(L-R) Mark Levine, Elizabeth Caputo, Brad Hoylman, Kimberly Watkins, Ben Kallos
As 2021 creeps closer, so does the most consequential municipal election in possibly decades, one that will decide the entire political roster that represents the city with few incumbents eligible to run for their current seats due to term limits. In overwhelmingly Democratic New York, the Democratic Party primary in June is all but certain to determine the winner of almost every seat. In Manhattan, nearly half of the borough’s 1.6 million registered voters are Democrats, more than seven times the number of Republicans, and five Democratic candidates have already lined up to pursue the nomination to become the next Borough President.
Borough presidents don’t have nearly the same amount of power that they enjoyed decades ago but they play a crucial role in the city’s political pecking order. Their most prominent role is the voice they add to land use and development decisions, even if it is an advisory one. They can sponsor legislation in partnership with City Council members. They allocate millions in capital budget dollars for infrastructure. They appoint members to community boards, to the citywide Panel for Educational Policy, the City Planning Commission, and local Community Education Councils. They have a great deal of leeway to pursue pet projects and priority issues, and their impact is limited by how effectively they can use their bully pulpit.
The five Democrats running for Manhattan Borough President include City Council Members Mark Levine and Ben Kallos; State Senator Brad Hoylman; Kim Watkins, president of Community Education Council 3; and Elizabeth Caputo, former Manhattan Community Board 7 chair. Three of the five, save Kallos and Watkins, are based on the west side of the borough. Kallos is an Upper East Side resident and Watkins lives in Harlem. Notably, all five are white though the borough’s population is 47.2% white, 17.8% Black, 17.4% Hispanic, and 12.8% Asian, according to U.S. Census data as of July 1, 2019.
As of February 21, there were 832,312 registered Democrats in Manhattan and only 109,269 registered Republicans. There were also 227,729 party-unaffiliated registered voters, often called independents. Democrats have held the position of Manhattan Borough President for many decades. There are no Republican candidates as of now.
The next borough president will have big shoes to fill. Current Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who is term-limited, is a famously popular veteran of city government, known for her ubiquitous presence around the borough. During her tenure, she’s built a reputation for embracing community concerns and opposing real estate developers, a powerful political force that is increasingly falling out of favor among Democrats. Brewer has been focused on civic technology, internet access, and small businesses, among other issues.
Among the five candidates vying to replace her, Levine and Kallos have been out in front of the field, having spent much of the last year building their campaigns and raising funds. Watkins, Caputo, and Hoylman, who is the most recent entrant to the race, are still getting their campaigns off the ground, though the city’s public matching funds program will likely help all of them gain solid footing, particularly Watkins and Caputo, who are both first-time candidates (for paid, full-time government positions, that is). The 2021 city elections will also be the first with ranked-choice voting in place for special and party primary elections, and the Democratic candidates will have to garner support in the varying constituencies across the borough. As elected officials, Levine, Kallos, and Hoylman likely have name-recognition advantages, but they too will have to show they can appeal to voters outside their current districts. Caputo has been a civic leader in the vote-rich Upper West Side, while Watkins is a Harlem resident who has also been extremely active in her surrounding community.
The candidates all face one common challenge, the crises facing the city that will be front-and-center in all of the dozens of city government elections taking place next year. The city is still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic and its effects will be felt well into 2021, and beyond. Though it was not as decimated as other boroughs, Manhattan has experienced its share of death and illness. More than 1 million New Yorkers lost their jobs, many based in Manhattan. The borough’s office buildings emptied, wealthier residents left the city in droves, many businesses went under, especially those relying on commuters and tourists.
The next borough president will have to offer a unifying vision for the borough that speaks to its specific neighborhoods and can address the many current crises as well as long-standing issues, some of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
In interviews with Gotham Gazette just ahead of their first debate, scheduled for September 17, each of the five declared candidates offered their campaign pitch and the path forward that they envision for the borough. They addressed the major problems – struggling small businesses, a lack of affordable housing, school segregation, among others – and how they would approach issues around real estate development and local opposition to siting municipal facilities like homeless shelters. While some offered concrete ideas and potential solutions, others shared vague values statements.
Elizabeth Caputo: “I really look at what's happening now in our city and in our borough as a time for qualified new leadership.”
Caputo has not been in elected office in the 25 years that she’s called the Upper West Side her home. But she sees that as a strength, not a weakness as she seeks the borough president seat.
Caputo does have experience with national politics, local governance, community leadership, and representing constituents: she previously served as chair of Manhattan Community Board 7, where she created a public housing task force to help NYCHA residents in the district, among other accomplishments she’s touting in her early borough president campaign.
She has worked for the last six years on U.S. government engagement for the World Economic Forum and also chaired Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century, a progressive political organization. Prior to that, she was vice president of infrastructure and municipal capital markets at the investment and financial firm Morgan Stanley. “The one continuous thread that I have had throughout all of my careers that have really bridged public and private and global and local has been an ability to bring Manhattan communities together,” she said. “And so I really look at what's happening now in our city and in our borough as a time for qualified new leadership.”
Her work with the WEF has put her in a position to work on the types of issues that a borough president would have to handle such as municipal finance and local infrastructure projects, she said. “I feel very strongly that this is an executive position, not a legislative one, and that it's very important to have people who understand how to run things and know how to get things done,” Caputo said.
She said voters are tired of career politicians who have overseen the very worsening issues like unaffordability that they say they want to tackle. And the next borough president, she insisted, needs to have a long-term vision. “The pandemic is not something that's going to be going away, and it's not going to be going away in June, and it's not gonna be going away whenever the new borough president, whenever she gets elected,” she said. “It's going to be a job that requires somebody who can have a roadmap and a plan for the next decade or two decades.”
Her top priorities are “responsible and equitable development, education, and mass transit,” and she promised that she would release detailed plans on each in the coming weeks as her campaign picks up. “I spent a lot of my time at the World Economic Forum thinking about new forms of mobility, new forms of the future of work, how people are working and living, and also how to minimize what is a very growing divide between the haves and the have nots,” she said.
Caputo repeatedly emphasized her collaborative approach, both on the community board and in her private sector experience, which she said would be necessary when confronting local issues like the Upper West Side homeless hotel controversy. “I think the key is to have a responsible, even-keeled leader who can go in and talk to all the parties at the table, treat them fairly,” she said. “Even if you personally don't agree with them, treat them fairly to try to come up with a solution.”
Unlike other candidates, she didn’t commit to any voluntary restrictions on her fundraising, though she insisted she will not be swayed by her donors. “I'm not prepared to answer that question right now,” she said, when asked if she would reject real estate donations in particular. “Nobody is going to be influencing my decisions...I will not be influenced by any group, whether it's a lobbying group or developer or quite frankly, a number of lobbying organizations that do give money and endorse candidates, I'm going to be my own person. And I'm going to vote my conscience on things,” she said. She insisted that she is “not a pro-development candidate by any means” but said the job of borough president would require working with every industry for the betterment of the borough.
Brad Hoylman: “A Marshall Plan for Manhattan.”
Senator Hoylman recently won the Democratic primary for reelection to the 27th State Senate District, which covers the West Village, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, Stuytown-Peter Cooper Village, and a big swathe of Midtown Manhattan.
In office since 2013, when he replaced State Senator Tom Duane, Hoylman has had a productive career in the state Legislature. He chairs the judiciary committee and has passed 79 bills including several significant pieces of legislation such as the Child Victims Act, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), a ban on conversion therapy for minors, the repeal of a religious exemption for vaccinations, the Police STAT Act, and the TRUST Act to allow Congressional committees to request President Donald Trump’s state tax returns. Before serving in the Senate, Hoylman was general counsel to the Partnership for New York City, a group that represents the interests of the city’s biggest businesses.
If elected, Hoylman would become the first openly gay borough president in the city, and is currently the only openly gay member of the state Senate.
He painted a grim picture of what could happen to Manhattan in the coming months and years, even as he pushed back against the doomsayers who claim that New York is beyond saving. “Unless we act now, we could see our borough become, at one end of the spectrum, a hollowed-out shell reminiscent of the 1970s. At the other end, a playground for the rich,” he said as he pointed to local businesses shuttering, homelessness increasing, and residents increasingly worrying about being able to afford their rent. “It's hard to believe but the question is actually being asked, ‘Does the city have a future?’ And the answer has to be ‘yes,’” he said.
He wants to push for a solution that resembles “a Marshall Plan for Manhattan,” he said, referring to the post-World War II foreign aid that the U.S. provided to western Europe. “We need to rebuild our communities in a way that's fair and smart and recognizes the disparate needs and challenges of say Washington Heights versus Midtown Manhattan,” he said, calling the borough president’s office “fundamentally an office of planning.”
Hoylman sees the recovery from the pandemic as an opportunity to fix the mistakes of the past. The post-9/11 boom in construction, he noted, did not address the need for affordability in the borough. “With this enormous challenge of the pandemic and the worldwide recession which we're undergoing, there's a new moment to meet the affordability question in the borough,” he said. “But it's going to require a borough president who stands up to a lot of powerful forces.”
He’s done just that “since day one in the Senate,” he said, citing his legislative battles against “the real estate lobby, big tobacco, the NRA, anti-vaxxers, and even Donald Trump over his taxes.” He said he intends to develop a formal “Manhattan Marshall Plan” that will center affordability while encouraging development.
Even as he pursues a large-scale vision, he won’t ignore the minutiae of the borough president’s office, Hoylman said. He plans to create a task force on city services and quality of life to address everything from trash pick-ups to snow removal. “In the midst of what I consider to be the verge of a humanitarian crisis and rising rates of crime, the borough president can use this office as a platform to call for action,” he said. He’s also pledging to establish an advocacy resource center to help parents navigate the public school enrollment process.
A major change Hoylman is proposing is to democratize the capital dollars available to the borough president by instituting “community board budgeting” somewhat akin to the City Council’s participatory budgeting program. He wants to delegate the funds to community boards and let them decide how to use them locally. “We have the perfect vehicle in our local community boards, who are the eyes and ears of our communities...and are experts on what we need to see as a city,” he said.
As with Kallos, Hoylman is also seeking to emulate Brewer’s leadership of the office, and touted the many occasions when he’s worked with her on various planning efforts. Like Brewer, he is also opposed to “self-defeating” term limits for community board members (Hoylman opposes term limits for all elected offices, in fact, save for the president).
Hoylman echoed a similar sentiment about the homeless hotel controversy on the Upper West Side. “The lack of notice and specific project planning shared with the local community was unacceptable,” he said. The local backlash could have been avoided, he insisted, if the de Blasio administration had better communicated its plans.
“If you have an idea, and can build a coalition of support, the sky's the limit,” he said.
Ben Kallos: “I’m a student of Gale Brewer and I want to continue her legacy.”
Council Member Kallos is a two-term Democrat representing a district on the east side of Manhattan including much of the Upper East Side, Roosevelt Island, Midtown East, Sutton Place, and part of East Harlem.
Kallos has been a reform-minded activist, aide, and now elected official with a focus on improving how government functions, including a heavy emphasis on campaign finance reform. Currently, he’s the chair of the Council’s Committee on Contracts and has used the position to call out waste in city procurement. From 2014 to 2017, he chaired the Committee on Governmental Operations and successfully championed improvements to the city’s campaign finance law and elections administration among a slew of transparency and accountability measures.
A lawyer by training, he previously served as statewide coordination committee chair for the New York Democratic Lawyers Council and was chief of staff to Assemblymember Jonathan Bing, before becoming executive director of the New Roosevelt Initiative, a government reform political committee.
Over his time in office, Kallos has built strong relationships with labor unions and nearly 50 unions or union chapters have endorsed his campaign for borough president, though the list does not include any of the biggest unions in the city. He also has the backing of U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a prominent Manhattan Democrat whose district overlaps with his, and former Public Advocate Mark Green.
Kallos prides himself on having won office in 2013 while refusing campaign contributions from real estate developers, lobbyists, and corporate donors, before such pledges became en vogue among Democrats. It’s also why he believes he’ll have a stronger voice in land use issues as borough president. “I've been dedicated to big structural change that would change the incentives for elected officials and how they governed,” he said. “And the biggest power that the borough president has by far is land use power.”
He worked closely with Brewer and activists to pass a community-led rezoning that prevented super-tall buildings from being constructed in Sutton Place, on the east side between 53rd and 59th Streets, in his district. He also touted his successful effort to lead a borough-wide coalition to limit the use of mechanical voids to increase building heights.
He touted various accomplishments as a Council member, many of them part of citywide or state initiatives, including securing nearly 2,000 pre-kindergarten seats for his district; bringing in Citi Bike, new ferry sites and select bus service lines; the launch of the Second Avenue subway; and $275 million for the crumbling East River esplanade. “I can do it because I've done it in my district,” he said of borough leadership.
“I think a lot of folks are talking about some of the problems our city is having but these aren't new problems. And these are all things I've been kind of single-mindedly focused on trying to fix,” he said, though he didn't offer any particular new goals.
Kallos believes he’s the candidate who is most closely aligned with how Brewer has run the office, and wants to be as omnipresent as she has been in her tenure. “I am a student of Gale Brewer and I want to continue her legacy, which is going to be very hard to do,” he said. “The biggest part of the job is going to be showing up. No one shows up more than Gale Brewer.”
He’s also shown a willingness to confront the types of issues that were raised on the Upper West Side around sheltering homeless people in hotels. In 2016, he created the Eastside Taskforce for Homeless Outreach and Services to help the chronically homeless. During the pandemic, at least 200 people experiencing homelessness were sheltered in a hotel in his district, Kallos said, explaining that he worked with local community leaders and service providers to proactively address the quality-of-life issues that arose and resolved them.
Kallos was one of the few City Council members who voted against the recently-approved $88.2 billion city budget, because it did not make more extensive funding cuts to the NYPD’s nearly $6 billion annual operating budget. The budget vote came in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests and police reform activists wanted to see as much as $1 billion cut from the police department. “I think this is going to be a key issue in this race and I think it will be disqualifying for candidates who haven’t been willing to say ‘Defund the NYPD’ and aren't willing to do it,” he said, in a thinly-veiled reference to Levine’s vote in favor of the budget, which included hundreds of millions of dollars in projected cuts and cost shifts from the NYPD. Kallos also returned campaign donations to police unions and vowed to never accept them again.
He did note that he had one area of disagreement with Brewer. When community board term limits were proposed as a ballot referendum last year, Brewer opposed them while Kallos was in support of the measure, which voters passed overwhelmingly. He has taken a particular interest in making sure that the community boards in his district are diverse and have the resources they need to perform their work, he said. “I give discretionary funds from my office to pay for urban planners for the community boards so that they can take on developers,” he said.
He also cited an oft-unused city charter-given power of the borough presidents to monitor how contracts for services are fulfilled. The borough president can call a hearing of a contract performance panel, if they choose. “The borough president has a unique role when it comes to delivery of services through contracts or through agencies to make sure they do better,” Kallos said. “And I think that's just the tip of the iceberg.”
Mark Levine: “My entire career has prepared me for this moment.”
City Council Member Levine is in his second and final term representing a district in northern Manhattan that stretches from the Upper West Side through West Harlem to Hamilton Heights. For the past three years, he has served as chair of the Council’s health committee, a role that thrust him into the spotlight amid the coronavirus outbreak, and as chair of the parks committee before that. After his first term, he launched a substantial campaign to become the City Council Speaker, ultimately finishing what was essentially second to the victor, Corey Johnson.
Prior to the Council, he was a bilingual math and science teacher in the South Bronx and founded a community development credit union. He was also a community board member.
“We are going to need to rally as a city. We're going to need to act boldly so that we can rebuild in a way which is smarter, healthier, and fairer than before. And my entire career has prepared me for this moment,” he said.
He touted many achievements as a Council member, including the approval of hundreds of units of deeply affordable housing in his district, creating a new historic district in Morningside Heights that preserved 115 buildings in perpetuity, and major capital improvements to parks, schools and libraries. His work has already earned him the endorsement of about a dozen district leaders, Assemblymember Al Taylor, and fellow Council Member Margaret Chin.
Levine’s most prominent and likely most impactful accomplishment has been passing legislation that created a right to counsel for most low-income tenants in housing court, which has led to a massive drop in evictions. More recently, serving as health committee chair during the pandemic has helped bolster Levine’s profile, at times to the national stage; it earned him a profile in the Washington Post that proclaimed him the “Anthony Fauci of the New York City Council’ despite his lack of a background in medicine and occasional public missteps. When the state went into lockdown, Levine became known for an active social media presence, sharing key information and pushing the de Blasio, Cuomo, and Trump administrations.
Building off that, Levine said he would place public health equity at the center of his borough president campaign, having seen the disparate impact that the pandemic has had across the city, particularly for communities of color. “The profound inequality of this borough has been exacerbated by this crisis, but this crisis also gives us an opportunity to fix some of the systems that have led to that inequality,” he said of health care, housing and more. He argued the city should double down on affordable housing development, particularly by acquiring new properties using a community land trust model as prices drop.
Levine’s priorities are each informed by the pandemic. He noted, for instance, how it has highlighted the need for expanding public space. “I think we need to bring about a golden age of public space, of open space,” he said. He said that the next borough president will have to make mass transit a top priority, as the MTA faces a deep budget hole and commuters turn to cars, which may inundate the city and worsen traffic and pollution. Levine said it is essential to “find a way to get people out of private cars and into mass transit and other alternative forms of transportation, whether it’s walking, bicycling, or other environmental transportation.”
“The job of the Manhattan borough president is to use every lever of the office to fight for the people who actually live in this borough,” he said. “To put their needs above those for whom Manhattan is just a place to work or play or visit. People who live here understand that this is actually a borough of neighborhoods. It's 100 small towns, and the job of this office is to ensure that every one of those towns, those neighborhoods, is healthy and equitable, vibrant and livable.”
Ultimately, he said, the borough president’s office provides a platform for organizing voices across the borough, whether its local nonprofits, community boards, or community education councils, “so that the agenda of the borough president simply can't be ignored.” He cited his successful advocacy for the tenants counsel legislation, which required a multi-year organizing campaign that he put forth with co-sponsor Vanessa Gibson of the Bronx, then-Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, other Council members, and advocates. “That's my model for using this office as an organizing vehicle,” he said.
It’s also what he said he would have done in the case of the Upper West Side hotel that has recently been at the center of a political furor over homeless individuals being housed there. “There's a right way and wrong way to set up new facilities and there has to be more consultation with local communities,” Levine said, insisting that the de Blasio administration’s approach was flawed. He cited his own fight for expanding a homeless shelter and building supportive housing on 108th Street, which he said required partnering with the neighborhoods around the project and convincing residents of the necessity of the facility. “In the end, even those who didn't support the project came to understand its importance,” he said.
One of the major issues that Levine said the borough faces is the decline of small businesses and the struggles imposed by the pandemic. He has proposed creating a municipal bank that can finance community economic development projects, small businesses, green technologies, community land trusts and worker-owned cooperatives. “I'm going to make Manhattan the world leader in community development finance in a way that will offer a lifeline to struggling small businesses,” he said.
He’s also promised to use the office to promote viable alternatives to public safety that do not involve the police. “It's got to start with investments in social services and youth development and anti-poverty programs, but we also have an obligation to call out injustice in policing and ensure that policing does not disproportionately target Black and brown communities as it too often has,” he said.
Kimbrely Watkins: “I feel like we're running out of time to change direction in terms of how the government operates and does its business.”
Watkins said she was inspired to join Community Education Council 3 on the Upper West Side six years ago after seeing how badly segregated schools were in the district. As CEC president, she led the effort to remove school zoning lines to improve diversity across schools, which proved to be a controversial and hard-fought endeavor.
“I'm running because...as a school leader in District 3, I've had a front row seat to the dysfunction in our government,” she said, “and I feel like we're running out of time to change direction in terms of how the government operates and does its business.”
That experience particularly disillusioned her about the city’s failures, as she saw elected officials rejecting an effort meant to desegregate schools. Even the mayor was poised to cave to the opposition. “We had to shame the politicians...The only way that we got it through was was to drag it into the public eye via the New York Times, essentially,” she said.
“COVID-19 has magnified that dysfunction,” she added.
Watkins emphasized the need for “governmental responsibility and fiscal responsibility” as she criticized decision making in the city from the mayor down to the local level, driven by political winds and special interests rather than based on logic or data. “What we need now is a changemaker,” she said. “We need to redefine what we get in a borough president and that is someone who's going to buck the mayor, someone who's going to push at the local level...smaller grassroots and ground activity.”
The city’s response to the pandemic, she said, “is a great example of how utterly in the toilet the current government is.” Despite early warnings about COVID-19, city officials continued to urge New Yorkers to go about their daily lives without taking special precautions until the middle of March, by which time the virus had spread well across the city.
She was particularly incensed about the wasteful and inefficient practices that she said end up costing taxpayer money and she would raise alarms about as borough president. She cited the shortage of school nurses, an issue that CEC 3 has raised in the past and which has now forced the city to rely on more costly, commercial firms to fill the gap as schools plan their reopenings. And she pointed to the Department of Education’s faulty screening processes for special education services. “We don't do a good job at the DOE in terms of screening students, particularly low-income Black and brown students, for the services that they need in special education. And therefore, families have to sue in order to get what they need, which again fleeces the taxpayer,” she said.
Referencing the recent city budget battle over NYPD funding, she again called for reining in excessive spending. “Taxpayers should call bullshit on that talking point because we did not defund the NYPD. We didn't do anything with the NYPD,” she said. Having previously been an auxiliary police officer, she said she personally understands the need for policing in communities. But, she said that the police department “should not be a military operation.” “We can provide, and we should provide a level of government service in communities of color that have traditionally been over-policed and have a functioning police department in those same communities,” she said.
One of the chief challenges the next borough president will have to manage is boosting the struggling small businesses in the borough. As someone who has run a small business herself, Watkins said she’s seen firsthand the types of bureaucratic hurdles that business owners need to jump through. “I'm a big believer in working with our entire city operation to figure out a way to create a catalyst for reigniting our main street New York,” she said.
In the ‘90s, Watkins was director at the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s New York Race for the Cure. In the 2000s, she taught at an upstart program called Manhattan GMAT, where she eventually became senior director of marketing and student services but was eventually pushed out in 2007 by the company president, future presidential candidate Andrew Yang, whom Watkins said was sexist and biased against her for having gotten married (allegations Yang denied on the campaign trail this year). Watkins currently runs inSHAPE Fitness, her own company, working as a part-time private trainer and as a marathon coach for New York Road Runners Club.
Watkins also wants to encourage policies that promote home-ownership rather than just creating affordable rental housing. “We don't create any intergenerational wealth within our housing structure,” she said. “The people that buy apartments in New York City are rich and white, and mostly male and that has to stop. We need more [Housing Development Fund Corporations], more Mitchell-Lamas. We need more opportunities for ownership.” Watkins herself is an owner in an HDFC, a type of co-operative housing that is meant to be permanently affordable.
On the homeless hotel controversy, though she criticized the “secret process” used by the de Blasio administration, she did say there was “a legitimate concern” about increasing crime and quality of life issues. “Had a trustworthy mayor been in an office and had the borough president, City Council member, or the state elected officials been informed, I think they probably would have buffered the consequences on the ground in a way that allowed residents to feel more comfortable,” she said.
The five Democratic candidates for Manhattan Borough President will meet for a debate hosted by Arena and Empire State Indivisible on Thursday, September 17.
Note: this article has been corrected to note that Watkins lives in Harlem, not the Upper West Side.