Gotham Gazette

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Carlos Menchaca Announces Candidacy for Mayor

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Carlos Menchaca (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)

Carlos Menchaca, a City Council member from Brooklyn, is running for mayor, making his announcement official on Thursday morning and entering the growing Democratic primary field. Known for his focus on immigrant communities, the term-limited Menchaca enters the 2021 race while representing neighborhoods including Sunset Park and Red Hook after unseating an incumbent in the 2013 election and holding his seat against several challengers in 2017.

He’s become a steadfast critic of Mayor Bill de Blasio, arguing the mayor has not lived up to his progressive promises and even introducing a resolution to the Council calling for a no-confidence vote in de Blasio, whom Menchaca supported in the past but came to see as a massive disappointment. Menchaca believes he is filling the left-most lane in the still-developing primary race, which will be decided in June of next year and is likely to determine the next mayor of New York City given Democrats’ immense voter enrollment advantage.

He is promising “a new day for New York City,” as he put it in an interview with Gotham Gazette just ahead of his launch, where the mayoral administration is truly engaged with and reflective of communities that have for too long been marginalized.

“I’ve been a constant and consistent voice of the people,” Menchaca said, “and when I think about who’s actually going to win this race on behalf of the people and create a people’s movement, a people’s mayor, a people’s government — that’s me, and that’s my work, and my relationship with community.”

He pointed to policing, climate change, transit, and housing and development as key issues in need of “vision, leadership, compassion, and the progressive policies to effectuate that change” in the face of enormous challenges, both from the COVID-19 crisis but also long-standing crises, such as structures of “white supremacy in our own government.”

Menchaca declined to offer any specific plans or proposals, saying he will be engaging with New Yorkers and letting those conversations drive his platform. He did promise an upcoming focus on reviving the city’s arts and nightlife sectors, which he said are essential to the life of the city and other parts of the economy and must be saved. He also said he’s working to move legislation expanding opportunities for street vendors.

In recent months Menchaca has voted against the city budget deal reached between de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson because he argued it did not go far enough in cutting funding from the police department and he torpedoed a proposed rezoning of the Industry City property in his district that would have expanded the campus’ retail and commercial footprint.

Menchaca negotiated with the Industry City developers for some time before telling them they should pull their application. He said he was listening to community opposition amid fears of accelerated gentrification and displacement, a lack of sufficient local benefits that he wanted the de Blasio administration to help provide, and preferences for a community-driven plan focused on green jobs. The developers said he was passing on thousands of local jobs and increased commerce requiring no public subsidies.

In the Council, Menchaca, who is of Mexican descent and grew up in Texas, has chaired the Committee on Immigration for all of his nearly two terms, where he has helped pass the city’s municipal identification law, secure funding for legal representation for immigrants facing deportation, and limit city cooperation with federal immigration enforcement entities. He worked with neighboring Council Member Brad Lander to redesign local zones and admissions policies to desegregate area schools. This year, he co-chaired the Council’s 2020 Census task force. He’s also been known as a transit advocate, particularly focused on better biking infrastructure.

“I’m a bicyclist,” Menchaca said in the interview. “I commute on my bike, I don’t have a driver’s license.”

“The conversations around land use” must be reenvisioned, he argued, including street safety and reform of the city’s land use review process (ULURP), with a shift away from the “rezonings that have been pushed from the previous two mayors [Bloomberg and de Blasio], 20 years of rezonings that have never left communities engaged or empowered or part of the design of how their neighborhood was going to grow, and all that needs to change.”

Industry City “went down to the power of the community and it sent an important message,” Menchaca said, adding that critics of him and others who’ve taken an oppositional stance toward big developers “don’t get it” and should see the shifting winds of New York political power, which is moving to communities.

Menchaca was the first elected official to endorse Cynthia Nixon in her 2018 primary challenge to Governor Andrew Cuomo, and he pointed to progressive victories over Democratic incumbents in the 2018 and 2020 state legislative election cycles, saying, “that’s only going to continue, that’s only going to grow, and that’s the energy that is fueling me and my campaign, and that’s the energy I’m going to reflect back to the city as I build out this campaign and really start engaging people.”

The people who stayed in the city throughout the pandemic are those he will be listening to, he said, including “the immigrant workers, the essential workers,” who “are going to be the instruct government on how to build the next chapter of the city.”

Calling for public investment in green jobs and public housing, he said of the perspective he’s reflecting, “it’s not no new development, it’s community-based...communities are not against development, we are actually in support of growth, but we want to do it our way.”

Asked about Comptroller Scott Stringer, seen as a frontrunner in the mayoral race, saying some similar things about community-based planning, Menchaca siad, “I have the receipts. That’s it. I’m the one that has actually voted on stuff and has put my name on the line for things that have been hard. I was in the CIty Council, I said no. I said no to a budget. I didn’t just talk about ‘the hardships of this budget,’ I voted no, and I paid a price for that. I also said no on a development project; there are people running right now who have supported things like Hudson Yards.”

Along with that reference to Stringer’s support for the Hudson Yards development when Stringer was Manhattan Borough President, Menchaca also said the comptroller uses “progressive speak” but hasn’t gone “all the way” in action.

“I’m the only progressive, tested elected official in this race,” Menchaca argued in a comparison to Stringer and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who is more moderate. “There’s a lane that has yet to be entered, a lane that everyone is feeling has yet to be occupied.”

Offered the early indications that former social services nonprofit executive Dianne Morales appears to be running a campaign in or near the left lane, Menchaca said his work and record as an elected official separates him. He promised a campaign “attuned to the movement on the ground” and reflective of “what people have been asking from our leaders. That’s what they asked for in 2013 when they elected de Blasio, and that’s not what they got. That’s what people want. And the city is becoming even more left.”

Along with Stringer, Adams, Morales, and Menchaca, other candidates in the Democratic primary field include former city sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia, former city veterans affairs commissioner Loree Sutton, former federal housing secretary Shaun Donovan, former Wall Street executive Raymond McGuire, military veteran Zach Iscol, and Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney and former counsel to de Blasio.

Menchaca is seeking to become the city’s first Latino mayor and first openly gay mayor.

He said he is already competing for endorsements from elected officials, labor unions, and others, and that while he won’t be announcing any formal support at launch, he expects it to come, and even for some who have already endorsed another candidate to “cross-endorse,” which there is more room for amid the new ranked-choice voting system set to start in 2021 for party primary and special elections for city government positions.

Asked about his biggest allies over the years, Menchaca listed the New York City Coalition on Adult Literacy, immigrant communities, Make the Road New York, transportation advocates, the Mexican-American community, day laborers, and the LGBTQ community.

While he has won praise over the years for his work on behalf of those groups and constituencies, Menchaca has also ruffled feathers. Several Democratic City Council members privately call him very difficult to work with; he fired several staff members right before Christmas in 2018; and he was recently accused by leaders of the New York Immigration Coalition of cutting government funding to programming for immigrant communities due to a political dispute.

Early on in his tenure in the Council and de Blasio’s as mayor, with the two sides of City Hall still enjoying a honeymoon period of close comradery, Menchaca pushed back on the administration as it sought to move plans for redeveloping the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in his district. He caught a lot of flack and was quickly dislodged as a co-chair of the Brooklyn delegation in the City Council.

Reminded of that, Menchaca laughed. “Oh yeah, my colleagues were teaching me a lesson,”  he said. “And now everybody’s on board, everybody’s like ‘oh, de Blasio’s terrible’ - and that was me in 2014!”

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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New York City Overcomes Obstacles to Outperform 2020 Census Projections

NYC 2020 Census

A pre-pandemic NYC Census event (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York City Census officials celebrated a robust self-response rate in the Census on Tuesday, despite unprecedented hurdles posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and attempts by the Trump administration to discourage participation. The city’s self-response reached an unofficial 61.8% when the constitutionally mandated decennial population count concluded last week on October 15.

The self-response rate for New York City residents was nearly the same as 2010 but came amid a slew of complicating factors that made the count the most challenging it has been in decades. The city also had a far smaller gap between its household completion rate and the national average.

New York City already has its fair share of hard-to-count populations – such as Native Americans, seniors, undocumented immigrants, African Americans, children under the age of five, people experiencing homelessness – who tend to voluntarily respond to the Census at lower rates. At the same time, the Trump administration unsuccessfully sought to place a citizenship question on the Census, which contributed to a heightened sense of anxiety among immigrant communities that are already wary of interactions with the government. The U.S. Census Bureau had been underfunded and understaffed as well, which meant there were fewer enumerators to knock on the doors of households that did not respond to initial prompts.

Then came the pandemic, forcing city, state, and federal officials to suspend in-person operations. The Census Bureau, in response, announced that it would extend the self-response period to October 31, but that timeline kept shifting and being litigated in court as the Trump administration sought, and eventually succeeded, to cut it shorter. New York City officials adapted quickly throughout, having planned and put into motion a $40 million Census outreach program, the highest funding ever from the city, which included $19 million in direct funding for 157 community-based organizations based on allocations made by de Blasio and the City Council.

Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state government had promised a $70 million Census effort that never materialized.

Nonetheless, the city’s self-response rate was nearly four points higher than the Census Bureau’s projections of 58% made in 2019. In Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens, the response rate was higher than in 2010, increasing by 1.8, 1.3, and 1.9 percentage points, respectively, according to the CUNY Census mapping project.

“What a vote of confidence in this city,” the mayor said at his daily news briefing on Tuesday. “And also, what an amazing action by New Yorkers – with every effort to undermine and discourage them, they still came through. All of you came through. That's an amazing number, given what we were up against. We saw some really great results.”

De Blasio heaped praise on NYC Census 2020 Director Julie Menin, whom he appointed to the role after she had led two different agencies in his administration, and her team.

Though the city’s response fell behind the national self-response rate of 67% and the statewide rate of 64.2%, it nonetheless surpassed many other major cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami, Orlando, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Detroit, among others.

It was no easy feat for the city. The city Census office and community partners held more than 1,000 events, according to a press release. There were 34 media campaigns in 27 languages. Volunteers and Census workers made more than 4 million phone calls and sent more than 7 million texts. Nearly a million New Yorkers clicked on the city’s digital ads and more than 470,000 city households that are home to 1.23 million residents were either counted or got assistance in filling out the Census questionnaire.

“It's so important, because for every household over two people that is counted, that brings New York City $7,000 per year, or $70,000 over 10 years, not to mention, of course, the importance of the political representation,” said Menin, at the news conference on Tuesday, referring to seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, which are based off of state population tallies done in the Census, as well as local districts within the State Legislature and other entities.

The Census determines levels of federal funding that the city and state receive on many fronts, and the population count also undergirds the process of drawing electoral districts at the city, state, and federal levels. As it stands, New York State could lose one seat in the House of Representatives because of outmigration over the last decade. A severe undercount in the Census could mean the loss of two seats.

“By any measure, what the city and the partner organizations did was really impressive,” said Steven Romalewski, director of the mapping service at the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center, and a nationally-renowned Census count expert. “And to be able to sustain the effort and to have the patience and flexibility to pivot from in-person outreach to virtual phone-banking and the like, and to still have a response rate 60% or above is really good.”

Jeff Behler, director for the U.S. Census Bureau's New York Regional Office, praised city officials for their success. “I've never seen the level of effort – and this is my third Census – that I've seen with the partners throughout New York City,” he said in a phone interview, pointing out that thousands of planned events had to be scrapped when the pandemic hit. “I'm amazed at 61.8%, given the fact that...due to COVID the ability to bring people together was eliminated.”

Though the count is over, the Census process is far from done. There is still pending legislation in Congress that would extend the time that the Census Bureau has to deliver Census data to the White House, which has set a December 31 deadline for that to happen. The Trump administration is also attempting to exclude undocumented immigrants from that data before it delviers it to Congress for the apportionment of electoral districts, a decision that has been challenged and will be heard in the Supreme Court next month.

City officials and advocates are closely monitoring those developments, fearful that if the administration succeeds, it could skew the data, particularly in jurisdictions like New York City with large populations of undocumented immigrants.

"For more than a year, there has been a statewide New York Census operation, which understood that it was up against an administration that would do everything it could to keep immigrant New Yorkers from being counted, and acted accordingly," Meeta Anand, the Census 2020 Senior Fellow for the New York Immigration Coalition, said in a statement. “Thanks to the litigation to date, our partners used every minute, hour, and day of almost two extra weeks to ensure that every New Yorker—regardless of legal status, age, or country of origin—were counted. Now, we must build on that momentum and finish the last few days of the 2020 Census New York strong!”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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New York City Covid Spending Tops $4 Billion, Virtually All Covered by Federal Funds

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Mayor de Blasio inspects school cleaning (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

The COVID-19 pandemic has cost more than $4 billion in direct New York City expenses through mid-October, almost all of which the city expects to pay for with federal dollars.

Of the total spending, $4.08 billion has been registered in contracts, according to a report from City Comptroller Scott Stringer. Almost two-thirds of that funding, $2.44 billion, went towards food-related contracts (over $1 billion), personal protective equipment ($742 million), and hotels ($651 million). 

In addition to PPE, a large amount of spending went directly toward covid-related medical expenses, like staff, supplies, and testing. The city's medical staff contracts alone amount to $505 million and testing centers have so far cost another $100 million. A total of $390 million has been spent on medical, surgical, and lab supplies, including $141 million on ventilators alone.

As the city worked to contain the virus' spread while moving much of public life online, costs for decontamination, telecommunication, and emergency mortuary and burial services rose.

Dozens of city agencies have earmarked covid-related expenses, with the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which handles a great deal of city contracting, receiving the most -- close to $1 billion, according to the Independent Budget Office. The next biggest agency spenders on direct covid response matters were the departments of sanitation, emergency management, and homeless services.

Stringer's office estimates $4.6 billion in total has been committed or spent on covid relief and response by the city. The city's June financial plan outlines close to $4.3 billion in federal funding for covid expenses across Fiscal Years 2020 and 2021, according to Laura Feyer, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio (the Mayor's Office could not verify the Comptroller's figures without the reporting criteria). The current fiscal year, FY 2021, runs through June 30 of next year.

“New York City is doing the work to drive down COVID-19, despite losing billions of dollars in tax revenue due to the crisis," Feyer wrote in an email. "We need the federal government to step up and pass a stimulus that includes aid to localities, or we face very painful choices.”

While it continues to call for federal funding to fill its budget gap and for additional aid for struggling New Yorkers, businesses, and other entities, the city plans to have 75% of the direct covid expenses, which are constantly growing, reimbursed through FEMA, pursuant to an emergency declaration. Most of the remaining 25% will be covered by federal funding from the CARES Act, the major relief package passed by Congress and signed by the president, with the city paying for the rest.

The FEMA reimbursement and much of CARES Act funding both offer wide latitude for spending, according to an expert at the city's Independent Budget Office. The Mayor's Office told Gotham Gazette no covid-related spending was being used to close budget gaps, though.

"The pandemic created new spending demands and will continue to do so," wrote Jonas Shaende, Chief Economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank, in an email.

"COVID-related expenses began with funding for personal safety equipment and other needs for first responders, and now we are seeing other expenses, including housing the homeless and food assistance,” Shaende wrote. “The disruption to our economy and social upheaval has yet to end, and the need for revenue to meet these new challenges is on-going.”

A total of $3.54 billion has been spent, including contractual and non-contractual spending, which includes personnel costs like overtime, and other funding like subsidies to Health + Hospitals, the city's public hospital system, which is also overseeing its test and trace corp, as well as grants and loans from the city’s Department of Small Business Services.

The city expects 75% of its direct covid spending to be reimbursed by FEMA under an ongoing emergency declaration, signed in March, that covers the period from January 20 on. Feyer said no submissions to FEMA have been denied. 

The city received $5.34 billion in CARES Act funding, of which an estimated $1.45 billion was part of the Coronavirus Relief Fund, a type of block grant for general purpose covid relief, according to a May 2020 report from the city’s Independent Budget Office. Feyer said FEMA and the Coronavirus Relief Fund make up the bulk of the city's coronavirus funding sources but other CARES Act grants and city dollars also contribute to the total.

MWBE Covid Contracting
Minority- and women-owned businesses (MWBEs) made up roughly a quarter of city contracts for the direct covid spending, but accounted for only 10% of the total spending -- or $454 million, according to data provided by the Mayor's Office in response to a Gotham Gazette inquiry.

Less than half of that, just $206 million to date, according to a spokesperson for Stringer, citing figures from NYC Checkbook, has actually been paid to MWBEs, who have struggled under economic contraction and state restrictions due to the pandemic.

According to a survey of 500 MWBEs conducted by Stringer's office in July, two-thirds of respondents said they were "ready and able to contract with the City on COVID-19 response efforts" but that only 62 businesses competed for such opportunities "due to onerous restrictions and non-responsiveness from the City," the report states. Ten out of the 500 MWBEs surveyed in July received a covid-related contract.

A vast majority of respondents said they would not be able to maintain operating expenses for more than six months. Payroll and rent were cited as the biggest challenges.

“MWBEs are the lifeblood of our commercial corridors - driving economic growth and employment opportunities across New York City. But MWBEs continue to face barriers to accessing COVID-related contracts and critical government funding, and our survey found that 85 percent reported they cannot survive the next six months," Stringer wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette Monday.

Many MWBEs could not operate during the state of emergency and almost none (only 5%) received private sector aid, the survey found. At the time, about a quarter did not apply for government relief, either because of restrictive requirements attached to funding or they did not want to incur debt. Others didn't know relief was available or funding sources ran out before they applied.

"We can't leave engines of local wealth creation behind if we're serious about bringing the city out of our current economic crisis. It's time for real relief for MWBEs and real action from City Hall to dismantle systemic barriers to economic opportunity,” he said.

The Mayor's Office says it went beyond what the law required by setting MWBE goals for emergency contracts and has worked with agencies to proactively identify MWBEs in competitive sectors.

“During the height of the pandemic, our first priority was getting hospitals what they needed," wrote Julia Arredondo, a City Hall spokesperson, in an email Monday. "We expedited the procurement process and worked with vendors who could deliver in mass quickly. Building up M/WBEs has been central to this administration, and we have made strides to remove systemic barriers to participation, increase discretionary amount for M/WBEs, and address disparities in access to capital.”

The administration has also allowed for goods, services, and construction valued under $500,000 to be procured from MWBEs outside a formal competitive process, Arredondo said. The city has more than tripled its MWBE contracting -- from 8% to 28% of contract dollars -- and awarded a total of $17.1 billion since FY2015, she wrote in the email.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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