One painful part of this moment in history is the slow-dawning realization that we are, for the moment, powerless. Politicians get elected by promising to bring changes — promises that they frequently cannot deliver upon. This crisis especially exposes the lie.
Congress definitely has some power against the president: the power over government spending and the power, when united, to override the president’s decrees. Are they using it? Hard to say, but it seems to me they are mostly not. Also unclear if this president would even acknowledge he is bound by congress at this point. I’d say the outlook there is not great.
At this point, can the state legislature override the governor or the city council, the mayor? The state legislature has not met in weeks. It is unclear if it will meet again this year. The city council is making noises that they will control some of the mayor’s less reality-based plans, but right now I do not see how they will enforce their edicts.
Can the governor control the state bureaucracy? In some cases yes, and this governor is skilled at deploying his authority. But it has been heart-breaking to see people trust the system when I know the system will fail them. Calling the state unemployment insurance hotline does not work. We were promised fixes weeks ago. It appears to still not work.
Can the mayor control the city’s bureaucracy? Ha. Ha ha ha. It didn’t feel like he had a grip during normal times. The police force has been literally turning their back on him for years. He announced 21,000 free hotel rooms for healthcare workers and those who need self-quarantine. Try getting one of those.
And what is our method for controlling those above us? I think protests were never very effective, being more about assuaging the participants’ guilty or angry egos than enacting any change. The tiny minority of fools gathering at statehouses to demand their right to a haircut or an ice cream cone at the expense of their lives, possibly, will not get their way unless they have a particularly stupid governor. For the rest of us, protests occur on Zoom now: a literal virtual echo chamber.
What about elections? The nearest election in June is primaries for the state legislature, the one that’s currently not meeting. Insurgent candidates used to rely on door-knocking to spread the word; that’s out. Now the campaigns have to phonebank, but most voters do not list their phone numbers. For years, I have argued that running to represent your block on Democratic county committee is the way to build grassroots power. It now appears the competitive county committee elections will be canceled because they won’t fit on absentee ballots.
Where does this leave us? Stay tuned.
Nick Rizzo is a Democratic District Leader representing the 50th Assembly District and a political consultant who lives in Greenpoint. Follow him on Twitter @NickRizzo.