Gotham Gazette

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Democratic Mayoral Candidates Discuss the Future of the Bronx

bronxtalk mayoral screen shot

5 of the 7 mayoral candidates who appeared at the BronxTalk forum with host Gary Axelbank

Seven candidates vying for the Democratic nomination to become New York City’s next mayor appeared at a virtual TV forum to discuss their visions for revitalizing the Bronx, the borough hardest hit by COVID-19 and its economic impact and which already faced many deep challenges before the pandemic.

The forum was co-hosted by the Bronx Democratic County Committee and BronxTalk, a public affairs TV program on BronxNet, and moderated by BronxTalk host Gary Axelbank. Candidates discussed a range of issues important to Bronxites, namely food insecurity, transportation and infrastructure improvements, health care, affordable housing, music and arts school programs, police reform, and more.

Participating candidates included Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, former federal housing secretary Shaun Donovan, former city sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia, former Wall Street executive Ray McGuire, former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, city Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney and former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio. Andrew Yang was scheduled to appear but did not due to symptoms from COVID-19, which he recently tested positive for. Candidates had one minute to answer each question, which were submitted by the Bronx Democratic County Committee.

The chair of that committee, State Senator Jamaal Bailey, gave opening remarks about the importance of the mayoral election, the devastation COVID-19 wrought in the Bronx, and the need for mayoral candidates to speak to Bronxites.

Axelbank kicked off the Q&A by noting that the Bronx is home to Cooperative Home Care Associates, the country’s largest worker cooperative, an arrangement whereby the company grants employees stakes. Axelbank asked candidates whether worker cooperatives are a valuable tool to grow the post-pandemic economy.

Several candidates agreed that the model should be expanded, but some had vague answers about the policies they would implement to spur economic recovery in the borough more broadly. Donovan said the worker cooperative model was “one of many” he would pursue as mayor to build “many forms of community wealth.” Stringer said he liked "the worker model," but didn't talk about it in detail, and also discussed reforming city contracting to focus on women- and minority-owned businesses, something he noted he has "taken Bill de Blasio to task on." He said the city needs a chief diversity officer and a new approach to supporting small businesses.

Morales, who worked for years in the Bronx running a social services nonprofit until stepping down to run for mayor, pointed toward more sweeping reform, calling for the creation of a “solidarity economy,” which she said would address citywide problems systemically, but she did not provide much detail about how this shift would really look. She said that investing in and expanding worker-owned cooperatives would feature as part her plan to generate wealth in communities over “extractive organizations.”

Wiley called worker cooperatives "a brilliant model and a critical tool" and pledged to "build more worker cooperative opportunities" if she's elected. She quickly spotlighted her $10 billion economic recovery proposal that she projects would generate 100,00 new jobs utilizing the city’s capital budget, emphasizing local hiring practices and contracting with women- and minority-owned businesses. Wiley said that her plan would 'create space' for worker cooperatives, though they are not mentioned on her campaign website, including in her “New Deal New York” jobs plan.

 “We should build out a pipeline to assist others who want to start these cooperatives and give them the support they need,” said Adams. He said the concept should be expanded and that it can be in conjunction with adjusting how city contracts are awarded.

McGuire, who is running on a pledge to reinvigorate the city economy with a business- and jobs-centric platform, discussed some of the details of his plans, but did not address whether worker cooperatives are part of it or if he believes the model should be expanded. He said he would invest in wage subsidies to revive 50,000 small-business jobs hardest hit by the pandemic. He also promised “relief when it comes to utilities and rent,” but did not quantify the degree of assistance the city would provide or how any of his pledges would be paid for. He called for community-driven development and building the city's way out of the current crisis.

Garcia called it "a wonderful model," also talked around the future of worker cooperatives, instead pivoting to propose that the city “provide low-interest or recoverable grants to [small business owners].” She also emphasized the need for “ladders from our CUNY system into the private and public sectors.”

Asked about how they would tackle food insecurity, most candidates offered vague solutions, while flexing their various connections to the Bronx instead.

Garcia gained firsthand experience tackling food insecurity as de Blasio’s emergency food czar during the height of the pandemic. In this role, Garcia said that 50% of the meals her team distributed as part of the expanded grab-and-go meal program open to all New Yorkers as a result of the pandemic went to food-insecure people in the Bronx.

“I was in the Bronx constantly,” Garcia said of running the program that has now distributed over 200 million meals, including delivery. She also said she has helped ensure that people have access to SNAP benefits. But in discussing this work Garcia did not propose any specific policies that she would implement as mayor to reduce food insecurity.

Wiley argued that food insecurity is the result of worker exploitation and job scarcity, saying that her plan to create 100,000 new jobs would tackle those issues concurrently. She also pointed out that “many food outlets do not provide union jobs,” which she said she would “work on.”

Both Donovan and Morales emphasized the need for locally-grown produce. Donovan spotlighted Via Verde, a Bronx affordable housing development that he helped create while working as the city’s housing commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the site of his official mayoral campaign launch. Donovan said it was successful because it was built in partnership with community members, who wanted “vegetable gardens and fruit trees growing on the roofs that the kids there could pick and serve at their own dinner tables.” He mentioned the popular Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., recalling how they had cut the ceremonial ribbon together. Donovan did not explicitly say whether his tenure as mayor would expand the Via Verde model, but food access is a cornerstone of his “15-minute neighborhoods” policy proposal, he said, which would provide residents with a good school, reliable transportation, fresh food, green space, and health care, all within walking distance of their homes.

Adams and Stringer called for nutritious food options in schools, with Stringer in particular describing how he launched the “Go Green” East Harlem initiative when he was Manhattan Borough President, a program that collected recipes from community members and published a cookbook. Adams suggested new “agricultural initiatives,” but did not go into detail. He flexed his friendship with fellow borough president Diaz, Jr., whom he called "amazing" in another comment indicative of the ongoing campaign within the campaign for support from the outgoing Bronx borough president, who had been plotting a mayoral run for years then declined to enter the field this year.

Diaz Jr. is among the Bronx Democratic heavyweights that many mayoral candidates are seeking endorsements from. That list also includes Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Bronx Democratic Party Chair Bailey, and the county party they lead in tandem, among other Bronx officials.

Adams said both he and Diaz Jr. were concerned about the overlap between food security and health outcomes, and he mentioned the borough president a few other times throughout the forum.

McGuire proposed expanding “the city’s zoning and tax incentives to bring supermarkets, not just Whole Foods, places working New Yorkers can afford.” He also suggested expanding financing for delis and bodegas “so they can install refrigeration and offer fresh fruit and vegetables.”

On transportation and infrastructure improvements, all candidates called for expanding transit access, to varying degrees of specificity.

Garcia and Morales called for new routes and expanded lanes for buses and bikes, with Garcia specifying the implementation of electric bikes, in particular. Neither specified exact numbers regarding these expansions.

Donovan promised to implement true Bus Rapid Transit but did not provide specifics. He also called for installing more Traffic Signal Priority (TSP) for buses, which utilizes technology to give buses fewer red lights, reducing commute times.

Stringer and Adams commended Diaz Jr. for his fight for more Metro North stations. While both candidates were vague about the specific policies they would implement as mayor to tackle transportation, Stringer cited his history fighting an exclusionary policy that prevented Bronxites from boarding trains from Connecticut on the New Haven line. “I stopped that,” he said, adding that he would “make sure that everyone is treated equally in the transportation system.” Stringer recently released a detailed transit plan, while Adams has offered a few broad strokes in his outline of 106 steps he’ll take as mayor. Adams praised the Freedom Ticket pilot program that offered flat-fee tickets and unlimited free transfers between bus, subway, and commuter rail travel, saying, “We should have a clear connectivity between the ferry, between our Metro North, between our Long Island Railroad, and the MTA,” he said.

Although Wiley stressed that transportation equity was a chief area of her experience as a civil rights activist, she was noticeably vague, promising to “work with communities on capital constructions, and that includes fixing our transit deserts,” but provided no details.

McGuire promised to repair outdated infrastructure, including repairs to subway elevators, which is work that goes through the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority, where the mayor of New York City does have Board appointments and control over some funding.

Donovan, Garcia, and Wiley said they want to see improvements regarding health care coverage. “My plan would create a true public option in New York City that would cover everyone, including folks who are undocumented,” said Donovan, in a preview of a yet-released health care platform. Garcia said she would “expand health insurance for everyone in the Bronx.” Wiley said she is “working on a plan to solve health insurance.”

Although Stringer said land use and zoning decisions perpetuate health disparities in Black and brown communities, he did not say what he would do differently or how he would solve those health inequities. He spoke personally about losing his mother, a Bronx resident, to the coronavirus and said there will need to be “a real conversation” about “our communities that have been ravaged by covid.”

After prompting by Axelbanks, Morales and Garcia pledged to ensure culturally competent health care service with diverse language access. They both also promised to expand community health clinics, and Garica in particular said she would expand telehealth options, too.

Adams again praised Diaz Jr., this time for investing in school-based health programs, and said he would implement school-based health clinics “to teach people how to be more proactive and not reactive.” McGuire said broadly that the city should “develop public-private partnerships” and “increase [health care] in underserved communities…through zoning and financing.”

Multiple candidates, including Garcia, McGuire, and Wiley, called for more affordable housing, with Mcguire in particular specifying affordable housing for those earning between $15,000 and $30,000 annually. Morales said the city must ensure housing for all, but did not go into specifics.

While Garcia, Donovan, and Stringer stressed leveraging federal funding to invest in NYCHA public housing, Morales disagreed, saying “more must be done” and proposed redirecting “all of the funding that we give to developers as tax incentives or tax breaks or tax abatements” directly to communities. She also voiced support for Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez’s housing bill, which would increase federal investment to address maintenance and improve living conditions for public housing residents, including NYCHA.

On NYCHA, Donovan said, “I’ve made a commitment to put $2 billion more in city capital every year” into the public housing system. Wiley said her economic recovery plan would invest $2 billion in capital construction for NYCHA and, distancing herself somewhat from candidates calling for federal aid, said, “I don’t need any permission from anybody for that money.”

Adams provided few details regarding his plans for NYCHA, saying the city should “make sure that we don’t lose these precious housing stocks that we have,” but he did not provide solutions for accomplishing this.

Asked how they would improve police tactics and instill community confidence in their police force, the candidates offered distinct responses.

Morales was the only one to explicitly evoke the ‘defund the police’ movement, reiterating her pledge to create a Department of Community First Responders that would respond to non-violent calls and connect people to social services and programs. She has promised to cut $3 billion from the NYPD budget but has not laid out a roadmap for how to do so. During a recent appearance on the Max & Murphy podcast, she said that plan and other detailed platform pieces are in development.

Donovan said he would “reduce the role of police to just violent crime,” eliminate policing in schools, and “take money away from the correction system” to invest in housing and job training.

Wiley called the police department budget “bloated” and said she would “invest public dollars in resources, not criminalizing poverty,” but did not specify a dollar amount.

Although he was the first elected official to put forth a policy plan to reduce the NYPD’s operational budget by $1 billion (over four years), Stringer did not raise reducing the police department budget during the forum. He noted he would “have a police commissioner that aligns with my values…to make sure that we hold the police accountable to safety and civil rights.” He added, “When we have mental health calls, we should send mental health experts out to work in our communities.”

Adams and Garcia called for mostly maintaining the existing system with some changes: Garcia called for increasing the minimum age of police recruits to 25 and ensuring that they live within city limits, noting that this would require amendments to state law. Adams proposed “having local community leaders choose their precinct commanders,” a call of his that Mayor de Blasio recently announced he would partially implement by insisting on input from local precinct councils.

“We need to restructure and have better policing,” said McGuire, adding that his police commissioner would hold officers accountable and ensure that their responses are proportionate. McGuire has said he’s for “better police, not fewer police” at a number of public appearances, though he has also indicated he would shift some resources from the NYPD to other agencies, but he has not specified those plans.

[Watch the full BronxTalk mayoral candidate forum here.]

[Read: The Bronx Becomes a Focal Point in Mayor's Race]

by Allison Smith for Gotham Gazette

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