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Why We’re Marching to Close Rikers


Martin Close Rikers

Glenn Martin & others rally to #CLOSErikers (via JustLeadershipUSA)


For years, New Yorkers have been barraged by stories of violence and corruption on Rikers Island. On Saturday, September 24, hundreds of New Yorkers -- including people who have spent time on Rikers Island and their families; criminal justice reform activists; faith leaders; and elected officials -- will march together and demand that Mayor de Blasio #CLOSErikers.

Led by JustLeadershipUSA, in partnership with the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, the growing campaign has been endorsed by nearly 100 organizations representing a broad swath of New Yorkers. Saturday’s march and rally mark a turning point in the effort to shut down what City Comptroller Scott Stringer has called “an urban shame.” This is a movement with momentum that cannot be ignored.

By now, the reasons to shutter this jail once and for all are painfully obvious. The “systematic culture of violence” identified by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in his scathing 2014 report continues unabated, contrary to the Mayor’s blandishments that conditions are improving.

On Aug. 28, the Daily News reported that its review of internal documents showed that Rikers Island higher-ups were routinely “purging” unfavorable violence statistics to create an “illusion of reform.” Every week the media reports new atrocities: rapes, beatings, knifings, suicides. This cannot go on. Rikers Island is a human grist mill and an ugly stain on our city’s reputation for being progressive and compassionate. Rikers cannot be fixed; violence and corruption are embedded in its DNA.

With all of these problems, who can oppose closing Rikers? Mayor de Blasio has contended that closing the facility is “unrealistic” and too costly. On Saturday speakers will point out that our current system is too costly: We are spending $208,500 a year to detain one person on Rikers Island. That is money that can be better spent on programs to help individuals and communities. Furthermore, 80 percent of the people detained on Rikers are pre-trial, and should be waiting at home until they have their day in court.

Equally essential to closing Rikers is our demand to build communities. For decades, Rikers Island has meant tremendous suffering to our city’s most vulnerable communities. Most detainees come from the city’s poorest neighborhoods and 89 percent are black or Latino. More than 40 percent of the detainees have a diagnosed mental illness. Many others suffer from drug addiction. Confinement at Rikers only exacerbates these conditions. Spending months and even years in detention before trial because of the inability to raise bail money leads to the further impoverishment of families, including children. Claiming that ending a human rights disaster in our midst is “unrealistic” dishonors this great city.

The only thing preventing us from figuring out how to do the right thing is a lack of political will. And the right thing includes investing in those neighborhoods that have been most seriously damaged.

There have been efforts to close Rikers in the past – once during the Koch administration in the late 1970s and again under Mayor Bloomberg. Both efforts suffered from a lack of community involvement and support. Today, the #CLOSErikers campaign is building momentum with community support from across our city.

For many of the people who are part of this campaign, who will be on the streets Saturday, this issue is deeply personal. We’ve both been directly affected by experiencing the terrors of Rikers -- Glenn spent time on Rikers twice during the 1990s; Anna’s son Jairo recently spent more than five years there waiting for trial. Most striking is that the horrors of Rikers Glenn experienced in the 1990s remain largely unchanged today.

We are marching because we have had enough of the human carnage and want to spare future generations of New Yorkers from it. It is time to close Rikers and build communities.

The march will begin in Astoria at Steinway Street and 30th Avenue at 1 p.m. on Saturday, September 24.  New Yorkers will march to a rally at the foot of the Rikers Island bridge at 19th Avenue and Hazen Street, where we’ll call on Mayor de Blasio to take action and close Rikers. Speakers include Emily Althaus, actress in Orange Is The New Black, elected officials from the City Council and the state Legislature, and numerous community leaders who have been impacted by Rikers. Join us.

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Glenn E. Martin is the Founder of JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), an organization dedicated to cutting the US correctional population in half by 2030, and a national criminal justice reform advocate who spent six years in New York prisons. On Twitter @glennEmartin.

Anna Pastoressa’s son Jairo spent nearly six years at Rikers awaiting trial, suffering physical and emotional torment. She endured the indignities of visitation and the outrageous delays in the criminal justice system and is now a prison reform advocate.

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Keeping a Republican State Senate Majority is Essential for New York


Flanagan and co

Senate Leader Flanagan & other GOP Senators (photo via NYS Senate)


Whether it’s at the state or federal level, recent history has demonstrated that when one party controls government, checks and balances go out the window. Recent history has some important lessons as we approach this year’s crucial elections.

In 2008 Democrats took control of Congress and along with the election of President Barack Obama, controlled the executive and legislative branches in Washington. In Albany, for the first time since 1964, Democrats gained a majority in the state Senate and along with Democrats in the Assembly and Governor’s office, controlled all of state government.

In Washington, Democrats enacted Obamacare and tax increases to pay for a health care program most people didn’t want. They ignored larger economic issues and failed to deliver on things Americans really wanted like jobs and tax relief. They rejected compromise and bipartisanship and governed largely on their own.

In New York, it was even worse. Democrats had a lock on state government and controlled the Legislature and every state-wide elected office. In the state Senate they set out on a path that rejected bipartisanship in favor of an agenda that left many without a voice, particularly upstate and in the suburbs.

Emboldened by their new majority status and dominated by New York City members, Senate Democrats had to prove they could govern and deliver results. And deliver they did. But in doing so they nearly bankrupted the state and made it more difficult for middle class families to make ends meet.

Without a single Republican vote, they enacted record spending hikes and some of the largest tax hikes in state history. New spending totaled $14 billion, matched by $14 billion in new taxes enacted. A new MTA tax on businesses was instituted and STAR rebate checks for homeowners were taken away. Limited state resources were shifted to New York City at the expense of upstate and the suburbs.

Democrats presided over a dysfunctional Senate where chaos ruled, culminating in an uprising led by renegade Democrats that produced an unprecedented disruption in state government and a constitutional crisis that forced the state’s highest court to step in and restore order.

New Yorkers clearly had enough. They took matters in hand and returned Republicans to the Senate majority in 2010.

Working with a new governor and more recently, new leadership in the Assembly, Senate Republicans got things back on track. They turned a $10 billion deficit into a surplus. They delivered six on-time budgets, enacted a property tax cap and new rebates for homeowners. They produced record increases in aid to education and delivered the largest tax cuts in state history.

They also undid much of the damage. New payroll taxes on businesses were repealed, property tax rebate checks were returned, and damaging cuts in education aid that forced schools to needlessly suffer were restored.

But some of the damage could not be undone. The disruption and divisions within the Senate Democrat Conference were beyond repair. Many senators grew frustrated with the dysfunction and misguided policies as their moderate views no longer fit in. They didn’t feel welcome.

So they did something about it. A number broke away and formed a separate Independent Democratic Conference, the IDC. Another decided to sit with Republicans and join their conference. All were determined to restore bipartisanship in the Senate. Together they forged a working partnership with Majority Republicans that continues to this day.

But some divides remain. None more so than the upstate-downstate divide, which continues to challenge lawmakers. Democrats, with their majorities overwhelmingly from New York City, see urban policies that favor New York and other large cities as their primary focus. Republicans fight to ensure that upstate and suburban areas get their fair share.

It is a constant battle. And without a seat at the table, upstaters and suburbanites get left out and suffer the consequences. We’ve seen it happen.

That’s why maintaining a Republican Majority in the Senate is critically important. Their members are from upstate and downstate; from suburban, rural, and urban communities. They give voice to small businesses and middle class New Yorkers and serve as their protectors in a government dominated by New York City interests.

Having spent nearly 30 years in the Senate, I witnessed it all. I watched Republicans serve as a responsible check on Assembly Democrats and governors from both parties. I saw them stop tax increases and government overreach because they were the lone voice of reason. And I was there when battles were lost and compromise was necessary to keep government functioning.

In my last two years, with New York City Democrats in charge, I also saw Republicans entirely shut out of the governing process. I witnessed the dysfunction and chaos that ensued and policies that nearly bankrupted and ruined our state. It was enough to convince voters that they had to change course.

In November voters will be faced with a similar choice. They can maintain the checks and balance so vital in our democracy or they can give Democrats sole control of state government and enable a New York City Mayor like Bill de Blasio to expand his reach on Long Island, the Hudson Valley, and even upstate.

Now that we’ve come this far, New Yorkers don’t want a return to the past. They want a healthy two-party system and assurances that all regions are treated fairly and equally. That’s why Senate Republicans should, and I believe will, be returned to the Senate Majority. Republicans offer the best hope to those who want checks and balances in government and the accountability that comes with it.

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John McArdle is President of Capitol Communications, a government consulting and communications firm. He worked in the State Senate from 1981 to 2010 and was Communications Director for three Majority Leaders.

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In the Face of Bigotry, Teachable Moments


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(photo via @NYCSchools)


This school year is very different from previous years. This September, students began their classes in the midst of a heated presidential race and a hostile political climate where nearly every young New Yorker -- black, Latino, immigrant, LGBTQ, female, and Muslim -- has been maligned by politicized messages of racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and bigotry.

This year, however, could also be different in other ways. If parents, teachers, and community leaders step up to the plate, this could be a year where we take time to educate our children about our nation’s First Amendment.

This nation was founded on the premise that all people should have freedom of religion; it is part of what makes our country extraordinary. No one should live in fear because of the color of their skin, the language they speak, or how they pray. This year is the perfect time to educate our children about what it really means to stand as one nation, undivided, no matter our faith traditions or our country of origin.

Students who are Muslim or perceived to be Muslim are under particular attack this year. Within a four-week range, there have been three murders of Muslims in New York, the city I call home. In Brooklyn last week, two women were assaulted while pushing their children in strollers for no reason other than they dared to leave their homes wearing headscarves. A Muslim woman in hijab window shopping in midtown Manhattan was set on fire. One can’t help but wonder how many other incidents of harassment and abuse go unreported in communities across the city and country.

Obviously, this is not a local problem. On a national level, anti-Muslim rhetoric has increased exponentially during the current presidential race. Our nation’s children have seen, again and again, proposals to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, to launch a database specific to Muslims, or even reintroduce internment camps.

In a school system of 1.1 million students, I can’t imagine what it is like for Muslim students and those perceived to be Muslim in New York City, especially during this time. Sadly, students experience prejudice and discrimination from their peers. In the days after Donald Trump’s initial call for a ‘Muslim ban’ back in the Spring, 10-year-old Nadine’s mother called me that her daughter was bullied in school and asked what should she do about it. Nadine, who lives and goes to school in the Bronx, was told by one of her peers that all Muslims are terrorists and ISIS and Muslims should go back to their country. Nadine’s heart sank and she felt defenseless in front of peers who said nothing to her aggressor, her mother told me.

Nadine is not alone, there are children across the US who are being bullied based on their religion. Bayan Zehlif, a Muslim student and senior in Rancho Cucamonga, CA was misidentified as “ISIS Philips” in her high school yearbook photo. What a terrible way to end your high school career.

Incidents like these can be prevented if schools make a concerted effort to create a caring and nurturing environment in every classroom where every child sees a reflection of him/herself in their peers. While we teach Common Core standards, prepare for AP tests, and coach our students before the SATs, we must not forget to prioritize students’ civic education. Their understanding of the world around them must include a focus on the virtues of a pluralistic society and empathy for their fellow human beings.

Empathy and respect for plurality can be fostered from simple “getting to know each other” activities, sharing stories of culture, costumes, and traditions, and discussions of what holidays stand for. Even hosting an open conversation about what it is like to be different from each other, and how that makes our democracy stronger, can shift the perspectives of our students to a more productive place.

When we invest in the time to do this, we connect our students, by mind and heart. We build bonds between them to see each other as allies and fellow students, not adversaries. As a result, we empower students to be upstanders, not bystanders, when one of their peers comes under attack. After all, this is what we want our country to look like. It should start in the classroom.

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Dr. Debbie Almontaser is the founding and former principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy. On Twitter @DebbiAlmontaser.

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Illegal Conversions and South Brooklyn’s Affordable Housing Crisis


south brooklyn illegal conversions affordable housing 

A home that has been illegally converted (photo: Tarry Hum)


Described as “a secret world of New York City housing” by The New York Times, several actions by the Department of Buildings (DOB) this summer exposed the ubiquity of illegal subdivisions in South Brooklyn’s immigrant neighborhoods.

Two August incidences within a two-block area near 70th Street and 7th Avenue in Dyker Heights received local media coverage while the raid of 818 55th Street in Sunset Park was reported only in the Chinese language press. In each case, a two family home was illegally subdivided to house multiple families including those with children.

The Sunset Park property was divided into 25 single room occupancy (SRO) units. According to one media outlet, Kings County Politics, these incidences “lend credence” to City Council Member Vincent Gentile’s ongoing efforts to pass legislation to impose severe civil penalties on “unscrupulous landlords” and expand the authority of DOB and the Environmental Control Board to inspect properties and issue fines and other penalties.

Earlier this summer, Council Member Gentile introduced his most recent bill, Intro 1218, co-sponsored by Council Members Williams and Grodenchik with the strong support of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and members of the New York State Assembly and Senate.

Illegal subdivisions are long standing and fairly pervasive in immigrant neighborhoods.  While there is no question that illegal conversions create substandard, unsafe, and overcrowded conditions that strain public infrastructure including transportation, utilities, and local schools, illegal SROs and basement units are often housing options of last resort for the city’s working poor.

A 2008 Pratt Center and Chhaya CDC study estimated that hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers live in illegal subdivisions or “phantom apartments.” In fact, MFY Legal Services attorneys argue, “the City depends on illegal SROs to ward off a homeless crisis that would ‘dwarf’ anything seen before.” Council Member Gentile and his co-sponsors seek to punish landlords who construct illegal and unsafe subdivisions and the provisions of Intro 1218 may be more effective in protecting and preserving the residential character of low-density neighborhoods than addressing the housing crisis faced by working poor New Yorkers.

Leading the charge for greater DOB enforcement and civil penalties for offending property owners are Community Board 10, Dyker Heights Civic Association, and Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance. Their well-attended town hall in February 2015 held at the Bay Ridge Knights of Columbus provided an opportunity for numerous residents to vent their long-standing anger and frustration. Most recently, these groups participated in a three-part informational series on illegal conversions produced by a Chinese language media outlet.

While the rationale for legislative action is framed around public safety due to potential hazards for emergency responders and tenants, and concerns about strained public services and infrastructure, Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance’s Bob Cassara made clear that the grievances are not just about public welfare and overcrowded schools. He asks, “Why do people want to live here? Why are those houses multi-million dollar homes? Because they’re maintaining the look of the neighborhood and that’s what we want to maintain over here as well.  So people are welcome here but they gotta play by the same rules. If they’re not playing by the same rules, they’re really not welcome in this community.”

A hyper-speculative real estate market has elevated and sustains the multi-million dollar value of South Brooklyn’s housing stock largely comprised of one- and two-family properties. However, these same market conditions are also the driving force for predatory equity and the practice of illegal conversions.

Sunset Park’s 818 55th Street is a particularly egregious example of greed and exploitation. Tracing the ownership of this property provides a genealogy of Sunset Park’s demography as the modest, two-family rowhouse passed from an Irish owner to a Norwegian owner, in 1973, and then, a series of Chinese owners beginning in 1987. Most significantly, when the property was sold in March 2015 to 818 Inc., it ceased to be a family home and became an investment vehicle.

Given Sunset Park’s speculative real estate market, within six months of 818 Inc.’s $1.45 million purchase, the investor group flipped the property for a mere $100,000 profit in the sale to Access 818 LLC in September 2015. A short month later, the first of several complaints that the two-family building was illegally subdivided into a SRO hotel with 25 rooms was registered with DOB. Although a full vacate order was issued in May, the Chinese press reported that at least 13 tenants were still living at the property, each paying a monthly rent of $400 for a closet-sized room, when the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement took action July 14. Access 818 LLC has since been issued six Class 1 violations indicating immediately hazardous conditions and incurred $69,000 in penalties.

Right around the corner from this illegal SRO hotel is a huge construction site for the future Winley Plaza Condominium, a modern, glassy six-story commercial condominium building with ground level retail. Financed, in part, with a Cathay Bank mortgage and EB-5 investments, the developers seek an unprecedented total sellout of $76.3 million which, according to The Real Deal, “would be the most expensive condo offering of any kind to date” in Sunset Park.

Developer confidence in the lucrative profitability of the neighborhood’s commercial real estate is evidenced further south on 8th Avenue near the Dyker Heights border, where a “ginormous” mixed use development is proposed. Purchased for $51.5 million in 2014, the developer and investment partners plan to build an office tower, two luxury residential towers and a hotel anchored by a Chelsea Market-style retail base. Nearby, a third place-making project called the Brooklyn Friendship Archway, an ornate traditional Chinese pagoda gateway, is expected to receive Public Design Commission approval later this month.

Some community leaders have deemed Council Member Gentile’s bill a form of “tough love” – unpopular but necessary. They also call for more residential development to alleviate the outstanding need for affordable housing. Given the current market climate, more development will not only fail to address the housing gap but will further exacerbate the affordability crisis faced by the working poor. As long as real estate properties are viewed as investment vehicles with tremendous untapped value, predatory activities such as illegal conversions will continue to shape the residential landscape of the city’s neighborhoods.

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Tarry Hum is a professor at The City University of New York (CUNY) and author of Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood. On Twitter @TarryHum.

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Democrats Must Control the State Senate


ASC and other Sen Dems

Sen. Stewart-Cousins and fellow Senate Democrats (photo: @AndreaSCousins)


This November millions of New Yorkers will head to the polls on Election Day. While our state legislative races receive far less media attention than the Presidential race, they are still critically important. Today, much of the dysfunction in our state, and our government’s failure to address the real needs of working people, young and old, is a direct result of continued Republican control of the State Senate.

Now that the primaries are over, it is essential that New Yorkers focus on Democratic control of the Senate through November’s vote.

There are currently 32 Republicans in the 63-seat State Senate, including Simcha Felder, who was elected as a Democrat but conferences with the Republicans. The five Democratic senators who make up the Independent Democratic Conference have conferenced with the Republicans under a power-sharing agreement first announced in December 2012. Although the people of New York State went to the polls in November 2012 and elected a true Democratic majority, the victorious Senate Democrats have been relegated to minority status in the State Senate since 2013, despite holding a technical majority in the chamber.

Defenders of the current majority leadership point to recent successes on issues like the minimum wage and paid family leave. However, support for those vitally important initiatives was a long-fought effort of the Democratic Party, the Working Families Party, labor unions, faith-based organizations, and progressive community organizing groups. That effort, which Governor Cuomo only began championing in early 2016, was met with outcry and dissension from the Republican-led majority. Today, the minimum wage agreement has resulted in a three-tier structure, with different wage limits and phase-ins that offer only limited relief to the poverty-level pay of workers in Upstate New York and Long Island.

Governor Cuomo, who wields enormous power and benefits from a divided Legislature, was indeed able to push some legislation through in this year’s budget. But should progress in our state depend on the discretion of one person? And what about important progressive issues like the DREAM Act, campaign finance reform, increased MTA and education funding, election reform, and closing tax loopholes—the carried interest loophole among them—that benefit millionaires and billionaires at the expense of the middle class?

A number of bills passed by the Democrat-led Assembly can’t get a vote on the floor of the Senate because the Republican leadership won’t allow it; examples include Nicholas’s Law, which would require the safe storage of firearms in homes, and GENDA, which would outlaw discrimination based on gender identity or expression and has passed the Assembly nine times in consecutive years. Even the tenth plank of the Women’s Equality Agenda, which governs abortion rights, can’t pass the Republican-led chamber in a state that prides itself on being a progressive leader among other states.

Americans are conditioned to see a fully funded public education as the right of every child and every family. Our state constitution guarantees a sound public education to every student. Yet despite the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, decided almost a decade ago in favor of New York parents, public education here remains underfunded to the tune of billions of dollars, leading to the most racially and economically segregated classrooms in our nation.

Super PACs advocating for charter schools, which often siphon resources away from public education, and for tax credits for private and parochial schools have not shied away from advertising their interest in maintaining a Republican-led majority. In the primaries, one such PAC, New Yorkers for Independent Action, specifically targeted a Democratic senator and three Democratic Assembly members representing communities of color. Thankfully, these efforts were unsuccessful as voters chose candidates who support public education.

Fulfilling the promise of public education—and supporting the hard-working teachers who provide it—has become a Democratic prerogative.

This year saw corruption exposed at an unprecedented level in Albany. Nevertheless, despite promises of strong ethics and government reform, New Yorkers have been disappointed time and again by the paralysis of our state Legislature. Reforms that get passed are inevitably watered down. Last month, for example, the governor signed an “ethics reform” bill that was roundly criticized by good government groups and editorial boards for not going far enough or attacking the root of the problem. Rather than addressing the perverse amounts of money being thrown at our state legislators, the bill simply increases disclosure requirements for independent expenditures and lobbyists.

By contrast, the Democrats, led by State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, are looking to close the LLC loophole, which allows corporations to give nearly unlimited funds to candidates. They also propose enacting a public financing system for elections and lowering contribution limits for campaigns. These reforms would fundamentally improve our system of government by taking power out of the hands of large corporations and powerful lobbyists, who are able to wield extraordinary influence in Albany at the expense of tenants, immigrants, seniors, and students.

This November New Yorkers have a chance to take back some control of their state Legislature by electing a real Democratic majority. We urge New Yorkers to restore and expand on the promise of Election 2012 in this crucial election year.

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Kate Linker and Kim Moscaritolo are the president and vice-president of the all-volunteer advocacy organization Greater NYC for Change, a partner in the Demand Democracy campaign. Kim is the Democratic District Leader in AD76 in New York City.

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For a Better Judicial Nominating Process, Support a Constitutional Convention


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Mayor de Blasio swears in judges (photo: Ed Reed, Mayor's Office)


We need to change the New York State Constitution to curb corruption in our government, we simply cannot wait for our elected officials to make those changes for us.

Finding examples of corruption and self-serving behavior among our politicians in New York City and State is not difficult. It is part of all three branches of government - the legislative, executive, and judicial. In fact, New York has a judicial nominating process that has been condemned by Supreme Court justices. There is too much secrecy and politics in the process by which our judges are chosen, threatening to delegitimize our courtrooms.

Of the moment, this Summer New Yorkers are again witnessing the results of a judicial nomination process controlled by the political parties in Manhattan and Brooklyn. In Manhattan, Supreme Court Justice Doris Ling-Cohan was not recommended for reappointment by the Manhattan Democrats, and the party only allowed her to proceed to the nominating floor after party members and lawyers expressed their outrage. In Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Democratic Party declined the reappointment of Justice Laura Jacobson earlier this summer. Although there is much speculation regarding the political machinations that led to both of these experienced, well-regarded judges losing the Democratic Party’s support, we don’t know the actual reasons in large part because the process is shrouded by the private political organizations which make these decisions.

New York’s party control over the judicial nomination process is legal, and supported by our State Constitution. Current Surrogate Court Judge Margarita López Torres challenged the state judicial nomination process when the Brooklyn Democrats refused to nominate her for State Supreme Court in spite of her qualifications. She fought it all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and it was Justice Antonin Scalia who wrote the final opinion against her. She lost in a unanimous decision, but the Justices certainly did not endorse our State judicial nomination process.

In his opinion, Justice Scalia described the New York judicial nomination process and its criticisms. “In 1911, the New York Legislature enacted a law requiring political parties to select Supreme Court nominees (and most other nominees who did not run statewide) through direct primary elections. The primary system came to be criticized as a ‘device capable of astute and successful manipulation by professionals,’ Editorial, N. Y. Times, May 1, 1917, and the Republican candidate for Governor in 1920 campaigned against it as “a fraud” that ‘offered the opportunity for two things, for the demagogue and the man with money,’ N. Y. Times, Oct. 23, 1920.”

Justice John Paul Stevens, in a concurring opinion, went further and quoted Justice Thurgood Marshall, saying "The Constitution does not prohibit legislatures from enacting stupid laws." In spite of the 2008 decision’s emphatic condemnation, this is still the system we have today.
To be sure, we cannot completely eliminate the politics from choosing judges. However, we live in a democracy that values the impartiality and strength of its judiciary. We should do all we can to instill people with confidence that when they go into the courtroom, they are being heard by the most impartial decider possible. Nobody going through a messy divorce wants a political hack making a decision over which parent gets custody on an appeal. And no judge should have to worry about whether their decision on an election matter will risk their reappointment years down the line.

Let’s remove the judicial nomination process from the total control of the political parties. In most of the city’s boroughs, Democrats decide who gets on the ballot and those candidates win without any actual opposition due to their majority voting bloc. Our elected officials will never have the will to change this system because they have zero incentive to do so. The best way to achieve this reform is by voting “Yes” in November, 2017 to a Constitutional Convention and working out a better, less partisan, less tightly controlled process for nominating, voting on, and appointing judges in New York State.

UPDATE: On September 14, 15 members of the New York County Independent Screening Committee Panel submitted a letter stating that Justice Ling-Cohan merits continuation in office.

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Richard Semegram is a practicing tenant lawyer. On Twitter @richagram.

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'Excellence & Equity' Must Include Smart Approach to Top High Schools


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Mayor de Blasio (photo: Rob Bennett, Mayor's Office)


As this school year began last week for over one million students, Mayor Bill de Blasio took advantage of the first day of classes to publicly highlight his efforts to improve the educational offerings of New York City schools. The mayor is now doing so under his banner “Equity and Excellence” agenda.

There is a long way to go. Currently, only about 38 percent of the students in our elementary schools are reading at grade level. About 70 percent of students graduate high school. Of those graduating, large numbers are not prepared to do college-level course work -- nearly 80 percent of our high school graduates attending CUNY community colleges must take remedial courses in reading, writing, and math.

According to one study, only students lucky enough to get into 34 of the system’s 428 high school programs that report graduation statistics have a decent shot at making it through college successfully.

To many, the challenges seem overwhelming. Because of their magnitude, I applaud Mayor de Blasio for recognizing the problems and trying to do something about them by adding pre-kindergarten, expanding course offerings, hiring more guidance counselors, and focusing on reading on grade level by third grade.

Unfortunately, instead of recognizing the outstanding performance of schools like Brooklyn Tech, which use a Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) as the criteria for gaining admission, the mayor also used opening day to bash these test-in schools by repeating debunked mythology about the need for multiple criteria to correct for a test that supposedly limits diversity.

Contrary to the mayor, according to NYU’s Research Alliance for New York City Schools, substituting multiple criteria for the test “would not appreciably increase the proportion of Black students admitted and alarmingly several of these alternative criteria would actually decrease the number of Black students offered” admission. The root problem for the demographic outcomes of the test, and the mayor’s initiatives recognize it, is that our school system provides unequal educational opportunities for many of the children in our city’s black and Hispanic communities.

Newsweek magazine recently published its annual list of the top high schools in the country doing an outstanding job of educating students from families qualifying for free and subsidized lunch, the criteria used in educational circles for measuring poverty. These schools are not only educationally exemplary – among the top 500 in the nation - but given the poverty levels of their student bodies, they are considered off the charts, so to speak, for producing college-ready graduates as measured by graduation rates and passing scores on Advanced Placement tests. New York City had five of the top ten schools in the nation on Newsweek’s “disadvantaged” list.

Of the five, four were test-in high schools, including Brooklyn Tech. Townsend Harris, which uses multiple admissions criteria, was the only other city school making the top ten list. Townsend’s admissions criteria include consideration of the applicant’s middle school grades in English, math, social studies and science; scores on state tests in language arts and math; and middle school attendance and punctuality. According to the Department of Education, black students make up only 5.6 percent of Townsend Harris’ student body. By comparison, black students at Brooklyn Tech are 7.5 percent of the student body. While Townsend is home to 64 black students, Brooklyn Tech educates 417.

The Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, which I head, is working with Tech to increase the number of its black, Hispanic, and female students. We are in our third year of running a successful pilot STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) Pipeline program which targets underrepresented middle schools in Brooklyn. With the help this year of $250,000 from the New York State Legislature we doubled the number of students in our program. In the past, we have had great success and we hope to do more with this additional funding.

The Legislature also added money to fund programs at the other test-in schools, including Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, to reach out to middle schoolers from underrepresented communities and prepare them to succeed on the SHSAT and to do well at a specialized school once admitted.

Our efforts, along with the DOE’s, to improve diversity at the test-in schools are important. But more must still be done. The DOE should revive the Specialized High School Discovery Program, which is moribund at most of the test-in schools but is the legally available alternative mechanism for disadvantaged students to gain admission to these schools. Highly effective for promoting ethnic and racial diversity in the past, economically disadvantaged applicants just missing the cutoff scores took summer classes to demonstrate mastery of skills needed to do the advanced coursework required by these schools.

Because poverty rates are now roughly equal among black, Hispanic, and Asian families living in New York City, to be effective a revived Discovery program should also redefine “disadvantaged” to include attending a poorly performing or poorly represented middle school. Because of segregated housing patterns, this would help deal effectively with the educational inequality suffered by too many of the students in our city’s black and Hispanic communities.

The city’s school system is not fair. We all know that. But that said, four of the top ten schools in the nation for working class, immigrant, minority and low-income families are test-in schools here in New York City.

I applaud Mayor de Blasio and the DOE for continuing to work on improving educational excellence and diversity in our schools, but it does little good to attack a test giving every test-taker an equal and fair shot at gaining admission, especially since elimination of the test as the lone admissions factor would negatively affect diversity at these special schools.

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Larry Cary is a Manhattan lawyer and president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation.

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Vigilance in the Fight Against Islamophobia


MMV Daneek Miller

Daneek Miller, left, & Melissa Mark-Viverito, the authors (photo: William Alatriste)


In New York, we have always embraced diversity. We strive to make sure that everyone feels welcome—no matter their race, faith, or background. This has never been more important for Muslim Americans, who have been the target of vicious political attacks during this election cycle.

This month, Muslim Americans across the country and in New York City will be celebrating Eid al-Adha. As our fellow community members observe this important religious holiday amidst a rising trend of Islamophobia, we must be mindful of their safety. Let us continue to set an example for strengthening our community and promoting open-mindedness.

Recently, Muslims have been the target of hate speech and violence in their homes, schools, neighborhoods, and places of worship. These verbal and physical attacks represent a broader trend of discrimination against Muslims.

According to the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University, anti-Islam rhetoric in the United States has increased significantly during the current presidential election cycle. In fact, anti-Muslim attacks surged in the days and weeks after Donald Trump made anti-Muslim statements, suggested instituting a database to track Muslim Americans, and called for shutting down mosques. In recent months, organized, sometimes armed, protests against mosques have increased, as well as the targeting of Muslims for bullying or hate crimes.

This year’s presidential election has seen the candidate of a major political party not only endorse bigoted views, but also encourage the spread of these attitudes among his followers. Donald Trump’s message of bigotry has created a hostile climate against Muslims, immigrants, African Americans, Latinos, and women, dividing and weakening our communities. This marked increase in Islamophobia in the United States means that every day Muslims are unable to go about their daily lives without worrying about their personal safety. As we have seen with Imam Alauddin Akonjee and most recently with Nazma Khanam, Muslims are frequent targets of hate and violence. As a Latina legislator, as an African-American Muslim, we will not let any hateful rhetoric go unchecked and unchallenged. We have and will continue to stand up and speak out.

When an individual’s ability to publicly practice his or her faith is threatened, all of our liberties are at stake. We need to protect the freedom to practice faiths of all kinds and to educate others about diversity. That’s why the City added two Muslim holy days to the public school calendar in 2015, to ensure that all Muslim-American students can celebrate holidays together with friends and family.

Our fellow City Council members have also been very vocal about protecting the rights of Muslims in New York to practice their faith in peace and safety. Just last December, we helped organize a large interfaith rally on the steps of City Hall in coordination with other elected officials and faith leaders to denounce Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant remarks.

Despite challenges, our city will stand strong against these messages meant to divide us. Muslims continue to play important roles in our communities, contributing to the multicultural fabric of our city and our nation. Muslims are important figures in New York City arts, sciences, and businesses, as well as in public service – like Congressmen Keith Ellison and Andre Carson. Muslims are artists, teachers, doctors; mothers, fathers, and cherished members of their neighborhoods.

Institutionalizing Islamophobia only causes our communities to live in fear. This month, in the spirit of Eid, we must reject bigotry and collectively work together to spread awareness and hope. We have a responsibility to denounce discrimination and violence and to ensure that all communities can feel safe and respected in New York City. That is why, this Eid, we ask everyone in our broader community to do what they can to spread kindness instead of hatred, understanding instead of suspicion, and acceptance instead of close-mindedness.

Traveling across this city, whether to Bay Ridge or Midland Beach or Astoria, to connect with New Yorkers of all backgrounds and faiths has always been a highlight of serving in elected office. All of us are part of the New York City community, and we look forward to celebrating Eid together.

New York City is home to one of the most vibrant Muslim communities in the country. In order to continue preserving the values that make this city so special, we need to make sure that we are listening to the needs of Muslim-American New Yorkers.

Islamophobia has no place in New York City. Instead of embracing hateful rhetoric, we should be lifting up Muslim voices and sharing the stories of Muslim-Americans.

New Yorkers have always been stronger together. Together, we can work to protect and promote diversity and defeat Islamophobia.

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Melissa Mark-Viverito is the Speaker of the City Council and Daneek Miller represents parts of Queens and is the only African-American Muslim City Council Member. On Twitter @MMViverito and @IDaneekMiller.

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Corruption in Albany: Will Anything Really Change?


Cuomo 2016 State of the State side stage

Gov. Cuomo (photo via The Governor's Office on Flickr)


Can legal restrictions halt corruption in the state Legislature? History suggests that they are necessary but limited.

A new ethics law, more of the same
Several state legislators have been charged with corrupt practices in recent years and the leaders of both houses of the Legislature found guilty of violating federal laws. Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos are headed to prison unless their appeals succeed. The Legislature considered several basic remedies in the 2016 session. It passed a bill championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the very end, introduced so late in the session that many leaders did not have time to read it and speeded through with the help of a "Message of Necessity" from the governor, which enabled the Legislature to dispense with requirements for deliberation that would at least have provided time for news media and other watchdogs to dissect it and legislators to read it.

After waiting as long as possible, the governor signed it in late August with no public ceremony and only a brief statement that “New York is taking aggressive action to restore the people’s faith in government and increase accountability and transparency in the electoral process.”

"They needed an ethics reform so people knew they could trust Albany and this is a great first step," he added. "If people don't trust the system, the system can't function." That was a tepid endorsement at best. This is the fourth state ethics bill that Cuomo has signed and this one has almost nothing to do with the practices of state lawmakers.

The new law places new restrictions on independent expenditure campaign contributions but does not close the so-called "LLC Loophole,"which allows firms that control several limited liability companies to multiply the means of giving to campaigns. It doesn't restrict legislators' outside incomes or create blockades against a pay-to-play culture of campaign contributions and government decision-making. One of the things that it does do is force issue-oriented lobbying groups to disclose more donor information. That may undermine some of the good-government groups that pressed for more sweeping ethics legislation.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group, is among those who have said that the law is probably unconstitutional. Dadey said that "my organization's board was astonished by this piece of legislation."

"Common Cause/NY is deeply disappointed that Governor Andrew Cuomo has chosen to ignore the causes of systematic corruption in Albany, and instead wrongfully punish organizations' proper and lawful collaboration to more effectively advocate for their causes,” said its executive director, Susan Lerner.

Business, money and politics -- an old story in New York
As noted, Gov. Cuomo calls this new law a good first step. But is it really that?

In his annual message to the Legislature, the governor denounced "political contributions by business corporations" as "morally wrong....Its contributions are influenced by business and not by patriotism and, like other investments, are made in the hope and expectation of financial return or to avert threatened pecuniary injury." The governor recommended making political payments by corporations a criminal offense.

Cuomo in 2016? Actually, it was Governor Frank W. Higgins, in 1906.

Higgins was reacting to the long history of scandals over corporate funds swaying political elections in New York,  allegations of large secret corporate campaign contributions in the 1904 presidential election and the 1905 mayoral election in New York City, and a recent legislative investigation that had revealed insurance companies spending to influence legislation affecting them.

The Legislature took up and quickly passed three pieces of legislation. One prohibited corporate campaign contributions. Another required candidates and political committees to make public a record of their campaign receipts and expenditures. A third redefined corrupt practices by defining what campaign expenditures were acceptable. They went into the statute books as chapters 239, 502, and 503 of the Laws of 1906.

Since then, the campaign ethics laws have been amended and updated, and impacted by court decisions. But the role of money in politics has continued. There have  been lots of legislative scandals, but they have usually led to meager ethics reform, as they did this year.

Good government groups often call on the Governor to pressure the Legislature to adopt more sweeping measures. That would require the Governor to expend political capital and rally the citizens to pressure the Legislature.

"It is easy for an executive to run against the Legislature," said Governor Cuomo. "We want an ethics bill. [But] I cannot get an ethics bill by piling up political victory after political victory on the editorial pages."

That sounds like the rationale for Andrew Cuomo's seeming casualness about ethics reform this year.  Actually, it was his father, Mario Cuomo, in 1987, explaining yet another stunted reform initiative.

What might help, beyond the law and the prosecutor?
Legal proscriptions, and vigorous prosecution of corruption, such as that carried out by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in recent years, are essential to good government. But history suggests that other factors are also important:

* The tone starts at the top. If the Speaker of the Assembly and the Majority Leader of the Senate are models of probity, they set the right tone and their example may cascade down through the two houses of the Legislature. One example is Oswald D. Heck, New York's longest-tenured Assembly Speaker (1937-1959): scrupulous, honest, personally modest, but a very effective leader. Assembly scandals were very rare in his 22-year tenure.

*Real competition in legislative elections. It keeps incumbents on their toes, discourages ethics lapses that their opponents might use, and forces them to really explain and defend their records at election time. Throughout much of New York's history, most State Assembly and Senate seats were contested. More recently, particularly because of redistricting and gerrymandering, many districts are overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican. That discourages opposition, advantages incumbents, and may help promote a feeling of complacency.

*Giving rank-and-file legislators more power in their respective houses. The prosecution and conviction of Assembly Speaker Silver revealed his power to designate committee chairs and control the flow of legislation. Members of the Assembly's Democratic majority felt inclined, or compelled, to "go along" rather than take principled, independent stands that might have earned them the speaker's enmity. Silver stamped out potential opposition, e.g., from Majority Leader Michael Bragman who lost his position after challenging Silver for the Speaker's post in 2000 and resigned the next year.

Speaking in Albany last February, Bharara decried the complacency of legislators, whom he called "enablers" in the "rancid culture" at the Capitol. The current Speaker of the Assembly and Majority Leader of the Senate have both indicated they are giving more leeway to individual legislators. But still more is needed.

*Aggressive news media. Over the course of our history, the Albany press corps has exposed more corruption than any U.S. Attorney. Journalists’ vigilance and oversight help legislators avoid temptation. The hometown press follows, or should follow, local legislators' committee assignments, bills introduced, position statements, speeches, and to the degree possible, campaign contributions. The advent of 24/7 news, online forums, and social media can shed even more light and promote transparency.

*Widespread public frustration with government. Work by the Pew Research Center shows the distrust and disappointment. Public officials are seen as needing more integrity, values-based judgment, and application of personal ethics in their service to the public. Those are not easy things to impose by ethics laws or threats of prosecution for unethical or illegal acts. They are more deep-seated, character-based. Perhaps we should require every legislator, or at least every new one, to read Clayton Christensen's 2012 book “How Will You Measure Your Life?” It's about achieving a fulfilling life through ethically-based service to others, a reminder that pursuing -- or spurning -- corrupt practices is, fundamentally, a personal choice.

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Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne's latest book is The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History, published in 2015 by SUNY Press.

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

Taking the Wheel at Automotive High School


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Kevin Bryant, the author


The challenges I’ve faced as both a teacher and a principal have not only shaped my approach to education, but they’ve defined my career and my accomplishments.

During my four years as the Principal of Frances Perkins Academy I always sought new ways to challenge myself, colleagues and staff, students, and their families. By setting high standards and pushing ourselves to meet them, our school realized our boundless potential to exceed our own expectations, and those laid out by others. This idea guided my tenure at Frances Perkins and it will continue to guide me as Master Principal of Automotive High School, where I’ll lead the day-to-day turnaround and still continue to support Frances Perkins. I’m at the point in my career where I know I can do this hard work.

Over the last two years Automotive High School has been under immense scrutiny as it was named one of the lowest performing schools in the city. As a principal on the same campus as Automotive, I’ve seen its staff and students in the hallways and in meetings. I’ve seen their strengths and the persistent challenges that exist. I see hope, promise, hard workers, and the tenacity to do better. I enter my new role clear-eyed, knowing full-well that the road to progress will not be easy, but that it starts with earning the trust of my new colleagues and students and setting specific goals that will challenge us as a school and help us strive toward excellence.

In setting these goals and benchmarks, we need to first acknowledge that economic, achievement, and opportunity gaps persist. These can only be bridged when our students, teachers, and parents have a safe and supportive environment that invites them to become active and willing partners in education.

At Frances Perkins, we implemented a program similar to an advisory, in which a student and teacher were paired and met regularly to discuss the student’s progress and address any issues the student might be facing, either in and out of the classroom. This program was rooted in trust and accountability: it offered a safe and consistent space where teachers expected their students to show up, and students expected teachers to be there for them. Ultimately, the program helped increase both student attendance and teacher retention. I also instituted an open-door policy for parents, ensuring they always had the opportunity to ask me questions, voice concerns, and remain up-to-date on their child’s progress.

At Automotive I again plan to address some of the school’s greatest challenges by strengthening the relationship between students and teachers, fostering greater collaboration with our community based organization, encouraging parents to play a greater role in our school.

I want staff and students to feel supported by the administration and by each other; I want parents to feel welcome in our school and invested in its success; and I want to instill in our school the idea that every student, regardless of their circumstances, is capable of excellence. I know from first-hand experience that these efforts will pave the way for stronger instruction, an increase in enrollment, higher teacher retention, and expanded career and technical education (CTE) programming—something Automotive has the tools and resources to truly excel in. These efforts will all address our shared goal of improved student performance, helping our young people open more doors for themselves in the future.

At times the tasks ahead will seem daunting and as the new principal of a Renewal School I expect scrutiny from our community and the media. However, I plan to use the attention we receive as an opportunity to challenge the perception of school turnaround and to highlight the change, progress, and growth that I know will take place at Automotive.

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Kevin Bryant is Master Principal of Automotive High School.

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Opposing Shelters Won’t End the Housing Crisis


Crowley Maspeth shelter

Council Member Crowley opposes a shelter in Maspeth (photo via Twitter)


On Wednesday night I attended my community board meeting on a proposed homeless shelter in Maspeth, Queens. The city Commissioner of Social Services, Steve Banks, was there, along with hundreds of residents who are against the shelter. I was one of just a handful of homeless and housing rights advocates in the audience.

Though I was horrified by the residents who chose to stigmatize our homeless community – describing them as criminals, drug dealers, welfare hogs, and addicts, and questioning their immigration status – I was most struck by the vehement energy this community has thrown behind this cause, somehow believing that the community is exempt from the city’s housing crisis.

Homelessness is not an isolated issue. Homelessness is a product of the broader housing crisis – a crisis that is having an impact across the city in endless ways: gentrifying neighborhoods, segregating communities, and increasing income disparity, just to name a few. Keeping a homeless shelter out of your community does not solve problems.

At one point, a speaker shouted, “de Blasio brought this social engineering experiment to the wrong community!” But the “social engineering experiment” has been lingering in this community for years. Long before Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Banks came along, decades of failed government policies built the foundation of the housing crisis we’re living in today. Be it the loss of manufacturing industries and union jobs in the 1970s and 1980s, a state-sponsored shelter allowance for low-income households that has remained the same since the 1980s, quality-of-life policing of poor communities of color, and slashes to drug education and support programs, the city’s housing and homeless crisis was long in the making. This is what Mayor de Blasio inherited – this mess is what Commissioner Banks is urgently trying to reverse with limited resources, limited support from the State, and within a limited timeframe.

While failed policies have propelled the housing crisis, a lack of commitment and leadership from our elected officials has kept us from halting its momentum. Promising to preserve the “quality-of-life” of residents, Queens City Council Member Elizabeth Crowley has helped legitimize NIMBYism in Maspeth.

On Wednesday Crowley’s office announced a lawsuit against the City over the proposal to open the shelter. Rather than becoming an elected official who is actively involved in the fight to end homelessness and the housing crisis, Crowley falls sorely short by opposing the creation of the first homeless shelter in the jurisdiction of Community Board 5.

Meanwhile, at the state level, eight months have gone by since Governor Cuomo made a commitment to build 20,000 units of supportive housing, and there has not been enough movement. Supportive housing is a crucial source of housing that pairs permanent housing with on-site services. Research has shown time and again that it is the most successful (and cost-effective) way to end homelessness for individuals living with disabilities or other special needs.

Since the 1990s, New York City and State have made a joint commitment to fund supportive housing. While few Maspeth residents mentioned the need for support and services for homeless individuals, most are likely unaware that our governor is currently sitting on nearly $2 billion set aside in the state budget for crucial housing, including supportive housing. Only a small portion of the funds have been allocated.

It’s worth mentioning here that the City has made true to its commitment.

With 80,000 homeless statewide and thousands more living on the streets, in three-quarter houses, doubled up in apartments and in other precarious housing, it’s incomprehensible that our governor continues to pay so little attention to this crisis. It’s also unconscionable that people in our communities are turning their backs on city officials working to combat the homelessness and housing crises, and on their fellow New Yorkers in need.

What I saw last night was a crowd of people who know little about what has propelled us into this housing crisis in first place; they know little about the needs of the homeless community in New York, and they are not willing to learn about either. Imagine where we might be if instead of vehemently opposing a shelter, the community put equal effort into fighting for truly affordable housing for the New Yorkers who need it the most.

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Paulette Soltani is a community organizer with VOCAL-NY, a grassroots organization that builds power among low-income people impacted by homelessness, HIV/AIDS, drug use, and mass incarceration. She is a resident of Community Board 5 in Queens.

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