YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Tito Brown can’t imagine driving a perfectly good thing out of a town that hasn’t had a perfectly good thing come its way in a very long time.
At least, a perfectly good thing the size and scope of the Amazon headquarters that ideological politics drove out of Long Island City on Thursday, when Democrats including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., danced on the grave of the deal as Amazon walked away from the New York project.
Brown doesn’t really get that. He governs a city with a declining population, a 40 percent poverty rate, and would welcome the opportunity for a project such as Amazon to have considered locating here.
“Oh, any time I can get regional and/or economic growth in my community, I would absolutely want that here,” he said. “It’s budget time.”
Ocasio-Cortez, who has become the leader of the left-wing insurgency within the Democratic Party, slammed the plan in a tweet the moment it was announced in mid-November last year.
Amazon is a billion-dollar company. The idea that it will receive hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks at a time when our subway is crumbling and our communities need MORE investment, not less, is extremely concerning to residents here.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC)
November 13, 2018
She initially said the response to the Amazon announcement from her constituents was outrage, arguing that the tax breaks Amazon would receive should be spent by city and state officials on the subway system and communities instead of billion-dollar corporations.
Which isn’t how tax breaks work. It’s not like there is a pile of money they would hand to Amazon that could have been spent on the subway system, but that is a story for a different day.
What this moment signifies in the Democratic Party is one that has been in existence for several years, but the party establishment and ruling class have been unwilling to face: the leftist populism punching up to take the reins of the party.
New York took a big lurch left last year in the midterm elections when they gave the Democrats their largest majority in the state senate ever, as well as giving Ocasio-Cortez her victory over a moderate establishment Democrat for his Bronx seat in the primary race.
National Democrats hailed the wave and felt empowered, but no one felt more empowered than their left flanks. What the ruling class of the Democratic Party failed to realize is their voters with the largest megaphone believe they are entitled to use it like a sledgehammer, a sledgehammer they plan to use to impact the country’s societal, economic, and political viewpoints.
Sledgehammers make great copy on Twitter, but they don’t help legislators govern, or help job creation — just the opposite.
In New York, the populist sledgehammers cost the region well-paid jobs that ran the gamut from working-class to high-tech. The Amazon project actually enjoyed broad support, with a poll showing as recently as last week that 56 percent of New Yorkers support the project over just 36 percent who do not. Support for it was even higher among minority registered voters than white voters.
In Youngstown, Brown has to govern, knowing the possible downfalls that come with large companies locating in communities. But he also knows the upsides. He’d like the upside.
“I think the negatives would be it’s a new industry. People are afraid of the change. They’re afraid of, my life as I knew it before is not the same as what it’s going to be once this happens in my community,” he said.
“It’s that ‘not in my backyard thing,’ but the plus if I’m those individuals who are underemployed or unemployed, is here’s a great opportunity for this great company and it gives them another edge and/or opportunity to advance their family to another level,” he said.
At the beginning of the 19th century, an industrial revolution changed this sleepy valley along the Mahoning River from a farming and grist mill community to a manufacturing giant that built the buildings, roads, and bridges of the country and lasted for more than 100 years.
People faced change when steel production took over the rivers for commerce, and people faced change when they left.
“We lost our identity of being a steel mill town. That’s not coming back. The way we knew life back then, it’s not going to happen. There’s not going to even be a small glimmer of that life as we knew it then. My grandfather and my father’s steel mill, they’re not coming back. You talk about the new technology, the new advances that we have coming in the next 10 to 30, 40 years, that’s what is happening,” he said.
Brown is part of the Democratic Party that is pragmatic on business because he knows business means jobs and jobs mean stability in the community.
“You can’t be shortsighted and look at who’s delivering the product versus who’s actually going to benefit from this product being in your community. It’s not poisoning your community. It’s not harmful to your community. We have a 40 percent poverty rate here in the city of Youngstown. It’s probably 85-95 percent of the community is on free and reduced lunch. That’s a hard sell for me to say I don’t want that to go away. No, I want to reduce that and eliminate that as the mayor of the city of Youngstown,” he said.
Brown said he would be happy to talk to Amazon about locating their headquarters there. With Youngstown’s access to the major interstates, their close proximity to D.C., New York, Cleveland, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, as well as plenty of acreage along the Mahoning River and a solid workforce, he has a solid argument to make.
People keep sending a message to Washington with their votes, and Washington keeps misreading it. Brown knows why he is the mayor of Youngstown: to create jobs and bring new innovative commerce here in the process, even if that change makes people initially uncomfortable.
It’s part of why he, too, upended an incumbent Democrat in a primary election when he won office in 2017.
Ocasio-Cortez seems to have taken the message that her election was a moment for leftist populism, and she is happy to enforce it. If that starts to hurt her district’s bottom line, she has a problem. But if it speeds up the spread of leftist populism across the country, it will be interesting to see how that impacts her party and our economy.