Andrea Batista Schlesinger
The Policy behind the Politics: An Interview
In the first of what will be a regular series on the DMIBlog, I interview Lucy Mayo, Policy Director for Christine Quinn, Speaker of the City Council of New York City. As a think tank, DMI is keenly interested in the policy behind the politics and in the people, who often toil away anonymously but whose responsibility it is to develop the ideas that drive the legislation and policy that govern our lives.
This is the first, so if you have any thoughts on either style, substance, or potential future interviewees, please let me know.
DMIBlog: So what does it mean to be "Policy Director" for the Speaker of the New York City Council?
lucynycouncil:As Policy Director, I am tasked with working with a highly qualified team of policy analysts to examine issues impacting New York City and to create remedies to highlighted problems. We are not bound by particular issue areas, nor do we solely focus on legislative solutions- at times we create pilot projects, budgetary initiatives, etc.
DMIBlog: How much latitude do you have in Speaker Quinn's office to develop policy ideas?
lucynycouncil: ... We have a lot of latitude. Ideas to pursue are generated by many different sources - Council staff, Council Members, us, policy experts, etc.
lucynycouncil: and advocates, of course
DMIBlog: A lot of people don't fully understand the policy director role. Is the policy separate from the politics, or do both pieces work together?
lucynycouncil: The policy is separate from politics. The goal of the policy unit, which is officially the Policy and Investigations Division of the NYC Council, is to get to the root of problems that negatively impact New Yorkers and to create solutions/remedies that successfully remedy those problems.
DMIBlog: One of the things that DMI is most interested in is how you get young progressive activists to consider public policy as a career path. How did you become interested in policy? How did this interest turn into a profession?
lucynycouncil: I was in college during the 1996 federal welfare reform debate. I became incredibly interested in the issue of welfare reform and fascinated by how policy decisions were being made at that time. Fiction was being mixed with fact in a way that was troubling and harmful to the lives of many.
lucynycouncil: After that point my interest in policy continued. I worked at the grassroots level, doing organizing, etc, and then turned to direct services.
DMIBlog: It's interesting - we often experience that people feel they have to make a choice: do I want to do services on the grassroots level, or do I want to do policy work? Did you feel you had to make that decision?
lucynycouncil: I absolutely had to make that choice. I felt that my direct service work was simply putting band-aids on problems that would continue and deepen. While at the service organization I therefore tried to do some advocacy and policy work. But this was during the Giuliani years and doing advocacy work at an agency that was funded with public dollars was a big, big problem. Groups were terrified of losing their funding. So, I decided that in order to make change I would pursue a policy career.
DMIBlog: So Lucy, can you tell us about a time when your perspective on an issue really influenced the position the speaker took - where she changed her mind and/or formed her opinion largely on the basis of your personal insight, perhaps insights drawn from your work on the ground?
lucynycouncil: One more thing on the above, to pursue a policy career I decided to go into local government. That is very different that going to a policy org or think tank. That was an interesting decision. Since that point I have gone between government and non-profits
lucynycouncil: And, obviously, they are very different environments.
DMIBlog: Let's continue on that --
DMIBlog: Some have described the members of the City Council, or at least some of them, as a bit less than "visionary" when it comes to developing ideas to address New York City's challenges. Do you think that's an accurate characterization?
lucynycouncil: I actually don't. I think that Council Members are overwhelmed with dealing with the various issues facing their districts and often do not have the time and energy to devote to articulating some of their more visionary ideas. Members have some really innovative ideas when asked.
lucynycouncil: We are hoping to create time for Members to think about these visionary ideas.
DMIBlog: So let's talk about your innovative ideas.
DMIBlog: Can you tell us about a time when your perspective on an issue really influenced the position the speaker took - where she changed her mind and/or formed her opinion largely on the basis of your personal insight, perhaps insights drawn from your work on the ground?
lucynycouncil: We have done a lot of work recently on reducing hunger and increasing access to nutritious good. In this City of such great wealth, over 1 million New Yorkers are food insecure.
lucynycouncil: As part of the budget process we created several initiatives addressing these issues. Some of these ideas were taken from best practices from around the country, but some came directly from me or from the policy staff. Some of the initiatives are narrow pilot projects but when brought to scale, could greatly impact the lives of New Yorkers. My previous experience at a direct service agency greatly informed some of these ideas as during those years I was heavily engaged with managing clients' benefits. Other ideas came from simply understanding how city agencies function and being creative.
DMIBlog: One of the things that is being written about a lot of late is the disappearing middle class in New York City, and other metro areas. Are you and the Speaker working on tackling this?
DMIBlog: Or is that one of the issues that takes a back burner to more pressing problems of poverty, hunger, etc.?
lucynycouncil: We are very interested in ensuring that the City is a viable option for middle class New Yorkers. As we all know, this City is becoming home to the very rich and the poor, with little in-between. We are aware of the issues that prevent middle class New Yorkers from remaining in the City - among other things, the cost of housing and the state of our schools. We are looking to research these areas further and create policy interventions that will benefit middle class New Yorkers.
lucynycouncil: Poverty and hunger are obviously pressing issues, but we are hoping to address issues impacting middle class New Yorkers as well.
DMIBlog: Will that position you against the interests of poor New Yorkers?
DMIBlog: You are someone who has been "on the outside" to some extent - as an advocate, as a grassroots organizer, etc.
DMIBlog: What is it like to do policy for a Speaker who has a noticeably tighter relationship with the Mayor than her predecessor?
DMIBlog: That's pretty "inside"!
DMIBlog: In other words,
DMIBlog: does it seem disorienting to you at all to now be so close to the inside, working for a speaker who isn't a gadfly, but instead working closely with the Mayor?
lucynycouncil: From my perspective in the policy unit it's been really nice. We have been able to achieve a lot in a brief amount of time. Instead of spending our time fighting we have been engaged in productive, substantive discussions. This is particularly evident in ongoing discussions about food issues.
lucynycouncil: It doesn't seem disorienting. Remember, I was here as Chris' Legislative Director when things were a bit different with the Administration. Things now seem to move at a different pace and with a different tone.
DMIBlog: So now that you've survived your first budget negotiation, any insights on how these things are negotiated from the policy side?
lucynycouncil: It's interesting, the policy unit was heavily engaged on the front end of the budget process, helping formulate the policy proposals that would be part of the Council budget response. With that said, the budget process provides an opportunity to be visionary and put forward some of those big ideas. It provides an amazing platform to highlight priorities, etc.
DMIBlog: In 10 words or less, name one "big idea" that the New York City government should do but will never?
lucynycouncil: (allow dogs on the subway, it would make my life much, much easier!)
DMIBlog: Thank you!
Lucynycouncil:...That subway thing may be a state thing (the MTA and all). Just keeping you on your toes. And, you're welcome.
**(All interview transcripts may be edited for length and readability).