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In Run for New York City Public Advocate, Blake Offers Federal and State Experience

michael blake pub adv city

Michael Blake (photo via Blake campaign)

Michael Blake wants to bring his experience in federal and state government to city government as the next Public Advocate of New York City. Currently a member of the state Assembly from the Bronx, Blake worked in the administration of President Barack Obama before he became a political consultant and successfully ran for Assembly, defeating the chosen candidate of the political machine in his home borough thanks to a variety of factors, including his national network and fundraising prowess.

With the anticipated ascension of Public Advocate Letitia James to state Attorney General via November’s election, Blake declared his candidacy for the special election that would occur in February if James is indeed successful.

After visiting five boroughs Sunday, including a cold but lively rally in the Bronx, Blake spoke with Gotham Gazette on Monday about his campaign and how he would shape the public advocate’s office, one of just three citywide elected positions, but one with limited defined powers and resources.

Blake said his focus would be “jobs and justice,” naming issues such as improving conditions at public housing, monitoring the closure of Rikers Island jails and pushing related criminal justice reform, altering the specialized high schools admissions process and improving the quality of K-8 schools, enhancing opportunities for women- and minority-owned businesses, more transparency at the city Department of Education, and holding the MTA accountable for better transit service. He touted successes he says he’s had in the Assembly on several of those issues, especially securing more funding for NYCHA, boosting MWBEs, raising the age of adult criminal responsibility, and bringing to New York Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative that focuses on empowering young men of color.

“I want to be someone that champions causes that people might not be attentive to and might not be fighting for in the way they should,” Blake said, promising to be a "very proactive" public advocate. “Whether that is changing it through legislation in the City Council, whether it be pushing for our colleagues in the state government to make those changes...and, frankly, we can’t ignore the impact of the federal government on our livelihood in the city.”

Would he be ready to call out the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio or any other mayor? “I think of anyone that’s been talking about running, I think I have a pretty good track record of calling out the administration on things that they’ve been wrong on,” he said, going on to contrast himself in particular to former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who is exploring a run for public advocate and Blake indicated he thinks is too close to de Blasio.

Blake said that “criminal” activity had taken place as NYCHA officials “lied” about elevated lead levels in housing developments. Of course he would call out the city administration on such issues, he said.

“Now, do I think that you need to go down a road where you’re picking fights unnecessarily? Absolutely not, but when someone’s done something wrong you call it out,” he said. People just want help, however you have to get it done, Blake said, arguing he is uniquely situated to best pull the levers of government at all levels.

Success as public advocate would look like helping to “truly transform what’s happening with NYCHA,” Blake said, along with impacting how the school system is functioning, especially with regard to literacy rates, middle school quality, and college- and career-readiness, among other goals.

On criminal justice, Blake said he absolutely wants to see the Rikers jails closed, but that he has questions about the city’s plan to do so. “Building new mini Rikers is not fixing the problem,” he said. “I have repeatedly asked the mayor directly, [First Deputy Mayor] Dean Fuleihan and all of their team, ‘Why do you need to build new jails?’”

Blake cited the high percentage of people detained at Rikers that are not convicted of any crime, mostly locked up because they can’t afford bail. “We’re not having a real conversation around incarceration,” he said, “when you actually look at the numbers, the city’s on record with me, that they can get to this 4,500 number [of detainees] without state policy changes, they can do that through administrative changes.” Combine that city action with what a Democratic state Legislature may be able to do if the elections go the party’s way, he said, “so you then have speedy trial and bail and open discovery,” and the inmate population gets lower and lower -- “then you have not demonstrated why you need new jails.”

Blake pointed out that a commission led by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, empaneled by Mark-Viverito, had recommended a small jail on Staten Island, part of having a jail in each borough near the courthouses. “If we’re really talking about equity, why are we only talking about four places?” Blake said. “Because of the politics, the politics of it. When we think through the dynamics, the conversations that people don’t want to have, is it really a development deal? Is it that they just want to find a way to get access to the land at Rikers?”

On the controversial topic of admissions to the city’s specialized high schools, Blake said it should move away from a single test. “It should be multi-measured,” he said. “It should be assessed on your grades, it should be assessed on writing samples, it should be assessed on, yes, the exam being one part of that. It should be assessed on an interview.” He spoke of personal experience, saying, “The notion that one exam would determine who I am, I think that’s pretty ridiculous. I recognize, I’m one of the kids who made it. I grew up in the hood, I got a chance to work for a President, I came back home. I’m not the anomaly in terms of having the capability, I’m just maybe the anomaly in having access to the opportunity.”

He said having a man of color as public advocate would be a good thing for the city.

He also said he wants to see a “Rooney Rule” -- a mandate in the National Football League (NFL) that teams must interview a candidate of color for a head coaching vacancy -- for mandating that for most government contracts one finalist must be an MWBE firm.

Blake is sure to promote these policy positions on the campaign trail -- he indicated he’s excited to travel around the city making his case, including at what could be a dozen or more candidate forums as community, advocacy, and other groups seek to have public advocate hopefuls appear before them. If James wins on Election Day, November 6, she would likely not vacate her position until she is sworn in at the beginning of January, which would then trigger the short process whereby the mayor must declare a special election for mid-February.

That special election would be nonpartisan, meaning no party primaries and each candidate must run on a ballot line of their own creation -- there would be no Democratic or Republican nominee, for example. The special election would fill the position for the rest of 2019, with a regular election in the fall of that year to determine who would complete the rest of James’ term, which runs through 2021, the next city election year.

Roughly a dozen potential candidates have been rumored or confirmed they are running or exploring it. Along with Blake, Brooklyn City Council Member Jumaane Williams, fresh off a campaign for lieutenant governor, declared his candidacy for public advocate this week. Activist and journalist Nomiki Konst had previously declared, while Manhattan Assembly member Daniel O’Donnell had already announced his exploration of a bid, and several others, like Mark-Viverito, have told media outlets they are examining the possibility. Those names include a slew of other City Council members beyond Williams. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is also rumored as a possibility, though he has previously indicated he would be running for mayor in 2021, which would not be ruled out if he ran for public advocate and won.

Blake expressed confidence about his chances.

“There are a lot of people around New York and around the country that will be excited” about his candidacy, he said, when asked if he thought his ability to raise money would again be a major benefit, especially in a shortened campaign. He pledged not to take money from corporate PACs.

In 2013, Blake managed the public advocate campaign of Reshma Saujani, who was among those who lost to James in the Democratic primary. Blake gained insights into running a citywide race, especially learning the intricacies of the city's many neighborhoods.

He said he will be able to build the coalition needed to prevail. “When you look at a path to victory, our work with our communities of color across the city...we’re able to build up a lot of local support, some of them not ready to be public [yet].” Blake acknowledged a need to do well in Brooklyn, Southeast Queens, Harlem, his hometown of the Bronx, and among “white progressives.”

“You have to be a masterful organizer. We’re talking about a race that could be in the dead of winter in February, you have no idea what the weather is like...and nothing else on the ballot...and we have a very good track record of mobilizing,” he said. “We’re ready to build.”

One key to Blake’s Assembly win in 2014 was the support of the large and influential 1199 SEIU labor union, of which Blake’s late father was a longtime member. Blake expressed some cautious optimism about again earning support from 1199 and others, citing the presence of a leader of Local 372 of DC37 at his kickoff rally.

“We’re going to show, very intentionally and methodically, the pretty widespread support that we’re ready to roll out pretty quickly across unions and across all different coalitions,” Blake said.

Asked about his role with the Democratic National Committee, where he is a vice chair who travels the country giving pep talks, leading trainings, and helping to organize, Blake said that much of that will calm down after the midterm elections in November. He also said his priority would be the role of public advocate, which is different than the technically part-time position of state Assembly member, and comes with a much higher salary to boot. Blake has done some consulting while in elected office and has a significant tax debt to New York State that he said stems from residency issues he worked out several years ago and he's been paying down. He added that it could be advantageous to both the national party and the city for him to hold both roles, noting that he had succeeded as a vice chair the former mayor of Minneapolis.

Blake repeatedly indicated that his state and national experience would be advantageous to both his campaign for public advocate and in filling the role if elected, given that the city is so reliant on the state and federal governments. He also said he thinks his independence will stack up well against potential competition when it comes to the de Blasio administration -- the public advocate is expected to hold the mayor accountable, though different officeholders have approached it differently.

“When we think about the dynamics about others that consider running, it would be hard for them to convey that they have independence from the mayor,” Blake said. “I mean, pretty consistent track records, many of them have demonstrated being closely aligned.”

“I am ready to hold them accountable,” he said of the city administration. “But it’s not just about holding people accountable, you have a plan of action, it’s a very concrete thing.”

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Rep. Dan Donovan

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Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits

October 23, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: U.S. Rep. Dan Donovan

us rep dd 209Representative Dan Donovan, the lone Republican representing any of New York City in Congress, joined the show to discuss his reelection bid. Donovan, whose 11th congressional district includes Staten Island and part of Southern Brooklyn, is facing a stiff challenge from Democrat Max Rose, who declined the invitation to appear on the show. The incumbent addressed security issues, his record, infrastructure, opioids, NYCHA funding, the Eric Garner case, and more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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8 Steps to Fix New York Transit and Get New Yorkers Moving Again

Cuomo subway repairs

Gov. Cuomo underground (photo: The Governor's Office)

With the transit system in New York City in constant crisis over a sustained period of time, from delayed trains underground to ever-dropping bus speeds on the streets, the question of how exactly to fix mass transit has been on the minds of elected and appointed officials, advocates and analysts, and, of course, frustrated commuters. In the aftermath of the short-term Subway Action Plan, the effectiveness of which was somewhat difficult to quantify and apparently underwhelming, officials are trying to focus on how to provide more long-term physical and fiscal stability for the beleaguered Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

While the ambitious plan to upgrade train signals, bus routes, and MTA spending practices that MTA New York City Transit president Andy Byford has called Fast Forward seems to be a universally agreed-on blueprint to improve city transit, how the plan gets funded and implemented is somewhat more muddled thanks to political disagreements between state and city leaders.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has embraced congestion pricing, a plan that would fund the MTA through tolls on vehicles entering Manhattan south of 60th Street, what the Fix NYC panel has determined should be the border of Manhattan’s central business district. Cuomo called the scheme -- which is aimed at both funding the MTA and reducing Manhattan roadway congestion -- an “idea whose time has come” last year, but the only part of the proposal that was agreed upon by state leaders this year was new fees on taxis and app-basd for-hire vehicles ($0.75 added to for-hire-vehicle carpool rides, $2.50 on taxi trips and $2.75 on FHV trips that go into Manhattan south of 96th Street), leaving the more difficult matter of adding a toll cordon in Manhattan to be dealt with later -- perhaps in the 2019 state budget, as Cuomo has indicated.

Cuomo is also demanding the New York City “pay its fair share” for any subway upgrades, an ask that observers have called dubious and one that seems wrapped up in his running feud with Mayor Bill de Blasio.

For his part, de Blasio has resisted embracing congestion pricing, calling it “regressive” even in the face of data showing car owners are wealthier than regular city transit riders, and has instead pushed a millionaires tax as a way of providing the MTA a new revenue stream. The mayor’s resistance to congestion pricing has drawn criticism from subway advocates, who have put together an advocacy coalition made up of anti-poverty and transit groups to push for the toll, and the millionaires tax is an idea Cuomo and even Democratic state Senators have dismissed as not having much support in Albany. In recent months de Blasio has appeared warmer to congestion pricing, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall as it gains support and appears to be a top Cuomo priority for the new year, pending his own reelection.

There’s also a coalition of elected officials who feel like the answer is to institute congestion pricing and the millionaires tax, in addition to reinstituting the commuter tax and getting the federal government to end the carried interest loophole. With the expected price for Fast Forward coming to close to $40 billion, these officials argue that neither congestion pricing nor a millionaires tax would provide the needed revenue for the MTA even when combined with contributions by the city and state.

Along with the policy-makers themselves, New York’s other top transit minds, who often influence policy outcomes, continue to assess ways to improve the subway and bus systems. Asked by Gotham Gazette how city, state, and MTA leaders can make real improvements, experts outlined roughly eight key steps, ranging from instituting the much-discussed congestion pricing and Fast Forward plans to more ambitious proposals that would encourage the city and state to look at mass transit as an all-encompassing ecosystem instead of separate pieces that happen to operate under a single public authority.

1. Fast Forward
The transit experts who spokes to Gotham Gazette pegged moving ahead with Fast Forward as an important next step in the life of the MTA. “The Regional Plan Association has long advocated for modernizing the signaling system in the subways, improving bus service, and making all stations ADA accessible, these are fundamental parts of Fast Forward,” said Kate Slevin, the senior vice president of programs and advocacy at RPA.

Not only does the Fast Forward plan include the physical improvements that Slevin noted, but it signals to riders and employees at the agency that there could be a new way of doing things going forward. “The MTA finally has a big picture vision, which is important for aligning the priorities of the many projects and fixes that have to be done,” Liam Blank, the advocacy manager at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign told Gotham Gazette. “They've lacked that for a number of years, and as a result we've gotten hodgepodge improvements that don't really show benefits to a majority of commuters.”

It’s the signal system upgrade at the heart of the plan, though, that Byford has suggested can be done on 11 line segments in 10 years, that could make the biggest difference according to Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute with a focus on transit. “The single-biggest thing we need to do is get more people onto the trains more reliably, and you can't really do that with the signal system the way it is,” she said. “Even if [the signal upgrades] aren’t on the exact schedule the Fast Forward plan laid out, it's a high-priority, I think it's important,” Gelinas said, noting that the communications-based train control-equipped L train has on-time performances over 90 percent compared to averages of 60 percent performance across the rest of the system, which Gelinas, Byford, and everyone else paying attention wants upgraded to CBTC as quickly as possible.

2. Congestion Pricing
Of course, implementing Fast Forward will require a large infusion of money for the MTA in order to get this work done. For revenue, and other reasons, transit experts peg congestion pricing as a necessary step to improve city mobility and livability. “There should be costs to bringing a large metal vehicle into the city,” Gelinas said, noting the effect that car traffic has on pedestrians walking around cars in crosswalks and cyclists having to dodge cars in bike lanes.

Not only would congestion pricing compel drivers to pay what Blank called “their fare share” for using public infrastructure, it would also free up street space in Manhattan which helps improve bus speeds there. “Fewer cars on the road means that the buses can start to move at speeds comparable to other cities. Right now they're stuck in the same traffic as the rest of the cars, so we have a transit system that's ineffective down below and on the surface,” Blank said.

And the need for it, according to Slevin of RPA, is almost impossible to overstate. “I can't stress enough how the key is congestion pricing to help us fix the subway, fix the buses, and provide the revenue for Fast Forward. And we have to get it done in 2019, we have to,” she said.

3. Control Costs
Whether or not a new revenue source for the MTA comes to fruition, the authority must look at how it actually spends the money it has at its disposal, according to transit watchers. The good news, on that front, is that members of the MTA board have spoken up about cost-controls recently, including a well-received report by Scott Rechler that laid out how the MTA could cut costs by reforming the agency’s bidding and project management processes.

“I think the board has laid out some common sense changes to how the MTA does business that will make things more cost effective and done in a more timely manner,” Slevin said, about proposals like simplifying contracts and making it easier to change projects on the fly. “But the leadership of the MTA and the whole agency has to be on board with implementing those changes and explain to the public how they're going about that.”

Like with many governmental agencies and authorities, personnel costs loom large. A coming jump in employee healthcare costs to $2.6 billion in 2022, according to Gelinas, means the authority should take a look at those and other costs as a preparation to make a bigger ask. “I would like to see a full audit of every single cost. Not even start with cutting health benefits, but are there better ways to deliver this healthcare, look at the labor rules, really justify spending every dollar before you do congestion pricing and say, ‘Oh by the way we need more money too.’"

There’s also an upcoming opportunity for the MTA and the Transportation Workers Union to find savings in staffing rules when they negotiate a contract in 2019, according to Jamison Dague, the director of infrastructure studies at the Citizens Budget Commission.

“What you'd like to see is some coordination between management and labor to improve productivity,” Dague said. “Whether looking at some of the work rules and the staffing as far as how flexibly you can deploy certain workers for different types of tasks, or even when it comes to hiring, can you can be less specific in the types of job requirements.”

Public-facing introspection could help make the case for more funding. “Byford could use a set of talking points on how the MTA is changing inside,” said Jon Orcutt, director of communications and advocacy at TransitCenter. “The line station managers are achieving X, we brought this project to a close under budget, we have our procurement process under review and will be instituting reforms by X month and so forth.”

Part of the spending fix can be as simple as the MTA taking a more active role in buying work materials. “Contractors and subcontractors buy the materials like cement and steel,” Gelinas said. “You'd think it would make sense for the MTA to buy those because it's a much bigger purchaser on the world market, and then give them to the contractors. Materials procurement is very opaque and there's a lot of room for corruption and middle men and padding and all kinds of things there,” she said, but the process still flies under the radar and delays projects that are as simple as repairing some stairs.

4. Use Current Projects as Proof Points
It’s also important for the MTA to prove they can actually improve the lives of New Yorkers, in order to build political support for the authority’s larger plans. The upcoming completion of the 7 train’s much-delayed CBTC signaling system is another opportunity for the MTA to show off what service improvements actually look like, while also explaining how other lines will be upgraded more efficiently, per Fast Forward.

“[Andy Byford] needs to deliver on that, and he needs a huge communications push to show why it's gotten better,” Orcutt said. “It would be great for everyone in Queens and also the whole city to see, ‘We re-signaled a line and it's great. And if you want more of that on your subway you have to fund Fast Forward. Delivering something tangible is really key for them.”

“The more the MTA can do to build its credibility in the near term will help with some of these longer term funding discussions,” said Slevin of RPA. “The L train shutdown is an opportunity to show you can get a big project done faster and cheaper by ripping off the Band-Aid and having a shorter period of time when there's more pain for riders,” she said, an especially salient point as Fast Forward fixes will most likely come with massive service disruptions.

5. Remember the Buses
There is one area where New York City government can exert more control on its own, advocates say, which is the bus system. “The city has [bus lane enforcement] cameras,” Orcutt said. “They can move them around, they can broadcast the fact that the cameras are out there more vigorously,” he said, and can also ask the NYPD to actually enforce the rules against driving and parking in bus lanes, a subject that Orcutt said the mayor “has been completely obtuse about.”

And as budget season starts in 2019, Blank of Tri-State Transportation said the city and MTA should lobby state lawmakers for even more bus lane cameras, an improvement that advocates called for in a recent “Fast Bus, Fair City” report. Blank also said the city should follow another one of the report’s recommendations and add 100 miles of bus lanes in the next five years, on top of the city’s existing 120 miles of lanes.

Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute suggested a more radical redesign of the city’s streets if human-based enforcement didn’t speed the buses up. “The city can do more with the physical infrastructure itself, something like building out a curb so the traffic can't easily get into a bus lane. They do that in Paris, with reverse bus thoroughfares, so buses come in the opposite direction of traffic. So you'd have to be very stupid to go into that lane and be hit by a bus. When human enforcement of things like speeds and double parking doesn't work, use the physical environment to nudge people in the right direction,” she said.

6. Don’t Silo; See an Ecosystem
Taking care of the bus system is part of an overall attitude shift that needs to happen, one that sees transit as one interconnected system instead of competing ways of getting around. “I think that for far too long transit has been seen in silos, and as a result it's created a disjointed transportation network that we have today, mainly in terms of how it functions,” Blank said. “Things don't have proper transfers, the investments are clearly unequal between the systems and especially between different neighborhoods. So we need to start seeing these things as complementary and operating like an ecosystem.”

Taking care of the buses, in an example Slevin laid out, would make it that much easier to work on the subways during Fast Forward. “You have to make the bus system faster so you have a reliable alternative when you're fixing the subway,” Slevin said. “So if you have a bus system that functions better you can have longer term windows to work on the subway.” Slevin also gave an endorsement to Scott Stringer’s new proposal to provide a single-ride ticket for use among the subway, bus, and LIRR and Metro-North stations located in the city.

A vision of interconnected transit can even extend to pieces of it outside of the MTA’s purview, according to Associate Director of NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Sarah Kaufman. “I imagine an app like Citymapper, which already integrates multiple modes seamlessly into its direction platform, also providing a payment option through pre-loaded funds. Perhaps 10 Citi Bike rides would lead to a free ride, or 20 subway trips earns the user a discount. During gridlock alert days, prices could surge on Ubers while remaining low on transit in order to modify New Yorkers' behavior,” she said.

While New York isn’t set to completely phase out the MetroCard in favor of a contactless fare payment until 2023, the city can look to places like Chicago where transit users can connect to the subway, buses, and bike share system with a single app..

7. Expansion’s Also a Must
While the MTA has to make sure the trains and buses they actually have now are running effectively, there’s still a need to grow the transit system according to some experts.

“I don't think we can afford to wait another 20 years to add three stops to the Second Avenue subway. We have to be doing [Crossrail-type] of things here too if we want people to have a good quality of life. I don't think it's too ambitious,” Gelinas said in response to the question of whether the MTA should have to choose between bringing the subway system up to good repair or expanding it.

Slevin at the RPA made the case that the MTA should study expansion now, since it typically takes so long to get a huge new project off the ground. “It takes many years to build new transit lines so the MTA could start studying the Triboro now, and then be ready to build once resources become available,” she said, making the case for the Brooklyn/Queens/Bronx line that the RPA has endorsed and which would largely run on existing  little-used, above-ground railroad tracks, thus requiring significantly less construction than another new subway line, while also providing much needed access between boroughs that doesn’t rely on trips into Manhattan.

“Part of the reason we are in the transit mess we are in now is because we failed to invest in the system, modernize it, and build new lines to meet growing demand. We can’t make that mistake again,” said Slevin, also arguing for expansions like the Utica Avenue line in Brooklyn, building the Q into the Bronx, and a Jewel Avenue line in central Queens, all subway extensions into dense, transit-starved neighborhoods.

Gelinas echoed Slevin’s argument that a current lack of real planning could doom the city down the road. “We should be able to do two things at once, and if we can't, we're really harming the future of the city.

8. Communication is Key
As any perusal of Twitter will show you during a morning commute meltdown, transit riders are almost as annoyed by a lack of information about delays and trains getting rerouted as they are by travel disruptions themselves. Beyond confusing and irritating commuters, a lack of communication saps enthusiasm for proposals that would improve the system. “People understand when there's a real problem, but what they hate is not getting straight talk about it,” said Orcutt of TransitCenter. “If people don't feel like the MTA is levelling with them, it's much harder to get them to rally around more funding,” he explained.

“Multiple studies have shown that passengers mostly trust the transit agency when they are provided real-time information -- even when it's bad news,” Kaufman told Gotham Gazette. “The information gives the perception of control over the system, whereas only sharing the word ‘delay’ does not.” Kaufman recommended the agency lean on specifics when telling riders why their train is delayed, especially since clearly communicating something like a signal failure could encourage riders to lean on elected officials to focus more on the issue of signal replacement.

“[Communication] should just be a management thing. You don't need new anything for that, you just run it well and have somebody in charge,” Orcutt said. It’s a step the agency has made some movement on, hiring Sarah Meyer as the agency’s chief customer officer, but the effort at clear, timely, and focused communication is obviously still dogging the MTA with the occasional management failure and inaccurate countdown clock and website information.

While improving the way the MTA shares real-time problems plaguing the subway system won’t actually fix those problems the way other solutions can, it will at least help with the perception of screaming, or tweeting, into a bureaucratic void when something goes wrong.

by Dave Colon, Gotham Gazette

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