Melissa Mark-Viverito Speaks Up
One of the biggest questions in this year’s election is ‘who has a voice in the system?’ Immigrants, minority groups, and voters across the political spectrum feel that their interests aren’t being heard by those in power. This month we’re highlighting a New York City Council member who has made it her priority to be a voice for the voiceless, advocating for the disenfranchised and creating a network of resources to help them succeed. Melissa Mark-Viverito is Speaker of the New York City Council, a former DMO Board Member, and our DMO of the Month this November.
Born and raised in San Juan, Mark-Viverito is a national advocate for Puerto Ricans both in New York City and on the island. She is committed to pulling Puerto Rico out of its current debt crisis, supporting the plan to allow its government to declare bankruptcy. It often escapes notice that the island’s 3.5 million residents share American citizenship. Her work to call attention to this looming financial crisis is not a case of global altruism, but of serving her fellow Americans.
On the mainland, Mark-Viverito backs programs like the Unaccompanied Minors Initiative and Terra Firma, which provide undocumented children with legal and medical services. In 2014, Mark-Viverito introduced legislation that stops the city from detaining undocumented immigrants on behalf of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) except in cases of serious or violent crimes, and eliminated the ICE detainment facility at the Rikers Island Prison Complex.
Her work protecting undocumented and new immigrants continued with the launch of the IDNYC program, the largest municipal ID system in the country. IDNYC is available to any resident of the city, whether they are natural citizens or lack proper immigration documents. More than 650,000 New Yorkers have signed up for the card to date. The program is recognized by the police as a valid form of identification and grants special admission to many of the city’s cultural institutions. Though opinions on how to address undocumented immigrants vary, Council Member Mark-Viverito is determined that her city treats each person with respect and humanity.
Although the justice system should serve as a deterrent to crime, it can also create barriers that make it harder to get back on the right track. Council Member Mark-Viverito has continuously fought to keep minor offenders from entering the criminal justice system in the first place. She has come down hard on unfair nuisance abatement enforcement, which disproportionately targets families of color and can impose strict sanctions even on individuals yet to be convicted of a crime. In a further effort to keep non-violent offenders out of jail, Mark-Viverito supports the decriminalization of minor infractions such as public drinking, being in parks after hours, and skipping train fares. While her efforts have met resistance from those who feel New York’s “broken window” style of policing yielded results, both Mayor de Blasio and former Police Commissioner Bratton have lent their support to easing some nuisance abatement measures.
Another way people become trapped in the justice system is an inability to pay bail. This keeps them from their jobs and other commitments, and reduces their ability to continue engaging in society after trial. Council Member Mark-Viverito included a $1.4 million allotment in the city budget to pay bail for those who can’t afford payments up to $2,000. Not only will this allow the accused to continue maintaining their life and livelihood, but it saves the city the $450 per day it costs to house someone who has no possibility of paying the fee on their own.
Populist candidates have struck a chord with voters this year in particular because the public feels a lack of agency over their own democratic government. Council Member Mark-Viverito and three of her colleagues gave some financial power back to their communities by championing the first foray into NYC’s participatory budgeting initiative. Participatory budgeting allows elected officials to explain their reasoning behind where they think funds should be spent while giving the public the opportunity to voice their own ideas. Thanks to advocates like Mark-Viverito, last year New York City discretionary budgets allotted over $30 million to neighborhood projects across 24 city districts.
As the first Hispanic woman to hold an elected citywide post in New York City, Melissa Mark-Viverito is shaping the future of her city and setting a strong example for leaders of diverse municipalities across the nation. She is a founder of the city’s Progressive Caucus, and demonstrates those values in drawing attention to people with the least ability to advocate for themselves; immigrants who help drive the city’s workforce, minor offenders who lack the resources to navigate the court system, and community members who want a more direct say in how their tax dollars are spent. Our final DMO of the Month for 2016 embodies this year’s call for leaders who speak up for their voters. Each Democratic municipal official represents a community with a unique set of values, some more conservative, some more liberal. Melissa Mark-Viverito and DMOs like her across the nation demonstrate that government is working, and it works best closest to the people it serves.
Election Day comes a week early! You can now vote for our DMO of the Year. Look back through our previous DMOs of the Month and choose who will be honored this November at our National Breakfast Meeting in Pittsburgh.