Only New York’s Socialist City Councilors Voted Against an Austerity Budget

In last week’s New York City budget vote, “progressive” city council members who won office claiming to share the priorities of the city’s socialist movement turned around and voted for an austerity budget. Only socialist representatives stood against it.

Democratic socialist Alexa Avilés serves on New York City Council in District 38.

At the behest of Mayor Eric Adams, New York’s City Council passed a horrifying budget last week that slashes public school resources while fattening the police force. Only the socialist members voted no.

The episode shows that it’s not enough to have good liberals in government with nice values who can talk left. It doesn’t necessarily even matter how sincerely they believe what they’re saying. There’s no substitute for socialist leaders accountable to grassroots and socialist organizations.

The budget cuts targeted at schools come to $215 million. Teachers, parents, students, and school principals are reeling from the news. With many schools seeing their budgets drop by as much as a million dollars, principals are saying they could be forced to lay off teachers and go without social workers, art, music, and even paper. Other likely casualties are science, after-school activities, and intervention for special needs kids. Class sizes will get larger, even though the state government actually allocated funding to shrink class sizes this year.

All this is particularly inexcusable given that the city has been given much more state and federal money for education than usual in recent years. New York City’s Comptroller, Brad Lander, pointed out in a statement decrying the cuts that the city has $5 billion in unspent federal stimulus funding.

Mayor Adams said that the cuts were due to declining enrollment (a drop of 9.5 percent since the beginning of the pandemic). But it’s precisely because of pandemic learning losses, more extensive student mental health problems, and widespread teacher burnout that makes now a terrible time to cut school budgets.

Some of the public schools’ enrollment decline is due to the poor education students received during the pandemic. Online learning was largely a failure, and even after kids returned to school, there were myriad disruptions and complications from inevitable COVID-related absences among teachers, staff, and students.

Many families who rejected the system during the worst of the pandemic will now probably consider coming back, but not if the schools are failing and underfunded. Robust budgets could help reverse these enrollment woes; even if they didn’t, they could help still-traumatized students finally get the education they deserve. Many of these students lost homes, parents, and grandparents to COVID-19, and all of them lost schooling, access to a wide range of services, and time with friends.

The socialists resisted the cuts. Both of the City Council members that New York City Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA) endorsed and worked hard to elect last year, Tiffany Cabán of Astoria, Queens, and Alexa Avilés of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, voted no. But the socialist dissent was not limited to NYC-DSA’s members. Other socialists close to grassroots, socialist organizations joined them: Kristin Richardson Jordan, a Harlem council member who won a close election backed by several socialist and left groups, and Charles Barron, former Black Panther and founder of a socialist organization, Operation Power, which is still active in East New York.

Chi Ossé, an NYC-DSA member who had been active in Black Lives Matter, co-founded a collective called Warriors in the Garden that works against police violence who was endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s political action committee, also voted no. So did Sandy Nurse of Cypress Hills, a carpenter, community organizer, and founder of the Mayday space, a hub of socialist and left organizing in Bushwick. All were elected just last year (although Barron has moved back and forth between the Assembly and the City Council for decades, so he’s not at all new to city governance).

Initially, local media widely reported that to punish these members for voting no on the budget, the council speaker Adrienne Adams was refusing to fund projects in their communities. It turns out this isn’t quite true. The speaker oversees a discretionary fund out of which members can request allocations for specific projects in their districts: a Boys and Girls Club, a summer youth program, homeless services, free after-school music education. The local politics news outlet City and State is reporting that some of the dissenting members’ projects were funded but, in the public list of “Speaker’s Initiative” allocations, listed in a way that deprived those members of credit.

Speaker Adams (no relation to the mayor, though they seem to be cut from the same cloth) admitted to City and State that the dissenting members’ names were left off the list because of their vote: “It is simply a distinguishing indication of your vote against the entire budget that includes this allocation.”

This year’s city council had many new members. Much hype touted it as the most diverse in history. But this budget shows that merely having women, people of color, and fresh young faces in office isn’t enough to ensure humane government.

The episode also shows that “progressives” aren’t enough, either. It takes organized socialists — not just people with socialistic values, but socialists active in organizations — to uphold basic liberal values like support for public education.

In addition to its diversity, this council was hailed last year as “the most progressive” in history. Some progressives who voted for this budget include members whose politics many believed to be indistinguishable from NYC-DSA, including Shahana Hanif, Crystal Hudson, and Lincoln Restler. Hudson defeated a socialist candidate in the primary last year, and while Hanif is a member of NYC-DSA, the group endorsed another socialist candidate in her race. Although their supporters insisted otherwise, the communities they represent would be have been better served if the NYC-DSA candidates had won.

Socialist priorities in government can’t come about simply by electing people whose priorities sound good; our elected officials are only going to be as good as the organizations that put them in power.

The lesson here isn’t just about electoral politics. Yes, we need more people in office who come out of and are accountable to socialist organizations. But it also shows that the organizations themselves are all the power we have. We need to nourish them and do everything we can to help them grow.