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Occupy Wall Street protesters called the Nov. 17 demonstration that drew thousands of supporters to Foley Square a “Day of Action,” but it had all the makings of a high school pep rally—glossy signs, catchy chants and arrests prearranged with the faculty (or in this case, the NYPD).
Union workers with earpieces controlled the crowd as a band played a groovy mix of backpack rap and soul. Thousands of Occupy Wall Street supporters clapped their hands, danced and chanted along with the band.
“All day, all week, occupy Wall Street!”
One police officer edged closer to the barricade surrounding the stage, nodding his head with the rhythm.
“I play those myself,” he said, pointing to the drummer.
Behind the stage, labor bosses and progressive operatives mingled with clergy members—many of whom were there to plug a rally in support of a living-wage mandate in the Bronx the following week. All the major players were represented—1199 SEIU, the Communication Workers of America, the United Federation of Teachers, United NY, VOCAL, the Strong Economy for All Coalition, the Hotel Trades Council—a regular who’s who of New York’s progressive elements.
Like clockwork, the crowd began to surge toward the Brooklyn Bridge, where several City Council members were arrested. By the end of the night, the only surprise came when some rogue technicians projected a giant “99 percent” symbol on the side of the Municipal Building.
But if Nov. 17 was the pep rally, Election Day 2012 will be the big game—leaving candidates, fund-raisers and operatives to parse the events of the last year for political cues.
Will Occupy Wall Street change the New York landscape enough to affect who gets elected next year, just as the Tea Party movement did in 2009 and 2010? Or will its amorphous, occupation-obsessed and politically averse membership repel candidates who want to embrace its message, for fear of being tagged as anarchists allergic to capitalism?
“With action there’s a reaction,” said Bill O’Reilly, a GOP consultant who helped engineer Congressman Bob Turner’s surprise victory in September. “Occupy Wall Street was a reaction, possibly, to the Tea Party, to bailouts and other things. There will be a reaction to Occupy Wall Street, and it’s going to move in a more conservative direction.”
Camille Rivera, executive director of United NY and an organizer of the Nov. 17 demonstration, said the goal of Occupy—which she insisted she in no way spoke for—was not to influence electoral outcomes or change the composition of the state Legislature but to force all candidates to embrace the “99 percent” message.
“Occupy will not influence candidates. That’s not their goal,” she said. “Their goal is to change the country.”
But while Occupy itself may be reluctant to wade into the 2012 elections, candidates running for office next year who ignore the movement’s central message do so at their own peril, said Bruce Gyory, a political consultant at Corning Place Communications and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.
“The Republicans should not make the same mistake with regard to Occupy Wall Street that liberals made with the Tea Party,” he said.
Gyory argues that a core segment of voters—the 40 percent of moderates within the larger block of
40 percent of the electorate who identify as Independents—swung the vote for Republicans in 2010.
The Tea Party convinced those voters that debt, deficits and President Barack Obama’s stimulus and health-care bills were their primary issues, Gyory said—and early polling suggests Occupy Wall Street is having a similar effect.
“When you break it out, that group of 15 to 17 percent of the electorate…has been swinging one way or the other,” he said. “Whatever triggers their anger reflex is what’s driven the outcome.”
The impact of Occupy will vary from race to race, political observers agree. It may motivate progressive operatives to retake the handful of Republican Senate seats in New York City, but it may also galvanize conservative grassroots groups to pull out the stops for Long Island Republicans running for Congress. It may tip the balance for Democrats running on a message of taxing millionaires but hurt candidates seeking to impose more regulations on the financial industry.
Some of the most closely watched races next year will be those for the State Senate. Republicans hold a shaky two-seat majority, but with the redistricting process still in flux, the candidates for many districts remain up in the air. Evan Stavisky, a consultant at the Parkside Group, which ran many Democratic Senate campaigns in 2010, said while Occupy Wall Street’s message resonates among voters, the real question is whether a candidate can incorporate that message in a campaign platform without alienating key constituencies.
“Speaking about the 99 percent is helpful, but you need to do more to win the hearts and minds of blue-collar, outer-borough voters,” Stavisky said. “The question is: How well does Occupy Wall Street, how well does Occupy Albany, how well does Occupy Rochester relate to blue-collar workers who feel uncertain about the economy and the anger they feel toward large institutions?”
He added, “Will that anger be channeled appropriately, as the movement manifests itself and it graduates from drum circles to visuals that are more comfortable for blue-collar, middle-class voters?”
Those visuals—of sick protesters, sexual-assault charges and violent clashes with police—were enough to spur many city governments across the country to crack down on the encampments. Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan was cleared out by the NYPD two days before the Nov. 17 Day of Action. And while protests and demonstrations have kept apace since the eviction, the loss of Occupy Wall Street’s symbolic center has led to some soul searching and questions within the movement about next steps.
Republicans, meanwhile, are itching for the chance to attack any candidate who strays too close to the tents and drum circles. Their hope is that the anarchistic and hippie elements will drive voters away from candidates who endorse the movement’s goals, no matter how temptingly populist they may seem.
O’Reilly, thinking of his Republican candidates, acknowledged Occupy Wall Street could boost Democratic turnout next year. But he said the direct line from Occupy Wall Street to lefty groups like the Working Families Party and New York Communities for Change could turn off many moderate voters—minimizing the movement’s impact during the election.
“The question is whether it’s sustainable going into 2012. It’s got to last for more than a year,” O’Reilly said. “It will rile up both the left and the right: The left will be riled by the income disparity, and the right will be riled by the snot-nosed kids playing revolutionary.”
Occupy Wall Street is already shaping up to play a unique role in one race next year.
Albany County District Attorney David Soares’ decision not to prosecute Occupy Albany’s nonviolent protesters has earned him the enmity of Gov. Andrew Cuomo—who tried to convince the state police to evict the demonstrators from the city’s Academy Park earlier in the month—but it may also come back to haunt Soares when he runs for reelection next year.
Lee Kindlon, an attorney running against Soares in the Democratic primary, intends to turn the DA’s vow not to prosecute protesters into a full-bodied embrace of the movement’s liberal agenda.
“It’s a barefaced political calculation to curry favor with far-left activists and donors who are influential in Democratic primaries,” said Sherman Jewett, a consultant working on Kindlon’s campaign. “It reeks of desperation from an incumbent who knows he’s on the ropes. And when you’re on the ropes politically, you run to the base and hug them.”
He added, “Would Mr. Soares choose not to prosecute antichoice activists or the Westboro Baptist Church crowd engaged in the same activities?”
Soares said his decision was based not on politics but on a need to pinch pennies.
“Resources are going to become more and more depleted within our offices for prosecution,” Soares said. “It is rather silly to focus those resources on peaceful protesters. The Occupy movement, so long as we were not seeing damage to property or a tax on law enforcement or the public in general, it was just not a place we’re going to go.”
That said, Soares says he sees a connection between Occupy and social and political movements in the past.
“I’m glad that certain rules with respect to lunch counters and other local ordinances weren’t abided by back in the day,” he said. “But that’s my personal opinion.”
Whether Soares will pay a price for allowing Occupy to occupy a public park will offer a stark example of the movement’s impact on an election. For hundreds of other candidates in state and local races, the force of Occupy may be harder to measure at first: The movement is in its infancy and constantly evolving.
Yet as Democrats, labor unions and progressive groups around New York put their organizational expertise and millions of dollars into a “99 percent” message for the 2012 cycle, they may tread delicately around Occupy Wall Street itself.
The forces that first took Zuccotti Park and slept in it for months have no intention of anointing anyone as the “Occupy Wall Street candidate”—and the mainstream left’s adoption of their message may only fuel their dissatisfaction and anger about politics itself.
“It is a corrupt system, and it’s the system that needs to change,” said Ed Needham, a member of the Occupy Wall Street press team. “That’s the kind of stuff we’re good at talking about…not necessarily trying to get someone elected.”
Tags: 99 percent, Academy Park, Albany County, Andrew J. Hawkins, arrests, Bill O'Reilly, Bruce Gyory, Camille Rivera, City Council, Congress, david soares, Day of Action, drum circles, drums, Ed Needham, Evan Stavisky, Foley Square, Lee Kindlon, Long Island, New York Communities for Change, Occupy Wall Street, Parkside Group, progressive, Senate, Sherman Jewett, Tea Party, Unions, United NY, Working Families Party, Zuccotti Park
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