There is a particularly problematic proposition out there that in order to get things done and see real changes, we need to concentrate primarily on the presidential elections. Are presidential elections important? Yes – they serve a vital function in forming a national agenda on hot-button issues as immigration, laying out plans which dictate the future of governmental programs which have an impact on nearly every American such as Medicaid and Social Security, and determining which war we might find ourselves embroiled with in the coming future. While most of us might be Ready for Hillary, we should be vigilant and play close attention to the candidates which might be living a block or two down the road – as they probably have greater power over us than we may realize.
Most people who have the power to vote tend not to pay much attention to local elections. For example, in New York City in 2012, nearly 49 percent of eligible voters (~2 million people) turned out at the polls for the presidential race between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. Fast forward one year to 2013, where only 24% of eligible New York City voters (~1 million people) voted in the mayoral election between Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota. It’s unfortunate, because most issues which affect us on a day-to-day level are determined not by the President or even Congress, but rather by the local elected officials and officers which have tremendous power over our everyday lives.
Don’t think they do? Here’s how:
To begin, let’s start small – take your local community board. These boards are comprised of appointed community members led by an elected board which preside over a group of specific neighborhoods. Each community board, or “CB”, has power over local rezoning, which can help determine, for example, whether you have two homeless shelters in your neighborhood or twenty. They are also important clearinghouses for developers who may want to build in your neighborhood without taking into account the local needs, concerns or impacts of their proposed development. They also have direct contacts and relationships to City agencies, which can help residents keep their lights and hot water on, and help clear up questions about taxes, abatements, regulations, and violations.
Next, let’s talk about your local Council member. These folks have a seat in your local City Council, which is the chief legislative body in the City. They make the laws which determine anything from how fast you can drive, to how the police must interact with civilians, to whether you can drink out of a Styrofoam cup, to the detail of restaurant inspections. Specifically for the everyday person, your Council member has fixed budgets of money which they absolutely must give to non-profits in their district which provide a free or low-cost service to the community. These can be pre-K centers, basketball camps, adult literacy programs, free legal defense/consulting, elder care centers – the list goes on and on. Together with your local Borough President, Council members also have money to give to city agencies, churches and CBO’s (community based organizations) for construction or rehabilitation projects that are accessible to the community, such as parks, community centers and schools.
What about the Mayor? Your Mayor lays out the preliminary yearly budget which sets the tone for negotiations with the City Council. Need pre-K services or increased funding to emergency services, the arts, education or transportation? Make sure you elect a Mayor who you are ideologically aligned with or face the prospect that these priorities will not become a reality. Mayors also have tremendous control over the police and City agencies which provide social services, so it’s advantageous to have someone who can push these groups to foster positive, productive relationships with the public.
Your State Senator and Assembly person pass laws at the State level that can, for example, make sure criminal penalties for crimes are not unreasonable or overly harsh, or that promote local workforce and job development.
What do all of these individuals have in common? They all absolutely and unequivocally MUST be from your neighborhood or City, i.e. the same places and spaces you may occupy or work in. They are as invested as you are, if not more, and have a wide amount of discretion over what does/doesn’t happen to you and for your and your family/neighborhood. Presidential elections are important, but the local elections help dictate, among countless other things, where your child goes to school, the level of comfort your parents receive at the nearby nursing home, and how your next encounter with the judicial system may go.
About the Author, Eric C. Henry Jr.
Eric is a 2005 graduate of Binghamton University, where he double majored in Africana Studies and Philosophy, Politics and Law. Currently, he works for the New York City Council. He is also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated and serves as Co-chair of the Community Service Committee of the New York Urban League Young Professionals.