Now a dominant force, the Progressive Caucus finds its vision complicated

Now that New York City’s Progressive Caucus holds the mayor’s office, more than one-third of the City Council and the speakership, it’s practically a Rorschach inkblot, fulfilling the functions that individuals seek in it, according to caucus member Councilman Ritchie Torres.

“When we had a Republican mayor, the caucus could easily define itself in relation to and in opposition to the mayor,” Torres said. “The rationale for the Progressive Caucus is more complicated than it has been historically. … I think of it as a support service, not as a litmus test, not as a substitute for a party; it’s a policy support service.”

Queens Councilman Donovan Richards agreed it is difficult to put a finger on what ideology distinguishes the Progressive Caucus from the rest of the chamber, but sees the cohort as a counterweight to the boroughs’ Democratic parties. Manhattan Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal called the 19-member organization a mechanism to briskly line up votes for left-leaning policies. And Manhattan Councilman Ben Kallos described the group as leading, rather than just supporting, progressive causes.

Progressive Caucus members have struggled to express one coherent vision, in part because there seems to be more legislative support for its policy platform across the City Council, and also because it can no longer claim to strictly eschew politics in favor of legislation, now that it has propelled two from its fold to the forefront of City Hall – Mayor Bill de Blasio and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

Brooklyn Councilman Brad Lander helped found the caucus in 2010 with the goal of advancing policies meant to eradicate inequity and make New York City more just. Although many share these goals, Lander said the Caucus has committed to governing with these ideals “front and center.” Additionally, he said several shifts have made the council, and its counterparts, more progressive: rising global inequities drawing more to the cause, and progressives nudging mainstream Democrats left on issues such as a $15 an hour minimum wage.

The ideology

Progressivism has not historically been much more concrete. It emerged in America amid concerns that unregulated capitalism was producing imbalances in the wake of the Civil War, according to Notre Dame Professor Emeritus Walter Nugent in “Progressivism: A Very Short Introduction.”Though there were many varied interpretations of the movement, the early progressives generally believed the government should temper economic and social ills, with the goal of producing a more fair society – at least for white, native citizens.

New York City’s more modern reincarnation promotes providing opportunity to those who have been left out of prosperity and combating discrimination. During its inception under Bloomberg, the caucus articulated its support for measures such as living wage legislation and paid sick leave in a way that made its goals easily identifiable. But under the new administration, what policies divide the caucus from other Democrats is no longer as evident.

Manhattan Councilman Mark Levine, a caucus member, and Kallos, the caucus’ vice chairman for policy, said it has a very collaborative nature, which can belie how it spearheads successes behind the scenes. For instance, Kallos said he started a caucus committee so all City Council members can come workshop progressive legislation. Open-door policy aside, both councilmen said the caucus’ members had triumphed in their negotiations with colleagues to get legislation passed, including the Fair Chance Act, which prevents most employers from inquiring about applicants’ criminal records until a conditional work offer is made (passed with votes from 45 of the council’s 51 members), and a measure preventing most employers from using consumer credit history when screening applicants (passed with only three dissenters). “The fact that on almost every piece of legislation that we pass, there was pretty lopsided majorities … shouldn’t be confused with being proof that there was not a really spirited debate,” Levine said. “That, in part, is because they felt like they aired their concerns, they saw the bill was going to pass, and they all of a sudden wanted to be on the side of the speaker and the majority.”

Richards, co-chairman of the caucus, however, said the two measures singled out by Levine and Kallos did not face opposition. “No, absolutely, not,” he said of the legislation. “I’m a member of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, and we had overwhelming support in the BLAC caucus on these issues as well. So I would say the politics may be different, but the ideology is – we’re not going to be far apart because we’re all Democrats.”

Non-caucus members agreed. Queens council members Karen Koslowitz and Rory Lancman said several colleagues outside of the caucus identify as progressive, and they could see no clear ideological divide between the caucus and other Democrats.

“With all due respect,” Lancman said, “there’s not a person in the City Council who can out-progressive me. And I’m not in the Progressive Caucus.” He noted that his bill to outlaw NYPD officers’ use of chokeholds and the push to decriminalize some nonviolent offenses were examples of the progressive streak permeating the council as a whole. “(The caucus is) just a political power base for one group of progressives to rally around, and that’s fine.”

Asked about Lancman’s self-identification as a progressive, most caucus members said they do not want to police who is and is not progressive. Instead, they said the caucus represents a commitment to ideas, not identity (like the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus or LGBT Caucus) or geography (like most borough parties). “Neither I nor anyone in the caucus has a monopoly on the label ‘progressive,’” Levine said. “In some cases it’s really not about policy differences, but people who join the caucus are people who are willing to act independently of particular county organizations and other institutional forces to push a progressive agenda.”

The alliance

Caucus members took pains to differentiate it from the Progressive Caucus Alliance, which Lander helped form in 2012 to campaign for like-minded politicians. All but five caucus members are in the alliance – Mark-Viverito, Rosenthal and council members Margaret Chin, I. Daneek Miller and Ydanis Rodriguez. Still, some conceded it is impossible to completely eradicate politics from the caucus because it needs to amass enough members and supporters to legislate. And how greatly the alliance’s and borough parties’ political bases differ is a matter of perspective.

Most recently, the alliance got involved in a six-way primary for an eastern Queens seat vacated by Mark Weprin. Lander said the group met with three candidates – former de Blasio aide Rebecca Lynch, attorney Ali Najmi and the eventual winner, former Assemblyman Barry Grodenchik. The alliance took an internal vote and backed Lynch. Precisely why depends on who you ask. Levine said there were “stark policy differences” that made her stand out, but declined to name specifics. Another alliance member pointed out that Lynch supported authorizing noncitizen voting, which Grodenchik did not. Torres said he knew Lynch, and therefore did not need to delve too deeply into the nuances of the candidates’ platforms. And Lander said it could not be parsed down to a policy list, because the alliance also considered who had a history of supporting its goals, who would make a well-rounded council member, and who had a viable shot at victory.

Lancman, who is not a member of the caucus, said the borough party loyalists and progressives had similar campaign finance sources. “You’ll see a tremendous amount of overlap in unions,” he said. “If you look at members of the Progressive Caucus, a lot of them do very well from contributions from the real estate world and other supposed boogeymen of progressive politics.”

There were, however, a few differences in who was investing in the campaign committees of Lynch and Grodenchik, the Queens Democratic Party pick, ahead of the primary. Lynch received more support from unions – the Council of School Supervisors and 32BJ gave her $2,750 each, at least 10 Teamsters affiliates donated to her account, and one horse carriage driver bundled $885 from colleagues on top of money from their Teamsters Local 553. But some of Grodenchik’s top donors were also organized labor groups, including the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, which gave $2,700, and the Transportation Workers Union Local 100, which contributed $1,500.

Some of the city’s biggest unions did not appear to invest much more, fiscally, in one candidate over the other. The United Federation of Teachers endorsed Grodenchik, but did not donate to either campaign; the Hotel Trades Council backed Lynch, but only gave her $220; and Local 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East did not endorse or contribute to either candidate.

Grodenchik took in more money from business associations – $500 from the Realtors Political Action Committee and $2,750 from the real estate industry-backedTaxpayers for an Affordable New York PAC – while Lynch’s campaign took smaller amounts from brokers, an Airbnb employee and those affiliated with real estate investment firms.

Team Spirit?

How successful the caucus is in extracting politics and leaving it at the steps of City Hall is a matter of opinion. One source said some council members have expressed frustration with how infrequently the caucus promotes plans opposed by the speaker or mayor. Perhaps a testament to its ranks and power, at least 10 non-caucus members declined to discuss its ideology or politics on the record.

Caucus members point to the Fair Chance Act, the credit check legislation, a bill that would tax shoppers for plastic bags in an attempt to prevent pollution, and the Right to Know Act, a package of bills that would require police to identify why they are stopping someone and inform them that they can decline certain searches, as initiatives that did not initially or do not currently have the speaker’s and mayor’s backing. “That is a rare situation,” Kallos emphasized. “But the Progressive Caucus is here to pull the mayor and the speaker left, when necessary, and that is a role we are comfortable with.”

Lander said the caucus naturally tends to side with the establishment, but it would be “silly to not be honest” about how the caucus is more thoughtful about criticizing allies than it was in taking on Bloomberg or the relatively moderate former Speaker Christine Quinn. Still, he said, the caucus’ and alliance’s commitment is not contingent on who ascends to speaker or mayor.

“We have a set of people who passionately share the goals of making the city a more just, fair, more equal place, and that’s what drove them into politics,” he said. “That was true last term … and it’ll be true in the future, regardless of who is president and who is governor and who is mayor and who is speaker. It’s going to take us a long time to make progress toward those goals. We’re not going to do it in one term.”