Gotham Gazette Wed, 05 Aug 2020 13:20:20 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) 'I Actually Have to Negotiate a Budget': Corey Johnson and the Challenge of Running for Mayor as City Council Speaker 4 budget deal ptfs

Corey Johnson, with Bill de Blasio watching (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

Speakers of the New York City Council don’t fare well when running for citywide office. Melissa Mark-Viverito, who previously held the job, was unsuccessful in a crowded 2019 special election for public advocate. Christine Quinn, the speaker before her, placed third in the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary that saw Bill de Blasio advance toward the mayoralty. Gifford Miller, Quinn’s predecessor, similarly lost in the 2005 Democratic mayoral primary to Fernando Ferrer, and Peter Vallone came in third in the 2001 Democratic primary.

Corey Johnson, the current City Council Speaker, is hoping to buck that trend as he pursues his own mayoral bid in 2021, when both he and de Blasio will be term-limited out of their current offices. But like Council speakers before him, his leadership of the city’s 51-member legislative body is likely to be a double-edged sword.

Johnson has been able to achieve major goals and advance populist ideas that could serve as the foundation of a fruitful campaign platform. But, by nature, his position requires consensus-building among a large, diverse group of lawmakers and compromising with the mayor. That was the case when he brokered the recently approved $88.2 billion city budget and found himself balancing the positions held by Council members and the demands of a movement against police brutality, and delivered a compromise that broadly angered people on the left and the right, and which even he admitted he was disappointed with.

“I love being speaker,” Johnson said in an interview earlier this week, discussing criticism he’s received, including from others in government. “I can't speak to other people's jobs, but as speaker I'm able to have a big impact on policy and legislation and the budget in New York City, and I'm grateful for that. It's a challenging job that requires me to take positions on issues on almost a daily basis. And there's an upside to that but also a downside to that because some of these things are complicated, nuanced, and politically fraught but still exciting and you still have the ability to impact the city and public policy in a significant way.”

Johnson’s potential mayoral opponents, particularly Comptroller Scott Stringer, had harsh words for the budget deal, especially with regard to the NYPD picture.

“Politics is politics sometimes,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it’s anything new that potential opponents are going to try to use issues and votes and the budget process against me or other Council members. That’s probably happened for time immemorial so I don’t think it’s unique to me. But, at the same time, being speaker, I actually have to negotiate a budget. I actually have to negotiate legislation, I have to support members who are negotiating land use deals. These things are much more under the microscope and politically electrified than what other elected officials have to deal with on a daily basis.”

In past interviews, when asked about the trend of City Council speakers struggling to become mayor, Johnson has pointed out it is a small sample size and that no comptroller has become mayor in decades, while no borough president has become mayor since David Dinkins won in 1989. Along with Stringer, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is the other current elected official expected to run for mayor in the 2021 election.

With the city facing a $9 billion revenue gap, Johnson faced the toughest budget that the Council has had to deal with in his time as speaker. The city had been flush with cash for years through a robust recovery after the Great Recession, allowing for massive increases in spending. Now, the mayor was proposing cuts to social services, youth development, education, and more. There was also a growing demand from police reform advocates that the city cut $1 billion from the police department’s nearly $6 billion annual operating budget.

Even as Johnson embraced that advocacy, he could not obtain the level or types of cuts he was pushing for as he cobbled together the votes for the budget. It was ultimately approved 32-17 just past the midnight deadline for the July 1 start of the 2021 fiscal year. It included pledged cuts to police overtime spending with no specific plan to achieve them, a small reduction in officer headcount, and hundreds of millions in costs shifted by moving school safety back to the purview of the Department of Education.

The pieces added up to what the mayor called $1 billion but were marked by the sort of gimmicks that incensed advocates and Johnson acknowledged did not hit that target. (Even the school safety shift isn’t expected to happen within the new fiscal year, a detail that didn’t emerge until after the budget was approved.)

“From the moment George Floyd was murdered at the end of May till when we passed the budget in the hours leading up to July 1, we were able to do a lot while also recognizing you can't do everything in five weeks,” Johnson said.

There has been speculation that the budget vote will come back to haunt Johnson’s mayoral prospects. A bargain frustrating the most fervent activists and made with de Blasio before a change election where each candidate is seeking to differentiate themselves from the two-term mayor could be challenging for the speaker. It’s somewhat reminiscent of what worked against former Speaker Quinn in 2013, who had been an ally of then Mayor Bloomberg and was running to some degree on a continuation of his policies and the broad success of the city. But Quinn, who hasn’t ruled out a 2021 mayoral run, was in part done in by her deal with Bloomberg to extend term limits over the will of voters.

“Chris Quinn...had the problem of being seen as too close to the mayor,” said Jessica Proud, a Republican consultant who helped run Joe Lhota’s 2013 general election campaign against de Blasio. “Corey doesn't necessarily have that problem but the duties of the job and the nature of the job, the decisions that come with it, pose challenges like any leadership position.”

While they have worked together on many things, Johnson has also repeatedly set himself apart from de Blasio and under him the Council has tried to exert its power more often than under former Speaker Mark-Viverito, whom de Blasio helped become the speaker for his first term. Though he has at times made significant concessions when de Blasio has taken issue with his proposals, Johnson has more often than not forged ahead with his priorities and forced the mayor to go along.

The recent passage of a bill criminalizing the use of chokeholds and other harmful restraining methods by police officers is testament to that, particularly as it almost invited the first ever mayoral veto by de Blasio before he begrudgingly agreed that he will sign it over the opposition of vocal police leaders.

It also remains unclear how many voters will broadly attribute the budget deal solely to Johnson or if it will even take center stage in a primary that will occur in the middle of another budget session and, current signs say, while the city is still on its way to recovering from the pandemic. The deal may have alienated some on the far left, but that isn’t far and away the only constituency in the Democratic primary and it's not clear that those voters will have another candidate to turn to given that Johnson has also been competing for the left among the current crop of 2021 candidates.

There are, of course, center-right Democrats, the kind who voted for Bloomberg, who may also be turned off by the NYPD cuts. Moderate and conservative Democratic Council Members including Robert Holden, Chaim Deutsch, Kalman Yeger, and Ruben Diaz Sr. all voted against the budget on those very grounds. As one Democratic consultant said, “I don't know yet if this mayoral race is going to be about, ‘We need a fervent socialist, progressive, Black Lives Matter mayor.”

Johnson believes that voters won’t focus on this one budget vote, but will be looking for a larger vision for the future of the city. He denied conjecture among political observers, reported by Politico New York, that he may opt out of the race because of the fallout of this budget, though as with other candidates, he has yet to officially declare his candidacy. That announcement will likely happen after the presidential election in November, he indicated.

Unlike some of the other declared and potential mayoral candidates whose focus has seemed more defined, Johnson says he isn’t carving out a specific niche for himself. “I’ve never really thought of my campaign for mayor with regards to trying to appeal to one lane or one subset of voters,” he said. But he is clearly running to the left on issues that affect the city’s most vulnerable residents, as indicated by his support for the calls of a $1 billion NYPD budget cut. “It’s really about coming up with big ideas and solutions for the future of New York City, being myself, and seeing if that connects with a broad electorate,” he said.

Stringer has long-standing ties to the political establishment but has been wooing the insurgent left, especially as he has endorsed several female candidates, particularly women of color, aligned and adjacent to the Working Families Party, Democratic Socialists of America, and other groups that have emerged as formidable forces in recent elections.

Adams, a Black former police officer and state senator, now Brooklyn Borough President, leans more moderate, and hopes to win over both Black New Yorkers and the white ethnic voters that helped elect Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Guiliani as mayor.

Loree Sutton, a retired Army Brigadier General and former commissioner of the city’s Department of Veterans Services, is also vying for the center-left, and advocates for a more fiscally restrained government and tougher law enforcement. Former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales (who left her job to run) has centered social justice issues in her campaign, including a major rethinking of how public safety is done and the need to create more opportunities for women to thrive and lead.

Former top Obama and Bloomberg aide Shaun Donovan has a lengthy resume as a public servant that has managed fiscal, health, and environmental emergencies. Maya Wiley, former counsel to Mayor de Blasio, is an accomplished civil rights attorney and activist whose campaign would likely target issues of criminal justice and racial inequity. She has been more outspoken of late, including in criticism of the city budget deal and in calling for the removal of NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea.

Some who observed the budget process, or participated in it, had praise for Johnson’s leadership.

Longtime political consultant and former Mayor Ed Koch spokesperson George Arzt said Johnson did “an exceptional job” balancing the countervailing demands over the budget. “I think all in all, by next year, this will have been forgotten,” he said, noting that between now and the 2021 primary, there will be another budget modification in the fall, a presidential election and, hopefully, a vaccine for the coronavirus.

Arzt also noted that Johnson bore the brunt of criticism because of the public’s lower expectations from the mayor. “I don’t think there has been a mayor in recent times as unpopular as de Blasio, and he still has a year-and-a-half to go. So people look to Corey for leadership on major issues,” he said. “What the budget process showed is that he’s a person that people look up to for leadership and he can work to put together a stable government.”

Council Member Antonio Reynoso was among the half-dozen or so members who voted against the budget because the NYPD cuts did not go further. “I think that the speaker is in an unenviable position,” said Reynoso, a Brooklyn Democrat running for borough president in next year’s election, noting that the speaker’s individual positions can’t override the majority of Council members, who didn’t want to defund the NYPD as aggressively.

“I don’t think there’s any other position in the entire city that has the same role as the speaker,” Reynoso said. “Everybody else – the mayor, the comptroller, the public advocate, borough presidents, and even Council members can all speak independently about what they want without having to be accountable to anyone except their constituents. He, on the other hand, has to be accountable to these elected officials, to these Council members.”

But Reynoso did say that the police funding issue will continue to be on the forefront if the Council and mayor fail to follow through on the promises made in this budget, particularly relating to changes in how school safety is handled. “If a lot of the stuff that [Council members] thought was going to happen doesn't happen this year, I could see a change in heart [from Council members],” he said, predicting that in such circumstances, there may be even more support from progressive members allowing for greater cuts to the police budget next year.

Advocates are also keeping a watchful eye to see that those pledges, however disappointing, are fulfilled. “We’re in this for the long haul, we're not going anywhere,” said Andréa Colon, lead organizer for Rockaway Youth Task Force, a member of the Communities United for Police Reform coalition.

Colon faulted all parties involved in the deal – the mayor, speaker, and the Council at large. “Even members of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus said, ‘This is a win for our community. This is a first step,’ but so many acknowledged that this doesn't go far enough. So if they’re able to acknowledge that, why vote yes?”

The night of the budget deal there was chatter among activists on Twitter that Johnson’s mayoral campaign was over.

“It was probably one of the most challenging budgets in modern municipal history,” Johnson said in the interview. Having spent weeks dealing with the varying crises the city faced, and having to triangulate what his members demanded and what the mayor was willing to concede, he appeared visibly exhausted and browbeaten in the hours before the budget vote. “My goal was to save as many programs that affect poor New Yorkers, communities of color, and covid-vulnerable communities as possible while at the same time recognizing this moment of national reckoning on police reform and racism and pushing as far as we can go,” he said.

Even as the full scope of proposed NYPD cuts weren’t realized, the speaker emphasized that the Council managed to save vital programs and services to the tune of about $700 million that were on the chopping block in the mayor’s proposal, besides the funding that was reallocated from the police. “The mayor wasn't there and the Council was divided,” he said on the NYPD budget. “So I had to try to find consensus. And I think we were able to do a lot of good in this budget, and I look at this as really the beginning, not the end.”

Ravi Gupta, co-founder and managing partner of Arena, a national organization that trains and supports progressive Democrats running for office and those seeking to work on campaigns, said that though Johnson could be hurt by carrying the weight of the budget vote, he can also benefit from it.

“I think given the trauma that this city has been through over the past year and even longer, superficial politics are going to be a thing of the past,” he said. “Straight rhetorical politics aren't really going to carry people very far. And [Johnson] will have a case to make that he has had to make tough decisions, which is not something that everybody in the race, either now or in the future, not everybody's going to be able to say that.”

He also noted that Johnson’s potential opponents will have to explain their own records. “Not all, but many of the people critiquing Corey don't have very long histories of being aggressive for reform of the police,” he said.

“The '$1 billion cut' to the NYPD proposed by the Mayor and the City Council is not a $1 billion cut—it's a bait and switch and a paper-thin excuse for reform,” Stringer said of the budget, though he had proposed a more modest NYPD cut than Johnson’s plan, and Johnson acknowledged before the budget vote that the deal did not include $1 billion in cuts.

Adams said, “The city is in crisis, inequality is deepening, New Yorkers are marching every day against injustice — and instead of forging change and lighting a path to a brighter future, this budget simply maintains the status quo.”

On Twitter, Wiley wrote, “Today’s deal isn’t a cut. It’s moving the deck chairs around. We have to stop tinkering and start transforming public safety.”

Morales, in a statement, said the budget “failed those whose lives have been lost at the hands of the NYPD and communities of color who have been disproportionately impacted by violence and brutality.”

Johnson’s “greatest advantage,” Gupta said, is the various proposals he has advanced at the Council, particularly his Streets Master Plan (though that has been delayed because of the pandemic’s impact on the budget). “I think there's a huge constituency in the city for that kind of vision right now,” he said. Johnson was also successful in convincing the mayor to fund the Fair Fares discounted MetroCard program for low-income New Yorkers and in getting more funds to provide pay equity to early childhood educators. He has proposed major plans to address homelessness and food insecurity.

“This is an existential election for the city. So people are going to be looking for truth-tellers, not performers,” he said. “I think people are going to be looking for somebody that they trust. And I don't know who that person is yet but I certainly don't think that this past week has been disqualifying [for Johnson].”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

'I Actually Have to Negotiate a Budget': Corey Johnson and the Challenge of Running for Mayor as City Council Speaker Thu, 09 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
The 2021 New York City Mayoral Race, One Year to the Primary inauguration mayor

City Hall on inauguration day (photo: mayor's office)

It’s election day, and all eyes on the 2020 party primaries in New York, though the results won’t be clear for at least one week. But one year from now, New Yorkers will cast their ballots in another primary election, one that will likely determine the slate of leadership of New York City for the next four years, including the next mayor. With Mayor Bill de Blasio term-limited, the stage is set for a fierce competition, which may not really take off until just after this year’s presidential election but has already begun.

With the economy in shambles and the streets echoing with the exasperated cries of a city disillusioned with current leadership, political analysts say New Yorkers will look for a steady hand to guide them through the city’s many crises, whether it’s the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, structural and systemic racism, economic devastation, perennial unaffordability, entrenched homelessness, crumbling public housing, and more.

Observers admit that there are no easy predictions to be made about the 2021 mayoral race, particularly at this early stage while the city is still trying to overcome what has proved to be the greatest public emergency in its modern history. Candidates, some of whom have spent years preparing to run to become the city’s chief executive, are eyeing the future of the campaign while continuing to make their aspirations clear to voters. Now with just under a year to the primary, fundraising urgency will pick up, as will the need to hold house parties where candidates interact with small groups of voters, even if they must be virtual for the time being. Campaign teams must be built, volunteers recruited, labor leaders schmoozed.

There are so far six Democratic candidates who have declared or are actively exploring runs for mayor: City Council Speaker Corey Johnson; Comptroller Scott Stringer; Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams; Loree Sutton, former commissioner of the city’s Department of Veterans’ Services; Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive in the Bronx; and Shaun Donovan, who served as HUD Secretary under President Barack Obama and was previously an aide to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

There are several other individuals either rumored to be considering a run or being pressed to do so, including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, former counsel to the mayor Maya Wiley, former City Council Speaker and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, and Citigroup executive Ray McGuire. With Democrats holding a 7-to-1 voter enrollment advantage over Republicans, it seems all but assured that the winner of the Democratic primary will win the November general election, but nothing in politics is ever guaranteed.

On the Republican side, there has been little movement so far. Billionaire supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis has raised speculation that he may run, announcing he is formally exploring another campaign. He ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary in 2013, losing to Joe Lhota, and was reportedly considering doing so again in 2017 but chose not to jump into the race. Perhaps the best-known Republican in city government, Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, has ruled out a run. There are few other Republicans who hold elected office in the city, though Queens City Council Member Eric Ulrich also toyed with a 2017 campaign but decided not to run.

What remains to be seen is how the political winds will blow. Will today’s anger on the streets carry through to poll sites next year? Will voters choose experienced leadership from those who have long served in elected office or will they look outside for fresh faces and perspectives? Are they more focused on the city’s economic recovery or will social justice be the driving force behind their votes? What specific issues will emerge as paramount? Which policy proposals will gain the most momentum? What impact will labor unions have?

What role might “identity politics” play -- will voters choose an openly gay white man (Johnson) or an openly gay white woman (Sutton) or a Black man (Adams) or a Black Boricua (Morales) after nearly three decades of a heterosexual white man running City Hall and no Latino or woman or openly gay peson ever elected mayor? How will the new ranked-choice voting system for primaries (and special elections) play out?

As the Democratic field currently stands, and perhaps even with additions, Johnson and Stringer will likely compete for the most progressive parts of the Democratic Party, with other candidates also trying to make headway there. Johnson, the first openly gay and openly HIV-positive City Council Speaker (and only open HIV-positive elected official in the state), has focused heavily on the social safety net in his time as speaker, promoting populist policies to lift up the city’s most vulnerable. Stringer, as the city’s top fiscal officer, has acted as a foil to the mayor’s spendthrift policies, released a long list of policy proposals, and shrewdly cultivated allies in labor and among insurgent Democrats at the state and local levels.

Adams, a former NYPD captain, tends to appeal to the more moderate viewpoints among Democrats but does not easily fit descriptors, and has reportedly proclaimed that he wants to “out-white” Stringer, an apparent plan to appeal to white ethnic voters key to the elections of Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. The borough president has tried to walk the fine lines of promoting law and order with police reform and real estate development without displacement. He has already outlined his platform for instituting “real-time governance,” pledging to modernize how city government operates.

As the calendar has inched toward 2021, and as de Blasio ran for president leaving more of a leadership vacuum and the coronavirus crisis hit, Johnson, Stringer, and Adams have been staking out more positions on major issues and through their official jobs auditioning for the role of mayor.

Morales is a proponent of strong social justice policies that said she will reduce the “inequality and inequities” that have been exacerbated in the last few months and which “I've been talking about forever.” She pointed out that her campaign has been built on the very issues that have inspired the recent mass protests. “I am a reflection and representation of the communities that have been disproportionately harmed or left behind,” she said. 

Morales hopes that the electorate will have its eyes open to the failures of the city’s political leadership. “There is an increasing recognition that while the COVID-19 pandemic was unprecedented, that we weren’t prepared,” she said. “There are so many things that were done the way things have always been done, that left us unnecessarily vulnerable, not just from a health perspective but from an economic perspective. And my hope is that people will come out of this ready for a different kind of leadership with a new lens on what we really need.”

Sutton skews more centrist and promises “seasoned leadership,” which she says has been sorely lacking during the current crises (and those preceding them) and that she can bring after a career in the Army then her time in city government. She admits she has a big hill to climb to raise her profile and build her campaign coffers. And she also differentiates herself from de Blasio, her former boss. “In a Sutton administration, you will see a very different dynamic,” she said, “between the mayor and the media, between the mayor and corporate leaders in New York, between the mayor and communities of color, between the mayor and my own administration and the types of leaders that I will bring in and will build upon.”

She would also welcome the unenviable challenge of running the city during this pandemic, a task that would test even the most effective leaders. “I would give anything to be the mayor right now...This is my burning building. This is what I run towards,” she said.

Donovan’s resume lends him a credible campaign platform, particularly during the recovery from the pandemic since he was intimately involved in the federal response to the Great Recession and the recovery effort from Hurricane Sandy. Rick Fromberg, a spokesperson for his campaign, said he can easily make a compelling argument to voters. “Shaun’s experience and bio are so far and away better than anybody else in this race that it's just a matter of us telling people,” he said. “Nobody who has ever run for this office has this kind of experience in dealing with such analogous kinds of situations.” 

“Shaun’s not a politician,” Fromberg continued. “He never has been. He's always been a public servant. And I think that is something that we will certainly hang our hats on.”

Most observers agree that the election will inevitably be tinged with resentment of de Blasio, an increasingly unpopular mayor who, despite his progressive accomplishments, has only cemented his status as a lameduck in his struggles to respond to COVID-19 and the mass protests against police brutality and racism.

“New York is a progressive city and is one that has been dealt an enormous body blow over the last four months, and is looking for someone who is progressive but who has a vision on how to manage and lead this city at this really dark period,” said Chris Coffey, a veteran of the Bloomberg administration, consultant with Tusk Strategies, and ally of Speaker Johnson but not working on his campaign. 

“I think New York needs a cheerleader and wants a cheerleader,” Coffey said, alluding to what many have observed as de Blasio’s apparent lack of interest in celebrating the many particularities of New York as well as Johnson’s apparent penchant for such enthusiasm. “I think every mayor is in some ways a reaction to the last mayor...being a progressive who can govern and manage the city and be a cheerleader and give people some hope and confidence in their mayor is what I believe this election will be about.”

George Arzt, a Democratic political consultant who has previously worked for Stringer, echoed that view. “I expect a lot of de Blasio-bashing and I don’t expect anyone to come out and say that [they are] the successor to the policies...that de Blasio espoused,” he said.  

Over the next year, who emerges on top will depend in part on which of the largely unknown candidates can garner the necessary name recognition as well as the fundraising to get their message across to New Yorkers. To an extent, the fundraising field can be levelled by the city’s voluntary public matching funds program, which matches small-dollar donations at high rates through the New York City Campaign Finance Board.

On name recognition, the sitting electeds do already have an advantage by virtue of their positions in government. They have each been in the limelight and continue to be during the pandemic and its fallout. The other candidates may have to work harder for it, though their respective messages -- of competent leadership challenging the very people in power that are responsible for the state of the city -- could resonate. 

Fordham professor Dr. Christina Greer said the next few months will be crucial as the city heads through summer, a season that is usually accompanied by an uptick in crime (a trend that has already begun). Rampant unemployment and a prolonged recession could only exacerbate that, she noted, and could determine the type of candidates and campaigns that gain traction. Then there’s the presidential election in November, which will likely have its own impact on local races. 

“Will we see someone who is very progressive, say a ‘defund the police’-type candidate? Let's just say there's an uptick in crime in the next few months, will we see someone who is a little more centrist in their thinking? Will we see someone who wants to be a little more of the Bloomberg model, which is fully economic, trying to get the city back on track financially, or will we see someone who is more of a social justice candidate who's trying to bring all these things together in a more holistic way?” 

A key known wild card in the election will be ranked-choice voting, which will be implemented for the first time next year. The system allows voters to cast votes in order of preference and a candidate must cross a certain threshold of first-preference votes to win. It’s hard to predict the effect it will have in a crowded field as New Yorkers vote their values. 

As Greer noted, if moderates come together behind one candidate and progressives go for another, a more consensus second-choice candidate could end up claiming victory. 

“In 2021 we need a Mayor who will meet the imposing challenges in New York City that 2020 has exposed,” said Maya Wiley, now a New School professor and MSNBC commentator, in an email. “New York City needs a Mayor who will see that the twin pandemics of virus and brutality require history-making, not deal-making. We need a Mayor who will get us off the treadmill of incremental reform and command an all-of-government response to structural disparities. We need a Mayor who gets that New York doesn’t work in isolation and that we need an urban policy humbly led by the chief executive of the greatest city of the world.” 

She did not address the candidates directly, however. “It’s not for me to say whether the current crop of candidates includes that Mayor. That's for New Yorkers to decide.”

Wiley also did not respond to the question of whether she is considering a run.

“It’s a free-for-all right now,” said J.C. Polanco, a Republican attorney and strategist who ran for New York City Public Advocate in 2017. He noted that the closed primary process will affect who comes out to vote. In both parties, that is usually the most active, motivated and “ideologically purist” voters, he said. The Democrats, he said, will “fight hard to see who can captivate that ultra, uber-progressive wing of the party because those are the voters that come out for sure.” 

The one almost certain bet is that Republicans will have a hard time running a competitive campaign against a Democrat. “Our numbers are dwindling a great deal. It’s difficult for a Republican to have a fair shot at winning a citywide election,” Polanco said. “As you know I could attest to that.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

The 2021 New York City Mayoral Race, One Year to the Primary Tue, 23 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Where the 2021 Mayoral Candidates Stand on Removing School Safety from the NYPD's Domain NYPD in schools

Police in schools (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

As the City Council is pushing to cut $1 billion from the NYPD’s $6 billion budget for next fiscal year, City Council Members Mark Treyger and Donovan Richards have proposed revoking the police’s role in school safety and restoring it to the Department of Education. The proposal has been a top priority for some police reform and education activists for years and has taken on renewed urgency in the wake of the countrywide protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Though Mayor Bill de Blasio may be hesitant to support it, several candidates running for mayor in 2021 say it’s high time that the city remove police officers from schools.

Treyger, who chairs the education committee, and Richards, who chairs the public safety committee, are not among those mayoral candidates, though Richards is currently running for Queens Borough President in a primary this month. The Council members released their proposal on Monday, decrying “zero tolerance” discipline policies that have created a school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately harms black and brown students and those receiving special education services. While most schools in the city don’t have “zero tolerance” policies, the presence of police officers in schools has led to many more arrests of students than would otherwise occur, reform advocates point out.

Though the Council has over the years sought to make changes to the NYPD’s role in schools, it has only so much power over the police department or education department. The Council has passed reporting bills requiring greater disclosure but the police department has always been reluctant to abide by those measures. The Treyger-Richards proposal constitutes a much broader move, removing the Division of School Safety from the NYPD’s purview and returning it to the Department of Education, where it was originally headquartered before being relocated by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1998.

“Enough is enough. Incremental reforms to a system that does not want to be reformed are futile. We need nothing short of structural change,” Treyger and Richards said in a joint statement.

They pointed out that the city spends more money on school safety agents than it does on counselors, social workers, and psychologists all together. But those roughly 5,000 school safety agents are not accountable to school principals. 

“At a time when students are experiencing more trauma than ever, we need to make sure that our approach to school safety is aligned to meet the holistic needs of children. School Safety Agents, most of whom are doing their best to keep kids safe within a broken system, are too-often called upon to intervene in behavioral crises because the vestiges of Zero Tolerance prioritize punitive interventions over social emotional supports,” Treyger and Richards wrote.

“A seven-year-old having a bad day in a school without a social worker is not an NYPD issue,” they added.

The call for removing police from schools has been championed by groups like Dignity in Schools, which coordinates efforts by several local groups to advocate against the school-to-prison pipeline.

The NYPD’s budget allocates as much as $331 million to school safety, which would make up a significant chunk of the $1 billion that the Council wants to cut from the police department’s funding. The Council is also looking at reducing the overall headcount of the NYPD, cutting overtime costs and shifting other duties away from the department, among other measures.

Mayor de Blasio has pushed back against both removing school safety from the NYPD and cuts of that scope to the police department budget, though he did recently announce he is ready to move some NYPD funding to reinvest it in youth and social services. He has not offered a dollar amount, but said it would be part of negotiations with the Council as the two sides must craft a new city budget by July 1.

Council Speaker Corey Johnson, among the most prominent likely candidates in the 2021 mayoral race, is backing the contents of the Treyger-Richards letter.

“I’ve said repeatedly that we need to reimagine policing in New York City, and this is one way to do that,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, when asked about the letter from two of his members. “I’ve also said I will listen to communities most impacted by over policing, and this is one of their big concerns. I want to thank Council Members Treyger and Richards for their advocacy, and I look forward to working with them to convince the de Blasio administration that this is both urgent and necessary. We need big changes, and we need them now.”

[Read: ‘Defund the NYPD’? What’s Really in the New York City Police Department Budget]

Johnson is among the top contenders seeking the Democratic nomination for mayor in 2021, along with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Comptroller Scott Stringer. Other candidates include Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive in the Bronx; Loree Sutton, former commissioner of the city’s Department of Veterans’ Services; and Shaun Donovan, a former aide to President Barack Obama and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. 

Though Adams and Stringer are not as intimately involved in the budget process as Johnson, both have also been vocal about the need for police reform, and Stringer released his own plan for shifting NYPD funds about eight days before Johnson and other Council leaders called for the $1 billion NYPD cut in the coming fiscal year.

On June 4, Stringer proposed a $1.1 billion cut to the NYPD over four years, largely through a headcount reduction by attrition, and cuts to overtime and ancillary expenses. On the issue of the NYPD handling school safety, Stringer called for ‘rethinking’ the paradigm, but did not make his position fully clear.

“As we reimagine policing in our city, we must rethink the role of NYPD in our schools,” he said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “For too long, our city has over-invested in punitive policing - while systemically disinvesting in programs and services that can actually address the poverty, trauma and structural racism that impact Black and Brown communities and complicate the trajectories of children of color. It is not enough to shift the budgetary line item from one agency to another. Real school safety goes hand in hand with transformative investments in the social-emotional health of schools - including in social workers, school psychologists and other mental health professionals, guidance counselors, restorative justice coordinators, and regular training for all school staff to support a school climate that is welcoming and safe for all students.”

Borough President Adams, a former NYPD officer and captain, did not return a request for comment for this article and his position on the role of the NYPD in school safety.

In an op-ed on Monday in the Daily News, Morales called on the city to reprioritize how financial resources are distributed. “The next step in addressing the problem of policing should pursue a harm reduction approach that removes police from schools and disrupts the school-to-prison pipeline that criminalizes student’s behaviors and puts them into contact with law enforcement,” she wrote. “Those resources should instead be directed toward educational supports, mental health services and other needs that must be addressed in order for students to succeed in schools.”

Donovon, in a statement to Gotham Gazette, also said the city needs to end the school-to-prison pipeline and reevaluate whether certain roles of the police could be given to other agencies that are more suited to handle them “without the use of force and without overly punitive repercussions.”

“School safety is just one such area,” he said, applauding Treyger and Richards’ proposal. “An investment is urgently needed in intervention programs that are educationally oriented. We know that the consequences rendered by police enforcement are disproportionate relative to the severity of the infractions of young students, and disproportionately applied to Black students and students of color.”

Sutton was the outlier among the mayoral candidates who have made their positions at least somewhat clear, expressing wariness of the proposal to remove school safety from the NYPD’s domain.

“This proposal strikes me as a superficial hasty move which risks further polarization during this highly charged period marked by community distrust, civic unrest and pandemic-related public health concerns,” Sutton said in an email to Gotham Gazette. “The task of restoring trust and building community partnerships is paramount and will not be achieved through reactive proposals, however well-intended.  Leadership is needed to engage all stakeholders -- families, neighborhoods, community-based organizations, schools, law enforcement, academic institutions, essential workers, small business and corporate leaders, as well as elected and civic officials.  This thoughtful process should explore a variety of options, shared values, conflicting opinions, desired outcomes and potential unintended consequences as a vital means for informing and strengthening the decision-making process. All voices matter. What NYC needs is a new way of thinking about policing, not a rushed maneuver to move budgets.”

The proposal, and Johnson in particular, came under fire from Gregory Floyd, president of Teamsters Local 237, which represents 5,000 school safety agents, most of whom are black or Hispanic. “If this was a union with a white labor leader and with a mostly white membership, Speaker Corey Johnson would have called me to discuss his plan,” said Floyd, according to a New York Post report. Floyd singled out Johnson for the plan and called him “a racist” for supporting it. In a letter to Johnson and other Council leaders, Floyd said that "The inconvenient truth is that there are New York City school children who seek to harm their classmates and school staff. And is is the enormous responsibility safety agents to protect New York City's 1.1 million school children and 135,000 school staff members from that harm."

In response to Floyd’s comments, the Urban Youth Collaborative, a coalition of youth-led organizations in the city, issued its own retort. “Let’s be serious: Maintaining a system designed to criminalize Black and Brown youth is racist. Finally heeding the calls of Black and Brown youth, clamoring to dismantle this system, is not,” the statement reads. “The evidence shows that no matter how interactions with police change, Black and Latinx students are disproportionately criminalized and harmed by School Safety Agents. We are sick and tired of Black and Latinx students being criminalized for being children and adolescents. We demand police-free schools.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Where the 2021 Mayoral Candidates Stand on Removing School Safety from the NYPD's Domain Tue, 16 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
How 2021 Mayoral Candidates Have Responded to the Coronavirus Fallout and Cries for Police Reform New York City Hall mayoral race coronavirus

New York City Hall (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

New York City has slowly turned the tide of the COVID-19 pandemic and has just begun the first phase of reopening its economy. But despite the last few weeks of success in curtailing the public health crisis, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s leadership has left many frustrated and looking elsewhere. He has been criticized for providing too little clarity and few plans to the public about various health, social, and economic pieces of the city’s larger recovery puzzle, often proving reactive rather than proactive and being outpaced by other officials.

And the second-term, term-limited Democratic mayor’s struggles have been additionally apparent when it comes to the recent protests against police brutality, during which he imposed a much-opposed curfew and appeared largely satisfied as NYPD officers used harsh, often violent, tactics to disrupt the demonstrations, which have been largely peaceful.

As de Blasio has faltered in handling both crises, alternative approaches have been offered by those seeking to replace him when his term is up at the end of next year. Contenders to be the next mayor, particularly those who currently hold elected office, have sought to fill the leadership gap, seizing on mayoral missteps and crafting their own images of resolve amid crisis.

There are several Democrats who have declared a run for mayor in 2021, and with Democratic voters outnumbering Republican voters seven-to-one, the winner of the June 2021 primary election is likely to go on to win the general next November. The declared and exploring candidates include City Council Speaker Corey Johnson; Comptroller Scott Stringer; Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams; Loree Sutton, a retired Army Brigadier General and former commissioner of the city’s Department of Veterans’ Services; Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive; and Shaun Donovan, a former high-level aide to President Barack Obama and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Coronavirus Crisis
Besides making regular television and radio appearances, Johnson, Stringer, and Adams have each been playing their respective roles in government during this crisis, while also staying true to their personal styles, and to varying extents hosting and attending virtual town halls, roundtables, and face-mask and food distribution events.

As Speaker of the Council, Johnson has been leading budget negotiations with the de Blasio administration for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, while also ushering through legislation aimed at providing relief to city residents and businesses.

Johnson has questioned the mayor’s priorities in planned funding cuts from education, youth employment, and after-school programs as the city faces a $9 billion budget gap by the end of the next fiscal year. In particular, the speaker and his colleagues have called for between 5-7% of savings at each agency that has not been included in the mayor’s Program to Eliminate the Gap (PEG).

Besides holding budget hearings specific to city agencies, in April the Council introduced a package of 11 crisis-relief bills. They included worker protections, pay bonuses for hourly workers, fines against landlords, expansion of paid leave to independent contractors, and providing homeless people with hotel rooms, among other things.

The Council has since passed four of those bills – providing a waiver and refund of sidewalk cafe fees; preventing landlord harassment based on a person having been impacted by COVID-19; similarly preventing harassment of commercial tenants; and prohibiting the enforcement of personal liability clauses in commercial leases.

Several other pieces of legislation have also been approved that, though not included in the package, deal with issues arising from the pandemic. They include additional reporting on the city’s contact-tracing program, reporting on health conditions in correctional facilities and limits on fees charged by third-party food-delivery apps.

Johnson and the Council have also been scrutinizing the mayor’s response to the pandemic, criticizing racial disparities in NYPD enforcement for social distancing violations and pushing the administration to release more data on enforcement. The Council also held an oversight hearing in May to examine how the administration handled the first months of the crisis.

In May, when the state allowed beaches to reopen but, in an apparent attempt to avoid crowding, de Blasio refused to allow swimming at city beaches, Johnson and the Council offered their own alternative ten-point beach plan. The Council’s plan, released two days after Stringer presented a beach and pool plan of his own, would allow swimming, let beach-adjacent restaurants reopen, provide lifeguards with personal protective equipment, and increase transit options, among other measures. But weeks later nothing has moved on the beach front.

In preparation for phase 2 of the city’s reopening, which could happen as soon as June 22, and as the mayor again moved slowly, the Council also took the lead on expanding outdoor dining space and easing the permitting process for sidewalk cafes. A bill was introduced by Johnson and Council Member Antonio Reynoso and was heard before the Council days before the de Blasio administration released its own plan for outdoor dining.   

Stringer, in his role as the city’s chief fiscal officer, has continued to audit city agencies with a particular eye on issues related to the pandemic.

In early April, Stringer called on the mayor to release demographic data on the impact of COVID-19, as it increasingly became apparent that low-income New Yorkers of color were more likely to die from the novel coronavirus. He later pushed for a release of antibody data as well to glean more clarity on the impact in those communities.

He launched an online workshop series to inform small businesses and minority- and women-owned businesses about financial resources to help them survive the crisis.

Stringer has also been hitting the administration hard on its budgetary decisions, particularly those impacting nonprofit providers that are contracted by the city.

Focusing on the adverse consequences the pandemic has had on the city’s most vulnerable populations, Stringer released a report with a slew of recommended measures to house homeless people, expand public space in overcrowded communities, provide PPE to landlords and building service workers, expand support for remote learning, expand access to public benefits, and more. He has also called for the creation of a federal COVID-19 Victims Fund to provide benefits to the families of frontline workers.

In mid-May, Stringer also launched an investigation into the administration’s preparedness and response to the pandemic. “Every single New Yorker deserves to know what City government did to prepare and prevent the worst,” he said in a statement at the time.. “All New Yorkers have been touched by the devastating fallout of COVID-19. As the City’s independent fiscal and oversight officer, I am determined to examine what we knew, when we knew it, and what we did about it.”

Stringer proposed his plan for reopening city beaches and pools ahead of Memorial Day, recommending capacity limits, reservations through lotteries, and reduced access to facilities where people would be in close quarters, among other things. (Johnson's plan included a transit element that Stringer's did not.)

Stringer also weighed in on the NYPD’s social distancing enforcement, noting in an analysis of 311 calls that a greater share of enforcement was occurring in low-income communities of color.

Borough President Adams has been heading up his response to the pandemic from Borough Hall, where he has been living for the last two months, and taking a much more on-the-ground approach than his competitors. He has been raising donations to purchase personal protective equipment, delivering food and PPE across the borough, and even supporting local Census outreach efforts. 

As a former NYPD officer, Adams has taken a “first responder” type approach, he has said, but has also drawn on his experience to criticize the police department’s social distancing enforcement, which he noted, as did many others, was reminiscent of other NYPD tactics that disproportionately target people of color. “This is a moment of ‘re-culturing,’” he said, calling for the NYPD to be removed from the role, which de Blasio soon did, publicly giving credit to Adams and two other Brooklyn elected officials, Assemblymember Tremaine Wright and Rep. Yvette Clarke, for swaying his thinking.

In May, when it emerged that a new COVID-related inflammatory syndrome was affecting children, Adams called on the Department of Education to spread awareness to parents through remote teaching. 

The borough president has been doing his part to boost local charitable efforts and to help people and businesses suffering during the pandemic. He partnered with actor Jeffrey Wright and the Brooklyn for Life campaign to raise funds for small businesses feeding first responders. His office is also collaborating with Fresh Direct to deliver food to people who need it across Brooklyn. He even offered to be a co-applicant for restaurants that are seeking rezonings that would make them eligible for sidewalk cafe licenses.

He regularly hosts virtual meditation events, held a blood drive with the New York Blood Center, launched an online dance series with the Dwana Smallwood Performing Arts Center to promote health and wellness, and has hosted several virtual vigils for Brooklynites killed by COVID-19.

As the city tries to feed hundreds of thousands of hungry New Yorkers, with a target of more than a million free meals each day, Adams introduced legislation with City Council Member Ben Kallos that would mandate nutritional standards for city-funded meals and snacks.

With Council Member Mark Treyger, Adams also released a “Brooklyn Beaches plan” that would allow New Yorkers to use the city’s beaches while following strict social distancing rules. He also hosted a socially-distanced guided-meditation for veterans and first responders at Coney Island Beach.

As the mayor dithered on providing a plan for mass transit once the city reopens, Adams joined with three other borough presidents and transit advocates to call on him to expand bus lanes and alternative modes of transportation.

The three other candidates have understandably had a less visible presence considering they work outside of government.

Once the pandemic hit, Dianne Morales largely gave up campaigning and has been working with Bed-Stuy Strong, a mutual aid network that sprung up to help the residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Central Brooklyn. Morales has revamped her campaign towards community resources, reaching out to supporters not for their votes but to conduct wellness checks and provide aid where it’s required.

In more recent days and weeks, she’s resumed some campaign-focused activities, holding digital sessions to discuss her vision for the city.

Loree Sutton similarly abandoned campaigning and has been working to help set up care services for military veterans. Throughout April, she posted almost daily 2-minute videos on her campaign’s YouTube page and Twitter feed, speaking “1 on 1” on the issues of the day and providing words of reassurance as the city continued to deal with the pandemic. Drawing inspiration from Project Liberty, the combined public health response program after 9/11, she announced a campaign for “Project Grit,” which she said would be grounded in “growth, resilience, integrity and teamwork.”

Rick Fromberg, a senior advisor to Shaun Donovan, said in an email, “During these ongoing months of crisis, Shaun's focus has been on supporting the communities most disproportionately impacted by COVID and police brutality. Shaun has brought his expertise in confronting crises--honed by working with President Obama to address the housing crash, Hurricane Sandy rebuild, and ebola--to his efforts to provide food to underserved populations and his outreach to leaders of struggling communities across the city. That is why New York City and national leaders have sought his counsel to help shape funding and programs here and across the nation. As voters tune into the race, they will see clearly that Shaun is the potential candidate who has an unprecedented track record of bringing people together to get things done and rebuild stronger in the wake of crisis.”

Protests Against Police Brutality and Racism
If there was any initial reluctance from the candidates to criticize the mayor amidst the COVID-19 crisis, that has since evaporated as they have taken stock of his response to the protests ignited by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Almost all the candidates have publicly called out the mayor for his lack of leadership and for allowing the NYPD to run roughshod over the rights of protesters.

During initial nights of protest, which also saw some store looting and attacks on police officers and vehicles, both Stringer and Johnson took to social media to question de Blasio’s leadership, asking “Where’s the mayor?”

The NYPD’s severe crackdown on protests has prompted broad calls for reform and to cut funding from the department’s $6 billion budget and reinvest the funds into communities of color. Elected officials have also pushed for repealing Section 50-a of the state civil rights code which shields police officers’ disciplinary records from the public. De Blasio has supported significantly amending the law, but stopped short of advocating the full repeal that is happening in Albany this week, arguing that officers’ personal information, like home address, should continue to be kept from the public.

Adams has been a prominent critic of the NYPD in the last week. The borough president, who was arrested and beaten by police when he was 15 years old before going on to a 22-year career in the police department, has been making regular media appearances to push for greater accountability and transparency within the NYPD, though he is often sympathetic to police officers as well. Adams marched with Black Lives Matters protesters last week and has called for cutting the NYPD budget, and significantly boosting implicit bias training and de-escalation training for officers.

Stringer’s and Johnson’s response to the protests and the NYPD’s actions have been similar. Even before the protests began, the City Council had been calling for cuts to NYPD funding, noting that the mayor’s latest budget proposal only reduced the department’s funding by less than 1% cut while cutting 32% of the Department of Youth and Community Development budget. In the last ten days, the Council’s demands have become more vociferous with several Council members threatening to vote against the budget if it does not significantly reduce the NYPD’s allocation.

Stringer has proposed slashing the police department’s funding by $1.1 billion over four years, and putting those funds towards communities that have been most impacted by over-policing and systemic structural racism.

Reversing course this past weekend, de Blasio announced he would be diverting some yet-to-be-identified funding from the NYPD to youth and social services. The amount will be determined in negotiations with Johnson and the Council, the mayor said, as the new city budget is due by July 1.

In light of repeated instances of police officers harassing reporters during the protests and threatening to confiscate their press badges, both Johnson and Stringer said the NYPD should no longer be in charge of credentialing reporters. (The NYPD had suspended new press card applications during the protests, but the mayor recently ordered the department to reopen the process.)

The backlash against the NYPD has already prompted action by the mayor. De Blasio announced on May 31 that the city’s Corporation Counsel Jim Johnson and Department of Investigation Commissioner Margaret Garnett would lead an investigation into the NYPD’s handling of the protests.

The Council has not been satisfied by those steps, however. On June 1, Johnson and Council Member Ritchie Torres, who chairs the Council's oversight and investigations committee, wrote to Garnett directing her to conduct an investigation independent of the corporation counsel, who is the city’s top lawyer and represents its interests in court. Garnett holds the only commissioner position that has required Council approval of the mayor’s nominee (though a voter-approved City Charter amendment just extended that to corporation counsel as well).

Johnson and Torres also called for scrutiny of the police department’s protocols regarding mass demonstrations.

The Council is also moving ahead on several police accountability bills, including one that would criminalize the use of chokeholds and other forms of deadly restraint by police officers. Currently, chokeholds are banned by department policy but do not lead to criminal penalties. De Blasio has pushed back against the bill, but it has enough sponsors to override a mayoral veto and the mayor has signaled willingness to compromise. A second bill, creating a disciplinary matrix to standardize disciplinary action for officer misconduct, is also expected to be amended and considered. The NYPD had agreed to create such a matrix in lieu of legislation last year, but it has yet to be established.

On Sunday, the mayor lifted the citywide curfew and announced another set of reforms. He announced the intention to shift funds from the NYPD to youth and social services and also said the NYPD would no longer be in charge of street vendor enforcement, which will be handled by a civilian agency, and that the police department will hire civilian “community ambassadors” to bring neighborhood concerns to the police. Additionally, the mayor’s Task Force on Racial Equity and Inclusion will examine other areas where NYPD enforcement may no longer be required.

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Donovan condemned the NYPD suppression of the protests. "The violent actions taken by the NYPD this past week have no place in our city,” he said. “There can be no rationale for such aggressive posturing and harassment from our police force at any time, but it is even more inappropriate given the circumstances and purpose of the protests. New York City is the front door to the world; if we cannot guard the rights of our residents seeking to make their voices heard peacefully, how can we simultaneously hold ourselves up as a beacon of liberty?”

He also pointed to the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities as a symptom of systemic racism. “The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare once again that communities of color bear the lion's share of any misfortune that befalls America,” Donovan said. “This is not the mark of a civilized country, and the conclusion of this crisis cannot simply be a return to the status quo. Black and brown New Yorkers deserve a city that doesn't treat them as second class citizens.”

On Tuesday Donovan tweeted a photo of himself at a rally and march led by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams (who has thus far pledged not to run for mayor in 2021) and personal reflections on policing and racism.

Morales has been actively participating in protests over the last week. She launched a resource page on her website to encourage donations to charitable bail funds, memorial funds for George Floyd, and to boost black-owned businesses and organizations fighting for police reform across the country. The page also includes links for mental health resources, legal resources for protesters, anti-racism educational material and information on voting. On Saturday, her campaign hosted a virtual community forum.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

How 2021 Mayoral Candidates Have Responded to the Coronavirus Fallout and Cries for Police Reform Tue, 09 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
How 2021 Mayoral Candidates Have Initially Responded to Coronavirus Crisis One Will Inherit how mayoral

Three of the leading 2021 mayoral candidates (photo: Gotham Gazette)

It took merely three weeks from the first case of the coronavirus being confirmed in the city to thousands of New Yorkers testing positive for the virus. The scale of the outbreak has presented an emergency of a scope that the city has perhaps never before faced. The aftermath of the crisis will be felt well into the future and in 2022, the effects it will have on the city’s people, its economy, and its politics will be inherited by whoever takes the helm at City Hall.

Next year, Mayor Bill de Blasio will in all likelihood be finishing his second and final term, attempting to heal the city and seal his legacy as a field of candidates runs to replace him. Among many other issues, it now appears that the coronavirus outbreak and its aftermath will be central to the race to be the next mayor, shifting the dynamics of a race already in its early stages.

Those considered the top contenders are already enmeshed in city government – City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. The three have played different roles as the coronavirus outbreak has gripped the city, and while none has the awesome responsibilities of mayor, in their responses they may be giving some indication of how they would approach such a seismic event if elected the city’s leader.

Other exploring or declared candidates include Loree Sutton, a retired Army Brigadier General and former commissioner of the city’s Department of Veterans’ Services; Dianne Morales, a nonprofit executive in the Bronx; and Shaun Donovan, a former high-level aide to President Barack Obama and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. All three shared thoughts about the coronavirus crisis with Gotham Gazette.

As coronavirus was confirmed to have landed in New York City and as the fallout unfolded, there’s been some early criticism, or at least difference of opinion, between Mayor de Blasio and those who seek to replace him on how the city should have reacted and how it continues to operate in the face of the deadly pandemic.

Some of the candidates have proposed their own plans to save the city and its people from the outbreak’s devastation, which may not be political maneuvers but may serve that purpose when the campaigns relaunch after the crisis has subsided.   

Understandably, the candidates -- all of whom are Democrats like de Blasio -- have been reluctant to critique the mayor amid a public health, social, and economic crisis of this scale. But that doesn’t mean they all agree with everything he has done or don’t have their own ideas for other actions to take. 

Corey Johnson
Before the city at large grasped how acute the spread of coronavirus had become, elected officials at all levels were urging calm. Johnson was with Mayor de Blasio at early news conferences on the coronavirus, such as on March 2, after the administration held its second “tabletop exercise” to prepare for what may come.

“I want the public to continue to practice common sense and base decisions on science and public health information, not fear,” Johnson said, while maintaining that people who were not sick did not need to stay at home, echoing messages from the mayor and top city health officials. “We should be taking basic precautions...that means doing the things we know but not avoiding public places,” he said.  

At another briefing on March 5, Johnson continued with his sanguine message. “As the mayor has done consistently, I think it is important that we urge the public to be guided by fact and not by misinformation, not by fiction. You can still ride the can still go to can still go to work...and you can still go and enjoy a concert or a basketball game,” he said, noting that he’d ridden the subway earlier. The mayor, to drive the message home, took a rare subway ride himself that day.

Things would soon escalate quickly, and everything changed.

As the outbreak progressed, however, and the mayor hesitated to close the school system amid increasing public pressure, Johnson was among those who pressed him to take the major step (Stringer quickly followed suit, while then calling for a near-shutdown of the city shortly before de Blasio or Johnson did). The speaker’s plan to enforce social distancing is also more restrictive than what the mayor has pursued so far. 

[Read: Mayor and Council Speaker Differ on Creating Open Space, Enforcing Social Distancing Amid Coronavirus Shutdown]

On March 5, days after the first positive case of coronavirus was confirmed in Manhattan, the Council quickly convened an oversight hearing to examine the administration’s preparedness for a larger outbreak. As the crisis escalated, Johnson chose to indefinitely postpone his State of the City speech scheduled for March 11.

On that day, March 11, days before the mayor, under pressure from Governor Andrew Cuomo, announced the closure of schools, and restrictions on bars and restaurants to takeout/delivery only, Johnson called for “limits on non-essential large gatherings.”

“I am not calling for New York City to be shut down. This is a balancing act. Children should continue going to school. The subways should remain in operation. Healthy New Yorkers should continue working, shopping at local businesses and taking part in city life,” he said at the time. Large gatherings were restricted by the mayor the next day.

On March 13, Johnson changed his tune and said schools should close. After resistance, deliberation, and pressure from Johnson, Cuomo, and others, the mayor announced on March 15 that schools would be shuttered starting the next day.

Just like de Blasio, Johnson has also been making regular appearances on TV and radio news shows. And he’s continued to advocate for policy decisions that will matter both during and after the crisis. He called on the NYPD to stop making arrests for low-level offenses, pushed the state  Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to stop jailing individuals for technical parole violations, and urged district attorneys to ask for bail or remand only when absolutely necessary, among other criminal justice-related proposals. 

Most notably, on March 19 Johnson released a $12 billion plan to provide relief to businesses and workers affected by the coronavirus. Though he said the federal government should pay for it, he also noted that the city could fund it through bonds if its request is refused. His plan would include one-time city payments of $550 for each adult and $275 for each child, on top of any relief funds given by the federal government. It also called for expanding unemployment insurance to freelance and gig workers, and for increasing benefits by 30%.

The speaker proposed deferring sales and use taxes, and the commercial rent tax and business taxes, called for deferring collection of city fees without penalties, and expanding the city’s small business loan programs with no-interest loans and possible loan forgiveness. “This is a crisis unlike any we’ve ever seen. However, the tools that have helped us in the past can be utilized again,” he said in a statement. “The difficult steps we’ve taken to protect ourselves and others are necessary, including social distancing and mandatory closures, but they are devastating our businesses and workers in every corner of the city...This plan will provide relief not just for our economy, but also for the small businesses and workers that are the heart and soul of New York City.”

This week, Johnson also joined with other elected officials and advocacy organizations to call for an immediate plan to house the city’s 80,000 homeless people, along with several proposals to provide them with sanitation equipment, food, and clothing, and to end sweeps of homeless people by the police.

On Friday, as part of budget negotiations with the de Blasio administration, Johnson and the Council called for $50 million for emergency food assistance programs.

In the last two weeks, Johnson has been making remote media appearances as he shelters indoors, at times using his active social media accounts to discuss the experience, and has not been appearing as he was earlier with the mayor at his regular briefings on the outbreak.

Scott Stringer
Comptroller Stringer was also pushing for a “city shutdown” of all except essential services prior to the mayor’s announcement, including schools. Prior to that, on March 12, he announced that all employees in his office, numbering several hundred, would begin working from home the next day. 

After Johnson, following the lead of the Council’s education committee chair, Mark Treyger, had said schools should close on March 13, Stringer said similarly. “Many difficult decisions have to be made that have serious implications for our city, including the closure of schools. At this time I think the question is not if, but how, public schools should close,” Stringer said that day. He made his plea for a full shutdown on the morning of March 15 – later that day, the mayor announced closures of schools, bars and restaurants. 

Prior to that, the comptroller issued new guidance that allowed schools to purchase tablets with capital funds in order to facilitate remote learning. 

As would be expected, his office quickly examined how the outbreak would hurt the city’s economy, putting initial estimates at $3.2 billion in lost revenue over six months (which even he acknowledged is a conservative figure at best). In his analysis, he pushed the mayor to find savings in city agency operations (except at social service and health agencies) to prevent disruption of services for the most vulnerable New Yorkers. The mayor has since instituted a Program to Eliminate the Gap to cut about $1.3 billion in spending by agencies, and has said there’s more that will be needed as he prepares his executive budget plan for next fiscal year, which begins July 1.  

“This is an unprecedented public health emergency, and we need all hands on deck at every level of government to tackle this crisis,” Stringer said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “My office is doing everything in our power to support workers, help small businesses, secure the fiscal health of our city, and above all, protect the health and safety of New Yorkers. When we look back at this time, I want to be able to say that our city government stood up for our city, marshaled all resources at our disposal, and did everything we could to save lives. I am fully committed to assisting and supporting the pandemic response in every way I can.”

Stringer’s office has been busy approving hundreds of emergency contracts and monitoring how the tumult in the financial markets is affecting the city’s pension system.  

He also had several policy prescriptions to offer. Like Johnson, he called for deferring sales tax collections and for expanded services and assistance for small businesses. Instead of deferring fines and fees, he suggested they be waived entirely. He also pushed for the city to give contractual relief to those city-contracted nonprofits that provide human services but cannot meet their obligations under the current situation, which it did. 

Stringer also urged the federal government and private sector to take steps to mitigate the fallout of the coronavirus. He pushed for extending the in-person counting phase of the decennial census. He called on credit bureaus to put a moratorium on negative credit reporting and for the federal government to pass legislation to protect people’s credit scores. He also urged third-party food delivery companies to cap commissions at 10%.

Eric Adams
Though lacking the citywide purview that Johnson and Stringer hold, Brooklyn Borough President Adams has nonetheless been busy with his own borough-based response to the virus, including his typical focus on personal wellness.

Following the first case of coronavirus being confirmed in Brooklyn, Adams held an emergency briefing at Brooklyn Borough Hall on March 9, with Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Deputy Commissioner Daniel Stephens, and clergy and union leaders. He held a news conference right after to talk about best practices to deal with the outbreak, dispelling misinformation and urging against xenophobic reactions against the Chinese community. 

Adams did come under some criticism for continuing to require Borough Hall employees to commute to work through at least March 18. 

Adams wasn’t as ready as others to call for school closures and released a statement that hedged on the issue. “Our citywide leaders must be speaking in one voice at this time. I would support a call for citywide school closure that is unified, a unified plan of action for our healthcare and education professionals alongside our local and state leaders,” he said in a statement on March 15. “I would support a similar call for broader citywide closures in unison with our business community.”

Adams has called for a three-month universal moratorium on rent and utility payments, noting that the governor had already suspended mortgage payments for those affected by the outbreak. The borough president is a landlord himself and he acknowledged how a rent moratorium would affect him personally. “Though I have no illusions that this adjustment will be easy, I am confident it is the right thing to do given the current circumstances. No New Yorker should be at risk of losing their home while we contend with a public health emergency,” he said.

He also pushed for the mortgage payment freeze to apply universally to all rental properties – it was only given to single and two-family homes. He also called on the mayor to extend the city’s quarterly property tax deadline from April 1 to June 1. “It would be a cruel April Fool’s Day joke to ask struggling New Yorkers to meet this looming deadline in the face of such uncertainty,” he said. The mayor did not heed that call.

He was also among the proponents of a plan to help New Yorkers cover their rent in April. He joined with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council Members Robert Cornegy and Keith Powers, and CEO of Kairos, Ankur Jain, in releasing the $8 billion Renter’s Choice plan, which would require landlords to allow renters to use security deposits for their rent.

On March 22, Adams joined a number of local businesses and nonprofits to host a “Feed First Responders” initiative, personally distributing food to hospital workers at Maimonides Medical Center, and NYPD and FDNY members. Adams, who touts the benefits of healthy eating and living, even sought to allay people’s mental anxiety by inviting them to join him in remote guided meditation routines on Youtube. He’s also been posting videos making healthy meals at home and working out, doing jumping jacks, push ups, and pull ups. 

After Dez-Ann Romain, a principal at Brooklyn Democracy Academy, passed away from the coronavirus, Adams hosted a videoconference candlelight vigil on Zoom on March 26. 

On Wednesday, April 1, taking note of the increasing numbers of NYPD officers becoming ill with the coronavirus, Adams called on the mayor to unify all the city’s law enforcement agencies under the central command of Police Commissioner Dermot Shea.

Loree Sutton
As a retired Army Brigadier General who was the Army’s highest-ranking psychiatrist, Loree Sutton looked at the current outbreak and the official response to it, and likened it to nothing less than a war, language that has also been used by her former boss, Mayor de Blasio, among others.

“These are the times that test each of us as leaders, test our character, test our competence, test our ability to communicate and to even console and collaborate,” she said in a phone interview. “So it's also not the time during a situation like this to look backwards or to critique what's been done in the moment.”

In a March 20 op-ed in the New York Daily News, Sutton wrote on a suppression strategy to flatten the rising curve of coronavirus infections, utilizing the resources of the United States military. At the time, the U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort had been dispatched to the city by President Trump – the ship arrived on Monday.

“While President Trump is now embracing an ‘all of country’ approach by mobilizing military and other essential resources, this effort alone will be insufficient. We also need to mobilize an ‘all of community’ campaign,” Sutton wrote. She called for the creation of Health Safety Hubs in underutilized community facilities to test and monitor those who cannot safely quarantine at home and ease the burden on the hospital system. “Additional benefit would be derived from mobilizing medically screened community resources, including transportation assets, restaurant delivery, hospitality and entertainment services, volunteer opportunities and faith-based community support,” she wrote. 

Sutton said in the phone interview that she’s advanced her idea to the governor’s team through General Patrick Murphy, who previously led the New York National Guard and who was a “battle buddy” of Sutton’s.

Sutton insisted that she was not second-guessing the decisions made by the city’s and state’s leadership, though she did say that the crisis has highlighted the “fractious” relationship that Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo have had for years. (In the early months of her campaign, Sutton has repeatedly criticized de Blasio’s leadership of the city, regularly citing the feud with Cuomo.)

“In the military, when we're in the midst of combat, in the midst of action, there's a saying. We don't take the time to critique at that moment we ‘save it for the hot wash,’” she said. “So that's what I'll say...There has to be a hot wash and the next mayor of New York City will be in a position to lead that hot wash and to just fearlessly and clear-mindedly and with open eyes, view all that has gone well, all that needs to be repaired and all that needs to be planned for so that we will never ever be in this position again.”

But Sutton did say the city should take “extreme measures” to enforce social distancing, which the de Blasio administration has slowly come to embrace. While took pains not to criticize the mayor, she did mention his trip to the gym prior to when city-imposed restrictions were set to go into effect. “I would assume that if the mayor were reviewing that set of actions, I think he was trying to evoke in his own way, a sense of calm and routine and sort of ‘life goes on.’ But that's not what the situation is. That's not what it calls for. And we know that now,” she said.

Dianne Morales
Of all the candidates, Dianne Morales was particularly critical of the city’s slow movement towards stricter social distancing and the delay in closing schools and establishments where large crowds could gather. “I think that we should have actually had a much more aggressive response sooner,” she said. “I think we had the heads up in terms of what happened in China and in Europe. And I think that there was more that we could have done to prepare, including closing the schools sooner.”

“The leadership of the city and the state and definitely the country, we're walking this fine line between trying to maintain public calm and conveying the appropriate level of urgency around the situation,” she added. “And I think that they erred too much on the side of downplaying the imminent threat.”

She specifically criticized the fact that parks and playgrounds remain open, and that the city has chosen to close even a few streets to vehicular traffic in order to give people more space. “I think that there's a tension and a contradiction between opening streets for pedestrians and also telling people to shelter in place. I think those two things are not in alignment with each other. I understand that people need to be able to access fresh air but I think also right now we need to prioritize the safety of the city,” she said. 

In terms of her own campaign, as a (recently-departed to campaign full-time) nonprofit executive involved in providing human services at the community level, Morales quickly pivoted her campaign infrastructure to work on direct assistance efforts, she said. 

Shaun Donovan
Shaun Donovan has yet to launch his campaign and has not yet put out any public statements or materials. Asked for comment, Rick Fromberg, senior advisor to Donovan’s campaign, said in an email, “Shaun Donovan was a key member of President Obama's Ebola and Zika response teams and fully believes in following the direction of public health officials. He also played leading roles in guiding recovery from Sandy, Katrina, and the mortgage crisis. During the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, he has worked extensively to share his experience and expertise with leaders in New York and across the nation. He remains inspired by the bravery of our healthcare and other frontline workers fighting to keep us safe in the midst of this crisis."

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

How 2021 Mayoral Candidates Have Initially Responded to Coronavirus Crisis One Will Inherit Thu, 02 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
'Go Big or Go Home': Dianne Morales Goes for the Top Job in New York City morales womens march

Dianne Morales, mayoral candidate, at the Women's March (photo: @Dianne4NYC)

Dianne Morales, a Brooklyn native and, until recently, nonprofit executive, has never run for elected office before but is seeking to become the next mayor of New York City.

“I grew up in this city and spent my last 30 years helping communities to overcome poverty through a variety of different ways,” Morales said during a recent appearance on the Max & Murphy podcast to discuss her candidacy in the 2021 Democratic mayoral primary. “Whether that be through education, helping people find jobs through career pathways and here I am now, a candidate for New York City Mayor.”

From Bedford-Stuyvesant, Morales served for nearly the past decade as CEO of Phipps Neighborhoods, a social services nonprofit working in the Bronx. She resigned from that post at the start of the year, she said, to campaign full-time ahead of the June 2021 primary vote that will likely determine the city’s next mayor given how overwhelmingly Democratic the five boroughs are.

Morales, seeking to become the city’s first female mayor, knows she faces a tough road ahead against sitting elected officials with more name recognition, political connections, and fundraising prowess than her, but believes she brings a unique perspective and skill set to the race, and plans on breaking through over time.

Setting up a distinction with at least one of her competitors, Morales made clear during the interview that becoming mayor has not been her dream for her whole life. Rather, she believes that a combination of factors came together at the right time that helped her decide to step into this race. She said one turning point for her in the decision-making process was after Hurricane Maria and her involvement in relief efforts in Puerto Rico, where communities weren’t being reached by aid.

“As I’ve been reflecting about how I can bring my experiences and the things that I’ve learned and the things that I’ve done and have been effective at to scale on a different level and to have an impact and support larger communities in a different way,” Morales said of her decision. “The idea for running for office increasingly became an option. Some of the changes that we need to make in order to have a long-term impact on communities have to be done on the structural and systemic level.”

Morales said it is at this level where she thinks she can make the most valuable change for the city, and use her experience fighting poverty and other challenges the city faces to help the most New Yorkers. Rather than running for office at a lower level first, such as borough president or City Council, she said running for mayor is what made the most sense to her.

“When you think about what I’m talking about what I’m wanting to do, the kind of change and impact and scale that I want to have on the city, it’s at the mayoral level,” she explained. “Because I’m not someone who has aspired all my life to become an elected official and because I’m not mapping out the strategic pathway or the steps to that, it didn’t make sense to me to think about City Council or a local position. I’m not planning to spend the next 20 years of my life in elected office. This is one of those ‘go big or go home’ moments for me. This is the place where I think I can have the greatest impact and make the biggest difference in the largest number of people’s lives.This isn’t going to be a second career for me.”

Her campaign is focused on “basic human needs,” she said, like ensuring New Yorkers have access to mental health services, that women are empowered, and everyone has access to housing. She said that while some of her background and her stances may get her labeled as a progressive Democrat or even democratic socialist, others separate her and make her hard to pin a label on, such as her belief in school choice. She doesn’t fall “neatly into one box,” she said, adding that she hopes that will be an advantage for her in this race.

“Women who do better, their families do better, and their communities do better. A focus and priority for me would be the economic wellbeing, safety, access to childcare, those kinds of issues that help women to live full, successful and productive lives,” Morales said.

Morales said that while she likes some of what de Blasio has done during his tenure, especially on early childhood education, she also believes that there are flaws with the way those programs were rolled out. She also criticizes his work on mental health services, disagreeing with the way the resources were allocated, something Morales said will be key to her platform.

Hitting on a discussion that has been ongoing for many years, including heatedly at points during de Blasio’s tenure, Morales discussed issues related to police responses to mental health crises. When someone calls 311 or 911 about such an emergency, Morales said, police are often deployed, but she wants to consider decoupling the relevant services, creating distinct response units.

“If we used those resources that are being misdirected and apply those things to support mental health services in a whole different kind of way and what would it look like in housing, again, if we were able to redirect those resources that are really needed and are directed in a much more targeted way,” she said. On that issue and others, Morales appeared not fully prepared with details of how she would run the city or what specific policy plans she will show voters as she seeks their support.

Morales also said housing would be a focus for her, but did not provide any real indications of what her plans are to address the problems she’s identifying with perhaps the biggest issue facing New Yorkers. Morales cited experience with various types of housing, from shelter to supportive housing to affordable housing, and said in the city’s shelter system “there’s a problem with the philosophy for an operator that’s running a shelter is simply ‘just get them placed.’ There’s not enough emphasis in terms of how do you not just get them placed but provide them the support they need to sustain permanent placement and permanent housing.”

Morales’ campaign website doesn’t provide much clarity about her positions or proposals, though it is still early in the campaign, with the primary about 16 months away. “[E]very New Yorker has the right to quality housing, jobs, education, healthcare, and transportation,” her “issues” page states, but it’s followed by a list of broad principles and few actual policy ideas.

In the Democratic primary, Morales may be competing with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Comptroller Scott Stringer, former city Veterans Services Commissioner Loree Sutton, and Shaun Donovan, a former top aide to both President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg, as well as any other candidates who jump into the race.

With the early departure of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. from the mayoral race, Morales is the only Latino candidate currently in the running. Asked about how ethnicity is explicitly part of her candidacy, she said, “When you look at our demographics, it’s communities of color. Coming from a low-income background and having lived experiences that many of our residents are living right now and being on the other side of that and having the opportunity to build systems and structures to help people overcome that. I think that experience is valuable.”

“I also think that there is something to be said about having those experiences as a woman of color and being able to understand and relate to so many in the community of New York City,” she continued. “It’s important to understand how to galvanize communities at large and be inclusive in creating a vision for New York City that involves everybody being able to do better and that is something that I bring to the table.”

In a brief subsequent interview with Gotham Gazette about her campaign, Morales said she is currently going all over the city having meetings with civic leaders and groups, trying to reconnect with people as a candidate and introduce herself to others. She said she is spending a good chunk of her time trying to raise the money needed to run her campaign.

“I’m having meetings with all kinds of places, I’m meeting with community groups, I’m talking to policy folks,” she said. “I have a very clear sense of what my values and priority issues are, but I don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I think there’s a lot of value in talking to folks who have dedicated their lives to these sorts of issues and have dedicated their lives to shaping the policy agenda. And I’m fundraising, that’s the part of the gig that you might not like, but you have to do.”

Talking just after attending a press conference about the new ranked-choice voting (RCV) system that will be implemented for special and primary elections for city offices beginning next year, Morales said that RCV is a good opportunity to re-engage communities that have lost faith in government and politics.

RCV “is an opportunity to educate those communities and bring them back into the fold and the idea of the potential of having more than just a polarized choice and the idea of potentially changing what leadership reflects in the city, with women or people of color, potentially in leadership,” Morales said. “I think those are things that inspire folks who traditionally have stayed at home.”

[Listen to Morales' full appearance on the Max & Murphy podcast]

by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

'Go Big or Go Home': Dianne Morales Goes for the Top Job in New York City Mon, 24 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Mayoral Candidate Dianne Morales dianne morales 600

Mayoral candidate Dianne Morales at a recent event (photo:

February 5, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Mayoral Candidate Dianne Morales

Dianne Morales joined the show to discuss her candidacy for Mayor of New York City. Running in the 2021 Democratic primary, Morales recently stepped down from her long-time job as CEO of Phipps Neighborhoods in the Bronx to campaign full-time. On the show, she discussed the reasons she decided to run and what her campaign will focus on, among other things.

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

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: Mayoral Candidate Dianne Morales Wed, 05 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
January 2020 City Campaign Cash Roundup: Races for Mayor, Comptroller, Borough Presidents inauguration jan

(photo: Mayor's Office)

Candidates running for local office filed their latest campaign finance disclosures with the New York City Campaign Finance Board this week, showing their fundraising and expenditures from the last six months, and cumulative numbers for the 2021 election cycle.

Next year’s election is shaping up to be highly competitive and consequential, with two of three citywide elected officials, four of five borough presidents, and 35 of 51 City Council members facing term limits. The city will elect a new mayor and comptroller for the first time in eight years, among many other new positions to be decided by voters through the June 2021 primaries and general elections to follow that November.

Early fundraising numbers can give an indication of which candidates have momentum behind them for 2021 and which ones may struggle to show popular support. The most immediate race to watch is just two months away: the March special election for Queens Borough President, which was triggered by Melinda Katz’s election as Queens District Attorney. While that race could lead to a special City Council election to fill the victor’s seat, several sitting Council members are running, the vast majority of the upcoming city action is for 2021. And that election cycle will see the first implementation of ranked-choice voting in primaries, which is likely to shift not only some campaign strategies, but outcomes.

Also relatively new are recent enhancements to the city’s voluntary campaign finance program, where candidates will be able to raise far more public funds from small dollar donations, though they could choose to abide by the old rules which have higher contribution limits but lower public funds payments. The new system will become mandatory after this election cycle.

Under the old system, a participating mayoral candidate could raise a maximum donation of $5,100, and could receive a 6-to-1 match on the first $175 of every qualifying contribution. The new system comes with a $2,000 contribution limit but provides an 8-to-1 match on the first $250. Similar numbers apply to candidates for other offices, with max donations dropping as the offices move from citywide to boroughwide to City Council.

The public funds program also comes with spending limits, which do not apply to those who do not participate (though spending limits can be raised or eliminated in certain rare cases).

Participating mayoral candidates can spend nearly $15 million, limited to just under $7.3 million in each of the primary and general election (only up to $343,000 can be spent in outyears such as 2018, 2019, and 2020). They can receive a maximum of about $6.5 million in public funds under the new campaign finance rules and $4 million under the old rules. The first public matching payouts will be made in December of this year, helping to set off what will be a six-month sprint from just after the presidential election to the June 2021 primaries, where the Democratic races will all-but-certainly decide most of the November winners.

Candidates for public advocate and comptroller can spend $4.55 million in the primary as well as the general for a total of more than $9.1 million, with the same outyear limit as mayoral candidates. Public funds payments to those citywide candidates are capped at $4 million under the new rules and $2.5 million under the old ones. While there’s a competitive ‘open seat’ race heating up for comptroller given incumbent Scott Stringer’s term limits, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams is expected to win another term without much competition.

The spending limit for borough president candidates is $1.64 million for each the primary and general election, for a total of nearly $3.3 million, with $153,000 allowed in the outyears. Opting in to the new system would allow such candidates a maximum of $1.45 million in public funds, while the old system provides up to $902,000.

City Council candidates can spend $380,000 total between the primary and general, with only $51,000 in the outyears. The new public funds cap is $168,888, compared with the old cap of $104,500.

Mayoral Contenders
Comptroller Scott Stringer leads in total fundraising over the other declared and likely candidates running to replace Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is also term-limited. Stringer has raised a total of about $2.7 million for his campaign (including $1.4 million transferred over from his previous campaign account) and has spent about $296,000, leaving him with a hefty $2.4 million in cash on hand.

In the latest disclosure period, from July 12, 2019 to January 11, 2020, he raised $130,000 and spent about $79,000. But he also chose to opt in to the new campaign finance rules, which forced him to refund about $446,000 to donors. His total fundraising includes about $423,000 in contributions that the campaign claims would qualify for public matching funds but that number has yet to be audited and will likely change since he switched to the new rules.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is a close second in total fundraising, having pulled in $2.3 million in total (which includes a $365,000 transfer of funds from a previous committee), and he has spent about $321,000 so far, for a remaining balance of just over $2 million.

In the latest period, he raised just under $194,000 and spent about $76,000. Like Stringer, Adams also decided to change course and participate under the new campaign finance rules. He had to refund about $663,000 above the lower contribution limit. His campaign has claimed to the CFB that it has received about $560,000 in qualifying small dollar contributions but, like Stringer, the actual number remains to be determined by the CFB. 

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. has raised $1.25 million in total and spent just above $347,000, leaving him about $905,000 in cash on hand. Diaz Jr.’s recent fundraising has been lacklustre compared with other candidates. He only brought in $76,000 in the latest disclosure period and spent $102,000 (On Thursday’s “Driving Forces” show on WBAI radio, Diaz Jr. told host Jeff Simmons that “it's not encouraging.” He added: “You know, running for Mayor of the City of New York is monumental. This is what I try to tell folks, we have to have a sense of urgency. These are all things we have to weigh as we move forward.") Perhaps eyeing the chance to be the candidate supported by bigger monied interests, Diaz Jr., who has been a pro-development borough president, has opted in to the old campaign finance system, which will mean 6-to-1 for his small dollar contributions. His campaign has claimed nearly $71,000 in qualifying donations. 

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson is the only candidate who self-imposed a lower-than-mandated donation limit, saying he won’t take anything over $250 from anyone. While this has resulted in a far smaller haul than the others, he’s banking on the new 8-to-1 match to get him in the same ballpark (all four of the big-name candidates expected to run for Mayor are likely to raise what is needed to be able to spend the maximum allowed, though that’s not a given). Johnson, who started fundraising later than the other three, has raised $790,000 so far, and has spent about $98,000. He has about $691,000 in his campaign account. But he’s claiming as much as $575,000 in qualifying matchable contributions.

The speaker’s most recent haul was about $326,000, and he spent about $66,000 over the past six months.

The most recent entrant into the race is retired Army Brigadier General Loree Sutton, the former commissioner of the city’s Department of Veteran Services. She has raised $113,000, spent about $61,000, and has $52,000 left in her account. Her campaign claims about $13,000 in matchable contributions so far and she is participating in the old campaign finance program. 

There are other candidates who have also declared mayoral bids but have few funds raised so far, including Aaron Foldenauer, Dianne Morales, and Joycelyn Taylor. Of them, Morales, who runs a nonprofit in the Bronx, has raised the most at about $62,000, and has spent about $26,000. She has $36,000 in the bank as of the filing.

There are four declared or exploring candidates for city comptroller – City Council Members Brad Lander and Helen Rosenthal, State Senator Brian Benjamin, and Assemblymember David Weprin. All of the candidates are participating in the new 8-to-1 matching system. 

Lander has raised the most funds, about $469,000, and has spent about $211,000. He has about $257,000 in cash on hand. In total, his campaign claims about $227,000 in qualifying contributions that can be matched with public funds. In the latest period, he raised $108,000 and spent just over $60,000.  

State Senator Brian Benjamin has close to the same amount of campaign cash at this time. Though he has raised less than Lander, a total of $265,000, he has only spent about $13,500, leaving him with $252,000 in his campaign account. He claims about $90,000 worth of qualifying contributions. All his fundraising occured in the last six months.

Weprin has raised a total of $108,000 and spent only $23,000, giving him a balance of about $84,000. He claims $42,000 in matchable contributions. But Weprin still owes the CFB about $320,000, to repay public funds from an unsuccessful run for comptroller in 2009. He would have to pay that full amount before he can receive any more public funds. 

Rosenthal has raised about $136,000 in total, but has spent nearly all of it, about $122,000, leaving her just under $14,000 in cash on hand. Her campaign claims about $63,000 in matchable contributions. 

Borough Presidents
The Queen Borough President special election -- set for March 24 of this year -- is shaping up to be a quick and competitive race, with nine candidates having filed petitions with the Board of Elections. In Brooklyn, there are also several candidates running in the 2021 race. But in the other boroughs, there seems to be little competition. In both Staten Island and the Bronx, there is only one candidate who has declared a run. In Manhattan, only two candidates are poised to face each other.

Queens Borough President
There’s little time left till the March 24 special election for Queens BP, which looks like it will be a competitive race among several sitting and former Democratic City Council members, with other longshot candidates on the ballot as well. All of the candidates are enrolled under the new campaign finance rules.

Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer has raised about $463,000, the most of any candidate, and has spent about $260,000 so far, leaving him a balance of $203,000. His campaign has claimed about $65,000 in matchable contributions.

A close second is former Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, who has raised $452,000 and spent about $232,000. She has nearly $220,000 in cash on hand, and about $115,000 in matchable contribution claims.

Council Member Donovan Richards has not raised as much but is considered a frontrunner after he was endorsed by the Queens Democratic Party in December. He has raised nearly $199,000, spent about $72,000, and has a balance of $126,000. He has claimed $64,000 in matchable contributions. 

Council Member Costa Constantinides has raised $227,000 for the race but has spent nearly all of it, about $213,000. He has just over $14,000 in cash on hand. His campaign claimed $79,000 in contributions that could be matched with public funds.

The CFB will start distributing public funds by the last week of January, after the Board of Elections has set the ballot.

The other candidates in the race include Danniel Maio, Anthony Miranda, Jim Quinn, Dao Yin and Everly Brown, all of whom have not made major strides in fundraising.

Brooklyn Borough President
Three candidates are currently in the running for Brooklyn Borough President – Council Members Antonio Reynoso and Robert Cornegy, and longshot candidate Lamor Whitehead-Miller – after Council Member Rafael Espinal dropped out of the race early. Cornegy and Reynoso are participating in the new public funds program while Whitehead-Miller has not opted in to the program at all.

Cornegy leads in fundraising with a total haul of nearly $151,000 and expenditures worth $137,000, giving him a balance of just under $14,000. He has claimed about $30,000 in matchable contributions. Reynoso has raised about $85,000, and spent just $17,000. He has nearly $68,000 in cash on hand and claims about $40,000 in matchable contributions.

Whitehead-Miller, a preacher and activist, does not seem to be running much of a campaign. He hasn’t raised more than $26. Meanwhile, the New York Daily News reported on Friday that Mayor Bill de Blasio has been pushing his wife, First Lady Chirlane McCray, as a possible candidate as well, and there have been rumors of others joining the fray, such as Council Member Mark Treyger.

The Manhattan Borough President race is shaping up to be a contest between sitting Council Members Mark Levine and Ben Kallos, both Democrats. Levine and Kallos are both participating in the new public funds program, while Levine has raised far more than Kallos early on. His most recent filing shows a total fundraising haul of about $282,000 and expenditures of about $98,000. He has just over $184,000 in cash on hand, and has claimed more than $100,000 in matchable contributions.

Kallos, in comparison, has raised about $134,000, and has spent about $45,000, leaving him $89,000 in cash on hand. He has claimed about $42,000 in contributions that could be matched 8-to-1.

Staten Island
Staten Island Council Member Steven Matteo, a Republican, is the only candidate currently running for Staten Island BP. He has raised about $156,000 and, with little competition and so far out from the race, he has only spent about $14,000. He has a balance of about $142,000. He has not opted into the public matching funds program. Many are waiting to see if Democratic Council Member Deborah Rose jumps into the race.

The Bronx
In the Bronx, Democratic Council Member Vanessa Gibson is the sole declared candidate for borough president. She doesn’t seem to have kicked off her fundraising efforts in earnest, however. She has only raised about $14,000 and has spent less than $2,000. She is participating in the new campaign finance system. Council Member Andy Cohen, a fellow Democrat, has expressed some interest in the race but has not created a committee or raised any funds for it so far.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

January 2020 City Campaign Cash Roundup: Races for Mayor, Comptroller, Borough Presidents Fri, 17 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000