Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/234 Tue, 25 Jun 2019 12:08:03 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) ‘Hard to Define’: Melinda Katz’s Path to the Precipice of Becoming Queens District Attorney https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8630-melinda-katz-queens-borough-president-district-attorney-tiffany-caban https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8630-melinda-katz-queens-borough-president-district-attorney-tiffany-caban gov completion qbp

Melinda Katz (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


“If it’s good for families, it’s good for Queens,” Melinda Katz likes to say. It’s a line she used in her first State of the Borough speech as borough president, a position she has held for six years and she now hopes will propel her to the office of Queens District Attorney.

Katz is one of six Democratic candidates running to be the top prosecutor in Queens, home to more than 2 million people, 48% of whom are foreign-born. About 190 nationalities are represented across the borough’s population, with more than 200 languages spoken by its residents.

Though she is the perceived frontrunner due to her borough-wide position, name recognition, and support from labor unions, elected officials, and others, Katz is the only candidate in the race who lacks courtroom experience. She hasn’t shown much interest in criminal justice reform in well over a decade, and she’s been accused of being most interested in figuring out her next political job than in any particular mission to help the people of Queens. Yet she has served the people of Queens in some form or another for much of the last 25 years, including as a state legislator, City Council member, attorney, real estate lobbyist, and borough president.

Seen by many, including her opponents, as the most likely to win, Katz has won many endorsements from officials and groups, but they credit her mostly with simply having been around -- holding office, developing good relationships, and showing an interest in community concerns -- while the editorial boards of the three major New York City daily newspapers (The New York Times, Daily News, and Post) all deemed her unqualified for the position of district attorney and endorsed other candidates.

Besides Katz, on the ballot for the June 25 primary election are former State Supreme Court Justice and Assistant District Attorney Greg Lasak, who was endorsed by the News and the Post; Tiffany Cabán, a public defender in Manhattan endorsed by the Times; Betty Lugo, a former Nassau County assistant district attorney; Mina Malik, a Harvard professor and former prosecutor; Jose Nieves, formerly deputy chief in the Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit at the Office of the New York State Attorney General; and City Council Member Rory Lancman, who dropped out of the race Friday and threw his support behind Katz.

Running for District Attorney, Katz has promised, like most of the other candidates, to pursue broad progressive reforms that break with the tough-on-crime reputation that the Queens DA’s office fostered for decades under the late DA Richard Brown, who recently passed away just shy of his planned retirement after nearly 28 years in the position. Katz has both leaned into the notion that she has “establishment” support, claiming many ties to communities in the borough, and distanced herself from the traditional power structures that she is aligned with.

To her critics and opponents, Katz is a career politician looking for her next gig, eyeing the term-limitless district attorney post as she faces term limits on her borough presidency at the end of 2021. To her supporters, she is a dedicated public servant searching for her next assignment on behalf of the people. But to both, she is not easily characterized. Katz does not appear to have had one or more clear focus areas as an elected official, and, particularly germane to the position she’s seeking, she has not appeared especially interested in criminal justice reform.

Katz’s list of projects and accomplishments is long, and varied, and there aren’t easy associations with her public image, unlike some of the other borough presidents -- indicative of her lack of clear issue focus, but also the fact that she has often sat out debates over some of the most pressing issues in the city.

“My biggest pride comes from knowing that every day that I have been in public service, I have stood up to powerful interests but I’ve also been a voice for people who didn’t have one,” Katz said in a phone interview, just a few days before the primary election. “And at every level that I’ve served, I have brought justice to people.”

Katz was clear that she believes she alone has the experience and the trust of Queens communities that would make for a successful next district attorney. She has spent years on the ground, she says, across the borough, face-to-face with the very people whose lives will be affected by the decisions she will make if elected.

“She’s hard to define,” said City Council Member Daniel Dromm, a Queens Democrat who has not made an endorsement in the district attorney race. “She’s got a finger in everything.”

Broadly seen as the frontrunner in the race, with a slew of endorsements from prominent labor unions, community leaders, and elected officials, and a hefty campaign war chest, Katz is banking on her resume and wide name recognition in the borough to take her to victory on June 25. The winner of the Democratic primary is all but assured to win in the November general in the overwhelmingly Democratic borough, with only nominal opposition from the Republican candidate, attorney Daniel Kogan.

A Queens native and graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Katz earned a law degree at St. John’s School of Law. She was an intern at the Legal Aid Society representing tenants in forcible eviction cases and later interned in the Organized Crime Unit for the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York and for U.S. District Court judge Michael Mukasey. After law school, Katz worked in securities litigation for the white-shoe firm Weil, Gotshal and Manges.

Katz first won elected office in 1994, in a special election to the New York State Assembly, running as an outsider candidate on the Liberal and Good Government Party lines. She defeated local Democratic district leader Michael Cohen by just 420 votes in a low-turnout election and filled the seat vacated by Alan Hevesi, who had been elected comptroller. Hevesi supported Katz’s bid to be his successor.

Over her first five years in office, Katz was successful in passing 16 bills, including several related to the legal system and criminal justice reform, such as Kendall’s Law, which allows prosecutors to pursue cases of long-term child abuse by extending the statute of limitations for victims to report child sexual abuse.

“I had to stand up to the Catholic Church,” Katz said on Thursday. “It was not easy 25 years ago. Nobody wanted to talk about sexual abuse as a child, it was not an open conversation by anybody in the church and I had to pass this bill against a very powerful interest.”

Her other bills included giving women direct access to gynecological care, increasing penalties for domestic violence, and adding sexual orientation as a protected class under the state hate crimes law. In 1995, just a year into office, the New York Daily News named her “one of the one hundred up-and-coming young leaders for the 21st Century.”

But Katz would soon face defeat at the ballot box when she attempted to run for Congress, seeking the Democratic nomination for the 9th Congressional District, formerly held by now U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. She lost by 285 votes to Anthony Weiner, a former aide to Schumer. The Queens Democratic Party, which was on the opposing side when she first ran for Assembly, was in her corner. Even the New York Times editorial board endorsed Katz, writing at the time that she “has only been in office four years, but she has distinguished herself as an advocate of health and women's issues and for her constituent services.”

Following her stint in the Assembly, Katz took a role under then-Queens Borough President Claire Shulman, as director of community boards. She served there for three years before being elected to the New York City Council.

It was perhaps on the Council, where she served from 2002 through 2009, that Katz made her most significant mark on the city, as chair of the powerful land use committee. Her campaign says she helped secure private-sector partnerships that created 15,000 units of affordable housing and that she fought to protect communities from overdevelopment. Most importantly, she says, she changed the culture of the land use process: “changed the discussion from ‘how many units’ to ‘how we’re going to build’ as well. Whether or not we’re going to use union labor, the importance of union labor to make sure we had safe work sites and the importance of hiring from the community.”

Her push for safety protections at construction sites, she says, cost developers hundreds of millions of dollars. She insists that’s one of her major accomplishments and one that undercuts her opponents’ claims that she is far too allied with real estate interests, a critique that has dogged her since her time on the Council and persists to her current race for district attorney.

Her work after the Council gives those criticisms credence. In 2009, Katz gave up her Council seat and ran for city comptroller, aided by hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from real estate firms, according to the New York Times. She ran on a platform of “common sense and accountability” amid the financial crisis that was roiling the city, pledging to audit city agencies to eliminate wasteful spending, expand effective programs and ensure federal stimulus money was creating jobs. Katz lost that election to John Liu, also of Queens, and went on to work for the law firm of Greenberg Traurig for the next three years, lobbying on behalf of real estate clients.

In each race since then, including two for borough president and now for district attorney, Katz has continued to gather large donations from prominent real estate firms. (She notes that several of her opponents are throwing stones from glass houses, having also received large contributions from corporate donors.)

“Melinda Katz has an expansive resume and her relationships are very, very deep. I don’t really buy into that critique,” said Queens City Council Member Adrienne Adams, who has endorsed her, of the real estate ties.

In 2013, Katz was elected borough president and handily won reelection in 2017 for a second and final term. Katz has also cemented her ties to the Queens Democratic Party, which is often criticized as one of the last bastions of calcified political power in the city. The Party protects and promotes its own and, in any race, brings to bear a large cadre of local, state, and national elected officials that originated from its ranks or owe it some allegiance, as well as the allies of those officials, other local party officials like members of the state committee, political club members, and others.

The Queens Democratic Party was previously headed by Congressional representative-turned-lobbyist Joe Crowley, who lost to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and has been fundraising for Katz. (Ocasio-Cortez is backing Caban.) The current county party chair, Congressional Rep. Gregory Meeks, has rallied the party behind Katz, who has also been endorsed by the likes of Governor Andrew Cuomo, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx, and others. It’s what makes Katz the establishment candidate, a moniker with connotations akin to party nepotism and one that her opponents have employed as a cudgel. She pushes back against it.

“My campaign started with 300 people standing in a park that were not elected officials,” she said. (There were indeed local elected officials present, according to a Queens Daily Eagle report.) “They were civic leaders, they were Cure Violence groups, they were immigration groups, who said to the city of New York and the borough of Queens, ‘We trust Melinda Katz to make the decisions as the district attorney of Queens County.’ That’s how my campaign started.”

The office of borough president, though far less powerful now than in the past and lacking the policy clout of an elected legislator, is nonetheless a prominent position in which officials have wielded significant influence. Borough presidents can sponsor legislation in the City Council. They are advocates and cheerleaders for their boroughs, figureheads of sorts who are supposed to keep a finger on the pulse of their many constituents and neighborhoods. They have a strong voice (though not a binding one) in land use applications.

The office also controls millions of dollars in discretionary capital and expense funding each year, to distribute to pet causes, nonprofits, schools and cultural institutions, and the politically-potent power to name hundreds of members of community boards.

Katz has embraced the various aspects of the role, lending her visibility across the borough. “I believe that she’s the strongest candidate,” said Council Member Adams. “Melinda has a scope that reaches far beyond any of her opponents as far as I’m concerned. Her experience as far as managing the entire borough of Queens along with her experience as an attorney to me, again, put her as a very strong frontrunner for this race. A lot of people talk about experience in the courtroom, but no one has managed the number of people that Melinda Katz has.”

Caban and others, including the three editorial boards and good government group Citizens Union, which backed Lasak, have been particularly critical of Katz’s lack of time in court, but the borough president has parried by touting her managerial experience, insisting that it sets her up to lead the large complement of attorney that comprise the DA’s office.

Among the accomplishments Katz touts are her creation of an Immigration Task Force, which works with nearly 100 nonprofits and city agencies to provide services to immigrants. She secured funding for the Queens Family Justice Center, which serves domestic violence and human trafficking victims. She launched the Jamaica Now Action Plan, a $153-million city funded revitalization project for Jamaica Center.

She has advocated for Hurricane Sandy victims, for veterans, for public housing residents. And she’s channelled nearly $200 million in investments towards schools, hospitals, NYCHA, and parks in the borough. And she led a campaign to restore the New York State Pavilion, including putting $11.5 million in capital funds towards the project.

Katz’s opponents and critics, however, say her record on criminal justice issues has been lacklustre at best, and harmful at worst. They point to her past votes as a legislator: as an Assembly member in 1995, she voted to reinstate the death penalty, while as a Council member she voted against it. In the Council, she voted to increase penalties for low-level offenses, voted to create a new category of crime (gang recruitment), and in favor of increased police surveillance in city schools.

They also see her as moving with the political winds and shifting her positions, even during the current race -- for instance, she has taken a more expansive position on ending cash bail in recent weeks compared to most of her first several months on the trail.

“Melinda Katz could never be a champion of the policies that the people of Queens, specifically black and brown residents, need and have been calling out for,” said Milan Taylor of the Rockaway Youth Action Fund, which endorsed Lancman but moved to Caban upon his departure from the race. “[Katz] embraces the establishment’s tradition of lackluster reform and discriminatory practices. Katz has done an unsatisfactory job on criminal justice reform as Borough President and will do the same as District Attorney.”

Alyssa Aguilera, executive director of VOCAL-NY Action Fund, which endorsed Cabán’s insurgent campaign, said her organization has worked on criminal justice reforms in all aspects -- policing, bail reform, access to jobs and reentry -- and “Melinda Katz is not somebody that we ever interact with. She’s not somebody who’s known as standing behind organizations, community members in these big fights to, for instance, end stop-and-frisk, or when Eric Garner was killed, or the fight to close Rikers. She was a nonplayer in all of those efforts.”

Over the course of the race and more so in the last few weeks, Lancman levelled direct criticism at Katz, running an ad blasting her vote for the death penalty, and confronting her at a May forum for a lack of interest in criminal justice reform both as a Council member and borough president.

But, on Friday Lancman said he feared splitting the vote of Southeast Queens residents, who are predominantly African-American, and withdrew from the race. He endorsed Katz “because she has made the effort to successfully garner support within every community in our borough, the experience as a public official to see essential criminal justice reforms through to completion, and the relationships with the civic and community organizations and institutions throughout Queens necessary to effect real change.”

On Wednesday, Katz rejected four city-led land use applications related to building a 1,500-bed jail in Kew Gardens, Queens that is meant to help speed up the closure of Rikers Island jails. She said that closing Rikers is “a moral imperative” but raised concerns that the community did not have sufficient buy-in on the Kew Gardens jail plan and that large borough facilities would replicate the problems on Rikers.

Council Members I. Daneek Miller and Donovan Richards, fellow Queens Democrats, in an interview defended Katz from charges that she is a political climber. “For you to get up there every day, that your charge and your mission is to serve others, is noble,” said Miller, standing with Richards at City Hall. “And anyone who would speak against that, I would question their motives.”

“It’s called a sacrifice,” Richards said. Katz has “delivered” for Queens, he said. “Between our districts, you look at infrastructure, you look at investments in parks, investments in healthcare...there’s been no shortage of equitable things she’s done to work with us to shift resources into communities that were sorely missing the investment that they needed.”

Miller said Katz has successfully raised the issue of predatory real estate practices in Southeast Queens and has worked with him on labor issues and workers rights. “She’s been an excellent partner who really understands the needs and values of Southeast Queens.” Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ, the property services union, similarly praised Katz in a statement announcing his union’s endorsement. “Her plan to protect Queens residents from wage theft, unsafe workplaces, and hostile work environments will make New York a better, safer place for working families.”

Katz has carefully sought to counter critiques of her record. Her campaign points to her work in sponsoring warrant forgiveness and conviction sealing programs, hate crime forums, and gun violence town halls.

“Those are real-life instances of standing up for criminal justice reform,” she said in the interview. She also pushed for the creation of a new police precinct in the borough. And she cites her managerial experience, noting the other candidates’ lack thereof.

“If you’re going to get meaningful criminal justice reform, it also requires having the skill-set to run a $59 million budget with 530 employees. As the borough president, I run an enormous office that’s borough-wide and have answered to the community voter by voter, constituent by constituent, every single day for the last six years across a huge and vast borough,” she said.

She has also lamented her original death penalty vote. “I would say that is my deepest regret,” she said.

And she believes that her record makes her the one candidate with the strongest chance of bringing about the reforms that have taken centerplace in the race. “I don’t know how many people that are running for this race have had to actually answer to their constituents in the borough of Queens, who have had to take a lot of heat for the decisions that they’ve made and the policies they’ve stood up for,” she said. “But I always stand up strong for the things that I believe in.”

Aguilera said, nonetheless, Katz’s bid raises one key question. “Are you doing this because you’re a true believer, you’re really down for the issues that we care about, or is this just your next political move?”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
‘Hard to Define’: Melinda Katz’s Path to the Precipice of Becoming Queens District Attorney Sat, 22 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Breaking Down the Queens District Attorney Race https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8618-max-murphy-podcast-breaking-down-the-queens-district-attorney-race https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8618-max-murphy-podcast-breaking-down-the-queens-district-attorney-race queens da seven

(l-r)Tiffany Cabán, Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, Greg Lasak, Betty Lugo, Mina Malik, & Jose Nieves


June 19, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Breaking Down the Queens District Attorney Race

Journalists Emma Whitford, who has written for Gotham Gazette and other outlets, and David Brand of the Queens Daily Eagle joined the show to discuss the Queens District Attorney race, just days before the June 25 Democratic primary vote.

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 wbai.org

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Breaking Down the Queens District Attorney Race Wed, 19 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Quick Rematch in Second Special Election for Brooklyn City Council Seat https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8612-rematch-in-second-special-election-for-brooklyn-city-council-seat https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8612-rematch-in-second-special-election-for-brooklyn-city-council-seat Farah Louis City Council

Council Member Farah Louis is sworn in (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


City Council Member Farah Louis was officially sworn in at City Hall on Thursday, a few weeks after winning a crowded special election to succeed Public Advocate Jumaane Williams to represent the Council’s 45 District in Brooklyn. But thanks to New York’s laws for special elections, she is already running for reelection in another special election, with the all-important Democratic primary set for June 25, in which Louis is facing several opponents she outpaced in the May 14 election.

The first special election was to serve through the rest of this calendar year, while the June primary and November general elections will determine who holds the Council seat for 2020 and 2021, the final two years of the four-year term. There will then be an election for the seat as part of the full city election cycle in June and November of 2021.

cd45 mapThe district includes parts of Central Brooklyn including areas of Flatbush, Flatlands, Canarsie, and Midwood.

Louis won the May special election with 42% of the vote in an eight-candidate field. Monique Chandler-Waterman finished second with 30%, and is running again in the June 25 primary.

The other six candidates from May – Jovia Radix, Xamayla Rose, L. Rickie Tulloch, Adina Sash, Anthony Alexis, and Victor Jordan – all received under 10% of the vote. Several of the other candidates are also campaigning ahead of the June vote.

All eight candidates who ran in May will appear on the ballot again in June, but only some are actively campaigning, led by Louis, Chandler-Waterman, and Rose.

Louis, now the incumbent, is of course running again, this time with the institutional support of the City Council behind her, including Speaker Corey Johnson. Runner-up Chandler-Waterman is actively campaigning, as is fifth-place finisher Rose, who got 6% of the vote in May. Anthony Alexis has also continued to campaign and raise money, but he received only 1% of the vote in May. Jovia Radix, L. Rickie Tulloch, and Adina Sash have all suspended their campaigns, while last-place finisher Victor Jordan’s plans are unclear.

Four candidates have filed with the Campaign Finance Board to receive public matching funds: Louis, Chandler-Waterman, Rose, and Alexis. As of June 7, only Louis and Chandler-Waterman raised enough to receive matching funds; Rose and Alexis are actively fundraising but have not yet hit the threshold needed to qualify for public funding.

With just a week before primary day, it appears to again be a two-candidate race between Louis, a Judicial Delegate and former aide to now-Public Advocate Williams, and Chandler-Waterman, who continues to have Williams’ endorsement for his old seat. Chandler-Waterman is also a former Williams aide and more recently led East Flatbush Village, a non-profit she founded that aims to eliminate violence through after-school programs and mental health workshops, according to its website.

Though the election has been contentious and closely fought, policy differences among the leading candidates are few and far between. Louis’ and Chandler-Waterman’s websites both lack sections devoted to issue positions; Rose is the only candidate with a clear policy agenda laid out. Most social media and news coverage has instead focused on their differing biographies, resumes, and political supporters.

Differences, when they do emerge, are largely matters of emphasis, though they have expressed different top priorities. In an interview with NY1’s Errol Louis, Farah Louis prioritized zoning and development regulations, “ensur[ing] that the neighborhoods continue to look the way they looked when we first invested into them.”

Chandler-Waterman, in her interview with NY1’s Louis, stressed the need for police reform and mental health initiatives, saying that she does “not believe the NYPD should be responding to any individual that has mental health illnesses.”

For the voters’ guide published by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, Louis listed her top three issues as “preserve and expand affordable housing,” “invest in educational” [sic], and “support economic development and jobs.”

For the CFB guide, Chandler-Waterman listed her top three issues as “affordable housing,”  “education,” and “public safety.”

The candidates’ answers to questionnaires from Citizens Union, a good government group, show similar differences. Louis lists housing initiatives as her top two of five main priorities, while Chandler-Waterman’s first two points concern gun violence and public safety.

The questionnaires also illuminate small policy differences between the two candidates relating  to voting and City Council reform. Chandler-Waterman supports changes to reduce the number of City Council committees and to require that laws enacted through a referendum can only be changed by voters; Louis opposes both reforms.

For the June 25 election, as of the June 14 filing, Louis raised $42,289 and received $75,308 in public matching funds, while Chandler-Waterman raised $33,555 and received $66,576 in public funds. The two candidates led the field in fundraising ahead of the May special election as well.

Both candidates have significant endorsements in their corner. In addition to Johnson, Louis has been endorsed by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte, who represents an overlapping Assembly district, as well as many other City Council members, Assembly members, and 1199 SEIU, the powerful health care workers union that Louis used to belong to and then worked for. Louis also has the backing of the district’s large and powerful Orthodox Jewish community leadership, which endorsed and voted for her over Adina Sash (who is Orthodox Jewish) in May and appears to be fully behind her again this month. On Wednesday, Bklyner reported that Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Hotel Trades Council labor union had both thrown their support behind Louis.

For her part, Chandler-Waterman has Williams’s backing – a point of consternation for Louis, who was until recently his staffer. Williams is continuing to fundraise for Chandler-Waterman. Following her special election loss, Chandler-Waterman appears to have lost the endorsement of City Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo, who represents a nearby district (Cumbo’s name has been removed from the endorsements page of Chandler-Waterman’s website). However, she picked up endorsements from the politically-potent property service workers union 32BJ SEIU and former opponent L. Rickie Tulloch, and maintained the support of Assembly Member Nick Perry, State Senator Zellnor Myrie, and other local politicians.

Chandler-Waterman was also endorsed by the City Council Progressive Caucus and the Working Families Party in the first round, indicating that her progressive bona-fides may be stronger than Louis’. The Working Families Party has recently reaffirmed its support for Chandler-Waterman, but the Progressive Caucus appears to have rescinded its for the second special election.

Rose, the third particularly active candidate in the race, is the founder of an anti-violence nonprofit and a member of Community Board 17.

Both Louis and Chandler-Waterman have made and addressed controversial comments recently. Louis apologized for tweets from 2010 which demeaned Jews and the LGBT community; she nonetheless maintained her endorsements from LGBT Democratic clubs and Jewish representatives like Council Member Chaim Deutsch.

Waterman-Chandler, meanwhile, was recorded yelling at NYPD officers outside her child’s school in October of 2018 following an unverified charge against her husband. More recently, in an interview with City & State just after the May 14 election, she accused Louis of winning the special election on the backs of “Trump supporters.” Her claim appears to be supported by voting data; the Midwood precincts where Louis won overwhelmingly, which are mostly Orthodox Jewish, were also the 45th District’s most Trump-friendly in 2016. Louis’ campaign itself did not respond to Chandler-Waterman’s comments, but City Council Member Kalman Yeger, a Louis ally, called them offensive.

While Louis, after winning in May by a large margin and now having at least the buzz of incumbency, is clearly the favorite in the June 25 election, it’s not clear what the electorate may look like and whether Waterman-Chandler is taking any new measures to alter the race this time.

Turnout was incredibly low in the May 14 election – only 9,235 people cast votes out of 94,089 active registered voters in District 45. While the May special election was non-partisan and open to all registered voters in the district, the June vote is a Democratic primary, wherein only registered Democrats in the district can vote. There are no other major races bringing voters to the polls.

Although the 45th Council District is heavily Democratic, the winner of the primary election may not have the ballot to themselves in November. Anthony Beckford, who ran for the same seat in 2017 on the True Freedom line against then-incumbent Jumaane Williams, has said he’s running but has yet to report raising any money. There’s also the chance that Louis or Chandler-Waterman could appear on one or more other ballot lines - like Working Families Party - after the Democratic primary.

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by Joey Fox, Gotham Gazette

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Quick Rematch in Second Special Election for Brooklyn City Council Seat Mon, 17 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Should a Top Prosecutor Have Prior Prosecutorial Experience? 'Qualifications' Debate Rages in Queens District Attorney Race https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8577-should-a-top-prosecutor-have-prior-prosecutorial-experience-qualifications-debate-rages-in-queens-district-attorney-race https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8577-should-a-top-prosecutor-have-prior-prosecutorial-experience-qualifications-debate-rages-in-queens-district-attorney-race District Attorneys New York City

Four sitting New York City District Attorneys (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Does the top prosecutor for one of New York City’s most populous boroughs need to have prosecutorial experience? Should the top prosecutor have spent significant time -- years, maybe decades -- arguing in court proceedings? Do they need to know how to put people in prison? Do they need to know to keep them there?

That’s part of the “qualifications” debate ignited in recent weeks in the Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney, an election to replace the late DA Richard Brown. Seven candidates are on the ballot for the June 25 election: Queens Borough President Melinda Katz; City Council Member Rory Lancman; former State Supreme Court Justice Greg Lasak; Tiffany Cabán, a public defender in Manhattan; Betty Lugo, a former Nassau County assistant district attorney; Mina Malik, a Harvard professor and former prosecutor; and Jose Nieves, formerly deputy chief in the Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit at the Office of the New York State Attorney General.

All of the candidates are, of course, licensed attorneys; some are former prosecutors without elected experience; two are elected officials without prosecutorial experience; and one is a public defender that has been neither an elected official nor a prosecutor but has been operating in the trenches of the system. The election is taking place amid record low crime and a criminal justice reform movement that aims to shift the paradigm of what a district attorney can, and should, do with the powers at their disposal.

Key to the race in the overwhelmingly Democratic borough of over 2 million residents is an evolving view of the qualifications for district attorney, and questions not only about what experience someone should have before becoming a top law enforcement official with immense powers to forever alter people’s lives, but what exactly the Queens electorate wants in its first newly-elected DA in almost 30 years.

District Attorneys have broad (some say overly so) discretionary powers over how laws are enforced in their county. They can bring -- or decline to bring -- criminal charges as well as initiate civil cases. Their decisions can influence whether police arrest people for specific crimes. Among the city’s district attorneys, Brown was slow to adapt to the evolving conversation on restorative and alternative criminal justice approaches.

His office did take efforts to provide some alternatives to incarceration and clear thousands of open warrants for low-level crimes, but often only after others had done so, refused City Council funding to create a dedicated wrongful conviction review unit, and continued to prosecute low-level offenses such as marijuana possession and fare evasion while some counterparts announced policies not to.

The candidates running to replace Brown have pledged to different degrees to break from that tradition, making broad promises to refuse prosecutions for various minor offenses. Most have said they will not seek cash bail for a majority of crimes, and over the course of the race have taken positions on issues that would have been unheard of a few years ago, including pledging to decriminalize sex work (though candidates vary on how they would approach that particular issue).

Last week, the Queens Daily Eagle reported, the Queens County Bar Association gave its ratings to the seven candidates in the race, finding five of them “qualified” except for Cabán and Lugo. The Bar Association judiciary committee said Cabán was “not approved” while Lugo was the only candidate to not appear for an interview. Lasak was found to be “well qualified” for the position.

The New York City Bar Association, which conducted interviews simultaneously with the Queens Bar Association, released its own ratings for the candidates on Friday, giving all candidates except for Lugo an "approved" rating. Eric Friedman, a spokesperson, said in an email to Gotham Gazette, “We have a policy of not commenting regarding the specifics of our evaluation process.” Friedman noted that the process is “essentially the same” for evaluating judicial candidates.

The Queens Bar Association’s ratings immediately drew strong reactions from the campaigns. Lasak quickly began to fundraise off the designation, sending out an email with the subject line, “well qualified,” followed soon by a mailer – viewed by some, including Katz supporters, as a sexist attack – in which he juxtaposed himself with Katz, the perceived frontrunner in the race.

Lancman, who was rated “qualified” along with four others, tweeted the night of the interviews, “Purported gatekeepers for most diverse county in USA. About 40 lawyers. Every single one white. Not a person of color in room. Eyes roll when I discuss #racism in criminal justice system, no surprise.”

Cabán’s campaign quickly pushed back against the Queens Bar Association’s assessment, citing her years of work as a public defender. Throughout her campaign, the 31-year-old Latina, who identifies as queer, has painted herself as the most qualified to carry out what she believes is the right mission of the District Attorney’s office: to decarcerate and target the socioeconomic drivers of crime. What’s she outlined is little short of a revolutionary approach to the position, but one that career prosecutors like Lasak scoff at as unrealistic, indicative of her lack of experience.

The question of qualifications is far from simple. Former prosecutors say that, in order to do the job, a candidate should ideally have done it in some form before, perhaps as an assistant district attorney. But principles, management ability, and leadership skills are far from evident from a resume. Reformers and advocates argue that a former prosecutor may be the furthest from what Queens needs, and wants, in its top law enforcement official, after nearly three decades of having lived under tough-on-crime policies that disproportionately target the low-income communities of color who make up large, and growing, parts of the borough.

“It’s definitely important to have criminal law experience,” said Jennifer Rodgers, a former prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School. “You can obviously have that experience on either side. You can have it as a prosecutor, you can have it as a defense lawyer.”

Rodgers acknowledged the now widely-recognized trend of prosecutors running as progressives, focused more greatly on restorative justice and decarceration. The victories of progressive district attorneys like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Rachael Rollins in Boston signalled the beginning of that shift. (Krasner, a former public defender and longtime civil rights attorney, came to Queens to endorse Cabán on Thursday. “There are an awful lot of people who have said they’re progressive. And yet their deeds, their history, does not match their words. Tiffany’s history matches her words,” Krasner said.)

In the Queens race, all the candidates have promised they will reform the office and its punitive policies, though Cabán’s promises go the furthest (earning her a coveted New Yorker profile published on Tuesday, among many others), with Lancman and his legislative record of criminal justice reform not far afield. But Rodgers noted that even longtime prosecutors have successfully transformed their systems of criminal justice, pointing to Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez as a prime example.

Gonzalez was named to and then won the position after the death of Ken Thompson, who himself was a reformer and put into place progressive policies of his own. “[Gonzalez] is a lifelong assistant district attorney, the sort of person that people might look at and say, ‘Well look, this guy is just kind of poisoned from having put people in jail for his whole career. He’s never going to see the benefit of these sorts of policies,’ and yet he does. And a lot of prosecutors now are more like him,” Rodgers said.

Of the other current district attorneys, both Manhattan DA Cy Vance and Bronx DA Darcel Clark worked as assistant district attorneys before ascending to their top prosecutor jobs. Staten Island's Michael McMahon did not have prior prosecutorial experience before being elected DA, though he "was a practicing trial attorney for 30 years, appearing in courts at all levels throughout New York State," according to his website, as well as a member of the City Council and member of Congress.

Of the seven candidates in Queens, Katz, Lancman, and Cabán are the only ones who have not been prosecutors. Increasingly, the race is being viewed as a two-way battle between Katz – the establishment candidate with a solid base as borough president, strong union support, deep campaign coffers, and even the endorsement of Governor Andrew Cuomo – and Cabán, who has built a grassroots campaign, received thousands of individual campaign donations outnumbering her opponents’, and pulled in prominent endorsements from progressive organizations and elected officials, including Congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Lancman’s campaign argues he has a path to victory that includes Jewish and African-American voting blocs, including from the areas he has represented in the City Council and state Assembly, and the crucial battleground of predominantly-black southeast Queens. Lasak, who was a prosecutor in the Queens DA office for 25 years before becoming a judge, has received many endorsements from law enforcement unions.

“I would not say 100% that a chief prosecutor must be a former prosecutor but I would say there should be a strong presumption that that person be a former prosecutor,” said Daniel R. Alonso, managing director and general counsel at Exiger, and formerly a prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York and chief assistant district attorney in Manhattan.

Alonso conceded that there are examples of lauded prosecutors who previously had no prosecutorial experience. For instance Robert Morgenthau, who was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Southern District in 1961, had not previously prosecuted cases. Alonso worked under Morgenthau, who went on to become the longest serving district attorney in New York State. Even Richard Brown, when he first became Queens DA, had not been a prosecutor but rather a judge, Alonso pointed out.

But, he said, “It is a very difficult job and in any job, it’s very hard to do it for the first time as the person who is in charge, particularly for something as specialized as prosecution. So you have to be constantly making decisions, weighing evidence, deciding some issues of policy but those issues of policy have to be informed by real experience in the criminal justice system and understanding what makes a good case and a bad case.”

That’s a measure that Lasak, Malik, Nieves, and Lugo have used to pitch their campaign.

Lasak’s success at homicide prosecutions in the Queens DA’s office earned him the moniker “Mr. Murder” -- mentioned in a New York Times profile in 2003. He also touts his work to set up a wrongful conviction review team, and his experience later as a state Supreme Court judge.

“Judge Lasak is the most qualified candidate in this race, bar none. And that qualification is of the utmost importance when seeking a job where lives are on the line - lives of victims, of witnesses, and of defendants who are innocent until proven guilty,” said Bill Driscoll, Lasak’s campaign chair, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “Judge Lasak has spent his career keeping us safe and freeing the innocent. The District Attorney’s office is no landing pad for a term-limited politician, nor is it a launching pad for bids for higher office.”

Some of Lasak’s opponents, chiefly Cabán and Lancman, argue he’s a relic of the old-school approach to public safety that led to mass incarceration, especially of poor people of color.

At a March 12 candidate debate, Lugo said, “My entire life I have been involved with the criminal justice system.” She emphasized her work for the Nassau County DA, Manhattan DA, and Albany County DA. Nieves, at the same debate, said he is an “18-year progressive prosecutor.” “I chose to go into criminal justice not because I wanted to charge or incarcerate, but because I wanted to change the system,” he said.

Malik, in a statement, said, prosecutorial experience is “absolutely essential” to become Queens DA. “In fact, it should be a prerequisite. You would not go to a podiatrist if you have a heart problem; you’d go to an experienced cardiologist,” she said, noting her two decades of experience, including managing staff at three different agencies and working both as a prosecutor and defense lawyer.

“We cannot play with the lives of 2.4 million Queens residents when it comes to criminal justice and the safety of our communities,” said Malik, who has at times pointedly compared herself and Cabán to highlight differences in resumes. “To be the highest ranking law enforcement agent in Queens, experience matters.”

Though they have been on the defensive at times, Katz, Lancman, and Cabán, have in some instances tried to flip the script, emphasizing the fact that they have not served as prosecutors.

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Katz emphasized her experience as a licensed attorney for 30 years, including litigation, her time as a local and state legislator, and her work as borough president. She has not practiced in criminal court before. “But I'm not a career prosecutor who spent their career perpetuating our broken criminal justice system,” she said. “Instead, I'm the only candidate in the race with experience managing a Borough-wide office, with trusted relationships from every corner of Queens, who can walk in on day one knowing exactly how to implement the reforms we need.”

Grant Fox, a Katz campaign spokesperson, also took a shot at Cabán, her “unqualified” (really "not approved") rating from the Queens Bar Association, “her incredibly short career” and her “reckless and dishonest campaign to cover up for her total lack of managerial experience.”

Katz’s campaign has a deep bench of endorsements from elected officials and prominent unions, including 32BJ SEIU, the buildings services workers union that is also a potent political operation. “Throughout her extensive career in public service, Melinda Katz has always protected the rights and safety of the most vulnerable in our community and we are confident she has the skills and experience to continue doing so as District Attorney,” said Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU, in a statement. “Prosecutors only know how to prosecute and it’s these prosecutors who created the broken system that Melinda Katz plans to fix.”

Lancman has made a similar argument for his candidacy. “The next Queens District Attorney must have robust legal experience, be a proven public official, and boast a track record of criminal justice reform,” he said in a statement, pointing to his record representing victims of workplace harassment, wage theft, and on-the-job injuries.

As with Katz, Lancman has served as both a state and local elected official, and he touts his advocacy for closing Rikers Island jails, ending cash bail, police reform and accountability, and fighting against sexual assault. Lancman has chaired a City Council committee with oversight of the city’s five district attorney offices.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to radically transform the criminal justice system here in Queens, but it requires a District Attorney with real litigation, public policy and criminal justice reform experience to get the job done,” he said, in part as an apparent attempt to contrast himself with Katz and Cabán.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which endorsed Lancman, said three qualifications are necessary for the next DA: “One is experience as a practicing attorney involved in litigation, because you’re running a huge law office and you need to be familiar with the courtroom and you need to be familiar with litigation. The second is to be involved in criminal justice issues. And thirdly, you have to have the right values and the right ideas for what you want to do with the office...I think that Rory has those qualifications.”

Cabán’s campaign has drawn a clear distinction from both Lancman and Katz. “As a public defender, Tiffany Cabán is the only one who has defended over 1,000 clients in court who couldn't afford to defend themselves—who are sent to Rikers simply because they couldn’t make bail; because they jumped a turnstile; because they struggled with mental health issues or substance use disorder,” said Monica Klein, a campaign spokesperson, in an email.

“Her opponents are career prosecutors who worked to throw people in jail, and career politicians that thrive in the very system they say now has to be reformed,” Klein continued. “Tiffany knows better than anyone what it will take to bring real justice to working people in Queens—because she's the only one who has been doing this work on the front lines for years.”

Several criminal justice reformers say their best hope of achieving key goals lie with Cabán.

Assemblymember Dan Quart, who endorsed Cabán and is rumored to be considering a run for Manhattan District Attorney next year, said in a phone interview that prosecutorial experience is not a prerequisite for becoming a district attorney (Quart has no prosecutorial experience but was a criminal defense attorney). “Each individual county’s bar association is allowed to operate under whatever rules they want but any reasonable view of Tiffany’s qualifications, she is certainly qualified. To say otherwise is ridiculous,” he said, referencing the Queens Bar Association’s ratings. “I think they made a mistake in judgement. Look at Tiffany’s experience. Seven years as a public defender...that is significant experience. Certainly significant litigation, courtroom experience that under any definition of the word ‘qualified’ would satisfy it.”

None of the candidates in the race, he pointed out, can rightfully claim to have managed an office as large as the Queens District Attorney office, with its 600-odd lawyers on staff. “So to single Tiffany out seems extremely selective to me,” he said.

Alyssa Aguilera, executive director of VOCAL-NY Action Fund, which also endorsed Cabán, said the debate around prosecutorial experience “comes from a place of gatekeeping and a desire to maintain a status quo that has fueled mass incarceration, that has perpetuated racial disparities in the criminal legal system and comes with a mindset that punishment is prioritized over finding real solutions to repair harm and create stronger communities.”

Alonso, the former federal prosecutor, did not take a position on any specific candidate but he did issue some notes of caution. He said he’d be “deeply skeptical” of someone without any courtroom experience -- a distinction that only applies to Katz in this race. And he added, “The nightmare scenario is that somebody who is an elected official or has a constituency decides, ‘Boy it would be fun to be DA.’ Unlike being a legislator and unlike being other kinds of elected officials, this is a professional job where you have to actually do a very specialized job day-to-day. It’s not primarily a policy job.”

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

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with the New York City Bar Association's ratings for the Queens DA candidates, which were released after this article was published.

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Should a Top Prosecutor Have Prior Prosecutorial Experience? 'Qualifications' Debate Rages in Queens District Attorney Race Thu, 06 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Upcoming Elections: What's on the June 25 Ballot in New York City https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8570-upcoming-elections-what-s-on-the-june-25-ballot https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8570-upcoming-elections-what-s-on-the-june-25-ballot nycmayorsoffice president us

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)


Though it is a relatively quiet year for elections, there are several just around the corner in New York City, with this year’s party primary day coming up on Tuesday, June 25.

The general election is November 5.

There are a number of judicial elections taking place across the city, among other races.

The marquee election on June 25 is the crowded Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney, a race without an incumbent. The primary is all-but-certain to decide the election given how Democratic Queens is, but the general election field is not clear yet. Only registered Democrats can participate in the Queens DA primary.

In fact, almost all of the primaries taking place June 25 are within the Democratic primary. The only Republican elections are for party positions in the state committee and the county committee.

There’s a second special election for Public Advocate coming up, but there are no primaries after only one candidate has emerged for the Democrats and one for the Republicans, incumbent Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and City Council Member Joseph Borelli, respectively. They will face off in November. Williams won the February special election that gives him the seat for the rest of this year, whereas the November winner will hold the position for 2020 and 2021.

There’s also a second special election, with a Democratic primary coming up June 25, for Williams’ old Brooklyn City Council seat. Farah Louis won last month’s special election, and is being challenged in the party primary by several candidates she just beat out. It’s unclear what the general election might look like in this election. Like Williams’ win, Louis’ win gives her the seat for the rest of the year, but the upcoming special election determines who will hold the position for 2020 and 2021, with the next regularly-scheduled city election cycle taking place in 2021.

Below is the full rundown of the races that will be on the ballot on June 25 and a partial preview of what’s on the ballot in November -- we won’t know the full November ballot for a couple of months.

-Supreme Court primaries elect delegates for judicial conventions (these apply to all Assembly districts; but only some are competitive and shown below)

-Civil Court and Surrogate’s Court elections are directly for candidates for those positions; again, only some are competitive this year

-There are no primaries for the citywide position of Public Advocate: incumbent Jumaane Williams is the Democratic nominee; Republicans plan to nominate City Council Member Joe Borelli of Staten Island.

June 25 Primaries

The Bronx
In the Bronx, there are no competitive primaries for June 25.

-Democratic District Attorney Darcel Clarke  is seeking reelection unopposed at this point.

-For two Supreme Court judgeships the delegate slates are running unopposed.

-For Civil Court, there are:
--two uncontested countywide candidates
--uncontested races in the 1st and 2nd districts: 1st is Wakefield, Williamsbridge, Parkchester, Soundview, Hunts Point, Castle Hill, City Island, and Throggs Neck; 2nd is Riverdale, Kingsbridge, West Bronx, Morrisania, and Mott Haven.

Manhattan
-For 3 Supreme Court delegate slates -- 71st, 72nd, 75th (plus alternates) -- there are contested Democratic primaries. All others are uncontested.

-For Civil Court, the 4th district judgeship (Murray Hill, Kips Bay, Peter Cooper Village, and Stuyvesant Town) is a Democratic primary between Lynne M. Fischman Uniman and E. Grace Park.

-Other Civil Court races are uncompetitive: two Countywide, and the 3rd (Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen) and 9th (Midtown and part of the Upper East Side) districts.

Brooklyn
-There is a special election primary in City Council District 45, where new incumbent Council Member Farah Louis, who won the May 14 special election, is being challenged by several candidates: Xamayla Rose, Monique Chandler-Waterman, Anthony Alexis, and Victor Jordan.

-For five 5 Supreme Court delegates slates, there are two competitive Democratic primaries in the 50th and 60th districts. The others are uncontested.

-There is a competitive Democratic primary for Surrogate’s Court judge, where incumbent Margarita Lopez Torres is being challenged by Elena Baron and Meredith R. Jones.

-For Civil Court, there is a Democratic primary for a countywide position between D. Bernadette Neckles and Edward King.

-And there’s a Democratic primary in the 6th Civil Court District among Alice A. Nicholson, Caroline P. Cohen, Chinyelu O. Udoh, and Tehilah H. Berman.

-There are Republican County Party elections for male and female State Committee and County Committee positions.

Queens
-There is a competitive primary for Queens District Attorney among Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, Gregory L. Lasak, Betty Lugo, City Council Member Rory I. Lancman, Jose L. Nieves, Tiffany Cabán, and Mina Quinto Malik.

-There are five uncontested races for Supreme Court judgeships.

-For Civil Court, there are two countywide judge races that are uncontested and a race for another countywide positions between Lumarie Maldonado-Cruz and Wyatt N. Gibbons.

-And there is an uncontested race for the 5th Civil Court District (Breezy Point, Roxbury, Belle Harbor, Rockaway Park, Seaside, Hammels, Edgemere, and Far Rockaway).

-There are Republican party elections for male and female State Committee members and county committee.

Staten Island
-Democratic District Attorney Michael McMahon is currently running unopposed.

-There are competitive Supreme Court delegate slate elections in the Democratic primaries for the 61st, 62nd, 63rd, and 64th districts. Other districts are uncontested.

-For Civil Court, one countywide race is uncontested, as is the race in the 1st Civil Court District (Elm Park, West Brighton, St. George, Mariners Harbor, Graniteville, Bulls Head, and New Springville).

-There are Democratic party elections for County Committee positions.

-There are Republicans party elections for County Committee positions.

[Voters can see exactly what their June 25 ballot will look like, if they have any elections to vote in, using Who's On The Ballot]

***
by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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Upcoming Elections: What's on the June 25 Ballot in New York City Wed, 05 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
For Ruben Diaz Jr., a Booming Bronx and Plan to Run on Development https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8565-for-ruben-diaz-jr-a-booming-bronx-and-plan-to-run-on-development https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8565-for-ruben-diaz-jr-a-booming-bronx-and-plan-to-run-on-development Ruben Dia Jr.

Ruben Diaz Jr. (photo: Diaz Jr.'s office)


Development in the Bronx has defined Ruben Diaz Jr.’s borough presidency, now in its tenth year and coinciding with record economic expansion across the city and country coming out of the Great Recession. And Diaz Jr. has defined his borough presidency –– and plans to build his upcoming run for Mayor –– around economic and housing development.

The Bronx has seen $18.96 billion poured into development since 2009, the majority of which has gone to residential units, according to the borough president’s most recent development report. Diaz Jr. releases an annual report on commercial and housing development in the Bronx and holds a celebratory event to tout the investment.

During his 2019 state of the borough address, Diaz Jr. recalled his first address in 2010. “That day, I laid out the beginnings of a conceptual master plan for our borough,” which included “encouraging new developments of all types,” he said. “Our work over the past decade in the Bronx has had a powerful impact,” Diaz Jr. declared before praising low unemployment rates.

Since the start of his tenure as the Bronx’s top figurehead, Diaz Jr. has espoused a vision of growth in the borough driven by community-centric development, where housing and employment opportunities flourish for Bronxites across the economic spectrum, and displacement is avoided. In short, all the good of gentrification without the bad.

It’s a vision of relatively rapid improvement for the borough with the highest, but decreasing, poverty and crime rates that creates opportunity for struggling Bronxites and attracts new people to the Bronx to set up or work at new businesses and obtain reasonably-priced housing and reasonable commutes to Manhattan.

As Diaz Jr. begins his campaign for mayor ahead of the June 2021 Democratic primary that is likely to all-but-decide the city’s next chief executive, assessing how well he has executed his vision and his overall legacy is challenging, in part because the position of borough president is largely ceremonial and coordinative.

Helping to usher in development is one concrete way in which the job of borough president can be performed, though, and given how Diaz Jr. heralds his tenure on the subject and plans to center it in his mayoral run, it is an essential area to dissect.

The reality of Diaz Jr.’s tenure when it comes to development is of course complicated, and reality is a bit murkier than the borough president presents in his public comments.

While development has proliferated in the Bronx, with dozens of land use rule-changes approved since 2009 to help developers build more and bigger, unemployment is still higher than the rest of the city, homeownership rates are still low, and some Bronxites have been displaced. And the true impacts of some development and land use decisions won’t be felt for years more to come.

Diaz Jr., consistently burnishing a reputation as a pro-growth leader of the city’s poorest borough, has staunchly denied that significant displacement has occurred and has fired back at critics who say otherwise.

In 2015, a professed resident of the south Bronx called into WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show –– which was hosting Diaz Jr. and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer to discuss gentrification and de Blasio’s then-new Mandatory Inclusionary Housing plan –– to implore Diaz Jr. to “wake up” in the face of what the caller deemed “out of touch” leadership in which “people are being pushed out daily.”

The borough president shot back. “No one can prove to me that we forced one community out to bring another one in,” he said. “If you look at all of the 17,000 units of housing that I’ve been a part of in the last six years, the overwhelming majority of that have been for low-income. Unfortunately, there's folks like yourself and others who have your own agenda and you're not in reality. You're not really paying attention to all the good things that we're doing.”

Diaz Jr. told the caller about a land use hearing he held with the community that he “didn’t have to have,” a common refrain from the borough president when he exceeds the technical duties of his office (which has limited powers but does influence land use matters), during which he listened to “more than 50 testimonies” and voted with the community against the early iteration of the mayor’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program.

MIH requires certain amounts and levels of income-targeted “affordable housing” within larger projects when developers receive city permission to build bigger than previous land use rules would allow (otherwise known as an upzoning). Questions have long abound as to whether the city’s income targets for “affordable housing” are really appropriately low enough to match New Yorkers in most need.

The borough president went on to say that the unemployment rate was cut by half during his tenure, that his administration “has done three developments for military veterans” –– a specific concern from the caller, a veteran who said he’s not receiving proper help –– and that he created jobs.

Diaz Jr. was largely correct in his assessment of the Bronx’s economic growth -- housing and jobs have expanded greatly over the last ten years in a borough that had immense opportunity for investors, especially as crime has also dropped significantly in recent decades and the city’s population has steadily climbed. The Bronx also offers a great deal of parkland and key long-standing attractions like the Bronx Zoo and Yankee Stadium.

“The Bronx is booming, so Ruben can certainly beat his chest with that,” said Bob Kappstatter, a political and media consultant, and longtime former Bronx bureau chief for the New York Daily News.

But the question of whom deserves credit for these benchmarks is complicated.

Unemployment has fallen drastically and job creation has surged in the Bronx over Diaz Jr.’s borough presidency; but he assumed the position in 2009 just after the economic crash and carried out his limited duties during a time of historic national and citywide growth. Developers and investors clearly began to see the Bronx as a more desirable place to do business, and it likely helped to have a borough president who rolled out a welcome mat.

Diaz Jr. has helped build housing for veterans and other Bronxites with special needs, but he’s also backed luxury developments that have priced locals out, rent burden rates continue to soar, and the tenant eviction rate in the Bronx is dramatically higher than anywhere else in the city.

Overall, Diaz Jr. has supported diverse development projects, from high-end housing to NYCHA infill and 100% “affordable” buildings, using what he calls a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach to achieve his goal of a mixed-income borough. It’s an approach that has largely been in line with both mayors, Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio, who have held office during his tenure as borough president, and whom he hopes to succeed come January 1, 2022 on a campaign platform that will center on his record of bringing development to the Bronx.

An Especially Strong Borough President
The primary responsibilities of borough presidents are providing guidance on land-use matters, appointing community board members, and serving as an ambassador for the borough. While borough presidents have few binding powers, they can show significant strength with the right allies to push their agenda forward.

“Borough presidents are cheerleaders,” said Kappstatter, “and he’s done a pretty good job.”

Diaz Jr. has amassed significant power in the Bronx as part of a small group of officials leading the county’s Democratic Party apparatus, most notably state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who led the county party until his 2015 ascension to the powerful speakership, and current county party chair Marcos Crespo, who serves in the Assembly. The Bronx Democrats are intensely focused on electing Diaz Jr. mayor in the 2021 election. Crespo, Heastie, and Diaz Jr. closely run Democratic politics in the borough as tightly as possible.

The borough president also has an important close relationship with Governor Andrew Cuomo, now a third-term Democrat, and many members of the state Assembly (where he served from 1997 through 2009), state Senate, and City Council, where his controversial father, Ruben Diaz Sr. now serves. With Cuomo, Diaz Jr. appeared to be developing an especially close bond, with the governor regularly hosting events in the Bronx where he and the borough president would heap praise on each other. That pattern has slowed recently.

Meanwhile, Diaz Jr. often finds himself having to distance himself from his father’s remarks and positions, especially on LGBT and women’s rights issues.

Diaz Jr. worked well with former Mayor Bloomberg, with whom he shared a more aggressive vision of development, but has clashed with Mayor de Blasio on several fronts, including the specific terms of Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, wherein Diaz Jr. wanted more flexibility for borough presidents and local officials to negotiate with developers and foster mixed-income housing, and the fate of the Kingsbridge Armory.

The Bronx Democratic Party is an insular but powerful group that works to elect Democrats to every position possible, a highly-achievable goal in the Bronx where Democrats far outnumber Republicans, and supports candidates who will work to elevate each other’s political power. Crespo, who interned for Diaz Jr. in 2003, has led the party since 2015, when Heastie rose to the Assembly speakership and became one of the three most powerful people in state government, along with the leader of the state Senate and the Governor.

During his early political career and time in the Assembly, Diaz Jr. and Heastie became quite close. In 2008, Diaz Jr. was integral to elevating Heastie’s career; as part of the “rainbow rebels,” a small group of black and Hispanic lawmakers, he successfully pushed for Heastie to oust Jose Rivera, a formerly influential Assembly member, as head of the Bronx Democratic Party.

Heastie has been instrumental in constructing new schools and after-school centers in the Bronx, among other spoils that come with heights of political power. And since rising to the Assembly speakership, Heastie holds significant power in setting the state’s legislative and budgetary agenda.

With difficult, expensive projects in the works, like new MetroNorth stations and the planned Kingsbridge National Ice Center, which has stagnated over the years due to a lack of funding, Heastie is a vital ally for Diaz Jr. As is Cuomo, though Cuomo and Heastie have been on colder terms over the past year, which could impact Cuomo’s potential support for Diaz Jr.’s mayoral bid. The 2021 Democratic primary for mayor is expected to be a crowded and highly competitive affair; a race that is already in motion and is expected to kick into another gear in 2020.

Diaz Jr. also works closely with Rafael Salamanca, whom he appointed to a Bronx community board and went on to win a seat in the City Council in a 2016 special election. Salamanca now serves as the chair of the powerful City Council Land Use Committee, the result of a deal reached to help elevate Corey Johnson to the speakership of the City Council. Since that deal, Johnson has emerged as a more powerful political force than some imagined, and is now a likely mayoral candidate in 2021, competing against Diaz Jr. and other likely candidates such as Comptroller Scott Stringer and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and whomever else may throw their hats into the ring.

These relationships enable Diaz Jr. to advance his agenda (and build his brand) through New York’s complex governmental processes and bureaucracies, from the start of the city land use process at the community board level all the way through the City Council, with support at the highest levels of state governance. Diaz Jr. will have whatever weight the Bronx Democratic Party can bring to bear for his mayoral run, and the machine’s often close relationship to its Queens counterpart could also be helpful (Heastie and Diaz Jr. both recently endorsed Queens Borough President Melinda Katz in her Queens Democratic Party-backed run for District Attorney.)

Unsurprisingly, Diaz Jr. has another layer of support from the real estate industry, as evidenced by his approach to development and campaign donations he has received.

A Gotham Gazette analysis of Diaz Jr.’s filings with the city’s Campaign Finance Board shows that 38% of contributions of $1,000 or more to his three borough president campaigns came from individuals in the real estate industry, including developers, realtors, architects, and construction firms.

“Campaign finance considerations have no influence on the work of the borough president and his office,” Diaz Jr.’s office told Gotham Gazette in a statement.

In recent months, Diaz Jr. has spent substantial time courting developers and investors, in addition to meetings with close allies, according to considerably redacted copies of his daily schedule from February through April of this year, attained by Gotham Gazette through the Freedom of Information law. The schedules show the borough president’s appointments and their locations, but appear to repeatedly black out the topics of the specific meetings, whether with developers or former Bronx Borough President and mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer, or others.

Goals and Rhetoric Compared to Reality
Diaz Jr. has helped champion and spearhead development in the Bronx, with a stated goal of rendering the borough a destination that New Yorkers want to move to rather than leave. He has argued that doing so requires a diverse economy with residents of all income levels, while striking the right balance between development and community benefit.

In 2009, as Diaz Jr. delivered his inauguration speech to an adoring crowd in Lehman College in the aftermath of the economic crash, he told the people of the Bronx, “Perhaps the most important piece of our agenda is going to be economic development.”

Over the following 10 years, Diaz Jr. has sought to bear out his vision through mass development, creating job, housing, commercial, and recreational opportunities. But at the same time, he’s promised to keep the community at the core of his actions. In his view, he said in 2010, “When developers want to do business in our borough, they must do what is right for the entire Bronx and not just themselves.”

“We cannot accept that the minimum wage is the best salary a developer can offer while they take so heavily from taxpayers’ wallets,” Diaz Jr. continued. “If you want charity, you must be charitable. If you want a public benefit, your project must benefit the public.”

As he pushed for balanced development, Diaz Jr. criticized Mayor de Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing plan, which mandates that developers allowed to build bigger than they otherwise would be able to set aside a certain portion of new housing at “affordable” rents.

Diaz Jr. pushed the City Council to vote against an early version of the plan in 2015, as did many other city officials and community board members. Though, he had a more complicated argument than most critics, who largely said that the MIH plan did not go far enough to mandate deeply affordable housing: Diaz Jr. wanted more options for local officials to use to negotiate with developers, both in terms of lower- and higher-income regulations. He issued a statement at the time that read, “the proposal as it stands would not fully realize the goal of truly mixed-income communities.”

After pushback from a broad cohort of city officials and others, de Blasio offered a new MIH plan in 2016 with a broader variety of thresholds for affordable housing “bands” that could be selected during a rezoning. “While the housing deal does not go as far to assist the low income community as many of us had hoped,” Diaz Jr. wrote in a statement at the time, “it is an encouraging step in the right direction.”

Two years later, Diaz Jr. praised the construction of Martin Luther King Plaza in Mott Haven, which contains 166 affordable units, 67 of which are permanently affordable. Forty-six of the permanently affordable units were “made possible through MIH,” a 2018 statement from Diaz Jr. reads. Many Bronx developments are taking place under new MIH terms, whether through a neighborhood rezoning or specific plot upzonings that trigger MIH.

Monxo López, adjunct professor of Latino studies and politics at Hunter College and co-founder of activist group South Bronx Unite, said that the borough has undergone a sudden change after the decades of systemic disinvestment, blazing fires, and the dereliction of housing.

Now, he said, “we see an over-interest in exploiting our land, the value of our land, a land that is valuable and has become valuable because of the real existing efforts to make this place––meaning Mott Haven and the South Bronx, and the Bronx in general––a livable place.”

Meanwhile, Diaz Jr. has remained rhetorically committed to community-centric development, which he championed in his 2014 state of the borough address. He pointed to the Kingsbridge Armory as the paragon of his vision for the Bronx: the former military structure is set to be developed into an ice rink, after long discussions with community members to ensure protections of local jobs and housing. The project has been severely stalled.

“We have set a new standard for responsible development. That, ladies and gentlemen, is planning with a purpose. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the Diaz doctrine.”

The reality in the Bronx has been complicated.

While development has superficially improved the Bronx, replacing burnt out or vacant lots with new buildings, the community of people who already lived in the borough, especially its most downtrodden and poor areas, is not always the recipient of growth.

“It’s like both things are going on at once,” said Elliott Liu, an activist in the Bronx and graduate student in anthropology. “You have all sorts of new buildings going up...but at least a handful of people get evicted.”

A 2019 report from the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) showed rampant threats to affordable housing in the Bronx.

Mott Haven and Kingsbridge are home to some of the highest rates of housing price change in the city. And of the 10 neighborhoods with the highest number of evictions executed by court-ordered marshals in 2018, seven were in the Bronx. The report also ranks six Bronx neighborhoods in the top 11 neighborhoods citywide undergoing serious threats to affordable housing.

“Homelessness is still a big issue, and where is homelessness coming from? Gentrification and rising rents,” said Kappstatter. But, he added, “you can’t blame Ruben on this one, this is a citywide issue.”

Massive economic growth characterized the economy over the past ten years, especially in New York City, and the effects spread to the Bronx. According to a state comptroller report, since 2010, the number of businesses in the Bronx has grown by 17%, reaching nearly 18,000, and the population of the Bronx has been the fastest growing county in the state, largely driven by immigration.

In 2017, unemployment in the Bronx reached its lowest point since 1990 at 6.2%, according to the state comptroller report––but that still leaves Bronx County behind, with the seventh highest unemployment rate in the state and higher than the citywide rate of 4.5%.

After a difficult history of a decreasing population and divestment from housing, the Bronx had 498,500 occupied housing units in 2016, according to the state comptroller report. That number has remained fairly steady since Diaz Jr.’s earliest years in office; in 2010, the Bronx housed 472,464 occupied units, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Other housing metrics show a bleaker picture of the borough over the past ten years: 60% of Bronx households put at least 30% of their income toward rent, “higher than in any other borough and six percentage points higher than the citywide share,” according to the state comptroller report. The number of households who used half their income for rent grew by 19% between 2007 and 2016.

Bronx County has the second lowest rate of homeownership in the country, though Manhattan and Brooklyn follow closely behind, according to a 2016 study from New York University’s Furman Center and Citi. The most recent available federal data on homeownership shows a rebound in the Bronx’s homeownership rate starting in 2016 after a steady decline in 2009, following the recession that included the home foreclosure crisis.

Eviction numbers in the Bronx further challenge the notion that development will lead to affordable housing for all: 6,858 tenants were evicted in the Bronx in 2018––more than any other borough, while it has the fourth-highest population, according to City Council eviction data. The eviction rate in the Bronx is one eviction per 79 units. The next highest rate is one eviction per 180 units, in Brooklyn, and Manhattan has the lowest eviction rate at one per 345 units.

“For the past decade,” said Diaz Jr.’s spokesperson, John DeSio, in a brief written statement to Gotham Gazette, “the borough president has worked assiduously to build affordable housing and fight displacement, create new jobs, protect NYCHA residents, improve health and educational outcomes, and continue to make the Bronx an even greater place to live, work and raise a family.”

Though Diaz Jr. has promoted commercial development, job growth has not necessarily followed.

Many other commercial development projects that Diaz Jr. has favored have been concentrated in Mott Haven. But the unemployment rate in the neighborhood is at 16%, according to a 2015 study from the Health Department. And Co-Op City, the neighborhood home to the Mall at Bay Plaza––a development project Diaz Jr. praised as a major success––has seen some of the lowest job growth in the borough, according to the state comptroller report.

Diaz Jr. once fully welcomed the Trump Links project in the Bronx’s Throggs Neck neighborhood, but he has since walked his enthusiasm back. In his 2014 state of the borough speech, Diaz Jr. hailed the golf course as a harbinger of job creation and prosperity. “Donald Trump understands the power of his brand, and we are now partners. That is the ‘New Bronx.’”

The golf course opened in April 2015 and Diaz Jr. was one of the first golfers to play on the course, according to DNAInfo. But when Trump announced his presidential campaign that June using racist rhetoric, Diaz Jr. decided to boycott the course. He had already been vexed by Trump’s marketing of the golf course as located in “Ferry Point,” according to DNAInfo. He argued the advertising obscured the golf course’s connection to the borough as it is not the name of any of the Bronx’s neighborhoods. Business at the golf course slumped since Trump assumed the presidency, according to the Washington Post. Diaz Jr. has repeatedly condemned Trump on a slew of the president’s statements and policies.

“Our work over the past decade has borne real fruit,” Diaz Jr.’s spokesperson wrote. “We are shedding the stigma that has dogged this borough for so long, and we are building a brighter future for everyone.”

Several examples show Diaz Jr.’s approach to major projects that will in part determine his legacy as borough president and the future of affordability and opportunity in the Bronx.

La Central and Mixed-Rate Development
Mixed-income development is at the crux of Diaz Jr.’s plan for the Bronx, and perhaps, if he ascends to the mayor’s office as he hopes, for the city at large. Diaz Jr. has touted his case-by-case approach to development with resources allotted as necessary.

La Central, if all goes according to plan during its construction, will test this approach. The project embodies the tensions at the heart of the development debate in the Bronx: it will reserve housing for the borough’s most vulnerable citizens, coupled with glossy amenities like a recording studio.

Leaders across the state praised the five-building La Central development, designed to function as a community space as much as a housing complex. The buildings in the Melrose neighborhood are slotted to fill a formerly vacant lot with more than 800 units of sub-market rate (“affordable”) housing.

Land use documents show that La Central plans to bring 832 “affordable” housing units to the borough –– defined as scaled for Bronxites who earn 30-130% of the area median income –– including 160 units reserved specifically for homeless veterans and Bronxites with HIV/AIDS. The complex will also host community spaces including a YMCA, daycare services, a 25-story Astronomy Tower, farm space, a skate park, and a recording studio. Locals have sought to reserve half the units for residents of Melrose and the nearby Mott Haven and Port Morris neighborhoods, in addition to efforts to hire locally.

The buildings are also situated near the shared 2 and 5 train station, a Metro-North stop, and several bus stops, in the vein of increasingly popular Transit-Oriented Development, which seeks to create more housing near transit hubs and decrease reliance on cars globally.

“La Central is an exemplar proposal that will fill a gaping void that has plagued The Hub for decades,” Diaz Jr. said at the time. The project earned the unanimous approval of the City Council after it was pledged to reserve a number of apartments at rental rate of $640 per month and the use of union labor for construction.

Breaking Ground, Hudson Companies, BRP Companies and ELH-TKC are each developing parts of La Central, with $100 million of funding from Wells Fargo.

“I want to note the level of outreach the development team has given to my office,” Diaz Jr. wrote in his non-binding approval of the project in June of 2016, complimenting the regular conference calls that he said developers set up and their willingness to change the buildings’ design to better fit with the Bronx’s “warmer color” aesthetic. “I welcome this diverse, truly mixed-use, transit oriented development. I am proud to have contributed $1.5 million toward its development.”

The project has hit some logistical snags along the way.

The Department of Buildings recently placed a stop work order on one of La Central’s buildings after a loose piece of equipment injured a construction worker’s neck and landed him in the hospital. The building received a more minor stop work order late last year after contractors failed to properly update the Department of Buildings, though it was later rescinded.

The Westchester-based construction company, Mountco Construction & Development, has been charged with a host of violations since the project broke ground, resulting in a total of $28,145.95 in fines for the two buildings slated for full affordability, compared to the other three mixed-rate buildings. Mountco could not be reached for comment.

The architect, FX Collaborative, has designed buildings across the world, from Dubai to Hudson Yards. It holds social responsibility as one of its foremost principles and wrote that their design for La Central “will provide a diversity of environments connected to the larger context.”

Residents harbor mixed feelings toward the project. “La Central is continuously called a ‘transformative’ development for the Bronx, but what does that mean for the local residents?” Ed García Conde, founder of welcome2thebronx.com, wrote. “Gentrification and displacement.”

Construction on La Central started in June 2017 and the first building is slated to open this summer.

Compass Residences and Luxury Development
This 1,279-unit market-rate development under the Third Avenue Bridge lies at the epicenter of gentrification in the South Bronx, alongside a coffee shop with $4 lattes, several restaurants, boutiques, and gyms.

The original developers, Somerset Partners and Chetrit Group, laid out their vision for the South Bronx’s future as “Williamsburg meets DUMBO.” Diaz Jr. nodded to the project in a 2015 speech citing the “complete metamorphosis of the Harlem River waterfront.” Last year, however, after a tumultuous three years of development, Somerset and Chetrit sold to Brookfield Property Group after Diaz Jr. courted Ric Clark, the company’s chairman, with a tour of the Bronx.

“From just south of the Third Avenue Bridge all the way to 149th Street,” Diaz Jr. said in 2015, “We found the opportunity for thousands of housing units of all kinds, new waterfront access, and park space.”

While residents hold varied feelings about gentrification, with some concerned about displacement and others who welcome new amenities, a near consensus emerged against the project’s original developers. The developers threw an infamous warehouse party with a “Bronx is Burning” theme that saw glamorous celebrities posing against fake bullet-ridden cars, harkening back to the Bronx’s difficult past, epitomized in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Somerset Partners notoriously sought to rebrand the South Bronx as the “Piano District” and plastered billboards in the area that promised “luxury waterfront living.” The billboard enraged locals and sparked the hashtag #WhatPianoDistrict among Bronxites who viewed the moniker as an erasure of the thriving community already in place. The group did not return repeated requests for comment.

Though Diaz Jr. himself disapproved of the “Bronx is Burning” theme and the “Piano District” moniker, they are emblematic of the types of mindsets that he has welcomed to the Bronx through his approach to pursuing development and a sense of the Bronx as a destination with at least some luxury experiences available.

Somerset and Chetrit sold the development to Brookfield Properties in 2018 for $165 million, the New York Post reported at the time. “Brookfield’s interest in the Bronx accelerated when Borough President Diaz invited Brookfield Properties’ Ric Clark on a tour of the borough,” said a spokesperson for the company. Brookfield Properties expects to reserve 30 percent of the units for sub-market rate housing, which would allow the company to claim a tax break.

The architecture firm, Hill West, partners with luxury developers, like the Trump Organization. Their history of community involvement includes contributions to major nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity, the SkyScraper Museum, and the Queens Library Foundation. The two buildings are currently under redesign to “optimize the functionality of the site,” according to a spokesperson from Brookfield Properties.

The Department of Buildings issued a stop work order to the Lincoln Avenue property last August for permit issues after two similar complaints. The violations have not yet been resolved and may result in a fine of just over $2,000.

FreshDirect and Community, Labor Tensions
In February 2012, Diaz Jr. took on the relocation of FreshDirect, the online service that delivers groceries directly to customers’ doors, to the South Bronx from Long Island City in Queens as a major project of his first term as borough president. In the time between then and the opening of FreshDirect’s new Port Morris warehouse in July 2018, the project was marked with bitter controversy.

A bidding war between the Bronx and New Jersey broke out to lure FreshDirect in 2012. A site in Port Morris along the Harlem River waterfront ultimately won out with over $100 million in state and city tax incentives.

When Diaz Jr., alongside Governor Cuomo and then-Mayor Bloomberg, announced the project, it was slated to bring $112.6 million in investment to the Bronx in addition to at least 2,000 construction and 1,000 permanent jobs, including holdovers from the Queens facility, according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

Once FreshDirect decided on the Port Morris site, activists sprung into action, denouncing the introduction of an extensive fleet of trucks into a neighborhood already suffering from poor air quality and the highest childhood asthma rate in New York City.

The conflict rose to the courts as activist group South Bronx Unite sued FreshDirect for violating environmental review laws. The state appellate court sided with FreshDirect. Diaz Jr. called the result a “victory not only for FreshDirect, but for the Bronx as a whole.”

FreshDirect exceeded its promise to bring 1,000 jobs, according to the company, which says it has hired 1,500 workers. The jobs now pay at least $15 per hour, in compliance with the state minimum wage.

But FreshDirect has a fraught history with employee unionization through the United Food and Commercial Workers, the group under which the company’s truck drivers are unionized and that has also sought to unionize the warehouse workers (in addition to other union groups). In 2014, 16 city and state officials signed a letter addressed to FreshDirect’s CEO, Jason Ackerman, encouraging the company to work with the union. Diaz Jr. did not sign the letter. In his office’s written statement to Gotham Gazette, his spokesperson neglected to address questions about this issue.

After difficult bargaining between FreshDirect and UFCW in 2014 to raise wages by roughly 20% over three years, from just over $10 per hour, Diaz Jr. said he was “very pleased” they could reach an agreement. Warehouse workers are still not unionized.

Though he shows no clear record of having gone to bat for FreshDirect workers in any meaningful way, the borough president has positioned himself as a champion of labor rights. In January 2018, following the Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME decision, which ruled that public employees could opt out of paying dues, he said, “Our city and state must enact policies that prevent the erosion of rights that have been gained through union organizing and collective bargaining.”

NYCHA Infill
The Bronx is home to 44,292 NYCHA apartment units, according to the authority––the third-highest of the boroughs, after Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Diaz Jr. has frequently spoken out against poor conditions and mistreatment of NYCHA tenants, especially over heat and hot water outages during the winter of 2017 and into 2018.

The borough president has generally been in favor of NYCHA infill plans, or developing new privately-run buildings on NYCHA land to generate revenue for the cash strapped public housing authority through lease agreements. Though there are many forms it can take, infill is often opposed as a form of privatizing public assets and welcoming gentrification to low-income areas. Many infill proposals include a mix of affordable and market-rate housing given that market-rate units can raise more money for both developers and NYCHA.

In 2012, Diaz Jr. approved the construction of three buildings on NYCHA land: two affordable buildings with one reserved for seniors, and a third for more lavish townhouses. Diaz Jr. wrote in the ULURP application, “It is the eventual inclusion of this third phase [of townhouses] that makes this project all the more critical and reflective of my mixed-income community development policy.”

In 2018, Diaz Jr. resoundingly approved the ULURP application for a mixed-use building called Betances VI on NYCHA land with affordable housing, including 30 units for homeless and mentally-disabled Bronxites, and retail space.

“Betances VI represents a unique collaboration that will bring to the Mott Haven community of the Bronx affordable housing, new retail development, and perhaps most importantly of all, accommodations for some of our city’s most needy citizens,” he wrote.

Lemle and Wolff Companies developed both projects. The firm specializes in “construction and management of high-quality affordable housing,” according to its website. Five of the seven company’s principals have donated small amounts of money to one of Diaz Jr.’s borough presidency campaigns for a sum totaling $1,610, according to his campaign finances. That number jumps to $4,730 if including donations from the first principal Joseph Zitolo’s wife, Susan Zitolo. In 2015, The Daily News reported that the company owed $500,000 in backwages.

Community Board 1 disapproved the application, out of concern that Lemle and Wolff Companies would not be held accountable to providing adequate housing for the homeless, or play space for tenants’ children.

In response, Diaz Jr. said he understood the concerns, but that “affordable housing is vital, as too is giving people with a troubled past a chance to achieve success.”

At the same time, he’s spoken out strongly against developing over green space on NYCHA land. “That’s where children go out and play, that’s where seniors go out to sit and get fresh air,” he told The Observer in 2015.

Kingsbridge National Ice Center and Execution Difficulties
After years of contention between city and state officials over the decades-long vacancy of the Kingsbridge Armory, in 2012, a coalition including former Deutsche Bank executive Kevin Parker and a former New York Rangers star Mark Messier, proposed reconfiguring the empty former military structure into the world’s largest indoor ice rink: the Kingsbridge National Ice Center.

The Kingsbridge Armory has sat vacant since 1996 when it became city government property. The Related Companies won a bid to renovate the armory into a shopping mall with the support of then-Mayor Bloomberg. The 2009 proposal, however, resoundingly failed in the City Council with a vote of 45-1 (with some abstentions); the Council then overrode Bloomberg’s veto 48-1, over concerns surrounding traffic and wages for the potential mall workers. Diaz Jr. slammed the proposal, instead pushing for development legislation that mandated living wages for the future ice center’s employees.

A 2012 proposal revived renovation plans for the armory, leading to the Kingsbridge National Ice Center, envisioned by Diaz Jr. as launching the borough to further global prominence. During a 2014 speech, Diaz Jr. honored “the amazing new venture that will bring the world’s greatest ice sports complex ot our borough.”

Though the imposing structure has sat vacant for decades, neighboring residents did fear eventual displacement when the project neared approval. An agreement between the community and developer Kevin Parker, in part brokered by Diaz Jr and Council Member Fernando Cabrera, set in motion the final approval from the City Council in 2013.

According to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the ice center will generate 890 construction jobs and 267 permanent jobs. Kingsbridge and the surrounding area has the highest unemployment rate in New York City. The Community Benefits Agreement stipulates living wages for all workers involved with the ice center, jobs for Bronxites, women and people of color, free access for local schools, a green action plan, and other clauses envisioned around the local community.

Despite the potential for community benefits, funding the ice center has posed a significant challenge. Issues related to funding also caused significant tension between Diaz Jr. and de Blasio, which came to a boil in 2016.

Previously slated to open in 2018, Parker and his partners are only now in final financing stages and, according to Crain’s New York Business, is projecting an opening in early 2022.

Diaz Jr. Eyes the Mayoralty
“If you’re a good politician,” Kappstatter, the political consultant, said on Diaz Jr.’s mayoral plans, “you’re running right now, not two years from now.”

As Diaz Jr. prepares to launch his mayoral run, the question becomes how his development legacy will translate citywide. He pitched himself as mayor on WBAI’s Max & Murphy radio show in March on his ability to create jobs and build housing, citing the borough’s unemployment and development statistics under his tenure. “We’ve been doing that, not just having businesses do business in the Bronx, but doing business with the Bronx,” he said when asked to give a preview of what his mayoral campaign message will be.

He concluded: “As we speak of equity, that’s going to be the message here. That this is a city here, where we can provide a better future, not just for some for but all. And we can do this together. Wee can do this in a practical, pragmatic, progressive way.”

Diaz Jr. has staked his legacy on his approach to development and pursuing a mixed-income borough, a “New Bronx” with more amenities and opportunities, and the larger picture of increased development in the Bronx over the last decade. He’s clearly preparing to argue that he’s helped lift up the Bronx at minimal cost to its residents in terms of displacement or lack of affordability moving forward.

The Bronx certainly remains a mixed-income borough, both in terms of residents’ earnings and the housing available. The questions for Diaz Jr. include whether he is seen as too close to real estate interests and whether the development he has touted has indeed been good for Bronxites, and how it is perceived.

According to data from the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, the borough is home to residents and housing across the economic spectrum in neighborhoods like Mott Haven and Hunts Point, where around 75% of the residential units are rented at market rate. In historically wealthier neighborhoods like Riverdale and Throggs Neck, those numbers jump to 88% and 97.6% respectively. But in lower income neighborhoods like Highbridge, market rate units account for 60.8% of housing.

Diaz Jr. has undoubtedly drawn close ties to the real estate industry, members of which are likely to continue to support him as his political profile grows. He has proven himself business-friendly, but sought the approval of unions, and he’s certainly had an eye on community development, job opportunity, and improving education.

Now with decades as an elected official and political player in the Bronx, he has close ties with many elected officials, club leaders, and others who may be ready to help him get elected citywide. Bringing home the Bronx in a mayoral run will be essential, and the borough is not known for its high voter turnout to begin with.

“Ruben’s eye is totally on the mayoral prize,” said Kappstatter.

“We hope that he goes back to those roots of listening to the community, trying to use his skills and intelligence to fight...for what is right for this borough,” said López, the professor and activist, as he said Diaz Jr. did with the Kingsbridge Armory.

“Will that happen? It’s totally up to him.”

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For Ruben Diaz Jr., a Booming Bronx and Plan to Run on Development Sun, 02 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The Money Picture in the Queens DA Race, One Month to Primary Day https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8555-the-money-picture-in-the-queens-da-race-one-month-till-primary-day https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8555-the-money-picture-in-the-queens-da-race-one-month-till-primary-day queens da seven

(l-r)Tiffany Cabán, Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, Greg Lasak, Betty Lugo, Mina Malik, & Jose Nieves


Candidates running for the Democratic nomination for Queens District Attorney have filed their first pre-election campaign finance disclosures since January, showing their fundraising and expenditure from the last four months with just under a month to go until the all-important primary.

There are seven Democrats competing in the June 25 primary to replace the late Queens DA Richard Brown, who passed away earlier this month. Brown had already announced his intention to resign, prompting the first competitive primary for the seat in nearly 30 years. The candidates include former prosecutors and those without any courtroom experience at all, well-funded politicians with big money donors and first-time candidates with grassroots support.

Presumptive favorite Queens Borough President Melinda Katz outraised her opponents, bringing in just over $560,151 and spending $512,224 over the last four months. Though Katz closed out the fundraising period with $907,000 in the bank -- in part owing to large transfers that she made from separate state and city fundraising accounts -- she owes $306,000 in unpaid bills, mostly to Red Horse Strategies, a consulting firm, making her actual balance as of the filing closer to $600,000. She has received about 300 donations from individuals for her DA campaign.

Council Member Rory Lancman raised $246,158 in the same period and spent $655,371. He had $529,116 left in cash on hand (Lancman also transferred funds from separate accounts late last year and in January) as of the filing. Lancman reported just 101 individual donors to his campaign.

Gregory Lasak, a former state Supreme Court judge and long-time prosecutor in the Queens DA office, was the most prolific spender among all the candidates. He raised $445,314 in the period but spent $747,849 since January, leaving him with $380,571 in cash on hand. He spent massively on digital and television ads, polling, and campaign mailers. Lasak has received donations from nearly 600 individuals.

Public defender Tiffany Cabán has emerged as the insurgent progressive in the race and has picked up several prominent endorsements in the last few days, including from Congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Cabán reported raising a relatively impressive $256,673 from many more individual donors than her competitors, and showed a comparatively small expenditure.

The filing shows her campaign has spent about $105,317 on the borough-wide race, leaving her with $151,356 with just a month to go. A spokesperson for Cabán indicated that the campaign is driven by volunteers and running a bare-bones grassroots effort, bolstered by well over 2,000 individual donations, and that there are no outstanding bills to be paid other than the spokesperson’s own invoice coming in the next few days. The numbers also don’t reflect the expected ‘AOC bump’ that the campaign anticipates given the star-congressional representative, whose district spans parts of Queens and the Bronx, has now sent multiple emails asking for donations for Cabán and the endorsement news itself likely generated significant interest in the race and Cabán.

An analysis of Caban's fundraising by THE CITY, however, shows that several donors gave many times in small amounts, inflating the number of individual contributors the campaign claimed -- the actual number is 1,822, still well above the field. But THE CITY also showed that most of Caban's money is coming from outside Queens, in part showing her status as a progressive rising star, but raising questions about the actual depth of her support in the borough she needs to win, though she still has more in-borough donors than all of the other candidates have donors.

Mina Malik, a Harvard professor and former prosecutor, was a late entrant to the race but she has raised $608,644 and spent $543,748 already, with $64,896 left in her campaign account as of the filing. She does, however, have $210,000 in liabilities, all of which were personal loans she and her husband made to the campaign. Malik reported more than 350 individual donors.

Jose Nieves, an army veteran who formerly worked in the state Attorney General’s office, raised $69,647 over the disclosure period and spent about $76,438, leaving him just $5,339 in cash on hand.

Betty Lugo, a former Nassau County assistant district attorney, raised about $97,627, spent $76,562, and has a balance of $21,064 as of the filing.

The final weeks of the primary campaign are expected to see a blitz of spending from candidates, to the extent they can afford it, with fundraising throughout. It's unclear to what extent candidates will purchase targeted television airtime, which can be the most expensive form of advertising, as they try to reach all corners of the vasy borough of Queens. The winner of the Democratic primary on June 25 is widely expected to cruise to victory in the general election given how heavily blue Queens is, though it is unclear how the general election may play out, especially with an extended timeline after the primary was moved from September to June starting this year.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max & Joey Fox contributed to this story.

Note: this article has been updated with information based on the analysis by THE CITY.

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The Money Picture in the Queens DA Race, One Month to Primary Day Tue, 28 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
With 500 Candidates Expected for 2021 Election Cycle, Campaign Finance Board Starts Early Outreach https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8550-with-500-candidates-expected-for-2021-election-cycle-campaign-finance-board-starts-early-outreach https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8550-with-500-candidates-expected-for-2021-election-cycle-campaign-finance-board-starts-early-outreach running

(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


The city’s Campaign Finance Board is gearing up for what is likely to be the biggest and most competitive municipal election in its 30-year history. In 2021, 35 of the City Council’s 51 incumbents, as well as the mayor, comptroller, and all five borough presidents, will be ineligible for reelection due to term-limits, providing an inviting playing field for dozens upon dozens of candidates to seek elected office, whether for the first time or in pursuit of a promotion.

Some candidates have already filed with the Board to indicate which office they are seeking, while others have made their intentions known, and many more will declare in the coming months. With party primaries now scheduled for June of any election year for city or state contests, the 2021 city election cycle will likely be in full swing in 2020.

The CFB, responsible for administering New York City’s campaign finance program, is planning a “5 Borough Tour” of candidate trainings this summer to prepare potential candidates for the rigor of the city’s system and the fundraising, spending, and disclosures. Most candidates will also participate in the public matching program, which will ultimately involve many millions of dollars in public funds the board will distribute starting in December 2020.

The Campaign Finance Board anticipates up to or even beyond 500 campaigns will register in New York City for the 2021 cycle based on turnout from similar elections in previous years. To meet the high demand and ensure each campaign receives its legally required trainings, the CFB plans to hold over 250 training sessions over the next year and a half, both at its offices in downtown Manhattan and throughout the five boroughs.

Thousands of individuals may need to be trained, as candidates, campaign treasurers, and other staff are brought up to speed on the rules regulating campaigning, fundraising, spending, and participating in the matching funds program.

"The CFB's matching funds program helps more candidates run for city office, so we want to expand the pool of potential candidates by making our trainings accessible to more New Yorkers," said Amy Loprest, Executive Director of the CFB, said in a statement announcing the new effort, which will begin in June.

The CFB is partnering with public libraries in each borough to provide a venue for the upcoming satellite trainings, in addition to the regular sessions held at the Board’s Manhattan offices.

The five-borough tour will include a new training course geared specifically toward first-time candidates, with information intended to orient them to the demands of waging a campaign in New York City, where they will be subject to strict fundraising and disclosure obligations.

Unlike other trainings related to compliance rules and navigating the CFB’s online portal, which campaigns are mandated by law to attend, the new courses are not required but are strongly encouraged by the CFB, which wants to lay as much groundwork as possible for a smooth election cycle, which also includes a variety of new donation limits, matching rates, and other specifications passed by voters during a 2018 ballot referendum.

The city may be facing a perfect storm of potential stresses on campaign finance administrators in 2021, including the high number of officeholders who are term-limited from pursuing reelection.

Open seats tend to be far more competitive than races with incumbents, typically comprising more candidates and resulting in narrower margins of victory. As intended, the public matching system also appears to encourage more candidates to run.

In 2001, an election year similar to 2021, 37 City Council seats, all citywide offices, and four out of five borough presidencies were open due to new term limits imposed and upheld by voters in successive ballot referenda in the early- and mid-nineties. That year 443 candidates filed petitions to run for those offices, and 353 of them participated in the matching funds program.

Somewhat similar dynamics played out two city election cycles ago, when, after the one-time term-limit extension pushed through under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, in 2013 a majority of the City Council faced term limits, as did Bloomberg and most of the borough presidents. The public advocate and comptroller at the time -- Bill de Blasio and John Liu, respectively -- also left their posts to run for mayor, creating additional “open seats.”

In Brooklyn, the borough that will see the most City Council turnover in 2021, 12 out of 16 Council seats will be open because of term limits. Also opening up: 10 out of 14 seats in Queens, two out of three seats on Staten Island, five out of eight seats in the Bronx, and six out of 10 seats in Manhattan. Some of the openings for City Council, Queens Borough President, and other seats could change if there are special elections before the 2021 election hits, potentially introducing new incumbents seeking reelection.

The ballot referendum passed last year expands the public matching funds program from a 6-to-1 match of qualifying contributions to an 8-to-1 match, while it also lowered individual contribution limits. Candidates participating in the CFB program in 2021 will have the option of raising money either under the 6-to-1 rules or the new 8-to-1 rules (in subsequent elections they will only have the option of the 8-to-1 matching system). The referendum also encourages candidates for citywide offices, who tend to rely on larger contributions, to participate in the public matching program by increasing the amount that can be matched in a single donation.

The Campaign Finance Board advocated for those changes before the 2018 Charter Revision Commission, empanelled by the mayor, that put the referendum on the ballot. The reforms are intended to “make running for office more accessible for all New Yorkers” by providing more support for newcomers who may not have access to the same networks of well-heeled donors and political allies that more established politicians have, Matt Solars, director of public relations at the CFB, told Gotham Gazette.

The new landscape in 2021 means the CFB will have to reach more potential candidates and, eventually, pay out more money.

“We estimated that the increases to the maximum public funds payments would lead to about a 30 percent increase” over the cost for the public matching program in 2013, Sollars said. The Board paid out $38.2 million in matching funds to 149 participating candidates that cycle. And the increase could be even higher as the Board expects the new rules to encourage more people to get into local races (it’s also yet to be seen if more challenges to incumbents are waged given the current political climate).

The Board has not yet determined exactly how much it estimates the public matches and operational costs of the program will be for the 2021 cycle.

To reach potential candidates the CFB will rely on its public library partnerships to publicize the trainings and is identifying community-based organizations to collaborate on this and other efforts of NYC Votes, which leads the board’s voter engagement campaigns.

The first event of the five borough tour will take place in Queens on June 8 (at Queens Central Library), followed by June 22 in Brooklyn (Eastern Parkway Library), July 20 at Bronx Library Center, August 3 on Staten Island (at Richmondtown Library; and September 14 in Manhattan (at Schomburg Center).

“From the voter’s perspective, 2021 may seem like a long way off, but for a candidate who may have a goal of running for office and being elected in 2021, it’s right around the corner,” Sollars said. “Our program is really strong and powerful but it also requires a lot of the candidates and they need to know those requirements.”

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

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With 500 Candidates Expected for 2021 Election Cycle, Campaign Finance Board Starts Early Outreach Mon, 27 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Campaign Ads: Queens District Attorney Candidates Provide Video Evidence https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8518-campaign-ads-queens-district-attorney-candidates-provide-video-evidence https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8518-campaign-ads-queens-district-attorney-candidates-provide-video-evidence queens da seven

(l-r)Tiffany Cabán, Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, Greg Lasak, Betty Lugo, Mina Malik, & Jose Nieves


There is just over a month till the June 25 Democratic primary election for Queens District Attorney, which will effectively decide who wins the November general election in the overwhelmingly Democratic borough.

Seven Democratic candidates are vying for the open seat -- long-time Queens District Attorney Richard Brown recently passed away at the age of 86, just short of his planned retirement date.

The seven candidates have been appearing at many local forums and debates, and each has released at least one short video ad of some kind to make their campaign pitch. The better-funded candidates have been able to afford commercials more suited to television airtime and may air them in the expensive New York City media market, while the upstarts in the race -- Tiffany Cabán, Betty Lugo, Mina Malik, and Jose Nieves -- seem to hope that social media will effectively get their message out despite the cash advantage enjoyed by Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, and Greg Lasak.

Here’s a look at video ads put out by the candidates so far:

Tiffany Cabán
Cabán, a public defender, is undoubtedly the most progressive and furthest to the left in a race where most of the candidates are running as reformers. With a campaign focused on “people-powered reform,” Cabán is pitching a vision of restorative justice and a need to move away from the punitive practices that have defined the Queens DA’s office for decades. She promises to pursue a “decarceral” approach to law enforcement.

“On day one, by changing policy, you can change lives,” Cabán said in a minute-long video on Twitter in January. “You can have a very real impact, not just on the criminal justice system but on education, on healthcare, on housing.”

She has promised “full transparency and accountability” and emphasized that she would work to “decriminalize” poverty, mental illness, drug addiction, sex workers and the sex work industry. She is also a fervent opponent of ICE, the federal customs enforcement agency,

“We’re not trying to get convictions, we’re trying to do justice and what that means is strengthening and stabilizing communities,” Cabán said in the video.

 

Melinda Katz
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz is the candidate most closely associated with the borough’s Democratic establishment, and she has the funding that comes with it. But she has seemed to downplay that association, perhaps acknowledging it could be somewhat toxic after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s defeat of former Rep. and Queens County Democratic leader Joe Crowley (Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed Cabán).

In fact, in a campaign ad running just over two minutes that is heavy on personal biography, Katz emphasizes that she was an outsider when she first successfully ran for the City Council, which preceded her election to the state Assembly and the borough presidency.

Walking the streets of Queens, Katz speaks in the video of the personal experiences motivating her to run -- her mother’s death in a car accident involving a drunk driver, and her father’s struggle with cancer before he died. “I wanted to use the law to bring justice to people in a way that I never got,” she says.

Though she lacks prosecutorial experience, Katz pitched her record as a legislator and as borough president, and she touts her work for women’s rights, worker protections, anti-gun initiatives, her push for sealing convictions and clearing outstanding warrants, opposition to President Trump, and, her top stated priority, protecting immigrants.

“We need a way to keep our kids out of jail, out of the system as well as give them fairness and equity while in the system,” she says.

Rory Lancman
New York City Council Member Rory Lancman has touted himself as an aggressive reformer, leaning on his legislative record in the city and previously in the state Assembly. He argues that his agenda for the district attorney office is nearly as progressive as Cabán’s. Lancman, who like Katz has no prosecutorial experience, has been a frequent critic of the NYPD, and its policing practices that have disproportionately harmed communities of color.

After NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo’s chokehold led to the death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner in 2014, Lancman introduced a bill to make it illegal for police officers to employ chokeholds to restrain a subject (they are currently banned by department protocol, though they are still used).

Lancman has put out two video spots: one with more biographical and resume information, and another about his work holding the NYPD accountable. His advocacy has earned him the endorsement of Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, who appears in a 30-second spot released by Lancman’s campaign. “He’s the candidate who will fight for reform. He’ll fight for all of us,” Carr says in the ad.

Greg Lasak
A veteran prosecutor, Greg Lasak rose up through the ranks of the Queens DA’s office. His tough-on-crime attitude and his successful record in prosecuting homicide suspects earned him the nickname “Mr. Murder.” Most recently, he served as a State Supreme Court Justice.

Lasak has emphasized that he is the best candidate to reform the DA’s office because he is intimately familiar with its inner workings and that he’s alway had a reformer’s streak -- but that he will also keep the borough safe. He has also pointed to his work on reversing wrongful convictions when he worked for the Queens DA, leaning heavily on that aspect of his career in a campaign ad that features a family that benefited from his efforts. “Greg Lasak is my family’s angel, in our time of need, in our time of despair and time of darkness,” says Dwayne Palmer, whose relative was set free by Lasak’s unit.

Betty Lugo
Betty Lugo is a former Nassau County assistant district attorney and founding partner at Pacheco & Lugo PLLC, the city’s first Latina-owned law firm. She also previously worked for the Manhattan and Albany DAs.

She is running on a campaign theme of “True Justice For All” and promises to be “firm but fair” in fighting crime. “Everyone, whether they’re victims, defendants or community groups, the District Attorney must represent them all,” Lugo said in video on Twitter.

Mina Malik
Harvard professor Mina Malik is another candidate with experience in the Queens DA’s office, having served there as an assistant district attorney. Malik has had a variety of experience, including as head of the city’s police oversight Civilian Complaint Review Board.

In a Twitter video, Malik stresses her diverse experience and the fact that she is a first-time candidate as positives for her campaign. “I’m not a career politician...I have spent decades working in our criminal justice system, fighting for fairness and an often deserved second chance, while being tough on violent criminals who prey on women, children and the elderly,” she said.

Jose Nieves
An army combat veteran and community leader, Nieves was formerly deputy chief in the Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit at the Office of the New York State Attorney General. He has also worked for the New York City Department of Correction and, before that, the Federal Aviation Administration.


The DA’s office “is not just about charging and incarcerating. That’s one aspect of what we do. The other aspect is trying to empower the community,” he said in a video posted to Twitter.

 

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Campaign Ads: Queens District Attorney Candidates Provide Video Evidence Wed, 22 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Effort Launched to Elect LGBTQ Members to City Council https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8543-effort-launched-to-elect-lgbt-members-to-the-city-council https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8543-effort-launched-to-elect-lgbt-members-to-the-city-council  

ritchietorres ch230

 (photo: @RitchieTorres)


On the steps of City Hall Wednesday afternoon, a coalition of LGBTQ rights advocates and current and former City Council members announced the launch of an initiative to elect queer candidates to the Council in 2021, when 35 seats will be open because of term limits.

There are currently five members of the 51-member City Council who identify as LGBT, all of whom are a part of the body’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Caucus, and all of whom are not elligible for reelection to the Council: Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Members Danny Dromm, Ritchie Torres, Jimmy Van Bramer, and Carlos Menchaca.

The effort launched Wednesday, dubbed “LGBTQ in 2021,” is intended to ensure that the outgoing cohort of Council members from the queer community is replaced by another, larger, and more diverse group of LGBTQ electeds.

“We want to make sure that we elect lesbians to the City Council, we want to ensure that we elect transgender women to the City Council, we want to ensure we elect LGBT people of color to the City Council,” Speaker Johnson, who is openly gay and HIV positive, said to cheers from the audience assembled.

A number of other Council members were also present at the press conference, including Dromm and Torres of the LGBT Caucus, as well as former Council Members Tom Duane, who was the first openly gay person elected to the City Council, and Elizabeth Crowley, who has helped spearhead the “21 in ‘21” initiative to elect more women to the City Council, which was the inspiration for the project announced Monday. The City Council currently has 12 women out of its 51 members.

In the next City Council election in 2021, at least 35 of the body’s 51 seats will be open, meaning no incumbent will be running.

Whereas incumbents enjoy incredibly high reelection rates, races for open seats tend to be vastly more competitive, often comprising more candidates and resulting in narrower margins of victory. Initiatives like LGBTQ in 2021 and 21 in ‘21 are harnessing the opportunities of open seats at the same time that they are meant to combat any loss in representation that may result.

Coming out is “the deepest political thing anyone can do. And that goes for people who are out in legislative bodies. There is no substitute for a seat at the table,” Duane said at the press conference. “We have elected people here in New York City, but we have many more people that we need to get elected to the City Council.”

The coalition, which also includes LGBTQ Democratic political clubs like the Stonewall Demorats and advocacy groups like New York Transgender Advocacy Group and Queer-Amisú, plans to recruit and support queer candidates to run for City Council through training, mentorship, and networking resources. At the moment, LGBTQ in 2021 has a social media presence but an informal operational structure as its members determine its direction. It is currently focused on City Council elections, but may expand its mission in the future.

“It’s only been ten years since Queens has had openly gay elected officials,” Dromm reminded the crowd, after acknowledging Duane and other predecessors as rolemodels for him. “And of course we began to see the Council expand in terms of the numbers of openly LGBT people who were in it.”

“Invisibility is our biggest enemy,” Dromm added. “We had no role models in those days.”

Members of the coalition have drawn lessons from their personal experiences and those of activists in a number of overlapping and intersecting causes -- namely the struggle for LGBTQ rights in New York and nationally, but also the Civil Rights Movement and movements for gender equity.

Melissa Sklarz, a transgender activist, 2018 Assembly candidate from Queens, and former president of the Stonewall Democrats, spoke after Dromm. “I don’t think invisibility is a problem. It’s fear! ‘I can’t run for office, Melissa, I don’t know what to do.’ We’ve got a solution for that. We know what to do. We’ve been involved, we have passion, and vision, and experience, and intelligence. We will help you.”

Torres, a Bronx Democrat planning to run for Congress in the 2020 election, emphasized the active nature of this type of recruitment and mentorship operation. “Progress doesn’t happen by accident. We have to organize for it, we have to fight for it, we have to recruit candidates, raise funds, knock on doors, and win elections,” Torres said. (Sklarz later told reporters that LGBTQ in 2021 does not have plans to raise money for candidates, but intends to educate them on how to create a campaign, and can assist with staffing and grassroots efforts in their neighborhoods.)

Along with the aforementioned groups, the coalition includes Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, Lesbian Gay Democratic Club of Queens, Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn, NYC Pride and Power, and LGBT Democrats of Color.

“One of the epiphanies of the Civil Rights Movement is the realization that progress is not inevitable even when it has the aura of inevitability,” Torres observed. “We had more LGBT members of the City Council two years ago than we do today. Or when it comes to gender inequality...we had more women in the City Council in the 1990s than we do today.”

Despite overall progress made in LGBTQ representation in New York City elected office, members of the coalition pointed to significant shortcomings in the political landscape and barriers that still need to be overcome.

Ivy Frias of the New York Transgender Advocacy Group wondered why “only one letter of the LGBT community is represented here in the City Council,” referring to the fact that the City Council’s current queer membership are all gay men. “I think it’s time, as a queer, nonbinary, Dominican person, to tell you guys that it’s time to be here,” Frias said, adding later, “the LGBT community is beautifully diverse and intersectional.”

Sklarz also identified barriers. When asked whether she intends to run for City Council after her unsuccessful bid for the Assembly last year, she told Gotham Gazette, “Where I live is a difficult Council race. Neighborhood is everything. So however big my visage may be in the LGBT community, it’s very difficult in my neighborhood to run for City Council.” The 22nd Council District in Queens, where Sklarz lives, has been represented by Costa Constantinides since 2014 and has never had an openly queer Council member. Constantinides is term-limited and likely to run for Queens Borough President.

Those dynamics at the neighborhood level can play out in the Council itself. “There continues to be places in New York City where even vicious homophobes can be and have been elected to the City Council,” Torres told the crowd. “The homophobic antics of [City Council Member] Ruben Diaz Sr. is a cautionary tale of what happens when we, as a community, take for granted the inevitability of progress.” (Diaz Sr., who was recently punished by the Council for his latest homophobic remarks, is seeking the same congressional seat as Torres.)

“If you think someone’s going to come and save the day for you, then you’re naive. We’re not going take that chance,” Sklarz said to applause. “LGBT people are going to come together, we are going to create a moment, we are going to take care of our own, and make sure something happens.”

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

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Effort Launched to Elect LGBTQ Members to City Council Wed, 22 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000