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Borough President Candidates Talk Future of Manhattan Economy, Small Businesses

Manhattan Borough President candidates 2021 MBP

(l-r) Mark Levine; Elizabeth Caputo; Brad Hoylman; Kim Watkins; Ben Kallos

The five Democratic candidates running to be the next Manhattan Borough President via the upcoming 2021 election gathered by Zoom on Wednesday for a candidate forum hosted by the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, with topics focused on the devastated local economy and small businesses in the borough.

The participating candidates, seeking to replace term-limited Democrat Gale Brewer, were Elizabeth Caputo, a former community board chair on the Upper West Side; State Senator Brad Hoylman; Kimberly Watkins, president of Community Education Council 3 in Harlem; City Council Member Mark Levine of the Upper West Side and slightly north, and City Council Member Ben Kallos of the Upper East Side.

“With all the immense challenges we are facing during this global pandemic, it is a critical time to provide support to our small businesses and find ways for our local economy to rebound and support more New Yorkers,” said Jessica Walker, the president and CEO of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce.

Manhattan Borough President Brewer, whom Walker described as a “living legend,” was on hand for the event. The candidates running to replace her were also unanimous at the forum in praising Brewer’s leadership.

“It is an office that has less power than it did in 1989 when the charter changed and it’s an office that you have to make something of,” Brewer said. She noted the charter-mandated duties of the Borough President include a role in the land use process, appointments to Manhattan’s 12 Community Boards and other boards, allocating some funding within the city budget, and advocating for the borough before the City Council.

Why Run
“I’m running for this office because I believe now more than ever our borough needs qualified, new executive leadership to move our city forward to make it safer, cleaner, greener, and more equitable,” said Caputo, who described herself as “not an ideologue” and a “bridge-builder.”

“Due to COVID-19, we face the largest challenges in Manhattan in a generation,” Hoylman said, noting particularly the effect the pandemic has had on small businesses and the local economy. “Unless we rely on community-based planning, our neighborhoods risk becoming on one end a Disneyland for the super-wealthy and on the other end, a burnt out shell reminiscent of the 1930s,” the state senator said, adding, “We need a Marshall Plan for Manhattan and we do that by leveraging the borough president’s role in planning.”

“I know what it’s like to deal with the frustration of government bureaucracy threatening your ability to make a profit and the pressure of meeting payroll for your employees,” said Kallos, who cited his work experience. “I’ve always made public-private partnerships a priority,” he said, believing that they help with the delivery of government services. He noted that he has refused real estate and lobbying money throughout his Council tenure, which he said has enabled him to “stand up” to those interests.

“Local government has to support small businesses now and on the road ahead,” said Levine, the Council health committee chair who described New York City as currently experiencing a “second wave” of COVID-19. “I’ve been fighting for this city my entire adult life,” said Levine, a former teacher and nonprofit founder. He cited his work on Council legislation establishing a right to counsel for low-income tenants during eviction proceedings and his science-based focus in responding to the pandemic.

Watkins said, “for the Manhattan of which I am a part, the 2021 local elections represent the chance to take back our local government because what is happening right now isn’t working.” While noting most Manhattanites are probably currently focused on the U.S. presidential election, she said that she, as a CEC chair, “has a front-row seat to the broken promises, backroom deals, and fiscal mismanagement” in local government, pointing to the recent Upper West Side school district rezoning and the de Blasio administration’s limited efforts at school desegregation. “We have to be honest about how we’re facing institutional racism and really poor governance,” said Watkins, who has called for an end of mayoral control of city schools.

Approach to the Office
Kallos said “the borough president is Manhattan’s fixer,” noting his work in the City Council to make outdoor dining permanent, among other proposals. “Together we can do better than getting back to normal that never worked for any of us and build a borough that works for all of us,” he said.

“This office needs to put forward a bold agenda and organize to achieve it. That starts with combating this pandemic,” said Levine, who pointed out that COVID-19 cases have been on the rise in Manhattan for the past ten days. He advocates that “the richest among us” pay more in taxes to help the city recover. He highlighted the Borough President’s appointment powers, saying, “Those appointments need to reflect the diversity of our borough and our city.”

Watkins described the current state of New York City as “no progress in a supposedly progressive city.” She said she likes to “under-promise and over-deliver” and plans to set up a team in the borough president’s office to address “quality of life” issues. Through her professional career, Watkins said she has taken “undefined positions,” like that of the borough presidency...turning them into fruitful, progressive, and solution-oriented roles.”

“The office of Borough President needs to be home to a visionary leader,” said Caputo. “There’s a need for a leader who can have an actionable impact in the borough and someone who can help put New York back on the world stage, something we have not done in a long time,” she added, attributing that to political infighting and a lack of leadership, although she praised Brewer’s tenure.

Hoylman said “this job is one of the most important in government. It’s going to be my unrelenting goal to build Manhattan back, fight for small businesses, and keep everyone in their homes.” He said he wants to see a Manhattan that takes on climate change, has more car-free streets, permanent outdoor dining, as well as protection for cultural enclaves throughout the borough. “So many wealthy people in this city and state have done well during covid and haven’t been paying their fair share. We need to claw that back for Manhattanites and New Yorkers in general.”

Small Businesses
“Small businesses have kept our economy moving during the pandemic and I think we owe them something,” said Hoylman. “These businesses were forced to close due to no fault of their own and we need government to step up. Hoylman added that he is currently sponsoring legislation in the state legislature to do that by suspending rent payments for nonprofits and small business with under twenty-five employees/

“Elected officials taking money from real estate have allowed [landlords] to close businesses,” said Kallos. He also touted his advocacy for outdoor dining this summer and his legislation to make it permanent as part of his record helping small businesses. “We can and must work together in a public-private partnership to build a city for all of us,” said Kallos, who cited the need to stabilize commercial rents and reduce scaffolding as top issues facing the borough’s small businesses.

“We clearly need to find a way to offer rent relief,” said Levine, who cited his sponsorship of City Council legislation to offer tax credits to landlords who reduce rents for small businesses during the pandemic. “I support a top-to-bottom review of fines and fees,” said Levine, who believes those should be about promoting safety, not raising revenue for the city.

“We need real relief from the existential threat” of COVID-19, said Watkins, adding, “We need to think of a long game of a decade or two out of what small businesses are going to be like.”

“We need to galvanize the spirit of young people in Manhattan and help them get into jobs,” Watkins said. “2020 has been such a downer. We need to bring back really big and bold ideas that trigger the return of tourism, moviemaking, parades, and different ideas.”

“I support Council Member [Keith] Powers’ plan” to reduce the commercial rent tax, Caputo said of the East Side Council member, and she prefers that sales are taxed instead of rent.

Land Use & Development
Watkins described the city’s “intentionally inept processes” for land use as “incredibly frustrating for regular New Yorkers.”

“We need to hit the pause button because the affordability issue is the anchor for absolutely everything,” she said. “When neighborhood rezonings happen, what happens? Who benefits? Not regular New Yorkers.” She also said she would want to focus on increasing homeownership rates in the borough, particularly among communities of color.

“For decades, we’ve pursued land use in a piecemeal and reactive way that has resulted in real inequity,” said Levine. “We have to preserve the character of our neighborhoods, livability, and history, but we also have to find ways to grow and increase density. I believe we need a comprehensive, multi-year planning process for the borough” with a focus on equity and affordable housing.

“As your next borough president, I will bring protections to the Central Business District and Financial District,” said Kallos. “Let me be clear and unequivocal. Business districts should be for businesses, not billionaires,” he added, noting his opposition to the luxury towers of “Billionaires’ Row.”

“From my window, I can see where the city’s approach to zoning has failed and it’s Hudson Yards,” said Hoylman, decrying the $6 billion in state and local tax breaks for the development. “I’d like to reform ULURP,” said Hoylman. “We would focus on forcing developers to engage with the community before a vote. Local input early in the process decreases contentiousness and makes for a better project.”

“We are going to need to have developers at the table,” said Caputo, alongside NYCHA residents, small business owners, and other residents. “We can’t just ignore them and we can’t just malign them.”

“I believe New York City needs to reflect an increasing homeless population, higher density housing is needed, more affordable housing is needed,” added Caputo, who noted public transportation would need to grow with density.

“Quality of Life” Concerns
“New York City has to be a place where people want to live, people want to work, and people want to visit,” said Levine, noting sanitation and parks as important quality-of-life issues, both of which have been hit with recent budget cuts. He attributed recent controversies to the “many years of failed politics that led to the current homelessness crisis” and said he would focus on solutions to homelessness instead of “moving them around like pawns in a political game.”

“On the issue of the unhoused,” Hoylman said, “one thing that we cannot do is treat homeless people as if they are subhuman. I think the city is doing a bad job.” He called the mayor’s response specifically as “disgraceful” and added, “We’re not talking about how they ended up homeless.” As Borough President, he said he would create a “quality of life” task force to focus on the delivery of government services in the borough.

“When we rely on these intentionally confused processes, we are almost asking for that institutional racism to perpetuate,” said Watkins. She is proposing a green street plan to reduce streetspace for cars and replace them with outdoor school space and community gardens, among other uses.

“The vitriol from many different sides has not been productive,” Caputo said, regarding the recent homelessness debate. “The best solutions are done through collaboration and compromise.”

She praised One Block Upper West Side and other community organizations that clean their local communities throughout the borough.

“It would be easy to blame Mayor de Blasio,” said Kallos, who noted he has never endorsed the mayor. He decried the city’s handling of people experiencing homelessness throughout the pandemic. He mentioned removing scaffolding, placing a trash can on every corner, especially uptown, and graffiti clean-up as top quality-of life concerns for him.

The Democratic primary for Manhattan Borough President will take place in June 2021 and will feature ranked-choice voting.

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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