Reclaiming Politics: Solving Problems Washington Won’t
October 7, 2012
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.
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…