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BY EDDY MARTINEZ
Manhattanites packed an auditorium last week to listen as a state senator and a leading progressive policy advocate addressed how to craft an effective local resistance to the administration in Washington. But in the process, they found themselves searching for an answer to a question years in the making: How can Democrats increase voter turnout in one of the bluest cities in the country during the reign of Trump?
Neera Tanden, CEO of the Washington-based Center for American Progress, and West Side state Sen.Brad Hoylman hosted the Feb. 1 town hall at the CUNY Graduate Center in Midtown and were joined by City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Letitia James.
While the remarks of each differed in focus, they struck the same tones of urgency and definace.
“This is the most insane, radical, and extremist administration I’ve ever seen in my life,” Tanden said.
The gathering, titled “Town Hall on the Resistance: How States Can Trump Washington,” explored paths the city and state can take to fight back against federal policies deemed harmful to New York. Everyone at the town hall agreed that voters need to make themselves heard.
Stringer echoed Tanden’s remarks when he insisted that the city government would fight back by standing firm on its progressive values.
“We are part of this resistance,” Stringer said to cheers.
James, meanwhile, told the audience that her work as a public advocate has brought her face to face with the effects of federal policies.
“I will never normalize crazy,” she said. “I will never normalize hate, racism.”
But for one local Democrat, change has to start at the neighborhood level.
“The work that needs to be done in the municipality is enormous; we should be working with our council members more, we should be working with our state representatives,” said Tina DiFeliciantonio, a documentary filmmaker who lives in Chelsea. But though she identified herself as a registered Democrat, the “we” she referred to included progressive groups outside the formal political system.
Closer coordination between elected representatives and the grassroots, however, likely depends on getting more registered voters to actually vote. In this past November’s election, Mayor de Blasio won a second term by garnering the votes of just over 14 percent of the electorate. Hoylman acknowledged that reality, telling the crowed that New York State currently ranks 41st in the country in voter turnout.
But, he argued, the problem is one of access, not enthusiasm.
“It’s not easy to vote in New York,” he said. “We all were standing in line waiting to vote in the past election and it depresses turnout.”
Local Democratic organizations are concerned with low voter turnout, but their efforts naturally prioritize the shoring up of support in the city rather than the rest of the state, which in many areas is far less blue.
“We are focused on increasing Democratic turnout in our own county for the 2018 statewide elections,” Barry Weinberg, executive director of the Manhattan County Democratic Party, said in an email, adding that local Democratic clubs are working with Democrats upstate to increase voter outreach there. Weinberg did not respond to a follow-up question on how the the county organization would increase turnout in Manhattan.
One local Democratic club, however, says low turnout is not a problem of access.
“Rent in NYC is debilitating and not geared policy-wise towards young professionals, the subway system that we rely on is a monument to bureaucratic intransigence, and then we’re expected to attend nightly 3-hour-long meetings discussing issues that we don’t believe will impact our lives” said Malik Wright, head of the Manhattan Young Democrats, in an email.
The club, which pushes for greater youth involvement in local politics, has a different way of getting people engaged. Town halls are too big and too general to capture a political novice’s attention, according to Wright. The group instead introduces newcomers to Democratic district leaders who then connect them to local political clubs in their neighborhoods.
Tanden acknowledged that voter turnout needs to increase to turn the tide against Trump.
“My plea for you is to engage; my greatest fear is that people will become inured to the crazy,” she said during the town hall.
In comments to NYC Community Media following the town hall, Tanden said that the Center for American Progress is working with local progressive groups on the ground to mobilize voters, yet the New York Progressive Action Network, a coalition of activists, said it has had no contact from CAP. The Working Families Party, the largest progressive party in New York that works to move the state Democratic Party in a leftward direction, did not respond to a request for comment about whether the Center for American Progress has coordinated efforts with that party.
If Hoylman and Tanden offered no easy solutions to the voter turnout question, they were successful in energizing the crowd with a mix of calls for mass protests here and in Washington in the event special counsel Robert Mueller is fired and broadsides against the president and his team.
“Betsy DeVos is not very smart,” said Tanden, referring to the federal education secretary. CAP’s leader is known for an aggressive posture toward GOP leaders in her many media appearances.
Hoylman, by contrast, spoke more to the shared values of New Yorkers that he aims to defend.
“In New York, that’s not the way we want to do business,” he said of the Trump administration’s direction.
From DiFeliciantonio’s vantage point, it is easy for politicians to ask that more people get out to vote. The tougher issue, she said, is that the 2018 elections will be decided in local districts largely outside New York City, which has only one Republican member of the House.
“The problem is it’s hard work,” she said. “It takes a long time to make change and policy impact at the grassroots level.”
Hoylman stuck more to the basics. At one point while speaking, he paused for a moment and raised up a booklet that combined the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and said, “Everyone, raise your Constitutions.” The crowd roared back in cheers and applause.
But as soon as the town hall ended, people filed out quickly from the auditorium, despite Hoylman’s staff urging them to break into smaller group discussions. As the state senator was making his way out, less than 15 people were still on hand. Tanden had left a long time before, and James and Stringer exited moments after they finished their speeches.