I’m meeting with Manhattan councilmember Mark Levine at a Pret a Manger near City Hall. I had suggested the legislative office building, but Levine seemed perfectly at ease chowing down on a salad as we chatted over the sounds of Top 40 hits. Like most gifted politicians, he’s mastered the art of exuding casual friendliness while still speaking carefully. He greets me in Spanish, a language the 48-year-old Washington Heights resident speaks fluently.
“I think that the stakes are really high now for progressives in New York City to prove that progressive government works,” says Levine. “To prove that we can both pursue a social justice agenda and ensure that the city and its agencies run at the highest level. There’s no contradiction there.”
Levine is a first-term councilmember and former teacher who, like all but one of the other seven members seeking the speakership, is part of the council’s Progressive Caucus. With a hostile right-wing federal administration and a proudly left-of-center mayor who won’t have to worry about another re-election if he wins on November 7, it’s an opportunity for the next Speaker to move aggressively to expand on a progressive agenda.
“I think that the Trump era is going to shape much of our action at the local level,” Levine says. “We do control the jails of this city, we control the public universities of this city, we control the public schools of this city, we control the housing policy of this city. That gives us incredible power in the policy areas that most touch people’s lives.”
One such public policy is the Right to Know Act, bills introduced by councilmembers Ritchie Torres (another Speaker candidate) and Antonio Reynoso and co-sponsored by Levine. The legislation would require police officers to inform New Yorkers that they can refuse to be searched in the absence of probable cause, and to hand business cards to people they’ve stopped. The package is currently languishing in committee while current Speaker Mark-Viverito negotiates with NYPD brass over instituting the legislation’s provisions as an internal department policy instead. I ask Levine if that’s good enough. From his expression, it’s clear that it’s not.