Gotham Gazette Thu, 01 Oct 2020 13:51:38 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) 'One For The History Books': Race to Replace City Council Member Donovan Richards Starts to Take Shape in Southeast Queens 1 over 200 units

City Council Member Donovan Richards (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)

Donovan Richards’ likely ascension to become the next Queens Borough President at the start of 2021 would trigger a special election to replace him in the City Council in the 31st District in Southeast Queens. With several candidates already in the race to replace Richards -- a Democrat who is term-limited out of his current position at the end of 2021 anyway -- and additional potential candidates circling, the likely special election is already shaping up to be one of the most contentious City Council races of next year.

The entire 51-seat Council will be on the ballot, along with the rest of city government, through the 2021 June primaries and fall general election, but several special Council elections, including in the 31st District, are likely for earlier in the new year. Bronx Council Members Ritchie Torres and Andrew Cohen are both also likely to win new positions, creating vacancies at the start of the year that could be filled via special election in late February or March -- elections that are slated to be the first city use of ranked-choice voting, which will apply to special and party primary races beginning in 2021.

The 31st Council District includes portions of Laurelton, Rosedale, Far Rockaway, the Rockaways, South Ozone Park, and Springfield Gardens. It is split between “mainland” Southeast Queens neighborhoods like Laurelton and Rosedale, and the Rockaways, which are somewhat separated largely by John F. Kennedy Airport (also one of the district’s main employers) and Jamaica Bay. According to Census data, the district is 68% Black, 16% Hispanic, and 11% white.

The “mainland” portion of the district consists predominantly of older and Black residents. In one neighborhood, Laurelton, which is 90% Black, the percentage of owner-occupied housing units is 70% and the median household income is $87,780. The Rockaways portion of the district has a higher percentage of white residents, includes a mix of younger people, and also a significant Orthodox Jewish community.

Southeast Queens has garnered a reputation in recent years as being a stronghold for the Queens County Democratic Party, in part because the area is home to the new county party chair, Rep. Gregory Meeks, and provided the strongest base of support for county party-backed Melinda Katz in her 2019 Queens District Attorney primary against public defender Tiffany Caban, now a Council candidate herself in Western Queens, and for Richards among a crowded field in this year’s Borough President race, which only occurred because of Katz’s shift to the DA position.

While the area has supported such county-backed figures with strong ties to the political establishment, its voters have also elected progressive State Senator James Sanders Jr. and, this year, community activist Khaleel Anderson, who won decisively in a primary for State Assembly against a county-backed opponent. But it’s not always as simple as county party-backed establishment figures versus progressives within the Democratic Party: Richards has a progressive track record, and recently voted against this year’s city budget because he believed it did not go far enough in defunding the NYPD’s budget.

The 31st Council District in some ways represents why ranked-choice voting was seen as desirable for Democratic primaries and special elections. In a 2013 special election, Richards barely won his Council seat, by a margin of just 70 votes, over Pesach Osina, an Orthodox Jewish candidate, with both garnering around 29% of the vote. Richards was among six Black candidates vying for the seat, all of whom together earned roughly 70% of the vote combined, while the lone non-Black candidate nearly won the race with less than half their total.

Now, as the likely special election approaches, Osina is back, though among a different field and with the new ranked-choice system in place.

Candidates and Potential Candidates
With several candidates already running or considering runs, this change could prove especially pivotal to the ultimate outcome of the race. Six people have either entered the race or expressed interest in doing so in some form, including Manuel Silva, Richards’ chief of staff; Franck Joseph, Deputy Commissioner for the City’s Human Rights Commission; Latanya Collins, a 2017 candidate for the seat; Monique Charlton, a consultant for the Department of Education; Latoya Benjamin, an aide to State Senator Sanders, Jr.; Osina, who previously worked in the New York City Comptroller’s office; and Jazmine Outlaw, an activist with the Rockaway Youth Task Force.

Gotham Gazette spoke with Silva, Joseph, Benjamin, Charlton, and Outlaw, while Osina has not responded to an interview request and Collins was unreachable. Silva, Collins, Charlton, and Benjamin are currently in the race, while Osina and Outlaw have not yet officially entered.

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Joseph said “my focus right now is to help New Yorkers as I fulfill my duties at my agency.” He indicated that, while he does have a campaign account open, he is not actively campaigning at the moment and is still undecided as to whether he will enter the race.

One person familiar with the district said that they thought Assemblymember Alicia Hyndman, whose 29th Assembly District overlaps with the 31st City Council District in Laurelton and Rosedale, could enter the race. Hyndman’s office declined an interview request. If she were to enter the race, Hyndman would immediately be a frontrunner, if not the clear favorite, given success rates for state legislators moving to the City Council and vice versa.

Four candidates had open campaign accounts at the time of the last filing deadline on July 11. Osina had $10,403 in cash-on-hand; Silva had $7,100; Benjamin had $3,219; and Joseph had $3,925. Osina led the candidates with 169 donors to Silva’s 127, while Benjamin had 30. The other candidates and potential candidates did not have open campaign accounts with the city Campaign Finance Board at the time of the last filing deadline.

A Unique District
“This is a very unique district. It has extremes of wealth and poverty. And then there's a geographic difference between the Rockaways and the mainland, if you will,” said Sanders Jr., the state senator who preceded Richards in representing the 31st Council District. As Sanders notes, Laurelton is one of the few neighborhoods in the country where Black income surpasses white income. At the same time, there are seven NYCHA public housing developments in the Rockaways alone.

“The Black community in Southeast Queens is politically liberal, but socially moderate,” said Sanders, who attributes his electoral success as “an unabashed progressive” to his ability to deliver effective constituent services.

“This is going to be a fascinating race,” Sanders said. “This is going to be one for the history books.”

Khaleel Anderson surprised many by winning the June Democratic primary for the 31st Assembly District (which overlaps significantly with 31st Council District). “It should’ve been covered like every other race,” he said, and “I was surprised” it was not.

“We’re probably the farthest away from Manhattan possible,” Silva said, when asked about the lack of attention races in the area receive.

“Southeast Queens is more open-minded than folks give us credit for,” Anderson said, when asked about the area’s reputation as of late as a political-establishment stronghold. “Southeast Queens definitely can be and is a bastion of new ideas and ambition, but they love to see folks who have fought the fight alongside them.”

“Progressives have been running and they’ve been winning, but [the Queens Democratic Party] is still in denial that we exist,” said Milan Taylor, the CEO of the Rockaway Youth Task Force, noting Anderson’s recent victory. “It’s like they’re trying to wish it away. To a certain extent, this is a changing of the guard. These candidates are young. They’re literally the future of Southeast Queens and of our city.”

Manuel Silva
Like some other chiefs of staff to term-limited City Council members, Silva is running for his boss’ current job. However, unlike counterparts Erik Bottcher (Corey Johnson, CD-3) and Nicholas Roloson (Costa Constantinides, CD-22), Silva does not currently have his boss’ endorsement. He identifies himself as a “100% hardcore progressive” and said he would be seeking the Working Families Party’s backing.

“City Council is probably the most important seat in local politics,” Silva said, when asked why he had decided to run. He pointed to flooding, budgetary issues, and reforming public safety as important issues for the local community. “We need leaders who are going to make bold decisions and push our city into the 21st century.”

“We need to demilitarize the NYPD and look at our public safety system in general,” said Silva, who said he supported reallocations of at least $1 billion away from the NYPD budget but “I just wouldn’t use that terminology,” referring to the “defund NYPD” slogan.

“I want to create programs around affordable home-ownership,” Silva told Gotham Gazette, while also expressing his support for affordable housing throughout the city, pointing to his work with Council Member Richards as something he would want to replicate.

Jazmine Outlaw
In addition to her work with the Rockaway Youth Task Force, Outlaw has been president of the 101st Precinct Council and is an EMT. “I’ve been doing this since I was 17 and it just snowballed from there,” Outlaw said, of her organizing background.

“There’s a difference between a career politician who’s worked for a senator and then people who’ve built things from the ground up and understand the community’s needs,” Outlaw said, when asked why she would run for Council.“I think we need more of those people stepping up and holding a seat at the table.”

“Things were wrong in our community and our voices weren’t being heard, from a youth standpoint,” Outlaw said, about why she joined RYTF, at which Anderson also grew his organizing chops. Outlaw said ending the school-to-prison pipeline and public safety are among her top priorities, pointing to her work on her local police precinct council.

“It’s really about police officers and the police department not taking the time to learn about our communities,” Outlaw said. “At the place we are now, we really need to take a different look at what we think of as community safety. I know for a fact that our community members don’t think of the police as a means of safety.” She said mental health services, youth programming, and affordable housing are necessary for public safety; and, she supports defunding the NYPD by at least $1 billion out of its roughly $6 billion annual operating budget.

“We need to focus on community-based alternatives to police and having a restorative-based approach,” Outlaw said. “A lot of the time police officers are band-aids to community problems and don’t deal with the root causes.”

“We need to prioritize making sure that health care is accessible for all. There needs to be a major shift in making sure that communities of color are getting the services they need,” Outlaw said, noting that the Rockaways were among the hardest-hit communities in New York City during the pandemic.

“There’s a progressive movement within Southeast Queens,” she said, noting this year’s Black Lives Matter protests. “I think we need somebody who sees those issues and is ready to bring lasting change. This is something that is possible, despite what naysayers may say.”

Latoya Benjamin
Benjamin, who serves as the director of economic development in State Senator Sanders’ office, said she’s running because the Council has a more direct role in economic development projects than the State Legislature. “I want to advocate for the changes in development I want to see in the community,” she said in an interview.

Benjamin points to the effects of COVID-19 as the top issue facing the local community, noting that one of the first coronavirus cases in New York City emerged in Far Rockaway and that “A lot of the leadership positions in our community are our elders and they’re no longer here.

“Covid further exposed the disparities that take place within our communities,” said Benjamin, who said she’d focus on bringing more public health resources to the local community.

“I’m a native, born and raised here,” Benjamin said, arguing that her experiences make her uniquely qualified to bring jobs and public resources back to the district. She diagnosed the failure of the Amazon ‘HQ2’ deal (which Richards supported) to Amazon “failing to do community outreach,” contrasting it to the recent expansion of John F. Kennedy Airport, where “The public and private sector worked hand-in-hand to get the local community’s support.”

Benjamin said her criteria for supporting new developments in the land use process would be “If the development meets the needs of the local community,” particularly noting that the local district has a deficit of health-care facilities.

On public safety, Benjamin said, “I support reevaluating the entire system” and “I believe that there are other ways to improve police-community relations.” While she supports reallocating resources away from police programs “that aren’t really useful,” she said, “I don’t think the blanket statement of ‘defunding the police’ is going to solve that.”

Monique Charlton
“I’m a part of a demographic that is underrepresented in the City Council,” Charlton said. “I’m a Black woman, a mother of a child under 18, and I’m running to represent a voice that’s not frequently heard.”

“I do think that with some of the decision-making in our legislative body, it’s not necessarily thoughtful or demonstrating concern for the family. Putting family people, specifically mothers, into a body that has been failing mothers will definitely make a difference,” Charlton said.

She lists education, health (particularly women’s health), housing, and jobs as her top issues. One of her focus areas if elected to the City Council would be “Ensuring that hospitals and health institutions see that Black mothers and all expectant mothers get the care they deserve.” She proposes that “The city assist new moms four months post-birth.” Details of this plan would be forthcoming, Charlton said.

“I see the shortcomings of the schools, particularly when it comes to funding,” Charlton said. She is also advocating remerging schools that were formerly divided, saying “It worked for a while but now with several changes that have occurred it’s time to bring schools back together.” She believes this will help with funding issues.

Charlton praised Council Member Richards’ land use policies, saying, “I think it’s important that the community be involved in the decision-making and how it affects our families.”

On public safety, Charlton said, “I would agree that we should reallocate some of [the NYPD’s] money to social services,” such as moving mental health crisis responses away from the police department.

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

'One For The History Books': Race to Replace City Council Member Donovan Richards Starts to Take Shape in Southeast Queens Mon, 28 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
'The City Needs a Crisis Manager': Kathryn Garcia Plots a Run for Mayor nycemer ma c

Kathryn Garcia (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Earlier this month, Kathryn Garcia, a top official in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, resigned after more than six years as commissioner of the Department of Sanitation. In her time serving under the mayor, Garcia has worn many hats beyond that of keeping the city clear of trash and snow. De Blasio entrusted her with leading the city’s effort to abate lead exposure among young children, named her the interim chair and CEO of the struggling New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) for part of 2019, and then appointed her the city’s emergency “food czar” this year to ensure that hungry New Yorkers were fed during the coronavirus pandemic, all while she continued to lead the sanitation department.

In her at times terse resignation letter to the mayor, Garcia cited recent budget cuts to her department and the threat of major layoffs as the main reasons she could not continue to serve the administration. “This budget crisis is incredibly severe, but I am disappointed to see so much of the work we have done over the last six years being walked back,” she wrote. “If, as is often said, budgets are a statement of values, my values require me to resign in the face of these cuts, which will harm New Yorkers.”

But Garcia’s decision was also spurred by the fact that she is considering a run for mayor in the election set to take place next year, potentially joining a crowded field of Democrats who have declared or are exploring a bid to replace de Blasio when he is term-limited out of office. In a recent interview on the Max & Murphy podcast from Gotham Gazette and City Limits, Garcia explained her decision to step down, why she is considering a run for mayor and how she would approach the mayoralty, as well as her work covering the various responsibilities she was given by de Blasio.

If she declares, Garcia could be one of three women, all first-time candidates for elected office, who were formerly part of the de Blasio administration – Retired Army Brigadier General Loree Sutton, who was commissioner of the Department of Veteran Services, has already jumped into the race, while Maya Wiley, former Counsel to the Mayor who later headed the Civilian Complaint Review Board, is considering doing so. Besides them, Comptroller Scott Stringer and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams have already declared their campaigns, while City Council Speaker Corey Johnson continues to explore a run. Former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales left her job to run for mayor and has been actively campaigning for some time. Former top Bloomberg and Obama administration official Shaun Donovan is strongly considering jumping into the race and has been raising significant sums of money to do so. And other Democrats, like finance executive Ray McGuire are reportedly considering bids.

Garcia said her decision to explore a mayoral campaign was driven by the pandemic. “I am not sure that I would have gotten in if I didn't think the city needed a crisis manager at this point who would be really focused on core services for city residents,” she said, citing her own managerial experience in government.

Though she did not criticize the mayor by name, she drew a clear contrast in how she would handle the job of running the city. “I am incredibly good at creating very effective teams that really maximize a lot of people's talents,” she said. “There is not infighting on things that I work on. And the second thing is, I'm extremely clear about my expectations and I'm extremely clear about the fact that I expect accountability. You need to produce.”

De Blasio is known for being a micromanager and for overriding the advice of his own commissioners while relying on his own, often flawed, instincts. “I'm open to hearing other ideas. I'm not dictatorial. I do want to hear from people,” Garcia said. “I don't assume I'm necessarily the smartest person in the room on every topic. But after we have the airing of what you think might be a good way to go, we make a decision, we move on and we execute.”

As sanitation commissioner, Garcia has already led a uniformed agency and she said she’d bring the same perspective to bear over the NYPD, should she become mayor. De Blasio has, more often than not, had a soft touch with the department, often defending it against instances of egregious behavior while insisting that he is working to reform its practices. “I'm a tough but fair manager,” Garcia said, when asked how she would handle the police department. “You'll know what I expect of you and we will be ruthlessly transparent about that. I will stand up for you when I need to, but I won't if something really depraved happens.”

Since she’s an unknown political entity, the hosts -- Ben Max and Jarrett Murphy -- asked Garcia if there is a Democrat she most closely identifies with or would model. She would be an Ed Koch-like mayor, she said, describing her politics as “progressive and practical.” She would be a tough manager, she said, who constantly wants to know how she’s doing. She said it is essential that the mayor knows how city agencies are performing every day, in a data-driven way.

What all the candidates in the mayoral race have to contend with is the fallout of the pandemic. The economy has been devastated and the city faces a massive budget crunch, exacerbating the pressure to provide basic city services. Unemployment is at a high, though jobs have begun to slowly return as the city and state have reopened.

“We need to get people back employed across the city and then start to really think about building economic mobility,” Garcia said, acknowledging the challenges ahead. “And there are things that I think we can do more effectively but also in partnership with our broader commercial and business community.”

Garcia blamed the mayor for some of the many woes currently facing the city, particularly on quality of life issues. “I know that the city is confronted with a very severe fiscal crisis and I'm sure difficult choices had to be made,” she said of major budget cuts to the sanitation and parks departments. “I would just have made different choices. You cannot have the city come back to where it needs to come back to if you can't go to a park because it's dirty're seeing litter baskets overflowing on street corners.”

In her responsibilities as sanitation commissioner, Garcia came face to face with the many issues that she said plague the city’s bureaucracy, whether it’s the lengthy procurement procedure (“the bane of my existence”) or the slow-moving land use process. “It just takes us too long. It takes us too long to buy anything. It takes us too long to build anything or even get approval for doing that,” she said.

“We aren't as transparent as we should be about our key performance metrics. The mayor should know at the end of the day, did we have a good day? Did we have a bad day? And that shouldn't be driven by what's in the news, necessarily. That should be driven by what are the numbers.” She also said she would “restructure, and consolidate and streamline” certain bureaucracies but would not name any particular agencies or offices.

Even tackling issues like redesigning commercial and residential waste disposal helped expose flaws in how the city handles problems. “What do we want from the public realm and how can we achieve that?” she said. “There's an enormous amount of competition for street space, parking spaces, restaurant space now, bike lanes, bus lanes, but I think if we start to reimagine it, we can achieve a lot of these varying goals. And we should also just be experimenting like crazy, rather than lots of studies. Let’s do something, try it, if it doesn't work, let's move on.”

Having served as interim chair and CEO of NYCHA, and then as vice chair of the NYCHA Board of Directors, Garcia offered specific criticisms of the city’s management of public housing. Though under de Blasio NYCHA’s operating expenses have been brought under control, the agency needs as much as $40 billion to bring all its developments to a state of good repair. The city, under current NYCHA Chair and CEO Greg Russ (and a federal monitor), has begun to implement a plan to raise those funds through a combination of programs including transferring several developments to private management under the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program and through an infill development program which would build mixed-income housing on unused NYCHA land.

Garcia said Russ’ plan has been “actually very creative” but said she wouldn’t have necessarily taken the same approach. “My feeling when I was at NYCHA was, there had been so much under-investment. So it didn't necessarily have to go in this way but there’s so much underinvestment, there's so much need, that whatever is the quickest way to get dollars that fix bathrooms and fix kitchens and make sure the heat’s working, I am supportive of.”

She said the infill program “would not be my first priority. My first priority would be to do the traditional RAD program as well as the plan that Greg Russ has come up with to use these vouchers and finance off of them. But I certainly would not turn away an opportunity that would generate money for NYCHA residents. Anything we can do to be creative, to generate money for them I think is very important.”

[Listen to the full conversation: Max & Murphy Podcast: Kathryn Garcia on Trash, Food & Possibly Running for Mayor]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

'The City Needs a Crisis Manager': Kathryn Garcia Plots a Run for Mayor Tue, 22 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Scott Stringer is Putting Affordable Housing at the Center of His Mayoral Pitch — What's His Vision? ss yr sl

Comptroller and mayoral candidate Scott Stringer (photo: @scottmstringer)

When he officially launched his campaign for mayor earlier this month, Comptroller Scott Stringer took square aim at what he called “the gentrification industrial complex” that he says has flourished in New York City despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s years-long effort to stem the tide of housing unaffordability. Stringer, a two-term Democrat, has for years examined, audited, and criticized various aspects of the mayor’s housing program, arguing it is not aptly designed to help those most in need of affordable housing, and is promising that if he’s elected mayor he will pursue a swift policy change to help house the poorest New Yorkers, finally make the city more affordable, and significantly reduce homelessness.

In January, Stringer released a housing plan that set him in contrast with de Blasio, earned him high praise from progressive leaders and organizations, and is now a lynchpin of his mayoral platform. The plan would be “a fundamental shift in the city’s approach to our housing crisis,” Stringer said at the announcement. “A plan that refocuses our resources where the crisis is most acute.” But there remain major open questions about the plan. Funding it would require action from the state Legislature, and at a time when both city and state tax revenues are down drastically. His push for both new mandates on affordable housing in new building projects and greater use of discretionary subsidies by the city could give pause to real estate developers and slow the pace of construction.

And Stringer has yet to answer key questions about what his approach to development as mayor would really be, including whether he would pursue large city-backed rezonings to encourage housing development in wealthier neighborhoods or how he would otherwise advance the housing desegregation that he has declared a goal.

While a representative of Stringer’s campaign told Gotham Gazette that Stringer wants to increase density across the city and that he supports upzonings in wealthier communities to do so, Stringer has not made either point central to his housing pitch. Nor has he pointed to any specific city neighborhoods he thinks are ripe for zoning changes to allow for larger buildings. He has so far only talked about mandating more affordable housing where building is set to occur within current zoning restrictions, thereby increasing costs for developers without increasing their potential earnings from more market-rate units that can subsidize the affordable ones, the key equation in de Blasio's plan.

Asked for examples of neighborhoods Stringer believes should be upzoned for more housing density, his campaign did not provide a response. Stringer was not made available for an interview for this story. But after this article originally published and discussion about Stringer's housing vision took off on social media, Stringer tweeted that "Upzonings are an important tool to create housing; we also need an as-of-right requirement," and, in response to housing advocates pointing to a proposal to upzone Soho for more housing, "I agree. Upzoning makes sense in Soho."

“When I'm mayor, we're going to end the crushing cycle of speculation, eviction and displacement,” Stringer said at his campaign launch. “No more giving away the store to developers. No more unaffordable affordable housing. We will put an end to the gentrification industrial complex, and end policies that perpetuate a cycle of segregation in our neighborhoods and in our schools...Together we will put the city's approach on a fundamentally new trajectory to build the housing we need in a city for everyone.”

[Read: Promising 'Leadership at City Hall,' Scott Stringer Officially Launches 2021 Mayoral Campaign]

At the campaign launch in Inwood, Stringer pointed to his housing plan and referenced its centerpiece, “universal affordable housing,” which would mandate aggressive affordability caps for 25% of the housing in any new development with ten or more units -- including those built as-of-right, meaning no new zoning changes in need of city approval. Universal affordable housing would replace the current Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) program, a product of the de Blasio administration that has its fair share of critics, including Stringer, who don’t believe it goes far enough in mandating affordability and point out that it only applies to development in rezoned areas.

Universal affordable housing would require that all affordable housing created under it would cap rents so that those making an average of 60% of Area Median Income (about $58,000 a year for a family of three), or two parents making minimum wage and raising a child, would not pay more than 30% of their income in rent. Though some have raised questions about its constitutionality, as a potential government “taking” of private property, similar citywide policies have been implemented in San Jose, California in 2010 and Portland, Oregon in 2017. San Jose’s inclusionary housing policy was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court, which refused to take the case in 2016, letting the law stand (though leaving open the possibility of another challenge).

According to Stringer’s office, if universal affordable housing had been applied at the start of 2014, when de Blasio became mayor, it would have led to the construction of 25,000 additional affordable units by the end of 2019 over what de Blasio’s plan has produced.

Besides universal affordable housing, Stringer’s housing plan would also deepen the city’s investment in housing for extremely and very low-income households, shifting funds from supplementing rents for moderate- and middle-income households; create a New York City Land Bank to fund 100% permanently affordable housing on about 1,000 vacant city-owned properties (though that number of potentially-useful lots has long been disputed by city housing officials); end the 421-a affordable housing tax subsidy that is supposed to incentivize affordable units in wealthier areas and replace it with discretionary subsidies; and expand homeownership through various initiatives.

Stringer regularly talks about the need for a real focus on comprehensive “community-based planning,” arguing that the de Blasio administration has been too top-down and promising that if he’s elected mayor communities will have more input. He has not explained what that will look like or how it will be anything but a barrier to more housing being built, whether in wealthier neighborhoods or elsewhere.

According to an assistant comptroller in Stringer’s office, which produced the housing plan in January, the main flaw in de Blasio’s housing approach has been the targeting of low-income communities of color for major upzonings that allow more density. Instead of encouraging development in those areas and spurring or accelerating gentrification, the mayor should target parts of the city where construction is already occurring, the official said. De Blasio has argued that he has pursued neighborhood plans where there is ample room to build, where force of gentrification could be harnessed or stemmed, and where local elected officials are interested in working on rezonings.

And rather than focus on a quantitative target of 300,000 rent-restricted units over 12 years, the mayor should be looking at the outcomes for affordability, according to Stringer. His plan does not contain a goal of total units or a timeline.

In response to Gotham Gazette inquiries about various aspects of the housing plan, Cameron Hellerman, a spokesperson for Stringer’s campaign, provided a statement about universal affordable housing and how it would work. It said, in part: “This means real affordable housing in every neighborhood with new construction, no exceptions. The problem with Mayor de Blasio's approach is that the ‘affordable’ housing in his rezonings is not affordable and completely out of reach for the people who built up the low income neighborhoods he targeted. Universal Affordable Housing would bring an affordable housing revolution that delivers housing to the New Yorkers who need it most. With a mounting homelessness crisis made worse by the devastation of the pandemic, we simply can't afford not to implement this plan."

De Blasio’s 300,000-unit housing program, which mostly focuses on preservation rather than new construction, has shifted several times as the mayor has responded to constant and ongoing criticism about being too focused on the middle class as opposed to those who are working class, poor, and homeless. As of June 30, his administration has preserved 114,934 units and funded the construction of 50,656 units of rent-restricted housing. Of those, a total of 72,396 are targeted at extremely low- and very low-income families, which fall below the 50% Area Median Income threshold. More than 60,000 New Yorkers are in Department of Homeless Services shelters, while tens of thousands more live in other shelters, on the streets, or doubled up with friends or relatives.

The city’s fortunes have changed since the release of both de Blasio’s most recent version of his plan and Stringer’s plan. Just before the coronavirus outbreak hit, de Blasio was promising another iteration of his housing plan, with more focus on those with limited means.

While Stringer talked about the impacts of the pandemic at his campaign launch, he did not say anything about them altering his housing plan. The pandemic has pushed the economy into a recession and city revenues have plummeted, forcing de Blasio to pare back his own affordable housing program.

Stringer’s plan, which envisions a net increase of $600 million in city investment for affordable housing, in part through phasing out the 421-a affordable housing tax credit, eliminating the Mortgage Recording Tax, and reforming the Real Property Transfer Tax, may no longer be feasible.

Stringer’s proposal is a rebuke of Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, a broadly popular policy proven controversial based on the particulars of how it was designed by the de Blasio administration and City Council before its passage in 2016. As part of the mayor’s 300,000-unit affordable housing program, MIH requires developers to build permanent rent-restricted housing in new developments at various income bands when they receive rezoning permission to build bigger. MIH is, however, a small part of the overall housing plan and, by the end of 2019, about 2,100 affordable units had been created through the program, according to a City Limits report.

Under the current approach, the de Blasio administration has pursued neighborhood rezonings in select areas across the city to encourage more density, build new market-rate and affordable units, and modernize and invest in communities. While several neighborhood rezoning plans have moved through the process and been approved, others that de Blasio had targeted have not moved or been stalled, and the mayor has not made neighborhood rezonings a priority for years now.

When Stringer released his plan, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development publicly criticised it, saying, in part, "Comptroller Stringer's proposals would actually worsen New York City's housing crisis. They'd make it next to impossible to build new buildings and lock countless hard-working families out of homes they could actually afford.”

Housing advocates, however, have broadly critiqued the city’s existing program and how MIH has been implemented. They note that the administration has mostly targeted low-income communities of color like East New York and East Harlem for rezonings, therefore encouraging real estate speculation and expediting the currents of gentrification that can price current residents out of their neighborhoods. De Blasio argues that his plan leverages forces of gentrification that would only worsen without city intervention and that it helps build desperately needed new housing for a variety of income levels. But advocates and some elected officials, including Stringer, say too much new housing that is being created continues to be unaffordable to those who need it most.

Stringer’s plan, on the other hand, has support from some of the most prominent housing advocacy groups in the city, including Community Voices Heard, Community Service Society, New York Communities for Change, The Legal Aid Society, and Churches United for Fair Housing.

“It's a million times better than de Blasio’s plan, which prioritized affordable housing that was unaffordable to communities,” said Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, in a phone interview.

“What the next administration really needs to work on is, it's not just about building quote-unquote affordable housing,” he added. “It's about really housing the New Yorkers who need it the most, which are homeless people and people on the verge of homelessness.”

Part of Stringer’s proposal involves increasing operating housing subsidies awarded by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development by about $125 million each year and increasing capital investment by $375 million each year. But with the phasing out of the 421-a subsidy, which costs about $1.6 billion in property tax revenue annually according to estimates from Stringer’s office, under Stringer’s plan the city will have sufficient funds for the added investments. 

Westin said the city already has enough resources, but they’re not applied where they’re needed. “There's billions and billions in resources right now that is at HPD, that is at [Economic Development Corporation], that is just being misappropriated to build the gentrification plan that de Blasio is putting forward right now,” he said. “It could just be repurposed...into funding the lowest income housing.” If the city houses homeless people, it’ll also spend less on the shelter system, he pointed out.

Sean Campion, senior research associate at nonprofit watchdog Citizens Budget Commission, recently authored a report that found that New York’s housing stock growth has not kept pace with job creation, exacerbating the housing crisis. Policy decisions over the years have created uneven levels of allowable density, massive areas with low-density zoning, hard-to-develop vacant lots, and a scarcity of as-of-right development sites. Stringer’s plan seeks to correct some of those issues, but could run up against hurdles, Campion said in an interview.

“[Stringer] called for both more capital and targeting capital better at deep levels of affordability. There's obviously less of that to go around,” he said, pointing to the city’s budget crunch. Even if a Stringer administration kept funding flat, it would mean fewer units get built at deeper affordability. “That trade off is still there. But obviously in a more constrained environment, that's more difficult to do.”

Operational funding will be the bigger challenge, Campion noted, as the city’s revenues have nosedived with big budget gaps expected next year. Stringer has proposed raising those funds by replacing the “regressive and inequitable” mortgage recording tax with a “more progressive” Real Property Transfer Tax, changes that would together raise about $400 million in revenue each year. Those tax amendments, along with 421-a’s expiration, would require approval from the state Legislature.

“Given the budget shortfall plus the declines in just the number of real estate transfers in general, particularly on the commercial side, that could put a dent in that in the short-term,” Campion said.

Though CBC has not taken a position on Stringer’s universal affordable housing proposal, Campion did address the idea to do away with 421-a and provide subsidies on a discretionary basis. “Making it discretionary would probably depress housing production,” he said. “There are a lot of faults [with 421-a]. It can be better targeted, it’s expensive. But because it’s as-of-right, developers know what the program is, and they know what they're getting into when they're buying land, running projects.”

“One of the benefits of development in New York City in general is that you can build things as-of-right without discretionary approvals, but we still need 421-a to make the economics work because the tax on multi-family development is so high...Making the tax incentives discretionary effectively makes all development discretionary,” he added.

[Read: Experts Examine Challenges and Solutions to Building Affordable Housing in New York]

One area of general agreement among advocates and fiscal watchdogs is that additional capital investment will both help create more housing and spur job growth by encouraging construction.

“I don't see the pandemic at all at odds with an ambitious housing preservation and production program the way that Stringer lays out,” said Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator for the Housing Justice For All coalition. Weaver too noted flaws in how the city has used Mandatory Inclusionary Housing. “Mandatory Inclusionary Housing is really a public policy that's designed for a hot market,” she said, noting that de Blasio’s years in office have been accompanied by robust real estate growth (until covid). MIH, she said, is designed to work best in neighborhoods with higher land values, where developers would be able to recoup their investments without needing public subsidies while still building affordable units. “De Blasio, that's not how he used it. The way that he decided to do it was to use it in low land value areas of the city,” she said.

Weaver said the time is ripe for the city to take a greater role in regulating housing by bringing unregulated housing stock, particularly in boroughs other than Manhattan, under rent-regulation as the pandemic suppresses the real estate market. “This downturn means that there are lots of things that you can do to increase the value of the city's capital,” she said, calling on the city to issue bonds for building housing and to bail out struggling landlords and buildings while bringing them under city regulation.

She did note one point of minor disagreement with Stringer’s plan. The comptroller has proposed increasing homeownership partly through creating community land banks and land trusts that can fund the construction of affordable co-ops and condos. “Stringer says that these are mechanisms to create homeownership. They're not. They're mechanisms to create collectively run housing. So I think that's a misnomer and he shouldn't be describing it that way,” Weaver said.

Stringer is among a field of declared and likely candidates for the Democratic mayoral primary set to take place in June of next year and likely to determine the next mayor, given the city's overwhelming voter registration imbalance toward Democrats. All those seeking the mayoralty will be expected to outline how they plan to make the city more affordable, produce more housing, reduce homelessness, and save public housing. Earlier this year, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who has said he intends to run for mayor but has not officially declared his candidacy, released an anti-homelessness plan and said an affordable housing plan was soon to come, but that was put on hold by the pandemic. Former federal housing secretary Shaun Donovan, also seriously exploring a mayoral run, is likely to make housing a centerpiece of his campaign. Former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, who has launched her run for mayor, is talking about housing as "a human right" and hosting an upcoming campaign event focused on the issue. Other declared or exploring Democrats include Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, former New York City Veteran Affairs Commissioner Loree Sutton, and Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney and former counsel to Mayor de Blasio.

If victorious, Stringer would need political will and alliances to implement some of the necessary policies. Phasing out 421-a will require state action as will reforming the city’s inequitable property tax system, which de Blasio promised and failed to do for years. (Stringer released an analysis of the property tax system in 2018, criticizing the disparate impact it has on working families. “We need to give New Yorkers a break, and turn a regressive tax system into a fair and progressive one,” he said at the time. “We must explore common sense solutions and expand tax relief to level the playing field for working families.” He has not released his own property tax reform plan. Meanwhile, long-delayed efforts by de Blasio to reform the inequitable and antiquated property tax system were stalled before the pandemic and have not been discussed since.)

“While our world has changed radically since the start of the year, New York City still has an affordable housing crisis,” said James Whelan, president of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), an organization of major developers and land-owners, in a statement. “Though it’s now more critical than ever to provide more units for low-income, hard-hit New Yorkers, there are dramatically fewer resources available to create such housing. Tackling our City’s affordable housing needs will require sensible, data-driven policies and creative partnerships with the private sector to produce new, below market-rate units.”

Eric Kober, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank, said Stringer’s plan “was never workable. It’s certainly not workable in the current economic circumstances. It is even less workable than de Blasio’s MIH program.” He pointed out that it would require diverting already dwindling capital resources away from other needs and towards housing.

Besides discouraging private development, Kober said most developers will try to grandfather in to existing regulations before 421-a expires next in 2022. That rush may be accelerated if developers are wary of Stringer’s plan being implemented, he said. “Even in the wealthiest neighborhoods, where in theory you could cross-subsidize affordable housing with high rents, what’s more likely to happen is that people will rush to build before Stringer’s plan goes into effect,” he said. “So there will be an initial burst of housing and very little housing after that.”

“It would have very deleterious effects on the city and possibly on the economy,” he added.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to reflect Stringer's responses to discussion of the piece on social media, including his call for upzonign Soho.

Scott Stringer is Putting Affordable Housing at the Center of His Mayoral Pitch — What's His Vision? Mon, 21 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Kathryn Garcia on Trash, Food, & Possibly Running for Mayor dos kg 600

Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, middle (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

September 16, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Kathryn Garcia on Trash, Food & Possibly Running for Mayor

Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, who has been tasked with several other key roles by Mayor Bill de Blasio, is stepping down from her post as she considers jumping into the 2021 Democratic primary for Mayor. She joined the show to discuss her tenure at the Department of Sanitation, her work as interim NYCHA CEO and the "COVID-19 food czar," her approach to management and politics, and what she's thinking about in ehr exploration of a mayoral run.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

Max & Murphy · Episode 248: Kathryn Garcia Considers A Run For Mayor

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: Kathryn Garcia on Trash, Food, & Possibly Running for Mayor Wed, 16 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
With 5 Candidates Declared, 2021 Manhattan Borough President Race Has Begun demo bp3

(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 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.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to note that Watkins lives in Harlem, not the Upper West Side.

With 5 Candidates Declared, 2021 Manhattan Borough President Race Has Begun Tue, 15 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Scott Stringer's Strengths and Weaknesses as He Runs for Mayor mbp comptroller stringer

Scott Stringer in 2009, with two other officials who ran for mayor (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

After years of working his way up through the hierarchy of elected office in New York, and one aborted run for mayor, Comptroller Scott Stringer this past week declared himself a candidate for the highest office in New York City in the 2021 election. It was an effective campaign launch featuring an impressive array of initial endorsers and the logical next step in a long and successful political career in which Stringer has made many allies along the way. The Democratic Manhattanite, currently serving as the city’s chief fiscal officer and one of just three citywide elected officials, will now have to convince New York City voters that his career has best prepared him to take over from Mayor Bill de Blasio as the city’s chief executive and save it from the dire circumstances brought on by a poorly-handled pandemic and its resulting recession.

While he’s not known for any particular accomplishment or focus area, Stringer has been a solid and steady liberal presence in New York politics and government for his entire adult life, unwaveringly supportive of key progressive causes like women’s reproductive and LGBTQ rights, gun control, and campaign finance reform. He’s been a political reformer working within the system, mostly friendly to clubhouse politicians while at times staking out his own ground but mostly not ruffling feathers, playing the long-game. He’s strategic and calculating, playing politics with the best of them while also recognizing that good policy can make good politics. He ran for comptroller with no particular qualifications for the highly-technical parts of the position, which offered a promotion from borough president, chance to improve the city he loves, and better perch to eventually run for mayor. Recently, he’s lurched further leftward amid shifting winds within the Democratic Party, masterfully backing insurgents and betting on underdogs, building a diverse set of allies as he seeks to become yet another white male mayor.

Though even many who know him may struggle to name a signature issue, as Stringer enters the fight of his life to become the city’s 110th mayor, he is perhaps most respected for winning tough elections.

Indeed, Stringer’s strengths and weaknesses as a mayoral candidate lie in the fact that he has been a career politician, someone with decades of public service who’s been angling to become mayor for much if not all of that time. He was a member of the state Assembly representing the famously liberal — and vote-rich — Upper West Side, from 1993 though 2005. From 2006 till 2013, he served as Manhattan borough president, before being elected to his current role as city comptroller.

After essentially being gifted the Assembly seat by his mentor, now-Rep. Jerry Nadler, Stringer won two hard-fought primary contests to initially take the offices of borough president and comptroller, the latter of which came after he briefly ran for mayor in 2012. Since he ascended to that citywide post by defeating former Governor Eliot Spitzer in the 2013 comptroller primary, Stringer has been preparing for a full mayoral campaign, almost launching one in 2017.

Now, term-limited out of his current role like de Blasio and most of city government, he believes it’s his time.

With just over nine months till the June 2021 primary election, in which he will face a crowded field of Democrats, Stringer is undoubtedly in for another highly-competitive campaign. But it will also be the first citywide election with ranked-choice voting in place, which will give voters a more expansive voice in who they select and may cause candidates to both attempt to appeal to more voters and play nice with more of their competitors. Stringer, some early thinking goes, could make for an attractive second choice to a large number of voters excited by someone else but also interested in a steady, experienced hand. If he can secure enough first-place votes, in a large field Stringer could ride those second-place votes to victory in what is also known as instant-runoff voting. To win, he’ll have to assemble a more diverse base of support than he’s had in his prior close elections, where he’s been powered to victory largely by white voters, starting with his Upper West Side base, and he clearly knows it.

Political observers and consultants say that, as with every mayoral election, the 2021 race will to some significant degree be a reaction to the current mayor. They believe voters will look for a decisive leader who can manage the day-to-day operations of city government while also offering a grand vision for the city’s recovery. And some say identity politics may not be an overriding factor if a candidate can show they are capable and credible. 

“The most important force in this race for the candidates who are running is the shadow of de Blasio,” said Ravi Gupta, co-founder and managing partner of Arena, a national progressive organization that trains left-leaning Democratic candidates and campaign operatives. “Voters are going to want an explicit contrast with the current mayor.”

[Read: Promising 'Leadership at City Hall,' Scott Stringer Officially Launches 2021 Mayoral Campaign]

For almost seven years now, Stringer has served as the city’s top fiscal officer, keeping a watchful eye on the mayoralty in more ways than one. Under his official duties, he has monitored the de Blasio administration’s fiscal practices, audited the performance of city agencies, and criticized wasteful spending, while also overseeing the city’s massive public pension funds, among other roles. His office has exposed major problems and spending inefficiences at the city's public housing, homeless shelter system, prisons, and more. Under his political hat, he has for decades meticulously crafted alliances with prominent labor unions like the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and, more recently, progressive left Democrats who are ascendant in his party to build an effective base that could help him win the mayoral race. 

“Scott Stringer’s record of fighting for progressive causes throughout his career is second to none,” said Charles Kretchmer Lutvak, a spokesperson for Stringer’s campaign, in a statement. “In the Assembly, he was one of the few Democratic voices opposing deals cut by their own Speaker to weaken the rent laws, he wrote the bill to repeal Governor Pataki’s tax cuts for the wealthy, and he led the fight to pass once-in-a-generation rules reforms in Albany — other legislators booed at him when he ended 'empty-seat voting.' Twenty-one years ago, he was arrested after the police murder of Amadou Diallo, and nearly a decade ago, he spoke out against stop-and-frisk. As comptroller, he’s taken on climate deniers and launched the first major public divestment from fossil fuels. The vision the Comptroller laid out this week as he announced his candidacy for mayor is a natural extension of his decades-long fight for the people over the powerful.”

As his campaign notes, Stringer has always been knee-deep in the nuts and bolts of government. In the Assembly, he had a reputation for pursuing reform, particularly changes to the chamber’s rules that he advanced in opposition to his colleagues. When he ran for borough president in 2005, it earned him the endorsement of the New York Times editorial board, which said he had “the credentials for the job and a sterling reputation as a catalyst for reform” and that he had “shown himself to be committed to the principles of good government.” As borough president, he sought to reform and improve the functioning of community boards, starting with the appointment process. 

As comptroller, Stringer has released a long list of plans to deal with everything from the unequal distribution of high-speed internet in the city to solving Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. He has put particularly notable proposals to expand affordable childcare, improve mass transit access, and to create a new “universal affordable housing” model. He’s also used his leverage over the nearly $200 billion public pension funds to push for divestment from the fossil fuel industry, which, along with other environmental stances he’s taken, has been lauded by environmental activists, and to encourage more diversity on corporate boards. He’s successfully urged the city to increase the number and value of contracts awarded to Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises (MWBEs) and had also been pushing for years for there to be a chief diversity officer appointed at every city agency, a step the mayor took through executive order in July. These plans, stances, and accomplishments are already forming the basis of Stringer’s mayoral platform, as he indicated at his launch event from his childhood neighborhoods of Inwood/Washington Heights.

Stringer’s many plans have yet to receive the type of scrutiny that will come with running for mayor. In public appearances, he’s shown potential for future struggles by regularly relying on vague talking points and values statements and not providing specifics when asked about budget remedies, his own policy plans, or alternatives to de Blasio policies he's critiquing.  

[Read: Scott Stringer Has a Plan for That]

Stringer is widely considered to be an effective retail politician, comfortable in many settings -- skills honed by decades of political activity but also indicative of an affable personality, readiness to collaborate with local officials, and penchant for telling crowds what they want to hear. On many days, before the pandemic, he would make appearances across the city, glad-handing community activists, nonprofit leaders, business executives, and other elected officials. He’s held many town halls and roundtables, opportunities to both help him do his current job and build his 2021 operation. He has a reputation for showing up and listening. Those who have worked for him emphasize that point.

“I’ve campaigned with Scott in past elections. What makes him so formidable is not just that he has a preternatural ability to connect one-on-one with a voter on the street, or that he’s incredibly politically shrewd. It’s that he will outwork anyone, anywhere,” said Devon Puglia, a media consultant who previously worked as Stringer’s communications director in the comptroller’s office. Puglia pointed out how Stringer keeps a packed schedule.  “That is really an under-the-radar differentiator, and it may be his greatest strength as a candidate. No one will out-hustle Scott,” he said.

But Stringer has some spots on his record that may become flashpoints in the campaign, especially as candidates seek to draw out differences within the Democratic field. He embraced real estate developers before he rejected them. He endorsed de Blasio for reelection after critiquing the mayor’s fundraising activities that landed the mayor under multiple law enforcement investigations. He backed the lifting of term limits helping then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and many other officials seek and win a third term. He was a long-time establishment figure, part of a pay-your-dues political culture, before he began backing upstart progressives who managed to depose incumbent Democratic legislators.

He’s put down a marker on controversial issues where he’s deemed it appropriate or advantageous, but also avoided taking tough stances on a number of hot-button issues, like the specialized high school admissions test, while holding positions that often provide room to hide when desired. These are, in a sense, perks of the jobs of borough president and comptroller. For instance, while he was the first major elected official to call for the closure of the Rikers Island jail complex, he has been muted on the plan for four modernized borough-based jails that are meant to replace it. But his support of the Close Rikers movement and other criminal justice reforms and the effort to divest city pension funds from fossil fuel companies and other environmental causes sets him up to potentially win the support of some of the city's most ardent activists.

Stringer is one of three elected officials either running or likely to run, along with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. He lays claim to a far longer career in elected office than either and is the only one with a citywide win under his belt.

Winning the hard-fought 2013 primary with 52.1% of the vote against the former governor, who got 47.8%, Stringer showed political chops, including sharp debate performances, that no one who watched would underestimate now. He won the 2013 general election with 75% of the vote. He was reelected in 2017 with 72% of the vote. He has already raised $2.7 million in campaign cash – and has $2.3 million remaining as of July 11 – which places him first in the early field, and more than $470,000 in small-dollar contributions that could qualify for an 8-to-1 match under the city’s public funds program, according to his campaign. Several other declared or exploring candidates -- Dianne Morales, Loree Sutton, Maya Wiley, Kathryn Garcia, Shaun Donovan -- are first-time candidates for office, which brings its own advantages and disadvantages.

“He is well known by the New York electorate. People have seen him in many offices,” said George Arzt, a Democratic political consultant who has worked for Stringer’s campaign in the past. “He knows his politics. He’s born and bred in politics.”

While Democratic primary voters, who tend to be the most dedicated and consistent base of the party, may readily know of Stringer, the most recent poll that included him from Quinnipiac University, in April 2019, found that 31% of city voters didn’t know enough to approve or disapprove of the job he’s done as comptroller. He received approval from 48% and disapproval from 21% of voters in that poll, including 54% approval from Democratic voters, 17% of whom disapproved.  

Stringer has a long list of allies, including Democratic stalwarts like Nadler and Upper West Side Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal. The Assembly member was among those who endorsed Stringer at his campaign launch announcement, where he was also backed by several other state legislators, including young, first-term members like State Senators Alessandra Biaggi, Jessica Ramos, and Julie Salazar, each of whom Stringer endorsed over long-time incumbents. Those Senators were part of a wave of progressives who helped shift the balance of the Senate to Democrats, giving the party control of both houses of the Legislature and paving the way for 2019 passage of a sweeping agenda of progressive legislation that stalled for years.  

“I don't think it was a cynical political ploy. I think he took a real gamble in supporting these first-time candidates,” said Arzt, countering some of the criticism that Stringer skeptics have levelled. Stringer was also endorsed by Assemblymembers Yuh-Line Niou and Catalina Cruz, both of whom he previously endorsed over establishment figures, as well as Assemblymember Bobby Carroll of Park Slope, State Senator Robert Jackson and Assemblymember Al Taylor of Upper Manhattan, and State Senator Brian Kavanagh of Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn.

The opening coalition of diverse supporters quickly helped to some degree counteract questions about Stringer’s potential viability with voters of color as a white man in an increasingly non-white city, though those questions are certain to persist.

Stringer is jumping into a race that could eventually include several candidates of color, including Adams, who is Black, and at least two women of color, Morales and Wiley. In some quarters of the Democratic Party, there are calls for the next mayor to be a person of color who can better grasp and tackle structural racism that has served to entrench everything from housing inequity to school segregation. But it’s impossible to say whether race, ethnicity, gender, or other demographic information, like LGBTQ status, will be a central or deciding factor for voters. In the last wide open mayoral primary, in 2013, de Blasio, whose wife and children are Black, brought together a coalition of white progressives and voters of color, winning more Black support than Bill Thompson, the Black former city comptroller.

Stringer’s presence around the five boroughs, including in many communities of color, serves not only to boost his name recognition but also signals his interest in the job of mayor, said Gupta. “Scott is a New Yorker through and through and somebody who loves the city and has wanted to be mayor for pretty much his entire adult life probably,” he said. “And normally that kind of ambition is off-putting to voters but I actually think in this case, voters may like to see somebody who has wanted the job because they have somebody right now who seems almost disinterested in...probably the best political job in the world.”

As Gupta noted, part of the challenge may be the evolving definition of who and what is considered progressive in the age of Trump. Longstanding Democrats have recently been brought down by challengers who profess ideologies that hew further to the left and more radical than what has been generally accepted in past elections. It’s not just enough to support the building of affordable housing or reforms to the criminal justice system, candidates must now also eschew campaign donations from the real estate industry or from law enforcement unions. In his campaigns for Manhattan borough president and comptroller, Stringer readily accepted maximum campaign contributions from real estate developers, and he continued to do so for his mayoral run. He had already built a formidable war chest for his latest campaign before joining other Democratic candidates in saying that he would not accept any further real estate developer contributions – a pledge Johnson made from the start of his fundraising. Stringer hasn’t returned previous donations but also hasn’t raised any real estate donations in the latest fundraising cycle from January to July of this year, according to his campaign.   

But Gupta said that might not be a make-or-break for Stringer. “I think it's going to be meat and potatoes issues that determine this race, not professed ideology,” he said. “New Yorkers are a little bit skeptical of rhetoric. They want to see results.”

Voters may not be ideological about their choices in June 2021, said Dr. Christina Greer, political science professor at Fordham University. “I think ranked-choice voting could work in [Stringer’s] favor because he is a known quantity to social service organizations and social justice organizations and he has a built-in base already,” she said. “It depends, I think, on the borough, it depends on how people think about their own personal finances, how they feel about public safety, the welfare of the city, the coronavirus. All those factors will dictate who they choose as their number one and who they choose their number two.”

Though in his kickoff event he attempted to offer key principles of ethics, management, and leadership, and highlighted his policy focus on affordable housing and child care, Stringer has yet to offer a bold vision for the city’s future. The next mayor of New York City could very well inherit multiple crises – a huge budget hole, widespread unemployment, continued unaffordability, a longstanding homelessness crisis, crumbling public housing, mistrust between police and communities, to name just a few.

“I think there's a real appetite right now for a big thinker and he will have to prove that he's that person despite what is a very conventional political background,” said Eric Phillips, senior vice president at Edelman, a consultancy, and former press secretary to de Blasio. 

Phillips said Stringer has an advantage of having shown that he’s good at management as well as politics, particularly with his risky endorsements of progressive Democratic challengers. “Being the mayor of New York City is a political job and it’s usually done well by people who are good at politics…To do something of substance from a policy perspective in New York City requires you to coalition-build, it requires you to understand what the public thinks of you, it requires political skill. So I don't view that as cynicism. I view that as a requirement of the job,” Phillips said. 

But Phillips, echoing Gupta’s point, said voters will chiefly back the candidate who they think can make the city run effectively and efficiently. “The largest bloc of primary voters in this city are people who are really focused on trash and snow and roads and schools and public safety,” Phillips said. “They don't want fewer cops, they want better cops, and ultimately I think people like Scott Stringer will factor well into that equation.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

Scott Stringer's Strengths and Weaknesses as He Runs for Mayor Sat, 12 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Promising 'Leadership at City Hall,' Scott Stringer Officially Launches 2021 Mayoral Campaign scott stringer camp600

Scott Stringer launches his 2021 mayoral campaign

Comptroller Scott Stringer, a term-limited Democrat, officially launched his campaign to run for mayor on Tuesday, seeking to replace outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio in what is expected to be a hard-fought contest that has drawn more than a dozen exploring or declared candidates so far.  

Stringer, a Manhattanite serving his second term as the city’s top fiscal officer, pledged to “bring leadership back to City Hall” and centered his campaign pitch on fighting inequality, much like de Blasio had done when he won his first term in 2013. But Stringer presented himself as a contrast to the two-term mayor, taking direct aim at de Blasio’s failings and what Stringer depicted as his inability to make good on his promise to create a more equitable city.  

“We never closed the book on the tale of two cities,” Stringer said, evoking the message that got de Blasio elected. “If anything over the last eight years, we've written more chapters.”

Speaking near Inwood Hill Park in Upper Manhattan, close to his childhood home, Stringer addressed long-standing and new crises assailing the city and its most vulnerable communities, borne of the decisions of successive administrations and dramatically worsened by the coronavirus pandemic. He noted that that the neighborhood he stood in and grew up in was among the hardest hit by COVID-19 and is also home to many of the New Yorkers of color who have been considered essential workers throughout the pandemic.

Accompanied by his wife, Elyse Buxbaum, and two young children, and surrounded by a diverse group of state legislators from four boroughs announcing their endorsements of his mayoral bid, Stringer went through a variety of key issues during his remarks, centering affordability, especially affordable housing, child care, racial justice, climate resiliency, and more.

At the same time, he spoke in deeply personal terms of how it has affected him and his family, including the death of his mother from the virus. “It's because we love the city, that we must acknowledge that we have a public health crisis, an economic crisis, and a social justice crisis raging all at once,” he said, “and I believe we can overcome them all.”

The Democratic mayoral primary, which will be held in June 2021, will likely decide who becomes the next mayor because of the party’s overwhelming seven-to-one voter enrollment advantage over Republicans (there are more party-unaffiliated registered voters than Republicans in the city). It will also be the first citywide primary that employs ranked-choice voting, requiring candidates to appeal to a broader swathe of voters than they may otherwise.

Besides Stringer, several candidates have declared or are exploring a mayoral bid including Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, former Counsel to the Mayor Maya Wiley, former Obama and Bloomberg commissioner Shaun Donovan, former Commissioner of the City Department of Veterans Services Loree Sutton, former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, and others. 

Stringer made a long list of promises to tackle the many problems that de Blasio too had sought to fix but on which the mayor has shown insufficient progress, sure to make him a punching bag throughout the race. Repeatedly contrasting himself with a mayor seen as aloof and ineffective, Stringer vowed to "manage the hell out of this city."

He said he would fill the city’s expected $4.2 billion budget gap for the next fiscal year by cutting wasteful agency spending, curtailing outside contracts, and measuring spending by performance. He also said he would push for increasing taxes on the wealthy, a step that would require state legislative action and that stymied de Blasio for years. Stringer touted his plan for rebuilding the city’s economy, which has been decimated by the pandemic, and investing in small businesses, and businesses run by women, people of color, and immigrants. 

Taking aim at the mayor’s housing plan, which critics say has failed to build sufficient amounts of low-income housing while encouraging real estate speculation, Stringer referred to his own plan in promising a stronger approach. He reiterated his legally-dubious proposal for “universal affordable housing” that would mandate 25% of units in any new development be made permanently affordable. He also said he would triple new affordable housing for homeless families and create the city’s first land bank.

“When I'm mayor, we're going to end the crushing cycle of speculation, eviction, and displacement,” he said. “No more giving away the store to developers. No more unaffordable ‘affordable housing.’ We will put an end to the gentrification industrial complex, and end policies that perpetuate a cycle of segregation in our neighborhoods.”

How Stringer would ensure new housing is built or that neighborhoods become more integrated remain open questions. As he did again on Tuesday, he has repeatedly railed against the neighborhood rezonings de Blasio has ushered through, all in low-income communities of color, to add more housing density, including rent-capped units, but he did not offer a vision for areas of the city he believes should see significantly more housing development.

Referencing others among the many policy plans he’s offered as comptroller, Stringer vowed to triple the number of children receiving city-funded childcare and a “full-court press” on climate change, in part through resiliency projects and forbidding fossil fuel infrastructure. He also pledged to take on school segregation, but did not say how.

Some of Stringer’s harshest criticism for de Blasio came on the mayor’s approach to police brutality and accountability. De Blasio came into office promising to hold the NYPD to account but has since disappointed his supporters and others by regularly capitulating to the police department, taking a conservative approach to transparency, and making mostly modest reforms around accountability. Stringer pointed to the recent mass protests sparked by the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the NYPD’s often violent response against protesters. “The mayor and the police commissioner repeatedly excused the inexcusable, defended the indefensible, and failed to take responsibility for violence against New Yorkers. That ends the day I'm sworn in as mayor,” he said. “As mayor, I'm going to say to the NYPD what Bill de Blasio has not. ‘You work for the people of the city and you're not an independent agency. You work for us.’”

Stringer added that he would make sure the NYPD knows it is not an independent agency and that its officers, whom he offered some praise, work for the people. 

Stringer also made assurances that his administration would be more transparent, with a less-than-oblique reference to Mayor de Blasio’s ill-fated attempt to shield his communications with several outside advisers that his administration termed ‘agents of the city’ when blocking Freedom of Information requests  a move later overturned in court when NY1 and the New York Post sued for access.

“There will be no ‘agents of the city’ in a Stringer administration,” he said, in a jab that could also double as critique of Wiley, who came up with that tenuous legal formulation when she was the mayor’s counsel.

Stringer’s mayoral campaign is a culmination of years of preparation. A career elected offiicial, he first won office in 1992, securing a state Assembly seat. He became Manhattan Borough President from 2006 through 2013, and he briefly ran for mayor in 2012 before dropping down to the comptroller’s race, where he cleared the Democratic field until former Governor Eliot Spitzer decided to run. Stringer impressed many in the political world, as well as voters, in the campaign against the far-better known though scandal-plagued Spitzer, in part by calling on long-standing connections within the Democratic establishment and labor unions, especially his close ties with the teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers. He also had the support of the Working Families Party and major local newspaper editorial boards, among others, and exceeded expectations in their debates.

In 2017, Stringer again eyed a mayoral run as de Blasio faced the risk of legal entanglements or even prosecution from one state and one federal investigation into his fundraising activity. When prosecutors did not indict the mayor nor any of his close associates, Stringer demurred from challenging him.

In recent years Stringer has made a concerted effort to court the left, progressive wing of the party, building significant political capital with some while raising questions about where he stands ideologically and whether he’s playing cynical political games in the interest of his own ambitions. Similar questions have been raised as he’s shifted from a more developer-friendly borough president to a mayoral candidate disavowing campaign contributions from major real estate players.

Like Johnson and Donovan, Stringer is facing questions about being a white man running for mayor in an increasingly diverse city, and running against at least two, if not three candidates of color, two of whom are women. New York has never elected a woman as mayor and has not elected a person of color since David Dinkins became the city’s first Black mayor in 1990. Asked after the announcement about whether the city may want to see a person of color elected next year, Stringer insisted that he can build a broad base of support and will represent the interests of communities of color as he has throughout his career. “I've assembled what I think is the beginning of a multiracial, intergenerational group of supporters. And I'm going to go to every community...and I'm going to make my case,” Stringer said. “I believe people vote for the mayor who best represents the hopes and dreams of every diverse community...I ask people to vote on the basis of how we bring the city back economically for communities of color. Who's the best person who has the track record and experience and the social justice credibility from a government lens to get this done.”

In state elections over the last few cycles, Stringer endorsed a lengthy list of progressives, including a number of women of color, some of whom were challengers who successfully ousted Democratic incumbents and helped shift the balance of the state Legislature to give Democrats full control. Several of those he endorsed introduced him on Tuesday, reciprocating the support, including State Senators Allessandra Biaggi, Robert Jackson, Jessica Ramos, and Julia Salazar, and Assemblymembers Catalina Cruz and Yuh-Line Niou. Other elected officials also joined in support, including State Senator Brian Kavanagh, Assemblymembers Al Taylor, Linda Rosenthal, and Robert Carroll, and state Assembly candidate Amanda Septimo. The initial wave of endorsers represents parts of four boroughs other than Staten Island and a large group of the state’s younger, more diverse vanguard of progressive leadership.

Stringer has also in recent cycles endorsed the far-left candidacies of Jamaal Bowman, who successfully ousted Rep. Eliot Engel, and Tiffany Cabán, who narrowly lost in the 2019 Democratic Primary for Queens District Attorney. Both Bowman and Cabán, like Salazar, are members of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America.

Asked on Tuesday about seeking the DSA endorsement for mayor, Stringer demurred, saying he would be pursuing support from many groups and he did not want to get into a specific list at today’s announcement.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

Promising 'Leadership at City Hall,' Scott Stringer Officially Launches 2021 Mayoral Campaign Tue, 08 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Five-Candidate Field Emerges for Expected Bronx Special Election to Replace Council Member Cohen eebit3fuyaistaj

Council Member Cohen (left) passing out masks in his Bronx district (photo: @AndrewCohenNYC)

Bronx City Council Member Andrew Cohen’s recent nomination for a Supreme Court judgeship at the Bronx Democratic Party’s judicial convention in August means that the already-underway contest to replace him in the Council will likely move up from a June 2021 primary to a February or March 2021 special election, assuming Cohen assumes his judgeship in January. The special election in Council District 11, along with contests for soon-to-be-vacant seats in Council Districts 15 (Ritchie Torres) and 31 (Donovan Richards), appear likely to be crowded, competitive affairs and are likely to be the first uses of ranked-choice voting in New York City.

City Council District 11, which Cohen has represented since 2014, covers the northwest corner of the Bronx, including the neighborhoods of Bedford Park, Kingsbridge, Riverdale, Norwood, Van Cortlandt Village, Wakefield, and Woodlawn. Riverdale, the traditional political power center of the district, is largely white while the neighborhoods of Kingsbridge and Woodlawn, are home to a majority of people of color.

According to NYU’s Furman Center, in Community Board 8, which overlaps with much of the district, about half of the population is Hispanic, while 29% is white and 15% are black. The poverty rate in the area covered by the Community Board was 18.8% in 2018, slightly higher than the citywide rate of 17.3% but significantly lower than the borough’s poverty rate of 27.4%. Average rents in Riverdale are about $1,410, while the average rent in the Bronx is $1,210.

Even before Council Member Cohen received his judicial nomination, candidates were already lining up to replace him given term limits, including district leader and teacher Eric Dinowitz (whose father is State Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz), tech entrepreneur Jessica Haller, former Community Board 8 chair Daniel Padernacht, social worker Abigail Martin, and Marcos Sierra, a district leader and former community board member. The recent nomination kicked the budding race into a new gear, likely shortening the timeline, and Gotham Gazette spoke with the five candidates, all Democrats like Cohen, about their campaigns and the top issues in the race including housing, public safety, education, transportation, and more.

“This is a very interesting race during a very interesting time politically in the Bronx,” said Gary Axelbank, host of Bronx Buzz on BronxNet TV. “There’s no question there’s an upheaval in Bronx politics, but there’s a real opportunity for the Bronx to remake itself.”

Eric Dinowitz appears to hold an advantage in name recognition given his father is a Bronx county stalwart who has held his Assembly seat for over two decades. Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz’s 81st District is almost coterminous with the 11th Council District, with the latter extending more into Norwood than the former.

The younger Dinowitz had raised $73,550 for the race, as of a July 11 campaign finance disclosure that covered the previous six months, and had $53,966 in cash-on-hand. Haller came in second in the cash race having raised $55,827, and with a balance of $38,371 in her account. Padernacht has raised $30,961, but has only $3,099 in his account as of July. Martin has not yet filed any financial disclosures.

Eric Dinowitz had 311 individual donors to Haller’s 386 and Padernacht’s 246. Their average donations were $236, $145, and $126, respectively.

“I have hundreds and hundreds of individual donations. The vast majority of those are from the Bronx and small-dollar donations,” Dinowitz said of his fundraising lead. “What that tells me is that I’ve built a broad, deep coalition of support throughout the district.”

The other candidates have criticized the timing of Cohen’s elevation to a judgeship, which they say gives an advantage to Dinowitz since a special election will likely have lower turnout than the June primary and give the candidates less time to establish their campaigns. Eric Dinowitz has pushed back against that critique. “I am a public school teacher and have been a community activist for years,” he said, when asked about the questions surrounding the influence of his father in the race. “The voters are smart. They’re going to make a choice. It’s up to me to tell my story and share my vision of what we need to recover from this crisis and revitalize this community and this city.”

Haller, however, was critical of how the Democratic county party handled the process. “Not only is it a backroom deal where papa gets to anoint his son,” she said. “We’re going to trigger a special election that’s going to cost millions, we’re not going to get full turnout, and the community is going to be unrepresented for months.” The cost of the special election was a particular sticking point for Haller, who noted, “We have budget cuts everywhere.”

Martin echoed Haller. “This is an example of machine politics at play and Jeffrey Dinowitz has orchestrated it. It’s evidence that he doesn’t want the constituents of this district to hear from all the candidates,” she said, citing the difficulties of running as a first-time candidate, particularly during the pandemic. “Special elections are expensive and we should be using that money to keep roofs over heads and food on tables.”

Special elections in New York City are also non-partisan, meaning candidates run on ballot lines they create, and can’t be nominated by the traditional parties. Therefore, none of the candidates will appear on the Democratic Party ballot line. Assuming all goes accordingly for Cohen, the election will take place (using the ranked-choice voting system) and the winner will win the seat outright, and be sworn in soon after to serve the final months of Cohen’s second term. Like with all 51 City Council seats and many other city government positions, there will still be an election for the seat next year via the June primaries and fall general election, to see who holds the position for 2022 and 2023, but the special election will mean there’s an incumbent in that second 2021 race.

Why They’re Running
“Every single day, I see deep inequities in my classroom,” said Eric Dinowitz, who teaches at the Walton Campus, a public school in the Jerome Park neighborhood, “and there’s only so much I can do as a teacher to solve this problem. As a Council Member, I’m going to fight for the structural changes needed for all students, for working families, and for seniors.” Dinowitz, a member of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), has been endorsed by his union. He did not specify what he meant by “structural changes.”

Haller touts the environment as her signature issue and believes that the Bronx has suffered from harmful policies that can be fixed at the local level. “The Earth is on fire quite simply and we feel it quite acutely in the Bronx...We see it in lack of opportunity for kids and we see it disproportionately in all sorts of terrible things from covid to heat. So much of it is completely preventable if you think about the world and the city in a systemic way,” she said, referring specifically to asthma-related and heat deaths caused by pollution.

She describes herself as “a mom and a climate activist and I’ve been an entrepreneur for many years,” pointing to her work on the $3 billion Willets Point development, helping to make the project environmentally sustainable, through her startup at the time. “For me, the next frontier of addressing the most global issues at the most local level is moving into City Council, where I think I can pick up the reins of the really great work that has been started by the Council,” she said.

“I love government service and I think being a City Council Member would allow me to expand the amount of work I do in the community,” said Padernacht, citing his “experience, knowledge, commitment, determination, and willingness to work with everyone.”

Padernacht pointed to his twelve-year Community Board experience, which he believes gives him a “grasp on community efforts” and “really good experience working with the community in the framework of advocating for the community,” as well as a background on the issues that matter most and an understanding of city agencies. In addition to working as chair, Padernacht has served as charity of the board’s transportation committee and vice-chair of its land use committee. He says Community Board members turned Council Members “hit the ground running” because of that “wealth of knowledge.”

“We need a strong economic framework in the city of New York and in order to do that we need to create opportunity for business, support for business, and make sound financial decisions,” said Padernacht, who opposes any city tax increases and supports eliminating waste in city agencies to close the budget gap. “We need that to be able to support our most vulnerable populations.”

Martin was spurred into the race by witnessing the city’s worsening affordability crisis. “After watching families get squeezed out of this city year after year, I’ve grown increasingly concerned that New York is becoming more and more expensive, and then covid hit, leaving us in an enormous fiscal crisis,” she said. “I saw services being cut for those who need it most all while politicians are refusing to ask those who can to help out.”

“We have to do better to save this city and the Bronx from complete collapse,” she added, pointing to affordable housing and childcare as top concerns. She opposes any increases to MTA fares, if possible.

“I’m running because I want to have equitable representation,” said Sierra, a Norwood resident, “that leads to an inequitable distribution of resources. The 11th Councilmanic District is larger than Riverdale.” Sierra serves as a district leader in the 80th Assembly District, only about a fifth of which overlaps with Council District 11.

Sierra continued, “In the uncertain and turbulent times ahead, the people of the 11th CD deserve a representative with real life qualifications. Someone who has lived their struggle, experienced their grief, and can relate to walking in their footsteps.”

Housing & Land Use
Affordable housing is a preeminent issue for voters in the district, as it is across the city. Council Members play a prominent role in the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) and the entire Council traditionally defers to the judgement of the local member when choosing to approve or reject a particular land use application, which at times become controversial when large projects or increased density are involved. The area is home to few public housing units: in Community Board 8, only 3.4% of rental units are NYCHA housing, compared to a borough-wide average of 9.7%, according to the Furman Center.

“It’s vital that we keep people in their homes, especially our seniors,” Eric Dinowitz said, stressing the importance of ensuring access to the city’s Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) Program and the Disability Rent Increase Exemption (DRIE) programs. He wants to expand the city’s affordable housing supply, “so people can afford to live in their own city,” but did not specify how the housing supply should be grown.

“The lens that I am viewing my vision of the city is equity, resilience, and sustainability,” Haller said, clarifying that “sustainable also means financially sustainable.” “Affordable housing has to be built well and built safely,” she said. “Everything that we build in this city needs to be able to withstand what’s coming and to be operating into the future.”

“We need to focus on affordable housing, but the business model needs to work so developers come and do it,” Haller stated, decrying some “false business models” that use too-high Area Median Income (AMI) numbers, often set by city and federal formulas, that make included affordable housing unaffordable to local residents.

“One of the biggest things we can do to create stable housing is affordable housing through homeownership,” Padernact told Gotham Gazette. He praised the state’s Mitchell-Lama program, which provides rental and cooperative housing to moderate- and middle-income families through private development, and said that the opportunity exists for the city to establish similar programs.

On land use, Padernact said he would take a “holistic view” and “look at the benefit to the community of any potential new development. I’m going to look to see how that development fits within the immediate community. I’m certainly going to seek feedback from neighbors and stakeholders. And, I’m going to look at its impact on the district’s infrastructure,” specifically its effect on public transit, schools, and emergency services.

“I would suggest a more aggressive approach,” Martin said, on affordable housing, saying there was “room for improvement” with Mayor de Blasio’s housing strategy, which relies on subsidizing the development of rent-restricted housing and rezoning large swathes of neighborhoods to create more density. “We need to talk about [land use]. We have areas that don’t have the infrastructure to handle more people and we have areas that can,” she said, emphasizing the importance of impact studies that can gauge the long-term effects a rezoning would have.

Sierra said his top priority is “real affordable housing, not that band-aid stuff,” specifically referring to Area Median Income determinations. “The AMI for the City of New York is artificially inflated because it includes affluent suburbs,” he said, and pointing out that the AMI assesses the median income for a family of four at around $113,700, when the Bronx’s median income is closer to $36,530. “Because of this AMI, people in the Bronx pay 50% of our income to rent, when the national average is 30%. It blows my mind that the borough that has the lowest pay per capita in the country pays the most rent in the entire nation.”

Sierra suggested that the City Council create an AMI specifically for the Bronx, so that affordable housing guidelines reflect the actual incomes of the residents of the borough, though it is not clear if that is something the Council can do and have the city still be eligible for federal housing funds.

Police Accountability & Public Safety
Amid recent Black Lives Matter protests and the “Defund the NYPD” movement, police accountability and reform are once again major issues in city elections. The candidates in the District 11 race all voiced support for the movement for greater police accountability, but some stopped short of advocating for significantly shifting funds from the police department to social services.

“We obviously have deep problems with policing in New York City,” said Eric Dinowitz, who supported recently enacted reforms such as the repeal of Section 50-A of the state civil rights law, which shielded police officers’ disciplinary records from public view, and a state law criminalizing the use of chokeholds by officers during arrests. “Maybe we don’t need to criminalize certain behaviors,” he added, particularly in reference to people experiencing homelessness. “Something I’ve been advocating for years has been more social and emotional health training.”

“I struggle to see what a simple statement like getting rid of a billion dollars does,” Dinowitz said, when asked about the ‘defund the NYPD’ movement, which had called for cutting $1 billion from the police department’s roughly $6 billion annual operating budget. “Cutting the budget in and of itself does nothing to change the culture or legislation of what police do.”

Haller initially supported defunding the police budget by $1 billion over four years in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, and now supports calls for a $1 billion reduction in the police budget. However, she said, “I will not legislate by hashtag. You can’t take an organization and say ‘I’m going to give you less money and fewer resources and you have to do better.’”

“The slogan ‘defund the police’ is a bad slogan,” Padernacht said. “I would be supportive of diverting money to other services that add to the public safety of the city.” Citing recent cash bail reforms and a purported NYPD work slowdown, he said, “I think the increase in crime is due to a perception that there aren’t many consequences for those committing the crimes in New York at this moment and I think perception is the key word there.” Notably, while overall the major index felony crimes are slightly lower than last year, murders and gun violence have increased significantly.

Martin said she’s still “in the fact-finding phase,” but added, “In general, we are watching crime go up and I think that that is becoming a big concern for people. When you talk about tightening the budget, every single city agency has to do their fair share to get us through this crisis.”

Similar to other candidates, Sierra expressed skepticism over “Defund the NYPD” as a slogan, saying, “I believe that you can support the police and still be against police brutality. We need law enforcement in our neighborhoods. Anyone who says otherwise is not paying attention, for practical safety purposes.”

“I agree with the reallocation,” Sierra said, referring to recent budge shifts by the City Council and mayor, adding, “I feel that we should not have police officers in school.”

The reopening of city schools is an issue raised by many of the candidates, who almost uniformly expressed skepticism about the city’s plan, which involves partial in-person instruction mixed with virtual learning. New York City is currently the only major school system in the country with plans for in-person learning to begin when the school year starts (for New York City students on September 10).

“I’m a parent myself. I think all of us want our children back in the classroom, but I think we all want our children to be safe,” Eric Dinowitz said.

Haller, a mother of four school-aged children, said, “There’s an absolute lack of common sense and common goals, so that the teachers don’t trust that they’re going to be safe and the parents don’t trust that their kids are going to be taken care of.”

“I believe that housing, education, and public safety are inextricably combined with one another and when it comes to education we need to move to skills-based education and away from teaching to a test,” Padernacht said. On the school reopening plan, he said “We’re not prepared for blended learning” and “we should target in-person teaching to the students who need it most.”

Martin, who has children in public school, has decided to keep her young children in remote learning this year. She explained, “Parents who are able to make that choice should make that choice so that parents who are unable to, who have to go to work, can. I’m very concerned with how things are going to go. I’m going to be watching it very closely and we’ll see what happens. I wish the Department of Education had been able to get more creative, but here we are.”

On the city's school reopening plans, Sierra said, “It could be better.” He specifically cited air filtration systems in school facilities as a major concern. “If there is no comprehensive testing done on the ventilation systems in every school, we are potentially putting children and faculty in extreme danger for exposure to covid and that’s not acceptable.”

Communities like in Council District 11, at the very edges of the city proper, are in constant need of mass transit access and reliability.

Eric Dinowitz pointed to his activism on transit, campaigning for accessibility at an MTA station in the district, which was ultimately successful. He tied the city’s recovery efforts inextricably to this issue. “As we’re looking to revitalize this city, especially our businesses, we have to ensure that our transit system works and that it works for everybody,” he said. Dinowitz points to his advocacy against the MTA’s plans during the Bronx bus route redesign to cut express bus service in the district, which ultimately did not happen.

“Covid really makes this very hard,” Haller noted, citing the fall-off in the MTA’s revenue. “We need to make public transportation such that people find it convenient enough not to need a car.” She proposes installing CitiBikes in the northern Bronx, which currently does not have any, and focus on other “micro-transit” solutions to make public transportation more accessible. Despite the recent redesign of bus routes in the Bronx, which Haller called “a great attempt,” she said that “it’s going to be really hard to satisfy everyone.”

Sierra opposed the recent Bronx bus redesign, saying, “I thought it was a bad idea from the beginning” and decrying what he called a lack of community engagement. ADA compliance is also a top concern when it comes to transportation for Sierra. “If we’re going to have a conservation about improving transportation, that should be number one if not number two on the list," he said.

“There are still a lot of residents [of the district] who rely on cars,” Padernacht said. He supports the expansion of bike routes in the district, saying “it’s a safety issue for pedestrians, bikers, and drivers.”

Additionally Haller discussed at length her signature issue of the environment, noting that heat deaths and childhood asthma hospitalization rates are on the rise in the city, and saying “The heat island that is the Bronx and all of New York City is even hotter” than the world as a whole. She wants to see congestion pricing, low-emission zones, and other policies that would reduce the cars on the city’s roads.

“We’re terrible,” Haller said of the city’s resiliency efforts. She opposes a massive proposed sea wall and instead believes the city should be pursuing “living shorelines” and “other small, diverse” resiliency projects. “We have to learn to live with the water,” she said. “We’re not going to hold it back.”

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to remove Dionel Then, who dropped from the race just as this story went to publication. It has also been corrected to remove mention of Martin's fundraising numbers, she has not yet filed any and updated to add that Marcos Sierra is running and comments from an interview with him.

Five-Candidate Field Emerges for Expected Bronx Special Election to Replace Council Member Cohen Mon, 31 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New Machines May Help With Early Voting But Advocates Say They Could Undermine Ranked-Choice Voting 30787897328 6a3c4da1ba c

Ranked-choice voting will be implemented for the first time next year (Michael Appleton/Mayor's office)

The New York State Board of Elections is continuing the process of certifying new voting machines sought by New York City elections administrators to improve the city's early voting system. But, while those machines could help the city take a step toward county-wide early voting centers – which many early voting supporters are pushing for – voting reform advocates say they may not be viable for ranked-choice voting, which will be implemented for the first time in the city next year. 

Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, lets a voter rank up to five candidates by preference, so that if no candidate wins a majority of votes, the last-place candidate's ballots are redistributed based on their voters' second choices, a process repeated until a winner emerges with 50% of the vote. RCV, which will only be in effect for special elections and party primary elections (not general elections) for New York City government positions, helps avoid costly and labor-intensive runoffs, which often see exceedinly low voter turnout. New Yorkers approved the change by ballot referendum last year to go into effect in 2021, when several City Council special elections as early as February could be the first RCV contests.

A document obtained by Gotham Gazette indicates the New York City Board of Elections believes its current voting machines will work for RCV in 2021, and is taking the necessary steps to upgrade their software. However, one leader of the State Board of Elections, which has to approve technology used by local boards, says no attempt to certify new software has been made.

In a report sent to Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council on July 1, the BOE said that as early as June 2019, the board's voting machine vendor, Election Systems & Software, confirmed that "the current hardware and firmware utilized to conduct elections in the City of New York and as certified by the New York State Board of Elections 'has the ability to layout a ballot that will accommodate RCV.'" New York City's current machines, the DS200 optical scanners, are designed to receive a handmarked paper ballot, while the new machines, Express Vote XL, are combined voting-and-tabulation machines that use a touch screen and have greater memory to store multiple ballot designs.

The BOE's executive director, Michael Ryan, came under criticism in 2018 for his affiliation with ES&S, particularly his undisclosed participation in an advisory board of the company, which paid for Ryan to take trips to conferences around the United States. Ryan has denied any conflicts of interest with ES&S and stepped down from the advisory board after it was first reported by NY1.

In March 2019, in a letter to the State BOE, reported again by NY1, Ryan asked to be able to use the new Express Vote XL machine from ES&S before it had been certified for use, but the request was denied. Ryan said the new machine, with its great memory capacity, could store more ballot styles and thus accommodate voters from a wider swath of election districts – a necessary hurdle to overcome if the city is going to set up county-wide early voting centers sought by advocates.

When it looked like the Express Vote XL was nearing certification by the State Board in January, good government groups and elected officials raised alarms about its history of inaccuracy, including an election in Pennsylvania where the machines failed to count 26,000 votes. Critics said the machines would also be costly and could damage confidence in the new RCV system during its first year if they failed.

"The ExpressVote XL has never been used in a Ranked Choice Voting election," read a January letter from good government group Common Cause NY and current and former public officials, including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and former CCRB Chair and Counsel to Mayor de Blasio, Maya Wiley, who is exploring a run for mayor in 2021. "The largest New York City election cycle in recent history, with wide open races for Mayor, Comptroller, four Borough Presidents, and 35 City Council seats, is no place for a trial run with a machine that has failed in other jurisdictions."

A spokesperson for ES&S said the Express Vote XL is compatible with RCV without a software upgrade and has a good track record.

With the latest confirmation that the current machines can work with a software update, advocates are enjoying a moment of relief. "This is what we have said all along that New York City has the voting machines it needs to implement ranked-choice voting in 2021, which is great news," Common Cause's deputy director, Sarah Goff, told Gotham Gazette. "That means that there will be no additional costs to the taxpayer in this regard."

The city BOE can get the required tabulation software upgrade from ES&S or through the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, she said ("Both are great options"), "and that is the only infrastructure upgrade that we'll need to scan, count, and tabulate votes in New York City."

The RCV report states that the city BOE will use vendor-provided software and "has communicated with the State Board for a determination whether State Board vendor approval and/or certification of software is required." But Douglas Kellner, the Democratic co-chair of the State Board, denied his agency had received any such communication. "If the DS200 requires a software update that requires certification and as far as I know that software update has not been submitted to the state board for certification or for a determination that it's not subject to certification," Kellner said by phone, referring to the current machines used by the city board.

The New York City Board of Elections did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

While acknowledging the immense challenge of administering elections during a pandemic, advocates looking ahead to ranked-choice voting in 2021 are worried that the city BOE is not moving quickly or deliberately enough to have the new format in place and ready for voters.

Meanwhile, the Express Vote XL certification process is still ongoing. "There have been some issues that arose during the testing process and we're still at least a couple of months away from a final certification report, assuming that there are no new issues," Kellner said.

At a certain point, the city may need to adopt new, larger machines if it is going to allow county-wide polling centers, which many of the same RCV advocates have been pushing for. But that does not need to happen all at once, especially before the RCV roll-out and while the current machines still work, advocates say.

"The DS200s, I believe have a shelf life of ten to fifteen years," Goff said, which she said was a few years away. "So some kind of new voting machine would need to happen."

"We've obviously taken the public position that it should definitely not be the ExpressVote XL," she added, "but that is a decision that will have to be made in the next few years."

Kellner said the city board can be "overly reliant on ES&S on how to address the problem."

"It is very easy to become dependent upon a vendor for solutions to issues that really should be addressed in-house, because it's easier," he said. "It's easier to just pick up the phone and say, 'Can you guys do it for us and we'll pay you for it?"

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

New Machines May Help With Early Voting But Advocates Say They Could Undermine Ranked-Choice Voting Mon, 31 Aug 2020 02:02:55 +0000
Board of Elections Presents Plan for 2021 Implementation of Ranked-Choice Voting 47220286761 129e1c6c19 c

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's office)

The New York City Board of Elections last week delivered a City Charter-mandated report to Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council on how it will implement a new voting method, known as ranked-choice voting (RCV), in the 2021 municipal elections, when all of city government will be on the ballot.

The report, which was submitted June 30 and obtained by Gotham Gazette, shows few procedural and operational changes to casting and counting ballots, possibly indicating a light lift for elections administrators ahead of the changes next year. But at least one government watchdog is concerned that the report's lack of detail and deadlines bodes poorly for the rollout of ranked-choice voting, especially given the difficulties voters experienced casting absentee ballots this summer.

"We recognize that the New York City Board of Elections is under a great deal of strain, but the lack of detail in this report is pretty concerning," said Tom Speaker, a spokesperson for the good government group Reinvent Albany, by phone. "The Charter calls for a plan for achieving the timely implementation of ranked choice voting, and in the report there is almost nothing about timing or about deadlines or about benchmarks."

Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, was approved by New York City voters last fall after being placed on the ballot by a Charter Revision Commission. The commission was created through legislation by the City Council and included appointees of the Council speaker, mayor, comptroller, public advocate, and the five borough presidents. The system of ranked-choice voting that was proposed to voters and approved is only for special elecitons and party primary elections, not general elections, and only applies to New York City government positions.

Modeled on systems used in a handful of cities throughout the United States, RCV allows voters to select more than one candidate, ranking them by order of preference. If no candidate has a majority of first-choice votes in the initial counting, the candidate with the fewest is eliminated and their ballots are redistributed according to the voter's second preference, a process that then continues until a winner crosses the 50% threshold.

Proponents of RCV say it will eliminate the need for expensive and poorly-attended runoff elections and would neutralize so-called "spoiler" candidates, those who have a low chance of winning but who sap votes from more viable candidates.

The 2021 elections for city office will include contests for mayor, comptroller, and public advocate, as well as borough presidents, and dozens of open City Council seats, all of which will be conducted by ranked-choice voting (again, only in special and primary elections, not the general election). With the first instance of ranked-choice voting likely taking place in a special election in as little as six months and an expected 500 candidates running in the primaries next year, Speaker says the lack of planning is especially concerning.

While the report notes that the layout of the ballot will change to reflect the ranking system, it details few other changes to the experience of voters and administrators on election day. Voters at their polling location will still be handed a ballot sheet to mark by hand and will feed them, completed, into the same scanning machines.

Though the existing ballot-scanning machines can accommodate RCV, they require software updates to run the counting algorithm. That may need approval from the State Board of Elections, which the report says the city board is seeking clarity on. Even if the software doesn't require state approval, the New York City Board of Elections must still go through a public procurement process in accordance with city rules. The report does not specify any timeline for making the determination or for procuring and installing the software.

The plan states that Unofficial Election Night Results will be available as they typically have been (with the exception of the 2020 primary and general elections, which saw an unprecedented number of absentee ballots due to the pandemic). The report makes no contingency plan for potential changes to the absentee rules that would make election night results impossible.

With the "amount of turmoil that can happen between now and whenever the first ranked choice voting is, it's just easy to see how a lot of these steps might actually never be taken," Speaker said, referring to potential waves of coronavirus in the future.

The board does not describe any adjustments to poll worker and ballot canvasser training or what instructions will be provided to voters at poll sites. The board says it plans to undertake a public education campaign "utilizing various traditional media and social media platforms to effectively communicate with voters," but doesn't say what the campaign will entail or what resources it has available to implement it.

"The Board will disseminate the details of the public education plan as same are available," the report reads.

Advocates and elected officials, including Brooklyn Borough President and mayoral-hopeful Eric Adams, have been pushing the city Board of Elections since February to undertake a serious public education effort to inform voters on the new voting method. At a February news conference in front of the board's office in Lower Manhattan, Adams, along with Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel of Brooklyn, and Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY, called for the city to allocate $10 million for the effort.

The board’s report was submitted just one day before the July 1 start of the current fiscal year, and it makes no mention of any budget needs. The city allocated $136 million to the New York City Board of Elections for fiscal year 2021.

Even with the most significant changes appearing relatively simple, like redesigning ballots and installing new software, Reinvent Albany’s Speaker says the devil will be in the details.

"While it might seem there's only a small number of steps required, it seems like the BOE could really benefit from more staff and more efforts dedicated to public information especially," he told Gotham Gazette, "because what we've seen in other municipalities who have adopted RCV, is that it fails the most when there is not a robust public education campaign around it."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Board of Elections Presents Plan for 2021 Implementation of Ranked-Choice Voting Fri, 28 Aug 2020 11:53:49 +0000