Gotham Gazette Thu, 29 Oct 2020 08:56:49 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Crowded Field Forms for Special Election to Replace Ritchie Torres in the City Council 7 press conf regard

Council Member Ritchie Torres (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

With City Council Member Ritchie Torres declaring victory in the Bronx’s 15th Congressional District Democratic primary and all but assured to advance to Congress at the start of next year, a special election to replace Torres in the City Council’s own District 15 looks likely for sometime in February or March of 2021. The race in the heavily-Democratic Council district is already shaping up to be hotly-contested, with community leaders, the son of a state senator, and at least one member of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA) all jumping into the race.

Since Torres, who declined an interview request for this story, was term-limited from seeking another Council term in the regularly-scheduled 2021 city elections, candidates had already started running to replace him. His presumed victory only moves up their election date by about four months, though even with a special election early in the year to see who finishes out the last year of the four-year term, there will be a primary in June 2021 and a general election that fall to see who will represent the district as of January 2022.

The special election will also likely mark the first use of ranked-choice voting in New York City, probably along with a special election in Queens’ District 31, where Council Member Donovan Richards is on his way to becoming Queens Borough President. The new voting system approved by voters in 2019 is mandated to go into effect at the beginning of 2021 for all special elections and party primary elections for city government positions.

Council District 15 straddles Fordham Road, which is frequently used to demarcate the northern boundary of the South Bronx, and encompasses the neighborhoods of Belmont, Fordham, Tremont, Norwood, Parkchester, West Farms, and Williamsbridge, as well as some of the largest greenspaces in the city (the New York Botanical Garden, the Bronx Zoo, and Crotona Park), Fordham University, and Arthur Avenue. It is also home to St. Barnabas Hospital, which was one of the most inundated medical facilities during the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City.

According to the 2010 Census, the district is 66% Hispanic, 25% Black, and 5% white, with 63% of adults under the age of 45. District 15 is also among the poorest in the city with a poverty rate of 38.5% in 2014, which was third-highest among City Council districts. Torres earned an upset win in a competitive 2013 Democratic primary then cruised to reelection in 2017. He made public housing and oversight of the de Blasio administration main priorities during his tenure.

Candidates & Possible Candidates
Four candidates are now running to succeed Torres: Ischia Bravo, district manager for the Bronx’s Community Board 7; Elisa Crespo, an education liaison for Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.; Oswald Feliz, a district leader and housing lawyer; and, Julian Sepúlveda, who works in intergovernmental affairs for the city’s Department of Education.

Bravo challenged longtime Bronx Assemblymember Jose Rivera in a 2016 Democratic primary, but prior to that spent seven years as executive director of the Bronx Democratic County Committee. Crespo, who is seeking to become the city’s first Council member of trans experience, is a member of the Bronx/Upper Manhattan branch of the NYC-DSA and a board member of the Stonewall Democrats. Feliz has worked in State Senator Gustavo Rivera’s office and for Congressional Rep. Adriano Espaillat’s campaign, with both of those districts partially overlapping with Council District 15. Sepúlveda, who is the son of Bronx State Senator Luis Sepúlveda, announced his candidacy within the last week.

Additionally, John Sanchez, district manager for Bronx Community Board 6, told Gotham Gazette that he is “seriously considering running for the seat” after “being approached by community members and community leaders” about a potential candidacy. He does not currently have a campaign committee open and would be a first-time candidate for elected office, but said he would be making a decision “shortly.” However, he has recently advertised for intern positions for a Council campaign, so an announcement appears imminent.

There has been speculation that Samelys López or another candidate from the left would enter the race. While there is already one DSA member in the race in Crespo, López received a great deal of support from progressive groups and elected officials in the congressional primary won by Torres, where she received a little over 13% of the vote in a crowded field (coming in 4th, after Torres, Michael Blake, and Ruben Diaz Sr.), leading several people Gotham Gazette spoke with to wonder if she’ll run for the Council. López, who was endorsed by NYC-DSA, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others in the congressional primary, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

There's also always the possibility of other candidates entering the race.

“I’m a true-blue Democrat, but I’m willing to work with any group that has the best intentions for the Bronx. If that means working with DSA or incumbents, then so be it,” Bravo told Gotham Gazette.

“Our campaign is trying to build the broadest coalition possible that is representative of our community and our borough,” said Crespo, who says she will pursue the endorsements of the DSA and Working Families Party, as well as the Bronx Democratic Party.

“The DSA has done some amazing work in the city, particularly with the election of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” said Julian Sepúlveda, “and I’m going to try to get support from as many advocacy groups as I can. What’s going to matter in this election is candidates’ ability to speak to voters and build grassroots support.”

Fundraising & Ranked-Choice Voting
As one of roughly 35 upcoming City Council races without an incumbent, the race for District 15 is likely to be very competitive. Two candidates, Bravo and Crespo, are neck-in-neck in terms of initial fundraising, with $17,546 and $16,707 raised, respectively, as of the July disclosure reports.Crespo has narrowly more total donors, with 296 to Bravo’s 283.

“Most of my money mostly came from hard-working people in the Bronx who are dedicated to seeing someone who is unbought and unbossed,” Bravo told Gotham Gazette.

Feliz has raised $4,747 so far, but he said he is confident that he can make up ground in campaign cash, noting that most of his fundraising was done within the last few weeks of the filing deadline. Three-quarters of his donations came in the month preceding the July 11 filing deadline, according to disclosures to the city’s Campaign Finance Board, while 76% of Bravo’s and 61% of Crespo’s donations came in that same timespan.

“I intend to fundraise as strongly as I can and I’m pretty confident in my ability to fundraise,” Sepúlveda told Gotham Gazette, noting that fundraising is not his focus at the moment as he had just officially announced his candidacy.

Candidates and organizers have expressed concern over the uncertainty regarding the implementation of ranked-choice voting, which is mandated to go in effect at the beginning of 2021 per the 2019 City Charter revision. The New York City Board of Elections has not returned Gotham Gazette’s request for comment about implementing ranked-choice voting early next year, and has already missed a deadline set by the City Council for a plan. Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, allows voters to rank up to five candidates in order of preference, and if no candidate wins a majority on the initial count of first-choice votes, there are ensuing rounds of eliminating the lowest-vote getter and reapportioning their voters based on those voters' next choices until a candidate hits 50%.

“You never saw elected officials come or show their faces,” Bravo recalled of her childhood living in public housing, “too often we don’t see ourselves reflected in our elected officials. We need to make sure that we have someone like myself who knows the district and doesn’t need to take a full term to get to know the local issues.”

“The lens of mothers on the City Council is something that’s been missing,” Bravo, who is the mother of two school-aged children, told Gotham Gazette. For example, she said, “I rely heavily on my in-laws and my grandmother to watch my kids” and that will be difficult during the school year with a return to in-person learning and concerns about spreading the virus from kids to more vulnerable older relatives. 

“Those who have struggled, and been marginalized, and been oppressed should be the ones who should be making the decisions,” said Crespo, who is 29 years old and would likely be one of the youngest, if not the youngest, Council members. “My generation, for the first time, is not going to be better off than the generation before us. We’ve lived through multiple economic disasters and I strongly believe that it’s going to take a new generation of bold progressive leaders to bring systemic change.

“I’ve spent my entire adult career working in municipal government,” Sepúlveda said in an interview. “I want to be able to make a difference with the knowledge I’ve acquired. I want to amplify the voices of those who I think have been underrepresented in New York City policy and government.”

Budget Equity
The Bronx has historically been underfunded as a borough when it comes to the city and state budgets, particularly when it comes to education funding. Feliz said that the district needs “a strong negotiator,” not “an elected official who’s simply going to vote yes or no,” to bring much needed funding to the Bronx, pointing to his record advocating for tenants against landlords as evidence of his negotiating skills.

“The Bronx has been short-changed for far too long and covid exposed the ugly truth of what was happening in our borough,” Bravo said. She hopes that the Bronx’s relatively high rate of 2020 Census returns will help remedy this.

“There’s lots of development happening in the district but not enough schools that are being built to accommodate the new families coming in,” Crespo said. “We need to make sure each public school gets the same amount of funding, but schools in underserved areas probably need a little more.”

Covid-19 & Recovery
The coronavirus pandemic and its socioeconomic consequences are at the forefront of candidates’ and voters’ minds in Council District 15. Bronx residents have been twice as likely to die from coronavirus as other New York City residents, despite the borough having a number of infections proportional to its share of the city’s population. Public health experts say this elevated fatality rate is caused by the high rates of diabetes, asthma, and other chronic health conditions.

Bravo was critical of Mayor de Blasio’s school reopening plan, saying that “a staggered schedule is not something that’s feasible for working parents like myself. I don’t care how affordable the mayor thinks he can make child-care for us. My rent is too high.”

“The Bronx is going to be dealing with a different set of problems related to covid than the wealthy parts of Manhattan,” Sepúlveda said. “Health care is a right, not a privilege, and we’re going to have a mental health crisis so we need to be able to support our community emotionally.”

Feliz is proposing that the city should construct a deck and greenspace over the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the most congested roadway in the nation. That would absorb the air pollution that disperses into Bronx neighborhoods. A similar proposal has also been put forward for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway renovation.

Affordable housing was another issue raised by all the declared candidates, although there were some differences in how each would approach the issue. As Bravo pointed out, the 10453 zip code (Bedford Park) had an eviction rate of nearly 21% in 2019, the third-highest in the city. Several other zip codes that overlap with District 15 were also in the top twenty.

“This has been a burden for quite some time,” Bravo said, pointing to rising rents in the Bronx.

She said “we need affordable housing that’s also sustainable housing, not with the bare minimum materials, and that it’s part of a new green infrastructure.” She added that impact studies should be expanded earlier in the process “so we know what services will be needed to go along with housing growth.”

Crespo said that Community Land Trusts could potentially “remove some of the speculation from the housing market. That would do well to serve Bronxites to make sure that housing is affordable and reflect the actual median income of Bronxites.” She added that “we need to modernize our land use process and be thinking five to ten years in advance.”

Sepúlveda supports an increase to housing subsidies in the city’s budget to make affordable housing available to more New Yorkers. “I think Speaker Johnson had a solid plan on rental subsidies,” he said. “The City Council has a deep role in investing in affordable housing. The housing crisis entrenches poverty and worsens police problems. All of these problems are related.”

Feliz believes that the eviction moratorium should be extended “for the duration of the pandemic” and that “if the state doesn’t do that, the city should.” He said that “no one should be evicted due to the fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic and our society is economically unstable.”

Public Safety
With the protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis, activists and protesters in New York City have called for funding to be reallocated away from the police budget towards other youth and social services, under the slogan “Defund the NYPD.” The candidates currently running in Council District 15 said they are largely supportive of those proposals.

“The NYPD has an inherent culture of feeling above the law and some of them have lost track of what they were assigned to do, which is to protect and serve,” Crespo said. “Many times in low-income communities, we feel unsafe around the police. I think police are too quick to resort to excessive force and they’re not well trained in how to de-escalate situations.”

“I think if we thoughtfully and purposefully looked at NYPD line-items, such as the public relations unit and the militarized equipment, we could reinvest that into critical social services programs,” said Crespo. She supports defunding the NYPD by at least $1 billion from its nearly $6 billion annual operating budget, and said the recent city budget did not accomplish that.

“We absolutely have to defund the NYPD, which means taking away some of that budget and putting it toward social programs, and we also have to promote police accountability,” said Feliz, who is supportive of a $1 billion cut to the NYPD budget, at least initially. He proposes mandating that police officers have an “affirmative duty” to stop misconduct they witness their coworkers committing.

“The word ‘defund’ means different things to different people,” Sepúlveda told Gotham Gazette. “I support efforts to divest from the NYPD and put that money back into measures that invest in this city. The police department isn’t the only thing we should think about when it comes to public safety,” he said, noting he’s had personal and familial experiences with police handling of mental health emergencies. “I think we should divest a true billion dollars, at least as a start.”

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Crowded Field Forms for Special Election to Replace Ritchie Torres in the City Council Mon, 03 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Wave of LGBT Candidates Eyes City Council Seats in 2021 Elections 4 lgbt pride

City Council members at a Pride march (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

The City Council’s LGBT Caucus could shrink after the 2021 elections, with all five current caucus members -- including Council Speaker Corey Johnson -- prevented by term limits from running for reelection next year, when all of city government will be on the ballot. However, there are more than a dozen openly LGBTQ candidates running throughout the city to replenish and perhaps grow the ranks of LGBTQ representation in city government, encouraged by advocates and current Council members who launched “LGBTQ in 2021,” an effort to elect more LGBTQ candidates to the 51-seat Council, and inspired by “21 in ‘21,” a similar campaign to elect more women to the Council.

These efforts come as LGBTQ candidates in New York have recently achieved state and national firsts. Mondaire Jones in New York’s 17th Congressional District (Rockland and northern Westchester) and City Council Member Ritchie Torres in the Bronx’s 15th Congressional District appear likely to become, respectively, the nation’s first gay black and gay Afro-Latino members of Congress. In Brooklyn, Jabari Brisport could become New York’s first gay Black state legislator, if his large lead holds in the 25th State Senate District Democratic primary. Kristen Browde was vying to become the state’s first trans legislator in the 93rd Assembly District, but appears to have come up slightly short in a close race.

“What people thought was not possible has become possible,” said Samy Nemir-Olivares, a queer Puerto Rican-Dominican who won his race for District Leader Assembly District 53 (Williamsburg and Bushwick) last month. “Five years ago, we couldn’t get married because of the law. Now, we’re seeing the evolution of the LGBTQ movement from activism and organizing to electoral work.”

“It is very impressive because LGBTQ people are a small number of the population, so it takes a lot more for an LGBTQ candidate to face these challenges of stigma and discrimination,” Nemir-Olivares told Gotham Gazette in an interview. “A majority of our community isn’t enough to win an election, so you have to build coalitions. It’s an act of faith and an act of perseverance.”

As attention turns from the 2020 primaries to the 2021 city government elections, Gotham Gazette revisited the LGBTQ in 2021 effort, which appears to have lost momentum but, after inquiries and as the city rebounds from the coronavirus crisis and the calendar moves ahead, may see new life.

In part through conversations with candidates and advocates, Gotham Gazette has identified at least 15 LGBTQ candidates currently running for City Council in 2021, including in every borough except Staten Island. Erik Bottcher (Council District 3), Phelan-Dante Fizpatrick (CD 3) Chris Sosa (CD 5), Billy Freeland (CD 5), Seth Rosen (CD 6), Marti Gould Allen-Cummings (CD 7), and Kristin Richardson Jordan (CD 9) are running in Manhattan; Elisa Crespo (CD 15) is running in the Bronx; Rod Townsend (CD 22); Alfonso Quiroz (CD 25); and Lynn Schulman (CD 29) are running in Queens; and Crystal Hudson (CD 35), Chi Ossé (CD 36), Josue Pierre (CD 40), and Wilfredo Florentino (CD 42) are running in Brooklyn.

The City Council has never included a trans person, a non-binary person, or queer Black woman, and has not included any openly gay women at all since 2017. That could all change for the start of the next Council session, in January 2022, with several potentially historic candidacies.

How much of a concerted, organized effort there will be to elect LGBTQ candidates to the Council and other city government positions remains to be seen.

“LGBTQ in 2021 was a great idea and it brought together a group of experienced LGBT political operatives. However, once we tried to codify the idea, it appeared ten different people had ten different ideas as to the best way to go forth,” said Melissa Sklarz, a government relations strategist at SAGE, a former co-chair of both the Empire State Pride Agenda and Stonewall Democrats, and a newly-elected District Leader in Queens — one of two trans candidates, along with Emilia Decaudin, who won such positions this year.

Several candidates and activists who Gotham Gazette spoke with for this story similarly expressed uncertainty or confusion over the current state of the formal LGBTQ in 2021 initiative. According to one LGBTQ Council candidate, as of this week, discussions are currently underway among the candidates to revitalize the effort using the infrastructure already established by the project last year.

Three Decades of LGBTQ Representation at the City Council
New York City elected its first openly-gay City Council members in 1991 when Antonio Pagán and Tom Duane won in Manhattan’s Districts 2 and 3, respectively. Duane’s district, which covers the west side of Manhattan from Hell’s Kitchen through Chelsea to Greenwich Village and SoHo, was specifically drawn during the 1991 redistricting with the intention of electing a member of the LGBTQ community to the Council (similarly, districts were also designed with the intention of electing Asian and Dominican Council members). For three decades now, District 3 has been represented by an openly gay Council member, from Duane to Christine Quinn, and currently Johnson, with both the latter two elected Speaker.

“Having LGBT people in the Council, myself as the finance chair and Corey [Johnson] as the Speaker, we’re able to give record levels of funding to LGBT organizations that had never been done before,” said Council Member Danny Dromm, a longtime LGBTQ activist and leader, in an interview.

Dromm was one of the first two openly LGBTQ Council members from outside of Manhattan, elected alongside fellow Queens Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer in 2009, and before that he was the first openly gay elected official in Queens, as a Democratic District Leader. He also cofounded the first Queens LGBT Pride Parade in 1993.

Dromm pointed to the $3.7 million allocated in the city budget to LGBT community-based organizations and another $2.3 million distributed to trans-focused organizations in fiscal year 2020 as evidence of the LGBT Caucus’ impact. “To be honest with you, it’s the LGBT members that bring it up and push it, so we need to continue to have LGBT folks doing that within the City Council,” he said.

“Oftentimes we are left out of conversations, although people mean well. It’s not that we’re excluded, it’s just that they don’t think to mention LGBT issues,” Dromm said. “It’s not just about having elected officials, but building institutions within our community and electeds can help with that, particularly through funding.”

“I think that there’s a greater acceptance and understanding of LGBTQ people, though maybe not as much for transgender and gender-nonconcomforming folks yet, and their candidacies are taken very seriously,” Dromm said, when asked about how running for office has changed for LGBTQ candidates in recent years. He highlighted the candidacies of Crespo and Allen-Cummings as having the potential to be the first trans and non-binary Council members, respectively.

A Special Election on the Horizon
Torres’ likely departure from the Council at the start of next year would trigger a special election sometime in February or March for Council District 15, which includes Belmont, Fordham, Tremont, Norwood, Parkchester, and Crotona Park. Three candidates were already running to succeed Torres. Given quirks election law and the calendar, there will be the special election early in the year to see who holds the seat for most of 2021 as well as regularly-scheduled June primary and November general elections for the next term, which begins January 1, 2022.

The election will also likely be the city’s first attempt at ranked-choice voting, likely concurrently with a special election to replace Donovan Richards in Queens’ 31st Council District as he ascends to the borough president’s office.

One candidate running to replace Torres in District 15 is Elisa Crespo, who currently works as an education liaison for Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and is a board member for the Stonewall Democrats, the city’s largest LGBTQ political club.

“I think people who have struggled the most and have been marginalized the most should be the closest to the decision-making table and because this is how I believe I can do the most good for the most people,” Crespo told Gotham Gazette in a recent interview.

“It’d be a big deal for a woman of color, especially someone who’s had a story like mine, which is a story of overcoming and triumph, to be able to hold this seat,” said Crespo, who was educated in New York City’s public schools and CUNY’s John Jay College and has lived in the city’s public housing system. “I’m a working class-Latina and a product of public institutions. I worked my way up out of nothing.”

Along with possibly becoming the first trans person to become a New York City Council member, she’s also among those hoping to be the first woman in the Council’s LGBT Caucus since 2017 (all five current caucus members are men). “An entire community’s voice has never been heard,” Crespo said when asked about the significance of potentially becoming the city’s first trans Council member.

Crespo’s two opponents in the race as of now are Oswald Feliz, a state committee member for the 78th Assembly District, and Community Board 7 district manager Ischia Bravo. According to July financial disclosures, Crespo has raised $16,707, while Bravo raised $17,546 and Feliz raised $4,747.

Council Candidates Attract National Attention
Last month, the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a national organization with the mission of growing LGBTQ representation in elected office, announced their first five endorsements for next year’s Council races, noting the importance of starting early in New York’s “tough” political landscape. 

Those endorsees are Marti Gould Allen-Cummings, Erik Bottcher, Wilfredo Florentino, Seth Rosen, and Lynn Schulman.

Sean Meloy, the Victory Fund’s Senior Political Director, told Gotham Gazette, “we’re not done. These are the first five that have been in touch with us.” Victory Fund’s criteria for endorsements are that candidates must be openly LGBTQ and have a record of fighting for the community, support reproductive freedom, and show viability.

Meloy said a Victory Fund endorsement is a “stamp of approval” that signals to donors and other stakeholders that particular LGBTQ candidates have been vetted and have a shot at winning. He calls the fund “the gay Emily’s List,” referring to the organization that does similar work with women candidates. The two groups share some cofounders.

Meloy points to Torres’ recent success as an example of the Victory Fund’s work building a “pipeline” of LGBTQ candidates. The group backed Torres when he was first running for City Council in 2013 and then again early in his run for Congress. He says the group got the message out nationally that Torres was “the only viable progressive alternative to Ruben Diaz Sr.,” and worked to publicize more broadly Diaz Sr.’s record of homophobia and misogyny.

“We need to elect over 22,544 more LGBTQ people to offices around the country to even have a baseline level of parity in government,” Meloy told Gotham Gazette, noting that there are currently about 843 LGTBQ elected officeholders nationwide. That number has more than doubled since June 2016.

Candidates of Color Chart Own Path
“The LGBTQ movement was for a very long time led by a white face, but now it is a new moment,” said Nemir-Olivares, noting how recent Black Lives Matter protests coincided with Pride Month through demonstrations such as the Queer Liberation March against Police Brutality and Black Trans Lives Matter March. “We’re living at a critical moment at which identities and life experiences are coming into the forefront of political discussion.”

“The LGBTQ community is not in a silo,” Nemir-Olivares continued. “We’ve always been part of the racial justice movement, which includes a lot of queer activists. Before, people wanted to see them as separate issues, but candidates like Jabari Brisport and myself really represent that connection.”

Of the five current members of the Council’s LGBT Caucus, two are people of color, which is not reflective of the city’s LGBTQ population as a whole, which mirrors the demographic proportions of the general population (about three-fifths of New York City’s population is people of color).

“When we talk about the LGBTQ community in New York City, we’re not talking about cisgender white men,” said Wilfredo Florentio, a gay Black candidate running in Brooklyn’s Council District 42.

Florentino has raised $11,731 for his campaign, compared to $23,475 raised by his only opponent in the race, Nikki Lucas, according to the most recent financial disclosure reports.

Several LGBTQ candidates of color, including Florentino, are currently running across the city and, in June, six of them announced that they had formed “a coalition of Black and Brown progressive candidates this Pride Month that offers an historic choice to voters in next year’s elections,” according to a statement put out by the group. The list also includes Crespo, Crystal Hudson (CD 35), Chris Sosa (CD 5), Josue Pierre (CD 40), and Kristin Richardson Jordan (CD 9).

Florentino told Gotham Gazette that “POC LGBTQ candidates are not being considered viable. There is an air of viability as it relates to non-POC candidates, but BIPOC candidates have to work even harder to prove we are qualified.”

Nemir-Olivares agrees, noting that “the founders of the LGBTQ movement were a Black and a Latinx transgender women,” referring to activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.

“Representation matters. If we don’t see ourselves in officials that represent us, how can we ever aspire to serve our community in that way?” Florentino said. “When all of the focus is on non-BIPOC LGBTQ candidates, we are doing a disservice to POC-led movements like Stonewall.”

Richardson Jordan says she is “a Black queer democratic socialist and abolitionist on a mission to disrupt local Harlem district 9 with radical love.” While most of the 2021 LGBTQ candidates consider themselves progressives, Richardson Jordan appears to be the only one as of now who is a member of the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. She notes that she was calling for police and prison abolition even before the recent resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests.

This week, Richardson Jordan announced that she had raised $42,046, while incumbent Council Member Bill Perkins, who is not term-limited but may not be running for reelection, has not raised any funds towards a potential reelection campaign as of yet.

In Queens' Council District 25, Alfonzo Quiroz, who is of Mexican descent, is running to replace the term-limited Dromm.

Speaker's Heir Apparent
Erik Bottcher, currently Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s district chief of staff, is running to succeed his boss and be the district’s fourth consecutive openly gay Council member. Johnson told The City that he was fully backing Bottcher’s bid when his chief of staff announced in February and Bottcher is supportive of his current boss’ mayoral aspirations as Johnson eyes becoming the city’s first openly gay Mayor.

Bottcher previously worked for Governor Andrew Cuomo, first as a liaison to the gay and transgender communities during Cuomo’s 2010 campaign and then in Cuomo’s gubernatorial administration during the passage of marriage equality in 2011.

When asked how LGBTQ politics has changed in the decade since marriage equality was passed in New York, Bottcher told Gotham Gazette, “Ten years ago when I began in government, we were fighting for things like gays in the military, marriage equality, and visitation rights. We’ve made progress on those issues, but we have so much farther to go, particularly for transgender Americans.”

“Addressing inequities and disparities faced by trans people of color must include funding of programs. Government needs to show the money,” Bottcher said when asked what issues are currently most important for the LGBTQ community. “A strong LGBTQ [City Council] Caucus is needed to advocate for this during the budget process.”

“The next LGBTQ Caucus should have at least seven members, which is what we had until [the end of 2017] when Council Members Rosie Mendez and Jimmy Vacca termed out,” Bottcher said when asked what the ideal number of LGBTQ Council members would be.

“Any time policy is being discussed, people involved in the conversation have to be representative of our city,” Bottcher said, adding “if the people at the table don’t represent New York, that creates an opening for policy that doesn’t serve the people well.”

Bottcher currently has two opponents in the race for District 3, Marni Halasa and Phelan-Dante Fitzpatrick. Halasa is a lawyer and figure skating coach, as well as an activist for tenants’ rights and small businesses. Fizpatrick, who currently works at DSK Retail, is running to be the first gay Black person to represent the district.

As of the July financial disclosures, Bottcher has raised $114,356, the most of any non-incumbent Council candidate running in 2021, compared to Halasa’s $1,740 and Fitzpatrick’s $500.

COVID-19 & Community Responses
“As we look to recover from this pandemic, it’s going to be really important that we’re creating job and housing opportunity for the people who need them,” Crystal Hudson, the former First Deputy Public Advocate for Community Engagement under Jumaane Williams and a candidate in Brooklyn’s Council District 35, told Gotham Gazette.

According to her July financial disclosure, Hudson has raised $66,328 in campaign funds thus far, which is over ten times as much as her nearest opponent in that race.

“All issues are queer issues,” she said in an interview. “The queer community as a whole is in need of all the same things everybody else is in need of and, because we don’t always have access to the same resources, sometimes the need is far greater.”

Hudson pointed to the high levels of homelessness that LGBTQ youth experience as an example of how larger issues can have a particular impact on the LGBTQ community. “They experience homelessness as much as people who don’t fall into that category.”

“Now is as great a time as any for us to show the importance of centering a voice like mine as a black queer woman,” said Hudson. “We lead from a different place. I’m centered on community and I want to follow the lead of my community.”

During the pandemic, Hudson founded Greater Prospect Heights Mutual Aid, a volunteer network of neighbors supplying food and running errands, among other help, for people in need in Prospect Heights and the surrounding areas.

“Running as a black queer woman is always challenging and difficult. I think that’s why there’s not many of us in these spaces,” said Hudson.

“The Council has come a long way,” Hudson said, “but the fact that I have the potential to be the first or among the first two black queer women shows that we have so much further to go.”

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated with the addition of Alfonso Quiroz.

Wave of LGBT Candidates Eyes City Council Seats in 2021 Elections Wed, 22 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
2020 Primaries: Winds of Change Shifting Latino Politics in New York City 4 primaries latino

Ritchie Torres (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

As this month’s primary election results seem to be proving, the winds of change are blowing and are shifting the direction of Latino politics in New York City. Has a new era of leadership in Latino political representation arrived?

In the Bronx, Ritchie Torres seems to be ahead with a comfortable margin, defeating Michael Blake, long-time politico Ruben Diaz, Sr., and many others in the 15th Congressional District. In these pages I predicted that Torres was one to take very seriously. The future has arrived. When all ballots are counted, I expect Torres to pull off the victory.

Torres now joins Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), Nydia Velazquez, and Adriano Espaillat as the Latino congressional representatives in New York City. Torres and AOC, though, represent a new and perhaps more progressive voice, one that is representative of the younger Latino generation. Surveys indicate that members of this younger generation tend to be more progressive than their parents and grandparents. Three years ago (when AOC was still bartending) I wrote: “Torres is charismatic, well-liked by his peers, and whip-smart. He has the uncanny ability to probe and articulate complex policy matters. At 29 years of age, Torres will surely be one to watch for years to come.”

Now with a bigger platform, I anticipate that Torres will be a formidable force on behalf of the Latino community for years to come.

Perhaps the strongest wind of change in Latino politics is blowing from Queens. Jessica González-Rojas appears to be defeating incumbent Assemblymember Michael DenDekker. González-Rojas, who was endorsed by Tiffany Cabán but interestingly enough not AOC, is now the fourth Latina to be elected in Queens, following the elections of AOC, Jessica Ramos, and Catalina Cruz two years ago.

Two things are important about these successes: First, that we are seeing the rise of female representation among Latino political representatives. Latinas have rightly felt emboldened by the lack of progress that was evident in our communities and have responded by elbowing their way to the table, knowing that they have something to offer and contribute to Latino communities. And the communities are responding by electing them.

Currently, there are 31 Latino elected officials in the city, including the addition of González-Rojas. Women now represent 42% of all Latino elected officials in the city—from Congress to the City Council. (Here, I am not including the numerous women that hold party positions.) While there is much more to do to make that figure more representative of the Latina presence within the electorate and society at large, the trend is encouraging.

With the re-election of the women mentioned above, and the election of González-Rojas, the 2020 primary election cycle may come to be known as the year of the Latina. It’s about time! I am certain that the late Olga Mendez, the first Latina in the country to be elected to the state Legislature (representing East Harlem for many years) is smiling from above.

Additionally, the addition of González-Rojas to Queens’ representation also marks a shift in the center of Latino voter participation and presence. Whereas formerly the Bronx was almost exclusively where Latino elected officials resided, we are now seeing the results of what has been a steady increase in the Latino population in Queens. As we’ve seen with AOC, Ramos, Cruz, and now González-Rojas, more Latino candidates are being elected in the borough of Queens. The Archie Bunker days seem to be over. A new era is being ushered in.

In the future, I will take a deeper dive into the significance of the Latino vote in this primary cycle. For now, as results continue to trickle in and as we await the Board of Elections’ counting of absentee ballots and certification of outcomes, the Latino community should be proud of its seeming awakening.

Eli Valentin is a political analyst and author of the forthcoming book, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Political Life. On Twitter @EliValentinNY.

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2020 Primaries: Winds of Change Shifting Latino Politics in New York City Thu, 25 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
A Pandemic and A Primary in the Most Impoverished Congressional District in the Country Ritchie Torres Ruben Diaz Sr congress

Ritchie Torres looks at Ruben Díaz Sr. (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

This story, and the series it is a part of, has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.


New York City has had very limited success in the voter turnout department for congressional elections in recent years. For the 2018 congressional primaries, the turnout did go up — to 11 percent, from a shockingly low 8 percent in 2016. Though the Bronx was part of a huge surge in turnout for state elections in 2018, the last primary election to take place in the borough’s heavily-Democratic 15th congressional district, in 2016, netted a voter turnout of just under 3 percent.

That’s during ordinary times in a district that encompasses south and west Bronx neighborhoods including Hunts Point, Melrose, Tremont, Fordham, and Bedford Park, which collectively make up the country’s poorest and most nonwhite district.

To add to the structural obstacles, would-be voters are now contending with the swirling maelstrom of a still-ongoing pandemic that has ravaged poorer communities in the global epicenter of New York, and its vast social and economic consequences; a mass popular uprising against police brutality that was met with a heavy-handed response from the NYPD; and confusion over whether the primary is even taking place, and if so, in what format.

The 15th congressional district has been one of the hardest hit by the novel coronavirus in what is thus far the most affected city in the country. A mix of higher prevalence of pre-existing conditions and higher concentrations of essential workers who couldn’t work from home has led to higher death rates in the Bronx and a dire socio-economic picture.

Beyond that, the district has some special political upheaval and intrigue this year: an “open” congressional seat, up for grabs for the first time in 30 years. Longtime Rep. José Serrano announced last year that he would not be seeking reelection following a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, setting off a scramble to succeed him.

Even by normal-year standards, it’s a crowded race with a deep bench of political figures with history in the district, many of whom have been waiting for just such an opportunity. No fewer than five of the primary contenders are current or former elected officials — City Council Members Ritchie Torres, Ydanis Rodríguez, and Rubén Díaz Sr.; Assemblymember Michael Blake (who is also a national vice chair of the Democratic National Committee); and former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

Also in the race are Samelys López, a community organizer and former aide to Serrano who has received the endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party, as well as progressive heavy hitters like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders; Chivona Newsome, a former financial advisor who co-founded Black Lives Matter of Greater New York; Tomas Ramos, a program director at the Bronx River Community Center; and a handful of others from outside the established political channels.

“I watched a panel the other day, and there were about five candidates that I wasn't even aware were running that were on that panel talk,” said Ed Mundo, a city tunnels and bridges worker who said he’s lived on the same South Bronx street since he was six years old. Mundo volunteers for a few community organizations, is active in pro-bike advocacy, and is more politically engaged than most of his neighbors, yet he still feels that there is precious little information trickling out about the candidates and the election.

In the current moment of crisis, Mundo worries that “a lot of folks are not aware there is a primary. So many folks are just accustomed to the November elections, see whoever is on that ballot, then they vote.”

The race has become particularly high-profile as a result of its position at the intersection of several broader political currents and movements — longtime political establishment versus insurgent outsiders; the chance to shift the balance of power for the first time in decades; the acute power of federal policy-making during moments of crisis in particular. There’s also the Díaz Sr. factor, as a long-serving, socially-conservative Democrat with strong name recognition, a solid base of support, and a polarizing presence is within striking distance of victory. He has no dearth of critics in the district, a fact that has seemed not to phase him; in fact, he appears to thrive in controversy. His presence in the race has driven local and national attention to the primary.

For the residents of the district, it’s an opportunity to collectively exert real influence, and the race has appeared very much up in the air. Motivating even small groups to turn out can make all the difference, lifting the voices of those living in a district with such great needs.

Several campaigns told Gotham Gazette that they were focused on providing support and services to the community in lieu of pure campaigning. “What we do is we ask people how they're feeling, how they're doing. If they need anything, if they need an errand to run, if they have a need for food,” López said in late May.

“Whenever my volunteers and I are out in the field,” said Torres, “we're limiting ourselves to distributing food and PPE and doing no electioneering out in the field at the moment. The reason for which is simple: campaigning, business as usual, would come off as insensitive to the deep suffering in the South Bronx.”

Newsome said she had her volunteers teaching people how to file for unemployment, and had been riding around the Bronx in a truck with supplies including diapers and baby food. Mark-Viverito has been working with a local restaurant to provide meals to undocumented residents. Not everyone has executed this notion without controversy; Díaz Sr. has been accused of piggybacking off of food distribution events that neither his office nor campaign was involved in to raise his profile, distribute campaign materials and electioneer.

The aid strategy has also been embraced by community organizations, who are focused on simultaneously providing the type of support that their members and clients have always relied on them for, while gently prodding them to exercise their civic voice in the election.

“We started doing care packages, and in those care packages we have a bunch of those safety supplies, some tea, some canned foods, some Asian groceries and veggies. And then we've also put resources and materials in there,” said Khamarin Nhann, campaign director for Mekong NYC, which provides community organizing, cultural activities, assistance with public benefits, and other social services for the Southeast Asian community. These materials include those related to the 2020 Census, access to health care, and elections, including information about where to vote and how to vote in-person and via mail.

The question of tone is one that comes up often as a contentious, high-stakes election unfolds amid a multi-faceted humanitarian crisis. There is real and obvious devastation throughout the district. Yet the overlapping crises to some degree present the opportunity to very plainly tie the political questions at stake to Bronxites’ lived experiences. Questions related to jobs, affordable housing, food security, health care, and police relations have never been abstract in what is the poorest and most nonwhite district in the country, but the pandemic and the social unrest have brought everything into stark relief.

“There are absolutely competing needs for our folks. We've seen our members really struggle with food or worried that when the eviction moratorium ends, will they become homeless and what that looks like,” said Sandra Lobo, the executive director of the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC). “What we've tried to do is really equip our folks with an understanding, a deeper analysis that, what they do, how they vote, and how they organize, absolutely impacts what's next for all of us.”

This has involved emphasizing that none of these issues exist in isolation, and in fact they compound; any effort to tackle the current emergencies must also tackle the circumstances that let them get so bad, especially in the district. “I think communities of color, low-income communities, have always struggled with layered issues,” said Lobo. “We've seen our folks really understand and be sophisticated about, where does the power lie, both in organizing and in the electoral system?”

There are particular groups for whom federal policy-making looms particularly large; for example, healthcare workers, many of whom are represented by 1199SEIU, a union that has endorsed Blake, who has amassed a great deal of labor support in the race.

“We've had our members engaging our congressional leaders. We've done roughly 20 video conferences with our New York delegation, where we've had members…explain the realities of what's going on in the frontline,” said an 1199SEIU official who asked not to be identified. “I think that helped our members make the connection, or made it stronger, that politics is the way that we make the transition” to a system more responsive to their needs.

Nhann said that particularly in the last couple of weeks, he’d actually seen a spike in the number of community residents interrogating the decisions of their political leaders. He dismissed “this whole notion that just because folks don't speak English, they're not aware of politics or they're not aware what's going on in the news. For the most part, our folks are actually pretty savvy.”

Dariella Rodríguez of The Point CDC, a community development nonprofit, said the organization’s approach partly centered around making clear that the district was particularly hard hit not just because of decisions made during the pandemic, but decisions made before. “Although we are struggling with the impact of covid in our community, we've been burdened with issues around respiratory health and asthma, issues with water quality — we've been burdened with those issues for a very long time. We've been saying we know when something like this happens, our community is at higher risk.”

For her part, Newsome has found a natural connection between her work with Black Lives Matter and the campaign, particularly as the outrage over police brutality again takes center stage in New York and nationally. Even before current wave of protests, Newsome said she had been part of a group pressuring Governor Andrew Cuomo to acknowledge that “the NYPD was incapable and incompetent in handling the enforcement of social distancing.” The current popular movements presented an opportunity to connect police brutality directly with political participation.

No one knows how many of the roughly 337,000 eligible Democratic voters in the 15th congressional district will cast a ballot, absentee or in-person, for this month’s election. In 2016, Serrano received just over 9,000 votes in the Democratic primary, beating an opponent who received just over 1,000. A total of about 74,000 votes were cast in the district during the 2016 presidential primary. In 2018, Serrano did not have a primary, but won the general election with around 125,000 votes to his opponent’s 5,000.

One quirk of a low-turnout race is that very small differences in the number of votes cast for each candidate can determine a win and a loss. This fact has taken on an added salience for progressives in the district given the candidacy of Díaz Sr., an always controversial and regularly offensive political figure. A pentecostal minister, he is probably the most socially-conservative Democrat holding political office in the city, having staked out positions opposing abortion and marriage equality. A comment claiming that the City Council was “controlled by the homosexual community” last year got his issue committee disbanded and prompted calls for his resignation. He has also called into question the mandate to report sexual harassment.

Nonetheless, he has held political office in the Bronx for nearly 20 years continuously and enjoys a base of support with religious and conservative Latino residents, who have a strong presence in the district. He won his seat at the Council just three years ago, edging out more progressive challengers as he moved from the state Senate with at least tacit support from much of the political establishment. The concern that candidates to his left will split the vote and hand Díaz Sr. the primary win is being used to varying extents by rival campaigns.

Torres in particular appears to be making opposition to Díaz Sr. a centerpiece of the turnout effort. “From day one, I have been sounding the alarm about the threat of a Trump Republican representing the most Democratic district in America,” he said, adding that in the home stretch of the campaign, he would be pitching himself as the candidate most able to head off this threat. Díaz Sr. did not respond to messages seeking comment. He has repeatedly ducked debates in the race.

A significant concern is that there will be issues not only of enthusiasm, but mechanics. An attempt by the state Board of Elections to cancel the Democratic presidential primary over coronavirus concerns failed when a federal judge ruled that it had to be held, in response to a lawsuit filed by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Yet a number of voters may have heard that the primary was off, but not back on.

Disseminating the information can be difficult, partly because some of the community groups and campaigns involved aren’t entirely sure what the correct information is. “Is the election going on? Where's my polling station? Can I vote early? Who are the candidates? Where's the platform? All of those have been communicated via text via email, via phone,” said Lobo.

The point was echoed by some of the candidates. “There's a lot of confusion. There was that whole back-and-forth around the presidential primary and canceling it, not canceling it. So some people assume that the primary completely is canceled,” said Mark-Viverito.

Some number of voters won’t want to go to the polls due to the extant viral threat, leaving the option of absentee voting, and herein lies another problem: unlike 34 other states, New York typically doesn’t allow “no excuse” absentee voting. In April, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order making the coronavirus part of the existing “excuse” of illness and directing county boards of elections to mail absentee ballot applications to all eligible voters, but the lack of a prior generalized avenue for absentee voting has left many voters unfamiliar with how it works and the New York City Board of Elections appears to be straining under the demand, leaving many unanswered questions as voting of all kinds wraps up on primary day, June 23.

Mundo, the community resident, said he’d gotten a ballot application in late May. “It looks like traditional junk mail. So if you're not actively looking for it, you may bypass it. Or someone like my mother, who's been out of town since April, she's not even going to get that application.”

Rodríguez of The Point said that the group had been providing staff members specifically to explain to voters how poll sites (both for early voting and primary day) work and how to access absentee voting. “We're using apps to do mass texting, we're using social media, we're using Zoom, WhatsApp and Signal. There's even been suggestions of other kinds of apps that folks from other countries use, especially Southeast Asian communities,” she said.

The Point, NWBCCC, and Mekong all had a built-in advantage in that they were part of a coalition that spent months crafting a “people’s platform” that had community delegates participate in crafting a set of issues and proposals meant to be representative of the entire district’s political priorities. The listserv has been useful in disseminating information to the community at large, even via word-of-mouth from individual influential residents.

Fundamentally, the winning approach seems to be one of illuminating how the extant crises are manifestations of broader systemic issues. “You can’t separate the political from the personal, especially at these times,” said López. “So this is the time that we need to rally and organize for the kind of society that we want to live in. And those are the kinds of conversations that we've been having through the phone banks.”


This story, and the series it is a part of, has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

A Pandemic and A Primary in the Most Impoverished Congressional District in the Country Mon, 22 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
WATCH: Democratic Primary Debate in the Bronx's 15th Congressional District bx debate 514

left to right: (top) Michael Blake, Chivona Newsome, Frangell Basora, Samelys Lopez
(bottom): Melissa Mark-Viverito, Tomas Ramos, Ydanis Rodriguez, Ritchie Torres

On Thursday, May 14, eight Democratic candidates vying to replace retiring Bronx Congressional Rep. José E. Serrano met for an online debate hosted by Gotham Gazette, City Limits, The Point CDC, and other partners.

The debate, watched by hundreds on Zoom and Facebook Live, with a Spanish translation phone line, can be viewed via the embedded video below.

Participating candidates were Frangell Basora; Michael Blake; Chivona Newsome; Samelys Lopez; Melissa Mark-Viverito; Tomas Ramos; Ydanis Rodriguez; and Ritchie Torres.

The debate was moderated by Gotham Gazette's Ben Max, with questions asked by Daniel Parra of City Limits, Sierra Straker of The Point, and Parker Quinlan of Hunts Point Express/Mott Haven Herald.

Serrano is retiring from Congress after 30 years due to health reasons, so his seat in New York's 15th Congressional District is effectively open and a crowded field has formed in the Democratic primary, set to be decided in June. Given it is one of the most Democratic districts in the country, the winner of the primary is all but certain to be the next member of the House of Representatives from the Bronx district home to some of the highest poverty rates in the country.

Voting is just around the corner: primary day is June 23, with early voting from June 13 through June 21, and all eligible voters will be mailed an absentee ballot given the coronavirus outbreak.

Ruben Diaz, Sr., also a candidate for the office, did not agreed to participate in the debate. (There will be other candidates on the ballot, but they have not mounted serious campaigns as indicated by a total lack of fundraising and were not invited to the dbeate: Mark Escoffery-Bey, Julio Pabon, Marlene Tapper.)

The 15th is the only Congressional district located entirely within the Bronx. It covers Mott Haven, Hunts Point, Melrose, High Bridge, Port Morris, Clason Point, Morrisania, Concourse Village, East Tremont, Tremont, Morris Heights, Castle Hill, University Heights, Bronx River, Belmont, Shorehaven, Claremont Village, Fordham, West Farms, Longwood, Mount Hope, Soundview and Harding Park.

Watch the candidates discuss their records and platforms and answer questions about the coronavirus response, housing, immigration, jobs, and more:

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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WATCH: Democratic Primary Debate in the Bronx's 15th Congressional District Sat, 16 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Intense Competition for 'Open' Bronx Congressional Seat: Watch the District 15 Democratic Debate on Thursday May 14 Michael Blake, Renee Chivona, Ruben Diaz Sr., Samelys Lopez, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Tomas Ramos, Ydanis Rodriguez, Ritchie Torres

left to right: (top) Michael Blake, Chivona Newsome, Ruben Diaz Sr., Samelys Lopez
(bottom): Melissa Mark-Viverito, Tomas Ramos, Ydanis Rodriguez, Ritchie Torres

With longtime Representative José E. Serrano retiring from Congress after 30 years due to health reasons, his seat in New York's 15th Congressional District is effectively open and a crowded field has formed in the Democratic primary, set to be decided in June. Given it is one of the most Democratic districts in the country, the winner of the primary is all but certain to be the next member of the House of Representatives from the Bronx district home to some of the highest poverty rates in the country.

With the vote just around the corner -- primary day is June 23, with early voting from June 13 through June 21 and all voters eligible for absentee balloting given the coronavirus outbreak -- 8 of the Democratic candidates will debate on Thursday, May 14, from 6-8 p.m.

The debate, hosted by Gotham Gazette, City Limits, The Point CDC, and other partners, will be streamed via Zoom (at this link) and Facebook (at this link).

The debate will also be translated in Spanish at 1-800-719-6100 followed by the access code of 1157388. Those interested in Spanish translation can watch the debate by Zoom or Facebook while listening via the aforementioned phone line.

The participating candidates include: Frangell Basora; Michael Blake; Chivona Newsome; Samelys Lopez; Melissa Mark-Viverito; Tomas Ramos; Ydanis Rodriguez; and Ritchie Torres.

Ruben Diaz, Sr., also a candidate for the office, has not agreed to participate in the debate. (There will be other candidates on the ballot, but they have not mounted serious campaigns as indicated by a total lack of fundraising: Mark Escoffery-Bey, Julio Pabon, Marlene Tapper.)

Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max will moderate the debate, and panelists will include Sierra Straker of The Point CDC's youth advisory group; reporters Daniel Parra of City Limits and Parker Quinlan of the Hunts Point Express and Mott Haven Herald.

The 15th is the only Congressional district located entirely within the Bronx. It covers Mott Haven, Hunts Point, Melrose, High Bridge, Port Morris, Clason Point, Morrisania, Concourse Village, East Tremont, Tremont, Morris Heights, Castle Hill, University Heights, Bronx River, Belmont, Shorehaven, Claremont Village, Fordham, West Farms, Longwood, Mount Hope, Soundview and Harding Park.

Tune in at 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 14 via Zoom or Facebook.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Intense Competition for 'Open' Bronx Congressional Seat: Watch the District 15 Democratic Debate on Thursday May 14 Wed, 13 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
City Council to Pass Bill Capping What Food Delivery Apps Can Charge Restaurants, Sponsor Says images shot day

Restaurants are struggling to survive during the lockdown (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

As New York City’s mom-and-pop restaurants struggle to survive in lockdown conditions owing to the coronavirus pandemic, the New York City Council appears poised to help them cut costs by passing a bill to cap fees charged by third-party delivery services, which have proliferated in recent years via phone apps.

Small restaurants that cannot afford delivery workers or have recognized the popularity of the apps rely on the third-party services like Grubhub, Seamless (which is owned by Grubhub), DoorDash, and Uber Eats, which charge significant fees that eat into an establishment’s profits. Those fees, hidden from customers who use the services, can include charges for processing, delivery, and commissions, and can end up hurting, rather than helping a food establishment’s business.

A particularly harsh example made waves on social media when a pizza restaurant owner, Giuseppe Badalamenti, in Chicago posted details of a Grubhub invoice on Facebook. Orders that totalled about $1,042 over the month of March only netted him about $376 after Grubhub took its cuts. “Stop believing you are supporting your community by ordering from a 3rd party delivery company,” Badalamenti wrote on Facebook in a post that went viral.

Grubhub defended the fees in a statement to the Chicago Tribune. “Restaurant owners select the services they want and only pay a commission to Grubhub when we help generate sales. Grubhub is happy to work with restaurant partners to help them manage costs and grow their business,” the statement said.

Restaurant owners and trade associations in New York City have been complaining about the fees charged by the app-based delivery companies for some time, with the temperature significantly raised amid the coronavirus shutdown wherein restaurants are only allowed to offer delivery and takeout. “The third-party delivery platform situation was a crisis before we were in this crisis,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, in testimony before a remote Council hearing on the bill on April 29. “What companies like Grubhub and Seamless are doing is using sophisticated techniques to basically extract as much money as possible out of businesses pre- and during this pandemic.”

The bill before the New York City Council, which its lead sponsor says will soon pass, will limit any fees charged by a third-party delivery service at 10% of the total purchase price of an online order.

The bill was introduced by Queens Council Member Francisco Moya in February, well before the coronavirus made it a far more urgent issue, and has since been amended to account for the pandemic. In the case of a declared public emergency, the bill limits delivery fees to 10% and prohibits any other fees. The law would go into effect immediately and carries a hefty $1,000 penalty for each violation. Moya told Gotham Gazette the bill will be voted on and passed at the next full meeting of the City Council, which was originally scheduled for May 5 but has been recheduled for May 13. "Yes," Moya said, when asked if the bill will be voted on and passed by the full Council (it will have to be passed in Council committee first).

A spokesperson for Council Speaker Corey Johnson declined to comment for this article.

When the outbreak began, Moya and others were somewhat optimistic that delivery service companies would come to the aid of small businesses. On March 13, Grubhub had announced that it would temporarily stop collecting commissions of up to $100 million, and set up a charitable fund for drivers and restaurants in several cities, including New York, San Francisco, Boston, Portland and Chicago, where the company was founded and is headquartered.

“Independent restaurants are the lifeblood of our cities and feed our communities. They have been amazing long-term partners for us, and we wanted to help them in their time of need. Our business is their business – so this was an easy decision for us to make,” said Matt Maloney, Grubhub Founder and CEO, in a statement at the time. 

But, as Badalamenti found out the hard way, Grubhub is still making a tidy sum off commission, delivery, and processing fees. His invoice also included charges for promotional services that he chose.

“There’s a word for things that feed off the lifeblood of others and that’s of course is leeches,” Moya said in a phone interview. “Grubhub is still coming after these [restaurants], and they’re gonna suck them dry if we don’t help level the playing field.”

He added of his district that includes Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and Corona, “I represent an area where it’s a large immigrant community. These are small family-owned restaurants. They can barely afford to keep the doors open, let alone sustain the fees that they're being charged.”

Inquiries to Grubhub went unanswered. Harry Hartield, a spokesperson for Uber Eats said in a statement, “Restaurants have the option to choose different services at different commission levels. With Uber Eats, they can choose to pay a lower commission and pay for full-time delivery people themselves. Many restaurants don’t have the resources to do that and they choose to have Uber Eats cover all the costs and logistics of delivery. This law would simply shift the costs back onto small, local restaurants who can afford it the least.”

A DoorDash spokesperson made a similar argument, noting that the company has cut commissions in half for small restaurants as part of a $100 million effort at commission relief and marketing support. “Unfortunately, an arbitrary cap could limit the services we can provide to local restaurants and ultimately hurt couriers who need these work opportunities more than ever,” the spokesperson said.

The bill doesn’t yet make a distinction between those different types of arrangements. For instance, restaurants with their own delivery workers and those that rely on the service’s delivery workers would be subject to the same cap. Moya did say, however, that final negotiations about the bill are ongoing before it is passed, and that it could be tweaked to separate caps on delivery fees from caps on commission and processing fees. The bill has 14 co-sponsors so far in the 51-seat Council.

Moya’s bill is also part of a larger package of regulations regarding third-party food delivery services that were the subject of the remote hearing on April 29, held jointly by the Committee on Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing, Committee on Small Business, and Committee on Housing and Buildings. Other proposed measures include requirements for disclosure to consumers of the fees and commissions charged to restaurants as well as requiring a license from the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, among other bills.

Bronx Council Member Ritchie Torres said on Twitter the bills aim to “protect struggling restaurants from outrageous fees from food delivery apps & to ensure delivery workers receive their well-earned tips in full. We must protect restaurants so they’re able to return & thrive."

In the virtual hearing, Amy Healy, a Grubhub representative, called the bills an example of “government overreach.” Brooklyn Council Member Justin Brannan pushed the company to voluntarily commit to a fee cap, but the company said that would force it to operate with losses. “Restaurants may have been deemed ’essential’ during #COVID19 but it ain't peaches & cream. They are all struggling to make ends meet with take-out & delivery as their only means of staying afloat. NYC must institute an emergency 10% cap on all delivery apps,” Brannan tweeted.

Other proposed measures include requirements for disclosure to consumers of the fees and commissions charged to restaurants as well as requiring a license from the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, among other bills.

“[M]y agency and administration, generally we agree with the issues that the Council is trying to address with these bills,” said DCWP Commissioner Lorelei Salas, a de Blasio appointee, at the hearing. “Given the ongoing emergency and fiscal situation, it would be challenging for us to contemplate taking on a broad area of new regulation. With that said, we want to work with the Council to figure out the best pathway forward and what we can do to help small businesses that most need this help right now.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated to note that the next full Council meeting has been rescheduled for May 13. 

City Council to Pass Bill Capping What Food Delivery Apps Can Charge Restaurants, Sponsor Says Sat, 02 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
City Council to Hold Oversight Hearing on 'Disparate Impacts of COVID-19 on Communities of Color' city council hearing

Mayor de Blasio visits health care workers (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Though the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged New York City, causing more than 17,000 deaths and untold devastation on the lives of residents, the impact has been worse for communities of color where existing disparities in economic status and access to health care have only been exacerbated. On Thursday, the New York City Council will hold a remote oversight hearing to examine those disparities, their causes, and the steps that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration is taking to tackle the problem.

The hearing will be led by the Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations, chaired by Council Member Ritchie Torres, a Bronx Democrat who himself contracted and recovered from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“Our goal for the hearing is to understand how systemic failures and injustices in the healthcare system, housing, education and environmental degradation contributed to communities of color being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” Torres said in a statement. “We'll hear directly from experts knowledgeable about how disparities in these areas exacerbated the spread of COVID-19.”

Council Speaker Corey Johnson said, “The Council is holding this hearing to hear from both experts and impacted communities about what is causing these disparate impacts so we can chart a path forward for a more equitable city that eventually closes these gaps of racial inequality.”

On April 6, the city shared initial data that showed black and Latino New Yorkers dying at much higher rates than white and Asian people. De Blasio expressed both a lack of surprise and indignation. Though equity, including racial and ethnic equity and good health care for all, has been a major through-line since his first mayoral campaign, he spoke of the disparate coronavirus impacts almost as inevitable. He pledged additional resources, testing, and an added public information campaign in the hardest-hit neighborhoods.

Nearly three weeks later, on April 26, de Blasio announced the creation of a Task Force on Racial Inclusion and Equity to monitor efforts to mitigate the outbreak in communities of color and to ensure that long-term recovery programs are focused on remediating existing inequities.

The task force was one of several the mayor announced to focus on a “fair recovery” for the city. He also said he would convene yet another Charter Revision Commission, the third in his time as mayor and the second created by him directly (another commission was created by the City Council through legislation).

“This crisis is not only about a virus; it’s about the fallout from hundreds of thousands of our neighbors losing their jobs and struggling to provide for their families. It’s about the outsized devastation communities of color are facing across the country,” de Blasio said in a statement. “I am not only calling on New Yorkers from all walks of life to help us get our city back on its feet – I am calling on them to join me in the fight ahead for a fair recovery.”

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams had called on the administration two weeks ago to ensure a coordinated response to the impact of the outbreak on communities of color. On Sunday, Williams praised the mayor’s announcement but issued words of warning.

“Who comprises this task force, how quickly they are empowered to act, and the force of that action are paramount,” Williams said in a statement. “Throughout this crisis, our government has moved too slowly on all levels, and now we need to be quick and decisive. The primary function of this task force cannot be to engage in a long, protracted process of deliberation and study, dwelling on how we got here. We know this disparity was created by a long history of systemic inequities and injustices. Additional delays waste time that the people being devastated by this crisis-- those who are deemed essential but treated as expendable-- just don't have. Ultimately, we need results, not a report, and the work of this task force must have a voice in and be supported by the city's budget.”

The mayor’s new racial equity task force quickly faced criticism. Along with Deputy Mayor Phil Thompson, de Blasio appointed his wife, First Lady Chirlane McCray, to co-chair the group, which was seen by some as a political move to boost her reputation as she considers a possible bid for Brooklyn Borough President in an election set for next year. McCray has also been the architect and face of ThriveNYC, the city’s beleaguered mental health initiative that has stumbled over a dearth of results for the hundreds of millions put into the program.

Among those who criticized the mayor for appointing McCray was Brooklyn City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who is already a declared candidate in the Brooklyn Borough President race. “We need people that are health experts at the front lines that are doing this work,” Reynoso said in a phone interview. “I think of Chirlane McCray as a very capable and intelligent person. I just don’t think she’s an expert in handling any of these issues that we're talking about.”

Reynoso said the administration should not have been caught off guard by the disparate impact of the coronavirus on communities of color. “My biggest concern is that the mayor ran on a campaign of a ‘tale of two cities,’ so to me it feels like he understood the gross inequities that existed before the coronavirus hit,” he said, “and I just feel like we've had six-and-a-half years to adjust to many issues in a significant or an aggressive way.”

He noted in particular that the communities with the greatest rates of asthma are the poorest communities of color in the city, so the administration should have taken specific precautions to protect those populations from a respiratory disease like COVID-19. “So for me it just is very concerning,” Reynoso said. “We needed to wait for data and even after we got the data, we had to wait some more.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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City Council to Hold Oversight Hearing on 'Disparate Impacts of COVID-19 on Communities of Color' Tue, 28 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
As Council Passes Bill to Require It, Department of Investigation Set to Launch Dashboard Tracking Agency Reforms comm eco dev

Council Member Ritchie Torres (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

The New York City Department of Investigation, a watchdog agency that monitors corruption and more broadly evaluates the functioning of city agencies, will launch a database next month to track each and every reform recommendation it makes, going back to 2014 when Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, and how agencies are complying with them.

Every year, DOI issues hundreds, if not thousands, of Policy and Procedure Recommendations (PPRs) to city agencies to help them eliminate inefficiencies and improve protocols and services. The department, whose commissioner is nominated by the mayor and approved by the City Council to operate independently, has examined everything from the NYPD’s use-of-force policies to the New York City Housing Authority’s lead monitoring procedures.

But other agencies are free to accept or reject the recommendations since DOI’s reports do not carry the force of mandates, which also means agencies can choose whether to implement a recommended reform or not even if they accept it. DOI reports on the number of recommendations made each year and the percentage that are accepted in the annual Mayor’s Management Report. It does not point out how many are implemented by agencies.

In November, the City Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing on a bill, introduced by Council Member Ritchie Torres, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the committee, that would require an online, public-facing database of every recommendation made by DOI, how many are accepted or rejected, and how many are implemented. At the hearing, DOI Commissioner Margaret Garnet said the database was already being built.

Torres’ legislation, which was passed on Thursday by the City Council, also mandates the creation of a separate but linked database by the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District, a Department of Education watchdog that falls under DOI and reports to it but is operationally independent.

“The premise of the legislation is that an investigation is only as good as the long-term impact it produces,” Torres said in a brief phone interview. “What is the value of reforms that are never implemented? I think the dashboard will see to it that there is follow up and follow through.”

“It's a bill that affects the totality of city government,” he added. Requiring the databases by law means that the DOI under this mayor or another will not be able to do away with the practice it has pledged. The requirement will also make it more likely for follow-up by the Council in the form of oversight hearings.

The legislative mandate notwithstanding, a DOI spokesperson said the agency’s database is ready to be debuted. “This March, DOI is on track to unveil its policy and procedure recommendations (PPRS) database, which will be publicly available on DOI’s website and contains thousands of PPRs dating back to 2014,” said Dianne Struzzi, DOI spokesperson, in an email. “The database is the result of years of internal discussion and work by DOI and is supported by [Council Member Torres’] legislation.”

Torres said SCI, in negotiation with City Hall and DOI, had agreed to meet a July 1 deadline to build its own database which, unlike DOI’s dashboard, will only track reforms going forward. Nonetheless, Torres said his bill is “historic” since it would be the first time the Council would require greater accountability and transparency from SCI, “which has historically operated in secret.”

“The public is largely in the dark about the investigative findings and reforms of SCI,” he said. “So the fact that we're requiring reporting on a dashboard will mean that the public is going to have more knowledge about the work of SCI.”

The new databases will broadly help strengthen the Council’s oversight of city government, Torres emphasized, noting that the reform recommendations made so often by DOI aren’t just about improving simple agency procedures.

“It's questions like has NYCHA been effectively inspecting, remediating and abating lead? Is ACS effectively protecting the safety of children under its supervision? Is the NYPD effectively investigating rape cases?,” he said. “The dashboard will provide answers to questions whose stakes are a matter of life and death, whose stakes are a matter of public safety and public integrity.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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As Council Passes Bill to Require It, Department of Investigation Set to Launch Dashboard Tracking Agency Reforms Thu, 27 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Department of Investigation Commissioner Pledges to Eliminate 'Shameful' Background Check Backlog city oversight hearing

(photo: John McCarten/City Council)

The Department of Investigation, an independent city agency that monitors and investigates government corruption, waste, and mismanagement, has yet to complete thousands of background checks on workers currently employed in city government. At a hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations on Monday, DOI Commissioner Margaret Garnett sought to explain why the agency had fallen behind and assured Council members that the problem would not carry on into the future.

As of Friday, February 21, DOI had 5,122 backlogged background check applications from city agencies, down from about 6,479 on July 1, 2019, Garnett testified. She pledged that DOI “is successfully shrinking the massive backlog that had been growing for years and remains committed to eliminating it within four years, if not sooner. This issue is among my top priorities.” By that timeline, Garnett apparently meant from the time of her appointment last year.

Council Member Ritchie Torres, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the committee, said the backlog “is not only an embarrassment but it’s a threat to the integrity of city government.” He noted that backlog came under scrutiny in recent months after David Hay, a high-ranking official at the Department of Education whose file was included in that backlog, was arrested in Wisconsin in December on charges of seeking sex with a minor. Hay did undergo two checks by the DOE and Garnett has insisted that, even if her agency were to have conducted a background check, it would not have necessarily surfaced the red flags that were found in Hay’s past (he misrepresented certain facts in his file, only found through a subsequent investigation by the Special Commissioner of Investigation at the DOE).

Torres also cited the example of Kevin O’Brien, a former aide to Mayor Bill de Blasio who was fired after facing allegations of sexual harassment. O’Brien had previously been fired for the same reason from a job at the Democratic Governors Association, a fact that he lied about in a background check questionnaire. Garnett said it would have been hard to identify O’Brien’s red flags because the case involved a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) and he committed “perjury” by not disclosing it on his questionnaire.

“What I want to hear from DOI is a diagnosis of what went wrong,” Torres said in his opening statement. “Why was the Background Investigations Unit allowed to atrophy from neglect?”

Garnett made it clear that the backlog she inherited was a “shock” and that it seemed to stem largely from the department being woefully understaffed to handle the massive uptick in city hiring after de Blasio took office. She said she has been attempting to cut down that backlog since she took over as commissioner early last year, making it her priority to hire new investigators and restructure the Backgrounds Investigation Unit, she said.

The backlog increased from about 2,000 in the summer of 2014, de Blasio’s first year in office, to about 6,400 by April 2019, while DOI’s background investigation staff only saw moderate increases. “The current circumstance is shameful. It is a dereliction of DOI’s responsibility to the hiring agencies and to the city as a whole,” Garnett said.

The department also added 13 new positions with additional funding last year to create a team dedicated solely to resolving the backlog, while ensuring that a separate 28-person team completes all new background checks within six months of receiving an application from a city agency. Since July 1, the latter team has completed 766 new background investigations in an average of 71 days, Garnett said.

Garnett said she is taking additional steps to further reduce the backlog while maintaining a balance between the “objective” and “subjective” triggers for an investigation. One “objective” trigger is a salary of $100,000, which Garnett said she is considering increasing to $125,000. She said she would also tweak the categories of managerial employees that are currently subject to background investigations to narrow it somewhat. She also said the department is updating how the “subjective” criteria are defined, which cover employees such as those who have access to sensitive information-technology infrastructure and those who have the authority to negotiate and approve contracts, permits, and zoning applications.

She also seemed open to legislative fixes to the background investigation process. City agencies only send background check applications after making a hiring decision, and then help applicants fill out their forms before sending them to DOI. That means an agency employee could be on the job for months before DOI unearths any information that could mean they should not have been hired or are fired or disciplined.

Torres suggested that perhaps some aspects of the background check process could be preconditions for hiring. Garnett said fingerprinting and a criminal history check would be feasible. “We could accommodate it logistically if the agencies were willing to partner with us in doing that,” she said, emphasizing that “the agencies really control the pipeline.”

She also said she didn’t have “any inherent objection” to creating statutory timelines for background checks going forward, though she said that doesn’t apply to the backlog. “I would resist a legislative mandate regarding the backlog...Legislation’s kind of a blunt instrument,” she said.

“We think it’s surgical,” Torres replied.

Garnett also pushed back against the Council member suggestion that DOI inquire specifically about sexual misconduct in its background investigations, discussing both the Hay and O’Brien cases. “Given the national zeitgeist, the #MeToo movement, why not ask specifically about sexual misconduct?” he wondered.

Garnett cautioned against the approach, pointing out that DOI seeks any and all adverse information about a city employee, and that narrower questions could lead to limited answers. “I don’t think that privileging sexual harassment allegations over the range of other corruption vulnerabilities that are our primary focus, is the way to go.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Department of Investigation Commissioner Pledges to Eliminate 'Shameful' Background Check Backlog Mon, 24 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000