Gearing Up Political Engagement
This story, written by StreetsPAC co-founders Joanna Oltman Smith and Eric McClure, appeared in our September-October issue of American Bicyclist, a benefit to members of the League.
Imagine you’re a safe-streets advocate living in a dreamscape of an expanding bike-lane network, widespread installation of public plazas and innovative government-sponsored programs aimed at improving street life, from summertime street closures to bike share to virtually on-demand public benches.
Progress has been swift under the committed leadership of a mayor who understands the economic necessity of these programs and amenities to ensure that his city stays competitive — and his Commissioner of Transportation is unapologetically on the cutting edge of contemporary urban design. But dark clouds loom on the horizon. Term limits will soon bring that mayor’s administration to a close, and his would be successors are saying less-than-supportive things about livable streets. That was the scenario that New York City’s bicycle and pedestrian advocacy community faced in the winter of 2012.
At that time, virtually all of the mayoral candidates gave at least some credence to the oft-repeated, but patently untrue NIMBY gospel that the NYC Department of Transportation’s vast street-level improvements had been introduced without community support or input. Several of them went so far as to begin listing the particular bike lanes they would “rip out” if elected and the sole mayoral candidate who embraced the outgoing administration’s street-safety initiatives was polling at just 2 percent.
Facing the possibility that many of the achievements of the past decade would not only grind to a halt, but perhaps be undone by political jockeying, a group of advocates formed StreetsPAC — a political action committee dedicated to electing officials who champion safe, complete and livable streets.
While New York is home to many long-tenured and highly effective non-profits dedicated to such issues, their tax-exempt status prevents them from mixing it up in the bare-knuckle world of electoral politics. We recognized that being able to actively endorse individual candidates would be essential to inserting our issues into the election-cycle dialogue. We announced our formation with a late-April press conference in Flatiron Plaza, one of the city’s finest examples of street reclamation. In addition to our desire to elect a new mayor who would build on Bloomberg-era street transformations, we recognized that a similarly committed City Council would be crucial to that endeavor. Our first task was to design an endorsement and campaign strategy to address the critical problem of unfulfilled campaign promises.
At the heart of this strategy was the StreetsPAC candidate questionnaire, in which we thoroughly probed candidates’ views about the issues facing our city’s streets. We distributed the questionnaire to all candidates for Mayor and Council, as well as those running for Public Advocate, Comptroller, and New York City’s five Borough Presidencies. We received a significant number of completed questionnaires, and scheduled interviews with all candidates who provided complete responses. The interview process was essential. Beyond allowing us to clarify candidates’ positions, the personal interviews gave us a platform to educate and forge relationships.
In many instances, candidates were far from expert about safe and complete streets, and the interviews gave us the chance to discuss how their embrace of street-safety initiatives could improve both our city and their chances of getting elected. We rolled out our first round of endorsements by mid-June, and continued to issue endorsements through July and August.
During that time, we also raised funds to support candidates and cover our limited operating expenses. Board members anted up a token amount, and we reached out to our wide network of friends and associates, eventually raising $50,000, most of which we redistributed to candidates.
We built a strong social media presence, including a website, Facebook page, and active Twitter feed, and held house parties and group rides in support of StreetsPAC as a whole and for individual candidates. We distributed outreach pamphlets along bicycle-commuting routes and created borough-specific postcards listing our endorsed candidates. In the Democratic mayoral primary, Bill de Blasio had embraced Vision Zero, the Swedish concept for eliminating road deaths, setting him apart from his rivals in the crowded field when it came to safe-streets rhetoric — and we created a Vision Zero-themed spoke card to share our endorsement of the surging de Blasio.
On election days (primaries, general, and run-off) we helped get out the vote, confident that — win or lose — we had done our best to get our candidates elected, and to get out our livable streets message in the process. Of course, we were thrilled when 13 of our 18 endorsees won their primaries, including de Blasio. With a handful of additional endorsements in November’s general election, 20 StreetsPAC-backed candidates are now in office.
Just two weeks after his inauguration, Mayor de Blasio convened a Vision Zero task force, and, if anything, his new administration has accelerated implementation of street-safety improvements. At our Bike to Work Day ride and rally this May, as we joined several StreetsPAC-backed Council members in an overhead “bicycle lift” on the steps of City Hall, it was clear that we had changed the political streetscape in New York City both literally and figuratively.
This year, we’re setting our sights on statewide elections — and hope that our model can be replicated in cities around the country where advocates are ready to take the next step to political empowerment.