Gotham Gazette

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Democratic Mayoral Candidates Talk 'Faith in New York'

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De Blasio at the Faith in New York interview (photo: @FaithinNewYork)

The four main Democratic mayoral candidates had a chance on Thursday to publicly show how far to the progressive left they are, appearing just over six weeks from primary day at a series of open discussions with Faith Over Fear Coalition, a citywide coalition of more than 90 congregations and more than 25 faith and justice groups, convened by Faith in New York, an advocacy organization that launched in 2013.

Faith in New York (FINY), which describes itself as a “citywide network of congregations and faith-based partners who transform our moral values into public policy,” and its coalition partners conducted separate public interviews at Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village with Mayor Bill de Blasio, former City Council Member Sal Albanese, police reform activist Bob Gangi, and entrepreneur Michael Tolkin. Sitting with coalition leaders around four tables arranged in a square, the candidates had a chance to discuss their records and platforms, and were asked a series of questions about their support for key Faith Over Fear policy agenda items.

The coalition has developed a seven-point list of general priorities, each with specific policies underneath. The broader categories are “Defend Our Immigrant Community,” “Uphold Religious Freedom,” “Stand Against Hate Crimes and Protect Civil Rights,” “Ensure All Voices are Heard, Counted & Respected,” “Protect New Yorkers from Abusive Policing,” “Make Housing Accessible to Current Communities First,” and “Protect Our Communities From the Threats of Climate Change.” The candidates were asked both general and specific questions from the full platform (it be found on the group’s website), including multiple policy priorities that de Blasio has not supported.

For the incumbent mayor, the forum was a somewhat rare campaign appearance -- de Blasio has been selective about which candidate forums he attends. He has thus far declined to appear at any that resembles a debate, with multiple candidates appearing at once, instead agreeing to a handful of forums where the candidates appear one at a time, like with Faith Over Fear.

The mayor’s interview was mostly focused on his first-term record. De Blasio, while conceding that there’s more to do, touted his administration’s achievements in, among other things, reducing the use of stop-and-frisk, passing and implementing mandatory inclusionary zoning to produce affordable housing, and, most recently, guaranteeing legal counsel in housing court to low-income New Yorkers who are facing eviction. The mayor also discussed issues at the federal level, excoriating the attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and stating that loss of federal funding could tie a second de Blasio administration’s hands on his policy priorities.

Fatoumata Waggeh, Civic Organizer for African Communities Together, a Faith Over Fear member organization, recounted to the mayor the story of a family known by an alias for their protection, the Khazir family. The Khazirs left Pakistan amid political tensions and overstayed their visa to settle in Astoria. The family now has two children, one in a specialized high school and the other in a gifted and talented program. On a family trip to Niagara Falls, the family’s GPS “erroneously” directed them to a Canadian border crossing in Buffalo where they were detained by Customs and Border Patrol agents. However, when the case was transferred back to the city, the family couldn’t benefit from an attorney provided by the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project because they were bonded out of detention.

Upon completing the story, Waggeh asked de Blasio how his administration would ensure all immigrants are provided an attorney upon detention rather than at their first hearing. In response, the mayor stated that, while the Khazirs provide an example of why federal immigration policy is broken, “some of the premises may not be fully accurate on how we approach the situation.” The mayor cited a recent vote to provide a “bigger commitment” to immigrant legal services, while stating that there are some “stipulations,” such as for those who have been convicted of a serious crime. But he stated that the profile of the Khazir patriarch, whose words were recounted by Waggeh, sounded like “exactly someone who could get our support now.”

After the forum, de Blasio met privately with the Khazir family. Stuart Marques, the spokesperson for FINY and the larger coalition, told Gotham Gazette that “the mayor met with the family to speak about legislation to fund legal representation for undocumented immigrants."

De Blasio also faced a round of questioning on the timeline for closing Rikers Island. In March, the mayo announced a 10-year timeline for closing the jail complex, which has been assailed by criminal justice advocates as too long to wait to close an institution they believe violates human rights. De Blasio stated that he is the “first mayor to ever say in 85 years we’re gonna close it,” but feels that he would do a disservice to people by stating that Rikers can be closed faster, citing the difficulties in reducing the inmate population to 5,000 and the time it take to expand and build new jail facilities in the boroughs.

De Blasio also said he believes that police-community relations and racial disparities in policing have improved under his tenure, with a more representative NYPD, implicit bias training for officers, fewer arrests, and a significantly curtailed usage of stop-and-frisk.

Gangi, a longtime police reform advocate, is largely basing his quixotic campaign on de Blasio’s perceived failures in policing and criminal justice reform. Saying he hopefully voted for de Blasio in 2013 but is disappointed with him, Gangi claims that his administration could close Rikers within a year, citing an opinion piece he wrote for the Daily News where he suggested that ending broken windows policing and cash bail, and decriminalizing fare evasion, marijuana possession, sex work, and gravity knife possession, as outlined in a report by the Lippman Commission, which studied the city’s criminal justice system and put forth a plan to close Rikers jails, would significantly reduce the population at Rikers, enough to plausibly close the complex in one year.

Gangi chastised de Blasio’s 10-year Rikers plan as “cockamamie.” “To say you need 10 years to close Rikers is not true, and also, even if he’s reelected, he won’t be mayor for five years before 2027. So whatever he says now has no bearing or hold on whoever’s gonna be in office at that time. It was a political dodge, it was an election year pledge.”

Gangi believes that broken windows policing -- which de Blasio has steadfastly supported and had his police commissioners implement -- impacts other policy areas as well, stating that the practice puts undocumented immigrants in the “crosshairs of ICE.”

In the Faith Over Fear interview, Gangi also discussed open discovery reform, meaning that prosecutors must share their information with defendants and their lawyers at the beginning of a case to expedite and equalize the legal process. Gangi referred to New York as having a “notoriously lazy legal culture.”

Gangi went so far as to suggest that the NYPD’s culture is entrenched to such a degree that the only solution for ending abusive policing could be “significantly dismantling” the department, referring to this idea as “the most radical thing our campaign is promoting.”

Albanese has a different outlook on the police. While he said that the city “shouldn’t need Rikers Island,” he does believe that the city should be enforcing what he calls “quality of life” crimes, which is the basis of broken windows policing -- stringent enforcement of low-level crimes in an effort to keep order and prevent larger crimes. Albanese refers to broken windows as a “marketing term.” However, he doesn’t think that cops should be giving out summonses in a cavalier manner to fulfill a quota. The NYPD has consistently denied over the years that it employs quotas for arrests or summonses.

“What I want to do is work with communities around the city, not from headquarters, but have community policing in place, big league community policing,” he said, in an apparent effort to say that his version would be better than the “neighborhood policing” model de Blasio’s NYPD is in the midst of rolling out across the city. Albanese said people he speaks to in public housing wish for quality of life offenses to be enforced.

On housing, Albanese and Gangi both believe that for-profit developers should be left out of affordable housing production, contrasting themselves with de Blasio, who has weathered criticism for allowing developers to build luxury housing if a certain percentage of units are affordable. Albanese consistently says that this stance of de Blasio’s means that he is in the pocket of big developers, and boasts that he is independent of them as he has not taken money from them for his campaign.

Albanese has recently stated, and in the interview reinforced, his support for a pied-a-tierre tax on properties purchased by foreigners as investments and not lived in. The money from this tax would go into an affordable housing fund.

Gangi emphasized the use of a “community median income” in determining eligibility for affordable housing, decrying the idea of including areas like Westchester in the area median income currently used to determine affordable housing eligibility.

The mayor boasted of the recent legislation passed by the City Council providing a right to counsel in housing court, but stated that it is but “one piece of a much bigger equation,” referring to the city’s efforts to create equity under his leadership. De Blasio did not preview any new policy plans, instead focusing on his record and the key tenets he wants to continue. He mentioned “stopping bad landlords,” a two-year rent freeze in rent stabilized apartments, and a billion dollar investment in NYCHA maintenance.

The candidates also received questions on NYPD surveillance, specifically of Muslim communities and political groups. De Blasio claimed that, having come of age in movement politics, he is “very sensitive” to the question of whether the police are using surveillance to advance political goals, but claimed that the administration is no less transparent than previous administrations, noting that a Muslim surveillance program from the Bloomberg era had been discontinued. De Blasio, who often decried Bloomberg era policies, including what he called a lack of transparency, especially at the NYPD, has recently said multiple times that he is satisfied with following long-held standards.

The police frequently ignore Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests, which de Blasio defended by saying that divulging some information could impede investigations, or even threaten individual safety. “Worthy of more conversation,” he said. He further stated that the NYPD “deeply respects” the Handschu agreement, which regulates the department’s enforcement and investigatory powers regarding political activity.

Albanese was more blunt about FOIL: that the department should comply with requests, and quickly.

“Things like FOIL should be turned over expeditiously,” he said. “I’m not particularly sure if it involves sensitive information, the Handschu agreement, as you know, drives all that stuff.” He said that Muslims should not be treated any differently from other New Yorkers, recounting his experience of immigrating from Italy and facing discrimination as an Italian.

As the mayoral primary heads into its final six weeks before the September 12 vote, de Blasio is a heavy favorite. He has many advantages of incumbency, including a significant fundraising advantage, and solid poll numbers. Albanese has raised a decent sum and may qualify to face de Blasio in an official Campaign Finance Board-sanctioned and televised debate. Gangi has struggled to raise funds, while Tolkin has had a limited campaign thus far, though he has appeared at candidate forums and reported giving his campaign a $5 million in-kind contribution, which he says will show itself soon (Gotham Gazette arrived at the Faith Over Fear interviews after Tolkin had spoken).

In a press advisory about the series of interviews, Marques, the spokesperson, noted that presumptive Republican mayoral nominee Nicole Malliotakis had not responded to offers to participate in an interview and that independent mayoral candidate Bo Dietl may set up another time to meet with the group -- Dietl was out of town on Thursday, campaigning in the Dominican Republic.

At the end of each interview, the coalition leaders asked the candidates to commit to meeting with them within the first 100 days of the next mayoral term. Albanese, Gangi, and de Blasio all agreed. They attempted to get de Blasio to set a specific date, which de Blasio said would be arrogant to do before even securing reelection.

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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