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Rallying for a Bill, With Sermons and Songs
The New York Times
Elizabeth A. Harris

January 12, 2011
View the Original Article


When members of the City Council want Speaker Christine C. Quinn to call a hearing on a piece of legislation, they have a few options. They can try to cut a deal; they can issue a few dozen press releases; they can nag.

Or they can raise their voices in song.

Councilman Oliver Koppell is about to try doing just that.

Thursday evening, he will join pastors, rabbis and imams, as well as labor unions and city politicians, at the Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem. There, they will rally for a bill he introduced last year, which would mandate that all jobs created through city subsidies pay at least $10 per hour. (In addition to the sermons and speeches, organizers have promised a stirring rendition of the song “Show Yourself Mighty.”)

“When you involve the clergy and their congregation, you’re involving voters,” Mr. Koppell said. “Every public official cares about what voters feel.”

Organizers say that they expect 1,000 people to pack into the pews on Thursday, where they will watch a video clip of Martin Luther King Jr., whose eponymous day of service is next week. Speakers at the event, including clergy members, plan to call on Ms. Quinn and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to support the legislation.

“There are those who think the best way for the church to impact the community is for the church to be the church, in a narrowly constructed way,” said the Rev. Michael Walrond Jr., the pastor at First Corinthian, another Baptist church in Harlem, who will be speaking at Thursday’s rally. “But if I get fixated on saving your soul while the rest of your reality is struggling, there is a disconnect.”

Mr. Walrond says that low-wage jobs require New Yorkers to take on several jobs, which can mean choosing between nurturing or supporting their families. He and other advocates point to more than a dozen American cities that have wage requirements for publicly subsidized projects already in place, including Los Angeles.

But many New Yorkers, including Mr. Bloomberg and members of the business community, fear this bill would kill development projects, citing the 2009 defeat of the Kingsbridge Armory — which included a struggle over wage requirements — as an example. Opponents also say the law would make it exceedingly difficult for subsidized projects to land tenants, since even retail jobs in those buildings would have to pay at least $10 per hour with insurance or $11.50 without.

“You have to let the marketplace set the wages,” Mr. Bloomberg said this fall. “Government should not be in the business of doing that. The last government that tried that doesn’t exist anymore. That was the Soviet Union.”

Andrew Brent, a spokesman for the mayor, pointed out that developments eligible for city subsidies are among the city’s most vulnerable projects and the least equipped to manage restrictions that would not be required of the buildings across the street, let along across state lines.

Supporters of the bill, however, hope that politicians with their eye on future elections might be more amenable to the songs and sermons of Thursday.

“I think we’ve seen in the last citywide election that populist positions, if you will, have very strong appeal,” Mr. Koppell said. “If Chris does want to be mayor,” he added of Ms. Quinn, “she’s got to think about the constituencies she has to appeal to.”