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Working Families Party, Greens Make Their Case to NYC Transit Riders

3:26 PM EDT on October 28, 2010

At a rally last night, Al Sharpton urges New Yorkers to unify in support of transit come election day. Photo: Noah Kazis.

At Union Square last night, more than a hundred people rallied for better transit in a kick-off event for the Rider Rebellion, a new campaign led by Transportation Alternatives.

With Reverend Al Sharpton headlining, the rally urged New Yorkers to "vote transit" on Tuesday and presented state politicos with the chance to make their case to transit riders reeling from service cuts and fare hikes. Working Families Party chair Dan Cantor was the most prominent political figure to take up the offer.

The Rider Rebellion signals the addition of more community organizing muscle to NYC transit advocacy, and a coordinated effort to make elected officials more accountable for their transit policy decisions. While opportunities to vote transit will be hard to come by this November, with neither major party candidate campaigning on a sensible public transportation platform, last night's rally put elected officials on notice: Advocates are committed to making transit a voting issue.

"You better have the Rider Rebellion in mind, because we are coming for you," warned Brodie Enoch, the campaign's lead organizer. So far, the campaign has gathered more than 10,000 members (a number that continues to grow, said Enoch), who can be mobilized to pressure Albany to stand up for transit.

T.A. executive director Paul Steely White said that three anti-transit leaders had already been given the boot this election cycle: Pedro Espada, Hiram Monserrate, and Richard Brodsky. "We're going to keep this going," he promised.

Speakers also framed support for transit as an essential but missing piece of New York's ostensible commitment to social justice. "Everyone has got slick commercials [but] not one commercial explains how we have a state that can find money to build stadiums and developments but can’t find money for people to ride to work and to school every day on mass transit," said Sharpton.

"Right now there are nannies leaving the most privileged homes in the Upper East Side, Park Slope, on their way home to cook and see their own children," said Elizabeth Yeampierre, the executive director of the Sunset Park community organization UPROSE. "All of those people who are the heart of our community are on the train right now."

Another heavy hitter in attendance was TWU Local 100 president John Samuelsen, whose union represents 38,000 transit workers. "New York City transit workers stand side-by-side with New York City transit riders," he said, citing TWU efforts to block service cuts and the loss of student MetroCards. Samuelsen refrained from taking shots at MTA chief Jay Walder and urged riders to work with his union to lobby for more operating funds from both Washington and Albany. "Imagine how powerful our voices can be together."

Supporters of many different political parties joined together in support of transit. Photo: Noah Kazis.

While every speaker urged New Yorkers to show their support for transit at the ballot box, it's not clear how we're actually meant to do that this year. At the top of the ballot, neither major party candidate has said much that transit advocates can cheer. In legislative races, few contests are competitive in the general election, especially in the Democratic stronghold of New York City.

So the Rider Rebellion invited every political party to make a case for why voting transit means voting for their candidate. Two parties, the WFP and the Greens, made an appearance.

The Green Party's Mark Dunlea argued that his party was fielding the only truly pro-transit candidate for governor, Howie Hawkins. Hawkins has spoken in favor of congestion pricing and a stock transfer tax as revenue sources for the transit system.

The WFP's Cantor blasted Carl Paladino, whose election he argued would result in even more service cuts. Andrew Cuomo, he said, would be somewhat better, specifically praising the AG's call for direct gubernatorial control over the MTA. "It needs to be somebody's problem," said Cantor, but that Cuomo's MTA plan is marred by the lack of a comprehensive plan to fund transit. A vote for Cuomo on the WFP line, he suggested, would "let [him] know you want him to be serious."

While Cantor didn't get into too much detail about the WFP's specific transit goals or the strategy for winning them, he did say one very important sentence: "Drivers need to pay their fair share."

After the rally, Cantor was similarly light on specifics when asked why transit riders should vote on the WFP line. He said the WFP has been a strong progressive voice for the last 12 years and directed Streetsblog readers to learn more on the party's website.

He said the party is against Albany's repeated raiding of MTA revenue streams ("Anything that reduces those funds is a problem"), but would not withhold its ballot line from legislators who vote for budgets that funnel dedicated transit taxes into the state's general fund. "We're not a single issue party. We're not a litmus test party. That's not what a real political party does."

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