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Brian Benjamin Launches Campaign for New York City Comptroller

benjamin kick off comptroller

Brian Benjamin at his campaign launch

State Senator Brian Benjamin launched his campaign for New York City Comptroller on Thursday, officially entering the Democratic primary for the citywide position of the city’s chief fiscal officer.

Stressing his finance background and work in the state Legislature on a variety of issues including police reform, Benjamin held a campaign event in his home neighborhood of Harlem, surrounded by supporters including several other elected officials endorsing him.

Benjamin, who is first on the ballot this fall for another two-year term in the state Senate representing parts of the Upper West Side and Harlem, is the first candidate to formally launch his campaign for city comptroller, a race that will culminate in November 2021 but is likely to be decided by the Democratic primary in June given the party’s immense voter registration advantage.

City Council Member Brad Lander of Brooklyn has been campaigning and fundraising for many months, while Queens Assemblymember David Weprin and Brooklyn State Senator Kevin Parker have both said they are planning to run for city comptroller. All three are Democrats like Benjamin. No other candidates have emerged at this point (City Council Member Helen Rosenthal of Manhattan had been in the running but decided against mounting a full campaign).

Benjamin and Lander are far outpacing Weprin and Parker in terms of money raised, endorsements, and campaign infrastructure. The primary will be among the first city elections to feature ranked-choice voting, otherwise known as instant-runoff voting, whereby voters are able to choose up to five candidates in order of preference, and if no candidate receives 50% of the vote on first tally, the last-place candidate is eliminated and his or her votes redistributed based on those voters’ second choices. The process continues until one candidate hits 50%.

Right off the bat Benjamin made his background in finance a focal point, something he’s likely to continue to stress in an effort to differentiate himself from Lander, who has a long resume in city planning, community development, and policy-making. Benjamin repeatedly stressed his readiness to go deep inside the numbers when it comes to city finances.

“I will be ready on day one to zealously protect the retirements of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, and to use the position of Comptroller to advance progressive ideals of justice and equity for all,” Benjamin said in a statement accompanying his announcement, which highlighted his “qualifications” for comptroller including “an advanced degree in business from Harvard, experience working as an investor on Wall Street, and authoring critical financial legislation such as forcing New York’s pension fund to divest from private prisons.”

The job of the city comptroller is to help manage the public pension funds; analyze the city budget; audit and otherwise review the work of city agencies to root out waste and mismanagement; vet city contracts; and generally provide oversight of the mayoral administration and other governmental and nongovernmental entities that impact the well-being of New Yorkers. Those who have held the position, such as term-limited current Comptroller Scott Stringer, a Democrat now running for mayor in next year’s election, have also churned out policy proposals on a wide variety of issues not directly related to the position’s central responsibilities as a fiscal watchdog.

The next city comptroller, set to take office at the start of 2022 along with a new mayor and many other new city officials, will be tasked with monitoring city finances at what is likely to still be a very challenging time due to the coronavirus recession. City tax revenues have plummeted due to the economic shutdown used to stem the spread of COVID-19, and several industries have been decimated, particularly tourism and entertainment, with sweeping job losses across hospitality and service sectors. The campaign for comptroller will include necessary discussion about how to balance the city budget by closing expected gaps and long-term strategies for managing city finances and government, finding savings throughout city government, and more.

According to Benjamin’s campaign, he has a master’s in business from Harvard, worked as an investment advisor at Morgan Stanley, then spent time at a Manhattan company helping finance and build affordable housing. He led the local community board and was elected to the state Senate in 2017. In the Legislature, he was part of all-Democratic control of state government that took hold in 2019 and passed sweeping liberal priorities into law, including gun control, voting reform, environmental and tenant protections, women’s reproductive and LGBTQ rights, and more. This year, Benjamin sponsored a bill that became state law that outlawed the use of chokeholds by police officers.

At his launch event, Benjamin told his personal story of family, community, and opportunity, especially through the city labor unions that his parents were part of, and stressed the need for all New Yorkers to have support in order to succeed. He also noted, because of those family ties to city labor unions and the pensions that come with such jobs, his personal understanding of the importance of public pensions and the role of the comptroller in safe-guarding them.

Eyeing success in the comptroller’s race, Benjamin starts with a base of support in his district and nearby parts of upper Manhattan, and a strong early fundraising push. He has close ties to the political establishment and is known to be well-respected by his colleagues. In order to compete with and possibly defeat Lander, who got off to an earlier start in this race, Benjamin will have to continue to develop a citywide campaign and a counterweight to Lander's support throughout New York's progressive movement, where the third-term Council member has been active for many years. Indicative of their politics, Benjamin endorsed Kalama Harris in the Democratic presidential primary while Lander backed Elizabeth Warren.

In the comptroller race, Lander has had early support from Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a longtime ally, though they have not announced a formal endorsement. State Senators Alessandra Biaggi and Julia Salazar have formally endorsed Lander, who held a birthday fundraiser earlier this year with a long list of "special guests and supporters" including other elected officials and activists -- formal endorsements are likely to follow once he officially launches his campaign. Lander, who is white, will be counting on winning a large percentage of white progressive voters, starting in his home district of Park Slope and surrounding neighborhoods, and trying to secure support throughout communities of color, while Benjamin, who is Black, will be looking to cement a base in the city's predominantly Black communities, beginning in Harlem, and win support from other constituencies. Benjamin launched his campaign with the backing of a number of Black elected officials and leaders. How Weprin, who is white, and Parker, who is Black, and perhaps other candidates, potentially impact the race and attempt to develop momentum is to be seen.

Endorsing Benjamin at the time of his Thursday launch were Manhattan Democratic Party head Keith Wright; State Senator Robert Jackson; Assemblymembers Al Taylor, Inez Dickens, and Michael Blake; City Council Members Diana Ayala and Bill Perkins; Reverend Michael Walrond; activist Kirsten Foy; Greg Floyd of Teamsters Local 237; and Hazel Dukes of the NAACP; among others.
“I’m grateful for the outpouring of support we have already received from across the city,” Benjamin said in a statement about the endorsements. “We are running this campaign to bring true progressive values and financial acumen to the Comptroller’s office.”

According to Benjamin's campaign, he's raised $500,000 for his comptroller campaign to date, with another $1.2 million in expected matching funds through the city's public financing system.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

This article has been updated to remove mention of state Senators Jessica Ramos and Zellnor Myrie and Cynthia Nixon as having endorsed Lander - they were listed under special guests and supporters at his birthday event, but have not formally endorsed in the race. It's also been clarified to note that Williams has not formally endorsed Lander in the race.

Democratic Mayoral Hopefuls Appear at First Candidate Forum of 2021 Race

joldc mayoral forum 2021

l-r: Eric Adams, Kathryn Garcia, Shaun Donovan,  Dianne Morales, Scott Stringer, Carlos Menchaca, Maya Wiley

The Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, which bills itself as the progressive LGBTQ political club, hosted the first forum for the 2021 New York City mayoral election Tuesday night, inviting seven declared or exploring Democratic candidates to participate. The Democratic and Republican primaries for mayor will take place in June of next year.

Participating candidates -- who appeared one at a time by Zoom, giving brief opening remarks, then answering a series of yes-or-no questions from the moderator, club president Allen Roskoff, followed by several other questions and answers at greater length -- were, in order of appearance, former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia; Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams; former top Bloomberg and Obama administrations official Shaun Donovan; City Comptroller Scott Stringer; former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales; Brooklyn City Council Member Carlos Menchaca; and Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney and former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio.

New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who recently announced he would not be running for mayor in the 2021 election after planning to and doing initial fundraising for a campaign, gave opening remarks at the forum.

“Even though I am no longer a candidate for mayor, I am paying deep interest in this race,” said Johnson, listing off a number of key issues that the race must focus on and the next mayor will have to deal with. “Many of the issues being talked about tonight are issues that the Council has worked on and is going to work on until the end of our term.”

At one point, Roskoff noted that there were over 1,200 attendees for the forum over Zoom.

Roskoff said that not every declared Democratic candidate was invited to the forum, only those whom his club considered “most relevant to the left.” Loree Sutton, the former commissioner for the city’s Department of Veterans Affairs, was not invited, deemed too conservative by the organizers. Roskoff has cited her remarks earlier this summer suggesting that protesters should be required to obtain city permits, and that idea formed one of his questions to the participating candidates, all of whom disagreed with the concept.

That was among several points of agreement among all the candidates throughout the forum, while there were a number of areas of varying viewpoints, many of both of which were drawn out in the “lightning round” of roughly 10 yes-or-no questions asked to all of them by Roskoff.

Each candidate promised not to take donations from law enforcement unions, yet candidates were divided on the issue of real estate donations. Morales, Wiley, and Menchaca have all pledged not to take donations from individuals associated with real estate, while Stringer has said he will not return real estate donations made to him before he launched his mayoral run and also said that money from big developers is what he has since made off-limits. Garcia, Adams, and Donovan all said they would accept real estate donations, with Garcia noting that she wants everyone at the table and that real estate “has skin in the game” and Adams noting that there are many different types of people involved in real estate, including himself as a small property owner and landlord.

The candidates almost uniformly agreed on not seeking an endorsement from outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio, a term-limited Democrat. All but Adams and Wiley said they wouldn’t seek or accept the mayor’s endorsement, while Wiley said she wouldn’t seek it and didn’t mention whether she’d accept it or not.

Unsurprisingly, all seven candidates said they would not keep Dermot Shea on as Police Commissioner if they were elected mayor. Five candidates, other than Garcia and Wiley, stated that they would eliminate the NYPD’s Vice Squad. Opinion was divided over whether a mayoral appointee for police commissioner should be subject to a City Council confirmation. Adams, Morales, and Menchaca said they should be, while Garcia, Donovan, Wiley, and Stringer favored the status quo where the mayor needs no approval.

Donovan, Morales, and Menchaca said that they would be in favor of removing the Columbus statue from Columbus Square and renaming the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge due to Koch’s record on LGBTQ rights and the HIV/AIDS crisis, while Adams was in favor of renaming the latter and Stringer, Wiley, and Garcia would not commit to either. All seven candidates supported requiring all New York City apartment buildings to allow cats and dogs to be kept as pets by tenants.

Garcia, Stringer, Morales, Wiley, and Menchaca are in favor of sex work decriminalization and oppose the Nordic model, while Donovan supports the Nordic model and Adams, a former NYPD officer, said he opposes decriminalization of sex work.

There were mixed comments and significant hedging on the ill-fated Amazon ‘HQ2’ Queens campus deal, with Garcia expressing the most support, given the job promises, she said. Of the governor and mayor striking the deal, Adams said that he “opposed the way they did it,” but indicated overall support for the project. Wiley said “it was clearly a bad deal because people killed it and we need to re-envision how we do development,” but did not directly state her view of the massive project that was said to be able to create tens of thousands of jobs. Donovan said he did not support the specifics of the deal but he believed “we could have gotten to the right proposal.” Stringer curiously called the deal a "failed ULURP" due to it being struck in secret, though the project was never set to go through the city's uniform land use review process, or ULURP, and was instead presented as a state general project plan. Morales and Menchaca said they opposed the deal.

Garcia was the only candidate not to directly oppose the relocation of homeless men from an Upper West Side hotel being used as a shelter, stating that “using hotels is problematic” and that she “would not have put them there in the first place.”

Some of the candidates were asked whether they would return the CUNY system to being tuition-free for New York City residents. Morales and Menchaca said they would; Stringer said he would make community colleges tuition free; and Donovan voiced support for expanding apprenticeship programs and workforce development. Garcia, Adams, and Wiley were not asked about CUNY tuition.

Kathryn Garcia
“If my name is familiar to you, it’s because I’ve been in leadership positions in New York City government my entire career,” Garcia said in her opening remarks. “You won’t find a candidate with more crisis and management experience than me.”

From early 2014, when de Blasio named her commissioner, until just recently when she resigned to explore a mayoral run, Garcia led the Sanitation Department, which she noted is overwhelmingly male. At the same time, she was repeatedly tapped by de Blasio to deal with crises, including reducing lead paint exposure, especially in NYCHA developments, running the entirety of NYCHA, and implementing the city’s massive emergency food program amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I resigned that post because I saw firsthand a mayor who is unprepared to deal with this crisis, who responds to headlines and made budget cuts that hurt this city,” Garcia said of her departure.

Garcia told the attendees, “Together we can build the right foundation for our city for the next hundred years.” She said she would focus on job creation, noting, “Nothing is affordable if you have no income. We must support job growth.” She also said that efficient delivery of government services would also be a priority, “there shouldn’t be anything you can’t do with a smartphone” when it comes to such services.

Garcia labeled herself a “practical progressive.” When asked by Roskoff what that label was insinuating, she clarified, “I’m about getting things done. I’m about taking progressive policies and making sure we get things implemented.” She was further pressed on a previous claim that she would be an “Ed Koch-like mayor” and she said she was referring to how Koch “always wanted to hear feedback from the public and he was very instrumental in bringing us back from a fiscal crisis.” However, she said, “I don’t embrace all of his policies.”

Eric Adams
Adams has served as Brooklyn Borough President since 2014. Before that, he was a State Senator for seven years and a police officer for over two decades before that, rising to the rank of Captain. In his opening remarks, Adams recalled his own experiences with economic hardship and housing instability as a child and said, “I’ve spent my entire life helping those people,” who are currently in similar situations, as a police officer, activist, and elected official.

“Too many things don’t work for far too many people in this city,” Adams said, continuing that “our city is dysfunctional,” which he says predates the pandemic. “We continue to operate our agencies as silos that work against each other and the city.” He also said that he believes “The lack of education is one of the biggest crimes I see in this city.”

When pressed by Roskoff on his 2018 comments following the Tree of Life massacre that there should be more guns in houses of worship, Adams said that his words were misinterpreted and taken out of context. He said he was referring to “trained law enforcement officers, active or retired, not citizens, coordinated with their pastors and imams, and rabbis.”

Roskoff also asked Adams about the recent outbreaks of COVID-19 in some parts of Brooklyn, particularly Orthodox Jewish communities, and how he would handle that as mayor. Adams said that he would start by “getting on the ground. We unfairly communicate to a diverse city as though everyone in New York speaks one language and watches the evening news.” He also said he would use a civilian team to enforce public health guidelines, instead of the police, and criticized de Blasio’s response, saying, “we have a reactive plan, not a proactive plan.”

Shaun Donovan
Donovan served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and later Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration and, before that, as the Housing Preservation and Development commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

He describes himself as a “lifelong New Yorker who became a public servant because I grew up in another time of crisis,” during the 1970s and 1980s. He believes he is the best candidate suited to be mayor at this moment, saying “in more than two decades of public service, I’ve learned to lead through crises,” noting he was city housing commissioner following 9/11, HUD Secretary following the Great Recession, managed the federal recovery response after Hurricane Sandy, and was budget director during the Ebola epidemic.

Through these crises, Donovan said that he learned “the most vulnerable before the crisis are the worst hit.” He says that the pandemic presents an opportunity for New Yorkers to “reimagine this city together as a city that works for everyone.” He believes he is the “true progressive” in the mayoral race due to his track record of accomplishments.

Roskoff pressed Donovan over his work in the Bloomberg mayoral administration, asking when Donovan ever disagreed with the former mayor. Donovan called stop-and-frisk “a mistake” and said he disagreed with Bloomberg’s handling of the mortgage crisis and its causes. However, he said, “I’m proud of the work I did under Mayor Bloomberg” and that “we created a tool that could lock in affordable housing in neighborhoods permanently,” referring to Inclusionary Housing, calling it the “most aggressive affordable housing plan in the country.” This may have been true at the time, but it has since been surpassed by de Blasio’s.

Donovan also outlined broad housing policy principles, saying, “I believe the right to legal counsel is important, I believe that the strengthening of rent stabilization and rent laws at the state level is important and the strong enforcement of that, and the right kind of community-oriented planning when we rezone.”

Scott Stringer
City Comptroller since 2014, Stringer was previously Manhattan Borough President for two terms and served seven terms in the State Assembly. At the forum, Stringer touted his long record of being an early endorser of progressive causes, including being one of the original sponsors of marriage equality in the State Legislature.

“Our work is far from over but the stakes could never be higher,” Stringer said. “We cannot open the economy the way we closed it.” He noted he was the only Democrat in the State Assembly to vote against weakening rent control laws in the 1990s, which he attributed to “starting the gentrification spiral.”

When pressed on his support for Hudson Yards and other development deals as Borough President (while he criticized the Amazon ‘HQ2’ deal as Comptroller), Stringer said that he worked with local communities and that there were “times we won, and times we lost.”

Dianne Morales
Morales has spent much of her career as a nonprofit executive, resigning from a position running a social services organization in the Bronx in order to run for mayor. She said her campaign is “reflective of New Yorkers ready to build a new social contract” and highlighted -- just after Stringer spoke -- that she is not a career politician and will not be indebted to political machines or special interests.

“My personal and professional experiences have made me acutely aware of longstanding and structural barriers,” said Morales, a Black Latina who has “called out the NYPD for profiling and assaulting my son.”

“We’re living in unprecedented times and that calls for a radical reimagining of what’s possible,” she said, calling for defunding the NYPD and reinvesting in communities that have historically been marginalized and prejudiced. Morales would be the first woman and woman of color and Latino person to be mayor of New York City.

Carlos Menchaca
The most recent entrant into the mayoral race, at least in exploration of a run, is Menchaca, who has served in the City Council since 2014, representing the 38th district -- largely Sunset Park and  Red Hook, with a portion of Borough Park. Like Stringer and Adams, he is term-limited and cannot run for reelection to his current position next year. Prior to his Council tenure, Menchaca worked in former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz’s office and then for former Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

A Mexican-American, Menchaca would be the first Hispanic mayor of New York City. He would also be the first openly gay mayor. (Sutton is also openly gay.)

Menchaca noted his support for Cynthia Nixon in the 2018 gubernatorial primary against Governor Andrew Cuomo, part of what he believes is a long track record of progressive bona fides. He explained his reasoning for jumping into the race, saying, “some of you have watched the mayoral race emerge and evolve, and like many of you I just wasn’t happy.”

“The covid pandemic has really given us an opportunity to think about how we restructure this city,” Menchaca said. He criticized wealthy New Yorkers for leaving the city during the worst of the pandemic, while essential workers “stayed and are rebuilding.”Asked about increasing taxes on the wealthy, Menchaca said “we gotta do that” and that “the Council has been trying to figure this out but we need a willing partner. I will be that.”

Menchaca, who was one of only nine Council members to vote against this year’s budget because they believed it did not sufficiently reduce the NYPD budget, linked the issue to the rest of the budget. When asked about CUNY tuition, he said, “this is about prioritizing our city budget” and “this is why the defund [the NYPD] movement was so important.”

Maya Wiley
Wiley served as counsel to the Mayor and chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates some forms of police misconduct, during the de Blasio administration, but since 2018, has worked as a professor at the New School and a legal analyst on MSNBC. She recently left those roles to run for mayor.

“As someone with no political background, I am an unconventional candidate,” Wiley admitted, but said she decided to run “because I saw firsthand that city government has the power to impact people’s lives directly.”

Wiley is actually in a lot of company in the current field as a candidate who has not run for office before, along with Morales, Garcia, Sutton, and Donovan.

In her introduction, Wiley said, “This must be a city where we can all live with dignity,” citing her personal experiences growing up in a Black community and segregated public schools. Though she worked for the current mayor, she has frequently criticized him in her early campaign.

“We need a transformational leader who gets us off the treadmill of incrementalism,” said Wiley, who would be the first Black woman and first woman to serve as the city’s mayor. When asked about her association with Mayor de Blasio, she said, “I’m a woman who stands on her own two feet” and cited the increase of broadband access and city contracts awarded to Minority and Women-Owned Enterprises as her top accomplishments in City Hall.

When asked by Roskoff about her originating the “agents of the city” designation, which was used to shield the mayor’s email conversations with outside advisors from Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests, Wiley said, “attorneys offer advice and the client makes the decision. As mayor, it is critically important to restore trust.” She said that she would not have made journalists sue for those records.

When asked about taxing the rich, Wiley said this current crisis necessitated an “all hands on deck approach” and that “everybody in this city has something to contribute.”

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

De Blasio Administration Pledges to Finally Address City's Persistent 'Digital Divide' with Universal Internet Access

mayor link unb

Mayor de Blasio at a LinkNYC kiosk (photo: Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

As the pandemic forced New Yorkers to shelter at home, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration launched several efforts to assist those who lacked the necessary access to the internet to adapt to working and learning virtually. But there remains a deep digital divide across the city, particularly in terms of lack of access in low-income communities of color, creating significant challenges for students, residents of homeless shelters and public housing, and others.

According to city data, 40% of households in the city -- home to roughly 3.4 million people -- don’t have both home and mobile internet connections, and 18% have neither. At a hearing on Tuesday, City Council members sought solutions to the major gaps as they and advocates decried a slow pace of progress that has left far too many New Yorkers behind. While city officials acknowledged that progress has taken years, they pointed to accomplishments over recent months and predicted that the administration’s efforts will scale up significantly next year, providing internet access to hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who currently lack it. 

“The pandemic and its consequences of online transition highlight the disparities between those with home internet access and internet-capable devices and those without,” said Council Member Bob Holden, who chairs the Committee on Technology, in his opening remarks. Given that city agreements with internet providers are also part of the picture, the hearing was held jointly with the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, chaired by Council Member Francisco Moya. 

As Holden and others at the hearing noted, the lack of internet access is an issue of inequity as New Yorkers go online to seek city services. “Internet access is not a luxury. It is a basic right that can open numerous doors. But we still have thousands without reliable access,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, noting that the city shifted to providing welfare benefits such as food stamps and rental assistance largely online during the pandemic and that many in-person enrollment centers continue to remain closed. “This compounds inequalities for the poorest New Yorkers,” he said. 

Before the coronavirus hit New York, the mayor had in January released an “Internet Master Plan” that was years in the making and aims to provide affordable and accessible high-speed internet across the five boroughs. In July, in response to the pandemic and the desperate need for more at-home internet, the city announced an acceleration of the plan with a $157 million capital investment aimed at expanding internet access to 600,000 underserved city residents, including 200,000 residents living in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) public housing developments, by the end of next year.  

In testimony before the committees, John Paul Farmer, the city’s chief technology officer, touted the internet master plan as the “most ambitious” plan of its kind across the country, noting that it would create $142 billion in gross city product and 165,000 jobs by 2045. “The current system is broken. Letting the market alone determine how to serve New yorkers has left 3.4 million people behind,” he said. 

Farmer said the administration had recognized the need to implement parts of that plan on a faster timeline in response to the pandemic, with a specific focus on public housing. The city has already distributed 10,000 internet-capable tablets to older adults living alone across 288 NYCHA developments; the city also issued a bid for vendors to provide internet service options at NYCHA housing and is expected to make an announcement on it this fall, he said.

The next major step will be a solicitation for universal broadband – which would create broadband access in every nook and cranny of the city by contracting multiple providers to fill gaps where they exist and use city real estate and municipal buildings to facilitate that expansion. Farmer said a Request for Proposals (RFP) for that bid is being finalized.

The Department of Education also gave out about 321,000 tablets to students to facilitate the shift to remote learning, though the mayor recently said another 100,000 devices are needed and being ordered.

Council Member Holden said he was “very, very skeptical” of the administration’s plans, noting that the mayor had first talked about broadband expansion in 2014, his first year in office. Even when announcing the acceleration of the internet master plan, de Blasio had promised that new pilot programs for internet access for NYCHA would be announced by the end of the summer, a deadline that came and went. “It seems to be that it's another one of the mayor's many promises that are not being delivered,” Holden said, pushing Farmer to explain what, if any, progress had been made in six years. 

Farmer emphasized, however, that much of the work had been done behind the scenes and that the city was “on the cusp of a transformation” in 2021. “The master plan didn't just come out of the blue,” he said. “It has received praise from nationally-recognized experts in this space because it's so responsive to the reality and recognizes that there is no silver bullet.”

The committee hearing also covered a proposed authorizing resolution submitted by the mayor to grant franchises for telecommunication services, specifically for the installation of fiber optics and cables across the city.

Michael Pastor, the deputy commissioner for legal affairs and franchises at the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) said that resolution, along with the approval of pending legislation in Albany, would allow the city to “be able to immediately solicit proposals for additional residential broadband franchises to bridge the digital divide and drive down residential broadband prices, all while generating millions of new revenue for New York City.”

Council Members Rory Lancman, Barry Grodenchik, and Ben Kallos all sought to ensure that any new franchises are accompanied by strong labor protections. They pointed to the ongoing labor dispute between Charter/Spectrum and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 3, members of which have been on strike for three years. Pastor, however, said the city was constrained from including any collective bargaining mandates in the franchise agreement because of federal law, but could require greater reporting that would give the city a window into a company’s labor practices. 

Representatives of the major internet service providers – Verizon, Altice, and Spectrum – testified before the committees as well, laying out the challenges they face in providing broadband options across the city while also emphasizing their own responses to the pandemic, like discounted plans for students and educators, deferred payment for delinquent customers, bill forgiveness for low-income subscribers, limited free internet access, and more. 

“We have an obligation to this city, to the people who are suffering the most throughout this pandemic,” Council Member Moya told them. “The poor, the people in communities of color, that have been suffering throughout this entire pandemic still don't have the necessary basic needs to get through this. And you as the providers, the main providers here in the City of New York, have to take on a real responsibility here.”

Smaller, independent providers sought to stress at the hearing that the city needs to encourage more competition to ensure more affordable broadband options for New Yorkers, allow access to city buildings and infrastructure, and build out its own fiber network to reduce costs.

“The digital gap in New York City is not about access, it's about affordability,” said Virginia Lam Abrams, senior vice president of government affairs and strategic advancement for Starry. “Superfast broadband is available but it remains frustratingly out of reach for millions of families due to costs, the consequences of an uncompetitive broadband market.”

“The woeful state of New York City's internet infrastructure should be ringing alarm bells throughout the City Council,” said Robert Veksler, co-founder of Brooklyn Fiber.

Advocates emphasized urgency in solving the city’s digital divide, particularly as the city’s schools have reopened and more than half of students have been opted into all-remote learning by their parents and guardians Thousands of students live in homeless shelters and risk falling behind without adequate internet access. Senior centers are closed, leaving many older New Yorkers without ready access to information and services. And those seeking to leave homeless shelters cannot easily search apartment listings or connect to the city’s online affordable housing portal since shelters lack basic access to the internet. 

“Obviously, the pandemic has exacerbated the impacts of the digital divide and raised the stakes to literally life or death,” said Sandra Gresl, a member of the New York City Bar Association’s Social Welfare Law committee. “New Yorkers now need internet to apply for essential government benefits like food stamps, and homeless parents are now forced to risk their child's health and safety for the sake of their education or allow them to fall further behind with limited or inconsistent access to remote learning due to poor internet and cell service in shelters.”

“Whichever approaches the city chooses, it must ensure that those with the most acute need are prioritized, that broadband is affordable and that any new broadband comes equipped with privacy and net neutrality protections,” said Allie Bohm, policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union. She pointed to the LinkNYC wi-fi kiosks around the city as an example of the wrong approach, saying the kiosks are mostly located in affluent neighborhoods and collect personal data from people who use them. 

What the advocates agreed on is the need for a municipal broadband network. “Internet access must not be contingent upon someone's ability to pay or on whether it's profitable for a private company to connect them,” said Will Luckman, a volunteer organizer with the New York City Democratic Socialists of America Tech Action Working Group. “The onus is on the government itself to ensure everyone is connected.”

Lance Van Arsdale, assistant business manager for IBEW Local 3, pointed out that city agencies are already laying fiber optic cables in city-owned buildings. “That should be used as a stopgap, not to wipe out private competition but to be part of the competition, to make it honest,” he said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to remove mention of the LinkNYC kiosks collecting data from people who walk by them.

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