You Should Actually Care about Local Government
October 27th, 2017
As you may (or may not) be aware, this November 7th - just 10 days away - is the date set to elect New York City’s mayor for the next four years. In all but the most unlikely predictions, we’re looking to elect incumbent Bill de Blasio by a decisive margin. De Blasio faces no serious Democratic challengers, and in a city in which over ¾ of voters cast ballots for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, Republican candidate Nicole Malliotakis - who has been criticized for having views similar to President Trump’s - would have long odds to overcome to pose a significant challenge to the liberal counterpart.
Because of a result that we can almost take for granted, few young people - or newspapers or websites - have white knuckles about the upcoming mayoral election. But this disinterest might not be entirely reasonable or wise, especially since it is indicative of a wider indifference to local politics.
First of all, take a moment to think about what comes to mind when you hear the word “politics.” Let me take a guess: you might think about our President, king of furious tweet-storms and needless conflict, or the ugly, constant sparring on Capitol Hill. The point is, no matter what, some political buzzer will buzz in the back of your head - it’s pretty hard to escape national politics right now.
But what if I was to start talking about the City Council? How about the State Senate? State Supreme Court? Which hot-button issues start lighting up in succession inside your head? Not too many?
Don’t feel bad: you’re not alone. Plus, the news channels that most NYC teens use to stay up-to-date on politics, such as social media (namely Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat), the “News” app, and mainstream national publications, are often almost chiefly dominated by national politics, leaving little room for helpful information and updates about local legislative and executive happenings. And the shocking quantity and relentlessness of major national scandals, disasters, legislative battles, and more, rightfully (to some extent) capture and retain our attention.
Still, local politics are important. I spoke to several students about their level of knowledge about the function of our local governments. Sophie Cooper, a freshman, said that she was “very poorly informed about how our local, city and state governments work.” Lila Schisgal, also a freshman, said that she was somewhat informed, but that she wanted to “try to educate herself more about local politics.”
The topic of the mayoral election drew more knowledge, and opinions. Referring to incumbent De Blasio, Cooper said that she “was very happy and heartened about universal Pre-K” (De Blasio’s identifying achievement in office). Schisgal, in contrast, had sharp criticism of the current mayor, saying that he made lots of “careless mistakes” and “base errors that shouldn’t be ignored,” although acknowledging that “he’s a lot better than many of the other people we’re seeing running for these positions.” Still, however, Cooper told me that besides Pre-K, “there’s not much I can call to mind that I know he has done and I have a particular feeling on.”
For those who are similarly uninformed about the story of De Blasio’s first term as mayor, here is a brief list of his accomplishments, and where he has fallen short: Besides his Pre-K-for-all initiative, De Blasio introduced a hugely popular municipal ID program, made traffic-safety improvements, and succeeded in passing a rent-freeze for many rent regulated apartments, as well as taking tough stances on areas such as mental health services and climate change. But many don’t think he’s done enough, especially since poverty hasn’t budged despite legislative efforts, and homelessness remains high. He’s also been criticized for the kinds of missteps Schisgal may have been referring to - chronic lateness to meetings especially during his first year, and the (perhaps not entirely reputable) account that he takes an SUV to exercise away from home every morning.For a run-down of the function of our local government, look here.
While national politics loom scarily large and close despite our geographic distance from D.C., you might not feel the same urgency in thinking about how local politics potentially affect your daily life. I asked Cooper if she felt that local politics had an effect on hers; “I think it affects me more than I know,” she responded. I also spoke to Nishanth Araveti, a freshman at Hunter, who said that “I feel like local politics have a kind of ripple effect on me that I don’t notice.”
Both are probably right. Our local government has power to change immeasurable aspects of our lives, from funding our public schools to keeping the streets safe and reforming the police department. And the broader issues that we worry about fixing at a national or international scale often start at home. New York City has plenty of autonomy in regulating its carbon emissions, for example. And where the federal government fails to adequately protect the rights of American citizens - by stripping access to birth control, refusing to discuss gun safety legislation, and so on - the responsibility falls to smaller constituencies to protect their own citizens and set an example for the rest of the country. Mayors, district reps, State Senators, and so on have some power to sway the actions of higher, national officials, if only through influence. So yes: local government affects you more than you know.
And that brings us to involvement. Over the past year, you’ve probably, in some way or another, made your voice heard (or have been urged to do so) with rallies, protests, letters, fundraisers, or calls to representatives. Cooper says that she’s “generally very well informed about national issues and national politics… and I’ve been writing letters and making phone calls and sending them to national elected officials.” All of these methods are vital to our democratic process, and if you haven’t reached out to representatives in some way or another on an issue you care about, it’s so important.
But again, while Senators and House Representatives in Washington might be the first to come to mind when someone brings up contacting representatives, your influence at a local level is just as important and has arguably more impact in a lot of ways. Cooper admits that she hasn’t reached out to local officials whatsoever. But there are several reasons as to why being involved in local politics is important.
Our national representatives here in New York City are very consistent in their commitment to countering the racist, sexist, and xenophobic policies of the Trump administration. While urging them to continue their pressure is great, your time might be better used elsewhere. And our Washington representatives are often swamped with calls, emails, and letters. At a local level, you can actually take advantage of the fact that people have less involvement as a whole. Your outstanding voice counts for more when it’s not just part of a mountain of angry voices.
Also, proximity - geographic and political - means that there are more opportunities to make real change. You’d certainly have better luck trying to schedule a meeting of your club or organization, for instance, with a state or city official than you would trying to meet with Kirsten Gillibrand. Imagine the impact a face-to-face meeting could have!
Finally, there are real opportunities to get personally involved in local politics that are incredible building blocks for future involvement in politics at a higher level. Rebecca Kanter, a sophomore at LaGuardia High School, has worked on two campaigns during the summers of 2016 and 2017. In 2016 she worked for the Clyde Williams for Congress campaign, which she said allowed her to “form connections with the campaign staff and feel as though I had a part in the changing the election.” Although his campaign was unsuccessful, Kanter says that the experience inspired her to work on her second campaign, for Bessie Schachter in the City Council. “I feel as though I am now a part of the Democratic process through helping these candidates,” she says.
Get involved in your Democratic process with issues you care about now.