Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/234 Mon, 20 May 2019 09:09:31 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) 10 Things to Know About Presidential Candidate Bill De Blasio's Policy Record http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8534-10-things-to-know-about-presidential-candidate-bill-de-blasio-s-mayoral-record http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8534-10-things-to-know-about-presidential-candidate-bill-de-blasio-s-mayoral-record mayor bdb chirlane

De Blasio & McCray on ABC (photo: Good Morning America)


Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday officially launched his campaign for president, declaring a progressive vision that would put “working people first” while taking on President Donald Trump’s policies that have benefited corporations and the wealthy.

“There's plenty of money in this world. There's plenty of money in this country -- it's just in the wrong hands," de Blasio said in a video announcing the launch of his campaign. The Democrat, joining a primary field of 22 other candidates, is pitching himself as the progressive leader and chief executive of the largest city in the United States. But now in his second term, having been in office for five-and-a-half years, the mayor’s record has been far from ideal.

Though he can definitively boast of several accomplishments that have improved the lot of working New Yorkers, his administration has fallen behind on many fronts. Crime may be down and the economy on a solid foundation, but the city remains unaffordable for many and the mayor has failed to control major crises in public housing and homelessness that have lingered from previous administrations.   

[De Blasio Launches Underdog Campaign for the Presidency with Pitch as Progressive Executive and Mixed Record]

As he explored a presidential bid, visiting four early primary states, and in declaring his candidacy, de Blasio pledged that he could effectively run the city while also campaigning for president, a tall order for anyone, much less a mayor who has had both his focus and management chops repeatedly questioned.

After making two campaign appearances in New York City on Thursday, de Blasio set off for Iowa and South Carolina, where he will begin making the pitch that his blend of experience and vision is the right one for the country. Here are 10 things voters should know about the mayor’s record as he campaigns on it:

1. Early Childhood Education
One of the mayor’s earliest and biggest accomplishments was a push to implement free full-day universal pre-kindergarten. Though he initially called for a millionaire’s tax to fund it -- setting off an ongoing feud with Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is backing former Vice President Joe Biden in the presidential primary -- the state stepped in to provide much of the budget for it without the surcharge on high earners de Blasio asked for.

Now, roughly 70,000 children are enrolled in the program each year, compared with 19,000 in 2014. The program has also been a financial boost to parents, who have saved thousands of dollars on childcare and had more time to work or pursue their other goals.

In 2017, the mayor announced that the city would expand public school to all three-year-olds by 2022. The program has been rolled out more slowly by design -- 20,000 children will be enrolled by this fall -- and is expected to be implemented in 14 of 32 school districts by September 2020.

While de Blasio’s early childhood education agenda formed his top 2013 campaign promise and has been a rousing success overall, forming one key plank of his presidential bid, it has not been without challenges: teachers from community-based organizations where most children attend UPK make significantly less in pay than their counterparts at Department of Education schools, the source of tension, protests, and a near-strike.

2. Jobs and The Economy
De Blasio’s administration has benefitted from the longest economic expansion in the country since World War II, and jobs have continued to grow and diversify. As of March 2019, there were just over 4 million private sector jobs in the city, with the unemployment rate at about 4.3%, down from 8% when de Blasio took office.

De Blasio has not had signature programs that appear to have directly contributed to that job growth, but crime in the city has continued to drop under his watch, which many say is essential to economic growth, and de Blasio has put a variety of other programs in place, such as pre-K, that he argues help create a hospitable overall climate.

3. Fiscal Management
The mayor’s most recent budget proposal includes a $92.5 billion spending plan for the fiscal year set to begin July 1, an increase of about $20 billion from the last budget that was modified under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The spending stems largely from a massive uptick in hiring -- the city workforce has increased from about 297,000 to about 332,000.

Budget watchdogs have questioned the speed of budget and personnel growth under de Blasio, cautioning that the city may not be prepared for an inevitable recession and calling on the mayor to find more efficiencies rather than spend so much of the tax revenue available given the economic boom times.

While city reserves are high -- about $5.72 billion each year -- they are below optimal levels. Despite praise from monitors and ratings agencies about the city’s fiscal management, budget watchdogs including City Comptroller Scott Stringer have repeatedly urged the mayor to invest more in rainy day funds and to find more savings through tighter agency management.

[Read: De Blasio's Budget Savings Plan Contains Few Real Efficiencies, Experts Say]

4. Poverty and Inequality
The mayor has touted his vision of, first, ending the “tale of two cities,” then, of making New York City the “fairest big city in America,” aiming to bring 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty or near poverty. But progress on that front has been slow, despite a major focus on equity. New York City’s poverty rate in 2016 (the most recent data available) was 19.5 percent, down from 20.6 percent in 2013.

The near poverty rate (which measures those under 150 percent of the poverty rate) fell to 43.5 percent in 2016, from 45.9 percent in 2013. It should be noted that these numbers reflect the fact that New York City uses its own poverty metric which takes into account cost of living for a more accurate representation of city life. The federal poverty measure tends to be a few points lower.

De Blasio has championed various policies to fight poverty and reduce income inequality, only some of which have moved, given powers that reside at the state and federal levels. His pivot from income inequality to fairness was a telling one, given he has more effective control over running a fair city than he does on incomes.

5. Housing Affordability
In 2014, de Blasio launched an ambitious plan to create and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing across the city in ten years. The mayor announced an expansion of the plan in November 2017, with a new target of 300,000 affordable homes by 2026. 

The city says the plan is ahead of schedule. To date, 123,466 “affordable” units have been preserved and created -- including 39,949 units of new construction and 83,497 preserved through subsidies and other forms of financing.

But the administration continues to face criticism for failing to create enough deeply affordable housing while pursuing several neighborhood rezonings in low-income communities that residents say has exacerbated gentrification and displacement pressures.

The plan also has not created enough units dedicated to the homeless or seniors, critics have said. In total, 10,261 units have been set aside for homeless New Yorkers and 7,677 for seniors.

De Blasio has repeatedly argued that he believes in a more stratified housing plan that creates units with rent caps for middle-class New Yorkers, not only those in the lower fifth of the socioeconomic scale. The mayor has been criticized for his coziness with real estate developers and unwillingness to push for more housing density in wealthier, whiter communities.

6. Homelessness
The number of homeless New Yorkers has grown significantly under de Blasio, who was slow to implement more aggressive measures to stem the crisis he inherited. But, the trend has stabilized more recently, and the shelter population is even down several thousand from its all-time high.

Just breaking the trajectory has required billions of dollars in additional spending that critics say has not shown the requisite results and has been too wasteful. In March, there were 63,029 individuals in homeless shelters, according to the city’s Department of Homeless Services, compared with 53,173 in December 2013. On Tuesday, according to the DHS daily shelter census, there were 58,673 individuals in shelters.

7. Public Housing
The New York City Housing Authority, with 326 public housing developments across the city, is home to more than 400,000 New Yorkers, and has been perhaps the most challenging aspect of the mayor’s tenure. The authority has an estimated $32 billion in physical needs for maintenance and repair and has received little in federal or state funds.

Like on homelessness, de Blasio came into office pledging major improvements for NYCHA residents and devoted significant resources to the crisis. But, his attention was nowhere near the scale required, and episodes of scandal have plagued efforts to make progress, though there are signs of improvement.

Under de Blasio, the housing authority’s operating costs have been brought under control but capital needs remain an issue. Late last year, the mayor announced new measures that are expected to cover up to $24 billion in repairs over ten years, if he is assertive enough in pushing ahead with the plans therein that call for building new, private housing (some of it affordable, some market-rate) on underutilized NYCHA land, revenue from which is to go toward the housing authority.

But routine repairs and maintenance aside, the authority and the mayor have faced years of bad headlines for failure to mitigate lead exposure in NYCHA apartments. Attempts by NYCHA leadership to falsify lead inspection reports led to an investigation by federal prosecutors and eventually a lawsuit that was settled last year. Currently, the city is in negotiation with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has named a monitor to oversee NYCHA efforts, to appoint a new CEO, though the parties have already missed deadlines to do so.

8. Crime
De Blasio has had a successful overall record on keeping the city safe, with crime rates dropping to historic lows year after year. Major index crimes (a category that includes murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny and grand larceny of a vehicle) fell to 95,883 in 2018, down from 111,335 in 2013.

De Blasio has credited this drop to a new policing paradigm focused on neighborhood beats and precision policing, with targeted takedown of gangs and increased enforcement at hotspots around the city. Of note, however, are the facts that major felony crimes have been dropping for decades in the city and across the country and that rape reports have increased significantly in recent years, perhaps owing to a changed culture with regard to reporting sexual violence. De Blasio and the NYPD have been criticized for mismanagement of the department’s special victims division, which has recently undergone significant changes.

The mayor frequently highlights the fact that while major crimes are down, arrests have also dropped precipitously, owing in no small part to criminal justice reforms passed by the New York City Council which were initially opposed by the NYPD and the mayor. There were 205,556 arrests for all felonies and misdemeanors in 2018, down from 313,513 in 2013.

Still, de Blasio has faced criticism about his support for so-called Broken Windows policing and for racial disparities in arrest and summons data, not to mention broken promises around police accountability.

9. Police Reform and Accountability
De Blasio rode into power promising to overhaul the NYPD and provide true accountability for abuses of power by officers. In particular, he railed against the controversial practice of stop-and-frisk policing, which disproportionately targeted people of color, mostly young men, and that a judge ruled had been used in an unconstitutional manner under Mayor Bloomberg.

The de Blasio administration has repeatedly taken credit for a massive slide in the number of stops though they started falling dramatically in the last years of the Bloomberg administration amid the aforementioned court case and a fever pitch of public protest, which de Blasio participated in as public advocate and a mayoral candidate.

The practice does continue. In 2018, there were 11,008 stops, according to an analysis by the New York Civil Liberties Union, compared to 191,851 in 2013 (stops reached a record high of 685,724 in 2011).

Complaints of officer misconduct have also dropped over the years, according to Civilian Complaint Review Board data. There were 4,744 complaints in 2018, compared to 5,388 in 2013. Yet, de Blasio has shown virtually no appetite for taking on NYPD misconduct, regularly striking a deferential tone in almost all matters where police are involved. Many point to incidents early in his tenure, including the murder of two police officers and its aftermath, when hundreds of NYPD members publicly turned their backs on the mayor, in explaining the mayor’s approach to the department.

Among activists to supported de Blasio’s initial rise to the mayoralty, police reformers are among the most disillusioned.

10. Transportation
Though de Blasio gets erroneously criticized for the sorry state of the city’s subway system -- which is run by the MTA, a state authority controlled by Governor Andrew Cuomo -- he does bear more responsibility for the city’s street surfaces including bus and bike lanes and pedestrian infrastructure.

He also does bear some responsibility for the subways given his appointees to the MTA Board, leverage in negotiating funding for the authority, and bully pulpit as mayor. But, de Blasio has shown almost no interest in mass transit throughout his tenure.

Through his Vision Zero program, de Blasio has taken successful steps to reduce traffic fatalities through road safety investments, street redesigns, and enforcement. In 2013, there were 299 fatalities and 55,123 injuries from traffic collisions on city streets. Though fatalities fell to 203 in 2018, injuries were up to 60,801.

Transit advocates have had mixed things to say about the mayor, on one hand celebrating his commitment to Vision Zero, but on the other noting he not moving as quickly as he could to implement its tenets and that he is a proponent of car culture. Fatalities could be more quickly minimized through concerted efforts by the Department of Transportation.

They have also criticized the mayor and NYPD for a punitive crackdown on cyclists and particularly those using e-bikes, some of which are technically illegal but are often used by immigrant delivery workers and have not been involved in traffic fatalities.

The mayor’s priorities on public transit also seem skewed. He has pledged hundreds of millions to create the new NYC Ferry system, with $10.73 in subsidies going to each passenger ride and with marginal ridership compared to the city’s bus system, which has the slowest buses in the nation. Only recently did the mayor announce a plan to increase bus speeds by 25% in a year.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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10 Things to Know About Presidential Candidate Bill De Blasio's Policy Record Thu, 16 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Launches Underdog Campaign for the Presidency with Pitch as Progressive Executive and Mixed Record http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8527-mayor-bill-de-blasio-launches-campaign-for-the-presidency http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8527-mayor-bill-de-blasio-launches-campaign-for-the-presidency m bdb mpo

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat serving his second and final term, officially announced on Thursday morning that he is running for President of the United States.

De Blasio made the announcement with a YouTube video followed by a television interview on ABC’s Good Morning America. He's scheduled to speak to reporters Thursday afternoon in Manhattan before flying to Iowa then South Carolina over the weekend.

"There's plenty of money in this world. There's plenty of money in this country -- it's just in the wrong hands," de Blasio said in his launch video, using a line that he has repeatedly employed over the last few months. He touted several accomplishments, including a $15 minimum wage in the city and paid family leave, and declared his campaign theme, “Working People First,” as he promised to oppose President Donald Trump, whom he called a bully. "As president, I will take on the wealthy, I will take on the big corporations," de Blasio said. "I will not rest until this government serves working people."

The mayor has been toying with the decision for months, taking several trips to early presidential primary states including Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, announcing city policies -- like the New York City Green New Deal -- with national themes and in national news publications, and holding big-dollar fundraisers for his federal political action committee, Fairness PAC, which paid for the trips out of state.

De Blasio, who pledged when running for reelection in 2017 to serve his full second term, created the PAC in July last year, just seven months into that new term as mayor and quickly raised another round of questions about his fundraising from entities seeking city business after fundraising scandals had plagued roughly two years of his first term.

The mayor’s quest for the highest elected office in the land seems especially long-shot, though he does appear to have already hit the low polling threshold needed to qualify for the first Democratic primary debate at the end of June.

He enters a crowded field of 22 other Democrats already seeking the party’s nomination, several of whom have more years of experience at the national level, led by former Vice President Joe Biden and several sitting U.S. senators, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker. His own close advisors and staff have ridiculed or at least questioned the idea of a presidential run, and a Quinnipiac University poll released April 3 found that 75% of New Yorkers say he shouldn’t run for president.

While de Blasio hits just 1% in the early polling, if he registers with voters at all, Biden has been the frontrunner with 30% and higher. De Blasio, who oversees a municipal workforce of more than 330,000 workers in a city of 8.5 million people, appears to have his work cut out for him to even catch Mayor Pete Buttigieg, of South Bend, Indiana, who runs a city of barely over 102,000 residents, fewer than a New York City Council district, but has made a big early splash in the race.

But, it is still early in the process and de Blasio has never lost an election. In fact, he comes to the race widely seen as a stronger political operative than chief executive, though he plans to run on his record as the leader of the country’s largest city, where he will say he has implemented a long list of progressive priorities that most others in the race have only talked about. That list will start with universal pre-kindergarten, but also go into health care, the environment, rights for workers, and issues like police-community relations (while also driving crime down to record lows) and protecting immigrant communities.

On the flip side, critics -- as well as members of the local media who have followed the mayor closely -- will point to his shortcomings in battling the city’s homelessness and public housing crises that he inherited and promised to address, as well as his limited efforts in addressing the city’s traffic congestion and public transit failures, though on some fronts more responsibility lies with the state government and Governor Andrew Cuomo.

But mention of Cuomo, who has expressed support for Biden for president, also gets to a problem for de Blasio: even aside from the notoriously difficult governor, the mayor does not have strong relationships with fellow Democratic officials in New York. There will be few, if any, local officials jumping on board with his campaign early on.

In combination with clear ethical failings and the welcoming of what many have deemed a “pay to play” culture, de Blasio has also appeared more concerned with his own image and personal preferences than showing New Yorkers that he is a dedicated servant to what is best for the city.

De Blasio began his political career as an aide in former Mayor David Dinkins’ administration. He went on to serve a stint at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development as regional director for New York and New Jersey under President Bill Clinton and HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo. He was later elected to two terms in the New York City Council, representing District 39 in Brooklyn, and won the race for public advocate, a citywide position, in 2009.

In what de Blasio will surely argue as a harbinger for this presidential primary, he came from behind to win a crowded mayoral race in 2013, defeating several Democrats far more favored early on to secure the nomination and cruise to victory in the general election where Democrats were hungry to take power after 20 years of Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg.

In some ways, the mayor’s announcement mirrors his actions leading up to the 2016 presidential race, when he hemmed and hawed for months before endorsing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who would go on to become the first woman nominee for president from a major party in history. The mayor paid the political price, with the Clinton team rebuffing his offers to campaign for her in Iowa and then at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where de Blasio received a far-from-ideal speaking slot.

Following Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, de Blasio more closely embraced Sanders, the progressive, socialist, independent U.S. Senator from Vermont who had been Clinton’s biggest rival for the nomination. On the scale between Clintonian centrism and Sanders’ progressivism, de Blasio lies somewhere in the middle. He was elected mayor promising to shake up city governance and address the “tale of two cities” he said was plaguing the five boroughs. He pledged a long agenda of policies to create more equity.

But de Blasio’s time in office has fallen short of his lofty campaign rhetoric. He has alienated progressive allies on key issues like affordable housing and police reform, and failed to convince many close watchers of his management abilities, especially with regard to homelessness. Once considered a shrewd political operative who successfully ran Clinton’s first campaign for U.S. Senate in New York and tapped into the city zeitgeist in his upset mayoral win, he has since garnered a reputation as a feckless executive, with a paternalistic and condescending attitude towards critics, members of the media, and even everyday New Yorkers.

If de Blasio felt that his own personal progressive politics had left the Democratic Party behind in 2016, this year has proved somewhat the opposite, with several of the top contenders rushing to take positions on the left that even de Blasio has been careful to adopt, raising questions about what lane the mayor has in the crowded primary.

For instance, de Blasio long opposed legalizing recreational marijuana use, only to reverse course once it seemed to become politically infeasible to maintain that stance. Having been elected on a platform of police reform, he has disappointed criminal justice advocates who say his policies and positions defer to the NYPD rather than implement true accountability for abuse of power by officers.

De Blasio will, however, likely espouse positions on many issues that come closer to those of economic populists Warren and Sanders, with calls for higher taxes on upper earners and corporations. The mayor's recent coziness with Amazon may throw a wrinkle into that equation, however. De Blasio has also expressed support for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal on the federal level.

Where the mayor will try to separate himself is as a chief executive, selling his blend of government leadership with progressive vision, and a long list of policy accomplishments in New York.

De Blasio has a mixed bag of accomplishments and failures in his five-and-a-half years in office. By several measures, New Yorkers are better off than they were before he came to power. Crime has continued to drop to historical lows and the city’s economy continues to diversify, jobs have continued to grow, and unemployment is at an all-time low.

Early on in his administration, the mayor championed a universal pre-kindergarten program that has been broadly successful and widely praised. He has launched an ambitious housing program to create and maintain hundreds of thousands of units of affordable housing by 2026 -- the plan has been modified and expanded and the city says it is ahead of schedule in meeting its target. He’s implemented a programs to provide free lawyers to poor tenants facing eviction, municipal identification cards to all, including undocumented immigrants, free school lunches to all students, and more.

But several crises remain unresolved. Homelessness has grown significantly under his watch, though with a variety of programs in place and many billions being spent the shelter population has finally leveled off and even dropped some from its record high earlier this year. Affordable housing remains out of reach for many low- and middle-income New Yorkers as the mayor’s plan, many say, is not working fast enough or creating a sufficient number of deeply affordable units while exacerbating gentrification. De Blasio has been exceedinly hesitant to tackle the city's deeply segregated schools and though he has put the city on a path to close the Rikers Island jails, he has overseen a persistent pattern of violence at the current facilities.

Though the subways are run by the MTA, a state authority under Cuomo’s control, de Blasio has been criticized for failing to advocate more strongly for the public transit system and for prioritizing car culture, including over the buses where he can have more impact.

One of the biggest blots on his administration has been his handling of a lead exposure crisis at the New York City Housing Authority, public housing to more than 400,000 residents.

De Blasio has overseen a massive increase in the city budget, from about $72.5 billion when he took office in 2014, to a proposed $92.5 billion for the fiscal year due to start July 1. Though city coffers have been overflowing, budget watchdogs have been raising red flags about the mayor's spending and lack of attention to programmatic and departmental efficiencies.

Besides his perceived weaknesses as a chief executive, de Blasio is also bound to face questions about his ethical behavior, or lack thereof. In his first term, he created two outside nonprofit groups to push for policy priorities, as well as to aide Democrats in flipping the State Senate that was then controlled by Republicans. But his fundraising tactics for the nonprofits and Senate campaigns -- which relied on big money donors who had business before the city -- caught the attention of the Manhattan District Attorney and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Both offices probed the mayor and his associates, but filed no charges and eventually closed their investigations. But the Manhattan D.A., Cy Vance, castigated the mayor for violating the “spirit and intent” of laws preventing conflicts of interest by seeking donations from individuals and then taking favorable actions for those donors. The city’s Department of Investigation, an independent watchdog, found that the mayor violated conflicts of interest law as well, and the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics continues to look into the state campaign matter.

As public advocate, de Blasio graded city agencies on their degree of transparency, based on their responses to Freedom of Information law requests. As mayor, his administration has been slow to fulfill FOIL inquiries and fought a long legal battle with NY1 and the New York Post to prevent disclosure of his emails with outside personal advisors termed “agents of the city” in a tenuous legal argument that was eventually rejected by a state appeals court judge.

While for his first mayoral race de Blasio talked about ending the “tale of two cities” by reducing income inequality, he altered the lens in recent years, perhaps due to the fact that income inequality has been difficult to budge, especially given his lack of control over most tax rates in the city. De Blasio has moved to discussing his efforts to foster “the fairest big city in the country,” a notion that may be put to the test as he seeks to win the Democratic nomination for President.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

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De Blasio Launches Underdog Campaign for the Presidency with Pitch as Progressive Executive and Mixed Record Wed, 15 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Relatively Quiet Local Political Year Includes a Number of Judicial Elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8474-relatively-quiet-local-political-year-includes-a-number-of-judicial-elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8474-relatively-quiet-local-political-year-includes-a-number-of-judicial-elections maybdelasio 28

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


While it is a relatively quiet year for elections in New York City, there are several significant races underway that will be decided in the June primary and November general elections, not to mention proposals to change city governance from the 2019 Charter Revision Commission that will be on the fall ballot. The election slate this year includes often-overlooked judicial races, mostly for Civil Court.

New York City voters will go to the polls this year, including for the June 25 party primaries where they exist, for races including Public Advocate and the District Attorneys of Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx. As of April, the only competitive primary race among those four 2019 elections appears to be the crowded Democratic one for Queens District Attorney, where the long-time officeholder, Richard Brown, recently passed, though he had already announced his retirement, creating a race with no incumbent, unlike the others.

Additionally, voters will select nominees for 17 Civil Court judgeships and one Surrogate’s Court judgeship.

Of the 17 Civil Court positions, four are in the Bronx, two in Brooklyn, five in Manhattan, four in Queens, and two on Staten Island. The Surrogate’s Court position is one of two Surrogate judgeships in Brooklyn. There are also 15 Supreme Court vacancies in Manhattan (3), Brooklyn (5), Queens (5), and the Bronx (2). However, in Supreme Court elections, voters elect delegates to send to judicial nomination conventions, where the nominees are then selected for the general election ballot.

Some Civil Court judges are elected by a whole county and others are elected from a district within a county. Nine of the judgeships on the ballot this year are countywide positions, while eight are for district-level positions.

The Civil Court is responsible for civil cases of up to $25,000 in claims and judges elected to this court serve ten-year terms, earning an annual salary of $193,500. Civil Court judges can continue serving, if they are re-elected every ten years, until the end of the year that they turn 70.

Twelve of the 17 vacancies for the Civil Court this year have occured because the incumbents were elected to the Surrogate’s Court or the Supreme Court, both of which are considered to be steps up in the judicial system. Further steps up in the state judicial system require a gubernatorial appointment.

Surrogate’s Court judges are countywide elected positions, with one or two Surrogate’s judges in each of New York City’s five boroughs. These judges have jurisdiction over cases involving estates of the deceased and affairs of their descendants. They serve 14-year terms and earn an annual salary of $208,000. Like Civil Court judges, Surrogate’s Court judges must retire at the end of the year in which they turn 70.

The Supreme Court has jurisdiction over all crimes prosecuted by indictment, although it shares some jurisdiction with the Criminal Court and Family Court, and over civil cases with claims over $25,000. Supreme Court justices are elected by judicial districts that are coterminous with counties. Justices serve 14-year terms and have annual salaries of $208,000.

Judicial vacancies can occur because of the expiration of a term, a judge being elected or appointed to another office, or a judge reaching the mandatory retirement age (70). Supreme Court justices can obtain up to three two-year waivers to continue serving until they reach the age of 76, but lower court judges do not have this opportunity. When a vacancy occurs before a term is completed, the mayor appoints someone to serve until the end of the year.

The process for electing judges in New York is heavily reliant on the political parties.

The New York City Bar Association even tells prospective judges that “political party nomination (especially the Democratic Party nomination, in all counties except Richmond) is very important for election.” In every borough except Staten Island (Richmond County), the Democratic Party nominees for judgeships are almost always elected in the November general elections.

These judicial primaries are usually low-turnout and low-information contests. At times, there are only enough candidates on the ballot for the number of seats available, essentially giving voters no options and guaranteeing victory to those whose names do appear. That's not always the case, however, and there are some competitive races this year.

New York Courts & Judicial Elections
The New York judiciary is complex and often confusing.

The lowest levels of the judiciary are Family, Criminal, and Civil Courts. Family and Criminal Court judges in New York City are appointed by the mayor and serve ten-year terms. Civil Court judges are popularly elected, either countywide or in local election districts.

There are 120 Civil Court judge positions in New York City, but only about 50 actually sit in the Civil Court. The others sit in the two other lower courts and some sit as acting Supreme Court justices. The Criminal Court has 105 judges. Surrogate’s Courts usually have one judge per county, as is the case in the Bronx, Staten Island, and Queens, but Manhattan and Brooklyn each have two Surrogate judges.

The only Surrogate’s Court race this year will be for one of the two seats in Brooklyn and the winner of that race will serve for a term that would run until 2033. Two Surrogate’s Court judges were recently elected in Brooklyn and Staten Island and both positions would next come up for reelection in 2032. Matthew Titone, Staten Island’s Surrogate judge, will have to resign at the end of 2031, the year that he reaches the age limit.

The next elections for the two Manhattan Surrogate judgeships will take place in 2022 and 2026. The Bronx will next have an election for its Surrogate judgeship in 2026 and Queens will have its next election in 2024. All four current incumbents would be unable to serve full terms if they seek reelection.

Schedules for Civil Court elections are more difficult to project because Civil Court judges often run for Supreme Court or Surrogate’s Court judgeships, which are higher-paying and have a wider jurisdiction. When an election is held to fill a Civil Court vacancy, the winner will then serve a full ten-year term. In the rest of New York State outside of the city, Family Court judges are elected rather than appointed.

The Supreme Court (the main trial court, not the court of last resort in the state) has another method of selection. During primaries, voters choose delegates by state Assembly district to a party’s state judicial nominating convention where the candidates for the general election are chosen. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, these delegates “almost always” run unopposed and are “handpicked” by party leaders. In 2015, for example, the Bronx only had one competitive delegate election out of 11 Assembly districts.

For higher-level courts, such as the Court of Claims, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, and the Court of Appeals, the governor appoints the justices. Appellate Division justices must be selected from Supreme Court justices and Court of Claims and Court of Appeals nominations need to be confirmed by the State Senate.

Family Courts deal with domestic cases such as juvenile delinquency, parental rights, adoption, and certain cases involving minors. Criminal Courts handle misdemeanors and lesser crimes as well as arraignment for felonies.

Civil Courts hear civil lawsuits for less than $25,000, and can also be designated to work in the Family and Criminal Courts as well.

There is also a “housing part” of Civil Court, but these judges are appointed by the administrative judge of the Civil Court in the respective borough. Additionally, there are Surrogate’s Courts. Surrogate judgeships are countywide elected positions. Most counties in the state have one surrogate, but New York County (Manhattan) and Kings County (Brooklyn) each have two. Surrogates in the five New York City counties serve for 14-year terms, while surrogates outside of the city serve ten-year terms.

The next level of the state judiciary is the Supreme Court, which is a misleading term. In most states and the federal judiciary, the Supreme Court is the highest-level court, but in New York the Supreme Court handles all cases for crimes prosecuted by indictment and civil cases in excess of a $25,000 claim. Supreme Court justices are elected in countywide judicial districts and serve for 14-year terms.

The most recent Supreme Court elections were in 2018 and the next elections will take place in 2020, when at least 26 judgeships will be on the ballot.

The Court of Appeals is the highest court in the New York judiciary, analogous to the Supreme Court in the federal judiciary. This court has final review of any case in the state judicial system. Court of Appeals justices are appointed by the governor from a list of nominees from the Commission on Judicial Nominations, and approved by the State Senate. These justices serve 14-year terms. There is not expected to be a vacancy at the Court of Appeals until 2022 and all current justices have been appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Janet DiFiore, the former Westchester District Attorney, is the current Chief Judge of New York State. The Chief Judge can be appointed either from incumbent Court of Appeals justices or from outside the court, as DiFiore was in 2016 when Cuomo named her chief judge.

The 2019 Local Judicial Elections
Generally, New York City voters choose judges for the Civil Court and Surrogate’s Court at the ballot box, while the mayor appoints judges to the Criminal Court and Family Court.

County parties play an especially outsized role in judicial elections.

Each county Democratic Party has some form of a judicial screening committee that reviews applications submitted by potential judges. These screening committees are comprised of designees from both the county party and local bar associations or other legal organizations, such as the Metropolitan Black Bar Association and the Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation. The committees assess which applicants are most qualified and submit those names to the county party.

Ballot access is another major step for judicial candidates; in most races there is only one candidate. As the New York City Bar Association explains in its publication “How to Become a Judge,” “support from political clubs can ease a candidate’s burden in collecting [ballot] signatures, as club members will frequently provide labor to collect signatures.”

Of the 17 Civil Court judgeships up for election across the five boroughs this year, nine are countywide, including two in the Bronx, one in Brooklyn, two in Manhattan, three in Queens, and one in Staten Island. When two or more judgeships are on the ballot for a single jurisdiction, voters are asked to vote for multiple candidates.

There are also eight judgeships elected by districts within counties. The Bronx has two district-level judicial elections this year, in both of its Municipal Districts, the 1st (Wakefield, Williamsbridge, Parkchester, Soundview, Hunts Point, Castle Hill, City Island, and Throggs Neck) and 2nd (Riverdale, Kingsbridge, West Bronx, Morrisania, and Mott Haven). In Brooklyn, Kings County’s 4th Municipal District covers Brownsville, Canarsie, and East Flatbush.

Manhattan has three district-level judicial elections this year, the 3rd Municipal District (Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen), the 4th (Murray Hill, Kips Bay, Peter Cooper Village, and Stuyvesant Town), and the 9th (Midtown and part of the Upper East Side).

In Queens, the 5th Municipal District comprises Breezy Point, Roxbury, Belle Harbor, Rockaway Park, Seaside, Hammels, Edgemere, and Far Rockaway. Staten Island’s 1st Municipal District includes Elm Park, West Brighton, St. George, Mariners Harbor, Graniteville, Bulls Head, and New Springville.

Few judicial elections in New York are competitive.

In 2016, just five out of 46 judicial elections were contested races.

There will be five competitive primaries this year: four Civil Court contests (Manhattan’s 4th municipal district, Brooklyn’s 1st and 6th, and a Queens county-wide seat) and one Surrogate’s Court race (Brooklyn).

Manhattan’s 4th district has two candidates running, Lynne M. Fischman Uniman and E. Grace Park. Uniman has received the endorsements of Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Assemblymember Dan Quart, and the Lexington Democratic Club, among others. Park is being backed by Assemblymembers Harvey Epstein, Richard Gottfried, and Yuh-Line Niou, City Council Members Carlina Rivera and Mark Levine, and other officials and clubs.

The Queens countywide race is between Wyatt N. Gibbons and Lumarie Maldonado-Cruz. The Queens Democratic Party endorsed Gibbons in February. Maldonado-Cruz is currently a staff attorney to the Character and Fitness Committee of the Appellate Division, First Department.

In Brooklyn’s 1st district, there is a two-way race between D. Bernadette Neckles and Edward King. Neckles is a Court Attorney Referee in the Brooklyn Supreme Court and has been endorsed by the Brooklyn Young Democrats. Edward King says he has been a practicing attorney for 35 years.

The race for Brooklyn’s 6th district features four candidates: Alice Nicholson, Caroline Cohen, Chinyelu Udoh, and Tehilah Berman. Nicholson specializes in foreclosure prevention law and previously worked at Bedford-Stuyvesant Legal Services. Cohen’s practice focuses on gender and pregnancy discrimination and she has received endorsements from three Brooklyn Assembly members and the Brooklyn Young Democrats. Udoh is currently a law clerk at the Manhattan Supreme Court. Berman is a law clerk at the Brooklyn Supreme Court and has been endorsed by Alan Dershowitz, whom she worked for as a pro bono attorney.

In Brooklyn, Margarita Lopez Torres, one of two Surrogate’s Court judges in the borough, is running for reelection. Meredith Jones, one of Torres’ two challengers, says that she “is the only candidate found qualified [by the Kings County Democrats] who can serve the complete term of office.” Lopez Torres would have to leave office in 2021, two years into a new 14-year term, because of the mandatory retirement age. Jones would be able to serve the complete term. If Lopez Torres wins and must then retire at the end of 2021, another election would take place in 2022. The third candidates in the race, Elena Baron, is a Civil Court judge who was first elected to that position in 2017 from Brooklyn’s 6th district.

Notably, in the early 2000s, Lopez Torres challenged New York’s system of judicial elections in New York State Board of Elections v. Lopez Torres, a case that was ultimately decided in the state’s favor at the Supreme Court.

Lopez Torres had specifically claimed that New York’s process of selecting Supreme Court judges, in which voters elect delegates who select party nominees, was unconstitutional because it made candidates too reliant on political parties. While a Civil Court judge, Lopez Torres made three unsuccessful attempts to be selected as a Democratic Party nominee for a Supreme Court judgeship. She alleged that that she was unsuccessful because she had a falling out with party leaders over her refusal to make patronage hires. Two lower courts sided with Lopez Torres, but the Supreme Court decided in favor of the Board of Elections.

Lopez Torres was initially elected to the Surrogate’s Court in 2005, without support from the county Democratic Party. For her reelection bid, she has received endorsements from most of Brooklyn’s elected officials, including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, Rep. Nydia Velázquez, Borough President Eric Adams, ten Assembly members, three State Senators, and three City Council members. The Brooklyn Democratic Party “no longer harbors [an] animus towards me,” according to Lopez Torres, which she attributes to County Party Chair Frank Seddio not making similar requests for patronage hires as previous party leaders had made that sparked her legal challenge. Lopez Torres also pointed to their brief overlapping tenures on the Surrogate’s Court bench, before Seddio resigned over allegations of misusing campaign funds.

As with direct judicial elections, judicial nominating convention delegates run mostly unopposed in New York City. As there are often a dozen or more delegates elected in each Assembly district, delegate candidates run as slates or groups together. There are nine districts out of 65 in the city in which two or more slates are competing.

In Manhattan, the 71st (Hamilton Heights, Washington Heights, Harlem), 72nd (Hamilton Heights, Washington Heights, Inwood, Harlem) and 75th districts (Murray Hill, Chelsea, Clinton, Midtown, Upper West Side) are competitive. The 72nd district contest even has four slates running against each other.

Brooklyn’s 50th (Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Fort Greene) and 60th Assembly districts (East New York) each have two slates running against each other. In Staten Island, all four of its Assembly districts are competitive, including the 61st (Elm Park, West Brighton, St. George), 62nd (Pleasant Plains, Annadale), 63rd (Old Place, Bulls Head, New Springville), and 64th (Bay Terrace, Midland Beach, Dongan Hills) districts, with two slates running against each other in which.

Parties still hold delegate elections during the primaries in counties that do not have any current Supreme Court vacancies, as is currently the case for Staten Island. If a vacancy arises before June, the election would be held in November of the same year. “While it’s unlikely to happen, parties can’t take a chance,” according to Jerry Skurnik, a political consultant and co-founder of Prime New York.

Primary day is June 25. The general election will be November 5.

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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Relatively Quiet Local Political Year Includes a Number of Judicial Elections Mon, 13 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Progressive Caucus Endorses in Brooklyn Special Election http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8514-city-council-progressive-caucus-endorses-in-brooklyn-special-election http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8514-city-council-progressive-caucus-endorses-in-brooklyn-special-election jum williams monique

Monique Chandler-Waterman & Jumaane Williams (photo: @MoniqueForNYC)


The political arm of the New York City Council’s Progressive Caucus is endorsing Monique Chandler-Waterman in next week’s special election for the Council’s District 45 seat. The district was previously represented by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, whose own special election victory led to the vacancy being filled through a vote this coming Tuesday, May 14.

Chandler-Waterman is a community activist and founder of East Flatbush Village, a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth in the community. She is one of eight candidates vying to represent District 45, which includes the neighborhoods of Flatbush, East Flatbush, Midwood, Canarsie and Flatlands. The other candidates in the race, a nonpartisan special where there are no formal party labels, are Anthony Alexis, Victor Jordan, Jovia Radix, Xamayla Rose, Adina Sash, and L. Rickie Tulloch.

A longtime ally of Williams -- who held the seat since 2010 before being elected public advocate in February -- Chandler-Waterman served as his community outreach director for two years. Last month, Williams endorsed her over another candidate, Farah Louis, who was a staffer in his Council office for years.

The Progressive Caucus Alliance, in its announcement provided to Gotham Gazette, said it chose to endorse Chandler-Waterman “not only because of her progressive credentials but because she has shown a long history of strong resolve and concrete ability to better her communities.” The Caucus Alliance includes 16 members from the 21-member Progressive Caucus within the larger 51-seat City Council. Endorsements are made by a two-thirds majority of the Alliance.

“We are confident that she will provide excellent constituent service, represent their communities with distinction, and champion legislation that helps create a more just and equal New York City - that forwards racial, gender, and social justice campaigns in the Council and beyond - which is the key mission of the Progressive Caucus,” the announcement said. The Alliance plans to aid Chandler-Waterman’s campaign with voter outreach along with allies in labor and the nonprofit world.

“I’m overwhelmed with excitement...The Progressive Caucus Alliance endorsement means a lot,” Chandler-Waterman said in a brief phone interview, pledging to join the Progressive Caucus if she wins the election.

She said her first priority would be to push for more district engagement in the Council’s legislative and budgeting processes, through monthly meetings with community members. On the policy front, she spoke of addressing the issue of recent police-involved shootings of emotionally disturbed persons in the district.

“I don’t think the NYPD should be responding to those who are in crisis,” she said, striking a similar note on an issue Williams has been vocal about. And, also in keeping with Williams’ positions, she said she would push to overhaul the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy, which she said has failed to create enough “true affordable housing” in the community.

Notably, two organizations that are working to elect more women in local government -- Amplify Her and 21 in ‘21 -- have also endorsed Chandler-Waterman, though 21 in ‘21, in its first foray into electoral influence, issued a dual endorsement, also giving its support to Radix.

The 51-seat Council currently has only 11 women representatives, down from a high of 18 in 2009. A nonprofit, 21 in ‘21, aims to help elected 21 women to the Council through the upcoming 2021 city election cycle, when many Council members will be term-limited out of office. The District 45 special election offers an opportunity to get to 12.

In line with that goal, Council Member Ben Kallos, a co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, said the PCA only interviewed women candidates -- all of them were invited except Adina Sash -- in the race before making its endorsement. “We need to elect more women to the City Council,” he said in a brief phone interview. “Monique has experience in the Council and the community. Whenever she’s seen a problem, she’s rolled up her sleeves and fixed it herself, and that’s the kind of attitude we need in City Council members.”

Chandler-Waterman said she looked forward to increasing the ranks of women in the Council, not only by being elected herself but “also going back and helping other women that want to be in politics and continue this movement of making sure that women’s voices are at the table.”

The PCA’s support adds to a list of prominent endorsements that Chandler-Waterman has received, including from a variety of Brooklyn officials such as Assemblymember Nick Perry (who is also her campaign chair), state Senators Zellnor Myrie and Kevin Parker, and Council Members Laurie Cumbo and Antonio Reynoso. The Working Families Party is also supporting her campaign, as are progressive organizations like New York Communities for Change, New York Progressive Action Network, and Make the Road Action. The influential unions DC37 and 32BJ SEIU also endorsed her.

If Chandler-Waterman wins the race next week, she will hold the seat through the end of this calendar year and have to defend it later this year, first in the June 25 primary election if a challenger emerges and then in the November general election, again only if a challenger is on the ballot. The winner in November will serve the remainder of the term, which ends in 2021.

[READ: Special Election Provides Testing Ground for Push to Elect More Women to City Council]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to note that the Progressive Caucus Alliance did not invite all the five women candidates for their endorsement interview. 

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City Council Progressive Caucus Endorses in Brooklyn Special Election Thu, 09 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
More Like a Presidential Year: Report Details Extent of 2018 New York Voter Turnout Boom http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8494-more-like-a-presidential-year-report-details-extent-of-2018-new-york-voter-turnout-boom http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8494-more-like-a-presidential-year-report-details-extent-of-2018-new-york-voter-turnout-boom voters new york city

(photo: Edwin Torres/Mayor's Office)


The tale of the 2018 midterm elections has, so far, been one of groundswells and precedents lending credence to the populist narratives that have come to characterize post-2016 America.

In New York, anecdotes about crowded poll sites, and near-heroic efforts to cast ballots amid the congestion, were ubiquitous during and after the election.

A report, published on Tuesday by NYC Votes and the Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, arms of the city’s Campaign Finance Board, now reveals just how significant the changes were in 2018, when New Yorkers voted for members of Congress, statewide positions including Governor, and members of the state Legislature.

New York typically suffers from voter turnout rates below the national average and, in general, voter participation across the country drops off during midterm elections as compared to presidential election years. But the 2018 midterms in New York City unsettled that arithmetic.

The picture painted by the report, which is mandated by law after an election year, is of a 2018 midterm election that more closely resembles a presidential year than a typical midterm in terms of voter registration and turnout.

According to the report, turnout in New York City hit 39.1 percent, a significant leap of about 10 percent from the previous midterm in 2014 and closing the gap to within 15 percent of the 2016 presidential election. By comparison, the gap between turnout rates in 2016 and 2017, a mayoral election year, was 35 percent.

Even more unusual, 11 neighborhoods in New York City had turnout rates above the national rate. All numbers for November general elections.

Over a million more ballots were cast in 2018 than in 2014, marking the first time New York City has seen a significant uptick in turnout in a midterm election in nearly two decades. At the same time, there was a shift in the behavior of new voters, especially when considering certain demographic factors.

Registered to Participate
While typically there is wide variability in turnout across age groups, in 2018 new voters of all ages turned out at more uniform rates. There were more than 250,000 new voter registrations in 2018, the report says.

Turnout among newly registered voters in the 18 to 29 age range -- the group least likely to vote -- was only 7.3 points below turnout among 30 to 39 year olds -- the group with the highest rate. This same comparison in the 2014 midterms yields a difference of 17.1 percent, though in 2016 the difference was much closer to last year, at 7.5 points.

The behavior of newly registered voters, as described in the Campaign Finance Board report, indicates an electorate that became more intentional as it expanded.

“Generally, in midterm election years, new registrants do not turn out at higher rates than those who registered before the election year,” the report reads. “In 2018, however, voters registered in order to participate in the 2018 midterm elections specifically.”

Last year, turnout was actually slightly higher among newly registered voters than the overall pool of registered voters. This was also the case during the 2016 presidential election when polarizing campaigns drove people to the polls in record numbers. By contrast, the turnout among new registrants in the previous midterm was more than seven points below the overall rate.

This was true at the neighborhood level, too, where the neighborhood registration rate had a stronger positive relationship with neighborhood turnout than it did in the previous midterm.

Naturalization and Voting
The CFB report also points to naturalization as a factor in turnout, although it does not speculate as to why.

A number of the lowest turnout districts identified in the report have a large immigrant population. Neighborhoods like Sheepshead Bay, which has a large Russian immigrant population, and Richmond Hill, a third of whose population is naturalized citizens, have very low turnout rates.

Places like South Ozone Park, whose population is 36 percent naturalized, of which a large portion are English-speaking Guyanese Americans, make it hard to say that the impact of naturalization has more to do with language access than with other factors. Less than 30 percent of South Ozone Park voters cast a ballot. (City Council Member Mark Treyger currently carries a bill to expand language access at the polls, but it is unclear if the Council has jurisdiction given that the city Board of Elections is a state entity.)

Unanswered questions about immigrant communities and voter turnout form something of a problem for a city with such diverse ethnic, linguistic, and political communities.

“We have an obligation to serve voting populations that are underrepresented,” said Matthew Sollars, Director of Public Relations at the CFB.

The report recommends a number of "reforms with immediate impact," including restoring voting rights to people on parole, automatic voter registration, changing the party enrollment deadline, and instant run-off voting, among others intended to expand access to the polls. Some of these changes are being debated in Albany, others by the 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission.

The Federal Factor
The 2018 elections saw an uncommon confluence of competitive races at the state and federal level, including in June congressional primaries and September state primaries, as well as the November general election.

But the Campaign Finance Board report suggests that not all competitive races are equal post-2016.

Several high-profile primary challenges for the state Senate were part of an effort to unseat members of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), the now defunct group of breakaway Democrats who caucused with Republicans for most of a decade. But despite receiving a bulk of the attention from the media, interested onlookers, and passionate activists, there was not a dramatic difference between voter turnout in those IDC elections and others.

“This shows that the perceived competitiveness of an election does not necessarily lead to increased turnout in that district,” the report states, “and that in this high-profile election, voters turned out regardless of whether they were voting in a competitive election.”

The observation that IDC affiliation had little impact on turnout raises the question of what did. Some other figures in the report indicate that, while the Trump presidency appears to have an impact on federal races across the board, that effect has not fully extended to the level of local politics.

Last year’s midterms looked a lot like the presidential election, but 2017’s municipal elections did not. The report states registration rates in 2018 were “nearly double the number of new registrations the city saw in 2017.”

Most newly registered voters who cast ballots in 2016 did not return in 2017, when the city’s elections were mostly not seen as particularly competitive. “Only about 80,000, or 24.7 percent, of people who registered in 2016 and voted in the presidential election voted in any election during the 2017 citywide election cycle,” the report says.

Still, about 60,000 more voters turned out to vote in the 2017 general election than in the 2013 general election, according to Sollars of the CFB.

Whatever the factors, the report is careful to point out that all of these races “pale in comparison to the surge of voter registrations that occurred in 2016 during the presidential election cycle.”

“In October 2016 alone,” the report says, “124,000 new registrations were processed, which is nearly half of the total number of registrations processed throughout all of 2018.”

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated with a paragraph about the report's recommendations that was accidentally left out of the original published piece.

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More Like a Presidential Year: Report Details Extent of 2018 New York Voter Turnout Boom Wed, 01 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Examines Board of Elections' Readiness to Implement Early Voting, Poll-Site Interpretation http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8491-city-council-examines-board-of-elections-readiness-to-implement-early-voting http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8491-city-council-examines-board-of-elections-readiness-to-implement-early-voting voting gen elect

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


The New York City Board of Elections, a state entity funded by the city, has a less-than-stellar reputation for running elections and has long been resistant to going beyond the letter of state law in improving voter access and participation. And this year, the city BOE must contend with a new state mandate to create an early voting program for potentially millions of voters, as well as a push by the city to provide broader poll site interpretation services in immigrant communities.

At a Tuesday hearing of the New York City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, officials from the BOE testified to the complexities of implementing the new early voting mandate by the November election.

The state Legislature recently approved the program, which requires nine consecutive days of early voting before Election Day and, according to the provisions of the law, a minimum of 34 poll sites across the city. The state also passed legislation to allow the use of electronic poll books at poll sites. The state BOE approved regulations for early voting on Monday and the city BOE faces a deadline to declare its chosen sites on Wednesday, May 1.

While Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday called for the BOE to offer 100 early voting sites across the city, offering the board $75 million to do so, the BOE does not appear ready to meet the mayor’s request. Not long after BOE executives testified before the Council, the board's commissioners voted to approve 38 early voting polling sites for November, inviting criticism from the mayor and others.

There will be 10 sites in Brooklyn and seven each in the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island. The board also determined early voting hours, which will vary based on date leading up to the November 5 Election Day. Voters will receive their early voting poll site assignment from the BOE. 

The City Council committee hearing also delved into a new bill proposed by Brooklyn Council Member Mark Treyger that would require the Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, a nonpartisan entity housed under the New York City Campaign Finance Board, to provide interpretation services at poll sites in several languages beyond what is currently required by state and federal law.

The bill would help facilitate the work of the city’s newly created Civic Engagement Commission, approved by voters in a ballot referendum last year, that is charged with, among other things, developing a poll site interpretation services program. Still, the city BOE has repeatedly argued that it is not under the jurisdiction of city laws, but of state laws, complicating matters.

Early Voting Poses Challenges
New York has long been a laggard in voter turnout and election reform, and it became the 38th state to approve early voting this year. But the program is a monumental lift, particularly for the five boroughs of New York City, home to 8.5 million residents.

The recently approved legislation to create the program requires one early voting site for every 50,000 registered voters in a county and no more than seven sites, though local counties have the discretion to add more. The 2020 state budget includes $10 million in funding for early voting and $14.1 million for electronic poll books for the entire state, distributed according to a formula that the state BOE must create.  

On Monday, Mayor de Blasio offered the city BOE $75 million to establish 100 polling sites for early voting (he included an additional $21 million for the purchase of electronic poll books in his executive budget proposal last week).

“We have to get early voting right, and we're saying very clearly to the Board of Elections, we'll put our money where our mouth is,” de Blasio said.

At the Tuesday Council hearing, New York City’s new and first chief democracy officer, Ayirini Fonseca-Sabune, emphasized the importance of instituting a robust early voting program. “If a significant percentage of New York City voters vote during the early voting period, we may be able to reduce some of the strain that we see on our Election Day systems that has led to breakdowns at polling places,” she said. “Lines will be shorter, poll sites will be less crowded.”

She noted that early voting also correlates with higher participation, and stressed that seven sites in each county are “not sufficient to accommodate the needs of voters in New York City.” She pointed out, for instance, that Brooklyn would essentially have the same number of sites as upstate counties one-fifth the registered voters.

BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan, a few hours before the board's commissioners make their early voting decisions, repeatedly emphasized that early voting is a complicated endeavor and that the city must take a cautious approach in order to establish a strong foundation for the program that will allow it to grow and improve over time.

When the program was approved, the city did not have the infrastructure in place to implement it, he said, and is in the process of creating it, including providing a system of ballots on demand to voters. Among the issues is that the board must approve a new vendor to provide electronic poll books, which will happen in June, and then has to train poll workers in the new systems.  

Ryan stressed that the board is willing to work with the de Blasio administration and the City Council to ensure they create an efficient program, but he insisted that in soliciting input from other jurisdictions that have long had early voting programs, the BOE has been warned of the many variables and challenges they face. “The worst thing that we could do is get overly ambitious and not have it work and undermine...voter confidence,” he said, emphasizing the need to phase in a program over time.

“There will be obstacles. Nothing will be perfect...There’s gonna be many lessons learned,” said Dawn Sandow, the BOE’s deputy executive director. As usual, none of the board’s commissioners, political appointees from the local Democratic and Republican parties who are confirmed through the Council, testified before the Council. Those commissioners make many essential decisions to BOE operations, which are carried out by Ryan, Sandow, and their employees.

Voting reform advocates celebrated the passage of early voting and praised the mayor for offering a massive boost in funding. But even they cautioned at the hearing that the BOE must be careful in implementing a new system that could cause confusion among both voters who must use it and the poll workers who must administer it. Some also raised concerns about cyber security and urged the BOE to ensure adequate firewalls and redundancies to protect election systems and the integrity of individual votes.

Interpreting State Law and City Mandates
As a creature of state law, the BOE has consistently opposed the mayoral administration and City Council’s efforts to impose new mandates on its operations. Since 2017, it has refused to abide by a local law requiring the postage of signs when a poll site is moved. More recently, the city again ran up against the BOE when it attempted to provide language interpretation services in poll site buildings.

By state and federal law, the BOE is only required to provide interpretation services in five languages -- Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, and Bangla -- which city officials and advocates say is insufficient for New York City’s population, which speaks hundreds of languages.

The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs had additionally sought to provide services in Russian, Haitian Creole, Yiddish, and Polish within poll site buildings during the February 26 special election for public advocate. But the BOE sued the city, arguing that since the interpreters were not hired and trained by the board, they would be engaging in a form of electioneering and therefore must remain at a distance of at least 100 feet from a polling site.

A state judge rejected the BOE’s argument and did not issue an injunction against the city, allowing interpreters into poll sites. But the BOE has appealed and that ongoing litigation could determine whether the city can continue to provide those services for future elections.

Both Tregyer’s bill and the new Civic Engagement Commission would create a much more expansive interpretation services program. “Language access is not electioneering,” Treyger said, accusing the BOE of essentially taking actions that are “nothing short of voter suppression.”

But the BOE’s Ryan said the city should rather await the legislative process playing out at the state level. At the hearing, he pointed to bills introduced in February in the state Senate and Assembly that would preempt the city’s efforts if they pass.

“There really is no daylight, Councilman Treyger, between your position and the board’s position,” Ryan said. He noted that if the BOE were to provide interpretation services for any  particular linguistic group without being legally required to do so, it could give other groups the potential to sue under the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution. “What we’re simply asking for is a structure, a legal structure, some authority to tell us legally ‘This is what you need to do,’” he said.

The de Blasio administration seemed to hedge its bets on Treyger’s proposal. MOIA Commissioner Bitta Mostofi said the administration supports the intent of the bill but did not express direct support for it. She said the CEC, rather than the VAAC, should be tasked with implementing it and that the bill was just one of the elements of implementing a program. “There should other factors that are taken into consideration when establishing where the services should be and what those services should be,” she said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Examines Board of Elections' Readiness to Implement Early Voting, Poll-Site Interpretation Tue, 30 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Special Election Provides Testing Ground for Push to Elect More Women to City Council http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8462-special-election-provides-testing-ground-for-push-to-elect-women-to-the-city-council http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8462-special-election-provides-testing-ground-for-push-to-elect-women-to-the-city-council womenscaucusnyc pro ground

The City Council Women's Caucus (photo: @WomensCaucusNYC)


In 2009, there were 18 women in the 51-seat New York City Council. A decade later, after resignations and members term-limited out of office, that number has dropped to just 11, most of whom are serving their second and final term. It’s a paltry ratio for a legislative body that prides itself on inclusion and diversity, and one that the “21 in ‘21” initiative is striving to address.

The nonprofit organization is building a network to boost women seeking local elected office and could make its first mark in the city’s political scene next month in a special election for the District 45 Council seat in Brooklyn, recently vacated by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.

The 21 in ‘21 initiative was launched in 2017 by then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Council Member Margaret Chin, then-Council Member Elizabeth Crowley (she lost her seat later that year), and Effective NY, an advocacy group. The goal is to elect at least 21 women to the City Council in the next municipal elections in 2021, when at least three dozen Council seats will be up for grabs, along with the five borough president posts and all three citywide positions of mayor, comptroller, and public advocate.

The group is set to make its first official endorsement of a candidate in the District 45 special election.

“If women ran with the same frequency as men, we would have equal representation, not only in the City Council, [but] all over state legislatures and in the federal government,” Crowley, the chair of 21 in ‘21, said at a meeting of its members at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning in Queens on Monday. The initiative was buoyed that day by a show of support from U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, who, as the new chair of the Queens County Democratic Committee, will play a powerful role in 2021 when 11 Council seats will be open in that borough alone.

“We’ve got work to do. Instead of us progressing, we went back. Instead of us continuing to lead, we’ve lost our numbers,” Meeks said of the diminishing number of women in the Council. It’s not immediately clear what his actual commitment to the 21 in ‘21 effort is, however.

The District 45 special election on May 14 will be the 21 in ‘21 initiative’s first outright foray into elections as the organization plans to endorse one of the five women running for the seat -- Monique Chandler-Waterman, Jovia Radix, Farah Louis, Xamayla Rose, and Adina Sash -- out of nearly a dozen candidates. The organization will hold a candidate screening on April 29 where its 235 members will have the chance to assess the five candidates before recommending an endorsement.

“This is kind of going to be a pilot, test run for what’s going to happen in 2021,” said Moira McDermott, executive director of the organization, in a phone interview. “We’re looking to make sure that they’ll commit to helping the mission in the Council and that they’ll commit to mentoring women to run...or in general to prepare, and having more women on their staff and helping women into leadership positions on the Council.”

[Read: Crowded Field Forms for Special City Council Election to Replace Jumaane Williams]

Till now, the organization has been building its base, recruiting would-be candidates and holding trainings on navigating the political process, including how to conduct community outreach and how to raise money for a campaign. Meeks’ support in Queens is also helping build momentum that could convince other elected officials and county Democratic organizations to support their efforts, McDermott said.

“Our goal isn’t necessarily accepting all the endorsed county candidates but it’s a matter of working together to make sure that any women they have in the pipeline, to bring them into the organization and...encouraging them to work with the women that we have in our pipeline,” she said. “So it’s a joint effort to have the most viable and qualified candidates.”

“We feel incredibly optimistic,” said Crowley, in a subsequent phone interview, confident that District 45 will elect a woman to the Council next month. “We want to make sure that candidates have been involved in their communities, that they understand how it takes a full investment of oneself to be a Council member, and certainly to have the opportunity to be a successful candidate,” Crowley added.

She also emphasized the grassroots strength of the organization, which she said will boost its chosen candidates and sets it apart from other political action organizations. “It’s not like we give a check and walk away. We’re engaging other New Yorkers to believe in you and believe in your candidacy,” she added. Crowley herself doesn’t intend to run for the City Council in 2021, she said, but she wouldn’t say if she’d run for higher office. There may soon be a special election for Queens Borough President if the current officeholder, Melinda Katz, wins this year’s District Attorney race.

21 in ‘21 is not the only organization pushing to get more women elected locally. Amplify Her, which launched with a similar mission and endorsed several successful female candidates for state Senate last year, is holding a candidate forum on April 23 for the District 45 race.

Public Advocate Williams has emphasized that his successor should be a woman and he’s already endorsed Chandler-Waterman, a close ally and former aide. “While there are many good candidates running in this race, particularly women of more color, there unfortunately is only one position available and Monique is the best person for the job,” he said in a statement.

“I like the idea of an endorsement, it does show strength, it does show unity, and it certainly shows power,” said Queens Council Member Adrienne Adams, another 21 in ‘21 supporter, in a brief interview outside City Hall. “The more we can show strength and at least try to get some balance, the better of course we’ll be as a city.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Special Election Provides Testing Ground for Push to Elect More Women to City Council Thu, 18 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Rep. Serrano’s Retirement and a Looming Rumble in the Bronx http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8394-rep-serrano-s-retirement-and-a-looming-rumble-in-the-bronx http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8394-rep-serrano-s-retirement-and-a-looming-rumble-in-the-bronx rubendiazjr richie torres cm

Rep. Serrano, BP Diaz Jr., CM Torres (l-r) (photo: @rubendiazjr)


It’s time for a rumble in the Bronx. After 29 years in Congress and 44 years in elected office, Congressional Rep. José Serrano has decided to retire from office. Together with the likes of Herman Badillo, José Rivera, Robert Garcia, Gerena Valentin, and Ramon Velez in the Bronx, Serrano has been a pioneering figure within the Latino/Puerto Rican political landscape in New York City.

Serrano fought at the frontlines for Latino political representation at a time when Puerto Ricans were left out of the political equation despite their burgeoning numbers. Serrano, and the rest, fought arduously for this long-sought-after recognition. Their hard work paid off. Serrano won an Assembly seat in 1975.

While Serrano’s early work to gain Latino political representation is not debatable, the rest of his legacy is more dubious. Serrano has not been known for any sort of legislative prowess. The South Bronx, which he represents, has long been a poverty stricken area that has seen scant federal resources for decades, despite Serrano’s long tenure in Congress.

As a result of this record, observers like long-time political operative Mike Nieves had surmised that a formidable and credible candidate could defeat Serrano. No one ever did.

Serrano’s legacy notwithstanding, the eyes of our political world will now turn to the 15th Congressional district in the Bronx to see who will succeed him in Congress.

The timing of Serrano’s retirement announcement coincides with City Council Member Ritchie Torres’ own recent announcement that he would challenge the incumbent representative for the seat. In a previous column, I mentioned that Torres would be one to watch as we eye the future of Latino politics in the city. His intellectual abilities, grasp of public policy, and ability to articulate his view have deservedly caught people’s attention.

Torres is clearly a formidable candidate for the “open” congressional seat. Most of his Council district, which he first won in 2013, lies within Serrano’s Congressional district. After six years in the Council, Torres has been able to gain some recognition among voters for his work on behalf of his constituents, particularly in areas affecting NYCHA residents.

Various other names are being floated at this nascent stage. Among them are former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Mark-Viverito has just come off a dismal showing in her race for the citywide position of public advocate. Yet she still holds some name recognition, particularly among Latinos.

Her home congressional district is currently represented by Adriano Espaillat but since there are no in-district residency requirements for a congressional seat, she could still make a play for the Serrano seat.

Then there is Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, who is also the Bronx Democratic leader. Crespo’s Assembly district lies entirely within Serrano’s Congressional district and he would therefore potentially go into a race of this sort with a natural base of followers. Some will question his alliance with Council Member Ruben Diaz, Sr., who has been challenged for repeated homophobic statements and positions. But given Crespo’s potential to capitalize on some of the resources that would naturally come his way by virtue of his party position, he would quickly be considered a leading candidate for the position.

Yet another recent public advocate candidate might also throw his hat in the ring. Since Michael Blake’s election to the Assembly, and then his appointment to be a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, rumors have swirled that he would one day challenge José Serrano.

That day never came. But this opening can provide an opportunity for Blake. Despite losing the public advocate race, Blake won his home borough of the Bronx and did fairly well in the portion covering Serrano’s Congressional district.

And if he’s the only African-American in the race, that could also create a path to victory for Blake. With multiple formidable Latino candidates, a strong African-American candidate could win the seat.

Almost a third of the Democratic electorate in this Congressional district is African-American. Over 55 percent is Latino. If the race takes an ethnic path, that could lead to a split Latino vote and a more consolidated African American vote.

Then there’s state Senator Gustavo Rivera. Rivera, first elected in 2010, represents a swath of Serrano’s district in the state Senate. He has earned admiration from many progressives for standing up to the Bronx political machinery and for policies that progressives have long championed.

Lastly, if he were to step up, one elected official who could clear many if not all in the field would be Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. Diaz, Jr. is known throughout the borough and remains popular among many voters. Furthermore, this district has always been his home district -- he represented parts of it in the Assembly for 13 years.

Diaz Jr.’s capable communications guru, John DeSio, has tweeted that the borough president is not interested in the position. The borough president appears focused on launching a mayoral bid. But politics is practical and a congressional run could be an easier path to victory than a citywide mayoral race.

All this is conjecture, of course. What’s certain is that we can expect a free-for-all for the position ahead of the 2020 vote, and thus another rumble in the Bronx.

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Eli Valentin teaches political science at Monroe College and is a frequent guest political analyst on Univision NY. On Twitter @EliValentinNY.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Rep. Serrano’s Retirement and a Looming Rumble in the Bronx Wed, 27 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
WATCH: New Public Advocate Jumaane Williams on His Vision for New York City http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8387-watch-new-public-advocate-jumaane-williams-on-his-vision-for-new-york-city http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8387-watch-new-public-advocate-jumaane-williams-on-his-vision-for-new-york-city counciljwoffice

Jumaane Williams (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


After winning the February 26 special election for New York City Public Advocate, Jumaane Williams catapulted from Brooklyn City Council Member to one of just three citywide elected officials. With the election results certified, Williams sat down at the Manhattan Neightborhood Network studio with Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max for an in-depth, wide-ranging interview about his plans, priorities, and positions. Watch:

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WATCH: New Public Advocate Jumaane Williams on His Vision for New York City Mon, 25 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Candidates for Queens District Attorney Profess Similar Values, Stake Out Different Positions http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8373-candidates-for-queens-district-attorney-positions-march-debate http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8373-candidates-for-queens-district-attorney-positions-march-debate Gotham Gazette:

3/12 Queens DA debate (photo: @alyssaguilera)


The candidates for Queens District Attorney are becoming increasingly clear about where they stand on key criminal justice issues and how they would run the office if elected later this year. Queens is home to its first competitive district attorney election in decades, with long-time District Attorney Richard Brown set to retire and a crowded Democratic primary set for June 25. The general election will be in November.

There are seven candidates currently running, all in the Democratic primary, and six of them met last week for a fast-paced and detail-oriented debate sponsored by the “Queens for DA Accountability” coalition, made up of many community and advocacy groups, hosted at CUNY Law School in Long Island City, and moderated by Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teachout and Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max.

The candidates for the borough’s top prosecutorial and law enforcement position spoke to roughly 200 attendees and others watching a live-stream, explaining their qualifications for the job and stances on a wide variety of policy issues, some of which they would have control over as district attorney, others that they would be able to influence. Queens, home to more than 2.4 million people, is known as the most diverse borough in the most diverse city in the country.

Several questions at the forum were asked by community leaders, on topics ranging from the school-to-prison pipeline to police accountability, such as Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell, who was killed by police in Queens, and Jennifer Orellana, a transgender former sex worker, who have affiliations with groups in the sponsoring coalition.

Six of the seven candidates were in attendance. Mina Malik was sick and unable to participate in the forum, though she released a video on Twitter saying she was sorry to miss it and looked forward to engaging with those participating in the event. The six candidates present at the debate were Tiffany Cabán, Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, Gregory Lasak, Betty Lugo, and Jose Nieves.

[For background on the candidates and the race, read: ‘We’re in a New Era’: Inside the Crowded Race to Become the Next Queens District Attorney and Reset the Borough’s Prosecutorial Agenda]

As they have at other race events, in their campaign materials, and during interviews, the candidates largely agreed that the Queens District Attorney’s office is in serious need of change, in a general sense of modernizing its practices and culture, but also on key practices. The candidates also mostly found broad agreement at the debate that change is needed on a wide variety of topics like cash bail, sex work prosecutions, Rikers Island, and what to do about police misconduct, but the candidates often disagreed on the solutions. In an email exchange with Gotham Gazette, Malik provided her answers to debate questions, which are also included below.

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Vision for the Office
At the start of the forum, the candidates were asked how they envision the DA’s office and how it would work under them.

Cabán, a public defender, said she would change the “metrics of success” for the office, claiming there is currently “a system based on gamesmanship” favoring convictions over justice. Instead, she would focus on lowering incarceration and recidivism. Katz, the Queens borough president, envisions the district attorney’s office as a leadership position and that her primary responsibility would be implementing policies and reforms.

Lancman, a City Council member, called the office “more than just a place that processes cases that police bring” and “responsible for public safety in Queens.” He said he would decline to prosecute people with mental illnesses and drug addiction and focus on preventing crime.

Nieves, a prosecutor in the attorney general’s office, said the DA’s job is to protect residents and know how and when to prosecute cases. Lugo, an attorney and former prosecutor, cited her campaign theme “true justice for all,” and said the officeholder needed to understand “complexities of the whole system” and “prioritize prosecutions.”

Lasak, who worked in the Queens DA office for many years before becoming a judge -- a position he resigned from to run this year -- called the DA the “chief law enforcement officer for the borough,” and a position that works with the police department.

Violent Crime
The candidates were asked how they would handle prosecutions of violent crime if they were to become the Queens District Attorney, and how that approach may or may not fit into larger calls to reduce the jail population. Teachout noted that the number of people incarcerated in New York for non-violent crimes has steadily dropped over the past two decades, while the number of people incarcerated for violent crimes has remained stagnant.

Cabán took the strongest stance in favor of change, saying that her office would “think of criminals as victims of trauma themselves” and that she considers violent crime to be a “public health problem.” Lancman similarly said that it is imperative to “confront the issue of violence” to achieve decarceration, and that prosecutorial reform “cannot exclude violent crimes.”

Katz noted that disparities in violent crime prosecution have a “disproportionate effect on people of color” and that her office would work for “fair and equitable prosecutions.” She also said that she would focus resources on diversion programs and access to mental health care, working with the community.

Nieves said prosecutors often overcharge defendants to secure a plea deal and that he would end that practice, in addition to engaging in “alternatives to incarceration,” such as diversion programs. Lugo said that the process should focus on care for the victim and the DA’s office should hire social workers for victims of violent crime, but she did not directly answer the question.

Unlike the other five candidates at the debate, Lasak cautioned against changing how the office handles violent crime. He said that the DA’s “main job is public safety” and that “we have to be careful when dealing with violent crime.” The statement was one piece of a pattern throughout the debate, and the broader race, where Lasak has staked out more moderate positions in the field, though at times he is joined by other candidates and he consistently says he would make some progressive changes.

All candidates present answered affirmatively when asked if they thought current sentences for violent crime were too long in general.

By email, Malik said, "Ensuring that violent criminals are held accountable must be a top priority for any District Attorney, but it must be an accountability that keeps our communities both safe and whole." She highlighted her experience in Queens prosecuting "human traffickers, serial rapists, child molesters and violent, repeat offenders," but said she also has "the reform experience of having implemented restorative justice, diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration, particularly for first-time violent offenders, so that one mistake doesn’t take a person further down the wrong path."

Domestic Violence Prosecutions
The six candidates were asked whether they would commit to not prosecuting victims of domestic violence and interpersonal conflict for self-defense or acts of survival. All six candidates present committed, with Katz asking “who wouldn’t?”

Malik also made that commitment, and added: As a former Special Victims prosecutor, I worked with countless women who were victims of abuse and assault and I am adamantly committed to ensuring the Queens DA’s Office protect victims, not retraumatize them."

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Police/Prosecutorial Misconduct
Representatives from the grassroots organization Vocal NY asked what the candidates would do the deter police and prosecutorial misconduct and what would be the career consequences for Assistant DAs that commit misconduct, such as withholding evidence. Later, Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell, asked what the candidates would do to ensure fair prosecutions of crimes involving police officers -- like the trial involving officers who shot and killed her son -- and that misconduct investigations were swift, thorough, and unbiased.

Cabán said that public defense offices already have lists of “bad officers” and that as DA she would publish these lists and not rely on those officers’ testimony in cases. She also said that prosecutors should undergo retraining to prevent misconduct and that “anyone who wears a badge and commits a crime should be held accountable independent of conflicts of interest.”

Katz vowed that misconduct “won’t be stood for in my office” and that prosecutors would have to follow her reform policies. She also said that the state attorney general’s office should investigate police brutality accusations, not just police killings of unarmed individuals as is currently the case based on an executive order from Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Lancman cited the City Council hearings that he has held on police misconduct and the history of misconduct in the Queens DA office. He asserted that “reforms prevent wrongful convictions” and that he would implement a broader code of conduct. He would use personnel in the DA’s office to investigate police misconduct, he added.

Nieves said that Assistant DAs that commit misconduct “would be fired” and that he would create a civil rights bureau within the office to investigate police misconduct with personnel from the DA’s office. He also said that police officers who commit perjury should be prosecuted. Lugo said that her office would have “no tolerance for discrimination” and “firm but fair prosecutions.” On the issue of investigations, she said that Assistant DAs “should know the communities they’re prosecuting in” and this would make investigations more equitable.

Lasak brought up his previous experience in the DA’s office, saying that “prosecutors under me knew they couldn’t [commit misconduct]” and that his leadership would set the example for his office. He also said he would use the DA’s investigators in police misconduct cases, not the NYPD.

Malik wrote that she will work to prevent prosecutorial misconduct. "As District Attorney, I will institute agency-wide trainings on Brady, discovery, witness interviews and preparation, suspect interviews, implicit bias, cultural competency and anti-racism." She promised a DA's office that is "for the first time, representative of the community it serves at the leadership level and hire a dedicated ethics officer to assist in ensuring our attorneys are always above reproach when practicing law."

Sex Work Decriminalization
Jennifer Orellana, a transgender former sex worker and member of Make the Road New York, asked the candidates for their views on the decriminalization of sex work. The Queens DA would potentially be able to decline to prosecute sex workers, as well as their customers and others involved in sex work, like landlords. Most of the candidates agreed that the DA’s office needs to change how it handles sex work crimes, mostly with a focus on the sex workers themselves, though they spoke about sex work in varied terms.

Cabán committed to declining to prosecute sex work-related offenses, including sex workers and those that participate in the sex work industry. She also said that the trans and sex work communities need to be protected. Katz said that sex work offenses should be “diverted into human trafficking courthouses.” She would not prosecute and make resources available to prevent recidivism, she said, while also indicating a belief that all sex workers need to be helped to find a different line of work and path in life.

Lancman would also decline to prosecute and would direct sex workers to diversion programs, in addition to focusing on sex trafficking and human traffickers.

Nieves would similarly decline to prosecute, calling sex work “a non-violent and consensual crime” and that he “won’t waste resources” on it. He would also create a human trafficking unit.

Lugo would consider declining to prosecute and instead implement a diversion program. She also brought up the need to focus on sex trafficking. Lasak was the only candidate against fully declining to prosecute, saying that “the impact on the broader community needs to be looked at” and that sex work lowers the quality of life for residents in affected neighborhoods.

Malik wrote her "position to decline to prosecute for sex workers and to vacate prostitution records is informed by a career of defending women suffering sex abuse and working with victims to come forward. We should be investing in resources to help sex workers get treatment and services where needed, while diverting enforcement toward those who profit off of, prey on and traffic sex workers."

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Bail Reform
The topic of bail reform also generated a wide consensus among the candidates. Though there are ongoing negotiations in the state capital around major bail reform that could impact the next Queens District Attorney, the candidates were asked about what their policies would be if no changes are made at the state level.

All the candidates agreed to reduce the use of cash bail for at least minor and non-violent offenses, with some candidates saying that they would end the practice entirely.

Cabán pledged to end cash bail “to the fullest extent” and that her office would “release people as often as possible,” including on some violent alleged crimes. Katz agreed to end cash bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies automatically, but for violent felonies supervision should be looked at as an alternative. Lancman committed to never asking for cash bail and would expand eligibility for release “to the maximum extent of the law,” noting that Kalief Browder was kept on Rikers Island after not being able to post bail upon being arrested for what is essentially a non-violent crime of stealing a backpack, for which he never formally faced charges and was eventually released, later killing himself.

Nieves committed to no cash bail for all offenses and that he would use appearance bonds instead of cash bonds. Appearance bonds usually stipulate that a defendant would pay a fine if they do not appear for their court date. Lugo said she would handle the issue on a case-by-case basis and that non-violent crimes would not have cash bail, except for “major drug cases,” like El Chapo.

Lasak agreed to no cash bail for minor offenses, but would keep the policy in place for other charges.

Rikers Island Closure and Proposed New Jail in Queens
The candidates were asked if they support the closure of Rikers Island and also if they support the proposed new community jail in Queens.

Cabán was the only candidate to support the closure of Rikers Island and also oppose the new community jail in Queens. She said that she did not support building new jails because she “doesn’t want them filled.” Perhaps along with Lancman, she has outlined the most aggressive decarceration plan in the race, though he said that Rikers must be closed and also supports the new community jail.

Katz supports closing Rikers Island and also the construction of a community jail in Queens.

Nieves supports the closure of Rikers and opposed the construction of “mega-jails” in Queens. Lugo said she wants to see the current facilities on Rikers Island closed, but wants new facilities on the island that would separate violent and non-violent offenders. Lasak wants to keep the jails on Rikers Island open.

Malik wrote that she believes "it is critical that the community in Queens has its voice and concerns fully heard" but that "the closing of Rikers should also be taken as an opportunity for us as New Yorkers to totally reject the violent culture of Rikers by designing new detention facilities that treat everyone with dignity and aggressively support their reentry. Community detention centers that treat people with dignity and allow people to have more regular contact with their loved ones and support systems have proven to result in reduced recidivism."

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Police in Schools/School-to-Prison Pipeline
The candidates were asked about their views on police in schools and the school-to-prison pipeline by an activist with the Rockaway Youth Task Force.

Cabán asserted the “need to get police officers out of school” and that “students of color have been criminalized.” Her position is that her office would “decline to prosecute children whenever possible,” and instead “engage in restorative justice.”

Katz said “police officers aren’t the only answer to school safety,” but may be necessary in some cases. She believes that diversion programs could work better and that there are currently “too many officers” in schools. Lancman committed to not prosecuting “low-level offenses from schools” and that these would be handled in schools and youth court.

Nieves compared over-policed schools to Rikers Island and said his office would give students opportunities instead for low-level offenses and deal with felonies in family court. Lugo said that low-level offenses “should be handled in school,” but supports police being present in schools.

Lasak also said that he wants police in schools and that his office would instead focus on “bridging the gap between the community and the courthouse,” through education programs involving young people.

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Immigration
On the topic of immigration, candidates were asked if they would consider mitigating immigration consequences in prosecutorial decisions. Immigrants, including legal residents, could face deportation for certain offenses or even based on what prosecutors say in court statements.

Cabán vowed to “keep ICE out of courthouses” and “make sure the DA’s office doesn’t do anything to further deportation,” including taking immigration status into consideration for pleas, charges, and court statements. Katz promised to have “deportation-neutral” charges and pleas. Lancman suggested that the office would hire a “collateral offense officer” to look at mitigating the immigration consequences of prosecutions.

Nieves noted that immigration is an important factor for both victims and suspects, saying that victims and witnesses are often afraid to come forward for fear of being deported. Similar to other candidates, he committed to mitigating the immigration consequences of the office’s prosecutions. Lugo vowed to block ICE from courts and to set up an immigration affairs bureau, which would include interpreters. Lasak promised to mitigate immigration consequences only for minor offenses.

Malik wrote that she "will implement an immigrant hardship plea policy. Whenever compatible with public safety, I will direct prosecutors to consider collateral consequences when charging noncitizens. We have to ensure the sentence matches the offense and that we are not tearing families apart or leveling disproportionate sentences."

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Note: this article has been updated with Mina Malik's responses.

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Candidates for Queens District Attorney Profess Similar Values, Stake Out Different Positions Tue, 19 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000