Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1781 Sun, 05 Jul 2020 11:39:50 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) A Pandemic and A Primary in the Most Impoverished Congressional District in the Country https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9526-pandemic-primary-most-impoverished-congressional-district-in-the-country-bronx-15 https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9526-pandemic-primary-most-impoverished-congressional-district-in-the-country-bronx-15 Ritchie Torres Ruben Diaz Sr congress

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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A Pandemic and A Primary in the Most Impoverished Congressional District in the Country Mon, 22 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
WATCH: Democratic Primary Debate in the Bronx's 15th Congressional District https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9394-watch-democratic-primary-debate-bronx-15th-congressional-district-serrano-retiring-election https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9394-watch-democratic-primary-debate-bronx-15th-congressional-district-serrano-retiring-election bx debate 514

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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WATCH: Democratic Primary Debate in the Bronx's 15th Congressional District Sat, 16 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Intense Competition for 'Open' Bronx Congressional Seat: Watch the District 15 Democratic Debate on Thursday May 14 https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9378-bronx-congressional-district-15-democratic-debate-2020-house-serrano https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9378-bronx-congressional-district-15-democratic-debate-2020-house-serrano Michael Blake, Renee Chivona, Ruben Diaz Sr., Samelys Lopez, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Tomas Ramos, Ydanis Rodriguez, Ritchie Torres

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Intense Competition for 'Open' Bronx Congressional Seat: Watch the District 15 Democratic Debate on Thursday May 14 Wed, 13 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Campaigning for Congress, Torres Touts City Funding Secured for Development Outside Council District https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8672-campaigning-for-congress-torres-touts-city-funding-secured-for-development-outside-council-district https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8672-campaigning-for-congress-torres-touts-city-funding-secured-for-development-outside-council-district 1 cm r torres lib

Council Member Ritchie Torres (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)


Bronx City Council Member Ritchie Torres is touting $3 million in city funding he secured for a residential complex that falls outside the Council district he represents, but within the Congressional district where he’s seeking votes.

The money will go to Concourse Village, Inc., a nearly 1,900-unit housing cooperative located in the south Bronx, over a mile away from the border of Torres’ district. The second-term Democratic Council member is running for Congress in the primary that will be held in June of next year.

Torres sent a campaign text message announcing the “great news,” using the funding allocation he secured as a member of the City Council to advance his congressional campaign, apparently targeting voters in Concourse Village.

"This is Council Member Ritchie Torres, running to be your next Congressman,” read a text message shared with Gotham Gazette. “GREAT NEWS: In the latest NYC budget, I secured $3 MILLION for Concourse Village.” The message went on to tell the recipient not to hesitate to reach out to Torres, providing a phone number, and concluded, “You can always count on me to fight for the Bronx. - Ritchie".

The youngest member of the City Council and the first openly gay elected official from the Bronx, Torres officially announced his candidacy for Congress on Monday, though he has been exploring a run for months. He joins several other Democrats vying for the seat opened by incumbent Representative José E. Serrano, who announced in March he would not seek reelection because of health concerns related to Parkinson’s disease. Representing the district in Congress since 1990, Serrano’s current term will end at the end of next year. Torres, who has been representing the 15th Council District since 2014, is not eligible to run for reelection in 2021 because of two-term limits. (Serrano’s Congressional district also happens to be the 15th.)

Others in the race include City Council Member Ruben Diaz, Sr. and Assemblymember Michael Blake.

Taking advantage of the authority and influence of elected office to secure popular measures that can later be used as campaign fodder is commonplace in New York, where local politics is often a stepping stone to higher office. But the grey area around promoting public interest and political aspirations becomes less ambiguous when the sway of an elected office goes to benefit another district entirely, with electoral goals at play.

"How do you rationalize using campaign funds to communicate with people outside your district to tell them that you got them money blatantly for the purpose of trying to curry political favor?" said Blake, whose district includes Concourse Village.

Torres says the budget allocation for what he calls the largest concentration of cooperative housing in the South Bronx is consistent with his focus on affordable housing, especially for African-Americans. So is the political campaigning that followed.

“I have been an advocate for affordable housing not only in my district but throughout the city,” Torres told Gotham Gazette. Concourse Village “has an outsized presence in the housing stock of the South Bronx, which is keeping with my record and reputation for advocating for affordable housing.”

“I think of cooperative housing like Concourse Village as the bedrock of the African-American middle class, you know, whether it’s Co-op City in the East Bronx or Concourse Village in the South Bronx,” Torres, who is black and Latino, said. Black voters in the 15th Congressional District are expected to be an important part of the primary vote. Blake is African-American and Torres is African-American and Latino.

Concourse Village, Inc. is subsidized under the Mitchell-Lama housing program, which offers income-restricted rentals and below-market value buy-in for co-ops, a boon for affordable housing.

The neighborhoods comprising the South Bronx are home to some of the worst poverty in the country and also have some of the highest rates of rent burden in the city. In the community district that includes Concourse Village, more than half of households are rent burdened, meaning they spend more than 35 percent of income on rent, according to the Department of City Planning.

Torres, who grew up in NYCHA public housing and chaired the Committee on Public Housing during his first term, has made the living conditions of the city’s most underserved residents a signature priority.

He notes the $3 million allocation did not come from the capital funding dedicated to his Council district, but from the city-wide pool controlled by Speaker Corey Johnson. Torres told Gotham Gazette, “if it had come from the Council District 15 pot then there is cause for controversy, but there is nothing unusual about funding for Concourse Village from a city-wide pot.”

“And since I had a role in securing the funds, it’s natural for me to take credit,” he added.

Each fiscal year the City Council is given a capital budget from which Council members may apply to allocate funds, according to Jonathan Rosenberg of the Independent Budget Office. Individual members can apply for district-specific projects, and borough delegations can sponsor projects that span multiple districts. The Council speaker ultimately decides how that money is disbursed and can also allocate it to city-wide projects.

In recent years, speakers have designated an equal amount of capital funding, $5 million, to each of the 51 Council members with the remainder of the now $655 million capital budget going to a city fund. City-wide allocations are controlled by the speaker and might go toward large or expansive projects like street reconstruction, according to Rosenberg, and members are able to put in requests.

“This money was funded by the City Council Speaker at the request of Council Member Torres,” said a Council spokesperson. The spokesperson said it’s not unprecedented for members to seek funding for a project outside their district, adding that the money is from the city capital funding, not the money set aside for Torres’ Council District 15.

Torres has also secured funding for cooperative housing in his district using the money designated specifically for that purpose by the Council leadership. This year, he put roughly $1 million of the $5 million towards renovationing a Mitchell-Lama co-op, known as Dennis Lane Apartments, in the heart of District 15.

Concourse Village is located south of Torres’ district off of Morris Ave. within the borders of Council District 16, represented by Vanessa Gibson. Gibson, a Democrat, is not listed among the sponsors of the $3 million Concourse Village, Inc. allocation, despite the project falling into her district. “I actually was not even made aware of this allocation until the day of adoption,” she said in a phone interview.

“I did not have the opportunity to work with the speaker nor Ritchie on this. It was something that Ritchie had done on his own, but I am grateful for the attention Concourse Village is getting in the budget,” she said.

“I get the strategic way that Ritchie is obviously looking at the future. This was a development that came up among the priorities within the district, and I truly believe that that was the logic behind it,” she added.

But Blake called foul on that strategic approach. “It is difficult to say that you want to be a fresh voice in Congress when you are directly trying to communicate to people that you want to pay for their vote," he said.

“I’m proud of the role that I played in securing the funds. Concourse Village is one of the most important housing developments in the Bronx and in the city,” Torres said. “And it’s been a stabilizing force for communities of color, for middle-class communities of color. That’s why I felt so strongly about it.”

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Campaigning for Congress, Torres Touts City Funding Secured for Development Outside Council District Mon, 15 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Strips Diaz Sr. of Committee After Latest Homophobic Remarks https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8283-city-council-strips-diaz-sr-of-committee-after-latest-homophobic-remarks https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8283-city-council-strips-diaz-sr-of-committee-after-latest-homophobic-remarks ruben diaz sr comm vehicles

(Photo: John McCarten/NYC Council)


In a rare move on Wednesday, the New York City Council voted to dissolve a standing committee after its chair, Council Member Ruben Diaz Sr., made homophobic remarks in a recent radio interview and repeatedly refused to apologize for them in the days after.

Diaz Sr., a Pentecostal minister with a long history of anti-LGBT positions and actions, said last week in the radio interview that the City Council is “controlled by the homosexual community," as reported by NY1. The comment drew a swift backlash from dozens of elected officials, including several openly gay members of the Council, and others demanding that he apologize. But Diaz Sr. doubled down, leading many Democrats, including City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, to call for his resignation.

On Wednesday, the Council voted 45-1 to dissolve the For-Hire Vehicles committee chaired by Diaz Sr. The committee was created at Diaz Sr.’s request last year to oversee the burgeoning ride-hailing service industry and has passed 16 bills in that time, including measures to increase wages paid to for-hire vehicle drivers. It’s jurisdiction will be transferred to the transportation committee under Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez.

At Wednesday’s vote, Council Member Chaim Deutsch, who also holds anti-LGBT views, was the sole dissenting voice, saying the Council should educate Diaz Sr. and “bring him closer than further and let him know that words are very strong.” Council Members Rodriguez, Andy King, and Fernando Cabrera (also a conservative member from the Bronx) abstained from the vote. Diaz Sr. himself was not present in the chamber.

For Johnson, who is openly gay and openly HIV positive, the vote was an emotional moment as he grappled with his own personal experiences and the hurt he said Diaz Sr.’s comments had caused to Council members and staff. Johnson has spent days apologizing for having given Diaz Sr. the benefit of the doubt and elevating him to committee chair, considering the reverend’s long history of anti-LGBT positions and actions. “I will apologize again, deeply, for making a mistake and having a blind spot to begin with in trying to give everyone a fresh start...I made a mistake. I'm sorry. I'm sorry to all the people who came before me and allowed me to be here today, and I'm sorry to gay and lesbian New Yorkers who deserve so much better,” he said.

Johnson’s comments do not necessarily tell the whole story, though, given that his ascent to the speakership included support from the Bronx Democratic Party, where Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., the Council member's son, is especially powerful, and after he had courted Diaz Sr.’s backing.

The resolution to dissolve Diaz Sr.’s committee moved swiftly through the Council. The Committee on Rules, Elections and Privileges met on Wednesday morning at a hastily convened hearing and unanimously approved the measure before it was voted on by the full Council. Separately, the Committee on Standards and Ethics is also probing Diaz Sr.’s remarks and could recommend disciplinary action ranging from censure to removal from office.

Council Members Ritchie Torres, Daniel Dromm, Carlos Menchaca, and Jimmy Van Bramer, all of whom are openly gay, took turns critiquing Diaz Sr. and commending Johnson for taking the necessary steps to hold him to account.

“This behavior is not new,” said Dromm, speaking just after Council Member Deutsch. Dromm cited his own decades-long opposition to Diaz Sr.’s homophobia and said, “I don’t think any amount of education at this point is really going to help him.”

Torres, with tears in his eyes, emphasized that Diaz Sr.’s comments were not reflective of the politics of the Bronx, which he also represents, and he said he was “naive to expect redemption” from Diaz Sr. based on his record. “Imagine if someone said the Council was controlled by a black cabal or a Jewish cabal. The Council would take action,” he added.

Diaz Sr. has announced that he is holding a rally with supporters on Thursday in the Bronx. The Council member is eligible to run for another term in the Council in 2021. One of his 2017 Democratic primary opponents, Amanda Farias, has already announced her intention to run for the seat.

Van Bramer, who spoke about struggling with suicidal thoughts as a young gay man, condemned Diaz Sr.’s “hate speech.” “Demonizing people causes real and permanent pain,” he said. “When elected officials speak with such hate, young people internalize that hate. That in and of itself is a form of violence.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Strips Diaz Sr. of Committee After Latest Homophobic Remarks Wed, 13 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Investigating Diaz Sr.'s Use of Government Email for Political Messages https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7806-city-council-investigating-diaz-sr-s-use-of-government-email-for-political-messages https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7806-city-council-investigating-diaz-sr-s-use-of-government-email-for-political-messages Ruben Diaz Sr. City Council

CM Diaz Sr., standing (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The New York City Council’s Committee on Standards and Ethics held a hearing on Monday concerning Bronx Council Member Ruben Diaz, Sr. and his alleged use of government email to send out political messages to colleagues and staffers across the Council, three knowledgeable sources told Gotham Gazette.

The Standard and Ethics committee, chaired by Staten Island Council Member Steven Matteo, would not reveal the subject of Monday’s hearing and only noted on its agenda that the hearing was about Section 10.80 of the Council rules, which covers “disorderly behavior” including “willful violation or evasion of any provision of law relating to such Member’s discharge of his or her official duties; commission of fraud upon the City; conversion of public property to such Member’s own use; knowingly permitting or allowing by gross culpable conduct, any other person to convert public property; or violation of the Speaker’s policy or policies against discrimination and harassment.”

The committee met Monday at City Hall and immediately went into closed session, emerging to divulge that it would indeed further investigate an allegation of impropriety, but without providing details as to the member, the subject matter at hand, or how it had come to the committee's attention.

Members of the Council are bound by the city’s Conflicts of Interest law, contained in Chapter 68 of the City Charter, which prohibits city officials from using government time and resources for campaign-related purposes. According to one Council source who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely, Diaz Sr. has frequently sent out emails from his government account with his thoughts on issues he has worked on and those emails often crossed the line into political activity. A second Council source confirmed that the hearing was about Diaz Sr. and his emails, while a third said Diaz Sr. was the subject of the committee hearing, having to do with use of government resources for political purposes.

The emails mirror Diaz Sr.’s “What You Should Know” dispatches that he sent out when he was a state Senator, before being elected to the Council in 2017, and that he continues to publish occasionally in The Bronx Chronicle. The Council member did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment.

Just last week, on July 10, the first Council source said, Diaz Sr. sent out an email blast of a column that essentially read as an endorsement of Governor Cuomo and criticized his primary challenger, actor and activist Cynthia Nixon. The email was among those published as an op-ed in The Bronx Chronicle and was headlined, “The Christians Should Be Upset With Cuomo, Not The Gay Community.”

In it, Diaz Sr. praised the governor’s efforts, along with former state Senator Tom Duane, to pass marriage equality in the state Senate. Cuomo “went out of his way” to bring Republican Senators on board, Diaz Sr. wrote. “Now, a member of the LGBTQ community and other leaders of the community are going all the way to kick Governor Cuomo out of the Governorship. After what he did, this is what he is getting in return? It is mind-boggling,” he added.

Diaz Sr., who is a pastor, mentioned his own role in opposing the marriage equality bill. “I could understand gays getting angry at me, spending their money trying to get me out and launching all kinds of political diatribes against me. Because as a legislator, pastor and minister, I was the one opposing gay marriage. But attacking Governor Cuomo and going after him? I don’t understand that,” he wrote.

A spokesperson for City Council Speaker Corey Johnson declined comment for this article. The most recent Council action on standards and ethics found a substantiated claim of sexual harassment against Bronx Council Member Andy King, whom the committee found had made repeated unwanted advances toward a Council aide. King was ordered to undergo additional training.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed reporting.

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City Council Investigating Diaz Sr.'s Use of Government Email for Political Messages Mon, 16 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Three City Council Members Don't Support 'Fair Fares' https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7722-three-city-council-members-don-t-support-fair-fares https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7722-three-city-council-members-don-t-support-fair-fares citycouncil cojo

Speaker Johnson on the subway (photo via City Council)


A budget proposal to provide half-priced MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers has the New York City Council’s full weight this year. Well, almost.

Only three City Council Members -- Joe Borelli, Steven Matteo, and Ruben Diaz, Sr. -- in the 51-member body have so far declined to support Fair Fares, the proposal that would cost the city about $212 million to offer discounted fares to nearly 800,000 city residents living below the federal poverty line.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has made an unprecedented push for the proposal to be funded in the next city budget, due by July 1, which will outline roughly $90 billion in spending. Johnson, his Council colleagues, and his aides have employed social media campaigns and on-the-ground outreach to convince Mayor Bill de Blasio to agree to the necessary funding. The mayor has shown nominal support for the idea but has insisted that it should be funded by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which is controlled by the state and effectively answers to Governor Andrew Cuomo, or through an added tax on high income earners.

“The Fair Fares proposal is not a representation of the needs of my constituents, who continually face the longest and costliest commutes in the city,” said Council Member Matteo from Staten Island, one of three Republicans in the Council and the minority leader, in a statement. “It is certainly not a budget priority for me.”

Matteo and fellow Staten Island Republican Council Member Joe Borelli, who is also unsupportive of Fair Fares, are among those behind a Council push -- supported by Johnson -- to convince de Blasio to fund a $400 property tax rebate to homeowners with household incomes under $150,000, another initiative the mayor has thus far spurned.

Last month, the Council organized a digital Day of Action, followed the next week with a street-level effort at subway stations across the city, to build a crescendo around Fair Fares targeted largely at an audience of one: the mayor. Of the 51 members, 47 had signalled their support for the proposal. Since then, Council Member Chaim Deutsch from Brooklyn has also signed on. In a brief phone interview, he told Gotham Gazette, “I support it 100 percent.”

Borelli was less enthused. “Where have all these ‘Fair Fares’ supporters been while my constituents pay $6.50 for a bus to Manhattan, or shell out $15 tolls to subsidize a subway system we don’t have access to?,” he said in a text message. “Do they not understand that the middle class will be on the line to pay for this subsidy?”

Politico New York reported last month that Speaker Johnson was considering cutting certain Council initiatives from the budget to fund Fair Fares, which could mean that individual members may see some of their own priorities unfunded in the final budget if the mayor doesn’t concede to the Council’s demand. Johnson has declined to confirm the report, and a new report by Politico indicated on Wednesday that the speaker appeared to be close to getting de Blasio to agree to some initial version of a Fair Fares program in an imminent budget deal.

“I’m still undecided,” said Council Member Ruben Diaz Sr., a Democrat from the Bronx and the fourth of the four Council members who didn’t sign the Fair Fares letter, when reached by phone on Wednesday. “I’m inclined to support it but I’m looking at other things to see what happens.”

When asked to elaborate on his concerns, Diaz Sr. refused. “I’m telling you as much as I can tell you,” he said.

[Read: City Council Pushes Property Tax Rebate as De Blasio Stalls Broader Reform]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Three City Council Members Don't Support 'Fair Fares' Thu, 07 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Anti-LGBT City Council Members Given Prominent Positions https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7469-anti-lgbt-city-council-members-given-prominent-positions https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7469-anti-lgbt-city-council-members-given-prominent-positions Corey Johnson Fernando Cabrera City Council

Above: Corey Johnson and Fernando Cabrera (photo: William Alatriste) (photo below: John McCarten)


When new City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, the first openly gay and openly HIV-positive person to hold the powerful position, unveiled his leadership team and Council committee assignments, he appointed two anti-LGBT Council members to chair committees, and named one to senior leadership in the 51-member legislative body. The moves seemed to have raised few eyebrows despite the stark contrast with Johnson’s life story and politics, as well as the politics of the overwhelming number of Council members.

Johnson created a new committee for Council Member Ruben Diaz Sr., a conservative reverend who will chair the Committee on For-Hire Vehicles, and named Council Member Fernando Cabrera, also a socially conservative pastor known to hold anti-gay views, to lead the Committee on Governmental Operations and serve as the majority whip on Johnson’s senior leadership team.

Both members, who represent districts in the Bronx, are outliers in the largely progressive body, holding far-right stances on LGBT rights and social issues in general. Their politics seem out of place not only in the City Council but in an overwhelmingly liberal city where Republicans often nominate socially progressive candidates and vote along the same lines. Notably, the Bronx Democratic County organization was key to supporting Johnson’s winning speakership bid, and a number of Bronx members were rewarded in kind when it came to committee and leadership assignments.

Diaz Sr., a former state Senator and minister who founded the Christian Community Neighborhood Church, was the sole dissenting Democratic Senator on the state Legislature’s successful marriage equality bill passed in 2011. The bill was supported by four Republicans who were in the Senate majority. Diaz Sr. also voted against the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) last year in a Senate committee vote, is a vocal opponent of abortion and, in 2003, sued the Department of Education over plans to expand the Harvey Milk High School in Manhattan for gay students.  

Cabrera, the senior pastor at the New Life Outreach International church, has his own history of controversial statements and positions. In 2014, when he was serving his second term on the City Council, he praised the Ugandan government in a video posted online after it passed a law that criminalized homosexuality.

"Godly people are in government," Cabrera said of the country’s government, noting that gay marriage was not acceptable there and stating that the government had withstood pressure from the U.S. to allow it. “And they have stood in their place. Why? Because the Christians have assumed the place of decision-making for the nation.”

Following a furor over his remarks in 2014, he later insisted, “I do not support the persecution of gays and lesbians anywhere, whether it's in Uganda or right here in New York State.”

[Read: City Council Names New Leadership, Committee Chairs and Members]

For people familiar with Speaker Johnson’s personal history, which he wears on his sleeve, the move to empower the two conservative Council members could easily trigger a degree of cognitive dissonance. Johnson became famous as a teenager when he came out as gay while the captain of his high school football team in Massachusetts, and has often approached politics and legislation from the lens of his own lived experience. He represents a Manhattan district including Chelsea and the West Village, home to the gay rights movement and many of its leaders, including former State Senator Tom Duane, who Johnson has called a role model and mentor.

“For decades, the gay activist community has fought to keep people like Ruben Diaz Sr. and Fernando Cabrera out of positions of power,” said Allen Roskoff, a gay activist and president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, in a phone interview. “I find this shocking and cringeworthy.”

Several activists and elected officials were hesitant to criticize Johnson, whose election was celebrated by the LGBT community. But, Roskoff was not alone in his displeasure.

"Of course it's a big deal," said an LGBT Democratic insider, who requested anonymity to speak freely. "You have hate emanating from Washington on a daily basis; on the ground in New York City, bias attacks are happening more often; and to put two vocally anti-LGBT people in places where they have a bigger platform is really worrying and not something we want to see in a progressive body."

The insider also pointed out that Diaz Sr.'s and Cabrera's neighborhoods are where LGBT youth have long felt especially unsafe and unaccepted, and that those same young people need elected officials to be leaders for them, not spreading anti-LGBT sentiment that makes them less safe.

Assemblymember Deborah Glick, New York State’s first openly gay legislator, was similarly disappointed, though she said she did not want to “second guess” Johnson’s decisions as speaker.

“I was pleased to have Reverend Diaz removed from the Senate Democrats because his anti-choice and his anti-LGBT attitude and aggressive rhetoric was destructive and unpleasant,” she said. “I’m sorry they’re in elected office. Just as I would not want to spend time and energy seeing that people who are actively homophobic are not elected to seats in other parts of the country, I’m not happy to see them in elected office here. You would have to ask the speaker what went into his thinking in giving them prominent positions.”

Gotham Gazette did ask Johnson about the decision on January 11, shortly after the new committee chairs were approved by the full Council. Though he insisted that he disagrees with Diaz Sr.’s and Cabrera’s positions on LGBT issues, he said that just as he does with certain Republican Council members and those within his own Democratic caucus, his new position as speaker requires him to treat each member equally.

“I’m gonna treat every member of this body with respect...Everyone knows where I stand on LGBT equality. No one can question my credentials on LGBT equality and I’m the Speaker of the Council and we’re going to push the envelope to expand protections for all New Yorkers, transgender New Yorkers, LGBT new Yorkers, undocumented immigrants, Muslims, people of different religious faiths and beliefs,” he said. “That’s where I stand. I don’t agree with every member on everything but I’m still going to work collegially with every member of this body because that is part of my job now as Speaker of this Council.”

He also said that Cabrera’s view didn’t necessary align with his votes. Indeed, Cabrera voted in favor of a bill last year that banned gay conversion therapy in the city and supported a bill requiring the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to create a plan to provide behavioral health services to LGBT individuals. Durign the race to become Speaker, Johnson caught some flack for visiting Diaz Sr. in the hospital, a visit that Diaz Sr. referenced on the day Johnson was officially elected Speaker.

Fellow Council members -- including LGBT members such as Ritchie Torres, Jimmy Van Bramer and Carlos Menchaca -- also came to Johnson’s defense, insisting that conservative members would hardly have an effect on the larger policy agenda or leanings of the Council as a whole.  

“The foundation of this body requires us to listen to all sides of every issue and that’s what we’re going to be committed to this next session,” said Council Member Menchaca in a brief interview outside City Hall last week.

Council Member Van Bramer similarly said, “There’s good things that can come out of appointing a leadership team that is diverse and has opinions that contradict your own.”

Council Member Brad Lander, not a member of the LGBT caucus, echoed the view. “As long as the policies that we pursue represent the progressive values that [Speaker Johnson] articulated, that he continues to articulate, then I think it’s great to have a diverse leadership team in many ways,” he said.

Council Member Torres, from the Bronx, called Gotham Gazette upon hearing of the reporting of this article to show support for the speaker. The two members in question, he said, represent some of poorest districts in the city where it is a “particular imperative” to show equal representation. “I think it’s unreasonable to expect the Speaker of the Council to deny resources to lower-income districts simply because he rejects the social views of those who represent them. It’s unfair to begrudge the speaker for his obligation to represent everyone equally,” he said.

Ruben Diaz Sr. City CouncilTorres also refuted the possibility that the two members were rewarded for their support for Johnson’s ascension to the speakership, which owed to the backing from the Bronx and Queens County Democrats, as well as other members whose support Johnson had secured. Council members from both counties were handed the most powerful Council committees, with the land use committee going to Council Member Rafael Salamanca of the Bronx and finance to Queens Council Member Daniel Dromm, who is a member of the LGBT caucus.

“I think [Speaker Johnson’s] magnanimity transcends the normal transactions of the speaker race,” Torres said, noting that even though he also ran for speaker, he was given a plum position as chair of the newly empowered oversight and investigations committee. “I would do exactly what he’s doing as speaker,” he added.

“Winning coalitions reward their members,” observed one Council Member, who asked to remain unnamed.

Assemblymember Glick conceded that the speakership is a complicated position that requires keeping numerous stakeholders satisfied. “I’ve been in politics a long time and I understand that people in positions of authority have a very tough balancing act,” she said. “By the same token, I’m not happy about seeing people who have engaged in hateful rhetoric being given what in political terms would be seen as a reward.”

Regardless, she said, “I’m very proud of Corey. I consider him a friend and I will do whatever I can to make his tenure a successful and positive one.”

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

Read more by this writer.

(picture inset: Ruben Diaz Sr.; photo by John McCarten)

Note - this article has been updated to clarify that Diaz Sr. was the sole Democratic Senator, not the only Democratic legislator, to oppose the state's marriage equality bill.

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Anti-LGBT City Council Members Given Prominent Positions Thu, 08 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Members Outline Priorities for New Term https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7436-city-council-members-outline-priorities-for-new-term https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7436-city-council-members-outline-priorities-for-new-term 38866913345 afd4b05a3e z

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samar Khurshid contributed to this article.

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by Matthew Sweeney, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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

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City Council Members Outline Priorities for New Term Tue, 23 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Cuomo Criticized for Failing to Call Special Election January 1 https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7399-cuomo-criticized-for-failing-to-call-special-election-january-1 https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7399-cuomo-criticized-for-failing-to-call-special-election-january-1 Cuomo Flanagan Long Island

Gov. Cuomo and John Flanagan, right (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


As the legislative session kicks off this week, there are a slew of open state Senate and Assembly seats, and Governor Andrew Cuomo has not indicated when or whether he will call a special election to fill the vacancies.

January 1 was the earliest the second-term governor could have called the election day to fill all 11 vacancies, and a growing number of critics are pressuring Cuomo to make the pronouncement as soon as possible. The election would occur 70 days after declared by Cuomo, who has not made clear if he intends to do so in time for the seats to be filled before the state budget is due, by April 1.

On the first of this month, George Latimer officially vacated his Westchester County Senate seat to take on his new role as Westchester County Executive, which he won in the fall, and Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., of the Bronx, left his Senate seat to assume his newly won City Council position. Nine Assembly seats remain empty for a variety of reasons, including officials who have won other elected posts, like Brian Kavanagh, who moved from the Assembly to the Senate.

If the governor calls a special election this week, 70 days would mean votes cast in the middle of March. However, Cuomo, a Democrat, has indicated that he may call the elections for a date after the budget process is concluded. Cuomo’s delay is being criticized by progressive activists and good government leaders, either because of how the Senate elections factor into majority control of the chamber, which is currently held by a narrow margin by a coalition of Republicans and breakaway Democrats, or because of the basic lack of representation hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are experiencing with the seats unfilled.

The state’s $160-plus billion budget will be negotiated over the coming months by a heavily Democratic Assembly and the Senate, which has multiple party fractures and a Democratic unity deal on the table that could throw the process into disarray if the two vacant seats are filled by Democrats before April 1.

“The governor has a responsibility to his constituents to call a special election immediately,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of good government group Common Cause NY in a statement on Tuesday. “There’s no excuse to delay.” Lerner stressed that all New Yorkers deserve their due representation in government.

The stakes are highest for the 63-seat Senate, where Democrats are now two seats short of the 32 votes needed to pass legislation. A Democratic majority can only occur if mainline conference members are joined by the nine Democrats who caucus with Republicans, along with Democratic victories for the Latimer and Diaz, Sr. seats. Complicating the situation is a potential deal between Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein, brokered by Cuomo and his allies, which would reunify the Democratic conference at the end of the 2018 legislative session, provided multiple developments and guarantees.

The vacancies have less of an impact on the 150-seat Assembly, which Democrats control handily under Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx. But leaving nine vacancies would undermine the state’s democratic budget process and leave millions of New Yorkers without representation, notes Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Group.

According to NYPIRG’s calculation, 625,484 Senate constituents and more than 1.1 million Assembly constituents are unrepresented as the legislative session starts on Wednesday, January 3 in Albany.

Joining the calls for a special election sooner rather than later is Kat Brezler, a public school teacher and former Bernie Sanders organizer who is seeking Latimer’s seat in the event that a special election is called.

“If you, the Governor, do not call a special election before the budget vote, you will effectively disenfranchise more than 700,000 residents in these Districts,” Brezler said in a statement. “Representation matters. The residents of District 37 deserve to have a seat at the table” during budget negotiations. “It is for this reason that a special election cannot wait,” Brezler said.

A spokesperson for Cuomo’s office, when asked whether governor planned to call the election during the legislative session, pointed to the governor’s comments during recent press appearances, when he said he would make a decision in January.

“There are some that want it sooner, some that want it later, there’s some who don’t,” Cuomo told reporters in December. “Some would argue politicizing the budget isn’t the best idea. It’s a decision that we have to make next year in January.”

Bronx Assemblymember Luis Sepulveda, who announced that he plans to run for Diaz, Sr.’s Senate seat, said in an interview with Gotham Gazette that he is confident both Senate seats will be filled by Democrats and hopes that a special election will happen in March.

“I think one of the most pressing things in the state Legislature is to continue to push for progressive policies and progressive legislation,” said Sepulveda. “I encourage the governor to call the special election as soon as possible.”

While the Bronx seat is virtually guaranteed to stay Democratic, the Westchester seat is less of a sure thing, though Democrats will have multiple advantages there.

Policy changes coming out of Washington are expected to have serious implications for New York, which is facing a larger than usual budget deficit, and progressives are mounting pressure on the governor, who, like all of the Legislature, is up for reelection this year, to call the special election before budget negotiations really heat up.

The balance of power in the state Senate will have significant influence over the final state spending plan that emerges. A number of Democratic activists insist Cuomo prefers Republican control of the Senate for as long as possible, especially during budget season, so that he can best limit state spending.

Heastie, whose Assembly majority conference is down several members, said in December that he hopes for a Democratic majority in the Senate, but in an interview with WCNY’s Susan Arbetter said that he would defer to the governor’s decision about the election.

“I’ve always said, as a Democrat, I look forward to the day of a Democratic Senate. I hope they get it together as soon as possible — particularly in light of what’s happening in Washington,” Heastie told reporters during a gaggle at the Capitol in December.

In the meantime, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, wields enormous influence over how state funds are distributed. Flanagan, outlining his priorities for the coming session, struck a conciliatory note, but made clear that raising property taxes was a non-starter for addressing New York’s growing budget shortfall.

“In Washington, Democrats and Republicans battle each other with predictable ferocity -- sometimes producing gridlock and dysfunction, and sometimes producing policies that are counterproductive for many New Yorkers. Here in New York, we’ve taken a vastly different approach,” he said in a Tuesday statement. “We’re working across the aisle to find common ground, partnering with Upstate and suburban Democrats to move our state forward.”

Spokespersons for Heastie and Flanagan did not return requests for comment on when Cuomo should call the special election. The governor will deliver his 2018 State of the State speech on Wednesday in Albany.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Cuomo Criticized for Failing to Call Special Election January 1 Tue, 02 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000