What is not to love about Robert Holden? A professor in the Department of Communication Design at New York City College of Technology, he is a lifetime New Yorker and was entirely educated in the city college system. A photographer and graphic designer with his own design firm, Bob Holden has won awards for civic engagement and teaching. He’s the editor and art director of Juniper Berry Magazine, an all-volunteer community publication founded in 1938 that covers community issues in Maspeth, Elmhurst and Middle Village, Queens. Holden recently led a successful fight to save a historic church targeted by developers. And this community-oriented guy just got elected to City Council from District 30 in Queens, dumping incumbent Elizabeth Crowley.
Again, what’s not to love? Well, since you asked…
Mayor de Blasio, who won an overpowering mandate for a second term, does not love him. Last fall, Holden — a lifetime registered Democrat — primaried Elizabeth Crowley, a cousin of Queens Democratic powerbroker Joseph Crowley, and lost. Fair enough. But then Holden approached the Republican Party, who had no one to run for the seat, and they gave him their ballot line. And he won. As a Republican. With a margin of fewer than 150 votes. While the results will not be certified until November 28, Holden, who was leading Crowley by 133 votes on election night, was pushed over the top when affidavit and absentee ballots were counted. Crowley conceded the seat that she herself had taken from a Republican in 2008 on November 16, and the election is due to be certified right after Thanksgiving.
Needless to say, the Holden victory provoked the question: can you run as a Republican and not be identified with Donald Trump? Ryan Girdusky, Holden’s field director and a supporter of President Trump, thinks it’s a no brainer, because the local political scene in New York is issues-oriented. This means that regardless of what party line a candidate runs on, to connect with voters, a campaign may need to run more purple than red or blue. “Most issues that face our city are not hyper-partisan,” Girdusky, a journalist and Queens native who has known Holden for about a decade, told me. “Because I’ve known Bob for so long I know his stance on the main issues that concern me when it comes to our neighborhood, mainly zoning laws, parking, homeless shelters, and over-development. Bob has a track record for 30 years working as head of my local civic organization, so I know most of his stances on all of these issues and that he’s honest in what he believes. He didn’t take any of these positions just because they were popular.”
Holden is still not a member of the Republican party — he’s a registered Democrat, and still sees himself as a community-focused guy with mixed views that may not fit comfortably into any party stereotype, but do reflect a neighborhood consensus about resisting incursions by city government. In both races, Holden was running against Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was never seriously challenged for a second term as mayor.
Holden’s victory is worth highlighting because it reveals the enduring quality of neighborhood-based micro-politics, a dynamic that was unremarkable in the 1980s, when liberals and conservatives in New York and elsewhere were sprinkled across both parties. And, as historian Kim Phillips Fein has pointed out in her recent book about New York’s fiscal crisis in the 1970s, Fear City, the austerity politics and generous incentives to developers that put the struggling city back on its feet, had serious consequences for middle and working class families. Threaded through these policies are persistent complaints from neighborhoods like Holden’s about quality of life issues: police and fire protection, overdevelopment, and neighborhood school autonomy.
In fact, political candidates in New York sometimes switch parties to signal their independence: Michael Bloomberg, also a lifelong Democrat, switched parties in 2002 to run as a Republican. Similarly, as the New York Times reported on November 10, Holden “said he had long ago voted for George McGovern and more recently for Bernie Sanders.” He described himself as “a centrist, even conservative politician of an older Democratic sort.” Holden’s campaign, the Times pointed out,
channeled anger at Mr. de Blasio that was present in many neighborhoods, especially among white residents in less dense areas of the city, and seized upon local discontent over homeless policy that helped lead to the ouster of a long-serving state assemblywoman, Margaret Markey, in a Democratic primary in 2016.
“He’s very unpopular; I didn’t have to do a poll to find out,” Mr. Holden said of the mayor. “I’m conservative on some issues, progressive on others,” he said, adding that his resistance to housing homeless in local hotels and a new shelter that the city “tried to shove down our throats” animated his desire to get into the race.
Mayor de Blasio responded to the outcome of this election with a singular lack of graciousness:
Mr. de Blasio, when asked of Mr. Holden during a post-election news conference on Wednesday, said he did not “understand Democrats who run as Republicans.”
“If you can run as a Republican in Donald Trump’s America, you just bought the whole label,” the mayor said. “I don’t know the guy, I’ll try and work with him, but he just signed up for something very troubling in my book.”
But Queens voters see Holden very differently: he’s a guy who doesn’t “sign up” for any agenda that isn’t community oriented. “I respect Bob because he doesn’t care at all about political parties,” Girdusky said. “For most of the last 30 years, Republicans dominated my local neighborhood and he worked very well with them until he felt that they had betrayed our neighborhood, and then he actively campaigned against them. Same is true about Democrats, once Holden felt they were out for their own political future more than they were for the district, he savagely attacked them.”
“Sadly, the mayor doesn’t care at all about our district,” Girdusky continued, calling de Blasio’s re-election a “tragedy” for neighborhoods like his:
We are a nuisance, a dumping ground, and he just hopes to have politicians like former Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley who will rubber stamp almost his entire agenda and never publicly condemn him because they, like he, are a partisan Democrat first and a New Yorker second. De Blasio has all the worst qualities of a Democrat. He’s an elitist who virtue signals to the working-poor that he understands their plight and hates the police, despite his his $10k a plate fundraisers. But he has all the worst qualities of a Republican: he’s a shill for corporate developers who want to strip this city of its culture so we can have an endless series of Starbucks, Chase Banks, and CVS, between poorly built luxury condos.
Indeed, evictions of elderly and poor people from their rent-controlled apartments proceed apace in all five boroughs, even as the de Blasio administration has made housing a number one priority. Re-electing a Democratic mayor may have protected New York from some aspects of Trumpism, but among the many aspects of city life that it does not address is the hand in glove relationship with the real estate industry that gave Trump his platform to begin with. Both parties have accepted this toxic relationship — one that has already destroyed the affordability and character of many Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods — as the price of doing business.
Our Purple Wednesday reading list this week investigates some of these complexities, and commentary about it, across the nation:
- Sarah Jaffee attributes sweeping Democratic victories in the last election to Democratic Socialist and Bernie Sanders networks leaning in (Truthout.org, November 16 2017.)
- E.J. Dionne wants Democrats to “stop the sniping” and pay attention to grassroots party compromises that can build the party from the bottom up (Washington Post, November 19 2017.)
- Ramesh Ponnuru points out that both parties may be rethinking core economic values: skepticism about the free market is causing fissures among Republicans, while “socialism is getting a new hearing” among progressive Democrats (National Review Online, November 21 2017.)
- Robert Kuttner muses about a possible political career for J.D. Vance as the working class “anti-Bannon” (The American Prospect, November 21 2017.)
- John Hawkins asks if the United States if whether Republicans and Democrats have enough in common anymore to live in the same country, or whether the nation is “headed toward another break down the road” (Town Hall, November 18 2017.)
Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter.