Gotham Gazette Mon, 19 Apr 2021 18:38:27 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) The Tragedy of Wealth Inequality in the City’s Asian-American Community, and What To Do About It Flushing celebration mayor's office

A celebration in Flushing, Queens (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

When I first entered office in 2013, I joined other elected officials in the time-honored tradition of attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Most of the time, these were for hotels, fancy restaurants, and even luxury condos.

Hard-hat and shovel in hand, I said the usual things about economic growth and prosperity that these projects would hopefully bring to Flushing, and we were all rewarded for this “insight” by the media.

This was the status quo—enabling private industries to launder their reputations through our offices while our constituents received corporate giveaways, free dinners, and other privately-subsidized handouts. Win-win, right?

But over time, it became impossible to ignore that the fulfillment of these promises of economic growth and prosperity was plunging large swaths of people into poverty. As more and more luxury condos began construction, we saw more and more homelessness in the streets. As more and more mega-malls neared completion, more and more elderly were digging for scraps in the trash.

Flushing is truly a tale of two cities: limitless opulence and wealth just blocks away from make-shift homes for the homeless.

The Pew Research Center recently reported that Asian-Americans lead all racial groups in wealth inequality. Those at the top earn nearly ten times more than those at the bottom – the highest among all ethnicities. This is why I am now calling on all Asian-American elected officials and candidates to join me in addressing wealth inequality.

Since my first election, there have been at least three life-altering experiences for me on this topic. These cases compelled me to focus entirely on the economic trauma now affecting the most marginalized people, many of Asian immigrant descent, in my district.

The first incident was in 2014. An older gentleman, early seventies with no family, entered my office using a walker. He could barely see due to his cataracts. He told me that he rode a casino bus every day to collect a $15-$20 voucher, and used that money to pay rent. He needed proof of residence to qualify for benefits, but lived in an illegally converted 1-bedroom apartment with five other seniors. How could this be?

The second took place the same year. We held an affordable housing town hall in the basement of a church, expecting 100 people at most—and nearly 1,200 came. Mostly seniors and older adults, many of them waited several hours before even entering. How could this be?

And lastly, in 2017, there was the tragic life and death of a migrant sex-worker named Yang Song. She was targeted and harassed for months, all because she tried to report being assaulted and raped by undercover police officers. They made her life a living hell until, one day, the police raided her massage parlor and she died fleeing from her abusers. A local real estate developer mocked her death on Facebook as just another “hooker splattering.” How could this be?

This economic trauma and dehumanization is directly linked to soaring wealth inequality. How else can we justify children starving in our own backyard as we enjoy their favorite dim sum? How else can we justify walking past the scores of homeless folks and crowded food lines while rushing off to brunch?

We live under a myth that pathologizes the poor and glorifies the rich. When you are poor, there is something inherently “bad” about you—fundamentally deficient. And when you’re rich, you’re a hard worker, a “good person” entitled to all the world can offer.

But it’s our system that sustains wealth inequality to such an extreme degree. It’s our system that rewards leaders for their short-termism, extractivism, and exploitation to advance “economic priorities.”

Case in point: a group of real-estate developers has proposed a 3 million-square-foot luxury development in Flushing, the Special Flushing Waterfront District. The threat of displacement for thousands of working class people is all too real. Yet not one local politician has joined me in speaking out against this travesty.

I know that for some it is easier to turn to the wealthy for handouts disguised as solutions, rather than hold them accountable for the worst economic divide among all groups.

But as Asian-American leaders we must come to terms with the crises of our times. We need to fight for tax justice and a fair, equitable relationship between business leaders and our community.

Our current tax codes reward big real estate developers. They are incentivized to raise and transfer tax-free capital, creating artificial community “value” while displacing our most vulnerable residents.

We need to progressively tax real wealth, inheritance, and capital gain to the point that it no longer makes sense for private investors to simply hoard vast fortunes. Make it more viable to re-circulate their money into local economies, instead of stockpiling it for their families to roll over into tax-free capital investments—which only further inequality.

Lastly, every mega-project must start with a labor agreement, a minimum of 25% real affordable housing, and a public environmental review.

The next time you venture down Roosevelt Avenue and Main Street -- or the thoroughfares in your neighborhood -- don’t look away from the homeless seniors, day laborers, and migrant workers. Let their suffering open your mind and heart, and make you care enough to change the conditions that led them there.

If you’re able to pass them without a second thought, I hope you enjoy your brunch.

Ron Kim is a member of the New York State Assembly from Flushing, Queens and adjunct professor at Cornell University. On Twitter @rontkim.

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The Tragedy of Wealth Inequality in the City’s Asian-American Community, and What To Do About It Sun, 29 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
New York Should Borrow to Plug Covid Budget Holes, But Not from Private Investors rontkim fiscal

Mayor de Blasio at a budget presentation (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson are aggressively lobbying the state Legislature to authorize the City of New York to borrow billions of dollars from private financial markets by selling municipal bonds through the Transitional Finance Authority.

Governor Andrew Cuomo also recently announced that if the federal government does not step up with stimulus money for New York, he is also open to borrowing money for our state.

Unfortunately, most people stop paying attention once they hear any financial jargon; the private investors want to keep it that way. In fact, they want the public to think that they are generously swooping in to save thousands of essential government jobs.

This is wholly false, and in bailing out our city and state we must resist borrowing from Wall Street and private investors as much as possible.

Taking private money will make the ultra wealthy even wealthier as, over the next 30 years, they collect hundreds of millions in interest from our city and state revenues. Most of their capital gains won’t even be taxed. New York’s economy will inevitably bounce back, and the 1% will continue to enrich themselves during a global crisis. 

An alternative, more responsible route is to borrow from The Federal Reserve (the Fed). It is openly allowing the city to tap into their vast public resources with a simple “Add to Cart” mouse click.

For the first time in history, the Fed has created the Municipal Liquidity Facility (MLF), a new pot of money designed for unprecedented times such to attract borrowers and spark economic reinvestment in communities. The MTA, for example, just secured $451 million in early August at a 1.92% rate, almost 1 point more competitive (or roughly $12 million) than borrowing from private banks. 

Consider this: the Fed is our currency issuer, and it never runs out of money. It is the world’s largest public bank, and it is not lending money in order to profit from natural catastrophes.

Borrowing from the MLF is more like borrowing from a family member with a magical money tree in their backyard -- we don’t really have to worry too much about paying them back on time. Moreover, “debt” to the Fed is not the same. The Fed will never come down on New York to bankrupt us, privatize public services, or negatively impact our credit ratings because their deficit ultimately adds real value to our communities.

Conversely, if New York City opts for private investors and faces another economic downturn in ten years, they will still come to collect, and possibly force us to privatize more public goods to fulfill our debt. 

Opponents of this route, like Wall Street underwriters and investment bankers, will continue telling the city the Fed’s terms and rates are not as competitive. But this is thoroughly dispelled by cases like the MTA's, so what’s really preventing this obvious path back to economic solvency?  

Corporate Democrats are unwilling to draw the line against the rich. Being self-anointed managers of corporate power has narrowed their logic and imaginative capacities. They resist new taxes and public money, two obvious solutions during this economic downturn, because their campaign donors and potential future employers -- maybe Citigroup or Goldman Sachs -- will be cut out of the deal if we turn to the Fed. 

Now is precisely the time to take full advantage of the Fed’s willingness to open up its lending facility to local governments. Leaving new money behind is reckless and irresponsible. It is money we need to make our teachers and kids safe in school, keep our public transit system solvent, and avoid painful job losses. If the Fed is willing to inject new money into municipal bond markets -- at a time when state and local governments need to employ resources and people for much-needed public services and social programs -- we have a moral obligation to take it.

Assemblymember Ron Kim represents parts of Queens. On Twitter @rontkim.

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New York Should Borrow to Plug Covid Budget Holes, But Not from Private Investors Thu, 17 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
The NYPD's Facial Recognition Policy Leaves A Lot of Leeway the Department Says It's Not Using 2 facial recog

An NYPD command center (photo: Edward Reed/Mayor's Office)

In the four months since the NYPD first published protocols limiting its use of facial recognition software, the coronavirus-caused state of emergency and recent civil unrest over police brutality made the considerable leeway in the policy all but total. Absent any formal legal framework at the city, state or federal level, the internal, non-binding departmental protocols are the only public policy governing New York's lawless frontier of biometric surveillance.

The police department has insisted it has not taken advantage of the expanded leeway, while privacy advocates are concerned about the potential for abuse. State lawmakers have introduced legislation that would curtail the use of facial recognition and other biometric surveillance, but its fate is unclear. There is no city legislation despite the City Council's recent effort to pass police reforms, including a new law that will mandate the NYPD disclose the surveillance tools it employs.

Facial recognition programs use artificial intelligence to match photographs with faces from digital databases, helping authorities identify anyone, from a figure in a crowd to the pedestrian who believes they are anonymous on the sidewalks of New York City.

The NYPD has 20,000 security cameras, a fleet of surveillance drones (equipped with powerful zoom and thermal imaging), and 24,000 officers roving the streets with body-worn cameras, all the images from which could be analyzed with facial recognition software.

Facial recognition is still a relatively nascient technology that has been shown to be less accurate on members of non-white minority groups, gender nonconforming people, and others. Privacy advocates believe once the technology is perfected the NYPD will, through its Domain Awareness System -- the department's bank of surveillance footage and data -- be capable of tracking a target's every move in public.

The new NYPD policy was published in the department's internal patrol guide on March 12, only after a BuzzFeed News investigative report revealed the NYPD was the single largest client of Clearview AI, the controversial company that developed one of the world's largest face databases by combing the internet for billions of images.

"This new policy clearly defines the permissible use of facial recognition technology and it strikes the right balance between public safety and privacy," said Police Commissioner Dermot Shea in a statement when the policy was adopted, two weeks after the BuzzFeed report.

Under the policy, officers may scan footage for faces if, among other reasons, they believe a crime has been committed or is about to be committed, or if there is "an imminent threat to health or public safety." Facial recognition can also be used in missing persons cases, to identify potential crime victims or witnesses, or people under arrest who refuse to identify themselves. There are no expressly prohibited uses.

Experts and privacy advocates warn that latitude makes just about anything subject to artificial intelligence surveillance without a warrant, from marching without a permit to simply looking suspicious.

"The protocols described by the facial identification policy are quite broad and are still open to rampant abuse," said Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP) at the Urban Justice Center.

Under the state of emergency, where social distancing orders make simply being in public a potential crime, the number of activities that can constitute a violation are far greater. Governor Andrew Cuomo's executive orders restricting public activity because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which happened to go into effect within days of the NYPD's facial recognition policy, give local governments the authority to issue civil and criminal penalties for violations, such as being within six feet of others without a face covering.

The NYPD has been enforcing social distancing throughout the state of emergency, at times using helicopters and drones to identify potential violators. Between March 16 and May 5, police arrested 120 people in connection with social distancing violations, more than two-thirds of whom were Black, and a quarter of whom were Hispanic.

"I think there is always risk that the NYPD is going to use 'imminent' risk and 'threat to health or safety' as a catchall authorizing any number of uses," said Michael Sisitzky, a New York Civil Liberties Union lawyer who specializes in police transparency. "So the policy is not anywhere near as limited as it would seem on its face."

"These policies are crafted to give the NYPD carte blanche to use tools and technologies as they see fit," he added.

Advocates want to see legal limits set on the use of surveillance technology and protections against its abuse by law enforcement.

Since March, much public activity has been illegal, and simply being outside at a certain time could be the basis of criminal suspicion. Since the end of May, when massive protests for police reform, as well as some riots and looting, erupted, being any one of the countless New Yorkers found outside could mark a person for enhanced surveillance. That risk only expanded when the early-June curfew meant being on the street at night was explicitly outlawed.

Officials, including Mayors Bill de Blasio and Michael Bloomberg, have said facial recognition is an important tool to combat terrorism and part of a necessary trade-off among safety, privacy, and the First Amendment.

“As the world gets more dangerous, people are willing to have infringements on their personal freedoms that they would not before,” Bloomberg said of the emerging technology in an interview with the Associated Press in 2011.

"We’re the number one terror target in America, and we need exceptional tools to fight terrorism, de Blasio echoed eight years later, in June 2019, on NY1 when asked about the civil rights concerns associated with facial recognition. "My mission is to keep everyone safe while respecting civil liberties, so it’s something we’ll have more to say on, but it’s not an either-or in my book."

In the NYPD’s Public Security Privacy Guidelines, last updated in 2009, it says the Domain Awareness System will monitor only public places "where no legally protected reasonable expectation of privacy exists."

The police department has used facial recognition for years in relation to criminal activity other than terrorism, at least as far back as 2012, when the tech helped identify a suspect in a barbershop shooting.

In 2019, before the patrol guide was updated, the Facial Identification Section -- the NYPD's designated unit of investigators who run and assess requests for AI matches -- received 9,850 inquiries and identified 2,510 possible matches, according to the department's website. Roughly half of the matches were related to murder, rape, felony assault, robbery, or grand larceny, according to the site, but it’s not clear how many are crime suspects.

The mayor's office and police department did not respond directly to Gotham Gazette inquiries about whether participating in recent demonstrations, violating the curfew, or breaking emergency executive orders were considered imminent threats.

"The NYPD uses facial recognition as a limited investigative tool, comparing a still image from a surveillance video to a pool of lawfully possessed arrest photos," wrote NYPD spokesperson Al Baker in an email. "This technology helps bring justice to victims of crimes. Any facial recognition match is solely an investigative lead and not probable cause for arrest – no enforcement action is ever taken solely on the basis of a facial recognition match."

The mayor's office did not respond to requests for information or comment for this story.

A police department spokesperson told Gotham Gazette its Facial Identification Section, which is primarily responsible for assessing computer matches, has not been involved in enforcing emergency executive orders, like social distancing, and has no current requests related to recent demonstrations or the curfew, which lasted from June 1 to 7. (The NYPD did not say whether FIS had received requests related to the demonstrations at the height of activity over a month ago.)

"I guess NYPD is asking us to take their word for it," said State Senator Brad Hoylman, who sponsors a bill that would ban biometric surveillance by law enforcement statewide. "As it stands now we have no substantive oversight of their use of facial recognition."

The NYPD did not respond when asked whether members of the department outside FIS are authorized to use facial recognition technology.

"As far as I'm concerned, the Patrol Guide is kinda garbage on this point," said Cahn, of STOP. The policy seems to be limited to the activities of FIS, he said, "but that doesn't mean it's a comprehensive set of regulations for all forms of facial recognition."

BuzzFeed's Clearview AI report notes over 11,000 searches were made by more than 30 officers, all before the patrol guide policies were put in place. The NYPD website now says facial comparisons are limited to the department's mugshot database, but certain top brass still have the discretion to scan photos against outside databases.

There is no guarantee that images captured at the protests or any other public activity will not be analyzed later using artificial intelligence like facial recognition software. The NYPD did not answer questions about how long it stores footage.

Most other elements of how the department uses surveillance technology are also under wraps. Advocates believe a new law called the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act, or POST Act, recently passed by the City Council and signed by de Blasio, will shed unprecedented light on what equipment the department has by requiring the NYPD to report on the tools it deploys and rules for their use.

The jury is still out on whether a facial recognition match can be the basis of a criminal prosecution, but official responses from the police department and district attorney offices indicate that a computer match alone is not sufficient.

"Facial recognition is mostly used in the investigation stage," wrote Oren Yaniv, a spokesperson for Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, adding that it is not used as evidence at trials.

"Our office does not disclose law enforcement operations or investigative techniques," wrote Danny Frost, a spokesperson for Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, in response to questions about the office's facial recognition policy.

Civil rights observers warn that facial recognition can discourage or even be used to intimidate people from engaging in constitutionally protected activities like free speech.

First Amendment activities, like public demonstrations and participating in a political group, are supposed to be protected from warrantless police surveillance under a 1985 NYPD consent decree, known as the Handschu Agreement, adopted following a class action suit charging the police department with years of systematic spying on political organizations like the Black Panther Party.

"All the different ways that the police can monitor protests, both ways that are visible and invisible, can have a chilling effect," said Angel Diaz, a national security lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice.

"There are people for whom the fact that there might be an ongoing police presence or that you might attract police attention may dissuade them from participating in a protest," he said.

This is especially true of people who are undocumented, or who have had past criminal justice involvement, in some cases the same communittees effected by the policing policies at the center of recent demonstrations.

"They might feel less comfortable participating because of the downstream consequences that can go on," Diaz said. "Especially when we don't know how long the data is being kept."

Nevertheless, surveillance equipment was out in force at the recent demonstrations against police misconduct. On Friday, May 29, the first evening with serious clashes between police and protesters, traffic light cameras -- installed to catch motorists running red lights -- flashed repeatedly above peaceful marchers gathered near Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn. On June 1, the first night of curfew, drones flew over marchers throughout the night. Through the weeks of protest, thousands of officers wearing body cameras have been deployed and police helicopters have been a fixture above marches.

It's not clear that all or any of the drones were the NYPD's and the department wouldn't say what types of surveillance tools were used on protesters. In 2018, then Police Commissioner James O'Neill announced the department had acquired 14 military-grade surveillance drones for special operations. Police reporting from the first quarter of the year, which doesn't include the recent demonstrations, looting, or curfew, show 20 drone flights took place between January and March, mostly for training and testing purposes.

The patrol guide says NYPD drones are not themselves equipped with facial recognition software and that their footage will not be subject to digital analysis, "absent a public safety concern."

Cahn says the disclaimer is vaguely worded and, thus, toothless because footage can later be processed with facial recognition. "Any video of a photo source can effectively become a facial recognition camera simply with that extra step," he said.

"In some ways, the Handschu agreement feels increasingly out of date given the modern way that police are doing surveillance," Diaz said. It comes from an era when policecraft was more physical, he said, focusing more on undercover officers infiltrating political movements than ubiquitous digital information gathering. "It doesn't specifically address issues raised by things like facial recognition or even the way in which modern social media monitoring works."

Lawmakers in Albany are carrying two bills that could change how surveillance technology is used by law enforcement. One, sponsored by State Senator Jessica Ramos and Assembly Member Ron Kim, two Queens Democrats, would prohibit the use of drones during activities protected by the First Amendment, and would require a warrant to use drones in criminal investigations. The law would also prohibit facial recognition from being used on drone footage, and sets up provisions for destroying the footage after a period of time.

Another bill, carried by Senator Hoylman and Assemblymember Deborah Glick, both Manhattan Democrats, would entirely prohibit the use of biometric surveillance by law enforcement and would create a task force to propose standards for its use in the future. The bill would ban biometric tools beyond facial recognition, like voice and gait analysis, but leaves carve-outs for more traditional police tools like fingerprints and DNA analysis.

"It's time to hit the pause button on this technology, gather experts, and develop some standards that require the NYPD and all law enforcement to follow," Hoylman said in an interview.

The police department has been resistant to any proposed limits on its use of facial recognition, and of surveillance equipment more broadly.

"I’d absolutely be opposed to a ban," said then-Police Commissioner James O'Neill at a press conference last October. "There is so much video in New York City today that to not use facial recognition would be irresponsible."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

The NYPD's Facial Recognition Policy Leaves A Lot of Leeway the Department Says It's Not Using Tue, 21 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
After Strong Primary Showing, Will New Crop of Progressives Push Assembly Democrats Further Left? 5 progressive assembly

The State Assembly (photo: @NYSA_Majority)

For some time, a lack of Democratic control in the New York State Senate prevented progressive legislation from becoming law. But even after the chamber flipped from red to blue through the 2018 elections and a long list of Democratic priorities were acted on, some bills that once passed the State Assembly when Republicans held the Senate are now having trouble reaching that chamber’s floor, leading to frustration that multiple insurgent campaigns capitalized on in this year’s primary elections.

Longtime incumbents who, at least on paper, support legislation that has been stalled in the Assembly — like the New York Health Act to institute single-payer health care in the state, raising taxes on the wealthy, and legalizing adult use of marijuana — faced tough primary challenges and, in some cases, are on the verge of losing their seats to candidates with very similar platforms but who said they will do what their opponents have not: get things passed.

“It’s not good enough to just vote the right way,” said Jessica González-Rojas, an activist who is well ahead of incumbent Michael DenDekker in Queen’s 34th Assembly District as absentee ballots are being counted. “Now, we need champions for these policies.”

If her primary lead holds and she wins the likely noncompetitive general election in the heavily Democratic district, González-Rojas could be one of several new Assembly members with a brand of punchy, anti-establishment progressivism more focused on delivering on campaign promises than toeing the party line. They will join several other incumbent Assembly members retaining their seats who are also outspoken and more independent than the bulk of the large Democratic conference dominated by New York City officeholders and led by Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx.

Senators with similar agendas and ideology were essential to Democrats flipping the Senate in 2018, as many of them won primaries against members of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a rogue group that had a power-sharing agreement with Republicans, often preventing progressive legislation from being passed.

In some ways, but definitely not all, the Assembly has become the more moderate house, although it remains to be seen how additional independent progressives entering the majority may change that. A number of frustrated return incumbents and several new like-thinking members, often of a younger generation and representing marginalized communities, could impact the direction of the Assembly majority and how its leader, Speaker Heastie, operates. At least that’s what those candidates and incumbents, and some of the progressive activists behind their rises, hope.

But unlike those who challenged members of the IDC, many of this year’s insurgents lacked significant platform differences from their incumbent or establishment-backed opponents. Instead, they mainly distinguished themselves demographically and through their activist backgrounds, claiming they would be a stronger voice for constituents and would fight harder to see meaningful legislation passed.

These candidates made their positions on the outside of the political establishment a key area of difference from their opponents, distancing themselves from the ineffectiveness they, and some voters, associate with the current Legislature. They say that the state is not aggressively enough addressing crises including poverty, public health, public housing, and more, with many pointing the finger at both Governor Andrew Cuomo, a third-term Democrat with a strong moderate streak, and the Legislature’s unwillingness to go further and force Cuomo along. These officials and candidates and their supporters found additional urgency leading into this year’s primaries given the COVID-19 crisis that worsened many existing problems and inequalities, as well as the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement to end police racism and brutality following the killing of George Floyd.

The Assembly candidates who broadly fit the category at hand include González-Rojas, Jenifer Rajkumar, Khaleel Anderson, Emily Gallagher, Zohran Mamdani, Danielle Brecker, Mary Jobaida, Phara Souffrant Forrest, Marcela Mitaynes, George Diaz, Garfield Holland, and Mahfuzul Islam (as well as Sarah Clark outside the five boroughs).

González-Rojas, Rajkumar, Clark, and Anderson are in strong position to win their primaries after the in-person vote; while Mamdani, Souffrant Forrest, and Mitaynes are in seemingly toss-up territory in their challenges to incumbents; and Gallagher, Brecker, Jobaida, Diaz, Holland, and Islam are near defeat — though a great deal could change given the unprecedented number of absentee ballots.

The Candidates and the Progressive Push in Albany
Though he is not unseating an incumbent, Anderson, a 24-year-old organizer for a non-profit, is well ahead of the local party’s pick in the Democratic primary for an open Assembly seat in Queens, where the most recent officeholder, Michele Titus, vacated the post for a position as a New York City Civil Court judge. Anderson is the likely winner of the primary in Assembly District 31, which covers parts of Southeast Queens. 

Anderson, who had the backing of a wide array of organizations including the Working Families Party, TenantsPAC, True Blue NY, Citizens Union, and Rockaway Youth Action Fund, ran on a platform of fighting environmental racism in his district, which borders Jamaica Bay and includes JFK Airport, increasing public school funding, food justice, and affordable housing through housing vouchers.

“Now that we have a new body, we can energize some of the members that have been kind of on the edge with this stuff and mobilize them and really get them to understand that this is what the people want,” said Anderson, who could become one of the youngest elected officials in New York City history, in an interview. “And we just need to find the best way possible to package it to ensure that we’re speaking for as many folks as we can, and supporting and getting resources to as many folks as we can. I’m super excited to get in there and to start getting some of these bills moved.”

Anderson, who is Black, is one of several insurgents who are vocal supporters of the New York Health Act, which he said was especially important due to how it could be a step forward in addressing health inequities that affect Black people, and especially Black women, in New York.

Rajkumar, who is on the verge of winning the Democratic primary in District 38 over incumbent Assemblymember Michael Miller, also stressed the importance of pushing ahead on the single-payer health care bill that Assembly Democrats championed when the Legislature was split but did not push when Democrats took control of both chambers last year. 

“The New York Health Act has never been more needed, the pandemic has made that clear, and it has passed the Assembly at least four times,” Rajkumar said. “The new generation of legislators will be able to make sure that it is signed into law.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who is responsible for what legislation ends up on the floor of the body, said in 2017 when the Assembly again passed the New York Health Act, “While lawmakers in Washington debate giving tax cuts to the wealthy and cutting funding for healthcare for those who need it most, the Assembly Majority remains committed to ensuring every New Yorker has access to the care they need and deserve,” and called on the State Senate to act. Now, he has been relatively quiet concerning the legislation.

Heastie’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article. Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a close ally of Heastie, said the New York Health Act has simply been held up.

“As a sponsor of the New York health bill, I certainly would love to see that go,” Peoples-Stokes, who represents Buffalo in the Assembly, said in an interview. “The thing that in some ways kind of holds that up, notwithstanding the fact that the Assembly has passed that in the past, we still need to have partners.”

Though most members of the Senate Democratic conference either have been co-sponsors of the New York Health Act or ran in support of it in 2018, that majority also did not make it a priority in this first two-year session of its reign. The lead sponsors of the bill, Assemblymember Dick Gottfried and Senator Gustavo Rivera, have continued to push for the legislation, including by holding hearings around the state, and have said they don’t think the lack of official movement on it means it is dead. They’ve said they need to continue to build public support for it to make it a political necessity.

As Rajkumar indicated and as many others have argued, Rivera has said that the mass unemployment wrought by the pandemic has made it abundantly clear that health insurance and quality health care should not be tied to employment. Opponents of the legislation, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, point to its massive cost and the need to raise taxes on many New Yorkers while overhauling huge portions of the state’s economy.

There has also been frustration among some progressive Assembly members, groups, and candidates about how Heastie and the conference back-tracked or proved reluctant on other high-profile priorities, such as campaign finance reform, including a public matching system. While a system did eventually become law earlier this year, it was met with some frustration over the details of the donation limits as well as the fact that it appears to make life much harder for the liberal Working Families Party, which has been at war with Cuomo for years and supported many of the 2018 and 2020 insurgents for legislative seats.

Additionally, legalizing adult use of marijuana, which the governor and both majorities say they support, is among other bills and progressive priorities yet to be acted upon after talks fell through last year and thus far this year.

Peoples-Stokes, the lead Assembly sponsor of the marijuana legalization bill, said such policies have simply taken more time to finalize. Although she welcomes new progressive Assembly members and their voices, she does not see them being elected as playing a major role in whether or not the bills get passed.

“That speaks to their electorate and their decision to want to see a new person in that seat,” Peoples-Stokes said. “Clearly, when the new Assembly members arrive they will have the same opportunity that I do, one vote. That’s not going to change, you still need to have the majority of the people say the same thing at the same time to have it passed.”

The Democratic majority has put some money to back incumbents, with legislators like Assemblymember Joe Lentol of Brooklyn controversially receiving $45,000 from the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, which to some is only supposed to help Democratic Assembly candidates win general elections. But in some of the closest races, where after the in-person voting incumbents appear most at risk of losing their seats, current Assembly members received little support. Incumbents Miller, DenDekker, and Aravella Simotas, all of Queens and in tight races with or trailing challengers Rajkumar, Gonzalez-Rojas, and Mamdani, respectively, have all received nothing from the DACC. Miller and DenDekker received around $4,000 each from Speaker Heastie's PAC, all as of the most recent filings.

Progressive Assembly members already in the body have been frustrated with limited action on certain legislation. In interviews, Assembly members mentioned a wealth tax as well as higher taxes on upper income brackets, plus the Home Stability Support anti-homelessness rental subsidy, the “good cause” eviction bill, NYCHA funding, and other previously-stated policies. Tensions were particularly high when none of those measures were included in this year’s state budget, which narrowly passed the Assembly. Several progressive members, such as Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, expressed significant disappointment with what she called an “austerity budget.”

Niou, who represents the 65th Assembly district in Lower Manhattan and has repeatedly criticized Cuomo, said in an interview, “Why is it that we passed austerity budget after austerity budget after austerity budget?...It's really important that people are speaking out that are saying we need to prioritize our working families over wealthy corporations and the multi-million and billionaires. Why is it that we have folks who are still asking ‘What if multi-millionaires and billionaires move away from New York?’ Well, but what if people die?”

Niou is a leading voice of a growing number of progressive Assembly members willing to criticize the status quo, including the annual budget process, which is always lacking in transparency, even for members of the Legislature. Lawmakers often do not have a chance to actually read the budget bills they are voting on as the bills are passed just before or after the start of the new fiscal year.

The recent budget barely passing — one key budget bill received the bare minimum 76 “yes” votes in the 150-seat chamber — puts on display what seems to be a growing divide within the Assembly between progressives further to the left and others, particularly leadership. Assemblymember Ron Kim of Queens, who also voted “no,” said he hopes incoming Assembly members will further strengthen the former group.

“The outcome is clear, that the public wants real change up in Albany. They want people who are there to genuinely speak up for their interests, the people’s interests, and protect the most vulnerable members of our communities first,” said Kim, who represents the 40th Assembly District. “As a legislative body, we have done some positive work but not enough to deliver fundamental change that should have taken place, especially at a time like this pandemic, when we know there are hundreds of thousands of families that have been left behind.”

Kim said not being able to pass long-term progressive priorities such as single-payer health care and a wealth tax has been “super frustrating and completely demoralizing.” He said Cuomo uses his immense influence to ensure the state follows his agenda.

“Many of us are sick and tired of playing this song and dance where we pretend that we’ve actually done something, but when you actually look at the policies in the budget, it’s completely watered-down and it’s just giving the facade that we’re actually championing peoples’ values when we’re not,” Kim said, going on to state that he hopes the Assembly’s ability and willingness to pass progressive legislation and block what he sees as regressive policies will change after this year’s elections. “With the changes that are coming, there is no way we would pass another budget that cuts Medicaid in the middle of an emergency, they wouldn’t have the votes to get it done. That alone is significant enough to change the culture of how we legislate and how we focus on new solutions.”

But other Assembly members, even those who are part of the push for more progressive legislation, like Assemblymember Catalina Cruz of Queens, say it's not a lack of want preventing these policies from being put to the floor, but the often slow and bureaucratic reality of governing.

“It’s too soon to tell how effective those folks are,” said Cruz, who represents the 39th Assembly District, of incoming progressive Assembly members. “I’ve been on both ends, where I’ve been an advocate, where I’ve been inside of government implementing laws, and where I’ve been the one creating them. One thing is to be on the outside advocating for something, another completely different reality is once you get in and you are one of 150.”

Cruz cited marijuana reform as an example. She said the governor’s stated support did not manifest itself when lawmakers were trying to work out how to make the legislation happen and, although there are many vocal supporters, there are also many members of the State Senate and Assembly firmly against it — even some who support an array of other progressive measures.

Asked for comment on some of these points and critiques, a spokesperson for Cuomo put the focus elsewhere.

“We've spent the last 130 some odd days dealing with a global pandemic, where New York was the global epicenter,” said Rich Azzopardi, a senior advisor to Governor Cuomo. “We tamed the beast, but it’s not over and we have no time, and frankly no patience, for small and asinine palace intrigue."

Progressive Activists and Organizers Push for Change
Many on-the-ground organizers have echoed Niou and Kim’s sentiment that change is all the more needed due to the pandemic, such as Javier Valdés, Co-Executive Director of Make the Road Action, an immigrant advocacy organization that gathers many volunteers to help on selected campaigns. 

Valdés was among the leaders of the push for recently-passed pro-immigrant policies like the New York Dream Act, which allows undocumented immigrants to access state college tuition assistance, and the Green Light bill, which allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain New York driver’s licenses, two policies cited by Cuomo and many Democrats in the Legislature as evidence of their aggressive pursuit of progressive priorities under full Democratic control of state government.

But even with those and other wins, Valdés said after fighting for a long time to flip the Senate, Make the Road Action turned to the Assembly because of the lack of movement on some issues.

“For us, the Assembly races were the next step,” Valdés said of the transition from 2018 to 2020. “A lot of times these incumbents would say ‘well I always voted for you on your issues,’ and I think what we actually need is people that actually are champions of our issues, that actually get our issue to be voted on and are fighting for us.”

Valdés said policies such as the “good cause” eviction bill, the excluded worker fund for workers not getting support from the federal government during the pandemic, particularly undocumented individuals, and repealing the “walking while trans ban” in order to decriminalize alleged loitering for the purpose of prostitution, are some of Make the Road Action’s priroities.

Valdés said he has not seen much energy in the Assembly regarding these topics, but hopes new “champions” like González-Rojas -- whom Make the Road Action put significant resources behind -- can help to make a strong push for them along with current progressive members like Kim, Niou, and Cruz, who have all been endorsed by Make the Road Action.

But Cruz said she felt, in some cases, that unseating an incumbent can put the progressive movement behind if the incumbent is already fighting for these issues and has the benefit of connections made and experience gained from being in office.

She emphasized the distinction between someone who is running purely to challenge the “political machine” and someone who is running because they truly think they can make an effective change in their community.

“To me, when I see a perfectly progressive incumbent…who has been on the right side of history, and then somebody comes in and is trying to out-left them, I don’t know how I feel about that,” Cruz said, without naming names other than Brooklyn State Senator Julia Salazar, whom she said ran to defeat the machine and with a new vision for her community in her 2018 primary victory. “If they were doing a good job, if they’re representative of their community, but your beef or your problem is with the machinery rather than whether the person is doing a good job or not, you’re going to have a rude awakening when you actually get in the room where decisions are being made and you have to work with another 149 people.”

Two incumbents facing stiff challenges who made such a case have been Assemblymembers Aravella Simotas of Queens and Lentol of Brooklyn. While Simotas is neck-and-neck with Mamdani (he’s up 589 votes), Lentol has a solid 1,763-vote lead ahead of Gallagher — with thousands of absentee ballots being counted in each race.

Jonathan Westin, Executive Director of New York Communities for Change, a group focused on affordable housing and socioeconomic equity, does not necessarily disagree with Cruz, but he said some incumbents being around for decades creates an element of complacency, and a tendency to want to maintain the status quo.

“The challenge with the Assembly is that there is honestly just so much entrenched power that’s been there for decades,” Westin said. “So many Assembly members have literally been in office for two, three, four decades and have never been challenged, and really are just there to continue the same power structure in New York that has existed for years and years and years.”

Westin said this is particularly problematic due to the connections Assembly members build with lobbyists working for finance, real estate, and technology companies, and that elected officials who take money from those lobbyists and industry leaders are often the ones to block major reforms like taxing the rich, canceling rent, and creating a fund for excluded workers.

Westin said Speaker Heastie, who has served in the Assembly since 2000 and as Speaker since 2015 and has been a leader of the Bronx Democratic Party, is obviously part of the entrenched and calcified power structure of the Assembly.

“His view of politics very much resembles a machine view of ‘everybody needs to fall in line,’” Westin said of the speaker, whose job is to find consensus among his members. “A lot of times those machines are propped up by the industries that need to curry favor in Albany and we continue to see that.”

Both Make the Road Action and New York Communities for Change were among the long list of progressive groups who organized to defeat six of eight IDC senators in the 2018 primaries and backed quite a few Democratic insurgents this year, largely in the Assembly but also for Congress, such as Jamaal Bowman in the Bronx and Westchester. As the calendar this year turns toward the fall general election, State Senate Republicans will be using the progressive surge in New York City Assembly races as campaign fodder to convince suburban voters to help flip the Senate back to Republican control. Senate Republicans often warn voters outside the city that New York City "radicals" are setting the agenda in Albany without the check of a Republican Senate.

Among those progressive organizations, the Working Families Party (which includes several of the aforementioned groups) and the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA) are among the most prominent when it comes to campaign tactics, including the type of voter contact seen as essential to winning contentious local elections. In her bid to unseat Brooklyn Assemblymember Felix Ortiz, Mitaynes had the support of the WFP, NYC-DSA, and other groups as they argued for the need for change in the Assembly. The WFP backed González-Rojas and Anderson, while the DSA supported Mamdani and Souffrant Forrest, who took on Brooklyn Assemblymember Walter Mosely.

NYC-DSA has grown significantly in recent years and put a lot of muscle into policy and electoral organizing, helping several favored candidates win competitive primaries. It has particularly supported candidates who take on the real estate industry and call for raising taxes, among other priorities in opposing the political establishment.

The DSA has worked to find and support primary challengers to a growing list of incumbents, even some considered by many to be strong progressives, as Cruz indicated. For example, Mamdani is his bid to unseat Simotas in western Queens. Mamdani claimed throughout the race that Simotas, a staunch progressive, was a product of the “Queens political machine” and called her out for breaking her pledge to not accept real estate donations.

Co-chair of the NYC-DSA Sumathy Kumar said she hopes the work her organization and others have done will encourage the Speaker and the Assembly Democrats to enact more far-reaching progressive legislation.

“The Speaker has a lot of responsibility for what gets passed and what doesn’t get passed and what comes up to the floor and what doesn’t,” Kumar said, going on to say that, even so, she is hopeful electing more progressives will push him and the body to the left. “He listens to the rest of the Assembly and that’s why it’s really exciting that we have more progressive voices in the Assembly so that we can push the legislation from the bottom up.”

[Read: 'Not A Budget Anybody Should Be Celebrating': Democratic Legislators Displeased with Albany Compromise]

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect that González-Rojas was not endorsed by NYC-DSA as previously stated. It has also been updated to reflect that Lentol received $45,000 from the DACC, with $25,000 coming after the initial $20,000 originally stated here.

After Strong Primary Showing, Will New Crop of Progressives Push Assembly Democrats Further Left? Tue, 14 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
How to Choose a Candidate in the Public Advocate Special Election voting new york city

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

For weeks, intensifying ahead of Tuesday, friends, family, acquaintances, and colleagues have been asking for advice about who to vote for in the special election for Public Advocate. My response usually starts with a question: What do you most want in a Public Advocate?

Sometimes that’s followed by another: How much time do you have? There are 17 candidates who will be on Tuesday’s ballot, each with certain qualities, qualifications, and visions for the office. The Public Advocate has wide latitude for how he or she approaches the job, making the question of what you most want in the office-holder key, especially given the broad and deep pool of candidates now running.

While the Public Advocate’s office comes with a modest $3.5 million annual budget and is oft-ridiculed, it actually has a lot of responsibility and can have significant impact on public policy, not to mention the fact that the post can be an important proving ground for pursuing higher office (see the last two Public Advocates: Mayor Bill de Blasio and Attorney General Letitia James). The four individuals who have been elected Public Advocate to date have brought different skills, priorities, and approaches to the role.

The Public Advocate is the citywide official charged with being a watchdog over the rest of city government and with being an ombudsperson for the public. The Public Advocate has the power to introduce legislation to the City Council, a seat on the city’s public pension board, and a healthy bully pulpit and springboard underneath them. The Public Advocate is often expected to be a willing critic of the Mayor, taking the city’s chief executive to task for blurring ethical lines or spending too much or flubbing the rollout of a program or traveling out of town too often -- and so on.

On Tuesday, the many candidates will be listed with a “party” name they made up for this unique, “nonpartisan” election -- the first citywide special election since the current city government system was enacted after the 1989 charter revision -- that do give some indication of how they’ve framed their campaigns. (For more on how the candidates have sought to define themselves, read here.)

The election is open to all registered voters across the city, with polls open 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Very low turnout is expected from the city’s roughly 5.2 million registered voters, but perhaps given recent Trump era trends and the fact that there are so many candidates who’ve been campaigning New Yorkers will exceed those forecasts.

Here’s how to vote based on what might be important to you:

Do you want a Public Advocate who…

...will aggressively hold Mayor de Blasio accountable?
Go with Eric Ulrich, the lone Republican elected official in the race.

...has high-level experience in the federal government, and little local political muck on their shoes?
Go with Dawn Smalls, an attorney who worked in both the Clinton and Obama administrations.

...knows both federal and state government?
Go with Michael Blake, a member of the state Assembly who worked on both Obama campaigns and in the administration.

...has the highest level of experience in city government?
Go with Melissa Mark-Viverito, the former City Council Speaker.

...will agitate and legislate, is as likely to lead a protest through the streets as introduce a bill?
Go with Jumaane Williams, the City Council member who aptly calls himself an “activist elected official.”

...will throw rhetorical bombs and rage against the machine from the far left?
Go with Nomiki Konst, an activist and journalist who was a Bernie Sanders delegate and pulls no punches, at times overzealously, while calling for policies like a $30 minimum wage. thinking about urban policy for the future, with an eye on sustainability and a green economy?
Go with Rafael Espinal, a City Council member focused on legislating for a more “livable city.” most focused on engaging New Yorkers to participate in civic life and impact the direction of public policy that’s best for their communities?
Go with Ben Yee, who wants to take his informal but informative civic education program to new heights in elected office. the most conservative, with nice things to say about President Trump?
Go with Manny Alicandro, the other Republican in the race, who is far more aligned with Trump than Ulrich is.

....will focus on immigrant communities and transit issues?
Go with Ydanis Rodriguez, a City Council member and himself an immigrant, who has led the Council’s transportation committee for several years.

...has been an LGBT trailblazer and leading advocate for LGBT rights?
Go with Danny O’Donnell, an Assembly member from the Upper West Side.

...will call out and examine overspending by the city?
Go with Ulrich.

...will focus on the legislative powers of the role?
Go with Mark-Viverito, Espinal, or Williams. best positioned to run policy and program oversight operations of the office?
Lean toward Mark-Viverito, but consider Smalls.

...will continue Tish James’ use of the office as a law firm of sorts?
Go with Smalls.

...will transform the office to focus on alleviating student debt?
Go with Ron Kim, a state Assembly member who has pledged to reinvent the office.

...ardently supported the plan to bring an Amazon campus to Queens?
Go with Ulrich.

...ardently opposed the Amazon plan?
Choose from O’Donnell, Kim, Espinal, and Konst.

...thought the Amazon deal could be reworked to benefit New Yorkers?
Choose from Smalls, Blake, and Williams.

...will take on real estate developers?
Choose from David Eisenbach, a Columbia professor and activist, Konst, O’Donnell, and Williams.

...will continue to lead the push to close the Rikers Island jails?
Go with Mark-Viverito.

...thinks Rikers Island should remain home to most of the city’s jail population?
Go with Ulrich or Alicandro.

...has negotiated neighborhood rezonings with the de Blasio administration and may be able to help as others attempt to do so?
Choose from Mark-Viverito, Espinal, and Rodriguez. supportive of charter schools?
Go with Blake, Ulrich, or Tony Herbert, a consultant and activist.

...would bring greater gender balance to citywide government?
Go with Mark-Viverito, Smalls, or Konst, the three women in the race (Latrice Walker will also be on the ballot, but she dropped out weeks ago).

...would continue an established focus on helping more women run for elected office?
Go with Mark-Viverito.

...has been a criminal justice reformer?
Choose from Mark-Viverito, Williams, and Blake.

...will focus on NYCHA tenants?
Choose from Blake, Herbert, and Mark-Viverito.

...will make affordable housing a top priority?
Go with Williams.

...will make helping homeless families a top priority?
Go with Smalls.

...has been an ally for military veterans?
Go with Ulrich.

...will make small businesses a top priority?
Choose from Eisenbach and Rodriguez.

...will push for change at the MTA?
Choose from Mark-Viverito, Rodriguez, and Blake.

...has an eye toward more forward-thinking transit policy?
Choose from Espinal, Rodriguez, and Mark-Viverito.

...will focus on minority- and women-owned businesses (M/WBEs)?
Go with Blake.

...will be completely independent?
Choose from O'Donnell, Konst, Smalls, Eisenbach, Alicandro, and Herbert.

...has been a close ally of Mayor de Blasio’s but also pushed him on several issues?
Go with Mark-Viverito or Williams.

...has a solid working relationship with Governor Cuomo and state legislative leaders?
Go with Blake. most ready to step in as Mayor if there is a crisis that necessitates it?
Lean toward Mark-Viverito, but consider Blake.

...won’t use the position too evidently as a stepping stone to run for Mayor?
Choose from O’Donnell, Smalls, Konst, Yee, or several others not named Ulrich, Blake, or Mark-Viverito.

[WATCH: 15 Minutes with Each of 14 Candidates for Public Advocate]

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

How to Choose a Candidate in the Public Advocate Special Election Mon, 25 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Last-Minute Guide: How the Public Advocate Candidates Have Tried to Define Themselves public advocate new york city

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

New York City’s special election for Public Advocate will take place this Tuesday, February 26, and there will be 17 candidates on the ballot, although one has suspended her campaign. Ten of these candidates qualified for the first official televised debate, then seven of those ten qualified for the second debate. Those candidates and others in the race have also been appearing at many local forums, making the rounds on television and radio, and taking part in other aspects of campaigning as they make their pitches to voters on why they should be the next citywide official tasked with providing oversight of the rest of city government and being an ombudsperson for New Yorkers.

The public advocate also has the power to introduce legislation to the City Council and the post comes with a budget of roughly $3.5 million. The position has proved to be a springboard, with its most recent occupant, Letitia James, now in the Attorney General’s office, and her predecessor, Bill de Blasio, now the Mayor. Most candidates have said that if they win on Tuesday they do not intend to run for mayor in 2021; meanwhile, the winner of the special election would need to then win an election later this year to hold the seat for 2020 and 2021. There will be June party primaries if necessary and there will be a November general election.

As the candidates finish campaigning, below is a look at how each has sought to define themselves and their candidacy. Next to each candidate’s name is his or her self-created party ballot line, a necessity given that special elections are nonpartisan.

Melissa Mark-Viverito (Fix the MTA)
A former Speaker of the New York City Council, Mark-Viverito has continued in her public advocate campaign to focus on her two top issues as Council speaker: immigrants’ rights and criminal justice reform, including the plan to close Rikers Island jails, which she spearheaded and brought Mayor de Blasio along to support. She’s also focused on the MTA, wanting to see the legalization of marijuana use, with tax revenue going toward the subways and buses, along with congestion pricing as another funding source.

Mark-Viverito has stressed the need for diversity in government, including to have female representation among officials with citywide responsibilities -- the current mayor, comptroller, and Council speaker are all white men. She’s criticized de Blasio and Governor Cuomo for failing to work cooperatively on the MTA and other matters, part of continuing attempts to prove that she would be tough in holding de Blasio accountable given that the two have had a close working relationship, including the mayor helping Mark-Viverito to become the speaker.

Michael Blake (For the People)
A member of the state Assembly from the Bronx, Blake is also a vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee. He touts his work on the campaigns and in the administration of President Barack Obama, and in Albany on issues from criminal justice reform to economic opportunity.

Blake has led the race in fundraising and has received a wide variety of endorsements from elected officials and political clubs. His campaign slogan is “jobs and justice for the people,” and he’s focused on issues including affordable housing, NYCHA, criminal justice reform, and empowering women- and minority-owned businesses (M/WBEs). Blake was critical of the deal to bring Amazon to Queens that later fell apart, but has indicated he wanted it reworked, not scrapped altogether. That stance is indicative of the fact that Blake often takes somewhat more moderate positions than some of his fellow Democrats, especially those in the public advocate race.

Jumaane Williams (The People’s Voice)
A City Council member from Brooklyn, Williams has been seen as the frontrunner in the race from the start given the momentum from his 2018 primary challenge of incumbent Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, when he ran alongside Cynthia Nixon in her campaign for governor. That race gave Williams a leg up in name recognition and relationships that quickly carried over to this campaign, helping him land a long list of endorsements from clubs, groups, and leaders.

He often calls himself an “activist elected official, long before it was popular,” saying “I can be the voice for change while effectively being the person making that change.” Williams has long focused on both affordable housing and criminal justice reform. In this race he has often touted his opposition to the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy passed last term under de Blasio and Mark-Viverito.

During the first debate, both Blake and Melissa Mark-Viverito criticized Williams over his past statements on abortion and marriage equality. Williams has indicated an evolution on both issues and apologized to members of the LGBT community for past statements that he says did not express clear enough support. He has said that he would not want to pursue abortion for a pregnancy he was involved with, but that he has consistently supported women having the choice.

Dawn Smalls (No More Delays)
Smalls is an attorney and former official in the Clinton and Obama presidential administrations. In a first run for office, she often touts her work to implement the Affordable Care Act and says she has the ability to break through government bureaucracy. Smalls also says she is “completely independent of the political structure” in the city, so she can be “a true watchdog over the mayor and the City Council.”

Smalls has focused her campaign on the MTA and housing, saying that a top priority would be the homelessness crisis, especially women and children. She has shown some unfamiliarity with city government and politics, but has said that her experience, knowledge, and approach to government should win over those who are interested in an outside and not worried if their public advocate doesn’t know every piece of legislation that has gone through the City Council in recent years.

She opposed the Amazon deal, but said her criticisms were on the process, specifically the lack of public comment. In the second debate, she said “I’m the only person on this stage who did not attend an anti-Amazon rally” and that “if New Yorkers wanted to welcome Amazon, we should absolutely welcome Amazon.”

Rafael Espinal (Liveable City)
A City Council member from Brooklyn, Espinal has focused his campaign on making the city more “liveable,” meaning easier to afford, get around, and enjoy. He often touts his record championing the city’s nightlife industry, its workers, and others affected by laws governing it -- his legislation repealed the Cabaret Law, which limited where dancing is allowed in the city and he and others called racist and homophobic.

Espinal has a focus on environmental issues and a forward-looking campaign, with a promise to legislate for a city of the future. He was ardently opposed to Amazon bringing a massive campus to the city, instead calling for investments in small businesses and infrastructure.

Ron Kim (People over Corporations)
A member of the state Assembly from Queens, Kim has focused his campaign on both fighting big corporations such as Amazon and using the office to help cancel out New Yorkers’ student debt. Kim was fully opposed to Amazon coming to New York and has railed against any and all “corporate giveaways” by government.

Kim has said in the effort to attack the student debt issue he would move away from the public advocate office’s typical and core functions, such as being a watchdog over city agencies.

Nomiki Konst (Pay People More)
An activist and journalist who has been involved in a variety of short-term projects, Konst has said she’s a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and has run a far-left campaign. A Bernie Sanders delegate who was named by Sanders to a reform and unity commission of the Democratic National Committee, where she made some waves and developed a larger progressive following (also aided by her appearances on cable television political talk shows), Konst has proposed a $30 minimum wage as the centerpiece of her campaign agenda.

Her campaign is also focused on fighting the power of big real estate (she’s said “real estate developers own this city”) and she has regularly railed against the elected officials in the race, arguing that New Yorkers should elect a true outsider to the role of watchdog, also highlighting her skills as an investigative journalist. She has promised to have public advocate campaign staff spread throughout the five boroughs. Konst recently failed to answer a number of questions about her resume and biography for a Politico New York profile.

Danny O’Donnell (Equality for All)
A member of the state Assembly from Manhattan, O’Donnell was the first openly gay man elected to the state Legislature and a lead sponsor of the Marriage Equality Act in 2011. He touts his independence and says “the public advocate needs to be a loudmouth and that’s what I intend to be on your behalf.”

He says his top priority as public advocate would be to expand the power of the office, such as giving the public advocate subpoena power, and promises a push to “downzone” parts of the city to limit large real estate development and enhance community input on projects. O’Donnell was a steadfast opponent of Amazon coming to Queens.

Eric Ulrich (Common Sense)
A City Council member from Queens and the only Republican elected official in the race, Ulrich says he would be “Bill de Blasio’s worst nightmare” as public advocate.” He promises to hold the mayor and City Council accountable. He often frames his positions, such as support for the Amazon deal and opposition to congestion pricing, as defending the outer boroughs.

He cites his biggest accomplishments as work he has done for the city’s military veterans and for rebuilding in his community, which was especially hard hit by Hurricane Sandy. He’s opposed to closing the Rikers Island jails, but wants to renovate them, and says community jails would make neighborhoods less safe, but could not provide evidence for that theory given that Manhattan and Brooklyn already have downtown jails.

Ulrich calls himself a “Rockefeller” or “Bloomberg” or “moderate” Republican, who is socially progressive and economically conservative. He has been a staunch supporter of women’s reproductive rights and LGBT marriage equality. He has said de Blasio and the City Council have been spending far too much money in the city budget, and will pursue greater oversight on that issue if elected.

Ydanis Rodriguez (Unite for Immigrants)
A City Council member from Manhattan, Rodriguez has top priorities of fighting for immigrants and transit -- he has been the chair of the City Council’s transportation committee for more than five years now. He wants municipal voting rights for immigrants who don’t currently have them, and a bailout for taxi medallion owners.

Rodriguez helped usher through the Inwood neighborhood rezoning, which he says wasn’t perfect but is a positive for the community given the investments it will bring. He also cites his support of the stalled Small Business Jobs Survival Act in the City Council, which would regulate lease renewals for small business in the city. During the campaign Rodriguez received a full-throated endorsement from City Council Member Ruben Diaz, Sr., who made his latest homophobic remarks while pushing Rodriguez’s candidacy on a radio program. Rodriguez explained he disagreed with Diaz Sr.’s remarks, but did not disavow the endorsement.


Manny Alicandro (Better Leadership)
An attorney, Alicandro is a Republican who argues he is the only true conservative in the race, taking on Ulrich for being more of a moderate. Last year, he unsuccessfully sought his party’s nomination for state Attorney General. His reason for running is that he is “fed up with the dysfunction of city hall.”

“I’m the only pro-Trump candidate in the race,” he’s said, positioning himself as an outsider. His top priorities are fixing the MTA, investigating NYCHA, and addressing the homelessness crisis.

David Eisenbach (Stop REBNY)
Eisenbach is a history professor at Columbia University who unsuccessfully challenged Letitia James in the 2017 Democratic primary for public advocate. He has been highly critical of Mayor de Blasio, saying he has been involved in “pay-to-play” corruption and too much real estate development. He regularly cites what he calls a “small business crisis” in the city and wants to pass the Small Business Survival Jobs Act.

Tony Herbert (Housing Residents First)
Herbert is a community activist and consultant, and an unsuccessful candidate for public advocate in 2017. He points to his experience as a community advisor and activist and has focused his campaign on repairing NYCHA, moving homeless people into affordable housing, and creating a citywide vocational education program.

Benjamin Yee (Community Empowerment)
Yee is an entrepreneur and civic technologist who has worked in and around Democratic politics for roughly a decade, including as secretary of the Manhattan Democratic Party. He has sought to engage more people in local politics through a program to help people run for county committee positions. In recent years he has been teaching civic engagement seminars across the city and he wants to implement a more robust program as public advocate. Most of his platform is centered on engaging and educating members of the public, empowering them to influence city government.

Yee also promises to investigate “bad actors” at the Board of Elections, who he says are responsible for voter purges and election mismanagement. He has criticized the city government for failing to enforce concessions made by developers to communities.

Jared Rich (Jared Rich for NYC)
Rich is a Brooklyn attorney and first-time candidate for office who promises to use the position of public advocate to be “the people’s lawyer.” He has said that he is “a litigator who will fights and a negotiator who will listen.” His priorities as public advocate would be making every school in the city great, attacking the opioid distribution chain, and fixing city housing issues. He has called the current state of public schools “an embarrassment.”

Helal Sheikh (Friends of Helal)
Sheikh is a public school teacher and community activist in Queens. He unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination to challenge incumbent City Council Member Eric Ulrich in 2017. His platform covers many of the same issues as his fellow Democrats in the race, but he has put a specific emphasis on addressing the needs of senior citizens.

Latrice Walker (Power Forward)
Walker, a state Assembly member from Brooklyn, dropped out of the race but was not able to remove her name from the ballot.



by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Brendan Rose and Ben Max contributed to this article.

Last-Minute Guide: How the Public Advocate Candidates Have Tried to Define Themselves Sun, 24 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
In Second Debate, Public Advocate Candidates Argue Over Amazon, Insult De Blasio & Make Closing Cases poolnytdebate 002

Candidates at debate #1 (photo: Holly Pickett for The New York Times (pool))

While there were disagreements over the Amazon deal that fell apart and contentious exchanges over their records, the seven candidates for public advocate who debated Wednesday night agreed on a lot, including that Mayor Bill de Blasio should not run for president and instead focus on major challenges in New York City.

With less than a week until the Tuesday, February 26 special election vote, seven of the 17 candidates who will be on the ballot took the stage at Borough of Manhattan Community College for the second of two official, televised debates, broadcast by NY1. The seven candidates -- Nomiki Konst, Michael Blake, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Dawn Smalls, Rafael Espinal, Jumaane Williams, and Ron Kim -- met the financial and endorsement thresholds set by the city’s Campaign Finance Board.

The previous debate, two weeks prior, featured those seven candidates as well as Danny O’Donnell, Ydanis Rodriguez, and Eric Ulrich, the lone Republican and only ardent supporter of Amazon creating a massive campus in Queens among the ten candidates.

After opening statements where candidates reiterated their pitches from prior debates, interviews, and local forums, the first question from moderator Errol Louis had the participants weigh in on the collapse of the Amazon deal, which spurred a lengthy conversation, including prolonged cross-talk at one point, and some of the clearest differentiation of the night among seven mostly left-wing Democrats.

Konst, Espinal, and Kim continued to argue that a deal to bring Amazon’s “HQ2” to the city should not have been pursued, while the other candidates said it should have been done with both better process and outcomes, in some cases talking about the opportunity in more positive terms than they had before the deal fell apart.

There were several tense back-and-forths throughout the hour-and-a-half debate, especially during the “cross-examination” round where candidates each had the chance to ask one opponent a question. That portion repeatedly turned into arguing and, at times, saw the candidate asking a question give a series of attacks before posing their query and the candidate being asked a question deflect by throwing criticism back at the interrogator.

By all measures, Jumaane Williams was treated like the frontrunner that he is widely perceived to be -- several of the other candidates used their questions to target him. Like in the first debate, Mark-Viverito was also the subject of questions and criticism, especially from Konst.

Overall, the candidates largely agreed that Airbnb needs to be strongly regulated but that homeowners should be able to rent out a room here and there, and perhaps even their entire apartments; that the mayor’s housing plan needs to do more for low-income New Yorkers; and that homeless shelters need to be equitably distributed throughout the city. They also mostly agreed that undocumented immigrants should be allowed driver’s licenses and municipal voting rights. On the latter, Mark-Viverito said she almost moved a bill as Council speaker, but that given Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency and anti-immigrant policies, advocates asked her not to move forward.

Asked about whether Mayor de Blasio is qualified to run for president and should do so, all seven candidates took shots at the mayor, some more harsh than others, and said he needs to focus on problems in the city. Kim said de Blasio is “delusional” if he thinks he’s going to be president. "No, he is not qualified to run for president, he should not run for president," said Blake, who worked for President Barack Obama and is a vice chair with the Democratic National Committee.

Like others, Mark-Viverito, a long-time ally of de Blasio who has separated herself from him in recent years, said the mayor needs to focus on running the city, but also said that de Blasio does not really execute unless he’s working on a “pet project” of his own.

Several of the candidates were more shy when asked if they had voted for Williams last year when he ran for lieutenant governor. Four didn’t answer: Konst, Mark-Viverito, Blake, and Smalls. Kim and Espinal said they did vote for Williams, who challenged Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul in the Democratic primary.

The debate provided candidates a near-final opportunity to pitch themselves directly to voters and to media that might amplify their message. The public advocate is one of three citywide elected positions, responsible for being a watchdog over city government and an ombudsperson, with the power to introduce legislation to the City Council, and some influence over the public pension system. The public advocate is first in line of succession to the mayor if the mayor is unable to finish his or her term.

Konst, an activist and journalist, targeted the city’s wealth gap and called for higher taxes on the wealthy, and said in her opening that New Yorkers should “elect the next progressive millennial woman.” Blake, a member of the state Assembly, mentioned his “jobs and justice” platform and said it’s essential the next public advocate is “independent of the mayor.”

Mark-Viverito touted her career in activism and record as City Council speaker, including her successful pushes toward closing the Rikers Island jails and reforming how low-level offenses are policed and prosecuted in the city. Against attacks from Konst she defended her record on housing, including by citing the “right to counsel” in housing court law that was passed while she was speaker and has helped reduce evictions significantly.

Smalls, an attorney with experience at high levels of the federal government, differentiated herself as the only mother and attorney on the stage. She cited her campaign focus on helping homeless families get into housing. “I have experience breaking through bureaucracy to get results and that’s what I want to do for New York,” she said.

Espinal, a Brooklyn City Council member who previously served in the state Assembly, cited his experience at two levels of government, and ran through a variety of areas where he believes New York is not “livable” enough and he wants to address, including affordable housing and running small businesses.

Williams cited his combination of activism and legislative accomplishments. He touted his work on affordable housing and said the mayor and other elected officials had not fought hard enough to make housing affordable enough for the people who really need it. He attempted to defend himself against attacks from other candidates, particularly as Mark-Viverito again went after him for having staff members and endorsements from several men who have mistreated women.

Kim reiterated that he is against “corporate giveaways” and said that while the Amazon deal may have been stopped by strong activism, there is more work to do to address the larger pattern. He called for passage of his new legislation that would stop New York from engaging in interstate bidding for companies, and said the answer is to build economic development capacity in communities.

In taking a different approach, Williams said he had been in favor of “engaging” Amazon and wanted “to use the power of the city to see if we can change the worst of their behavior” while attaining jobs for New Yorkers. He, Blake, Smalls, and Mark-Viverito all argued there should have been better leadership by the mayor and the governor.

“My criticism of the Amazon deal was always on the process,” said Smalls.

Mark-Viverito said the Amazon deal was deeply flawed because it did not address the city’s two major crises: affordable housing and transit.

“This is not just about process,” Konst argued. “It’s about an exploitative company with a history and track record for decades of increasing homelessness, not being honest in their deals. They should’ve never been welcomed here.”

“Amazon is a super monopoly,” Kim said, “they are an abusive company and the more we engage them, they’re gonna be emboldened. We need to hold them accountable from the beginning and not court them.”

The election is Tuesday and open to all voters across the city. Also on the ballot beyond the ten candidates mentioned earlier are David Eisenbach, Benjamin Yee, Jared Rich, Tony Herbert, Manny Alicandro, Helal Sheikh, and Latrice Walker, though she has dropped from the race.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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In Second Debate, Public Advocate Candidates Argue Over Amazon, Insult De Blasio & Make Closing Cases Wed, 20 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
7 Candidates Qualify for Second Public Advocate Special Election Debate Public Advocate debate 10 candidates

The first debate (photo: Holly Pickett for The New York Times (pool))

Seven candidates running in the special election for New York City Public Advocate have qualified for the second and final official televised debate, which will take place Wednesday night, just six days ahead of the February 26 election.

There will be 17 candidates on the ballot, 10 of whom qualified for the first televised debate. Now, for the “leading contenders” debate, seven candidates met the threshold set by city law, which includes raising and spending $170,813, according to a spokesperson for the city’s Campaign Finance Board. Candidates made their latest filings to the Campaign Finance Board by midnight Friday.

The seven candidates who will debate Wednesday night on NY1 television are former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, attorney Dawn Smalls, activist Nomiki Konst, City Council Members Jumaane Williams and Rafael Espinal, and state Assemblymembers Michael Blake and Ron Kim.

Of the ten candidates who made the first debate, City Council Members Ydanis Rodriguez and Eric Ulrich and Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell did not meet the threshold for the second debate.

To make it into the “leading contenders” debate, the candidates then had till February 11 to raise and spend $170,813 and needed to be endorsed by an elected official representing New York City at the local, state or federal level, or by a membership organization with at least 250 members in the city (a labor union or political club, for instance).

Ulrich, the only Republican at the first debate, Rodriguez, and O’Donnell did not meet the financial threshold for the second debate.

At the first debate on February 6, the ten candidates made their pitches to city voters and weighed in on everything from funding for the MTA and NYCHA to the then-happening Amazon deal, and their disagreements with Mayor Bill de Blasio. To qualify for that debate, the candidates were required to show $56,938 in campaign fundraising and expenditure by the filing due just before the debate.

[Read: In First Debate, Public Advocate Candidates Take on De Blasio, Amazon & Each Other]

The debate at 7 p.m. on Wednesday (February 20) will broadcast by Spectrum News NY1 and will be publicly accessible on NY1’s website and Facebook page. It will also be simulcast by NYC Life, the city’s media channel. The hour-and-a-half debate will again be moderated by Errol Louis of NY1, with questions also coming from Laura Nahmias of Politico New York and Bobby Cuza of NY1.

The public advocate special election was triggered after the former office-holder Letitia James was elected New York State Attorney General. James filled a vacancy created by the resignation of former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in the wake of allegations of physical abuse by several intimate partners.

The public advocate is a watchdog over city government and an ombudsperson, with the power to introduce legislation to the City Council. The public advocate is also first in line to the mayor if the mayor is unable to serve out his or her full term. The position helped launch James to become attorney general, and her predeccessor, Bill de Blasio, to become mayor.

The sponsors of the debate include Politico New York, Citizens Union, the League of Women Voters, the Latino Leadership Institute, Borough of Manhattan Community College, NAACP New York State Conference Metropolitan Council, and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., East Kings County Alumnae Chapter.

Beyond the ten candidates who made the first debate, the other candidates on the February 26 ballot will be Benjamin Yee, Manny Alicandro, David Eisenbach, Jared Rich, Tony Herbert, Helal Sheikh, and Latrice Walker, an Assembly member who has dropped out of the race but was unable to have her name removed from the ballot.

The election, open to all registered voters across the city, is expected to be low turnout. The winner will hold the seat at least through the end of this year -- there will be a primary election this June and a general election this November to determine who holds the seat for 2020 and 2021.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

7 Candidates Qualify for Second Public Advocate Special Election Debate Sat, 16 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
In First Debate, Public Advocate Candidates Take on De Blasio, Amazon & Each Other Public Advocate debate Feb 6 2019

photo: Holly Pickett for The New York Times (pool)

(l-r) Danny O'Donnell, Jumaane Williams Michael Blake, Rafael Espinal, Erich Ulrich, Ron Kim, Ydanis Rodriguez, Dawn Smalls, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Nomiki Konst

With 10 candidates on stage and less than three weeks until election day, there were some sharp elbows at the first of two televised debates Wednesday night in the race to be the city’s next Public Advocate. The citywide special election is February 26.

The candidates, including eight current or former elected officials, debated for two hours on NY1, discussing where they disagree with Mayor Bill de Blasio, what should be done about the crises enveloping public housing and public transit, whether they support the deal to bring an Amazon campus to Queens, and much more. There was a lot of finger-pointing on NYCHA and the MTA, among the city and state elected officials on the stage, and from them at the mayor and the governor.

Most of the candidates agreed on a lot, while at times there were slight degrees of disagreement among the nine Democrats, while the lone Republican, City Council Member Eric Ulrich, was often more of an outlier. On some issues, like what to do about admissions to the city’s specialized high schools and whether the city should have control of the subways and buses, there was more diversity of opinion. The candidates mostly agreed that the Amazon deal was done in a bad process and took an unacceptable form, with too much secrecy and subsidy; that there should be a congestion pricing program implemented in the city; and that the city needs to kick in more funding for the MTA.

Melissa Mark-Viverito, the former City Council speaker, was the candidate most frequently attacked by opponents, perhaps indicating her status as a perceived frontrunner, while City Council Member Jumaane Williams, also thought to be at the head of the pack, was also targeted on multiple occasions, including by Mark-Viverito and state Assembly Member Michael Blake over where Williams has stood on abortion and marriage equality.

The debate provided a venue for voters to get to know 10 of the 17 candidates who will be on the ballot, how they come across in such a setting, and their positions on a wide range of issues. The job the candidates are applying for is supposed to be a watchdog over city government and an ombudsperson to whom regular New Yorkers can go with complaints and looking for assistance. The public advocate has the power to introduce legislation to the City Council. 

Along with Mark-Viverito, Williams, Ulrich, and Blake, the other candidates in the debate were journalist Nomiki Konst, attorney Dawn Smalls, City Council Members Ydanis Rodriguez and Rafael Espinal, and Assembly Members Danny O’Donnell and Ron Kim.

For those who want a public advocate inclined to use the bully pulpit the position provides, a debate may provide special insight. While all of the candidates spoke with energy and passion, Mark-Viverito and Konst were especially assertive, including arguing with each other at times, even as they sat inches away from one another. Konst argued that her skills as an investigative journalist and her lack of ties to the political system uniquely qualify her to be the public advocate, and said that the position needs a non-politician.

“The public advocate needs to be a loudmouth on your behalf,” O’Donnell said in his opening statement, though the long-time representative of the Upper West Side and former public defender was one of the more passive participants in the debate, staying out of the fray and repeatedly stating his agreements with Smalls, who was also mostly on the sidelines when there were pockets of open discussion or back-and-forths among candidates.

O’Donnell did point to reasons New Yorkers should trust his independence, like his refusal to sign a letter asking Amazon to come to New York and his efforts leading ethics investigations in the Assembly. Smalls highlighted her work in the Obama administration and her plan to focus on helping homeless families if elected public advocate.

“I’m concerned about the direction of our city,” Espinal said early on. “As a born and raised New Yorker, I feel that the city that never sleeps is getting tired. Tired of the broken MTA, tired of the cost of living, tired of seeing community gardens and green spaces being bulldozed.”

Along with the MTA, NYCHA, and Amazon, affordability was a consistent theme throughout the night. Mark-Viverito, Williams, Blake, and others talked about increasing affordable housing in the city, while Smalls said the city must prioritize homeless families with young children when housing those coming out of shelters. O’Donnell called for down-zoning across the city so that development would only happen with more community input, Konst repeatedly said the power of big real estate interests was suffocating the city, and Kim railed against corporate giveaways.

For those who might want their public advocate to be a strong legislator, the debate offered some help, especially with so many current or former lawmakers on stage. Candidates were able to highlight legislative accomplishments or offer plans for a bill they would introduce if elected, but not all of them spoke in detail about their legislative records.

Ulrich cited his bill to create the city’s Department of Veterans Affairs (making it an agency, not just an office within the Mayor’s Office) and said he would push for the public advocate’s office to have more teeth -- something O’Donnell and Konst agreed with, while Blake said the public advocate should get a seat on the MTA Board. Rodriguez said he would push a bill to allow immigrants with green cards and work permits to be able to vote in local elections. Konst said she would champion a $30 minimum wage for city workers and employees at companies with more than 75 employees.

Williams highlighted his vote against a city program to mandate affordable housing units in upzoned properties or neighborhoods, and criticized Mark-Viverito for ushering it through the Council when she was speaker, a move she said she was proud of, given that Mandatory Inclusionary Housing was a historic progressive change in the city’s land use rules. Williams believes it didn’t go far enough.

If holding the mayor, especially the current mayor, accountable is important to you as a voter, the candidates had plenty of opportunity to explain their approach to that part of the job. Asked for one major policy disagreement with Mayor de Blasio, the candidates gave a variety of answers.

Mark-Viverito, largely a de Blasio ally for most of his first term, said that she had many disagreements with him. After having said in her opening statement that she had pushed the mayor on closing the Rikers Island jails and “decriminalizing” low-level, non-violent offenses, she later said a “major flaw” of the de Blasio administration “is the lack of serious community engagement in major decisions that are being made.”

Konst and Kim cited the Amazon deal, while she also mentioned neighborhood rezonings as a major area of disagreement with the mayor. O’Donnell said similarly, citing overdevelopment.

Williams said no one who knows him doubts his willingness to call out the mayor, but said he’s also worked with de Blasio on a lot, before focusing in on policing. “We’re better than where we were,” he said. “It’s a low bar but we’re better.” Still, Williams said, on NYPD transparency and accountability, de Blasio had failed.

Blake took issue with the theme of de Blasio’s tenure, saying the mayor’s approach to “equity” was off in a variety of ways. “We should be building schools, not jails,” he said. He also mentioned lead paint in NYCHA, a topic on which he pointed to Mark-Viverito, who defended her record on the issue by citing increased funding, creating a Council committee to focus on public housing, and more. It was one of several tense exchanges where Mark-Viverito forcefully defended herself. In other instances, Espinal challenged her about constituent support in her district and Konst took her on over her support for the East Harlem rezoning.

Rodriguez said the mayor’s lack of support for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which would institute new rules about commercial tenant leasing, was a source of frustration, and he also used the moment to say that Mark-Viverito had not been willing to allow a hearing on the bill as speaker, whereas her successor, Corey Johnson, did.

Ulrich, as expected, separated himself most clearly from his opponents on issues, especially in his opposition to closing the Rikers Island jail complex, his support for Amazon to come to Queens, and his opposition to congestion pricing (all the other candidates said yes to congestion pricing). He also claimed that he would be Mayor de Blasio’s “worst nightmare” as public advocate.

“Right now we have an absentee mayor who seems more interested in raising his national profile and running for president even than he is actually tending to the day to day affairs of the city and addressing city problems,” Ulrich said early on.

Ulrich did have to defend himself at times -- after he referred to those on Rikers as “criminals,” several of his opponents jumped in to remind him that most of the people held in the city’s jails are pre-trial, not convicted of any crime, and often incarcerated because they cannot pay bail. And, Ulrich was asked by Smalls during the cross-examination round to explain whether he supports President Donald Trump, to which he answered that he did not support Trump in the 2016 Republican primary (he backed John Kasich) and disagrees with him on many issues, including a woman’s right to choose, while also listing areas he agrees with him on, like pursuing economic growth and supporting law enforcement.

Both Blake and Mark-Viverito put Williams on the defensive about his support, or lack thereof, for a woman’s right to choose and for marriage equality. Williams has said in the past that he grew up with more conservative, religiously-founded views on those issues but that he has evolved, also at times saying that while he may have a personal view on one or the other issue, that his voting record showed he was consistently supportive of abortion and LGBT rights.

All three of Blake, Williams, and Mark-Viverito were attacked by others for having signed the 2017 letter wooing Amazon, though all three have taken exception to the deal that was reached. Espinal said no one who signed the letter should be elected public advocate, noting that issues with Amazon that have come up during the recent public debate were well-known to those who did their “homework.”

Mark-Viverito said the process getting to the deal was “anti-democratic,” while Williams said signing the letter did not mean taking Amazon under any circumstances, and Blake said there are a variety of “dramatic changes” needed to improve the deal to make it acceptable, such as guarantees around local hiring and unionization.

The debate was moderated by NY1's Errol Louis, who was accompanied in asking questions by NY1's Grace Rauh and Laura Nahmias of Politico New York.

The second debate in the special election will be Wednesday, February 20. It is unclear how many candidates will qualify.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to clarify that Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez said he would introduce a bill allowing only immigrants with green cards and work permits to vote in local elections, not all immigrants. 

In First Debate, Public Advocate Candidates Take on De Blasio, Amazon & Each Other Wed, 06 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
8 Things to Watch in the First Public Advocate Debate public advocate candidates

The biggest moment so far in the short, crowded, and contentious race to become the next New York City Public Advocate will be Wednesday night, as 10 qualifying candidates take the stage for the first of two televised debates.

The citywide special election has attracted a wide and deep field of candidates -- there will be 17 names on the February 26 ballot -- including several sitting elected officials, each hoping to become the city’s watchdog and ombudsperson, one of just three citywide elected officials and next in line to the mayor. The public advocate has a lot of responsibility but limited powers, which do include the ability to introduce legislation to the City Council, and a roughly $3 million annual budget.

With 10 candidates on stage, each trying to introduce and differentiate her or himself to voters, the debate could prove somewhat pivotal as contestants try to make their mark, and spur media attention, volunteers, and donors toward their campaigns. The debate may be the first time many voters are paying attention to the race or meeting some, if not all, of the candidates. Below, you’ll find a guide of eight things to watch for in the debate.

But first: while some say the public advocate position should be eliminated or mock it’s relative lack of power, the debate, and the larger election, are important -- the last two public advocates are now the Mayor (Bill de Blasio) and state Attorney General (Letitia James). Meanwhile, before moving on to bigger or simply other things, the public advocate can have significant impact on city government through the bully pulpit, policy reports, legislation, legal action, and coalition building.

The 10 candidates who will participate in the first debate are former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, activist Nomiki Konst, attorney Dawn Smalls; State Assembly Members Michael Blake, Ron Kim, and Daniel O’Donnell; and City Council Members Rafael Espinal Jr., Ydanis Rodriguez, Eric Ulrich, and Jumaane Williams.

Airing from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday night on NY1 from the CUNY-TV studio in Manhattan, it will be the first of two televised debates in the special election (the second one is February 20). It will be moderated by NY1 political anchor Errol Louis, with questions also coming from panelists including Laura Nahmias of Politico New York. Candidates qualified by hitting the New York City Campaign Finance Board financial raise-and-spend threshold of $56,938, as dictated by city law. The debate will also air on NY1’s website and Facebook page (and on the city’s “NYC Life” channel available on all cable providers, as mandated by a new city law).

Here’s what to watch for in the debate:

1. How will each candidate try to define themselves?
Candidates have a choice to make in terms of how they balance talking about their personal story, their accomplishments, their plans for how they’d run the public advocate’s office, how they would approach Mayor Bill de Blasio, and what sets them apart from their competition. The questions will influence these choices, but candidates can spend their allotted time, including but not limited to any opening and closing statements, returning to their chosen talking points.

There’s a good chance you’ll hear a lot of sentences that start with: “I’m the only candidate in this race...” or “I’m the only one on this stage who…”

Mark-Viverito is likely to stress both her experience leading the City Council, especially on criminal justice reform, and the need for diversity in top city positions, where the current mayor, comptroller and City Council speaker are all white men. Williams will talk about his work as “an activist elected official” who has staked out progressive positions on police reform and affordable housing.

Blake will tout accomplishments by the Democratic majority of the state Assembly like raising the age of adult criminal responsibility, his work for President Barack Obama, and his “jobs and justice” platform in this race. He’ll bill himself as an organizer, a coalition builder. O’Donnell will talk about his independence, exemplified, he’ll say, by his refusal to sign a letter enticing Amazon to consider New York City for a headquarters; and his successful push to pass marriage equality in New York.

Kim will also talk about his opposition to Amazon, while also touting his platform to recreate the public advocate’s office as one focused on helping to eliminate student debt. Espinal will highlight legislative accomplishments, like repeal of an antiquated law limiting which clubs are allowed to host dancing and creation of the Office of Nightlife, and what he’s working on now: legalization of e-bikes and e-scooters as well as other climate-friendly policies. He’ll explain he’s focused on making it easier for everyday New Yorkers to live in this city.

Smalls will discuss her carefully-outlined platform and how she’ll focus the public advocate’s office on four key areas: homelessness, housing, transit, and civic participation; and she’ll highlight her work as an attorney and in the Obama administration. Konst -- who along with Smalls are the only two who have not held elected office -- will fill the “outsider” lane, talking about the need for someone with her independence from the political muck and investigative skills as a journalist to come in and shake things up, call it like it is, and provide real oversight. She’ll stake out far left policy positions like calling for a $30-an-hour minimum wage and vilifying the real estate industry, as well as politicians beholden to it, who she’ll say have caused an affordability crisis in the city.

Rodriguez will talk about his immigrant story and fighting for immigrants during his career as an activist and as an elected official, and explain that’s what he’ll do as public advocate if elected to the post. He’ll also talk a lot about transit and refer to his work as the City Council’s transportation committee chair over the last several years. And Ulrich, the lone registered Republican on the stage, will argue he’s the only one who can truly hold Mayor de Blasio accountable given their widespread disagreements, though he’ll also explain that he’s a “moderate” and “Rockefeller” Republican who is progressive on social issues, perhaps saying that he sees himself in the mold of (now-Democrat) Michael Bloomberg. He may highlight his support for Amazon coming to Queens as the Democrats on the stage mostly criticize the deal.

Everyone will rail against the MTA.

Most of the candidates will express support for congestion pricing, some may also call for a millionaire’s tax to fund subway upgrades or for the city to take control of the subways and buses.

Everyone will say what has gone on at NYCHA is a disgrace. Solutions there, however, may not roll off the tongue.

2. The Elephant in the Room
As the only Republican on the stage, Ulrich has a clear mission in the debate and the broader race: to attract as many moderates and conservatives, independents and Republicans, as possible to pull off a victory in a crowded race where someone could win with 30% of the vote, maybe even less.

While the rest of the candidates will argue over their progressive bona fides, pitching themselves to many of the same voters, Ulrich will likely focus his fire on de Blasio (others will do some of that, too, of course), and position himself as the alternative to a bunch of Democrats trying to out-socialism each other. Ulrich may also have to be clear that he’s not a supporter of Donald Trump -- he backed John Kasich in the 2016 GOP presidential primary and has criticized the president repeatedly, drawing ire from some of his fellow Republicans, though much of the city’s GOP establishment has gotten behind his candidacy. In the City Council, Ulrich very often votes with the Democratic majority while his two fellow Republicans vote “no,” sometimes along with several more conservative Democrats.

3. How negative will it get?
It’s a sprint of a race and a crowded field. The candidates have been traversing the city meeting with clubs and organizations and appearing at candidate forums and debates, which have apparently only had a few tense moments between the candidates, though there have been many comments about some of the perceived frontrunners (Williams, Mark-Viverito, and Blake), along with a few criticisms for others, like Espinal, who has been tweaked for his support of a neighborhood rezoning in his district that some say will (or already is) spur gentrification and displacement.

Candidates will likely mostly stick with more vague comments that include phrases like “unlike some of my opponents,” but we may see some more pointed criticisms. How hot things get will depends on a few things: whether one or two candidates decide to go negative and open the floodgates; how much urgency certain candidates are feeling with less than three weeks until the election; and whether there is a “cross-examination” round where candidates get to ask one of their opponents a direct question.
Look for Williams, Mark-Viverito, and Blake to be the most frequent targets of any negative comments, outright attacks, or those pointed candidate-to-candidate questions.

What might come up exactly?

For Mark-Viverito, it could be questions about her support of a rezoning in her City Council district, her closeness with de Blasio or with Oscar López Rivera, how she’s handled some of her campaign financing, or whether she provided strong enough oversight of issues at NYCHA while she was City Council speaker. As the candidate who has held the most power in government, she has both the most to point to in terms of accomplishments but also a series of vulnerabilities.

For Blake, possibly the outside income he has earned as a consultant or his support for charter schools. For Williams, perhaps that he just ran for lieutenant governor and is now pursuing another higher office or some of his campaign financing, but most likely the ongoing questions around his support for a woman’s right to choose and for marriage equality. There was also a recent report about a campaign staffer who was a teacher and had been fined for sending inappropriate messages to a student.

Espinal could face some questions, or at least barbs, about the East New York rezoning that he negotiated with the de Blasio administration. Ulrich could face questions about Trump, as virtually every Republican running for office over the last few years has, even those who have not supported the president who is deeply unpopular in New York City.

If Konst is particularly critical of her opponents and one or more decide(s) to fire back, she could face questions or comments about what exactly she has accomplished, especially for New York City voters, or what qualifies her for a citywide office.

Amazon is likely to come up several times, particularly with regard to the 2017 letter that some of the public advocate candidates did sign, encouraging the company to consider New York. Those signees, including Mark-Viverito, Williams, and Blake, have criticized the deal and said that while they may have signed a letter of interest, they were not signing off on any deal and expected a better process. That hasn't been a good enough answer for O'Donnell, Kim, Konst, Espinal, and others.

And there could very well be new questions or critiques thrown by one candidate at another. There’s clearly opposition research happening by some campaigns, with a lot at stake in the election.

Even though there will be 10 candidates and there’s potential for a lot of cross-talk, the debate is very likely to stay orderly. The candidates involved are all respectful of rules and Louis always runs a tight ship.

4. The Wild Cards
Konst is certainly known to speak forcefully and critically, and if she’s throwing verbal punches, she may take some control of the conversation by virtue of putting some of her opponents back on their heels. If other candidates have to appeal to the moderator to “have a chance to respond to that,” she may get the kind of debate attention she may need.

O’Donnell can also be particularly biting, though it’s unclear how harsh he wants to get with his competition -- he’s also quite affable.

Rodriguez has had a penchant for saying somewhat controversial things in his time in the Council, including when he was arguing that the City Council was not going far enough as it was voting itself a large salary raise. How bold does he get?

Blake and Mark-Viverito are both exceptionally competitive and may decide that what it takes to win is to try to dominate the debate, including by being particularly sharp with their competitors.

And while Smalls is consistently calm and collected, she may present something of a wild card in that she may impress a lot of people watching, giving herself even more of a chance (she’s raised a good bit of money and is strong at local forums) in what is very clearly a long-shot bid.

5. The Former Public Advocates
There’s a good chance that the candidates will have a lot of harsh words for one former public advocate, Bill de Blasio, and a lot of kind words for another, Tish James.

There have only been four public advocates since the position was created through charter revision commission late last century. The other two are Mark Green and Betsy Gotbaum. Green has endorsed Williams this year, while Gotbaum is the executive director of Citizens Union, a good government group and co-sponsor of the debates.

The candidates may be asked to discuss which of the former public advocates they most admire or would borrow strategies from, or candidates may offer some of those examples themselves.

Essential to the whole night is that the candidates must individually and collectively make the case that the position of public advocate is important, worth keeping, and worth caring about enough for people to vote. Perhaps more important than their stances on any issues is whether the candidates can outline strong strategies for how they’ll engage everyday New Yorkers and respond to the issues that they raise and be an aggressive and effective watchdog over city government.

When the candidates talk about the position, how much fire is in their bellies -- and is the fire about using the office to help people or about using it to move on to the next thing? Maybe both?

6. The Mayoral Pledge
As it has throughout the race, the question of mayoral aspirations is likely to come up. After all, Green and de Blasio both ran for mayor while they were public advocate and James likely would have if the attorney general position hadn’t opened up with Eric Schneiderman’s dishonorable resignation.

Some candidates, like O’Donnell, have pledged to never run for mayor, while Williams and Blake have pledged not to run in 2021 if successful in this special election and then in the fall election that will follow. Mark-Viverito has said she's not ruling anything out.

Ulrich has said he will run for mayor if he’s elected public advocate.

7. Policy Talk
The debate could be quite substantive. The candidates on the stage are all serious people who want to work in government and to accomplish things to help people and the city overall. They’ve been touring the forum circuit where they’ve been asked about all sorts of broad and specific issues, from affordable housing to congestion pricing to policing and more.

The public advocate is able to carve out policy areas to focus on based on the interests of the officeholder, though major issues facing the city also command attention. The candidates have all put forth ideas and policy proposals, discussed legislation they may look to introduce if elected, and changes they believe are needed to major institutions, from schools to the MTA.

Hot button issues like the Amazon deal, NYCHA’s future, congestion pricing and how to fix the subways, and more could all come up. Like in all candidate debates, pay special attention to which candidates actually offer solutions to key problems facing the city and which only talk about what’s gone wrong and how much of a shame it is.

It will be particularly interesting to get candidates on the record about as many key issues as possible, like infill development on NYCHA land or neighborhood rezonings, the mayor’s affordable housing plan, police accountability, school turnaround, the BQX, parking placard abuse, bus lane enforcement, and more. What do the candidates think should be done about climate change? Homeless shelter siting? And so on.

Much of the policy that is discussed will depend on the questions from the moderator and panelists, and they are sure to cover a lot, but candidates can also find ways to work in key points they want to make about where they think the city needs to go.

8. The Non-Debaters
Watch for them on social media during the debate and at local forums between Wednesday and the election on February 26. The public advocate candidates not in the debate include Ben Yee, David Eisenbach, Jared Rich, Tony Herbert, Manny Alicandro, and Helal Sheikh (Latrice Walker will be on the ballot but she has dropped from the race).

Final Notes
The co-sponsors of the debate at 7 p.m. Wednesday are Spectrum News NY1 and Spectrum News Noticias NY1, Politico New York, Citizens Union, Borough of Manhattan Community College, Latino Leadership Institute, The League of Women Voters of the City of New York, NAACP New York State Conference Metropolitan Council, and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and East Kings County Alumnae Chapter.

The second debate, likely with a smaller field of candidates, will take place on Wednesday, February 20, again on NY1 and NYC Life.

The citywide election is open to all registered voters on February 26.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect that Blake has said he won't run for mayor in 2021 if he is elected public advocate.

8 Things to Watch in the First Public Advocate Debate Tue, 05 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000