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It’s Almost Passover (Rerun)

[I never marked the first anniversary of HungryBlues back in March, but I think that gives me occasional license to rerun posts that are more than a year old. What follows is a slightly shortened version my post from this time (on the Jewish calendar) last year. I think I have some more readers since then, and the post resonates differently—at least for me—with more life lived and more writing and research behind me. Chag samei'ach (happy holiday). --BG

As usual, while I'm here at my mom's house, I'm sifting through the documents and objects that fill the house. This time I'm looking through some of the documents from Dad's work on Proportional Representation (PR) in New York City. In the late 1960s, there was a move, ultimately unsuccessful, to bring PR back as the method of electing the New York City Council members. PR was the method used for NYC Council elections from 1938 to 1949. In the early 1970s there was a successful campaign to change the New York City School Board Elections to PR. Both of these efforts were spearheaded by my father, who was Executive Director of the New York Proportional Representation Committee from 1969-1971 and Associate Director of the Special Unit for School Board Elections of the Board of Elections in the City of New York from 1970-1973. The work that he did around the NYC School Board elections was enormous. He used to refer to his 1973 testimony at the New York State Education Department Hearings on Community School Board Elections as his master's thesis. (For a description of the kind of PR that he worked to institute in NYC go here or here.) Before I can write fully about my dad's involvement in PR for NYC, there are many documents here in Delmar that I need to read and there's a lot more that I need to learn about this bit of NYC political history. Still I'm going to post a little from what I've been reading while I'm here on my Passover visit.

As I study my father's political life I've been interested in the diversity of his involvements and how they were related in his mind. In his resumé that I posted you can see that in the space of a few years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he moved from organized labor, to the disarmament movement, to the Civil Rights Movement. Then he was doing state legislative work for the Liberal Party in the mid to late 1960s. An then the PR campaigns in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

One document that I found among the papers relating to the campaign to use PR in the NY City Council elections is a fact sheet, dated 1969 and titled "Proportional Representation (P.R.): A Proposal For Complete Representation In The New York City Council." In this 6 page pamphlet, which I presume my father wrote, there's a section called "P.R. And Civil Rights:"

P. R. is of special importance and usefulness for the advancement of civil rights. In the present transition to full and equal citizenship, in fact as well as in law, it means a great deal to the whole community, as well as to the people directly concerned, for Blacks and Puerto Ricans to be able to use their voice in government. This they can usually do, in district elections, only when they stay hived in "ghettoes" like Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. But the dispersal of ghettoes to secure the integration of the community has been a major objective of the civil rights movement.

P.R. will make it possible for a minority candidate to live anywhere and get votes from anywhere in his borough, and if his supporters poll a sufficient minority of the borough's votes - e.g. something approaching a tenth in a ten member borough - he will be elected. Furthermore, P. R. Gives every voter a preferential vote so that if it cannot help elect his first choice, it can be used at full value for his second choice, or if necessary, his third or fourth. Thus nearly ever Black or Puerto Rican voter can help to elect either a trusted Black or Puerto Rican leader or some other candidate who understands his special problems. The last Council election gave us only 2 Black Councilmen out of 37 and one Puerto Rican.

Of course most voters who do not have the special problems of the ethnic minorities will not vote on ethnic lines, other considerations being of more interest to them, and they can all get representation on whatever basis they think best.

The amounts of support given to candidates of different parties are not likely to be greatly changed - they were not when we had P.R. before - for most voters could elect within their own parties candidates who appealed to them on other grounds as well. But if the parties did not offer candidates with a real appeal to the ethnic minorities, those minorities could elect independent candidates of their own who did appeal to them. (3)

This passage captures three important elements of my father's political interests. First, he believed deeply in the value of political process. Second, in PR, as well as in the disarmament movement, we see him drawn to political work that has the potential for broad appeal across various ideological lines. Third, and this follows from the first two observations, my father's political work was always driven by an idealistic yearning for radical social transformation. This was true when he was briefly a member of the Communist Party, USA in the late 40s. But it was also true after he broke with Communism and threw off the mantle of the revolution. For my father, being a Democratic Socialist meant working within the inherently conservative structures of existing political institutions and systems to bring about Utopia.

Another huge topic which I am nowhere near ready to approach is how my father came to Judaism from his life as a radical, secular Jewish Socialist. This journey of his began in earnest in the 1970s. By the time I was growing up here, in Delmar, my dad's sense of himself as a religious man was fully formed. In the 80s and 90s, he loved quoting from a book by Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution. The book demonstrates that the Exodus from Egypt as recorded in the Torah has been the model for the four modern revolutions, the French, English, American and Russian. Walzer refers to Egypt by its Hebrew name, Mitzrayim, a word which literally means narrow place. I can't find Dad's copy of the book in the house right now, so I don't know if the quotation is accurate, but the way he always said it was that at the end of the book Walzer asks, "so what does all this mean?. . . Wherever you are it's probably Mitzrayim and you dream of a promised land. . . . and how do you get there? Organize . . ."

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