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Opinion

Justice for Excluded Workers


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Assemblymember De La Rosa, the author, speaking at a rally for 'excluded workers'


The approval this week of the nation’s first-ever Excluded Workers Fund is a bold statement that New York recognizes the humanity in everyone, and that we must secure the basic necessities of all people during a global pandemic. It also acknowledges that immigrants contribute greatly to our tax-base and the backbone of our community.  

No one deserves to go hungry or die, or to not have money to bury their loved ones, pay for housing, health care, and other fundamental needs while a pandemic wreaks havoc across the world. It is a matter of compassion, empathy, solidarity, and core human decency.

Since the pandemic first hit in March 2020, thousands of undocumented and nontraditional workers across the state have suffered the injustice of being excluded from every government relief program. Over 192,000 undocumented workers (who records show pay $1.4 billion in yearly taxes) lost their jobs, none of whom were eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), according to a report by the Center for NYC Affairs at the New School. The Center also reported that 68% of jobs lost in New York City were among people of color. 

In May 2020 I partnered with New York State Senator Jessica Ramos to introduce a bill for the first-in-the-nation Excluded Workers Fund before the New York State Legislature. It was a long road before the Fund’s approval, including hearings, a rally that shut down Brooklyn Bridge, and a 22-day hunger strike led by excluded workers. 

The $2.1 billion fund, part of the new state budget, will provide retroactive benefits to workers who have been unable to access a single penny in government aid up to this point. This funding will be crucial to closing the economic disparities of the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Black and brown communities such as Washington Heights and Inwood, the communities of Assembly District 72, which I represent. 

As we move towards implementation, I thank Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and my colleagues in the Assembly, Senator Ramos and colleagues in the Senate, Make The Road New York, New York Communities for Change, New York Immigration Coalition, and the members of the FEW Coalition, who joined us in the quest for budget equity and justice for excluded workers. We will now provide oversight over the state Department of Labor to ensure that a fair process is built to apply for and receive benefits from the Excluded Workers Fund.

While working class New Yorkers reeled from the virus and struggled to pay rent, the wealth of New York’s 120 billionaires grew by $87.7 billion. It is about time that New Yorkers finally demand that the ultrarich pay their fair share and that all New Yorkers are taken care of. New York’s new budget serves as a model for how governments can pursue progressive revenue streams to redistribute wealth, move toward budget equity, and better serve the people. The revenue raised will transform the lives of millions of New Yorkers as we fund excluded workers, expand affordable housing, and invest in our schools.

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Carmen De La Rosa is the State Assembly Member for the 72nd District in Upper Manhattan. On Twitter @CnDelarosa.

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New York Should Completely Rebuild, Not Just Patch, Its Police Oversight System; Here’s How


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Officers take the oath (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office)


As a New Yorker who has worked in senior management in both of New York City’s major police oversight agencies, the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD (OIG-NYPD) and the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), I can tell you: our system of independent police oversight is more broken than you might think, and the current plans for reform won’t fix it. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan seeks, among other reforms, to place all the New York City police oversight agencies under one roof – a good idea – but his chosen umbrella agency is the CCRB, and this is a terrible idea. Between the CCRB and OIG-NYPD, the latter is the more powerful agency, even with other reforms currently introduced in the state Legislature.

The CCRB can only investigate allegations in its limited jurisdiction — force, abuse of authority, discourtesy, offensive language, and following a 2019 referendum, untruthful statements made by officers. New allegations within that jurisdiction are difficult to add, as evidenced by the CCRB’s long, laborious, and fraught process to keep its sexual misconduct allegation category. The CCRB’s access to NYPD-controlled evidence has also been documented to be absurdly limited for an oversight agency, and the CCRB is forced to negotiate with police unions and petition the NYPD to order officers to show up for interviews, rather than having the power to compel interviews the way that OIG-NYPD can. 

While it may seem that oversight led by members of the public would be more independent, this isn’t necessarily true of civilian boards. At the CCRB, a politically-appointed board – some of whom are Police Commissioner picks – with little transparency about how specific members make their determinations of officer guilt or level of penalty makes it impossible for the public to have full faith in their impartiality. The Mayor can fire the CCRB’s Chair and City Hall weighs in on executive staffing decisions, and there is no requirement for CCRB Board members to have any prior experience in the fields of law, police oversight, or investigations before being appointed to interpret statutes, case law, and the Patrol Guide, and to then make decisions impacting public justice.

Conversely, the Commissioner of the Department of Investigation, which houses OIG-NYPD, is a mayoral nominee confirmed by the City Council and cannot be removed without a required public hearing – because fighting corruption and misconduct in city agencies isn’t always popular with City Hall. The looming threat of being removed from a position can absolutely have a negative impact on the strength of police oversight leadership. 

Similarly, while removing final disciplinary authority from the Police Commissioner, as is proposed in state Legislature bills S5252/A6012, and recommended by the City Council but opposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, is unquestionably a must, the CCRB should not have final disciplinary authority over its own cases. For one thing, the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau has concurrent jurisdiction in many of the CCRB’s cases. Giving the CCRB disciplinary authority over its own cases would result in two concurrently-running and contradictory prosecutorial venues and penalty processes. Moreover, there’s no place in America where the agency responsible for investigating police misconduct also has the sole authority to determine a penalty. Such an arrangement violates basic principles of governmental checks and balances. 

New York City needs a total reinvention of the systems of investigation and penalty for police misconduct, and I can’t understand why New York’s city and state leaders aren’t taking advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime moment to take a step back and design a system – from scratch – that makes sense, instead of plugging the holes of police accountability with a series of legislative bandages that, in some cases, would actually weaken police oversight. 

I think more comprehensive police oversight could be achieved with the creation of two new offices

One office, which I’ve title the Office of Police Accountability, would 1) investigate, mediate, prosecute, and recommend discipline for allegations of police misconduct against a civilian (the CCRB’s current function, though with a broader jurisdiction), and 2) review and audit the NYPD’s protocols and practices, including corruption investigations (OIG-NYPD’s and the Commission to Combat Police Corruption’s current functions). 

The other, the Office of Police Discipline, would 1) impose final administrative discipline, including and up to termination, for substantiated police misconduct; 2) provide an independent civilian adjudicator to handle trials and pleas in the most serious cases of misconduct (currently the job of the NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Trials); and 3) serve as a watchdog for both the Office of Police Accountability and the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau. 

Both offices would have broad powers and be headed by a commissioner jointly appointed by the Mayor and the Public Advocate and confirmed by the City Council, and who could only be removed by public hearing. Both would be required to put out detailed reporting and data for public scrutiny – because, in the same way that the public should expect accountability in policing, they should be able to expect accountability in police oversight. 

For the first time in New York history, social and political forces are aligned in a way that may never create a more opportune time for true police accountability. Our elected officials should take advantage of this time to not just reform, but revolutionize New York City’s police oversight structure. Take it from someone who knows better than most: Our city needs this.

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Nicole Napolitano, Ph.D, is the former Director of Policy and Advocacy of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, and former Senior Policy Manager at the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD. On Twitter @NicoleMNap.

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To Bring New York's Cultural Life Back Better, Focus on Workers and Performers


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John Field, the author, in action


The performance arts in New York City are in crisis. With COVID-19, Broadway and Off Broadway stages have been dark for an entire year, many important venues of all types have closed their doors forever, and only just now have comedy clubs opened back up their doors. But, as a stand-up comedian for nine years, I would argue that a crisis in our performing arts existed before covid and, unless drastic changes are made, it will exist long after the threat of covid is over.

As a stand-up, the biggest challenges of my career are never about what happens on stage, but everything that happens off-stage. It's very common for performers to have antagonistic relationships with venue owners and institutional players. Sexual and psychological abuse is rampant, and comedians will often find themselves in situations where they share green rooms with outed predators. White supremacy and racism is prevalent as well. I've personally found myself doxxed, threatened, and blackballed for calling out a venue's association with white supremacist groups.

Additionally, comedy clubs couldn't exist without comedians, and yet the pay rate for a city gig has been stagnant since the early 2000s. Comedians often find themselves doing stage time that is either unpaid, done in exchange for additional labor, or in some cases we're compelled to pay clubs for a coveted five-minute spot. Unpaid work is endemic throughout all of the performance arts; recently the influential theater The Flea dissolved its keystone program after their unpaid interns unionized in reaction to accusations of racism among the theater's management.

Not paying performers is racist and classist; it means only those who are financially independent can have the free time and resources necessary to build a career in the arts. There are many contributing factors that have brought us to this point, but I also think it's time we consider that the lack of protections performers have is, in part, a public policy failure.

Our city benefits from performers. People visit New York City to see comedy, Broadway, and jazz. Watch a New York City tourism ad and a stage is as likely to appear as a shot of Wall Street. Being a hub of performance leads to major cultural power in the world; what happens on our stages proves to be the first draft of what ends up on America's TV and movie screens; Comedy Central's hit Broad City started as a stage show on UCB's East Village stage, for example.

So far this year, much of the cultural recovery policy on federal, state, and city levels has been based on giving deference to venue owners and other institutional players, not performers. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s important “Save Our Stages” campaign managed to bring $10 billion in crucial funding for our country’s independent music venues, cinemas, and theaters. On a municipal level, our recovery policy includes proposals such as municipal bulk ticket purchases and subsidized communal artist residences, described by some as “TikTok Hype Houses.” 

By not recognizing artists, these smaller programs can also be problematic. Right in the name, TikTok Hype Houses centers venue owners (specifically, a digital venue) instead of artists. Real-life Hype Houses are not enviable living arrangements; 21 people living with each other with no separation between work and personal life is not a healthy or productive environment for the creative process, and is instead a product of these platform's unreasonable demands for content production. I've personally lived with eight comics over the course of five years and I can say with confidence that all artists are degenerate scum who don't know how to do dishes.

All culture policy needs to be artist- and worker-centered. I like to use the folk history of the origins of hip hop as the example of how to build culture; in the 1970s, blackouts led to kids stealing audio equipment, and over the years these kids used that equipment at block parties on abandoned lots which eventually evolved into a medium of art that took over the world. This is accidentally a good model for a strong arts policy; directly gift artists with resources and decommodify space, and they'll figure out how to change the world.

In practice, this should mean candidates for elected office starting conversations with performers and discovering our needs and ideas. This extends to NYC Nightlife Advisory Board appointments — currently only three out of 15 appointments are representatives of the nightlife workforce; mayoral and City Council candidates should commit to making half of the board worker representatives, including service workers. Additionally, any subsidies that benefit venues, such as bulk ticket buys or tourist advertising, should be contingent on empowering and paying workers and performers.

Electeds of all types can lean on venues to commit to already-on-the-books federal and state standards for unpaid labor. We can also make the resources that artists need to practice their craft readily and freely available from the city, including rentable audio and stage equipment (available through library systems and non-profits), and also making available directly to the public community spaces for performance such as school stages and empty storefronts, with little to no hassle or cost.

What I've learned in my years of stand-up is that the venues that attract the most creative people and foster the newest ideas are always the ones that throw performers the keys and look the other direction – you can't micromanage creativity.

That said, public policy can only play a supportive role in building strong culture, and ultimately it's in the hands of artists ourselves to band together and self-advocate for our needs. However, candidates should understand that it would be a rewarding gift for everybody involved if they built partnership with performers. We have so much in common; much like candidates themselves, we are the world's saddest, neediest, most attention-starved narcissists.

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John Field is a stand-up comedian in New York City. On Twitter @AmericasComic.

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Dear Next Mayor: Will You Be The Equity-Driven Leader New York City Youth Need?


Dear Next Mayor: Will You Be The Equity-Driven Leader New York City Youth Need?

Student leaders (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography office)


Many people are saying that after this pandemic, New York City will never be the same. 

We hope that is true.

Before the pandemic, New York City was one of the most economically prosperous cities in the country but still one of the most inequitable. Almost 1 million households - one-third of New York City’s population - lacked internet service, a digital divide that has disproportionately impacted underserved communities of color. New Yorkers no longer want to live in a rich city that does not provide poor students with the devices and internet they need to thrive academically. We need a mayor that makes sure students still have equitable access to updated compatible devices and free broadband service even after this pandemic ends. It should not have taken a pandemic for New York City leadership to recognize this issue as urgent. We need a proactive, not reactive leader. Are you that leader?

To be the leader of the city that never sleeps, you need to be committed to implementing housing policies that ensure students and their families have a safe space to sleep at night. New York City is renowned for its notorious real estate empire, yet one in ten New York City public school students experiences housing insecurity. This number increases drastically in regards to students attending the City University of New York (CUNY). Up to 50% of CUNY students experience housing and food insecurity. How can students be expected to focus on their studies when they are busy worrying about how they are going to afford food or where they are going to sleep at night? 

The rise of unemployment and racial injustice are also contributing to the mental health crisis students are facing in New York. Students are struggling to find jobs with livable wages that offer them a viable pathway to their career interests, while racial inequity in this city’s education and justice systems threatens the safety and future of our youth.

Our city’s police department continues to disproportionately target Black and brown communities and engages in police brutality without repercussion. What youth in these communities need is a safe space to learn, but the Department of Education invests in body scanners instead of inclusive curriculum and police rather than counselors in schools. As schools continue to be racially segregated by zoning, unequal distribution of academic resources, and discriminatory admissions processes such as the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), we need a leader who is committed to passing policies that eradicate these systemic barriers. Is that person you?

This pandemic has changed New York City in irreversible ways. It has further exposed the inequities within our institutions and it is going to take a progressive, forward-thinking mayor to find sustainable solutions to these issues. That’s why the next mayor of New York City must be committed to these seven priorities: 

  1. Close the digital divide.
  2. End food and housing insecurity for students and families.
  3. Provide adequate mental health resources for students for free or at affordable rates.
  4. Create more youth employment opportunities.
  5. Make our schools more inclusive and integrated.
  6. Decrease police presence in schools.
  7. Guarantee youth leadership in decision-making discussions that impacts young people.

Prior to the onset of COVID-19, the #DegreesNYC community recognized the need for youth voices in the decisions that impact their academic future. As a group of youth leaders focused on transforming the New York City education system into one that values the intersectional experiences of students, our aim is to achieve racial equity and economic mobility. The #DegreesNYC Youth Council has been working on amplifying the intersecting experiences students have with education inequity within and outside of their schools; inequities that have been exacerbated due to remote learning.  

New York City will never be the same after this pandemic, but maybe that’s a good thing. Our city was working against the well-being of students before COVID-19. We need to re-imagine a city whose leadership is committed to making New York a better city for our youth. Are you the future mayor our city needs?

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The #DegreesNYC Youth Council is committed to making schools and campuses more student-ready by advocating for institutional and political reform. On Twitter @DegreesNYC.

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Delay Congestion Pricing to Give Suffering Middle Class New Yorkers a Break


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Manhattan traffic (photo: trothwell)


In 2019, my colleagues in Albany approved congestion pricing for drivers to enter a proposed zone in midtown Manhattan (over my strenuous objection and “no” vote). Under the plan, anyone entering the borough south of 60th Street in a car or truck will be charged an extra fee. 

The idea was first proposed by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2006 and was designed to reduce midtown traffic and add much-needed revenue to a city transportation system in dire need of it. It was set to begin this January, but was delayed because of COVID-19. Now, with covid far from over, city leaders and the MTA are rushing to push it through. 

Even if it takes more time, New Yorkers - especially small business owners - have suffered enough. We should wait at least two years from the official end of the pandemic before we implement congestion pricing and burden drivers even further.

Early last year, New York City became the American epicenter of the biggest global health disaster in a century. COVID-19 has killed more than 31,000 city residents. It has cost more than 750,000 permanent jobs throughout the five boroughs. More than 43% of New York City businesses that were opened at the beginning of last year are closed right now — many will never open their doors again. 

Small business owners are the lifeblood of New York City. They are the men and women who own and operate bodegas and body shops from Tribeca to Throggs Neck. They are the plumbers, electricians, and construction workers who trek in from all parts of Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten Island to build and maintain everything from the world-famous Manhattan skyline to structures for outdoor dining. Too many of our fellow New Yorkers live in areas far away from subway or bus lines. Just ask anyone living in Fresh Meadows, Marine Park, Throggs Neck, or on Staten Island who spends hour in traffic to drive to Manhattan — because it’s actually easier, but certainly not cheaper.  

These entrepreneurs and tradespeople were already stretched thin before COVID-19 struck. They pay astronomical city rents and taxes, make payroll to keep other New Yorkers and their families financially secure, and spend thousands of dollars a year on gas, tolls, and parking just to run their businesses on a daily basis. Many have been hit hard by covid in their own households or their pocketbooks, sometimes both. Now, we are expecting them to begin to pay as much as $25 per day on top of what they are already laying out just to begin their workdays. 

This was not fair two years ago (I tried rather valiantly to add an exemption for New York City residents). It’s absolutely beyond the pale now. We need to wait. 

Last week, the Federal Highway Administration, under the U.S. Department of Transportation, announced that an environmental assessment (EA), instead of a more-involved and complicated environmental impact statement (EIS), would be enough to get the ball rolling on congestion pricing in New York City. After the review is completed, the MTA can begin the process of setting up EZ Pass cameras and ticketing systems north of 59th Street in Manhattan (the northern border of the proposed zone), as well as on the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Battery, Lincoln, and Holland Tunnels. 

I was born and raised in the Hollis area of Queens, a quintessential middle class residential neighborhood in southeast Queens, pretty close to the Nassau border. My mother, a Cuban Jewish immigrant (who just turned 91 last week), was a public school teacher and a UFT member. My father, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, was a veteran and an attorney who was elected by his friends and neighbors to represent them in the State Assembly — the same seat I now hold. 

Despite my dad’s public profile, my parents were never wealthy. He passed away in 1994, but I can only imagine the fight he would have put up if he knew the state he served for so long was going to make hard-working men and women — the same people he fought for in his time — pay a fee just to drive into Manhattan on the now-free bridges, especially during a pandemic of this magnitude.  

As a former City Council finance committee chair and now an Assemblymember from Queens running for City Comptroller, I completely understand the need to add to city coffers. And as someone who has driven into Manhattan for much of my adult life, I fully appreciate the lofty goal of reducing traffic and the damage to our environment caused by cars and trucks. 

But to accomplish those goals on the backs of hard-working New Yorkers and small business owners already devastated by the pandemic is just adding insult to injury. 

We’ve come a long way as a city. We have weathered storms before. This one will subside. Until it does, we cannot afford to ask hard-working New Yorkers to shoulder another burden. 

Waiting an extra two years is not too much to ask. Burdening our small business owners is, however. 

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David Weprin is an Assemember from Queens and a Democratic candidate for New York City Comptroller. On Twitter @DavidWeprin.

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Man Plans, God Laughs: How Not to Reform the Criminal Justice System


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NYPD on the street (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)


In an era of excitement about criminal justice reform in the United States, few places have engendered higher hopes than Los Angeles and Minneapolis. 

Minneapolis was, of course, the site of the tragedy that sparked a season of protest: the brutal killing of George Floyd. In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, the Minneapolis City Council did something extraordinary: it voted to disband the Minneapolis Police Department. “Our efforts at incremental reform have failed. Period,” Lisa Bender, the City Council president, announced in June 2020. Instead of incremental change, the politicians in Minneapolis sought something more dramatic: “to end policing as we know it.”  

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, District Attorney George Gascón won office last fall promising sweeping changes, including ending the use of the death penalty, reducing incarceration, and eliminating cash bail. Taken together, Gascón’s proposed reforms amounted to a dramatic rethinking of the role of prosecutors. “Our efforts to transform the dated approach that creates more crime, more victims and inequities are just beginning,” Gascón declared. 

A new era of public safety appeared to be dawning in Los Angeles and Minneapolis.  

Fast forward to today. The heady excitement of 2020 has given way to something more sobering in 2021. Today, an organized recall movement is attempting to remove Gascón from office. And in Minneapolis, the effort to dismantle the police department has hit a number of roadblocks, including soaring crime rates. At the end of the day, instead of abolishing the police, Minneapolis ended up shifting $8 million from the $179 million police budget to support mental health programs and violence prevention efforts.

What’s gone wrong here? The simplest answer is that reformers in Minneapolis and Los Angeles have run up against reality. There’s an old Yiddish proverb to explain this phenomenon: Man plans, God laughs.  

In Los Angeles, Gascón’s reforms have been met with resistance from numerous quarters, including his own prosecutors, some of whom have complained that their office has effectively been subject to a “hostile takeover” by the defense bar. The prosecutors union is even suing Gascón, arguing that some of his changes are unconstitutional. In Minneapolis, police officers are leaving the force in droves. Sasha Cotton, who heads the local Office of Violence Prevention, has tried her best to temper expectations of a new approach to public safety, warning against rushing out new programs to meet the demands of those seeking a “quick solution.”

Los Angeles and Minneapolis are powerful reminders that “policy implementation in the end comes down to the people who actually implement it,” as Michael Lipsky observed in his seminal book Street Level Bureaucracy.  

Politics and policy matter. But so does practice on the ground. Even the best-intentioned, most well-written laws will only get us so far, because the people charged with implementing those laws have minds of their own.

Frontline practitioners have repeatedly shown that they are capable of undermining, and sometimes rejecting, policies that they do not support. Lasting change within the American criminal justice system cannot happen overnight. And it can’t happen without significant support from the people who actually operate the criminal justice system.  

Is there a better approach to reforming the criminal justice system than what is being attempted in Los Angeles and Minneapolis? New York City offers a compelling counter-example.

Since the early 1990s, the city has become demonstrably safer. At the same time, there have been massive shifts in the operation of the criminal justice system. Many of the practices that activists loathe most — including the imposition of cash bail, the use of pretrial detention, and sentences of incarceration — have been reduced dramatically. Indeed, these successes helped set the stage for the bail reforms enacted by the New York State Legislature in 2020 that largely eliminated cash bail. 

The vast majority of these and other wins were accomplished not by decisive policy overhauls or by legislative fiat. Instead, they were the product of incremental changes initiated by reformers both inside and outside the system. Over time, these changes added up to something significant. And significantly, these reforms did not engender rebellion by frontline practitioners.

The New York City criminal justice system is far from perfect. There is still a need to address racial disparities, improve conditions of confinement, and bolster public trust in justice. But New York does offer vivid testimony that it is possible to win the hearts and minds of judges, cops, and other officials and avoid the practitioner veto that has complicated reform efforts in Los Angeles and Minneapolis. 

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Greg Berman is the distinguished fellow of practice at the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.  Aubrey Fox is the executive director of the New York City Criminal Justice Agency. They are the authors of Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning from Failure (Rowman & Littlefield). On Twitter @GregBerman50 & @aubreyfox1.

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Regulating Live Animal Markets is Key to Protecting Public Health


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Livestock


It is undeniably the responsibility of governments to protect the public health. 

Yet our nation and the world are one year into COVID-19, a devastating pandemic responsible for the deaths of millions of people and the most serious global economic crisis experienced in generations. 

The World Health Organization issued a report last week that identifies the COVID-19 virus’ probable origin as animal-based, with bats as the likeliest species, passing the virus to other animals and enabling further spread to humans.

While the rate of infectious diseases originating in wildlife is increasing, there is not a single solution to curbing their spread. I am working with legislators in five other states and the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators (NCEL) on policy approaches so that we can learn from one another on how to better track and prevent wildlife diseases and strengthen our nation's ability to preserve public health.

As we strategize and craft legislation to prevent future devastation from animal-borne viruses and pathogens, we must put firm controls in place to regulate operation of live animal markets. That’s the purpose of my bill in the New York State Assembly, A02054, which would prohibit certain wildlife and fish from being imported into the state in order to protect public health and safety, our native wildlife and fish, and the agricultural interests of the state. 

Currently, 75% of emerging infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, originate in animals and are known as zoonotic diseases. They include: COVID-19, HIV, malaria, Ebola, SARS, bird flu, swine flu, West Nile and Lyme disease. Almost all of them started with wildlife exploitation through trade or hunting. Here’s how:

Live animal markets bring together wildlife, domestic animals, and humans that might never be in close contact otherwise, and that allows disease to spill over to humans and between species. The reason we’re seeing such a drastic increase in these diseases in recent decades is simple: human activity. Deforestation, wildlife trafficking, and climate change are the primary drivers. In order to prevent the next global pandemic, states must ensure better disease tracking and heightened regulation of the animal trade.

My bill (A02054, with Senate companion S.06047) would amend the environmental conservation law by prohibiting the importation of any individual wildlife or fish species - including bat, rodent, and primate species - that could be responsible for zoonotic transmission of a readily transmissible human disease. This bill, along with continuing to build upon New York’s existing public health and conservation policies, is a critically necessary step for preventing future pandemics.

Additionally, we must protect New York’s incredible natural resources by conserving natural areas that enable natural barriers against disease, and enforce our legislation of wildlife and animal trade protections to decrease exposure to exotic and possibly infected wildlife. Working with scientists and experts, we call for enhanced collaboration between state and federal agencies and higher education institutions to protect public health and safety.

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Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon represents Brooklyn’s 52nd District. On Twitter @JoAnneSimonBK52.

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Delivering Mental Health Care to Homeless New Yorkers During and After Covid


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Telehealth is expanding, and should (photo: USDA)


In January 2020, it was announced that Tony Hannigan, Founder and CEO of the Center for Urban Community Services (CUCS) would be retiring in July. I was about to start my transition to become the new President and CEO. But one short month later, our Chief Medical Officer alerted us to an emerging public health crisis in Wuhan, China and those plans were put on hold. By the end of February, we knew we were standing on the cusp of a public health tsunami.

Addressing public health situations are not uncommon at CUCS. As the largest provider of community psychiatry for homeless and formerly homeless individuals in New York City and the only provider of medical care on the streets of Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan for individuals experiencing street homelessness, we’ve seen a lot. We knew that the poverty, structural inequities, and homelessness that affect our clients take a significant toll on their physical and mental health, so COVID-19 could be especially hard on them.

While most New Yorkers sheltered inside their homes beginning last March, individuals experiencing street homelessness had a dramatically different experience. Almost all of the places they could shelter during the day such as libraries, restaurants, and public spaces were closed. With the subway system shutting down nightly, a harsh light was shone on the need to provide more safe spaces for people to come inside for shelter and receive the medical and mental healthcare they need.

Many people living in shelters left them for the streets because they were afraid of catching the virus from other people sleeping in the same room with them. Other shelter users remained, saw people getting sick, and wondered when they would and how they would handle it. Despite some public outcry, when the city began to move congregate shelter residents into hotels we knew this would save lives.

New York City’s mental health system often does not function well enough for homeless individuals, and COVID-19 threatened to fragment that even more.

The pandemic forced us to shift much of our psychiatric care to telehealth platforms to ensure that our work with homeless and formerly homeless New Yorkers would continue and be safe to deliver. We were only able to do this because the government agencies that fund and regulate our work acted quickly and gave us the freedom to do it. Through this experience we have come to appreciate the value of telehealth as a way to reach more people, in more places, in an even more flexible manner. Virtual visits helped us maintain a continuity of care for our patients during the pandemic while keeping them and our staff safe and healthy. In fact, through our new hybrid system of telehealth and in-person visits, we provided 11% more psychiatric visits to homeless and formerly homeless individuals during the pandemic than we did last year.

Now, a year after New York City shut down and our vaccination efforts are gaining momentum, we must realize we are facing a mental health tsunami. Because of this and the proven effectiveness of telehealth services, city and state officials should make permanent the regulations that enable us to deliver psychiatric care in this way.

As we begin to move toward a post-pandemic era, the spirit of collaboration that was strengthened during the pandemic should be continued to enable us to develop more robust mental health services for homeless and formerly homeless individuals on the streets and throughout New York City’s homeless services system.

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Joe DeGenova is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for Urban Community Services (CUCS), where he previously served in a variety of leadership roles, most recently as Associate Executive Director where supervised senior staff overseeing the agency’s programs and services. On Twitter @DeGenovaNYC & @CUCSnyc.

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Can a Long-Shot Candidate Still Win New York’s Mayoral Race?


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Mayor de Blasio with Maya Wiley in 2014 (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayor's Office)


How long can pundits wait before they can safely write-off long-shot New York mayoral candidates like Maya Wiley, Kathyrn Garcia, Ray McGuire, Shaun Donovan, or Dianne Morales? The historical answer is: it ain’t over till it’s over. Twice in the last half-century, long-shot candidates ultimately won New York's mayoralty. Ed Koch in 1977 and Bill de Blasio in 2013 each climbed from poll numbers in single digits all the way into Gracie Mansion. And to understand how they did it, it helps to realize that “back-of-the-pack” mayoral wins like Koch’s and de Blasio’s aren’t a phenomenon that’s exclusive to New York City.

Several big U.S. city mayors won after starting from a fourth, fifth, or even ninth position in initial polls, including Miami’s Manny Diaz (first elected 2001), Kansas City’s Sly James (2011), Salt Lake City’s Jackie Biskupski (2015), and Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot (2019). None of these future mayors had more than 5% when they first launched. Other longshots came close. St. Louis Treasurer Tishuara Jones came less than two points of a back-of-the-pack win for mayor in 2017, starting from fourth place with single digit support. (She is now on her second try, hoping to win the St. Louis runoff for mayor on April 6.)

The back-of-the-pack phenomenon crosses borders, too. I’m writing from Canada, where Toronto’s David Miller tied for a distant third place in single digits in early polls before he ultimately defeated four other major candidates in 2003. Both Calgary’s Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Winnipeg’s Mayor Brian Bowman barely registered any support before they surged to win their first runs for office, in 2010 and 2014, respectively. Even the current Mayor of London, England – Sadiq Khan – was a dud in various polls before he began his campaign for Labour’s mayoral nomination in 2015.

If you’re leaning toward a situational explanation for why lightning would strike in the same way so many times, none is obvious. Some of these races were open, but not all. Ed Koch beat an incumbent, Abe Beame, in his primary, as did Biskupski, James, and Diaz in theirs. Having a non-partisan primary helps as a sort of rest-stop for back-of-the-pack candidates on their rise to the top, but it’s not essential; Canadian races don’t have primaries, and yet back-of-the-pack mayoral wins happen there too.

It's easier to point to factors that make mayoral elections distinct from other more traditional partisan races. As New York’s most recent polling shows, the pool of likely but undecided voters tends to stay high for months into a marathon race.. In campaigns to lead cities of millions of people, turnout might only be in the hundreds of thousands, boosting the value of unexpected mobilization and GOTV tactics.

If New York mayoral election pundits are looking for some way to predict whether candidates in single digits can pull off a similar feat in 2021, the good news is that there are some historical patterns to work from. No back-of-the-pack-to-winning campaign is identical to another, but most winners share a combination of similar features. They include:

Hockey-stick support growth. Back-of-the-pack campaigns rarely build support incrementally. Instead, their support simmers up a little before it boils over late in the campaign. In his memoir, Transforming Miami, Diaz described his low polling as “a blessing in disguise…my opponents wrote me off,” while Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown noted in 2019 that Lightfoot “peaked so late that those other candidates never felt it necessary to train their negative advertising on her.”

 A (relatively) positive tone. Studies and memoirs of back-of-the-pack wins almost always emphasize positive messaging. In 1977, even the famously caustic Ed Koch was under orders from his campaign team to avoid quips and sarcasm to project an image of steady competence. Leading with positivity is important, since the end-of-campaign surge usually depends on a growing reservoir of goodwill for the long-shot’s candidacy.

Retail campaigns that prioritize quality engagement. Both the Nenshi and Biskupski campaigns relied on unusually flexible scripts for phone and field canvassers, encouraging volunteers to use open-ended questions to let voters lead the conversation. Nenshi’s “Purple Army” prioritized his time for coffee parties. Koch was constantly accessible on New York streets, while Diaz built early support on foot, door to door, as if he was running for a council seat. Positive word-of-mouth built up over time is critical to scale up at the right moment.

An issue that taps the electorate’s real mood. Almost every back-of-the-pack winner started with - and stuck to - a defining policy issue that was outside the day-to-day consensus on issues at City Hall, but ultimately proved to be a savvier read on what voters wanted to see as a ballot question. For Diaz, it was education. De Blasio famously set himself apart by criticizing stop-and-frisk policing as part of his "tale of two cities" refrain. For Lightfoot, Miller, and Bowman, some variation on ethics policies was decisive, while Koch’s law and order push separated him from a field of more classically liberal Democrats.

Financial stamina. Back-of-the-pack winners aren’t usually the biggest spenders, nor the best fundraisers. Yet| their campaigns never starve, either. In virtually every historical case, candidates relied on a personal network of contributors to maintain steady cash flow through the lean marathon months of their run. It’s not an accident that many such candidates - including Miller, Diaz, Bowman, Khan, Lightfoot, and James, for example - worked for at least a few years as lawyers in private practice.

A distinctive candidate. Almost all back-of-the-pack mayoral hopefuls had some aspect of their personal story that helped them personify political change. Nenshi is North America’s first big-city muslim mayor, Lightfoot and Biskupski became Chicago and Salt Lake City’s first lesbian mayors, and de Blasio’s bi-racial family was front and centre in late-campaign advertising.

A breakout moment. Candidates in single digits inevitably break out and scale up after one or two decisive events at the right instant, bringing the goodwill they’ve built to the attention of unsure voters shopping for better alternatives. Sometimes, it’s an editorial or political endorsement from an unexpected source. Sometimes, it’s a candidate’s attention-grabbing response to a major citywide event, like Koch’s call for a crime crackdown during a mid-campaign blackout. Occasionally, leading candidates take so many hits that it clears a path for the long-shot to step out with a well-timed ad at just the moment when voters are starting to move, as de Blasio did in 2013.

The good news for the long-shots is, it’s still possible. The bad news for them is that they’ll have to keep working, and waiting for luck to strike, to be sure.

The breakout moment often comes very late in the campaign, demanding nerves of steel for the rare few who actually pull it off. In 2013, de Blasio did not top a public poll until August 13th - a mere four weeks before voters confirmed his primary win. Ed Koch polled in fourth place just two weeks before he actually won his bitter primary showdown against future Governor Mario Cuomo. Most of the other mayors mentioned above did not even lead a single public poll before pulling off their respective primary or general election wins. Leading candidates like Andrew Yang, Eric Adams and Scott Stringer will have to keep at least one eye on their rear-view mirror for now, since the breakthrough window for most historic back-of-the-pack wins can be measured in weeks or even days before election day rather than months. And New York’s primary is still more than eleven weeks away.

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Brian Kelcey is a Canadian writer and consultant specializing in urban politics and policy. On Twitter at @stateofthecity.

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Albany Must Aid New Yorkers Washington Left Behind


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New Yorkers (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


As lawmakers in Albany enter the final days of negotiations on the state budget amidst controversy surrounding the Governor, they must not lose sight of the fact that millions of New Yorkers have been left out of any government aid since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic a year ago – a situation so dire that workers across New York excluded from federal and state aid are partaking in a hunger strike to get the relief they deserve.

For millions of our neighbors there is no rescue plan on the horizon. President Biden’s “American Rescue Plan” will bring much-needed relief to families and unemployed workers across the state struggling to put food on the table, pay rent, and chip away at mounting debt. However, beltway politics mean that the most vulnerable New Yorkers – millions of immigrant workers and children – will again be excluded. 

A year after the onset of the pandemic, state leaders have a responsibility to finally step up for households that have been ravaged by the health, economic, and social consequences of COVID-19. Private philanthropy is not large enough to fill the gap of government aid.

By standing up a fund to aid workers excluded from federal assistance and by backing reforms to the state’s child tax credit—the Empire State Child Credit—Governor Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and the Legislature can support those that have suffered the most during this crisis, while investing in our future.

Data from my organization’s Poverty Tracker, a longitudinal study of hardship and poverty among New Yorkers, finds that nearly half of all New York City workers, and more than half of low-wage workers and Black and Latino workers, lost employment income during the height of the outbreak. 

According to a report by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, since the crisis, more than half of lost jobs were held by foreign-born workers and one in six lost jobs was held by an undocumented worker. Those working in frontline industries are underpaid, with limited ability to social distance, and often lack employer-based health insurance, putting them at greater risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19.

Despite their disproportionate exposure and vulnerability, many immigrant households were excluded from our country’s most powerful COVID-19 relief measure: expanded unemployment insurance benefits in the CARES Act. These benefits, which have kept Americans afloat for the past year, exclude millions of immigrant New Yorkers.

Households with undocumented workers and non-citizens without work authorization were ineligible for expanded unemployment benefits, and households with people who use individual tax identification numbers, or ITINs, were excluded from the stimulus payments that were a centerpiece of the CARES Act.

By excluding the lowest-income and immigrant New Yorkers from these federal policies, millions of New Yorkers are at risk of falling deeper into poverty as the pandemic and economic crisis continue.

Besides immigrant workers, the state’s children have felt profound impacts from the pandemic. Roughly 325,000 children were pushed into poverty since the pandemic began and now over 24% of New York’s children live in poverty.

Lawmakers have the chance to help turn the tide for immigrant workers and their children left out of federal relief, and I commend the Assembly and Senate for proposing $2.1 billion for a fund for excluded workers. Yet these people need more support – lawmakers must establish a $4.6 billion excluded workers’ fund through a bill championed by Senator Jessica Ramos and Assemblymember Carmen De La Rosa to provide financial assistance to workers who have lost income and are ineligible for unemployment insurance. This New York fund would provide unemployment assistance payments to previously excluded New Yorkers: undocumented workers and formerly incarcerated individuals, retroactive to April 1, 2020 through the end of 2021.

The second action would be reforming New York’s Empire State Child Tax Credit along the lines of legislation proposed by Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi. The bill would expand the credit to children living in deep poverty by providing an enhanced maximum credit of $1,000 for children under age 4, and would increase the maximum available credit to $500 for children ages 4 to 16. Congress is on the cusp on enacting a one-year expansion to the federal child tax credit, but many children would still be excluded from its impact. 

The Hevesi bill would provide immediate relief to at least 70,000 excluded children and would benefit 2.1 million New York families once fully phased in. Estimates show it would reduce child poverty by nearly 8%, deep child poverty by 9%, and under-4 child poverty by 12%. This would amount to the most significant reductions in the state’s child poverty rate in decades.

Columbia University researchers have estimated that child poverty costs New York over $60 billion a year. Cost-benefit analyses of expanding child tax credits to the poorest and youngest children have shown societal returns of up to $8 for every $1 spent on these programs.

Child poverty and the continued exploitation of immigrant workers is a stain on the state’s progressive credentials. Our leaders in Albany can end the pattern of neglect and issue a long-overdue dividend for children in poverty and excluded workers instead of continuing to mortgage our future.

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Wes Moore is the Chief Executive Officer of the Robin Hood foundation, which has granted more than $71 million since the onset of the pandemic to organizations assisting New Yorkers. On Twitter @iamwesmoore & @RobinHoodNYC.

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A Clean Slate in New York


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(photo: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


Around the world those who share my faith are celebrating Easter, the essence of which is finding new life and moving past that which could have destroyed us. 

That is the core tenet of our faith and, because of this credo, we are called to both celebrate second chances and participate in the triumphs over daily oppressions. 

Yet unfortunately, we make renewal and redemption nearly impossible for far too many of our neighbors. Take the 2.3 million New Yorkers who have a conviction history. Under our current system, they are punished long after completion of their sentences and endure a lifetime of difficulty in finding jobs, accessing housing, getting into educational programs, and obtaining countless other opportunities. 

This is a system that is designed to make people fail, but we finally have a chance to write a new story together. That starts with passing Clean Slate legislation in Albany this year, which would put an end to this perpetual punishment by automatically expunging New Yorkers’ conviction histories after a period of time. 

This is a fight that is rooted in human dignity and fairness. When people return home from jail or prison, they find themselves facing a second sentence. Employers, schools and landlords often want nothing to do with someone who has a conviction history. They will quickly toss an application or resume aside and assume the worst, leaving a supposedly free person chained to the past. 

Where is the fairness or justice in this? We are not providing our friends and family a chance at renewal, but instead a lifetime of blocked opportunities. This sets off a predictable cycle that can lead to poverty and homelessness, often putting people right back in jail or prison. 

Nobody should be permanently judged by their worst moments — and certainly not when those moments are often the result of over-policing and excessive prosecution. We know that the criminal legal system is deeply unequal and disproportionately criminalizes people of color. Repairing the damage of an unjust system begins with erasing the collateral consequences of having a criminal record.

Rather than pushing away our community members with conviction histories, we should be embracing them when they return home. The emotional, social and economic toll of incarceration is enormous, and it can take years for someone returning home to get back on their feet. 

But we all benefit when folks can get back on their feet. It means stronger communities, a broader applicant pool for employers, greater economic growth for our state, and increased community safety for all. 

This can only be accomplished by eliminating the stigma and collateral damage of conviction records, which is where Clean Slate comes in.  

Currently, the onus is on individuals to participate in a complicated and protracted application-based process if they want to clear their records. As a result, very few New Yorkers are able to actually complete this process, particularly if they do not have legal representation. The Clean Slate legislation in Albany would ensure everyone is given this life-changing relief, irrespective of their ability to navigate the application process or afford a lawyer. Under Clean Slate, an individual’s conviction would be automatically sealed, and later expunged, after completion of their sentence. 

Though we often preach redemption, it is not reflected in our laws. For far too long, we have failed our friends, family members and neighbors who have struggled after returning home from incarceration. 

But we have the power to address this injustice. The moral imperative to do so is clear and pressing.

We can write a story where everyone can secure employment, steady income, stable homes, and other vital opportunities. We can write that story together by supporting the Clean Slate campaign. 

In the spirit of this season of resurrection, let’s fight for the freedom to find new life on the other side. 

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Rev. Kevin VanHook is the Minister of Justice, Advocacy, and Change at Riverside Church. On Twitter @RiversideNYC.

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