Not long after my plane landed at the end of the summer, I received a text from Thomas Olik, the president of the St. John’s College Democrats, welcoming me to New York City. Standing among the bustling crowd at JFK Airport, my mind racing with doubts on the life I would begin here in this new city, a welcoming message was exactly what I needed. It offered comforting reassurance that maybe living in New York would not be too different from San Francisco after all.
Having worked for President Obama’s campaign at the Northern California head quaters in Berkeley as well as dabbling in Gavin Newsom’s run for mayor in San Francisco, I jumped on the first opportunity I saw to join the College Democrats. Tom and the rest of the crew had been more than welcoming and inspiring in their political enthusiasm.
But, I’d be lying if I said that my first impression of the greater political attitude of New York wasn’t a bit discouraging.
I sat silently through the first meeting on campus trying to get a feel of what exactly we would be trying to accomplish as an organization. I listened to some big names in Queens’ politics give us, essentially, a battle cry. They told us we needed to brace ourselves for the dirty political game, that the other guys don’t like us, that they are going to do whatever they could do to make our lives miserable, and vice versa; that it’s going to be us versus them, and that we wouldn’t stop until we had taken all the elected seats for ourselves.
I was surprised to see that this same aggressive and divisive mentality was present everywhere I turned, especially in the political forums hosted on campus, and was only exacerbated in the heat of election season.
It would be na’ve of me to say that there isn’t a sense of competition in politics – that’s the nature of the game. You have to win to get what you want. But in our desire to win office and to beat the other guy, it’s important we don’t forget what the whole point of the game is in the first place: to make a direct and positive impact on peoples’ lives and to help those struggling to sleep just a little easier at night, even though the help may only be minimal.
Yes, we’re talking about city politics here. The big changes are made in Washington, where all the true power lies. But what’s the point of even running for office if our elected officials are to simply dismiss their position as not having the political power to make a difference? Is the only point of running to rack up more points on our side of the political spectrum, to flaunt that we have more seats than the other guys, and to simply boast that we’ve won?
That is child’s play. It’s this mentality that makes bringing real change difficult as well as aggravating the distrust between the people and their politicians. President Obama didn’t talk about changing our political mentality just to make a pretty speech. He realized that, in order to turn agenda into action, the attitude of our politics has to change from the bottom up. We cannot leave our idealism behind the moment victory seems probable – we have to take that idealism and, somehow, turn it into concrete change.
Along with the cold shoulders I received from folks after saying, “Hello” on the subway and the grunts I got when asking people which train went to Central Park, I’ve come to the harsh realization that New York just may be the complete opposite of San Francisco. Still, I see potential in the get-things-done attitude that makes New York City unlike any other city in the world, especially in the world of politics.
If we can refine this attitude and direct it toward better intentions, then real, positive change won’t just be a reality, but a standard to maintain.