Category Archives: NYC

The XX factor in Obama’s transition

On my way to New York today, where I plan on seeing Jeffrey Renard Allen give a reading in my old ‘hood and cover tomorrow’s hearing for the Iraq vets that make up the Hempstead 15. But to wrap up the election thread for this week, here’s the news blog I wrote for WVFC, since I really do think that the presence of women in Obama’s team has the capacity to be quietly transformational. (For video for all of the women below, you have to click on my original post.)

It’s been eight years since we has such a new slate of advisors to look at, and ponder what their role will be in the changes afoot. The women below come from a range of backgrounds, from corporate boardrooms (several on the Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women) to California classrooms and governor’s mansions.) It would be foolish to make generalizations about a government with so many representatives of The New Menopause in key positions.

But we can dream — that our concerns will certainly not be left behind, and that midlife’s particular mix of idealism, sense of humor, deep worry, and renewed energy can both add power to the new policies being developed and ensure that they’re grounded by real-world, physical realities.

More details later, but here’s an initial honor roll, with as much video as felt appropriate:

At the helm: One of the transition team’s three co-chairs is Chicago attorney Valerie Jarrett, 51, CEO of The Habitat Company (seen above(.  A Newsweek profile in May noted: “Jarrett got her start working for Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor. Her grandfather ran the Chicago Housing Authority in the 1940s. Obama has long turned to her for advice. When he wanted to run for the U.S. Senate, he first had to convince Michelle and Jarrett that it was a good idea. He’s been seeking her counsel ever since.”

Show him the money:  Speaking of the governor’s mansion, Michigan’s Jennifer Granholm, 49, (above with First Lady Michelle Obama) is a core member of  the newly-announced team of economic advisers. Granholm joins not just Warren Buffet but
Laura D’Andrea Tyson, dean of the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley and former chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors;  Anne Mulcahy, 57, Chairman and CEO, Xerox;
and Hyatt exec Penny Pritzker. 49.

    In the boardroom:

    Granholm, who was mentioned as a dark-horse vice-presidential candidate, is also on the transition team’s Advisory Board, which also includes Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, 51,  who was profiled by Newsmix in July as a veep prospect; Susan Rice (above), 43, Brookings Institution fellow and former assistant secretary of state for African Affairs; and former EPA chair Carol Browner (below), the longest-serving administrator in the
    history of the agency, staying through both terms of the Clinton

    The long arms of the law: Women helping power the transition’s legal team include  general counsel (and Harvard Law school classmate) Cassandra Butts, former senior vice president for domestic policy at the Center for American
    Progress and senior adviser to Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.);  Lisa Brown, the Executive Director of the American Constitution Society, and Melody Barnes, 43, of the Center for American Progress as co-directors of agency review; and Clinton adviser Christine A. Varney, 52, as counsel for personnel.

    That different voice: Get used to another face next to the familiar Obama spokespersons Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod:  Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, 40-year-old Stephanie Cutter (seen above dueling with Chris Matthews during the campaign). During the Clinton Administration, Cutter worked as deputy communications director in both the White House and U.S. EPA.

    We at WVFC now know we have to get busy deciding who on this list we should try to interview and profile. We’d welcome readers’ comments — both about who we should talk to, and what questions you want to ask them when we do!

    — Chris L.

    swing state notes: election day edition


    The door of the house where I live now has a hand-drawn sign, drawn by my father-in-law: NO POLITICAL SOLICITATIONS. GO AWAY. It’s been a little brutal, here in the 58th Ward: the commercials are relentless, the mail, the phone calls even more so. No matter your sympathies, the cacophony is hard to take.

    Today, the vote itself was a little subdued — and a little odd, for someone who has previously voted only in NY and California. Here, instead of the 500-foot rule I’m used to, campaigns can and do post signs right up to 10 feet from the polling place. And I’ve obviously seen too many movies: the electronic voting machine, with its paper-looking plastic and only red lights to signify my choice, looked more like one of the old machines at Coney Island than anything 21st-century.

    Unlike the hours-long lines I know are still happening in downtown Philly, the recreation center where we voted today was busy but not jammed, though its count of  290 by noon ( me, my girl and  her parents adding 286-290) still counted as record-breaking. But I’m glad we’re now headed into Center City, where election-day energy should be more in force.

    Notes from a swing state

    Walking along this suburban-ish street today, I kept seeing young people with clipboards. Using cell phones. I giggled; this is what democracy looks like.

    Those who know me well, or even knew my old blog shop, might feel puzzled that I almost never blog about electoral politics  – especially since I moved this summer to Pennsylvania, which both candidates treat as their jogging track. I didn’t blog Springsteen’s free concert in Philly, or Joe Biden’s frequent invocations of Scranton, or try one whit to write something comparable to the folks crowding my Google Reader — Sullivan, or Ezra, or Coates or Aravosis, or the brilliant Lindsay, who writes in 10 places at once. Because they all do it so well; because I’ve been spending as much time as possible working on the book, and trying to help propel the nonpartisan site that gives me my current day job. I didn’t even think of my feelings the day we lost last time, or how I talked to my students about the long haul – how only organizing could prevent it from happening again.

    I didn’t know that day that someone who didn’t lose his Senate race that day, who had once worked at the very same college where I was now subjecting them to writing drills, would prove an uber-organizer.

    I wonder if this week, any of those students are doing what those kids I saw today were doing. Maybe even today.

    I do know that not a single canvasser, in my usually-leans-Republican Northeast Philly neighborhood, was doing so for John McCain. I’m just saying. (Update, Mon: The others were, apparently, part of a 1.9-million-voters-strong weekend.)

    NYPIRG in 1984 – me and the president

    Aaah, the commonalities of activism, at least in the 80’s. If you were in New York, you worked for NYPIRG at some point in your life. If I’d had political ambitions, I should have stayed: the guy who ran the Binghamton office, where I did some work on defense conversion before it was chic, went on to run the organization and was for a year Andrew Cuomo’s Special Advisor on Policy and Public Integrity.

    I find out today that a scant 15 months later,  someone else was organizing up a storm — at the same university where I’d end up teaching writing in 2002:

    Obama’s environmental education began in January of 1984, a year after he graduated from Columbia University, when he took an $800-a-month position running a chapter of the Nader-inspired New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) on the campus of Harlem’s City College. He’d arrived at NYPIRG’s campus office—a cramped trailer parked on a patch of grass next to the science building—determined to change the world, but unclear about where to begin. “He didn’t seem unsure of himself, but he seemed unsure of where he belonged,” says Alison Kelley, who was a freshman at City College when Obama came to the campus. “You could tell he was driven, but he wasn’t sure what he was driven by.” The 22-year-old organizer began a campaign protesting apartheid, and organized a trip to DC to lobby for higher-education funding. But as time went by, Obama also found himself wrestling with a wide range of environmental issues: mass transit, recycling, pollution from local incinerators and landfills, compensation for victims of toxic-waste exposure.

    I sent the article to one of the organizers I know well, whose work helped spark much of what I spent my time covering at Chelsea Now. One of those road-not-taken stories that can give at least a few smiles. (Is the title a jinx, or just visualization?)

    older cities of dreams

    Which of these venerable, beloved by artists (and thus too costly for most), old streets came first?

    Philly’s Old City, where I sit now (in a cafe I already love)?

    Or its jealous cousin in my hometown?

    I suspect the latter, due to the Dutch assault on the Lenape land predating the days of William Penn.

    However, both bow down to their ancestor above, in the country of *my* particular forefathers. I’d love to live there too.

    paralyzed by constant motion

    Those who know me best know one of the reasons I’ve not posted in a week: this new gig I’ve taken on, on top of everything else, is making my already-overcrowded brain call out: APPROACHING MAXIMUM CAPACITY — even as it brings me back to my starting point as a NY journalist.

    Now, before moving ahead to the travails of New York City or diving into centuries of military dissent, I’m pulling together a handful of headlines that mean something to my, ahem, demographic.

    You’ll notice a healthy percentage of celebrity women over 40, from Debra Winger to Katie Couric. (I did have to restrain myself from throwing in a discussion of the Christie Brinkley divorce mess, though it may represent most heterosexual women’s nightmare: even if you’re a supermodel, turn 40 and the cad will find a teenager to mess around with. Though the more snarky among us may wonder at her daughter with Billy Joel daughter getting involved, since Joel’s “I Love You Just the Way You Are” was written shortly before he left the “you” in question for the then-younger Brinkley).

    It all feels a little back-to-the-future at times, given my past with Women’s Enews. But I’m guessing there’s already more mention of the war in Iraq in the newsblog than there might be with someone else writing it; I was also thrilled to be able to embed video of both Dr. Who and Cyndi Lauper (as well as more sober video on Darfur).  Stop by if you like (the first link) and leave a comment.

    Meanwhile, I’m supposed to be packing up my NY life, still working the Chelsea gig, and actually finishing a freelance piece about the woes of that high school I’ve been covering for the latter. Thank god for the recent news about caffeine and MS, since I’m gonna need all available crutches for  while. (That news only confirmed something I’d felt for years; I suspect anyone who saw me in the 1990s jumping around San Francisco’s Barefoot Boogie on newly popped Vivarin wouldn’t have been surprised either.)And if by the end of the month I end up dissolved into one of the boxes I’m  packing, please add water when the box arrives in Philly.

    my cousin, my doppelganger

    Warning: this one’s personal, mostly.

    It’s as if time had collapsed.

    Thirty years ago, I was finishing up 10th grade at this strange school, where  my cousin and I were both on staff at its literary magazine, Argus. We also lived in the same two-family house in the Bronx, and I was the classic younger cousin, anxious — not so much to compete, but to prove that I was as smart, good, et cetera as she was. I even graduated a year earlier than I had to, in a fruitless effort to catch up.

    Fast-forward 15 years, and we couldn’t be more different. I was working at CCCO, and stayed with her the week the short-lived but influential STAAMP was launched in 1997; I was entirely focused on GI rights (and still under the delusion that eventually I’d be “discovered” for my long klugey novels). She was a tenured professor of linguistics, a leader in her sub-field, on leave for  year to work at the Washington Zoo. A few years later, when I was teaching composition as a crazy adjunct at CUNY, I thought – she was the one who’d done it right.

    Fast-forward again, and look at her website (the first link). Like me, she’s thrown it all over (including the zoo) “to concentrate on writing.” Like me, she works off her own specialization (animals for her, soldiers for me) while moving in the wilds of local reporting, as well as those fiction dreams.

    Did those brothers, Americo and Benito, actually birth the same person in alternate universes? Actually, we’re quite different in many ways, though I bet we still speak at the same pace.

    What it does demonstrate: this wordsmithing bug is an even stranger illness than I thought. It can twist your life back to where it began, almost.

    is that an organizer’s hand I see behind the curtain?

    I should have realized last month, when I noticed that stream of articles about private equity and affordable housing, that some serious organizing had taken place to get their attention. Though god knows any reporter would have noticed the trend if s/he looked,it appears probable that behind that curtain were two fearless and dedicated advocacy groups,  the Association of Neighborhood and Housing Development (whose director, the terrifyingly brilliant Benjamin Dulchin, was quoted by the Times) and Tenants and Neighbors, whose campaign on the subject is linked above.

    I’m the opposite of surprised, of course. Social movements don’t bloom overnight, and most reporters are  too deep in that signature mix of lazy, stressed and mad busy, unless organizers make us see it.

    TADN’s campaign’s main page has much to offer, including a handy step-by-step explanation of the process:

    1. Entrepreneur identifies a building as an “underperforming or “underutilized” asset. This means that the income that the building produces is significantly lower than it could be – because people with low and moderate incomes are living there instead of people with higher incomes, who could pay higher rent.

    2. Entrepreneur obtains “equity capital” by promising other investors a high rate of return – generally 20 percent a year. Investor then obtains “leverage” by borrowing more money – six to ten times more – from banks or other lenders.

    3. Entrepreneur buys the building and begins working to increase its income. Often the entrepreneur and the equity investors are willing to see income go down – or even to lose money – for a few years before it actually goes up. * In the case of a Mitchell-Lama buyout, this enables them to immediately suffer the loss of subsidies, along with huge interest payments on the borrowed money, while waiting for rental income to increase over a period of years as the original tenants move out and new tenants move in and begin paying higher rents.

    4. If the entrepreneur is a private equity group, it will sell the building to a new investor after three to five years – as soon it can show that the property’s income is going up enough to justify a significantly increased price. Other entrepreneurs may prefer to sell or to continue to own and operate the building. Either way, many or most of the original tenants must be replaced with higher-income people by this point, or the investment will be judged a failure.

    If the legislators roused by all this actually do something, Dulchin’s and TADN’s organizers will be the Rosa Parks of this corner of the scene. Or perhaps, even, the Bayard Rustins, given their smart use of language. I wish I’d been smart enough to come up with the term “predatory equity, ” and cheer the polite use of the term “entrepeneur.” God knows most tenants use words with far fewer syllables, and to a far more explosive effect.

    count us as the foul, fetid, fuming, foggy filthy 2.7

    Why 2.7? That’s how many New Yorkers move every day to Philadelphia. We count Scout, our middle-aged kitten-sized black cat, as the .7, though she’d likely object to such a characterization if she could.

    Remember my reference last month to “some other, little-engine-that-could town?” I meant my fiancee’s home town, which was one of the first words I spoke to her when we met. “You’re from Philadelphia? My job has an office there — I love that town!”  We lived in San Francisco then, before being chased out of that city by skinny millionaires and my own mid-life crisis and homing-pigeon drive to live in NYC.

    Then, this spring, a job possibility in Philly re-opened the prospect of moving there — and we sort of realized it made sense. Not just because of escalating housing costs, either. And not *only* because our vote this fall will count for more there.

    I’ll write more about why as the transition proceeeds. Meanwhile, today (and there) temps exceed 100 degrees — reminding me of my time in Madyha Pradesh, while putting songs from this beloved musical in mind: “In foul, fetid, fuming, foggy filthy…Philadelphia!”

    valuable lesson for investigative reporters

    As many know, I’ve kept poking around at the high school story I wrote about last month. And I’ve complained more than is probably seemly about the angst of it all – about how tiring it is to meet with numerous scared sources, dig through raw data, the tricky task of presenting the results in a balanced picture.

    Now I’m embarrassed – because all my angst was about internal consequences. But no sooner had this story arrived in newsboxes on Friday than the real-world consequences feared by those sources began. One of my main sources, quoted in an earlier story, was escorted out of the school building and told he was being “reassigned” from the building where he’d taught for 11 years. Another was told by the principal, who’s leaving the school two years short of being eligible for retirement, that he had “something in store” for her on Tuesday. a

    I now can’t mention honorably the way learning that made me feel. Their bravery astounds me. Thank god they have a union, and a contract that doesn’t proscribe talking to the press.

    And my only consolation is that the piece may help the kids in that school, who deserve better than they’d been getting, and who didn’t get to talk to me at all.

    The real indictment may be of schools chancellor Joel Klein, who honorably wanted to change the rules that had failed to serve low-income students for year – but by demanding instant results, and discouraging the value of experienced educators, may have damaged some kids’ prospects beyond repair. It’s too early to know that for sure; we’ll only know in 20 years if the events I’m noticing are core to the process or just the collateral damage of a more useful process.