Adolfo Carrion first came into public office in 1997 as a City Council member representing parts of the West Bronx, including Kingsbridge, Fordham and University Heights. After one term, he successfully ran for Bronx borough president. During his time in the office, he oversaw the construction of the new Yankees Stadium but was heavily criticized for not pushing the major league team to deliver on their community benefits agreement. He was appointed by President Barack Obama to head the newly formed White House Office of Urban Affairs Policy in 2009. A year later, the Obama administration named him regional director for New York and New Jersey of the US. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Carrion stepped down from HUD in February of 2012 to run for mayor, eschewing his previous Democratic Party ties and forging ahead as an independent candidate. He secured a ballot line with the Independence Party for November’s general election, which helped him avoid a potentially punishing and crowded primary race. He also unsuccessfully attempted to win a spot on the Republican line. Carrion was born in Manhattan but has touted his family's migration from Puerto Rico to New York City in the 1960’s.
In an exclusive interview with the Gotham Gazette, Carrion spoke about housing issues, recovering from Superstorm Sandy, education policy and engaging Latino voters. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
GG: A lot has been said about the New York City Housing Authority recently and their inability to deal with a major backlog of repairs. What would you do about the NYCHA situation and do you approve of the way Mayor Bloomberg has reformed the NYCHA board?
Carrion: Rather than going 30,000-feet level, I’m going to give you a personal experience I had 48 hours ago in the Lower East Side at the Wald Houses. I visited a resident who was going to tell me her story about her experience with Superstorm Sandy and being in darkness in her wheelchair for six and a half days with no heat and no water and — you know the conditions — and my experience was so disturbing because I walk in the building and the lobby reeks of urine and the floor is filthy and there are maintenance workers with brooms and mops dunking their mops into buckets of dirty water in a maintenance room eight feet away from where I was standing in this disgusting lobby. That is unfortunately the picture of NYCHA in so many places across the city and it is third world, it is unacceptable, so what do we need to do?
The damn thing is broken and it has been broken for a long time. People are living in a city within a city. Forget about a tale of two cities — there are multiple cities within our city. There is the substandard city of public housing and there is another substandard city called the New York City public school system with 1.1 million children, with 94 percent of them relegated to less than the best performing schools. This will require independent thinking. That’s why I am running as an independent, that is why I have stepped outside of the gridlock of this broken system.
GG: What do you think mayor Bloomberg’s legacy will be on education? What do you want your legacy to be on education?
Carrion: I think the mayor’s legacy will be that he was the education experiment and modest innovation mayor in so far as he committed to charter schools, he committed to choice, he committed to putting competition in the school system. What I want my legacy to be is the transformation mayor, not the reform mayor, because reform is tweaking. I want a makeover the system. The standard for every neighborhood school must be world-class schools that really speak to a global economy. We need schools to put them on STEAAM — science, engineering, the arts, athletics and math. We need to go from STEM to STEAAM.
We do that by extending the life of the school building. We go from five days at seven hours a day to 14 hours a day, seven days a week so that they become community life and education centers. So the traditional classroom education continues — it doesn’t continue the class instruction time but we use the time to address family issues and other things that need attention. We do this by tapping into the funds we give to other organizations for after school programs, health care, wellness, the arts — all of that we already fund, we will impose a filter for the funding that says your funding has to include a relationship with the neighborhood school so now the local arts group uses the theater as a performance place, the neighborhood sports groups now play in the schoolyard.
If the community chooses, it runs a community farmers’ market on Friday or weekends or whatever. The rooftop now becomes green roof or garden. We put a job training and business expo in the school yard. We can use it as a incubator for local home based businesses. We have to think outside the box. People have been talking about reform for a long time. We need more than that.
GG: Coming from the Bronx you have to be very familiar with the challenges the city faces when it comes to providing healthcare to its residents. With hospitals closing in Brooklyn and elsewhere what do you think can be done to take care of the problem?
Carrion: The Bronx is ground zero for asthma, diabetes and so many other maladies. So I know the problem well.
The gargantuan hospital encourages healthcare through the emergency room — just by default, not by design but by default. We know what works, we’ve tested it in the Bronx. The answer is the community health center. You need a system of robust health centers associated with specialties in large teaching hospitals. That is what makes sense. We have community healthcare providers rooted in the neighborhood who are not intimidated by the complexity of maneuvering in the system.
GG: You brought up Sandy when talking about housing. What do you make of the city’s response to Sandy and how would you handle the continuing threat of weather changes and monster storms?
Carrion: Well, you know, if there is something we quickly have to address and worry about besides global terrorism that could impact all of us very quickly — especially in New York — it is rising sea levels. The East Coast and West Coast jumps out first. We need to protect the power grid and power sources right away. What happened with Con Ed down there with the explosion and loss of power was a disaster.
We must have redundancy, we have to focus on raising the level of power sources and creating protective measures around them. We can’t have a city that gets paralyzed for days whenever there is a major storm. There are some places on the waterfront, on the edge of the city that — look, there are going to be places where we can no longer build. We have to come to terms with that, and there are places we can create natural barriers and buffers. I agree with the mayor’s plan. We have got it ¾ financed so we are almost there. We need to change the building code and also tweak it so that it is more environmentally responsible and also helps us with our resiliency, with our storms, but also allows us to reduce our carbon footprint.
Look, there are really sensible things that are achievable in the short run like being able to shut off a tunnel so that it doesn’t get filled with water — the technology is there. Obviously we need to deal with entrances to low-lying subway stations so that there aren’t inlets from the station into the shoreline — that is doable.
We need aggressive executive leadership on this.
GG: We are in an election year where we have heard a lot about progressive leadership but at the same time it looks like the new Council will end up being less diverse. As a Latino leader how do you plan to tap into groups of voters who may have been disenfranchised or overlooked in the past?
Carrion: There is only upside because the participation rate is so low. We have almost 900,000 registered Latinos and only 189,000 came out to vote. So only about 16 percent came out to vote, so more than eight in 10 staying home and not taking part in the political process. This is a crisis and an opportunity. People are passively boycotting or they don’t feel that it matters and don’t understand. If we can jump back to schools and education for a moment — one of things I will do as mayor is infuse civics into schools.
Latinos are going through college without registering to vote and that is tragic for the Latino vote. We are talking about a third of the city population that now has to be engaged. I feel as a principal I must engage that sleeping giant to awaken that sleeping giant and one way is running for office and saying there is one of you here. I am going to fight like hell to represent you. But we also need to do the important and unsexy work of organizing the community with other leaders. This is not about Adolfo Carrion making political moves and some master plan. My only plan is to awaken the political giant and get Democracy working.
GG: How the mayor’s office works with Albany has been a focus of this mayoral race because of Bill de Blasio’s proposal to raise taxes for pre-k. How do you plan to deal with Albany given how many important city issues are determined there?
Carrion: I base my expectations on my past experience. I will tell you that there was some disappointment when I was borough president but I put my nose to grindstone and put in the work that needed to be done to get their support for education and budget for issues. For instance, you take tearing down a decrepit old store and setting up a market like the Bronx Terminal Market with new stores, jobs and a beautiful waterfront park. That required a special kind of partnership with state officials. Yankee Stadium was a heavier lift. I took it on the chin on that but in the end the deliverable was a new neighborhood in the South Bronx, new parkland and a sense of pride of being a new destination as well as a new rail station. All of that came about from a master plan cooked up in my office. Then we went ahead and got the approval needed to move the project forward. The same principal applies to being the executive of the city.
We need the governor to understand that New York City is the engine of New York State’s economic footprint. It is determinative of how the state is going to do economically. The relationship of downstate to upstate is very important and we can be very creative in a number of areas whether it is research and development, a state university system that makes sense, upstate and downstate partnership to confront environmental challenges face as a state.
There is a lot of opportunity to exploit this relationship as a city but as a city executive I am also a realist. I don’t think Mr. de Blasio’s idea of raising taxes is going to fly with the governor, whatever he is positioning himself for. Whether the 2016 theory is valid, he has made a very important statement in the last 48 hours about ‘how do we lower taxes?’ In the wake of that, I don’t think any mayor is gonna come in and say, ‘How do we raise taxes here?’ especially when the governor is saying we need to get rid of them.