In Austin King’s farewell speech to the Common Council in 2007, he left his listeners with a simple message. To the outgoing D8 representative, alders should “show up, and do things – as much as he or she can every day.”
These perhaps aren’t the most controversial words, even if they express an expectation that often isn’t met. In that same speech, however, he said something closely related that I found particularly inspiring. “The stuff we do that isn’t potholes often gets dismissed,” he noted. “But we shouldn’t be afraid to think big, and we did many times during my four years on the Council.”
During those four years, the Common Council passed an increased minimum wage, protections for undocumented immigrants, inclusionary zoning (if watered down), a phosphourous ban, among other far-reaching items. They also nearly passed a groundbreaking paid sick-leave policy, a noble fight that incited outrageous vitriol from the business community and ultimately failed by one vote.
Ashok Kumar is another student elected official from my generation for whom I have profound admiration and respect. Among his accomplishments during his brief two years of service on the County Board include abolishing Section 8 housing discrimination, undermining the prison profiteering industry, establishing a sister-county relationship with a Venezuelan community, and many others.
A willingness to take on big projects, however, doesn’t mean that the “basic” functions of an alder, like potholes and constituent relations, need suffer. Indeed, as Austin King told me, you can’t effectively do one without the other. But in my humble estimation, recent sessions of the Common Council have almost completely abandoned the idea that local government can do anything significantly proactive in expanding social, economic and environmental justice. Indeed, especially in the campus media, attempts at doing the latter have repeatedly been scorned as “not the job of a local representative” and labeled as proof of that representative being “out of touch” with his constituents.
I suppose there are many reasons for this development, not the least of which has been a backlash against the more progressive 2003-2007 era by right-wing politicos and groups like the Chamber of Commerce. Let’s hope the wind will change directions this upcoming election cycle.
I say this because, ultimately, alders ahould approach their job with energy and passion – a great deal of it, actually. They should be driven not by the opportunity to wear a tie in front of a camera, but a firm commitment to work with members of the community to improve people’s lives, especially those most often ignored by the system. Concomitantlty, one shouldn’t be afraid to have a larger vision for what an ideal city would look like – and a set of policies to go along with it.