Welcome to Becoming a Citizen Activist ColumnI have been writing Citizenship Politics since September 1996, although it was published as Urban Politics up to September 2020. Initially, my focus was on Seattle and regional politics. Since leaving the Seattle Council, I’ve focused on national political and social trends. The Citizenship Politics newsletter is emailed out up to three times a month. As of April 2021, there are 10,000 subscribers; 70 percent are university faculty at over 250 universities and colleges throughout all fifty states. Subscribers can cancel at any time by replying “Unsubscribe Citizenship Politics” in the Subject Line. If you or a friend do not currently receive it, you can subscribe by scrolling down to the bottom of my home page http://www.becomingacitizenactivist.org and submitting your email address.

All posts by Nick Licata

My Book Review of ‘Reclaiming Gotham’ – how cities can close the wealth gap

By | Urban Politics - U.S. | No Comments


Urban Politics – US – November 2, 2017

‘Reclaiming Gotham’: NYC a case study in a push for more affordable cities
by Nick Licata –  Special to The Seattle Times

Reclaiming Gotham by Gonzalez copy
Author Juan González uses New York City’s politics to illustrate how municipalities can take steps to make urban living more affordable for working families.

You can read the book review on the Seattle Times website here. Or Below.

The core premise of Juan González’s book “Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities” is that the nation’s wealth and income gap have resulted in too many city dwellers struggling to pay rent and other necessary expenses. He argues that municipal governments can take dramatic steps to make urban living more affordable for working families.

González uses New York City’s politics to illustrate how that can happen. Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York saw the economy boom, with developers replacing huge, rundown inner-city neighborhoods with much higher costing housing for the influx of largely younger, wealthier and whiter residents. At the same time, there were further reductions in public spending on social services.

The result was that many business owners prospered and the richest residents ended up getting even richer. From 2002 to 2012, the top 1 percent of residents went from taking in 27 percent of all income to 45 percent. Meanwhile, 21 percent of the city’s households earned less than the federal poverty level, and a third of renters were paying more than half of their income for housing.

In 2013, mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, a former City Council member, won election, along with a slate of very progressive new city public officials. Sharing a philosophy that New York was dangerously out of balance in the distribution of incomes and wealth, they set about reversing that course.
González describes in fascinating detail not only how de Blasio beat the odds to win, but how he began to reshuffle the city’s priorities. His collection of programs provided universal prekindergarten to 70,000 children, paid sick leave for all employees, froze rent increases for tenants in rent-regulated private buildings, and initiated services or programs that saved residents from spending an estimated $21 billion.

Such efforts were not unique to New York. González describes candidates elected in cities like Pittsburgh; Austin, Texas; Seattle; Minneapolis; Philadelphia; San Francisco; and Richmond, California, who ran on platforms that rejected the dominant neoliberalism philosophy that “the private sector did things faster, better, and cheaper than public employees.” Raising the minimum wage and requiring paid sick leave for all employees often followed their elections. Many of these leaders were members of a national network of progressive municipal officials called Local Progress that shared information on legislation being introduced and passed in their respective cities.

However, “Reclaiming Gotham” is not blind to the opposition that such policies generate or to the shortcomings of the advocates themselves. Within New York, de Blasio faced a massive slowdown of police enforcement when department members accused him of creating an anti-police climate. More seriously, financial and real estate interests “spent nearly $20 million on media ads targeting the mayor between 2014 and 2016,” hoping to confine him to one term.

Meanwhile, state and federal prosecutors investigated his administration for illegal influence peddling. They ultimately found “no evidence of personal profit” by the mayor or his staff, and no criminal charges were filed. While his image took a hit, de Blasio won the Democratic primary easily and is expected to have another term. Other progressive politicians faced their own resistance from well-financed campaign opponents or saw their bases splintered on some issues.

González notes that because 80 percent of the country’s 75 largest cities have Democratic mayors, many promoting liberal programs, they can provide a bulwark for resisting President Donald Trump’s reactionary policies. By pushing the twin goals of equity in city services and effective municipal governance, politicians can alter the “Tale of Two Cities” from one where cities are divided rich and poor, white and nonwhite, to one of greater community.

What Happened to The Underground Press ?

By | Urban Politics - U.S. | No Comments
Urban Politics – US   9/26/17
By Nick Licata – author of Becoming a Citizen Activist


The answer to that question is not simple but I do explore it in my book review of Celebrating The Rag, which extracts many articles from an era when Austin’s underground paper The Rag was published (1967 to 1977). The book provides a window into a time of counter-cultural revolution, where close to 300 underground, community run, newspapers shared a mission to disrupt the status quo. In doing so, they introduced new ways of looking at the world, and for the most part in a non-dogmatic way.
This book review ran on the Znet website ( https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/the-underground-press/) which describes itself as “A Community of People Committed to Social Change.”

From the mid-sixties through the mid-seventies, there was an explosion of independent, locally controlled print newspapers, collectively known as the underground press, aka alternative newspapers. The boomer generation remembers them, but the millennials and those coming afterwards may not be aware of how they shaped this country’s politics and culture.

One of the earliest and most successful of those papers was Austin’s The Rag; publishing nearly 400 issues running 11 years from 1967 to 1977. Three former Rag Editors and writers, Thorne Dreyer, Alice Embree and Richard Croxdale, have published Celebrating The Rag. Its collection of articles helps us understand how this nation shook off a bigoted culture that oppressed African Americans and other ethnic minorities, women and gays. At any one time there were over a hundred underground papers challenging the existing cultural values and political structures.

Dreyer, founding editor of The Rag, continues that tradition by editing The Rag Blog, an Internet newsmagazine, and hosting Rag Radio on KOOP 91.7-FM, a cooperatively-run Austin community radio station. His interviews dive into progressive politics, culture, and history; you can find podcasts of all Rag Radio shows here.

The Rag was the sixth alternative paper to be part of the new Underground Press Syndicate (UGS), following the LA’s Free Press, New York’s East Village Other, the Berkeley Barb, Detroit’s Fifth Estate, and East Lansing’s The Paper. By 1971, according to a roster in Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, there were 271 UPS-affiliated papers. The member papers operated independently from each other under various management structures and pursued a range of political perspectives. Nevertheless they shared a common ethos that demanded accountability from government and all establishment institutions in order to advance social justice policies.

Celebrating The Rag’s articles vividly tell the stories of how their staff, writers and readers continually supported the organizing efforts to oppose any institution that hampered the freedom of individuals to seek a productive life. The Rag’s own organizational structure reflected these values.

Bill Meacham, former Rag writer wrote that “… the Ragstaff operated as a participatory democracy. We had no designated leaders… “Although he allowed for how natural leaders did emerge, still “Anybody who showed up at the meetings (of the Rag) could speak up and have input to the content and direction of the newspaper.” Bottom line: “The lifestyle was about community and treating people well and living in such a way that everyone was included and nobody was ripped off.”

Early on this philosophy shaped the structure and content of the paper in acknowledging the feminist movement.  By the end of 1968 the paper was reporting on women’s national protests and conferences. And in the Seventies graphics and photographs of nude women tailed off as women took on leadership of The Rag.

A 1971 article by Sue Hester protested being called a “chick”, which was a term long used at the paper, drew “more than the usual amount of discussion at our copy meeting…” according to former Ragstaffer Sharon Shelton-Colangelo. She notes that while other alternative papers “were being torn apart by gender divisions” Rag female staffers set up a reproductive rights referral service in the Rag offices. Women staffers also successfully lobbied the Austin City Council to provide rape and trauma counseling at the Brackenridge Hospital and recognize International Women’s Day.

While political activism of staff and writers, was openly and proudly pursued at The Rag, as well as other underground papers, the role of electoral politics balanced between being reluctantly accepted as a useful tool and being scorned as a waste of time. Promoting demonstrations and lobbying for changing oppressive laws was part of the every paper’s vernacular from their birth. Supporting candidates however was another matter.

For instance when the paper’s editors expressed their support for Frances Farenthold’s campaign for the governorship of Texas in 1972, it was met by two questions: “Aren’t electoral politics bullshit?” And, “What good can come from liberal reforms?” The lead op-ed against such support concluded that “Under circumstances as they exist now in this country, taking the business of elections seriously is fostering falsehood and undermining radical consciousness.”

The editors responded at length to these criticisms, but in a nutshell they argued that Farenthold’s program goes beyond the electoral process and as such liberal reforms are “a damn sight better than fascist repression.”  Nevertheless, they believed that while revolution was inevitable the people should continue to struggle for the maximum benefits and gains, which are possible under capitalism.

What is refreshing in reading over these debates from over 40 years ago, is how these local discussions were shared nation-wide due to the network of alternative papers. Not coalescing around one solution, they provided a platform for debating what our democracy was about and if it could be saved.

In looking over the many articles in Celebrating The Rag what stands out is a culture of challenging the dominant status quo as the path forward in creating a better nation for everyone. The Rag, along with local Austin chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, in a seemingly innocuous manner broke through the dominant group think that, like a thick fog, hung over not only college campuses but all citizens.

And a battering ram was not use but rather a gentle nudge tipped over the cart of apples. It was called Gentle Thursday, held in the fall of 1966 as The Rag was getting started. It was organized “as a celebration of our belief that there is nothing wrong with fun.” Who could object? It encouraged students on the University of Texas, Austin campus, to look at their personal world differently, from a vantage point of saying “What could I do that is not within the usual expectations, but something that I and others will enjoy?” The poster that went up suggested “you might even take flowers to your Math Professor, feel free to fly a kite on the main mall and at the very least wear brightly colored clothing.”

By simply breaking the everyday routine, it pushed back the curtain of conformity and released a sense of self and being alive. Knowing that you have the power to change your behavior to enjoy life is at the heart of every political movement.

This cultural shift became known as the counter-culture, it opened the eyes of those who benefited from the status quo to see how others were suffering under it. Long before President Donald Trump popularized Fake News through his constant stream of Twitter lies, there was News Black Outs, where the struggles of regular people were not important enough to receive the attention of the major media outlets. The Rag’s efforts to highlight these struggles were repeated through a national network of local underground papers. Not only did they highlight feminist issues, but those involving gays, Blacks and unions were also championed.

The Rag lamented how the Sexual Freedom League was kicked off University of Texas campus in 1966, because they wished to stimulate discussion of the various taboos and archaic laws involving sexual activity. Five years later in 1971 The Rag was promoting and celebrating Austin’s Gay Pride week, following up in 1974 by supporting the first statewide gay conference.

The Rag promoted Black Liberation and covered events that the main stream media ignored, like the 41 year sentence of a prominent black activist, Martin Sostre in Buffalo NY, for selling heroin to a person, who later recanted that he had lied to frame Sostre.

The Rag shed light on labor struggles that the dominant newspapers like the Austin American didn’t find important. It informed the public of a critical NLRB ruling vindicating a strike by a predominantly Chicano union against the Longhorn Machine Works in Kyle, Texas. The company was ordered to bargain in good faith and restore lost benefits to the strikers.

While these are examples of issue specific struggles to achieve social justice, the counter-culture’s message of creating community ushered in the creation of consumer and worker cooperatives as an alternative to the hierarchical corporate model. In both instances, the customers or the workers had a say in how the organization was operated. Meacham, looking back on his experience at the paper, wrote, “Both co-ops and the Ragstaff operated as participatory democracies.” However, even co-ops came under scrutiny for their practices. The Rag covered a struggle in 1975 where the Minneapolis/St. Paul cooperative network of more than a dozen storefront food co-ops, bakeries, and other alternative collectives, came under attack from an organization  (The Co-op Organization –TCO) representing some 4 dozen co-op members and workers. They accused the co-op network of being a white, middle-class hippie trip and instead should be building solidarity with black and working class communities in preparation for revolution. The Rag noted that the issues raised by the TCO were important ones but that the tactics employed by the TCO, such as physically breaking up meetings, was destructive to the co-op movement.

Internal strife over ideological or gender divisions contributed to tense working conditions in many alternative organizations across the country and probably contributed to the demise of some of the alternative papers. Although The Rag did not fold until 1977, by 1975 most of the underground papers had disbanded. There were many reasons. Since many were very dependent on volunteers and low pay full time positions, the supply of willing labor may have just dried up.

Unfortunately, what is missing from Celebrating The Rag is a summary statement on why the paper stopped publishing. It might have helped shed some light on why this phenomenally successful paper, and others like it, did not survive. The rise of the underground press has been attributed to the introduction of cheap photo offset printing, which made publishing a paper accessible and affordable for many small groups. But new technology alone is not enough to make a movement; it takes spirit and a belief that things can be made better by organizing.

I don’t think the counter-culture lost its soul. Instead, it expanded far beyond its founding groups, so that the establishment adopted many of its objectives, such as achieving stronger civil rights protections and ending the Viet Nam War. But before that tipping point occurred, local authorities did resist and try to suppress them.

The Rag successfully legally challenged a ban from selling their paper on the UT Austin campus. The court system, however, ultimately was not friendly to freedom-of-speech rights. In 1973, the Supreme Court decision in Miller v. California re-enabled local obscenity prosecutions, which allowed local police and prosecutors to attack the local head shops that often stocked underground papers. While right-wing extremists did not permanently close down the underground press offices through violence, the local authorities were able to harass and shut down their retail distribution network.

The legacy of the underground press was to question all authority and seek answers based on independently verifiable knowledge and not on what was being provided by those in power. The Rag exemplified a first-rate execution of that objective.

The challenge now is to determine how to keep that orientation alive and thriving. Perhaps community radios, which are found in many cities, like Austin’s KOOP, can provide a framework for sustaining such a progressive force. Other media outlets like blogs or podcasts have also begun to play such a role. It may be that the disastrous Trump Presidency will stimulate a creation of a UPS-like network among these outlets, playing a role similar to how the horrific Vietnam War prompted the creation of the underground press. What is certain is that citizen activists can change the world, they did it in the past and they can do it again.

Nick Licata is the author of Becoming a Citizen Activist; Stories, Strategies & Advice for Changing Our World, a former 5 term Seattle City Councilmember, and co-founder of an alternative paper The Seattle Sun (1974 to 1982). He can be reached at nick@becomingacitizenactivist.org  twitter @nickjlicata


By | Urban Politics - Seattle | No Comments



Seattle City Council has begun the process for funding the construction and operation of a downtown streetcar project called the Center City Connector Streetcar, and referenced as the CCC. Initially the advocates argued that the CCC was a transportation solution for connecting the South Lake Union and the First Hill streetcars. However, it doesn’t make much sense for anyone to get on the First Hill streetcar at a Capitol Hill stop, like Denny and Broadway to get to SLU, when they could get there in a third of the time by just taking the number 12 bus to downtown, or another bus line at a different stop, and then board the SLU streetcar.

That detail has not deterred the Seattle Downtown (business) Association as its biggest promoter. They have been angling for a downtown streetcar for at least 10 years. As a councilmember during that entire time, I often hosted supporters in my office to listen how Seattle’s downtown could be more prosperous if we had a streetcar running right through downtown’s already congested streets.

The best argument for building the CCC might be that it will encourage shoppers to visit a number of retail establishments along the line, as long as it has enough stops, which would slow it down. Pioneer Square businesses owners also hoped it would deliver increased pedestrian traffic to them, which has clustered further north along First Avenue. However, this business development objective really makes the CCC an economic stimulus project not a transportation project. The advocates soft-peddle that rationale because the city needs federal transportation funding to build the CCC, and those funds are intended to serve transit needs.


This conflict begged the question that the council needed to answer: What are the public costs and transit benefits for building and maintaining the CCC? To provide that answer, Councilmember Lisa Herbold amended Council Bill Number: 119008which accepted $50 million in federal dollars towards this project, by requiring our Seattle Dept. of Transportation (SDOT) to report to the council detailing the financial operating plan for the CCC, the projected performance measures and contingency plan for funding CCC should the additional federal $25 million that the city expects to receive did not materialize.

Even if those funds are received, the city is already prepared to spend $52 from our transit budget to build the CCC. What other transit needs will be sacrificed? For the SLU streetcar bus service hours were diverted from lower income families being served by bus routes in the Rainier Valley. This was a social justice issue that residents in the south end of Seattle raised and protested the cut in their bus routes.

An article in City Lab concluded, “Taxpayers are picking up most of the bill for the 21st century streetcar renaissance—money which could otherwise support more effective forms of public transportation.” Check it out here


Director of Transit & Mobility Andrew Glass Hastings delivered the required report 2 weeks ago to the Council. His revenue projections are more aspirational than rational. The bulk of the streetcar network’s operational income will come from ridership. The city’s transportation department wrote that the project would increase the entire streetcar network average daily streetcar ridership from approximately 6,000 today to an estimated 25,000 average daily riders by some unspecified date in the future. However their report shows that by 2025 their daily average riders will only represent 38% of the 25,000 target. Even if they meet 2025 goal, it appears to be unrealistic since it represents an increase of over 400%. Meanwhile, the SLU streetcar has experienced a decline in ridership of 32% since 2013 due to reduced congestion and improved bus service serving South Lake Union. Improved bus service is siphoning off riders from the SLU streetcar.

After reviewing SDOT’s report, the Council’s central staff continued to believe there is financial risk in the Center City Connector’s financial plan. Although, they added that much of this risk already existed with operating the South Lake Union Streetcar and First Hill Streetcar lines, and is not directly attributable to the CCC. In other words, the current streetcar system will continue to face the same financial problems it has now.

If the predicted ridership for the CCC follows the same course as what happened with the SLU line, which the city still has an outstanding loan of over $3 million to support SLU Streetcar operations, where will the additional revenue come from? The expectation is that both King County and Sound Transit will continue their annual subsidies for our two existing streetcar lines and will presumably also help subsidize CCC’s costs.


For the SLU Streetcar, King County Metro provides an annual contribution that escalates to $1,550,000 in 2019, when the current operating agreement expires. SDOT anticipates that a future agreement will maintain this level of support. This subsidy will probably come by moving service hours that could be devoted to providing more reliable bus service to employees and shoppers coming into downtown rather than paying for a streetcar trying to move through downtown traffic that will not help anyone get to work on time.

For the FH Streetcar, Sound Transit provides a $5,000,000 annual contribution through 2023. SDOT anticipates that a future agreement will maintain this level of Sound Transit support; however, the voter-approved ST3 ballot measure did not include any funding for this purpose. Will the city then be on the hook?

The city council’s central staff also raised an intriguing scenario: the city could be exposed to a greater financial risk of losing Sound Transit funding in the future if the CCC is built because then the city will be operating one interconnected system. Sound Transit funded the FH Streetcar because it served a discreet function of providing access to downtown that was abandoned by Sound Transit when it did not build a First Hill station. However, when the CCC is complete it will be harder to characterize the First Hill segment as a discrete portion of the line that Sound Transit must maintain. If it does divest, the City will then have to pick up the $5 million annual tab.

SDOT’s report to the Council said any future funding shortfalls, like not getting the additional $25 in federal transportation funds that the city has applied for but has yet to receive, could be met by possible additional revenue sources like increased sponsorship and increased fares.

The promise of corporate sponsorships as a streetcar revenue source is like searching for the Holy Grail, it’s got to be out there somewhere. But not in Seattle. Sponsorships did not stop the SLU streetcar from going into the hole. No mention is made in the SDOT report on how much sponsorships currently contribute to either of the existing streetcar lines. For the year 2020, when the CCC is expected to be completed, annual operating costs are just over $16 million for all 3 lines and less than a million in sponsorship revenue is expected; no projection for future years is even attempted.

The one reason that the CCC is being pushed through right now is the lure of receiving free money, i.e. the $50 to $75 million that the feds will be giving to Seattle to build it. But free federal money is not always going to lead to the best solution to improving our urban environment.

Citizens in 1971 realized that when they rejected, by initiative, receiving millions in federal dollars for an urban renewal project that would replace 90 percent of the Pike Place Market with offices, hotels, and parking garages. They were not deterred by the city council voting unanimously to approve the renewal project and both daily newspapers supporting that decision.


Aside from the financial risk of building and maintaining the CCC, what will be the actual transit benefits? It’s already apparent that it will not serve working people trying to get to their jobs downtown, but will the CCC allow workers or shoppers to move more quickly through it? That’s doubtful. A robust network of bus routes 40, 62, and 70 already connects the ends of the two existing streetcars, along with Link light rail, which is faster than the CCC will ever be.

What makes the CCC particularly challenging is that it will be happening at the same time as the deep bore tunnel opens – closing the current bus tunnel to buses, and I-90 buses will be slowed by the second phase of Sound Transit construction on I-90. The cumulative impact will be more traffic diverting to 2nd and 4th avenues and very likely leading to gridlock.


Budget Chair Councilmember Herbold considers SDOT’s report a non-answer to the Council’s questions of where the funds will come from. She concludes that unfortunately, the only realistic funding sources may be to cut other spending, such as roads, sidewalks, bike lanes, proactive landslide prevention, and transit. Read her newsletter to understand how $4 million of the city’s limited revenue stream from the Commercial Parking tax could be diverted for the next 20 years to pay for the CCC.

It is clear that the CCC streetcar is only a downtown circulator. Public transit is already good downtown it’s everywhere else in Seattle that commuters need more reliable and frequent bus service. Worse still, there is a fair chance that the CCC streetcar would make downtown circulation worse since it will be using limited right of way space that will be desperately needed for the additional busses that will be pushed out of the bus tunnel.

First Avenue should handle more public transit and shifting bus routes there would be much more cost-efficient than spending at least $60 million in local tax revenues for building a streetcar line. And, that’s assuming the feds cough up another $25 million, if SDOT’s ridership numbers are accurate, and that both King County and Sound Transit continue to subsidize our streetcar system. Not to mention any possible cost overruns.

Other cities have faced similar decisions. Many do succumb to the charm of streetcars as well as the influence of well-organized interest groups that would benefit from such grand public expenditures, such as developers, property owners along the lines, consultants and construction companies. However, just last year, Rhode Island leaders decided that the streetcar wasn’t the right answer for downtown Providence.  They redirected their federal funding for a streetcar into a bus-based project in the same downtown corridor with buses coming every 4-5 minutes. It would provide the same reliable service that a streetcar would but more importantly it would allow major bus lines to continue to serve those outside the downtown neighborhoods.

The Seattle City Council has been in the national forefront in recognizing that social justice issues must be addressed in our policies and projects. But sometimes they are difficult to apply to capital projects, particularly attractive ones like the proposed Center City Connector Streetcar. Nevertheless, in this instance there is a social justice issue that will impact the poor and the middle class. Will our public dollars be spent most efficiently on a project that does not increase the ease of getting to work downtown? There is scant evidence that laying down those rails will make Seattle any more livable or affordable for its residents.


The Council could hold up any further expenditure on the CCC project, until an outside neutral party can determine if it will benefit residents and employees throughout the city by providing them better access to downtown. That motion could be made by 3 councilmembers introducing a Budget Proviso. However, they would need to do so by this coming Thursday. If they do, then this proposal could be discussed before the full council.

If this approach strikes you as a reasonable step in doing due diligence please let the councilmembers know by emailing citycouncil@seattle.gov and all councilmembers will receive your message.

The city council’s Budget Session I begins at – 10:30 a.m., or right after the Council Briefing meeting, this Monday to discuss SDOT’s budget. Questions about the CCC may be raised. Public testimony will be held just before the meeting begins. Watch the meeting live.

Visiting the Twin Cities – The Struggle for Justice in the Workplace

By | Urban Politics - U.S. | No Comments

Talking to citizen activists & politicians in the Twin-Cities as they struggle to adopt Minimum Wage & Paid Sick Leave

I’m speaking on Tuesday, Sept 13th in Minneapolis and St Paul on how Becoming a Citizen Activist can guide strategic actions and mobilize support for progressive change. Please pass on these announcements to folks you know in the Twin Cities.


Minneapolis Talk & Discussion

  • When: Tuesday, September 13th, 4pm
  • Where: The University of Minnesota Bookstore
    Coffman Memorial Union on the University of Minnesota campus
  • What: I’ll talk about Becoming a Citizen Activist and urge students to become citizen activists if they want to gain control over their future.
  • Who: I’ll be joined by 3 Minneapolis council members, Elizabeth Glidden, a Local Progress board member; Cam Gordon, Green Party member and advocate for $15 minimum wage; and, Alondra Cano, Associate Director for the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network.

St. Paul Talk & Discussion

  • When: Tuesday, 9/13, 7PM
  • Where: East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier Street
  • What: I’ll talk about Becoming a Citizen Activist regarding Citizen Activism and the Struggle for Justice in the Workplace
  • Who: I’ll be joined by a panel of union leaders and local activists from the $15 NOW and Earned Sick and Safe Time campaigns.

Summary of the Minimum Wage & Paid Sick Leave Efforts in the Twin Cities


Minimum Wage Legislation


Advocates for raising the minimum wage to $15 (lead by the groups 15 Now, Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change) gathered enough valid signatures on a petition to send the issue to voters through a charter amendment. The need for increasing the minimum wage in Minneapolis is apparent in light of the fact 28% of its residents live in poverty. Those numbers are even higher for families of color, including 49% of Black households, 65% of American Indians, and 34% of Latinos. And polling showed 68 percent of 400 voters surveyed said they’d vote in favor of a $15 minimum wage.

However, the city attorney determined that the petition did not fall into the narrow spectrum of city issues that can be decided by voters in Minneapolis according to the city charter. Thereafter the majority of the council and the mayor, up refused to place it on the ballot this November.

The advocates appealed their decision to the court and won a favorable decision to allow the charter amendment to go before the voters. In response the city then appealed the lower court’s decision to the State Supreme Court and won. Consequently the voters will not be voting this fall on raising the minimum wage to $15.

The Current Situation:

Minneapolis Council Member Lisa Bender (lisa.bender@minneapolismn.gov) co-authored a resolution requesting that their city council staff make a recommendation on the minimum wage issue by the second quarter of 2017. The Supreme Court did say that the Council could adopt a minimum wage through an ordinance. The advocates have said that their attention is now to focus on getting the council votes to pass such an ordinance, preferably this year.

Paid Sick Leave Legislation

The Current Situation:

Beginning July 1, 2017, employees will accrue sick and safe time. In the meantime their Council approved the creation of a Workplace Advisory Committee consisting of both business owners, employees and unions which among other responsibilities will be to “Prepare a two-year work plan that focuses on workplace issues, such as the implementation of the City of Minneapolis’ sick and safe time policy, and update such plan on an annual basis.”


Minimum Wage Legislation


St. Paul is more of a working class city with a smaller population and economic base than Minneapolis. Although raising the minimum wage would certainly benefit many people, perhaps even a higher percentage than in Minneapolis, no legislation or initiatives have been introduced.

The Current Situation:

Advocates for raising the minimum wage in St. Paul have first focused on passing paid sick leave. They have also monitored Minneapolis’s council work and now passage of their $15 minimum wage law on September 7, 2016.

Paid Sick Leave Legislation


On February 3, 2016 the Saint Paul City Council unanimously passed a resolution convening a task force to discuss the possibility of extending earned sick and safe time to all employees in Saint Paul. On July 19, 2016 the Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity Commission, without amendments, approved the Earned Sick and Safe Time Task Force Recommendations as well as a draft of the ordinance. Finally, on September 8, 2016 the council unanimously passed the Paid Sick Leave Legislation. You can locate the legislation at https://stpaul.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=2801386&GUID=D3340F14-A618-4A88-8D04-E820E6C352C7

The Department of Civil Rights will investigate complaints but will work proactively and collaboratively with employers. There is also a provision allowing workers to sue their employer if they felt they had been retaliated against for using sick leave or reporting a sick leave violation.

The Current Situation:

St. Paul is now the second city in Minnesota to require employers to give workers paid sick time, and some have said that it is a more inclusive and worker-friendly approach than Minneapolis’s version, which was approved in May 2016. A month later in June Chicago adopted a sick leave regulation. Duluth is currently looking into an ordinance.

45 Years Ago Today Attica Prisoners Rebelled

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Remembering Attica’s Lessons

Forty-five years ago today, the inmates of New York’s Attica prison initiated the largest revolt of prisoners this nation had ever seen. In a fury of rage at their inhuman conditions they rebelled, beating the Correction Officer William Quinn in to death in taking control of the prison. However, shortly thereafter in a remarkable turnaround they developed a rational decision-making organization which did not seek their release but instead demanded decent conditions for their incarceration.

James Forman Jr. (Yale Law School professor) in the September 4, 2016 edition of the NYT Book Review summarizes Univ of Michigan History Professor Heather Ann Thompson’s book Blood In The Water – The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. The Attica “riots” are now only a vague memory to even those in the progressive movement. It is critical that we not forget what public policies eventually lead to the death of 39 prisoners and correction officers, apparently killed by New York’s untrained and unsupervised state troopers and national guardsmen in retaking the prison.

As described by Thompson, the prison’s 2,000 plus inmates with almost half from New York City were limited to one shower a week, one roll of toilet paper a month, and food rations costing the state only 63 cents per day. Prison mail was censored to the point that most letters in Spanish to the Puerto Rican prisoners were tossed since the censors could not read them. Black prisoners were singled out for daily harassment by the almost all-white staff. As L.D. Barkley, one of the prisoner leaders said during their occupation of the prison, “We are men. We are not beasts, and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such.”

In the months preceding the uprising, the prisoners with the help of outside advocates lobbied for better living conditions with no avail. Then on September 9th, 1971 a group of prisoners overpowered a correction officer and all hell broke loose. After a few hours of bloody chaos, the prisoners organized a 4 day sustain effort to negotiate a series of demands from the state. Liberal Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller refused to personally participate in the negotiations and called them off on the 13th ordering the prison to be retaken by force. Thompson describes sadistic crimes that took place after the state officials had full control of the prison. To date, the New York state has refused to release thousands of boxes of crucial records.

Are we repeating these conditions today?

It is important to remember what caused Attica, because many prisons today once again rely more on punishment than on rehabilitation practices. This is ever more true in public prisons operated by private companies. Journalist Shane Bauer’s Mother Jones article “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard” (August 2016 edition) ignited national outrage at the conditions in privately operated prisons.

The federal government recently announced that they would no longer follow this practice. However over 86 percent of prisoners are in state prisons and each state will have to make that decision. While efforts should be made to get the Department of Justice to conduct a massive review of state prisons operated by private companies that effort may well be slowed down by governors and state legislatures who would see it as interfering with state rights.

Rather than organize fifty different campaigns to influence each state government, it would be more effective and capture more media attention to focus on one non-federal entity: the National Governors Association. True there are more Republican Governors than Democrats. But Terry” McAuliffe, the Democratic Governor of Virginia, is the chair of the NGA. And he has a record of being supportive of restoring voting rights to ex-felons. In April of 2016, McAuliffe signed an executive order restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 ex-felons in Virginia., unfortunately it was overturned by the Virginia Supreme Court. Just as importantly another Democrat, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, chairs NGA’s Health and Human Services Committee.

A strategy can be applied to the NGA that works in any legislative-type body in an open democratically run organization: you do not need a majority to bring an item forward for discussion. What you need is a few dedicated members willing to demand that an issue be brought before the body for discussion and investigation. The goal is to begin a process that allows those concerned to raise the issue publically and force the other members to address it publically. The goal is to highlight the issue and require the organization’s members to take a public stand after momentum has built up within and outside the organization. The mechanics of the decision-making process will vary with each entity, but every democratic organization has an opening for the minority to express its opinion and even effect the final outcome.

In this manner, only a handful of state-based organizations are needed to pressure their respective governor to bring forward this issue in the NGA, and particularly to lobby McAuliffe and Shumlin to hold a public workshop on this issue and to follow up by requesting that NGA contract with a neutral third party, preferably based at a university, to conduct a national review resulting in an evaluation of the prisoner conditions of privately run state prisons and the public cost the state incurs because of those conditions. That report then becomes a powerful key to opening the door for prison reform. It is not the end however; organizations will need to mobilize public opinion to convince state legislatures to use that key. If they do not, then make it a pivotal issue during their re-election campaign.

The conditions that led to the Attica upraising should never be tolerated again within any of our prisons. Focusing on eliminating privately run public prisons provides the best opportunity to get a victory and address the larger issue of improving prison conditions for all inmates. There is a way to win on this issue, but it will take thoughtful organizing.

(Photo: Associated Press)

Council Dynamics on Monday’s Surprise Vote

By | Urban Politics - Seattle | No Comments

full_city council

I’ve been to many council meetings over 18 years but yesterday’s full council meeting truly stands out as one for having a surprise ending.
Before jumping into how the councilmembers got to their final vote, it was evident that they all had done their homework. The debate was mature and rested entirely on understanding the practical consequences of their actions and the legal restraints that they were operating under. It was one of the best demonstrations one could imagine of how a legislative body should perform.
The history of the council supporting a new arena to be built in the SODO area has largely been framed within the context of balancing the public costs and benefits. Those benefits are not only measured in direct public financial subsidies against general economic gain, but also on the impact that project would have on the kind of jobs that would be eliminated and gained, and on the recognition that having a third professional sports team in Seattle would be greatly appreciated by many citizens. 
The vote was seemingly a trifle one. It would have simply been a filing with the City Clerk to vacate a public street, i.e. allow a private use of a public piece of property. This was something that had been seen as necessary condition by the proponents of building a new basketball/hockey arena in order to go forward with the project. So, voting against a street vacation was framed as a vote on whether the City should proceed with this project. That was the big picture. The devil of course always hides in the details.
By law when the city vacates a public street it must way the value of what the public benefits from giving up a public resource. Vacating this portion of Occidental Street would provide a public benefit of securing a professional basketball team, since a new arena could then be built in this location. The problem for the proponents was that there was no team waiting to come to Seattle. The NBA Commissioner outlined a process for providing Seattle a new team that would easily push that decision into 2018.  The developer and new owner of the proposed team Chris Hansen, only has until November of 2017 to obtain one, in order to meet the requirements set forth in a written agreement with the city, referred to as a Memorandum of Agreement (MOU).
If the council passed the legislation yesterday to vacate the street, Hansen would have gained another three and a half years to secure the team and preserved his right to obtain public financing. Without the street being vacated, it is highly unlikely that he will be able to secure a new team for Seattle by next November, hence a no vote was seen as a death knell for his proposed project. That did not eliminate him or another entrepreneur from attracting a team sometime afterwards, but both the SODO location and public financing would have to be renegotiated with the city – an arduous task.
Given that background, it was expected that the council would, perhaps reluctantly, agree to vacate the street. Mayor Murray had come out strongly in favor of that option and a prior vote in a council committee, which preceded the Full Council Committee’s meeting yesterday, had voted 4 to 1 (Sally Bagshaw dissenting) in favor of the legislation. The proponents only needed one more vote to pass it and three of the councilmembers (Debora Juarez, Lorena Gonzalez and Kshama Sawant) had not made their positions known. Lisa Herbold had already been critical of the proposed street vacation. (I should mention, as a former critic of the proposal, that I had no words with her or any of the councilmembers on this topic.)
The Full Council meeting on this matter began with Councilmember Tim Burgess proposing 3 cleanup amendments, which would make the arena operations accommodate other spectator events in that area and also address some traffic congestions issues: all solid, logical improvements that passed unanimously. These were necessary changes to assure that the other sport teams would not oppose sharing their turf, something that they had raised doubts about in the past. With this move, Burgess may have intended to eliminate one potential significant industry from stopping the legislation. It foreshadowed a victory around the corner for the arena folks.
Next, Councilmember Lisa Herbold offered her 3 amendments. The first was the most dangerous to the arena. She cleverly recognized that the MOU required Hansen to secure a team by November of 2017 otherwise it would expire. Her amendment tied the knot on the deal by, not necessarily denying the street vacation but by conditioning it to meet the requirements of the MOU: team was secured by that date, then the vacation would not take effect.
O’Brien smartly countered that passing the amendment would not allow for public funds, therefor passing it increased the chance that the arena would be built with private funds, assuming that Hansen did not ask for public funding as he has in the past. His argument played to the sentiment of most of the other councilmembers, who would prefer to have it built with private money and not publicly financed.
Herbold pointed out that public financing was not her main point, she countered that the public benefit is securing the team, without making that a requirement then the public benefit is not necessarily realized.
Her amendment went down 6 to 3 (Herbold, Bagshaw and Juarez being the yes votes.) Juarez had not spoken up so it was a bit of a surprise that she took this strong position. However, it was not certain by any means where she would go on the final vote. With only Herbold and Bagshaw expecting to vote no on the street vacation, it was highly unlikely that the councilmembers who voted against limiting the street vacation would then turn around and vote against approving the street vacation.
Herbold’s other two amendments, while offering some constraints on the arena project, passed without debate. Likewise an amendment from Lorena Gonzalez’s that safeguarded freedom of speech and assembly on the property of the vacated street also passed without debate. Gonzalez’s amendment was a very good one, but it could be assumed that it had met her major concerns so that she could vote in favor of the street vacation.
Bagshaw’s final statement in which she appealed to her colleagues to change their minds and vote against the street vacation, reminded me of the same pitch I had made to the other councilmembers in the past on other long shot efforts and I truly felt for her – an obvious hopeless pitch.
When Council President Bruce Harrell (who did a very fair and efficient chairing of the meeting) asked for the final wrap up statements from the other councilmembers, the absolutely best that opponents could count on was losing in a 5 to 4 vote to approve the legislation.
It was possible that Juarez might come out against it, given her vote to support Herbold’s amendment. And with a passionate speech she indeed voted against the legislation. Councilmember Kshama Sawant had been quiet during the debate, with the exception of asking some questions, so it was unclear where she would land. When she gave her final statement it continued in that vein until she concluded that she would vote against it. Suddenly the best scenario had played out – 4 votes against vacating the street.
All eyes then turned to councilmember Gonzalez. She had been attentive asked critical questions, had introduced a good amendment that passed, so she could have voted in favor of the legislation and justified it by showing that she had taken her job seriously. But then came the surprise. She continued to present her thoughts in a straightforward fashion (reminding me of Burgess’s style) and concluded that she would vote against the street vacation.
Everyone, let me repeat, everyone was shocked by the turn of events. Every sign that this legislation was going to pass had been signaled clearly, and yet somehow on the dais, and apparently not before hand, councilmembers were still deciding how to vote. It was a very democratic moment, one that we too often don’t enjoy witnessing.
Hansen will have to rethink his strategy and the Mayor has vowed to continue his efforts to bring a professional basketball team to Seattle, so the game is not over. But for one afternoon a legislative body had a thoughtful discussion on how much to bend the rules for those with the most money on the table.

Run your City for $15,000 a Year, No Desk or Staff Needed

By | Urban Politics - U.S. | No Comments

Last week I spent a few days in Indianapolis talking to their city council members and constituents. I was there as the keynote speaker for Butler University’s traditional Peace Week and talk about citizen activism.

Indianapolis is the archetype example of what those who want to shrink government looks like. They have a combined city/county government that spreads out over 300 square miles with a population of 850,000. They elect their mayor and 25 councilmembers from districts. Read More