Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1933 Thu, 09 Apr 2020 09:17:09 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) It’s Time to Bring MTA’s Paratransit Into the 21st Century https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9003-time-to-bring-mta-paratransit-into-21st-century-access-a-ride https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9003-time-to-bring-mta-paratransit-into-21st-century-access-a-ride mta aar residents

(photo: MTA)


There is a reason why Access-A-Ride is better known as “Stress-A-Ride” for the approximately 170,000 New Yorkers who depend on it. 

The bill for Access-A-Ride will hit $616 million this year and the MTA is seeking additional funding from the City of New York. It’s mind-boggling to think this service can cost the cash-strapped agency so much for such low-quality service. That’s why before anyone kicks in additional funding, the MTA must fundamentally transform the way it runs its paratransit program and bring it into the 21st century.

New York City Transit (NYCT), which is part of the MTA, administers paratransit service, which provides 24/7 shared-ride, door-to-door transportation through the five boroughs and in parts of Westchester and Long Island. The scale and scope of this service is unmatched by any other transit system in the nation. However, disability advocates and budget watchdog groups alike have observed for years that the MTA’s byzantine approach to paratransit services leads to inefficiencies and a lack of transparency and accountability, culminating in the highest cost-per-trip ($68.71) in the country. The second most expensive (Chicago) is half the MTA’s at $38. Why? 

Fundamentally, the way the MTA contracts its paratransit services is both cumbersome and inefficient. Right now, the MTA provides Access-A-Ride through a constellation of for-profit and not-for-profit contractors, including 13 Dedicated Carriers, which use specially-equipped buses and cars owned by NYCT, and two Broker Car Service Providers, which provide transportation services to ambulatory passengers through a network of subcontracted livery and black car service providers.

And there are separate contracts that govern Access-A-Ride’s eligibility determination unit, the command center which receives trip requests and designs schedules and routes, and the carriers that complete those trips. Is your head spinning yet?

In addition, more than half of Access-A-Ride trips are “ambulatory” for people who are able to walk to, enter, and exit vehicles without assistance. Vehicles with special equipment are not necessary for these trips. Putting people in taxis or other for-hire vehicles is cheaper. A single trip under the e-hail program costs the authority $35.91. The same Access-A-Ride trip costs the MTA $68.71. 

So how could we turn things around for Access-A-Ride?

Instead of over a dozen contractors and vendors to provide paratransit services, the MTA should unify the entire system with a single, full-service technology platform to handle all relationships with vehicle providers. The MTA could streamline management of Access-A-Ride and ambulatory services, encourage more competitive bidding, and lower administrative costs.

In the last five years, reports by experts at the Citizens Budget Commission, NYU Rudin Transportation Center, and Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office all point to the burdensome administrative and coordination layers that are the direct result of multiple types of contracts and vendors at every step of the service: verification, booking, dispatching, routing, vehicle operations, customer service, etc.  

While they’re at it, the MTA should require that this platform enable on-demand rides in real-time so that people are no longer forced to call to reserve a trip one to two days in advance and wait to be given an unpredictable and often inaccurate pickup time.

We should have a system to match paratransit customers to right-sized vehicles from a variety of modes; increase efficient sharing and routing of vehicles; and create more transparency and accountability for quality-of-service and customer complaints. The technology for this solution is well-established and the MTA should begin the work immediately to transition to such a system.

In the meantime, it should build on the success of the e-hail program – the MTA’s one innovation in this space in recent memory – instead of curtailing it. The pilot provided the city’s paratransit customers with rides in yellow or green taxis through an e-hail app, Curb or Arro, but was only made available to 1,200 users, less than 1% of the service’s customers. The MTA is now looking to severely limit the one bright spot in its paratransit program by capping rides and having customers pay more. It should instead improve the program.

Most of the rides currently booked through the e-hail pilot are single-passenger rides, but where appropriate we should use ride-matching technology to have more multi-passenger ambulatory trips as a way to lower cost-per-trip.

The MTA recently held a conference inviting technology companies to share ideas for slashing time and cost of modernizing the antiquated signal system in the subway. Mark Dowd, the new Chief Innovation Officer at the MTA, declared, “We are looking for cutting-edge technologies, technologies that may have not been designed for this purpose, but can be applied to this purpose.” The MTA needs to apply this type of thinking to transform the costly and antiquated paratransit program. Now.

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City Council Member Justin Brannan represents parts of Brooklyn; City Council Member Diana Ayala represents parts of Manhattan and the Bronx. On Twitter @JustinBrannan and @DianaAyalaNYC.

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It’s Time to Bring MTA’s Paratransit Into the 21st Century Wed, 18 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Food Policy Agenda on Menu at City Council Hearing https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8797-food-policy-agenda-on-menu-at-city-council-hearing https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8797-food-policy-agenda-on-menu-at-city-council-hearing corey johnson delivers

Speaker Johnson at food policy speech (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The City Council is set to consider a number of bills related to food policy at a hearing Wednesday, including a proposal to codify an Office of Food Policy, a month after Council Speaker Corey Johnson unveiled an expansive food equity plan with the creation of the office at its center.

The Council’s Committees on General Welfare, Economic Development, and Education will meet at City Hall Wednesday afternoon to examine a package of 14 bills and two resolutions dealing with nutritional access and public education, urban agriculture, and food waste.

Together the bills touch on many of the planks in Johnson’s nascent food platform, which includes expanding existing food programs and tying economic opportunity to farming and nutrition, all under a comprehensive citywide plan coordinated by a newly empowered Office of Food Policy.

Representatives of the Speaker say Johnson will not be attending the hearing, which is expected to be led by Council Members Stephen Levin, Paul Vallone, and Mark Treyger, who chair the three committees. Other members who are either lead sponsors of the legislation at hand or are members of the committees or otherwise interested will also participate.

A number of prominent stakeholders, like Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Andrea Strong of the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance, plan to testify. A representative of the office of Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services is also expected to speak.

“Food is a human right. Yet in our city — one of the richest in the world — more than 1 million New Yorkers are food insecure and there is inequitable access to fresh and healthy food in many neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “The Council is working to address these gaps with new legislation and budget proposals.”

On August 1, Johnson released a report entitled “Growing Food Equity in New York City,” which outlined the Council’s agenda to combat inequities in accessing nutritional food and ensure the city has a comprehensive food policy responsive to the needs of different demographics like students, seniors, low-income residents, and non-white New Yorkers. Wednesday’s joint hearing will be the first time the bills are discussed in a formal legislative setting.

Johnson is the co-sponsor of two of the bills being considered, including the proposal to establish an Office of Food Policy and one to increase reporting on the city’s food system, whose main sponsors are Ben Kallos and Paul Vallone, respectively. Council Members Kallos, representing the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and Diana Ayala, representing East Harlem and the South Bronx, are co-sponsors of every piece of legislation under review by the committees.

“A lot of these bills are bills on issues we have been working on for quite some time,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette in an interview. “In terms of the overall package, it’s amazing to work with a Speaker who is really empowering so many members -- taking such a large package that is going to do so very much, and sharing it with many members and bringing them into the fight against food insecurity and hunger.”

Under the legislation, the Office of Food Policy would be responsible for developing and coordinating initiatives in four categories: 1. promoting access to healthy food for all city residents; 2. developing support programs to make nutritional food more affordable; 3. expanding reporting in the annual Food System Metrics Report published by the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability; and 4. collaborating with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to update food standards for meals purchased, prepared, or served by city agencies. The director of the office would be appointed by the mayor or the head of a mayoral agency.

There is currently an Office of the Director of Food Policy under the mayor, but the position is vacant. It was previously held by Barbara Turk, who has been serving in another role -- senior advisor at the city’s Administration for Children’s Services -- since April, according to her LinkedIn account.

“We’re hoping to have a director, make sure that that director position is filled, and ensure that they have a directive that spans multiple agencies and that they can hold the agencies accountable,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette.

“We believe that the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy should continue to remain an important asset in the City’s food policy efforts and look forward to discussing these proposals with the Council,” a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, Avery Cohen, wrote in an email. The mayor’s office did not respond to emails asking when the next director of food policy would be appointed or for information about the hiring process.

The bills being heard Wednesday include measures that would fall under the food policy director’s purview, whether that office is codified into law or not.

One bill, sponsored by Bronx Council Member Vanessa Gibson, would require the office to consult with city agencies, community-based organizations, and other stakeholders in the food system to develop a ten-year plan focused on food equity and insecurity. The plan would set goals to increase access to nutritional foods through existing and newly-developed programs, reduce food waste, and develop the economic conditions surrounding urban agriculture. The Office of Food Policy would be required to report on the progress made toward those goals.

Other bills in the package would establish new governmental bodies to deal with other elements of Johnson’s food platform. One measure sponsored by Bronx Council Member Andrew Cohen would create an advisory board to assess and make recommendations regarding the city’s food procurement policy and to evaluate contract bids. Another, sponsored by Council Member Rafael Espinal of Brooklyn, would create an Office of Urban Agriculture and an accompanying advisory board to develop and report on a plan to protect and expand urban agriculture.

Under the package, community gardens would be partially protected from opposing land-use interests. The city’s reporting and assessment of the community garden system would be centralized and farmer’s markets would be allowed to operate on their premises, making them more economically viable and increasing access to community-produced healthy food.

The package also includes a focus on improving public engagement with the city’s existing food access programs like Health Bucks -- coupons for low-income New Yorkers to use at farmer’s markets -- farm-to-city projects, nutrition programs in schools, and summer meals.

Another theme is reducing food waste in New York. Johnson’s report cites a National Resources Defense Council analysis claiming the average New York City household wastes 8.7 pounds of food per week, of which six pounds are edible at the time of disposal.

One bill sponsored by Council Member Carlina Rivera of Manhattan would require any city agency with food procurement contracts to come up with a plan to limit the amount of food that doesn’t make it to the plate. Under the bill, each agency would be responsible for designating a coordinator to report on its food waste reduction plan and its implementation.

As a whole, the new food plan would require coordination among a myriad of city agencies, like the Human Resources Administration, Department of City Planning, and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, among others. Many of the bills in the package are intended to facilitate or mandate that coordination. Two resolutions call on the state to expand supplemental nutrition assistance benefits, one of which will require action by the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

“A lot of our food programs are spread across multiple agencies and we need somebody focused on them, all working together comprehensively to ensure folks don’t have to deal with hunger or food insecurity,” said Kallos.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Food Policy Agenda on Menu at City Council Hearing Tue, 17 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Looks at Reducing Recidivism for People with Mental Illness https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8608-city-council-examines-how-to-reduce-recidivism-for-people-with-mental-illness https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8608-city-council-examines-how-to-reduce-recidivism-for-people-with-mental-illness council comm cj

Elizabeth Ford of Health + Hospitals, left, & Becky Scott of DOC (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


City Council members on Monday held an oversight hearing to examine how New York prevents formerly incarcerated mentally ill persons from returning to jail. The hearing made clear that the de Blasio administration, Health + Hospitals public hospital system, and City Council members all want to reduce the number of mentally ill persons who rely on the jail system for their mental health care and keep those with serious mental illness out of jail altogether.

But, it was evident at the hearing that there is much more emphasis on services for the imprisoned mentally ill than on keeping those with serious mental illness out of jail, whether for the first time or in all-too-common recidivism.

The psychiatric services offered in city jails -- like nurse and doctor staff, therapeutic groups, and medicine -- are robust but someone with a serious mental illness often loses the best care upon leaving jail. This then contributes to high recidivism rates.

The hearing centered several key data points: roughly 43% of those held in city jails are suffering from mental illness (14% have serious mental illness); the recidivism rate in New York City is 20%, but for those with mental illness it’s 47%.

Held by the Council’s Committee on Justice System, Committee on Criminal Justice, and Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction, the hearing looked at the different ways the city Department of Correction and Correctional Health Services, a part of New York’s public health care system, New York City Health + Hospitals, provide care for the mentally ill in prison and once they leave. Two pieces of legislation dealing with notifying defense attorneys of their detained clients’ mental health and returning unused commissary money to recently released inmates were also discussed with various stakeholders who testified.

As the overall jail population has declined significantly, the proportion of New Yorkers with mental illness in city jails has risen in recent years: the overall average daily population of city jails decreased from around 11,500 in 2014 to around 8,900 in 2018, and the percentage of people with mental illness increased from 38% to 43%.

The percentage of those with a serious mental illness, defined by Correctional Health Services as anyone with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder, has increased from 10.2% to 14.3% in that same time frame.

Council Member Keith Powers, a Manhattan Democrat and chair of the Committee on Criminal Justice, asserted that the City Council and the different city agencies in attendance all agree that jail is not the place to help seriously mentally ill people. However, jail is often where people with serious mental illness wind up, and jails often offer medical services – city jails have many psychiatric services located in one place (in fact, Rikers Island is the third-biggest provider of psychiatric care in the United States behind jails in Los Angeles and Chicago).

Currently, city jails put inmates diagnosed with mental illness in “mental observation houses” (MOs), where there are advanced levels of service and psychiatric nurses available, or the more intensive option, PACE (Program to Accelerate Clinical Effectiveness) units where there’s 24/7 embedded staff and more therapeutic groups, according to Dr. Elizabeth Ford, who testified for Correctional Health Services.

However, through questioning from Powers, Ford admitted right now there are people who qualify for PACE but due to spacing issues are only in MOs. THE CITY reported in April that the de Blasio administration is well behind on its planned 12 PACE units by 2020 (currently there are six).

Council member questions made clear that there are many mental health services available in prison, but the key organizing question of the hearing was: what happens when an inmate/patient is released? Ford said CHS gives inmates seven days of their medicine so they don’t drop off too preciptiously after leaving jail, a 30-day prescription which can be fulfilled at a pharmacy of their convenience, and many referrals to outpatient treatment programs.

Outpatient treatment is the primary way people with mental illness are treated in New York, most of which are run by New York City Health + Hospitals. Outpatient care requires patients to appear at appointments, as opposed to inpatient care or state institutionalization – mental health care nationwide over the past 60 years has transitioned away from state-run facilities once known as “insane asylums” or “psychiatric hospitals” and towards outpatient care.

When asked how CHS can make sure recently-released inmates follow through on getting care, Ford mentioned they are hiring more social workers and focusing on making sure existing services, like existing mobile care teams, work well rather than accepting “new mandates.”

In terms of keeping mentally ill people out of prison in the first place, Ford brought up the new plan from the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio of helping mentally ill people go to the Health + Hospitals system, instead of prison.

Furthermore, two diversion centers -- in East Harlem and South Bronx -- will offer police officers a place to bring emotionally disturbed people who exhibit signs of mental illness instead of arresting them. They’re not open yet, but are supposed to open later this year.

Ford hopes the community-based aspect of the diversion centers will be especially useful as the centers will be located to existing outpatient care.

Supportive housing is another way to prevent recidivism, according to Ford. Supportive housing offers mental health services to people struggling to find housing. The de Blasio administration plans to build 15,000 supportive housing units over 15 years.

If the roughly 1,200 city jail detainees diagnosed with serious mental illness were to be released tomorrow, the relatively minor supportive housing options and short-term diversion centers combined with New York’s disinclination towards inpatient care throw doubt on how the seriously mentally ill would be treated without jail-based services.

The city has created what they call Community Re-Entry Assistance Network (CRAN) teams, which are six-month transitional teams to help those with serious mental illness re-enter the community after release.

On the two pieces of proposed legislation being considered at the hearing, the lead sponsor of the defense attorney notification bill is Manhattan Council Member Margaret Chin, while Queens Council Member Donavan Richards is the lead sponsor of the commissary bill.

Chin’s bill, Intro. 1590, would require the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to notify the defense attorney of a person who is in the custody of the Department of Correction and who has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness.

The bill, co-sponsored by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and six other Council members, is not supported by Correctional Health Services in its current language. Although Dr. Ford chose to keep some reservations of Correctional Health Services private, she did mention that the agency has a newly-created court liaison program intended to act as a go-between for defense attorneys and medical officers.

The current process for notifying the defense attorney of a seriously mentally ill person who is accused of a crime is the patient must give consent to Correctional Health Services and CHS gives information relevant to the mental illness diagnosis to the defense attorney.

The bill “attempts to break the cycle of imprisonment,” said Chin, as ideally more cases could take mental illness into account.

The most intense exchanges of the hearing occurred in regard to the other piece of legislation discussed Monday. Intro. 0903, Council Member Richards’ bill, would require the Department of Correction to notify all recently-released former inmates if there is money in their individual jail commissary account as well as return that money within 60 days of release.  

A commissary account, which can be deposited into by an inmate’s family, is essentially a bank account that the inmate can use to purchase snacks or personal products while in jail. Currently, the Department of Correction is holding $3.7 million from as far back as 2012 in unclaimed commissary money for the over 140,000 individuals who have not claimed it.

Richards, indignant, heavily implied DOC wasn’t making any effort to return the money, while DOC testifiers stated multiple times they don’t use the unclaimed money for their own purposes.

According to those who testified for the Department of Correction, the only outreach done by the DOC has been to put posters -- only in English -- in the jails. DOC representatives said the often unpredictable nature of inmates’ release schedules as well as the general difficulty in remaining in contact with released inmates makes returning the money difficult. DOC does not support the bill, citing difficult logistics.

In a fitting summary of the hearing, Council Member Diana Ayala of Harlem and the Bronx said if the Department of Correction cannot find people leaving prison to give them their money back, how can they ensure the mentally ill leaving prison get the mental services they need?

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by Truman Stephens, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Looks at Reducing Recidivism for People with Mental Illness Tue, 18 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
As We Close Rikers, Criminal Justice Reformers are Ready for Full Partnership in Albany https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8143-as-we-close-rikers-criminal-justice-reformers-are-ready-for-full-partnership-in-albany https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8143-as-we-close-rikers-criminal-justice-reformers-are-ready-for-full-partnership-in-albany guards rikers

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

Riding high on the crest of a Democratic blue wave powered by grassroots progressives, New York Democrats finally took back the state Senate for the first time in nearly a decade. With this accomplishment comes a responsibility to finally act upon a long list of priorities that have been stymied by the Republican-controlled upper chamber of the Legislature in Albany.  

Chief among these priorities is criminal justice reform, a topic that the New York City Council has been tackling aggressively for some time. Perhaps the Council’s most ambitious effort in this sphere has been to close all jails on Rikers Island. The decrepit jails on this island embody human misery and tragedy and it is our moral imperative to close them forever.

Any realistic effort to close these jails requires reducing the pretrial detention population, as close to 90 percent of those housed on Rikers are merely accused and not convicted of crimes. While the city has managed to take several bold steps in this area, state action will be required to make the dream of closing Rikers a reality. Over the past few years, our efforts at state reform have been hamstrung by an uncooperative state Senate. Throughout the process, our progressive allies in the Assembly majority and Senate minority voiced support for progressive criminal justice reform but were unable to move key bills to fruition.

Their inability to move legislation through the Senate did not stop some state elected officials from crafting bills that would greatly improve our criminal justice system. This legislation now stands a strong chance of passing once the new Democratic majority sits for the 2019 legislative session.

agenda19v2 aFirst and foremost, bail and speedy trial reform must be prioritized. Both efforts would go a long way towards a more equitable criminal justice system writ large, while lowering the detainee population on Rikers Island. While we here on the City Council have done much to make our bail system fairer, only Albany can implement the deep and systemic reform necessary to make our pretrial detention system truly fair and just. There are a number of bills in the Assembly and Senate that either significantly restrict or eliminate cash bail, encourage the use of monitored release in lieu of detention, and help ensure that pretrial detention is reserved for only the most severe cases. Any of this legislation would go a long way towards fixing what is a fundamentally broken and unfair bail system.

Meanwhile, speedy trial reform is arguably even more important in reducing pretrial detention. Given that close to 90 percent of the jail population is pretrial detainees, cutting the speed with which cases are resolved has a direct and massive impact on the jail population: a 25 percent faster system would mean close to a 25 percent reduction in the jail population. Much like our state’s bail laws, our speedy trial laws are outdated and ineffective, lagging far behind the federal system and other states. As they say, justice delayed is justice denied, so resolving criminal prosecutions faster not only reduces our jail population, it also helps our criminal justice system as a whole. While Senate Democrats tried to push for some minor reforms to our broken speedy trial laws in recent years, our new Senate leaders must be aggressive in tackling this issue.

There are also lesser-discussed issues that could be enormously transformative, such as parole reform. Approximately 16 percent of the population of Rikers Island jails is incarcerated for parole violations, and the state controls this issue in its entirety. According to a report issued by Columbia University’s Justice Lab, the state parolee population is the only jail group that saw an increase in its size over the past four years. Thankfully, Albany is aware of the issue, evident in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2018 State of the State speech, in which he touched on the importance of parole reform. When the new state Legislature convenes in January, it can move to shorten parole terms, incentivize good behavior, and require speedier hearings on these issues.

Though its impact on our jail population may not immediately be apparent, discovery reform should also prove critical in helping the city to run a more just criminal justice system and to close Rikers Island jails. Discovery is the process by which the prosecution provides its evidence to the defense. New York State has among the most restrictive discovery laws in the country. While the issue may seem complex, it is actually fairly simple: since well over 95 percent of criminal prosecutions result in a plea or dismissal, the faster the defense is able to assess the strength of the prosecution’s case, the faster a plea or dismissal can be reached. Luckily, there is already legislation in Albany to ameliorate the situation, and our new leaders should embrace these progressive reforms.  

Over the past several years, we here at the City Council worked hard to bring our criminal justice system into the 21st century. However, there has always been a limit to what we can accomplish without willing partners in Albany. In early January, when our fellow Democrats in the state Senate take their seats as the new majority and work with the Democratic majority in the Assembly, the possibilities for progressive criminal justice reform will widen tremendously.

The progressive activists who helped make Democratic victories a reality in November will be watching the new Legislature closely. It is imperative that our state elected officials finally act to create a criminal justice system in New York that reflects our values as a state and a city.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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Diana Ayala, Margaret Chin, and Stephen Levin are members of the New York City Council, representing parts of the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn, and members of the Council’s Progressive Caucus. Their districts are all slated to be home to new or larger jails as Rikers Island facilities are closed. On Twitter @DianaAyalaNYC & @CM_MargaretChin & @StephenLevin33.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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As We Close Rikers, Criminal Justice Reformers are Ready for Full Partnership in Albany Sun, 16 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Progressive Caucus Urges Cuomo to Sign Bill Creating Prosecutorial Misconduct Commission https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7799-city-council-progressive-caucus-urges-cuomo-to-sign-bill-creating-prosecutorial-misconduct-commission https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7799-city-council-progressive-caucus-urges-cuomo-to-sign-bill-creating-prosecutorial-misconduct-commission progressive caucus 2009

City Council Progressive Caucus (photo via Progressive Caucus website)


The Progressive Caucus of the New York City Council sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo urging him to sign a bill, passed at the end of the legislative session in June, which would create a new state commission on prosecutorial misconduct. The caucus, which includes 21 of the Council’s 51 members, referred to the bill as “the most substantive criminal justice reform passed in the state this year.”

The state bill passed with bipartisan support in both the Assembly and the Senate, and awaits Cuomo’s signature or veto. The commission, consisting of eleven judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys appointed by the state’s chief judge, the governor, and legislative leaders, would be empowered to investigate and recommend disciplinary action against prosecutors in the state accused of misconduct. The commission would be similar in structure and purpose to a commission established in the 1970s to investigate misconduct claims by judges.

Cuomo has not indicated whether he supports the legislation or not, and the state district attorneys association has called it unconstitutional and threatened to sue if the governor does sign it into law. The commission would have oversight of the state’s 62 district attorneys and their assistant district attorneys.

The letter from the Council’s Progressive Caucus notes that, according to the University of Michigan’s National Registry of Exonerations, New York is fourth in the nation for wrongful convictions, behind California, Illinois, and Texas.

“Across the United States there is a growing crisis of confidence in prosecutors as the role District Attorneys, historically, played in driving mass incarceration has become better understood by the public,” the letter reads. “The exonerations of wrongfully convicted people have sometimes exposed egregious misconduct by prosecutors, many of whom remain working as lawyers today.”

Misconduct can take various forms, including failure to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense, intimidation of defendants or witnesses by police, and knowing submission of false testimony. Oftentimes, these occurrences can lead to false convictions, including for serious crimes that carry long sentences. In 2017, the National Registry of Exonerations recorded 13 exonerations in New York State, for individuals who had served as little as one year to as long as 28 years for crimes they did not commit. So far in 2018, 12 exonerations have been recorded.

False convictions are such an issue in New York that some district attorneys have formed entire units within their offices dedicated solely to examining past convictions and their validity. The Brooklyn DA’s Conviction Review Unit, for instance, requested 24 exonerations for wrongfully-convicted defendants between its creation in February 2014 and December 2017.

The bill is strongly supported by defense attorneys and criminal justice reform advocates, but is sharply opposed by district attorneys throughout the state. The Staten Island District Attorney told Gotham Gazette in June that oversight measures, such as grievance committees, already exist, and that the bill would hinder the ability of prosecutors to do their jobs and “potentially threaten the safety of those we are sworn to protect.”

The grievance committees, which are bodies within appellate divisions that serve to investigate and censure both prosecutors and defense attorneys, have been characterized as toothless by advocates of the bill on both sides of the aisle, and criminal justice reform writ large. The Progressive Caucus wrote that the committee system in place has “not curbed bad behavior” among prosecutors, and that discipline is a rarity.

“Public officials entrusted with incredible power should be held to the highest of standards,” reads the letter, signed by 12 members of the caucus. “Instead prosecutors have come to expect that there will be no punishment even following a judicial finding of egregious misconduct.”

(Read the full letter here)

The grievance committees rarely discipline prosecutors, but frequently discipline defense attorneys or other attorneys in private practice. In 2016, the First Appellate Division’s Grievance Committee, which covers Manhattan and the Bronx, disbarred 30 attorneys, suspended ten, and publicly censured six; none were prosecutors. When prosecutors are disciplined, sanctioned, and disbarred, it tends to make the news, as occurred with former St. Lawrence County DA Mary Rain.

The Queens district attorney, Richard Brown, meanwhile, told Gotham Gazette that previous working groups, including one led by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, found no evidence of “rampant prosecutorial misconduct.”

David Soares, the Albany District Attorney and the new president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York (DAASNY), told host Susan Arbetter of the Capitol Pressroom radio show in June that DAASNY would sue the state if Cuomo signs the bill into law.

For the Council’s Progressive Caucus, a majority in favor leads to an action like the letter. It was signed by caucus Co-chair Ben Kallos and fellow Council Members Jumaane Williams, Anonion Reynoso, Brad LAnder, Carlos Menchaca, Keith Powers, Deborah Rose, Daneek Miller, Justin Brannan, Steve Levin, Carlina Rivera, and Alicka Ampry-Samuel.

Notably, the non-signers of the caucus include Council Speaker Corey Johnson, caucus co-chair Diana Ayala, and public safety committee chair Donovan Richards.

A spokesperson for Richards told Gotham Gazette that Richards is in support of the bill, but was unable to sign it because Richards was out of town when the letter was sent. “I am absolutely in support of creating a state commission to look into prosecutorial misconduct,” he said. “In order to truly reform our criminal justice system, we must root out misconduct in all levels of law enforcement.”

A representative for Johnson did not return a request for comment, while Ayala’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Representatives for Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Mark Levine, among the other members of the Progressive Caucus who did not sign the letter, told Gotham Gazette that they support the bill.

Governor Cuomo has not signaled whether he intends to sign the bill or not. Cuomo spokesperson Tyrone Stevens said that the governor’s office is still reviewing it.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Progressive Caucus Urges Cuomo to Sign Bill Creating Prosecutorial Misconduct Commission Wed, 11 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Progressive Caucus Calls for Crisis Intervention Reforms https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7622-city-council-progressive-caucus-calls-for-crisis-intervention-reforms https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7622-city-council-progressive-caucus-calls-for-crisis-intervention-reforms mayornyc james o neil

(Credit: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


The New York City Council Progressive Caucus is stepping up calls for Mayor Bill de Blasio to reconstitute a citywide task force to examine how emergency responders help people suffering from mental illness, and are insisting that the mayor consider creating a parallel response force of social workers and therapists that can answer calls rather than police officers.

In a letter sent to the mayor last Wednesday, the 21 members of the Progressive Caucus said the mayor should act by the end of the month to revive the Mayoral Task Force on Behavioral Health and Criminal Justice, which was set up, and concluded its work, in 2014, or create a similar body.

“As we’ve seen once again in the last week, the tragic costs of not acting in a sustained and focused manner are too high,” the members wrote, referring to the shooting death of Crown Heights resident Shaheed Vassell by NYPD officers who were not trained to respond to situations involving “emotionally disturbed persons.” The letter noted that since the last task force’s recommendations were put in place, in the summer of 2016, ten people in emotional crisis were killed by police.

Late last year, City Council Member Jumaane Williams, a progressive caucus member, had led an effort calling on the mayor to do the same. He was among those who reiterated that request after the death of Vassell. But though the NYPD says it is on board, the mayor continues to drag his feet. “It’s really a City Hall conversation,” NYPD Deputy Commissioner Susan Herman said at a Council hearing last month.

The Progressive Caucus members’ latest request differs slightly from what has been previously sought.

Rather than directing efforts at improving NYPD officer behavior, which they nonetheless hope the task force will do, they are calling for the mayor to support a new system that prioritizes professional mental health providers in emergency situations, where 911 operators can divert calls to social workers or therapists instead of the police and where therapists or trained peers can join police at the scene of an emergency. They also call for an expansion of mobile crisis teams and co-response teams that include mental health professionals paired with officers that have received Crisis Intervention Training. Just over 8,000 officers in the 36,000-strong police force have gone through CIT. 

"Too often, individuals with behavioral and mental health conditions are wrongly introduced to the criminal justice system. In order to improve their safety, we must consider comprehensive strategies that will prioritize preventive care and response tactics by mental health professionals,” said Council Member Diana Ayala, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus and chair of the Council’s Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction, in a statement.

The Progressive Caucus includes nearly half the 51 members of the City Council, and counts Council Speaker Corey Johnson among its ranks. Council Member Ben Kallos is co-chair with Ayala.

Although the Council members praised the administration’s efforts that resulted from the recommendation of the previous task force, they noted that many initiatives stalled and also pointed to the weaknesses in the NYPD’s approach to CIT training as evidenced by a January 2017 report by the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD.

“The deaths of Dwayne Jeune, Saheed Vassell, and too many others have shown that there are fundamental flaws in the way our city handles EDP emergencies,” said Council Member Williams, in a statement.

Steve Coe, CEO of Community Access, decried the “lack of leadership around this issue” despite the action plan put in place based on the 2014 task force’s recommendations. He commended the Progressive Caucus’ efforts, stressing that bringing stakeholders such as district attorneys, the city’s health department, NYPD officials, mental health experts and advocates was necessary “to assess what’s working, what’s not working, and develop diversion and treatment strategies that are effective and sustainable.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note- This article has been updated. 

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City Council Progressive Caucus Calls for Crisis Intervention Reforms Wed, 18 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Bronx Electeds, Residents Cry Foul as Mayor and Council Announce Jail Site https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7486-bronx-electeds-residents-cry-foul-as-mayor-and-council-announce-jail-site https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7486-bronx-electeds-residents-cry-foul-as-mayor-and-council-announce-jail-site Bronx jail site NYPD tow pound

Planned Bronx jail site (photos: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


When Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced last week that they’d reached a deal to speed up the closure of Rikers Island by creating or expanding jail facilities in every borough except Staten Island, it seemed to be a clear sign of a productive partnership between the administration and local elected officials.

The mayor and speaker made the announcement at a news conference at City Hall, alongside four Council members -- Diana Ayala, Karen Koslowitz, Stephen Levin, and Margaret Chin -- willing to accept the political risk of a new or expanded jail in their districts. The city will launch a unified land use review application for all four jails, the mayor and speaker said, combining the arduous and lengthy multi-stage approval process for siting certain municipal facilities.

But the proposal to build the Bronx jail -- the only one of the four that is not either a current or former jail facility -- immediately raised the hackles of elected officials from the borough other than Ayala, a newly elected Council member whose districts spans East Harlem and part of the South Bronx.

“Look the site in the Bronx is a site owned by the City of New York. It is a very smart site in terms of its closeness to the courthouses,” de Blasio explained at the news conference, when asked about a critical statement put out by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who had not been kept in the loop by the administration or the Council. “There is going to be a full community process, but let's be clear, we're going to talk to everyone, we're going to listen to everyone, we're going to try in every way possible address community needs and address other benefits that communities need.”

De Blasio emphasized, “That being said, up here are the people who ultimately have to make the decision – the Council, represented by the Speaker, the members who represent those individual districts, and me and my administration.”

Ayala was aware of the criticism she may face for supporting a site in her district. “We all know that this siting process is bound to be controversial,” she said. “In the Bronx in particular, we are not repurposing an existing detention center but instead building a brand new facility that will require additional careful thought, serious consideration and robust community engagement, and I really wanna underline that…We also know that in the Bronx, too often we see a concentration of city facilities in our borough and there is rightfully some resistance to that. But we in the Bronx also understand the urgent need for criminal justice reform.”

Top Bronx officials were taken aback that this was the first they were hearing of a new jail intended for their backyard. Any consultations that had happened had excluded Borough President Diaz Jr.; Assemblymember Michael Blake, whose district neighbors the one where the proposed site is located at 320 Concord Avenue, currently an NYPD tow pound; and Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, the Democratic Bronx County party leader whose support helped Johnson win the speakership.

“I was surprised to learn that the administration has already selected a site for a new jail in The Bronx,” said Diaz Jr. in a statement that preceded the mayor and speaker’s Wednesday news conference. The proposed site had been first revealed by the Wall Street Journal the previous night, just after de Blasio delivered his State of the City address. “I hope that, going forward, this lack of outreach is not a harbinger of the amount of community input the people of my borough will have in this process,” Diaz Jr. said. (At the news conference, Johnson showed some contrition immediately, apologizing to Diaz Jr. and promising a “robust, meaningful” community engagement process.)

“It is simply disrespectful that a decision of this magnitude of proposing to open a new jail in the South Bronx was made behind closed doors, without engaging the broader Bronx community,” said Assemblymember Blake, in a statement released Wednesday night.

Crespo, the Democratic Bronx county boss, took to Twitter, calling out the mayor and speaker. “We spent so much time talking the last few months how did this rikers plan in my district never come up?” he wondered.

“I think we were all caught off guard with how far ahead the city seems to be when no one in the Bronx was informed of the process,” Crespo later elaborated, in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette. “Once you decide on a site, that’s gonna have an impact for generations.”

Crespo and the other electeds aren’t opposed to the administration’s goal: building capacity in the boroughs so that Rikers can close. But, he said the Concord Avenue site is not the best option, and the city should explore alternatives. The community and the borough already host their fair share of municipal facilities, Crespo insisted, echoing widespread criticism that the city has long chosen to place seemingly undesirable facilities such as jails, homeless shelters, and waste treatment plants in low-income communities of color. “Make no mistake about it, this borough has been handling an unfair share already for a long time,” he said.

“There’s major investments and their success would also be endangered,” he said of the Mott Haven neighborhood, where new development is underway literally across the road from where the jail would be situated.

The rapid outpouring of criticism didn’t seem lost on Speaker Johnson, who quickly seemed to equivocate on the Bronx site. “I am committed to facilities in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan,” Johnson told NY1. "We are not wedded to an individual location. If there is a better location I am happy to have that conversation."

Responding to an assertion that he was backpedaling, Johnson said in a subsequent tweet that he is “not at all” backing away from the site, but reiterated that the main goal is closing the jails on Rikers Island and that he is “not wedded” to one location. “If there's a better one,” he wrote, “I'm all ears. No other location has been presented.”

If the Bronx elected officials were stunned by the announcement, it’s little wonder that those who live in the neighborhood around the proposed site were likewise surprised and offended to learn of the plan.

bx jail site 2The site is located in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx, north of the Harlem River, with large industrial and manufacturing spaces running between the waterfront and the Major Deegan Expressway.

Residents and others expressed a mix of astonishment, resignation, anger, and resentment as Gotham Gazette told them on Friday that the city intended to build a jail within blocks of their homes and places of work.

“I thought they were gonna do a mall,” said Jesus Ortiz, 50, who runs an auto-repair shop across the street from the NYPD tow pound that occupies the block.

The site is sandwiched between East 141st and 142nd Streets, next to Bruckner Boulevard, in a neighborhood with a mix of housing and commercial properties. Enclosed by metal sheet walls, the tow pound is almost a hill overlooking its neighbors, with impounded cars visible from the street through a peripheral treeline that is leafless in February.

“They’re trying to rebuild the South Bronx to make it nice,” said Ortiz, “That’s not the way to rebuild, by putting a jail here.” Having worked there 15 years, Ortiz said he’s seen rapid development in recent times. Even the building that houses his auto shop was recently bought out, he said, and the landlords gave him a one-year lease till 2019. He’ll soon be gone from the neighborhood too.

“They’re buying all around,” he said.

Adam Bele, 40, loads containers at the lumber supply warehouse that sits behind 320 Concord. “Nobody wants to be near a jail,” he said. His biggest concern, one that others shared as well, is for the children that attend the several schools in the neighborhood.

“You don’t want children hanging around a jail,” said the father of two infants who will likely attend one of those schools, he said.  

As with other residents, Bele was wary of the process for choosing the site. “It’s like they know it’s gonna be unpopular so they tried to hide it and do it quick, quick, quick,” he said. He had a simple piece of advice for the mayor. “Be transparent. Listen to this community, and take our recommendations into consideration.”

But Bele empathizes with the city’s rationale that detainees deserve to be housed closer to their families in humane and modern facilities, and that Rikers needs to close. “You don’t want them treated like animals, they’re human like us,” he said. The mayor and speaker have promised to seek community feedback on the proposed site and, as required by the city’s land use review process, community boards will get an opportunity to hold votes, albeit nonbinding, to approve or reject the proposal. Borough presidents also get to weigh in with advisory opinions.

Along Concord Avenue, in what could eventually be the shadow of a new jail, sit rowhouses, a few of them old and abandoned and showing signs of disrepair. “For Sale” signs hung in a few windows.

In one of those houses lives Nereida Chavez, 38, a stay-at-home mom with four kids. “Oh my god!” she exclaimed on hearing that her biggest neighbor could one day be a jail.

“I don’t like the idea of having a jail here,” she said. “It’s just scary.”

She worried that a jail could mean more traffic along a little-traversed street. “We have our kids and they love to play out here with their bikes,” she said. And, it might also mean that parking, which has become an issue already owing to the large lumber and oil and gas companies around them, might worsen. “We hardly have any parking here. It’ll be even more complicated if they put a jail here,” she said.

But Chavez was more concerned that she hardly had an opportunity to be heard on an issue that quite directly would affect her. “It makes me worried that things happen around us and we don’t know anything,” she said. “They also put shelters around us. They don’t let us know until it’s there.”

bx jail site 3At a bodega on East 141st Street, Mel McKenzie, 33, was buying milk. Gotham Gazette asked if the homemaker knew about the city’s plan to build a jail, three blocks from her home.

“For real?” she said.

“I’m not with it,” she frowned. “It should stay an impound lot....[A jail] won’t bring the community together. It’ll probably make us scared. And it’s too close to home.”

Another shopper, Nancy Lopez, 43, chimed in. “Why move it so close when there’s other areas where they could put it?” she wondered. “Put it across Bruckner where it’s more industrial. There’s kids that walk by everyday on Concord.”

The city’s plan to close Rikers and replace some of its capacity in borough facilities near courthouses entails building for about 6,000 inmates, with the goal of getting the jail population down to about 5,000, according to the mayor.

McKenzie acknowledged that its a laudable objective to help detainees, most of whom are pre-trial and not convicted of any crime, remain connected to their communities. “That makes sense,” she said, but she also expressed concern about what school-going children would take away from it. “That’s the message they’re sending? You’re gonna be close to home if you get locked up.”

“What happens if a prisoner escapes?” said Lopez, who said she is on disability and lives on Concord Avenue in the same row as Nereida Chavez. Instead, she proposed a “positive” alternative. “Why don’t they build affordable housing?”

Both women had one shared concern, however, that neither of them had received an opportunity to weigh in. “They should notify the public,” McKenzie said.

“As it’s happening, not when it’s already decided,” added Lopez. The city will present plans to the public, particularly through the community board, when the site is set for its place in the land use review process. It may be up to local residents to seek out opportunities to hear more and provide their feedback.

Presenting the site as a “fait accompli” would undermine the process, said the Bronx borough president in his statement, but it’s what one resident seemed to expect from the administration. “The city does whatever it wants,” said Hector Camilo, 55. “It doesn’t matter. You can’t argue with the city.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been corrected to note that Assembly Member Michael Blake does not represent the district where the proposed jail site at 320 Concord Avenue is located. He represents a neighboring district. 

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Bronx Electeds, Residents Cry Foul as Mayor and Council Announce Jail Site Tue, 20 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Members Outline Priorities for New Term https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7436-city-council-members-outline-priorities-for-new-term https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7436-city-council-members-outline-priorities-for-new-term 38866913345 afd4b05a3e z

City Council members (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The New York City Council is gearing up for a new agenda under Speaker Corey Johnson, with several newly created committees and fresh faces in the legislative body. As the Council begins to schedule its first committee hearings and readies for the reintroduction of legislation from the last session, there are a number of priorities that Council members are planning to pursue. Returning members say they want to pass bills that have been pending and build on their work from the last four years, while new members are eager to follow through on the policy platforms that got them elected.

New issue committee chairs appear ready to steer those committees in new directions, while Johnson has promised a robust agenda and is taking steps to beef up the Council’s oversight powers, expand its land use division, and increase its scrutiny of the mayor’s budget. Many of the committees, new and old, under his watch will take on greater responsibilities and are expected to tackle a slew of contentious policy issues, legislation, and oversight matters. Council members who spoke with Gotham Gazette indicated a broad list of priorities, with some agenda items that will have citywide ramifications and others more parochial, district-level in their scope.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal, in her new role as chair of the women’s committee, said she will pursue legislative and public policy solutions to combat sexual harassment in the public and private sectors, to end the gender pay gap for municipal workers, and advance criminal justice reforms to protect sexual assault and domestic violence survivors.

“We are seeking to empower women at every level -- in the workplace, in the economic arena, in social interactions, and in politics,” Rosenthal said. In December, Rosenthal stood with Council Member Mark Levine to announce a request for drafting legislation that would require complaints by Council staffers to be investigated by the Council’s Committee on Standards and Ethics, as is currently the case for complaints against elected Council members, and would also mandate that city agencies report on sexual harassment claims twice a year.  

Rosenthal also wants to see through the full implementation of her legislation, signed by the mayor in September last year, to create an Office of the Tenant Advocate within the Department of Buildings. Among her other priorities are protections for small businesses in her Upper West Side district, seniors’ needs, and the city’s social safety net. Formerly chair of the contracts committee, which will now be led by new Council Member Justin Brannan, Rosenthal said her guiding philosophy in approaching priority issues will still be “fiscal responsibility.”

Council Member Levine said he hopes to follow up on unfinished business from the last session, including the implementation of Right to Counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction in housing court, which was a bill he sponsored and waged a years-long campaign to win support from the mayor. Now chairing the health committee (he had parks last term), Levine will also focus on expanding healthcare coverage and addressing racial inequities in health outcomes across the city. One priority he has expressed support for is single-payer healthcare, an issue that Speaker Johnson has been vocal about pursuing.

After chairing the public safety committee last term, Council Member Vanessa Gibson is chairing the new Subcommittee on Capital Budgets, which will be tasked with analysing the city’s now $96 billion capital budget. The subcommittee will assess the procurement process at city agencies and how agencies spend their capital dollars. Gibson said she is “looking to create better capital spending oversight and ensure there is a consistent process for capital projects so that we can truly realize meaningful investment in New York’s aging infrastructure.”

Gibson also said she will continue to advocate for bail reform, an issue that Governor Andrew Cuomo has promised to put his weight behind this year. Gibson will also have to navigate complicated land use issues as she tackles the proposed Jerome Avenue rezoning in her Bronx district. The project is moving forward quickly and will come through the land use committee now being chaired by Gibson’s Bronx colleague Council Member Rafael Salamanca.

Council Member Ritchie Torres, another Bronx Democrat, is overseeing the newly empowered Committee on Oversight and Investigations, which will comprise a dedicated investigative unit of former prosecutors, professional investigators, and former journalists. While the division is staffing up, Torres’ first public task will be a joint oversight hearing on February 6 with the Committee on Public Housing, which he chaired last term, concerning heat and hot water failures in NYCHA housing. The new chair of the public housing committee is newly-elected Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel, who formerly worked at the public housing authority, NYCHA.

[Related: New City Council Committee Chairs Have Plenty on Their Plates]

The new chair of the Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections, Council Member Karen Koslowitz, said last week she was still formulating her agenda for 2018. Her committee is expected to lead the way on a package of internal rules reforms that a majority of the Council, including Speaker Johnson, have endorsed.

Koslowitz, of Queens, also spoke of extending traffic safety laws to bicycle riders, saying that she would “like to see them be registered, licensed.”

Council Member Mark Treyger, a former teacher who has taken over as chair of the education committee, spoke at length about the issues plaguing public school infrastructure. “I come from a district that some of our schools were built with money from the New Deal, and haven't seen upgrades since the New Deal,” he said of his southern Brooklyn community, also emphasizing the need for additional school aid.

Treyger also wants to advance two bills he proposed in the last session: one requiring the city to station licensed social workers in all police precincts, and another to make it illegal for police officers to engage in sexual activity with a person in their custody. The second bill was prompted by a recent case in which an 18-year-old woman accused two officers of rape while she was in their custody. The officers claimed the act was consensual, leading to public outcry over the loophole in the law that does not automatically categorize it as custodial rape. Legal proceedings continue in the matter.  

Council Member Fernando Cabrera, the new chair of the governmental operations committee, said he will push campaign finance reforms over the next few years since his committee has oversight of the Campaign Finance Board, which administers the city’s public matching funds program to incentivize small-dollar donations in elections. “The whole idea of the campaign finance [program] was to equalize the playing field,” he said. “Whenever you have policies that don’t… [that] puts a candidate at a disadvantage, I have issues with that,” he added, without going into specifics.

In his role, Cabrera will also oversee the city Board of Elections, the Law Department, the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, among other agencies. The BOE will administer at least three election days this year, in June, September, and November, with a fourth likely in some districts if Cuomo calls for special elections to fill several currently vacant state legislative seats.

Council Member Steven Matteo, the Republican minority leader, said he plans to prioritize property tax relief this year, something he has long advocated for. “Last year we had the veterans property tax that we passed here, my bill. I want to expand on that this year, too, do some real property tax relief for everyone else,” he said. Matteo, one of three Republicans in the Council, was appointed by Johnson to chair the Committee on Standards & Ethics, which, if new legislation on workplace sexual harassment is passed by the Council, will likely see its role expand this session. The committee is currently investigating an allegation of sexual harassment against Council Member Andy King.

Mayor de Blasio has promised to take up property tax reform this term, which Matteo intends to hold him to. The Council had announced plans for a property tax reform task force last term, but it never came to be.

Council Member Brannan also hopes to tackle property tax reform, he said, hoping that he will be able to sit on the proposed commission “to really take a deep dive into it.” As a former employee of the Department of Education, Brannan also said the Council has an opportunity to increase its oversight of DOE operations. “I think, it’s a couple areas where I think we can get a little more aggressive,” the contracts chair said. DOE contracts to outside vendors have been a point of contention for years, an area Brannan may be able to meld his prior experience and new responsibilities.

Council Member Carlina Rivera, also newly-elected, will have her hands full chairing the Committee on Hospitals, newly created to oversee the city’s municipal hospital system, which is in financial crisis. But she also has local concerns she wants to address, she told Gotham Gazette, including reforms to city rules that allow construction in the early mornings, evenings, and weekends, an issue leftover from her predecessor, former Council Member Rosie Mendez.

Some of Rivera’s other priorities concern land use and infrastructure projects, particularly the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, an integrated coastal protection initiative aimed at reducing flood risk due to coastal storms and sea level rise. She also intends to focus on NYCHA’s infrastructure woes, citing the numerous developments in her district and the issues of heat and hot water in NYCHA housing, and she must negotiate a major land use deal in her district related to a proposed Union Square tech hub that the de Blasio administration wants to build.

Council Member Diana Ayala, another rookie lawmaker, is chairing the Committee on Mental Health, Developmental Disability, Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Disability Services. She said she expects some examination of safe injection sites coming to New York City, which advocates argue would reduce drug users’ risk of overdose, transmitting diseases, and death. Speaker Johnson has said he is in favor of exploring the possibility. "The safe injection sites I know are going to be a big issue," Ayala told Gotham Gazette. "There's been a lot of conversation around bringing those to New York."

Ayala also suggested that she will be looking into how New York City’s criminal justice system deals with the issue of domestic violence.  

When asked about her policy priorities, new Council Member Adrienne Adams emphasized immigrant protections and homelessness. Adams expressed deep concern about the policies coming out of  Washington, D.C. under the Republican-led Congress and President Donald Trump. Under former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the Council passed a number of immigrant-friendly laws and curbed the city’s cooperation with federal immigration enforcement authorities. “My district is extremely diverse and with the policies coming from Washington these days, they’re affecting my district and the entire city of New York tremendously,” said Adams, of southeast Queens.

Council Member Ruben Diaz, Sr., of the Bronx, who joined the Council from the state Senate, is the first chair of the Council’s new Committee on For-Hire Vehicles. When asked about his priorities, Diaz Sr. simply said, “Taxis.”

Samar Khurshid contributed to this article.

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by Matthew Sweeney, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to better clarify Diana Ayala's comments on safe injection sites.

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City Council Members Outline Priorities for New Term Tue, 23 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Looking Back, and Ahead, with Women Who Lost City Council Races https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7268-looking-back-and-ahead-with-women-who-lost-city-council-races https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7268-looking-back-and-ahead-with-women-who-lost-city-council-races pia raymond

Pia Raymond at the West Indian Day Parade (photo: @piaraymondnyc)


This fall, in races around the city, several qualified female candidates ran in hotly-contested Democratic primaries for open seats being left by term-limited City Council members, while others attempted to unseat incumbents seeking reelection. The September votes -- largely determinative in an overwhelmingly Democratic city -- took place against the backdrop of new and intense attention on the gender imbalance in the City Council, where men greatly outnumber women.

Elections results signal that the January City Council roster will likely include 12 female members, a drop from the current 13, in the 51-seat legislative body. The 13 seats currently held by women already shows a drop from 18 in recent years. In response to this growing imbalance, a report released by the City Council Women’s Caucus in August warned, “The New York City Council is currently in a crisis concerning its gender composition.”

In several cases, including that of Diana Ayala, Carlina Rivera and Alicka Ampry-Samuel, female candidates were successful in September and appear set to join the City Council. In others, as with Pia Raymond, Marjorie Velazquez, and Amanda Farias, they were not victorious.

While the winners celebrate and wage the far less competitive general election, those who lost have been left with questions about their campaigns, and about what to do next. In conversations with Gotham Gazette, Raymond, Velazquez, and Farias each reflected on their electoral effort and looked ahead.

In a close race in the Bronx, in District 13, Marjorie Velazquez faced Mark Gjonaj, a sitting state Assembly member, among others. Velazquez won 34.17 percent of the vote, a close second to Gjonaj’s 38.46 percent in the five-person primary. Gjonaj spent over $1 million, an unheard of sum for a City Council race; while Velazquez spent about one quarter of that, around $225,000.

Gjonaj’s Assembly district boundaries overlap significantly with the Council district, where Velazquez had the backing of outgoing Council Member James Vacca, but Gjonaj had the advantages of name recognition and a massive war chest to spend from. These two factors likely pushed the Assembly member ahead, according to Velazquez. “He’s a sitting Assembly member for the area that basically he won out of, which was the 80th Assembly district,” said Velazquez. “Ultimately when you have a million dollars he was able to get many more resources than we were.”

In the past, District 13 has been home to few female candidates, a pattern Velazquez hopes her run will help reverse. “Women are definitely held to a double standard every which way when running a race and when women see that it can be done, when women see that they have an example, they are more comfortable doing this,” she said.

Velazquez, who has served on Community Board 10 in the past, emphasized the importance of participation below the City Council level. “Women need to understand that we need them on community boards, we need them on community education councils. We need women representing every way that they can,” said Velazquez.

She will appear on the Working Families Party line in the general election, on the heels of her loss in the Democratic primary, but she is not actively campaigning. When discussing potential bids in the future, Velazquez was unequivocal about her intention to campaign again. “Would I ever run again? Most definitely,” she said.

In the fight for District 18, life-time Bronx resident Amanda Farias faced another state legislator-turned-City Council candidate; state Senator Rubén Diaz, Sr. In a crowded race, the candidates faced off for an open seat being left by term-limited Council Member Annabel Palma. The senator won with 42 percent of the vote; Farias finished second at 21 percent. Like with Gjonaj, most primary voters did not choose Diaz, Sr., though the state lawmakers each won with a plurality.

Farias attributes her loss in the South Bronx district to a number of advantages benefitting Diaz, Sr. “Name recognition, having a similar name as our borough president for example, these are things that definitely played a large role in the folks that came out and either weren’t touched enough or came out to vote and didn’t get enough information on anyone in the race,” said Farias, in reference to Diaz, Sr.’s son, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr.  

According to Farias, women working within city government roles need to better organize other women to run and hold people accountable in order to counter disparities in representation. As for her own plans, another bid is on the horizon. “I am already planning on running again,” said Farias, “I’m just in the planning phases now, trying to make sure that I stay visible and I stay in tune with what the Bronx Democratic Party is going to be doing within our communities and I’m there to at least represent the community’s and residents’ needs.”

Farias did not disclose which race she may be considering.

She also argued that the push for greater female representation is not a responsibility that lies solely with women. “It’s not only identifying women and providing them with training, it’s being able to push back and hold men accountable in that they also need to be supportive or they need to take their own back seat as well as ensuring that there’s money being funded to women,” said Farias.

For Pia Raymond, the decision to challenge incumbent Mathieu Eugene in Brooklyn’s District 40 Democratic primary created an uphill battle from the start. Raymond also had to compete with another strong challenger, Brian Cunningham, who has worked as an aide to multiple City Council members. Eugene, the incumbent of ten years, garnered 40.15 percent of the vote while Raymond came in third with 22.39 percent. While it was perhaps telling that 60 percent of Democratic primary voters did not choose Eugene, Raymond and Cunningham split the opposition vote (Cunningham is continuing his battle to unseat Eugene in the general, as he has the Reform Party ballot line).

Raymond characterized her campaign as a response to unmet needs caused by growth, displacement, and rising rents across the district. Little more than a month after her primary loss, she was clear about her intentions for 2021, when Eugene will be ineligible to run again if he wins this year. “I definitely intend to run,” said Raymond.

Raymond attested to disparities in treatment between men and women throughout the race, particularly her experiences with media coverage focused on physical appearance. “Despite perhaps having interviews for an hour long, they would start off an article with my appearance or attractiveness or that I’m lovely instead of discussing any of my qualifications, passion, experience, leadership in the community that’s longstanding,” said Raymond.

Like Raymond, Farias, and Velazquez, other women attempted to win City Council seats for the first time and performed well, but were not victorious. Others included Marti Speranza, who came in second in the crowded Democratic primary for the "open" District 4 seat and Alison Tan got nearly 42 percent of the vote trying to unseat Council Member Peter Koo. Meanwhile, among the first-time winners, in addition to Ayala, Rivera, and Ampry-Samuel, there was Adrienne Adams. All four primary winners are heavily favored to win the November general election. They are likely to join several incumbent female Council members who are on the path to reelection, including Women's Caucus co-chairs Helen Rosenthal and Laurie Cumbo, along with Elizabeth Crowley, Vanessa Gibson, Karen Koslowitz, Inez Barron, and Deborah Rose. Council Member Margaret Chin barely staved off defeat to Christopher Marte in the Democratic primary, and is now facing Marte in the general as he runs on a different ballot line.

Low percentages of female electeds within the New York City Council reflects a national trend of systemic underrepresentation within legislative bodies. Nationally, women hold 24.9 percent of state legislative seats, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, a number that has seen little change over the last decade. Representation disparities within Congress are even more stark, women account for 21 percent of Senators and 19.4 percent of Representatives.

These trends can be attributed to a number of causes including a backlash against female advancements in legislative representation and a hesitation across the board to become involved in the current partisan political environment, according to Susannah Wellford, president of Running Start, an organization that seeks to involve women in politics at an early age. Regardless of the reason, the disparity is a troubling trend, as gender balance not only boosts issues of importance to women, which can include anything, but also is shown to lead to better overall legislative outcomes for constituents.

“When we don’t have women in power then the issues that women care about don’t make it to the table, they don’t make it into the discussion at all,” said Wellford.

***
by Grace Dixon for Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

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Looking Back, and Ahead, with Women Who Lost City Council Races Sun, 22 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
In Surprise to Some, Diana Ayala Victorious in Tight Primary https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7197-in-surprise-to-some-diana-ayala-appears-on-verge-of-victory https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7197-in-surprise-to-some-diana-ayala-appears-on-verge-of-victory mmv ayala

Speaker Mark-Viverito with Diana Ayala (photo: Samar Khurshid/GothamGazette)


The primary election on Tuesday saw incumbents retain power across most of the city and few upsets in contested races. But in one of the most competitive races of the day, a first-time candidate prevailed over a long-time elected official, overcoming an expected gap in name recognition and other deficits, in a City Council district struggling with concerns for its future and looking for its next local leader to advocate for its interests.

District 8, which covers East Harlem and the South Bronx, is the constituency of current City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who faces term limits and cannot run for reelection. Four Democratic candidates ran in Tuesday’s primary to replace her: Diana Ayala, Mark-Viverito’s former deputy chief of staff and preferred successor; sitting state Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez; community activist Tamika Mapp; and former state Assemblymember Israel Martinez.

As soon as the field of candidates was clear, it was evident that it would be a race between Ayala and Rodriguez, with the sitting elected official coming into the race with distinct advantages, including in terms of raising funds.

After months of tense campaigning, split establishment allegiances, and some mudslinging, it all came down to primary day, September 12, where -- like in most districts across the city -- the outcome would determine the next officeholder given the overwhelming Democratic advantage.

A grueling day of crisscrossing the district to canvas for votes, with polls open 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., culminated with a race that was too close to call once most of the returns were in. Yet, Ayala claimed victory with a margin of just 122 votes in a race that saw only 8,471 ballots cast. She received 3,705 votes, or 43.7 percent, to Rodriguez’s 3,583, good for 42.3 percent. Mapp took 814 votes and Martinez took 369. 

While Ayala declared victory from Harley’s Smokeshack at 11:20 p.m. to a room full of allies and supporters, including Mark-Viverito, Rodriguez soon put out a public statement saying that every vote needed to be counted, given the possibility of affidavit and absentee ballots perhaps yet tallied. One week later, on September 19, all the ballots had been accounted for and Ayala still came out on top. "With all vote counting complete, I am proud to declare victory today," she said in a statement. 

"El Barrio and the South Bronx are at a crossroads, like so many other communities in our City," she added. "I will fight tirelessly to ensure that we do everything to protect the lives and provide affordability for those who have grown up, are raising their families, or are retiring here." Rodriguez, who will continue to serve in the state Assembly, conceded defeat on Tuesday. "I offer my congrats to Diana Ayala, and I hope she can fulfill the promises she made," he said in a statement. 

More than 14 hours before she declared victory on primary day, Ayala was standing at the corner of East 109th Street and 2nd Avenue, asking residents for their votes.

“My legs are starting to get numb,” said Ayala, around 8:30 a.m., already more than two hours into her time there, as the sun was beginning to warm the crisp morning air. Ayala shifted on her feet as she stood, arms folded at the waist, surveying the scene, as if steadying herself for the long day ahead. It was the first of many stops she would make.

Campaign volunteer Joe Taranto, a top government aide to Mark-Viverito, passed out campaign literature as Ayala greeted each voter. “I feel good, I’m excited to see what the results will be,” she said, with a composure that she wouldn’t betray until she was saying she had won, holding back tears with a beaming smile on her face.

Around 8:45 a.m., a campaign barker walked by across the street, yelling, “Vote for Robert Rodriguez for City Council, Robert Rodriguez for City Council!!” He had come from the 110th Street subway station where he had been spotted earlier.

Ayala has worked for Mark-Viverito for nearly 12 years and, as her director of constituent services, she has been in direct contact with members of the community, hearing residents’ problems firsthand and seeking to help them as she could. It’s one of the reasons she expected that people would vote for her. “They know me personally, they know my work ethic,” she said. “They know I deliver.” It explains why voters recognize her on the street, why some stopped to hug her and wish her good luck.

“The best team in the world! That’s my girl!,” exclaimed one voter, Susan Rodriguez, walking down the street seeing Ayala at the corner. Rodriguez, the founding director of Sisterhood Mobilized for AIDS/HIV Research & Treatment, a nonprofit, said Ayala had personally assisted her when the nonprofit faced an office space issue. “She’s been a champion of the community,” Rodriguez said. “She goes out of the way to help people. She’s always been accessible. She loves this community and you know that.”

Seeing Ayala’s name on the ballot gave her “goosebumps,” Susan Rodriguez said. “She doesn’t need to put her name all over the place, We know her.”

“Diana’s been a rock for our community and we’d be blessed and privileged to have her in the Council,” she added. “We love Melissa [Mark-Viverito] and she’s passing the torch to Diana, who will continue her legacy and build her own.”

What about her main opponent, Robert Rodriguez? “I only hear about him when he’s running for something,” she said.

Another voter, 95-year-old Josephine Surita had just walked out of PS/JHS 117 after voting for Ayala. “Diana la gana! Diana la gana!” she yelled in Spanish. “Diana will win! Diana will win!”

It was 9 a.m. and time to head to PS 206, Ayala’s polling site. Ayala and Taranto hopped into her Toyota RAV4 and headed west. First, a quick stop at her favorite coffee cart at the corner of Lexington and 116th, where she gets a cup everyday. Ayala had been up since 2 a.m., she said, tossing and turning in bed, but not out of apprehension, she explained. “I tried to go to sleep early, but I only slept for four hours,” she said. “I didn’t feel nervous, though; maybe subconsciously.”

Standing in line for coffee, Ayala recounted how four years ago she’d worked, as part of Mark-Viverito’s staff, with the city to help find a suitable location for that very coffee vendor. The owner had faced harassment from a local business across the street where it was located earlier. Throughout the day, Ayala relayed similar anecdotes, pulled from her decade-plus working in the community. “Who are you gonna vote for?” the cart’s owner asked Ayala as she handed her two steaming cups. “I don’t know, I haven’t made up my mind,” Ayala chuckled.

At the polling site, Ayala’s two adult children and her mother were already waiting. First she had to pick up 11-year-old Isaiah, the youngest of her four children, from the East River North apartments where she lives with her parents. “He’s my baby. He refuses to stop growing,” said the proud mother, who also has three grandchildren from her only daughter. “We measure the amount of time I’ve worked for Melissa by looking at him, because when I started working for her, he was born.”

By 9:40 a.m., the entire clan was at PS 206 and soon they had cast their votes. Seeing her own name on the ballot “was a little surreal,” Ayala said with excitement.

“She takes care of everybody,” said Abraham, 27, Ayala’s oldest son, thrilled after having just voted for his mom. “She’s always been for the community. She’s been about family, everybody’s her family. She’s just the best candidate. She’ll make sure she does what she has to do to make sure that everybody in the community will thrive and survive.”

For Ayala, perhaps the hardest part of running for office, ostensibly a full-time commitment, was the time away from her children and grandchildren. And, at the same time, keeping them removed from what can sometimes be a nasty affair. She spoke of the time an independent group plastered the neighborhood with flyers that depicted her on all fours like a dog, and how she had to explain that to her children. “This is very new to them,” she said. “It can get pretty dirty out there and I didn’t want them tainted by that.”

Her children played no small part in her decision to run for office. “If you had asked me three years ago, I would’ve said never,” she said of jumping headlong into a City Council campaign. Her kids were younger and needed their mother, and her infirm parents had also moved in with her. Her family has been supportive, and her youngest also appeared in a campaign ad for her. “They don’t need me anymore, they’re OK without me,” she said, with her typical chuckle. “It’s mama that misses them.”

What drove her decision was term limits and the Speaker’s entreaties. The one-time term limit extension passed under Mayor Michael Bloomberg had allowed Mark-Viverito to serve a third four-year term on the Council. “Because of term limits, it allowed us four more years, so a lot of things kinda settled,” Ayala said, “in a way that made it possible for me to consider this an option.”

Her decision was made over time, in conversations with the speaker, who prodded Ayala to run. “I had never really thought about it,” Ayala said. “I don’t come from a political background. I consider myself more of a social services person. I wanna know the issues. I wanna know people. Even though I have an appreciation for politics, it does tend to get in the way of doing the work sometimes.”

It was the realization, she said, that there were so few women on the City Council that pushed her across the line. “I figured, ‘If not me, then who?’ You don’t have to be a politician to run for office,” she said. The term that ends this year includes 13 women in the 51-seat Council. “We’re regular people with life experiences that have shaped who we are,” Ayala continue. “I think that my life experiences allow me some insight into my own community because a lot of the issues that I help constituents navigate through have been my issues.”

Ayala regularly talks openly about her life experiences, which led her directly into public service. At the age of 17, she had her first child, whose father died a victim of gun violence earlier that year. She struggled with postpartum depression, and conflict at home with her mother meant that she couldn’t cope with the grief. She emancipated herself, and lived for a time in a homeless shelter on the Lower East Side before moving to an apartment in the Bronx. She personally knows the difficulties of navigating the bureaucracy of public assistance offices.

“Those kinds of interactions with social service providers that were not always positive left me with an interest of wanting to be helpful and doing it the right way,” she said. Alaya consistently talks on the campaign trail about how she sees the residents of the district through her lived experience. “A lot of people helped me and I just wanna give back,” she said.

Just after 10 a.m., Ayala headed to PS 57, where she was met by Mark-Viverito, who had been stumping all morning for her preferred successor. Mark-Viverito’s popularity in the district is distinct. For many voters, she’s immediately recognizable and her opinion carries weight. “I’m not running for reelection so I need you to vote for Diana,” she told residents who passed the two at the corner. Several members of her staff volunteered for Ayala’s campaign. A few, including Taranto, took the day off to help drum up support.

“I think that there’s a different level of energy that surrounds her campaign versus the opponent’s campaign,” Mark-Viverito told Gotham Gazette, confident of Ayala’s chances. “People are very excited and motivated and have a reason to vote for her...and I don’t get that same sense from the opposing side.”

Mark-Viverito emphasized that the race would hinge on the Ayala campaign’s ground game, which was extensive. Ayala said she had personally knocked on more than 2,000 doors over the course of the campaign and had a team of about 70 volunteers out on the streets on Tuesday, most of them women, urging voters to support her.

For Mark-Viverito, Ayala’s campaign also carried the promise of fighting greater gender imbalance on the City Council. The 51-member body had 18 women in 2009, but is down to 13 and was at risk of dropping to single digits. The speaker has been spearheading a movement to improve women’s representation on the legislative body, aiming ultimately to elect more women in 2021 when more than 30 seats will be up for grabs -- the goal is 21 women on the Council through the next cycle. Mark-Viverito called the current gender imbalance “appalling” and pointed to other City Council races where she has tried to support women candidates to ensure what is the best-case scenario given the current situation. “If we work hard, maybe we’ll be able to make it stay the same, that’s my hope at least,” she said, “I would love to gain a little bit...Right now, to stay at least treading water is what we need to do.”

Around 11:30 a.m., it was time for the operation to move across the river to the South Bronx, home to half the Council district. Ayala went north, but just blocks away, Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez would arrive with his wife and son about two hours later to vote at his poll site at PS 102 (That also happens to be where Mark-Viverito voted that morning and where the Ayala campaign would later call it a day). Comptroller Scott Stringer, who endorsed Rodriguez, made an appearance and the two greeted voters together.

Rodriguez, with his young son atop his shoulders, seemed confident of a victory. “I think voters are responding well,” he said as his son absent-mindedly played with his father’s hair. “I’m looking forward to good results and I think the message about our success and our track record and our experience has begun to resonate.”

Stringer also spoke to Rodriguez’s experience, having worked with him in the past as Manhattan borough president. “I want members of the City Council who are able to also see beyond their street corner, that they can see the big picture, which is how we’re gonna create a city that everyone can live in,” he said. “And there’s no question that in El Barrio today there are people who built this community who are now being forced out. So we need to have leaders like Robert Rodriguez who understand land use and zoning, who understand community planning.”

Ayala recognizes that gentrification has been rapid in East Harlem and is creeping into the South Bronx. “I think that voters are concerned, they would like to see the next Council member is cognizant of the fact that they are afraid, that they have real life fears that they will be displaced,” she said at one point on primary day. Mark-Viverito, Ayala and Rodriguez have stood against a de Blasio administration proposal for a comprehensive rezoning of East Harlem, and have emphasized the need for community input to inform the process.

An alternate community-based proposal called the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan -- an effort led by Mark-Viverito, with help from Ayala -- included community priorities but was largely ignored by the administration. The rezoning is likely to be voted on under the current Council, but on Tuesday, it was one of the issues that voters took to the polls. Although some who spoke to Gotham Gazette felt that current leadership had been unable to protect them from displacement, and saw Ayala as a continuation in that direction, others believed Ayala’s close ties to the community would mean she would fight that much harder for them.

Ayala’s ties to Mark-Viverito, in that sense, are a double-edged sword, even if one edge is sharper than the other. “Some people say, ‘I don’t know you, but if the Speaker says you’re good enough, you’re good enough for me,’” Ayala said, outside Betances Houses on St. Ann’s Avenue in the Bronx. It was about 2:30 p.m. and schools were letting out. Hoards of little children rushed to a snow cone vendor at the corner and Ayala tried to catch their parents and a few more votes. Joe Pressley, another Mark-Viverito staffer volunteering for the campaign, had taken Taranto’s place and was Ayala’s sidekick for the rest of the afternoon.

Ayala realizes that she’ll have to forge her own path, independent of Mark-Viverito. “Those are big shoes to fill,” she said. “I’m not trying to fill her shoes, I’m trying to find my own role, find my own position and how I fit in, how my experiences can benefit this community, both parts of it. I’m not in a competition with the speaker.”

Could she fill those shoes? “One day, one day,” she said.

By late afternoon, Ayala was running on fumes and lunch was long overdue. “One piece of advice I’d give people is definitely get in shape,” she joked, about running for Council. “Because it’s a lot of walking around and door knocking. She needed “some pep in my step” for the next stop. After a quick roast chicken lunch at Peruvian restaurant Pio Pio, Ayala and Pressley headed for the Mitchell Community Center on Alexander Avenue where they were met around 4:30 p.m. by another campaign ally, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

The charismatic Diaz Jr.’s energy was almost infectious, and no voter that passed by escaped his grip. At least three cars stopped to greet the popular Democrat, who was also on the ballot Tuesday (he easily fought off two primary challengers). Diaz Jr. said Ayala’s advantage over Rodriguez was her familiarity with both the Harlem and Bronx sides of the district. Rodriguez’s Assembly district falls entirely south of the Harlem River and the Bronx Kill. “I think both sides of the river are familiar with Diana and the work that she’s done, working with Mark-Viverito, but also being the face of the office, being the face of constituent services,” Diaz Jr. said.

“People just want services, people want someone who can identify with them,” Diaz Jr. continued. “People want someone who is sincere, who is hardworking, and she’s exhibited and shown all of those qualities without the title...I think Diana just represents that everyday constituent, that everyday citizen that people are yearning for.”

Diaz Jr. didn’t discount Rodriguez but preferred him to remain in the Assembly. “I respect him,” he said, adding with a slight chuckle, “I think that he’s done a great job in Albany and he should stay in Albany. He’s actually shown to be an involved and intelligent legislator and we certainly need that.”

Having popular leaders like Diaz Jr. and Mark-Viverito on her side helped offset the establishment support that went in Rodriguez’s favor, Ayala said. Rodriguez was endorsed by the Bronx County machine, including Bronx Democratic Party Chair and Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, and by Governor Andrew Cuomo and other local, state, and federal elected officials. For her part, Ayala also had the backing of Mayor Bill de Blasio, the City Council’s Progressive Caucus, the Working Families Party, U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat, prominent unions including 32BJ SEIU, the Hotel Trades Council, and DC37, and activist group Make the Road New York.

Another hour, another stop. It was almost rush hour and Ayala began to head back across the river to 103rd Street and Lexington Avenue, to grab the dozens of potential voters exiting the 6 Train. On the way, she witnessed a Rodriguez volunteer -- the same man who had been shouting across the street that morning -- yelling at one of her own campaign volunteers, a young woman. She was familiar with the man, having seen him around in previous campaigns, and said he had a history of being menacing and aggressive. She immediately directed Pressley to call campaign headquarters. “Call and send someone there. She shouldn’t be alone,” she told him.

At 5:45 p.m., Ayala pulled over at the corner of 103rd, converging with Mark-Viverito who was already at the bustling intersection. A large blue truck, emblazoned with Assemblymember Rodriguez’s face, intermittently blared support for him between pop songs that drowned out the street traffic. The truck, and about a dozen or so individuals, represented 700 Strong, a group purportedly made up of residents of public housing, people living in homeless shelters, and those living near public housing, and even philanthropists. The group handed out dozens of fliers, including disparaging ones that showed Mark-Viverito as a puppetmaster controlling Ayala and John Ruiz, a candidate running for District Leader. Ayala picked up the phone. “This corner is all Robert Rodriguez,” she told someone at her 116th street campaign headquarters, calling for backup. “This is when anxiety starts to peek in,” she turned and said. “People tend to get tense and aggressive.”

The volunteers for 700 Strong were either unaware or would not say who leads the group, which is not registered with the New York City Campaign Finance Board as is required of any independent expenditure group that engages in electioneering. Kimesha Alvarado, one volunteer, said they were out there to support Rodriguez because he “is more connected to the people, more accessible and community oriented,” while dismissing Ayala, with no hint of irony, as a “part of the establishment” that had allowed gentrification in the district to go unchecked.

The group also encouraged residents to vote for Kelmy Rodriguez, a candidate running for District Leader against John Ruiz. Kelmy Rodriguez was on the scene and denied any knowledge of who had organized the fliers and campaigners, while acknowledging that he was a member of 700 Strong. Mark-Viverito speculated that the group was illegally coordinating its efforts with Ayala’s opponent.

Amid the chaos of rush hour commuters, traffic and campaign teams, Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez arrived, an hour after Ayala had already been there. The two candidates were barely seven feet apart, but did not acknowledge each other. Volunteers from both campaigns tried to shout over their counterparts, devolving into a barely comprehensible white noise assailing those stepping out of the subway station.

Barely 10 minutes later, the Assembly member started to rush away. Asked what prompted him to show up, he said, “Well, you know, sometimes you can’t concede any street corners and 103rd Street is where my family grew up and I wanna make sure that on election day, they have a choice and understand that the choice should be Rodriguez. I wanna make sure that an alternative is presented this evening.” He also denied knowing anything about 700 Strong, but said he was grateful for their support.

Having finished the last frenetic push of the day, just one stop remained for Ayala: PS 102, Mark-Viverito’s poll site. The entrance to the site had been shifted, confusing voters who had showed up there for years, including the speaker herself. She realized it would be a good place to stake out for the last leg of the race, to catch the later voters and nudge them to the ballot and towards an Ayala vote.

“Diana is the kind of person who doesn’t mind coming to the community,” said Mildred Santiago, 56, a retired special education teacher who had just exited the poll site. “She visits the seniors, she visits the disabled, she sees what they need...she follows up on cases. She calls you directly. She doesn’t say, ‘Oh I’ll send someone,’ like other people. She says, ‘I’ll be in charge.’ So she knows how to manage issues.”

For voters like Santiago, Tuesday was a bittersweet election because it also meant that Mark-Viverito was that much closer to leaving office. (Mark-Viverito also won the position of District Leader that day, which she says will keep her involved in the community.) “I’ll miss Melissa,” Santiago said, “but if she goes to Congress, I’m gonna be so happy.” Mark-Viverito heard Santiago and laughed. She has been rumored as a potential replacement for U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano, who is said to be considering retirement, but she wouldn’t say if she had considered a run for Congress.

It was late, just after 8 o’clock and the polls would be closing in about an hour. Ayala had literally walked a hole into her beige ballet flats. “I didn’t take them off because they’re my lucky shoes,” she said, and she needed every bit of luck she could get. The campaign had done all it could do and now there was only the wait for results.

Back at the campaign headquarters, there was an air of “nervous excitement” as the campaign team took a breather in the large back office, where the walls were plastered with maps of the district. At about 9 p.m., when voting was done for the day, they would head two doors down to Harley’s Smokeshack, a local barbecue joint advertising a Tuesday Tacos and Tequila special. The campaign team, including dozens of union workers from LiUNA Local 78, crowded in front of the bar as a screen switched to NY1, which was broadcasting the primary results.

Ayala betrayed no emotion. “I’ve put everything I’ve had into it, and if it’s for me, it’s for me,” she had said earlier. “And if it isn’t, then there’s a lot of lessons to learn. It’s a new experience for me and one should never be afraid to challenge themselves and to take chances.”

At the bar, the first precincts had begun to report. Ayala was leading and the crowd erupted into whoops and cheers. “Diana! Diana! Diana!,” they roared. The next two hours would be an emotional rollercoaster as Ayala continued to lead through the night but Rodriguez inched closer and closer. At 9:30 p.m. Ayala had a five point lead. By 10 p.m., with about 85 percent of precincts counted, that lead had whittled down to three points, and then two. The race had become a nail-biter, as the numbers then stayed frozen for well over an hour. “I’m so nervous,” exclaimed Alicia, Ayala’s 25-year-old daughter.

“It’s a little annoying that they’re not moving,” Ayala said, before retreating outside to sidebar with Mark-Viverito and her core campaign team. They repeatedly huddled outside, with anxious faces, as the ballots crawled up. Most other races had already been called and District 8 was one of only two City Council races that remained undecided.

At 11:20 p.m., Ayala and Mark-Viverito walked back in. More than 96 percent of precincts were reporting and Ayala led by 122 votes. Mark-Viverito signalled to the bartender to kill the music and stepped up on a barstool, hushing the supporters. “I wanna introduce our next Council member,” she said smiling, declaring triumph to a roaring response.

Ayala gingerly climbed up after her. “As a woman, and as a minority, it was not an easy decision” to run for office, she said. “Many of the women that are represented in this room, we do all of the work in the background, we do it all and we don’t ask for credit, we just ask for decency...It wasn’t until this woman said to me that I have the potential to do this, that I believed in myself,” she said, tearing up and pointing to Mark-Viverito. “I thank all of you!”

“It was a very close race but this is a huge victory. We won against an incumbent,” she added. Supporters rushed to hug Ayala as Celebration by Kool & The Gang blasted through the speakers.

“This is a community victory, this is amazing,” Mark-Viverito said to Gotham Gazette afterwards. “I didn’t doubt it. Obviously we knew it was gonna be close. It reminds me of my first election.”

“I think Diana was the right candidate for the moment, the right candidate for the community,” said Edison Severino, business manager of Local 78. “Diana is a person that is not a politician per se, but is a daughter of these streets...She’s real, she’s us. And we feel that people like that are the people we need representing us.”

Rodriguez had not conceded the race, however, noting that affidavit ballots and absentee ballots will still have to be counted. “This race is far too close to call right now, and it is premature for anyone to declare a victory,” he said in a statement released just before midnight. “There are still ballots left to be counted, and we want to make sure each voter has their voice heard.”

But Ayala’s team was confident it had the votes. “I feel great,” Ayala said. “I was really calm through all of it. I just had faith that the system was gonna work in my favor and that people were gonna turn out...It is a dream come true, for me and for a lot of little girls that come from communities of color, and I hope that I’m an inspiration to those women and that they feel that they see in me an opportunity to do what I’m doing, one day.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note - this article has been updated.

 

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In Surprise to Some, Diana Ayala Victorious in Tight Primary Thu, 14 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000