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James Sanders, Junior – Running to Become A Working Class Hero In Albany

James Sanders, Junior – Running to Become A Working Class Hero In Albany

August 30, 2012
By Joe Maniscalco

It’s not hard for three-term New York City Councilman James Sanders, Jr. to pinpoint the moment in time when life started getting better for him and his siblings growing up in an impoverished Queens housing project.

“My life became better thanks to my mother being in the union,” the current chair of the Civil Service and Labor Committee says.

Until then, dinner at the Sanders household was a culinary adventure consisting of “whatever meat was the cheapest.” Clothes were often threadbare, and a second pair of shoes was an undreamed of luxury.

“Thanks to 1199, I came to understand that you could have two pairs of shoes – one for Sunday, and one for every other day of the week,” says the three-term Democratic councilman now hoping to unseat troubled State Senator Shirley Huntley in the 10thDistrict. 

Sanders’ chances of making it to Albany may have just improved dramatically now that the incumbent has been indicted on corruption charges – but that hasn’t stopped the term-limited councilman originally elected in 2001 from pushing hard as primary day fast approaches.

“The forces aligning against labor are monumental,” Sanders says. “And we’re in for the battle of our lives where the ideas that we hold sacred, our pensions and our healthcare, are all being challenged and taken away. Only through true solidarity will we steady the ship though these troubled waters. This is what I offer as a child of the working class.”

Born of a hardworking home attendant and a former sharecropper turned janitor, Sanders attended Far Rockaway High School and joined the United States Marine Corps. as soon as he was legally able to sign himself up. 

“I was a grunt,” Sanders says. “The kind of infantryman where you pick up a knife and go running against a tank.”

After three years in the military, Sanders enrolled in Brooklyn College where he ultimately earned a Bachelor of Arts in 1984.

“As a young Marine who barely understood concepts of government, I understood that we have a system that has so many floors,” Sanders says.  “But it is also one of the greatest systems on this planet – and worth fighting for.”

The councilman currently representing District 31, started out his political career as a member of School Board 27 where he served for 10 years before ultimately being elected its president.

“When Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of America, he said that he had great disappointments in the country,” Sanders says. “But he also was quick to point out that only a person with a great love can have a great disappointment. I would argue the same thing propels me.”

Sanders, the first African-American to head the city’s Economic Development Committee, says that he has already identified at least $500 million in corporate welfare – and should he get to Albany, will identify even more.

That’s money, according to Sanders, that can go to addressing youth gun violence, care for the elderly and road and bridge repair.

“Thanks to being the former chair of Economic Development for this great city, I can speak with authority on the issue of corporate welfare,” Sanders says. “One example is The Bank of America. Bank of America received $52 million in subsidies so they could increase jobs. But the Bank of America cut jobs within the same period. There is something called a ‘claw-back provision.’ If the person doesn’t obey the rules and responsibilities that they are supposed to, the city can take back the money. Yet the city’s not trying to take it back. This is an example of corporate welfare.”

Sanders also jeers union-bashing think tanks like the American Legislative Exchange Council [ALEC], and other extravagantly-funded rightwing groups that employ a strategy of “distorting the truth, and saying it so often, that people start to believe in it.”

“Their newspapers trumpet these things,” Sanders says. “They say, ‘Hey, these unions have a better pension then you in the private sector.’ But instead of people saying, ‘Why don’t we don’t get one that’s as good as the union?’ They’re dumbing down the conversation and having people say, ‘I have nothing, therefore you should have nothing.’”

As senator, Sanders wants to join the ranks of those dedicated to reframing the argument at the state level.

“Sometimes, politics is like computers: garbage in, will get garbage out,” Sanders says. “If you determine that the problem is a question of labor, then it will blind you to any other possibility. And I contend, that there are way too many people that are blinded to any other option except cutting the pensions of laboring masses, and cutting the healthcare of everyone else.”

Decades ago, Sanders first lifted his right hand and swore to defend the United States Constitution. Today, he says he is continuing that fight.

“America at its best is a noble experiment, and it’s not done yet,” Sanders says. “I am a living product of the experiment. When the United States was created, I, at best, was considered three-fifths of a man. I was not part of the original planners original intent. However, the plan was greater than the planners.”

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