, with a million fewer residents today than at its peaks and the empty neighborhoods they left behind. Violent crime in much of the south and west side is out of control, making the Windy City the nation’s most dangerous place for young males of color. In this culture of scarcity and violence, the political class has prospered. Superb public relations and campaigning have insulated its leaders from accountability. Their security has increased, with families from the Daleys on down handing offices off to second and third generations, while the safety and wellbeing of the majority of the city’s residents unravels. Civic progress and political success are severed. And White House leaders have taken these municipal experiences to Washington.

Neither party offers a way forward for the majority of Americans. In fact, there are really three parties, with the third party being the largest of all: the party of people who want America to work. That means “work” in the literal sense of direct employment. It also means being part of a society that renews its capacity to make steady and imperfect progress. Pragmatic political life requires accepting the partial nature of every solution and the grief that comes when some miss out. Such pragmatism can be risky for politicians, but our country’s best statesmen have managed it.



• • •


How will we make America work when its political parties have failed?

First, residents must work pro-actively on the problems they face and stop waiting for parties and candidates to do it for them. Organizers often advise, “Go to power with a decision, not for one.” IAF groups went to the governments of New York City, Baltimore, Massachusetts, and Illinois with decisions, approaches, strategies, and resources, not for them.

Second, people will need to find solutions that work in the real world. These require building coalitions of unlikely partners and focusing on a common goal that is flexible and achievable in the short-term. These qualities—non-ideological, focused, flexible, and short-term—are opposed to the qualities we see in our two major political parties.

What politicians fail to grasp is that our country is not extreme. Year after year, Gallup asks Americans how they identify themselves politically. The answer: 40 percent are conservative, 35 percent moderate, and 21 percent liberal. The conservative number has risen about 5 percent over the past twenty years, as has the liberal number. But the constant remains that Americans like arrangements such as the GI bill, land grants for public education, and Social Security, arrangements that are, as Marilynne Robinson put it, “pragmatic in nature, and therefore expressive of an effective freedom at odds with ideology.”

An effective freedom at odds with ideology. That’s what organizers and residents demonstrated when they began to rebuild the vacant lots of East Brooklyn in 1983; sought less in subsidies than the homebuilding effort of the Rockefeller Partnership at the time; insisted that the subsidies come in the form of loans to be repaid, not grants; demanded real down payments so that people had to invest in their homes. And IAF leaders rejoiced when the young communities withstood the plague of foreclosures, when the home equity that families built enabled them to support and improve themselves and retire with security, and when New York began benefitting from the taxes and prosperity of its newly stable residents.

Effective freedom opposed to ideology means finding and exposing hundreds of millions of dollars squirreled away in a do-nothing Forest Preserve District in DuPage County or a billion dollars sitting unused by the New York City Housing Authority—no matter who is responsible.

We are demonstrating the same principle in Milwaukee these days. The IAF affiliate Common Ground identified hundreds of foreclosed homes that were the result of unethical and exploitative banking practices, pressured the banks to invest $30 million in a fund to rehabilitate those homes, and is now rebuilding and selling those homes to hardworking buyers. Already the value of the homes and neighborhoods has begun to rebound, and the banks involved have become allies.

The national picture is disheartening. But if you look away from the television screen and toward local people and institutions, you will find something very different. The public arena is not fixed and final. It’s provisional and plastic. But it has to be worked—and worked hard—if it is to remain so.


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About the Author

Michael Gecan, an organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation for more than 25 years, is author of After America’s Midlife Crisis and Going Public.

Michael Gecan,
Obama’s Chicago Tactics
The Triangle
Taking Faith Seriously

Ruth Milkman,
Organizing the Unorganizable

Arnie Graf and Jonathan Lange,
For a Living Wage (archive)