Gotham Gazette Tue, 14 Jul 2020 22:52:30 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) 'I Actually Have to Negotiate a Budget': Corey Johnson and the Challenge of Running for Mayor as City Council Speaker 4 budget deal ptfs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

'I Actually Have to Negotiate a Budget': Corey Johnson and the Challenge of Running for Mayor as City Council Speaker Thu, 09 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New York City Needs a Chief Diversity Officer Now wnynchief

Comptroller Scott Stringer, the author, calling for a CDO (photo: Comptroller's Office)

The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery catalyzed one of the largest social justice movements in United States history, rightfully forcing both the public and private sectors to finally listen to Black lives who have sounded the alarm for decades. Under heightened scrutiny, many corporations have taken preliminary steps to acknowledge and confront the systemic racism ingrained within their organizations – cognizant that to ignore the deafening cries for justice is a tacit admission of complicity that can have major consequences for bottom lines.

Whatever their motives, major players like Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley, Korn Ferry, and Zoom have made the decision to hire Chief Diversity Officers (CDOs) who can serve as bridges between stated good intentions and reality. When utilized effectively, CDOs identify both overt and covert racism across the spectrum of workplace policy – hiring, retention, culture, management, and more – and implement strategies to course-correct.

It’s time for the public sector to do the same. I created a CDO position within the office of the New York City Comptroller when I took office in 2014, and the role has become an essential function of our office. Our CDO serves as an invaluable resource to New York City’s minority- and women-owned business enterprises (M/WBEs) navigating the labyrinth of city contracting and, most recently, the ongoing economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With a CDO in place, we’ve increased diversity among the firms managing more than $205 billion in city pension assets, and we’ve launched successful initiatives to increase transparency and accountability in corporate America’s hiring practices. In recent weeks, our CDO has guided important officewide conversations as we work toward inclusivity, equity, and representation in all areas of our work. As a white, cis-gender male elected official, it’s my responsibility to create space, listen, and make sure that we’re walking the walk – and to commit to doing better when we fall short. We could not do this without our CDO keeping us on track.

Seeing firsthand the impact this position can create in a public office, I’ve urged New York City to embrace the role of a CDO to address the systemic racism that we know exists in all government institutions at every level. Last year, I joined a broad coalition of civic and faith leaders and owners of M/WBEs calling on the City Charter Revision Commission to install a CDO in City Hall, reporting directly to the Mayor, and one within every city agency.

A CDO for New York City would function as city government’s executive level diversity and inclusion strategist, driving the representation of people of color and women across government, tracking and overseeing the city’s M/WBE programs, and determining whether agencies’ daily practices are equitable. A citywide CDO could begin to tackle long-standing disparities that are now coming into stark relief -- from analyzing how taxpayer dollars are spent through an intersectional lens to removing barriers to doing business with the city to making sure public service is a viable option for people from diverse backgrounds and experiences.

That charter revision proposal did not make it onto the ballot – but the need for CDOs in government is now more apparent than ever and it’s not too late to act.

New York City agencies spend almost $20 billion a year on everything from pens and paper to consulting services and construction, yet less than 5 percent of those contracts are awarded to M/WBEs. In my most recent Making the Grade report, which grades city agencies on their spending with M/WBEs, the city earned a “C” grade with Hispanic-American-owned businesses, a “D” grade with women-owned businesses, and a dismal “F” grade with African-American-owned businesses.

Eighty percent of New Yorkers are either women or people of color and more than 600 languages are spoken on our streets; we cannot settle for an exclusionary status quo. A CDO could help break down the biases baked into our contracting processes, and make sure our spending represents the diversity of our city, its economy and its people.

We don’t need to wait for another Charter Revision Commission – the mayor can take administrative action right now to create Chief Diversity Officer roles within City Hall and across agencies. While the private sector has recognized the value empowered CDOs bring to institutions, local government continues to be years late and many billions of dollars short. We should not fall further behind. As we work toward a more just New York City, we need Chief Diversity Officers to help lead the way.

Scott Stringer is New York City Comptroller. On Twitter @NYCComptroller.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

New York City Needs a Chief Diversity Officer Now Tue, 07 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Board of Elections Misses Deadline for Planning Ranked-Choice Voting Implementation voting in new york city ballot RCV story

Ranked-choice voting is coming soon (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

The New York City Board of Elections missed a City Charter-mandated June 1 deadline to issue a report on how it will implement the new voter-approved ranked-choice voting system in 2021, advocates and elected officials said Friday.

At a press conference hosted by good government group Common Cause New York, Comptroller Scott Stringer and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said the report is essential to adequately prepare for the new voting format next year and called on the Board of Elections (BOE) to release it immediately.

Ranked-choice voting, which will only apply to party primary and special elections for city government positions, allows voters to select multiple names on the ballot in order of preference rather than voting for a single candidate. If no candidate initially receives more than 50% of the vote, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated and their ballots redistributed based on their voters’ second choices, and so on until one candidate has a majority.

Voters approved the measure in a referendum last November. It takes effect for elections beginning in 2021 and requires the BOE to submit a report to the Mayor and City Council Speaker "containing a plan for achieving timely implementation of ranked choice voting" by June 1 of this year.

Supporters of the reform say it will force candidates to try to appeal to a wider political base and eliminate the need for expensive run-off elections, which tend to have minimal turn out. But successful implementation will be challenging and significant voter education will be necessary, advocates and elected officials have repeatedly pointed out.

"The deadline is crucial in order to make sure that the Board can purchase the necessary upgrades to the existing voting machines for ranked-choice voting," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York.

New York City began using ballot-on-demand printers and electronic poll books on a large-scale as part of rolling out early voting last year. The technology purchased by city elections administrators is supposed to be compatible with a ranked-choice format but, along with optical ballot scanners, requires software upgrades that must be certified with the state elections board before 2021 elections.

That certification process usually takes around six months, Lerner said, and the first city elections of 2021 could be special elections early in the year, followed by the regularly-scheduled June primaries for dozens of seats across city government.

A spokesperson for the City Council confirmed it has not received a report. "The Council will not tolerate delayed implementation of ranked choice voting and we demand the BOE meet the deadlines every step of the way in this process," the spokesperson wrote in an email. The mayor's office did not respond to inquiries about the report.

Under the New York City Charter, if the board fails to submit the implementation report within 30 days of the deadline it will "create a rebuttable presumption that such board is declining to implement ranked choice voting as required by this section."

"Once again the barrier to democracy is our own board of elections because they dropped the ball again," said Stringer, who is running for mayor in 2021. "Someone should just get that report done now, so we don't have problems later on."

Next year will be the busiest city election cycle in at least eight years, with mayor, comptroller, four borough presidents, and dozens of City Council seats “open” due to term limits (meaning no incumbent is running). The public advocate, Queens borough president, and about 16 other Council seats are also up for election, though with incumbents likely running, and the city's Campaign Finance Board estimates roughly 500 candidates total will be seeking office in 2021.

There could be special elections called as early as March, depending on the outcome of ongoing 2020 races for Queens Borough President and Congressional District 15 in the Bronx, where current City Council members are frontrunners. A special election is called when an elected office is vacated mid-term.

Common Cause, along with Reinvent Albany, League of Women Voters of New York City, and Citizens Union, sent a letter Friday to BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan and his deputy, Dawn Sandow, urging them to release a report. "We acknowledge the additional burden of operating in this new environment, but as we've seen the NYC BOE adapt to the COVID crisis, we remain confident the Board is up to the task," the letter reads.

The BOE is frequently criticized for administrative blunders that lead to arduous experiences at the polls and in some cases disenfranchise voters. The risk increases when administrators are rolling out new and untried elements. An extreme example has been this month’s primaries, where pandemic-induced changes to the rules governing absentee voting meant an unprecedented number of voters sought the option. There have been widespread reports that many voters did not receive their ballots in the mail in time to cast them, as well as poll-site operation issues of the more perennial variety.

"There is no time to waste. We got to make sure that our candidates know the rules and that our voters are educated," Stringer said, noting that effort must begin with the implementation report.

"I know that we are in the middle of a cascade of crises," said Brewer, including the coronavirus pandemic, protests for racial justice, and a major economic downturn. "But equally important is voting and voting the way voters want to vote." The referendum establishing the new voting system was approved with nearly 75 percent of the vote but in an "off-year" election with relatively low turnout.

"I have to say to me it's frightening because what it says is, 'we are not ready,'" she said.

The BOE did not respond to requests for comment.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Board of Elections Misses Deadline for Planning Ranked-Choice Voting Implementation Fri, 26 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
The 2021 New York City Mayoral Race, One Year to the Primary inauguration mayor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Where the 2021 Mayoral Candidates Stand on Removing School Safety from the NYPD's Domain Tue, 16 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Mayor's Office Misses Deadlines for City Council Budget Cut Request and Comptroller Coronavirus Probe De Blasio City Council budget briefing 2018

De Blasio briefs City Council members (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

With three weeks to go before the budget for the next fiscal year is due, the City Council is putting pressure on Mayor Bill de Blasio to spell out planned cuts to city agencies to fill a $9 billion projected budget gap. But the administration missed a Monday deadline set by the Council to propose new cuts, balancing the budget in a way that reprioritizes social services and investment in youth and education.

The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a massive financial toll on the city, forcing the mayor toward drastic action. In his latest budget plan released in April, de Blasio cut his prior budget draft by $6 billion and outlined plans to draw $4 billion from the city’s reserves. When the mayor released that $89.3 billion executive budget proposal, the city expected to lose $7.4 billion in tax revenue by the end of the upcoming 2021 fiscal year, which begins July 1 of this year. The projected gap has since grown to $9 billion.

Though the mayor did institute a Program to Eliminate the Gap to mandate cuts at city agencies and the administration identified additional savings, together those only covered a $2.7 billion gap. The Council expressed broad discontent with the administration’s effort as insufficient and priorities as misguided, noting in particular that the NYPD would see a less than 1% budget cut while the Department of Youth and Community Development would have its already much smaller budget slashed by 32%. While crime is at historic lows, the city would continue to graduate more officers through the police academy while eliminating the Summer Youth Employment Program for 70,000 young New Yorkers as well as after school programs.

In a May 30 letter, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Members Daniel Dromm and Vanessa Gibson, who chair the Committee on Finance and Subcommittee on Capital Budget respectively, called on the mayor to craft cuts between 5-7% of each agency budget. They noted that federal aid may not arrive before the budget deadline and that further state budget cuts, which Governor Andrew Cuomo has telegraphed, will worsen the city’s finances.

“Therefore, we must search agency budgets for more savings to ensure that we have done everything we can to balance the budget without resorting to borrowing that will have significant long-term implications for New York City’s future,” they wrote.

The letter requested the administration to provide a list of proposed cuts by Monday, June 8, while insisting that “no proposed cut should be one that would weaken the social safety net or hurt vulnerable New Yorkers.” The administration, however, missed that deadline to respond.

“The council will keep pushing the administration to do the hard work of identifying budget cuts,” a Council spokesperson said in an email. The mayor’s office did not provide comment on the Council’s demand or status of de Blasio’s budget reevaluations.

The Council’s deadline was not the only one the de Blasio administration missed this week.

On May 12, Comptroller Scott Stringer launched an investigation into the city’s preparedness and response to the COVID-19 pandemic, giving the mayor’s office an initial deadline of Tuesday, June 9, to begin producing relevant documents about agency decision-making, communication procedures, and more. After the administration failed to meet that deadline, Stringer issued a subpoena for those documents on Thursday.

“The Administration owes New Yorkers an explanation of what they knew about this deadly virus, when they knew it, and what they did about it,” Stringer said in a statement, pointing out that the administration has not even suggested a timeline for when it will begin to hand over the files.

“The Administration’s refusal to comply with our investigation is unacceptable. I am therefore issuing a subpoena for these documents, which should be turned over to our investigators expeditiously. Open and honest government is what New Yorkers deserve, and my office demands nothing less,” he said.

The mayor’s office did not take kindly to the comptroller’s move. “We’re in the midst of reopening our city while preventing a second wave of the pandemic. The issuance of a subpoena, when we are willing to work with the Comptroller, is nothing more than a political stunt,” said Avery Cohen, a mayoral spokesperson, in an email. “In the spirit of transparency, the Administration has taken all the necessary measures to preserve all documents responsive to the Comptroller’s extremely broad request without sacrificing the critical resources, personnel, and time that are necessary to preserve the health of New Yorkers and save lives.”

A spokesperson for Stringer, Hazel Crampton-Hays, responded on Twitter, saying that the comptroller’s office had thus far received “zero documents or even a schedule of when we can expect them.”

Alluding to Stringer’s 2021 mayoral campaign, Cohen shot back that “The Comptroller’s political ambitions don’t trump the safety and well-being of 8.6 [million New Yorkers]. We’re in a crisis and using every last resource to reopen the city safely— all while preserving the documents to ensure we’re able to comprehensively respond to your fishing expedition.”

“This isn’t a game,” Crampton-Hays then responded. “More than 17,000 New Yorkers died. Their loved ones and neighbors deserve transparency and accountability.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Mayor's Office Misses Deadlines for City Council Budget Cut Request and Comptroller Coronavirus Probe Thu, 11 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
How 2021 Mayoral Candidates Have Responded to the Coronavirus Fallout and Cries for Police Reform New York City Hall mayoral race coronavirus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

How 2021 Mayoral Candidates Have Responded to the Coronavirus Fallout and Cries for Police Reform Tue, 09 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
‘Defund the NYPD’? What’s Really in the New York City Police Department Budget lebanon hosp res

The NYPD budget is in the spotlight, but what's in it (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

The daily protests in New York City over police brutality and racism bore fruit this weekend as Mayor Bill de Blasio reversed course, announcing that he would cut police department funding and institute other reforms at the NYPD. The State Legislature also took notice and expedited a long list of police accountability and transparency measures that had languished for years.

Over the last ten days, as the protests swelled across the city and the NYPD responded with force, calls to “Defund the NYPD” reached a crescendo. Also against the backdrop of a severe city fiscal crisis brought about by the coronavirus shutdown, several City Council members vowed to vote against a budget that does not include major cuts to the police department, many of them insisting on at least a $1 billion reduction as the Council and mayor must deliver a spending plan by the July 1 start of the new fiscal year.

At $5.9 billion in the current fiscal year, the NYPD has the third-largest budget of all city agencies after the Department of Education and Department of Social Services. It comprised about 6% of the city’s total $92.8 billion adopted budget for the current fiscal year (FY2020). Most of that police department funding comes from the city, with a few hundred million from state and federal grants. 

The $5.9 billion in direct operating funding for the department doesn’t nearly cover what the police cost in New York City. Pension contributions and fringe benefits cost about another $5 billion in the 2020 fiscal year. There are capital funds allocated to policing infrastructure, including roughly $411 million in city funds in the 2021 fiscal year for cars and precincts, and another $211 million in expense funding spent on debt service for police-related capital costs that is not factored into the NYPD’s budget. 

Added to that are the costs to the city from settlements of claims against the NYPD. The latest annual report from Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office, from April 2019, showed that the city paid $230 million in the 2018 fiscal year for settlements and judgements stemming from 6,472 lawsuits.

The mayor’s executive budget proposal for the 2021 fiscal year, released in April, estimated that the NYPD will spend $5.92 billion by the end of the 2020 fiscal year and allocated $5.64 billion to the department (without state and federal funds) for the next fiscal year. Though the mayor’s budget included significant planned cuts at many city agencies, the NYPD emerged relatively unscathed, with only $23.8 million in planned reductions. And unlike other agencies that had to find large savings under the mayor’s $2.1 billion Program to Eliminate the Gap, the NYPD only found about $25 million in FY2020 and $16 million in FY2021. 

At the same time, the mayor slashed planned funding for education, youth employment, and after school programs. The Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) saw a 32% cut in its proposed budget, entirely eliminating the Summer Youth Employment Program that provided summer jobs to 70,000 young people, many from low-income communities of color, last year. After immense outcry, de Blaso has since indicated he is working with the Council and employers to create a version of the program, but has not announced details as June moves along.

The mayor promised on Sunday that he would shift funding from the NYPD towards “youth initiatives and social services,” though he did not provide specific numbers. “The details will be worked out in the budget process in the weeks ahead, but I want people to understand that we are committed to shifting resources to ensure that the focus is on our young people,” he said at a press briefing. “And I also will affirm while doing that, we will only do it in a way that we are certain continues to ensure that this city will be safe.”

The mayor’s announcement was welcomed by many of his fellow Democrats and by activists, though they noted it remains to be seen how far those cuts will go. Even NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea expressed public support, tweeting, "To help the kids of our city, I’m 1,000% behind shifting some funding from the police to youth programs. It’s incumbent upon all of us to dig down and do what’s needed." He too said in interviews that he still wants to see exactly what the mayor and City Council have in mind, though.

“I am happy that the Mayor had been listening to the Council’s calls to make substantial cuts to the NYPD and reinvest that money in communities of color and our young New Yorkers,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “I commend the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus for its strong leadership in this discussion. The devil is in the details, but we are fighting hard for a budget that reflects our values and our priorities. As we have said, a less than one percent cut to the NYPD and a 32% cut to DYCD is not representative of our values.”

It would be hard to significantly cut the NYPD’s budget without severely reducing its headcount. The city in 2015 added nearly 1,800 employees to the NYPD, including 1,300 new officers at the behest of the City Council. 

According to an analysis by the Independent Budget Office, about 88.8% of the department’s adopted budget in Fiscal Year 2019 covered personnel services (salaries, wages and overtime) while 11.2% went to “Other than Personal Services” (OTPS) to fund purchase of supplies and equipment. Salaries and overtime for full-time employees – more than 36,000 uniformed personnel and about 15,500 civilian employees – covered nearly 75% of the budget. Planned overtime alone accounted for about 10% (or nearly $600 million) of spending that year while actual overtime spending was $730 million by the end of the fiscal year. 

City Comptroller Scott Stringer has recommended that the NYPD cut $1.1 billion in spending over four years -- roughly $265 million per year -- by reducing the number of uniformed officers through attrition, cutting down overtime, and lowering OTPS costs.

Stringer, who like Johnson is a Democrat running for mayor in next year’s election, called for those savings to be reinvested in communities that have been particularly hurt by structural racism and police violence. “Breaking down structural racism in New York City will require long-term, lasting change — and that must include reducing the NYPD’s budget,” Stringer said, in part, in a statement.

Stringer’s office says the comptroller is calling for a 5% cut in the NYPD’s planned fiscal year 2021 operating budget, while “the mayor is proposing a mere 0.31 percent cut” from the $5.9 billion sum.

Queens City Council Member Donovan Richards, who chairs the public safety committee that has oversight of the NYPD, said the Council is “finally gaining a lot of momentum” to make cuts in areas that they have looked at for years. He particularly noted that police overtime costs – which were as high as the $730 million – should be cut since crime is at or near historic lows and the city is mostly shut down because of the pandemic, and major public events, parades, and sports games have all been cancelled. Overtime use and abuse has long been a focus of the Council and fiscal watchdogs, particularly because the department does not report on overtime spending in a transparent manner. 

Even before the protests of this last week, the Council had been pushing for reallocating funds from the NYPD to youth programs as part of its vision for how to respond to the massive drop in tax revenue brought on by the coronavirus crisis. At a budget hearing, Richards said the city should cancel an incoming NYPD class, which he estimated could save $25 million. The city had delayed the class to July, saving about $6 million. 

“What is the city’s priority? To lock people up or find young people a job in the summer so they can in a lot of cases help their parents pay the bills and also be self-sufficient?,” he wondered. “Idle time is the devil’s playground. We don’t want our young people ending up in the justice system, especially in the hardest hit communities…during this pandemic.”

Richards also raised a concern that the mayor himself acknowledged on Sunday. There are functions that the NYPD shouldn’t necessarily play, Richards noted, such as community development and school safety. “Is this the message that we want to send to our children? That when they go to get their education, that they should be policed?” he said. 

In his announcement on Sunday, de Blasio said his recently created Task Force on Racial Inclusion and Equity would examine roles in city governance where the NYPD can be removed. He also said the police would no longer conduct enforcement over street vendors and instead that function would be given to a civilian agency.

The “NYC Budget Justice Campaign,” which is led by police reform groups and has been organizing around defunding the NYPD, writes that “While a cut of over $1 billion may sound dramatic, it would simply return the NYPD’s budget to roughly 2014 levels — a moment when crime rates had already plummeted in New York City.” The police department’s current roughly $6 billion budget, the campaign notes, “is larger than what we spend on health, homeless services, youth development, and workforce development combined.”

Money earmarked for the police should be shifted to summer youth employment, “education, homeless services, mental health services, programs for the aging, community-based organizations, and provide direct support to frontline and essential workers, and undocumented New Yorkers,” the campaign says. The funding to be shifted can be found through an NYPD hiring freeze; cancelling new cadet classes; shifting social service work from the police department to more appropriate agencies; firing “many” of the “220 NYPD officers currently on modified duty,” and more.

Richards also predicted that once state Civil Rights Law section 50-a is repealed or reformed and disciplinary records of police officers are made public, the department will be quicker to dismiss officers with records of misconduct and, therefore, will automatically reduce the amount of money that goes to settling lawsuits. In response to the recent protests, de Blasio has pledged to speed up the NYPD’s notoriously slow and secretive disciplinary process.

Ana Champeny, director of city studies at Citizens Budget Commission, a fiscal watchdog, said it’s hard to figure out how the NYPD spends its funds because its budget is opaque to the public.

“Looking at the budget doesn’t actually tell you why overtime is going up or what it’s even being spent on,” she said. The Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget does publish a “budget function analysis” that outlines different functions of NYPD spending but they are broad lumped categories with brief descriptions that cover hundreds of millions in allocations. 

They include categories such as administration ($637 million), chief of department ($943 million), patrol ($1.6 billion), school safety ($331 million), transit ($246 million), transportation ($227 million), intelligence and counterterrorism ($189 million), and allocations to different bureaus such as the detective bureau ($572 million), criminal justice bureau ($63 million), and housing bureau ($204 million). 

The budget function analysis is also separate from “units of appropriation,” which show the purpose for which funds are allocated to a certain agency. According to the annual Mayor’s Management Report, there are only eight units of appropriation under NYPD personnel services and six units of appropriation under OTPS. In FY 2019, for instance, the “operations” unit of appropriation under personnel services covered $3.5 billion of the department’s budget for nine of the functions included in the budget function analysis.

“Whenever we’re asked, what’s driving the growth, it’s really hard to say because we don’t have the disaggregated spending data being published,” she added, “and that should be publicly available in a machine-readable format so that people can really see what was it that you thought you were going to spend on each of these areas at the beginning in your budget and what did you actually spend.” 

Champeny echoed Richards’ and Stringer’s prescriptions on cutting overtime and reducing the NYPD’s headcount. CBC released a report in 2017 that noted that uniformed agencies’ overtime costs over the previous nine years exceeded projections in the adopted budget by an average of 42%. Uniformed NYPD officers earned an average of 19% in overtime pay each year, CBC estimated at the time. The nonprofit recommended several measures to cut down on overtime, though some would require bargaining with police unions to change work rules.

“We’re in the middle of what we think is going to be the biggest fiscal and economic crisis of our generation so the city really needs to be taking a close look at everything,” Champeny said. “Everyone really should be trying to see where they can tighten their belt especially given that we don’t know how this recovery will play out and whether the projections that we have right now will end up being accurate.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

‘Defund the NYPD’? What’s Really in the New York City Police Department Budget Tue, 09 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Stringer Takes Veiled Shot at Johnson: Being Mayor 'Not About Dancing Around' scott stringer corey johnson insult

Scott Stringer, center, with Corey Johnson, left (photo: @NYCComptroller)
(photo below: John McCarten/City Council)

With just over a year until the 2021 Democratic primary that will likely decide who becomes New York City’s next mayor, one of the leading contenders, Comptroller Scott Stringer, in a recent interview took an unmistakable jab at another, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, while previewing his argument that he is best suited for the job.

Stringer has had his eye on the mayoralty for years and is finally making his run, with Johnson, who recently emerged at the top tier of city politics, seen as an especially challenging competitor given the two white Manhattan liberals are no doubt seeking many of the same voters.

After launching a brief mayoral run in 2013, eyeing a challenge to Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2017, winning two citywide elections, and more than six years as a citywide official, Stringer has honed his campaign pitch. He made it evident again in a recent interview on Arena Talks, a podcast hosted by Ravi Gupta, co-founder and managing partner of Arena, a national progressive organization that assists and trains left-leaning Democratic candidates, campaign operatives, and government aides, while also take a shot at Johnson.

When Gupta asked Stringer what he would tell voters who might have lost faith in the progressive vision that de Blasio offered for years but in many ways failed to provide, Stringer offered some praise for the mayor’s accomplishments and his “heartfelt” focus on income inequality, while also offering a typically harsh critique. But he also had veiled criticism for Johnson, whom Stringer has mostly not publicly attacked as the two, among others, are on their collision course.

“But we now have to, I think, have a progressive administration that knows how to govern, especially in these very difficult times. We need a progressive who has real on-the-job experience because you can't leave it to chance. This is not about speechifying, I don’t know, dancing around,” Stringer said, with apparent reference to Johnson’s penchant for public dancing, which has often garnered attention at parades across the city.

Stringer continued, “This is about thinking strategically about the economy we want for younger people, [we] want to make sure that we can safely open our schools and our colleges. We have to make sure that the people who are in the gig economy and the frontline workers, in particular the doctors and the nurses, the people who are today's heroes, we need to get them the resources they need. I mean I love parades, I love ticker-tape parades but man, Ravi, hook up the people who every day go to work not knowing that they're going to ever see their child again.”

Stringer’s comments may seem anodyne but, for those familiar with the City Council speaker, it was a thinly-veiled back-handed critique. Johnson, the first openly gay and openly HIV-positive speaker of the Council, is known to some for his outgoing, affable personality, and his dance moves, which he has shown off at several parades, including, for example, the Brooklyn Pride Parade of the last two years, where's he's led a Council pack along 5th Avenue, as he has at other parades in other parts of the city since being elected speaker by his Council colleagues. Some of those dance moves have become sensations on social media, where Johnson has also repeatedly posted himself lip-syncing to pop music and dancing in other venues. At a September news conference when he released a comprehensive plan to combat homelessness, Johnson spoke of his mother, who works with the homeless in his home state of Massachusetts, and how she does a happy dance when she finds a home for one of her clients. Johnson then danced with a reporter.

Corey Johnson dancing parade

Stringer’s ticker-tape comment was a more obvious dig at de Blasio, whose early promise to hold one for first responders and health care workers after the pandemic has passed prompted widespread criticism and ridicule. “I want to guarantee you one thing, that when that day comes that I can restart the vibrant beautiful life of this city again, the first thing we will do is have a ticker-tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes for our health care workers and our first responders,” de Blasio said at an April 21 media briefing.

Stringer did go on to say in the Arena interview that he was “not thinking about” the mayoral race. A campaign spokesperson said the same when Gotham Gazette asked whether Stringer’s “dancing around” comment was meant for Johnson. “There are almost 200,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New York City. We've lost 15,000 of our fellow New Yorkers. The Comptroller is singularly focused on providing oversight and leadership to help New Yorkers get through this crisis. Everything else is just noise,” said Jennifer Galvin, a spokesperson for Stringer’s campaign, in an email.

Jennifer Fermino, a spokesperson for Johnson’s campaign, said, “The Speaker is focused on the City Council and providing relief to tenants, small businesses, and essential workers during this crisis.”

A Democratic consultant who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely and who is not involved in any 2021 campaigns at this time said there was no predicting how the 2021 race will shape up after the pandemic, but voters will definitely yearn for “competent, steady leadership.”

“The case that Stringer can make to people is that he has worked his way through the rungs of government, that as the comptroller he understands the fiscal side of the city perhaps better than anyone else, and he's been a legislator and he's been a borough president. So he's got a good grasp of how the different pieces of this all fit,” the consultant said. “Clearly, he's making the case that whoever the next mayor is, they need to be someone who has the experience at all these levels of government, and can corral the city's bureaucracy while at the same time projecting a steady hand.”

The consultant said Stringer was making a contrast with Johnson, “who has made a brand of cheerleading for New York, of being an unapologetic New York ‘nationalist,’ someone who wears New York on his sleeve. And there’s definitely a need for that.”

The consultant said the goodwill Johnson has experienced may evaporate at some point. “Corey has had a pretty good run of noncritical press for a long time now and as the campaign eventually heats up, that's gonna go away,” the consultant said.

Though the coronavirus has upended New York City politics, subsuming focus on future elections, the June 2021 primary nonetheless looms large over the city. Every seat in municipal government will be on the ballot, and the mayor, comptroller, four borough presidents, and dozens of City Council members face term limits disallowing them to run again and provoking additional competition. In a heavily Democratic city, the winner of that primary is all but assured to win the general election for almost every seat.

Stringer abandoned a short-lived bid for the mayoralty in the 2013 election that saw de Blasio win the first of two terms as Mayor. Stringer instead successfully ran for comptroller, winning reelection in 2017.

Before that reelection run, Stringer eyed a run for mayor in 2017, when de Blasio faced dual ethics investigations by federal and state prosecutors over his fundraising activities and relationships with donors. But Stringer again demurred when the investigations closed and no charges were filed.

Now Stringer finds himself in the top tier of candidates seeking to become the city’s chief executive, alongside Johnson and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, another two-term Democrat. All three, along with de Blasio, are term-limited from running again for their current seats. Several other candidates are also in the running or exploring a mayoral run, including Loree Sutton, a retired Army Brigadier General and former commissioner of the city’s Department of Veterans’ Services; Dianne Morales, a nonprofit executive in the Bronx; and Shaun Donovan, a former high-level aide to President Barack Obama and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Stringer Takes Veiled Shot at Johnson: Being Mayor 'Not About Dancing Around' Wed, 13 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Amid 'Really Tough Process' Adjusting to Coronavirus Recession, De Blasio Set to Release Executive Budget de Blasio city budget coronavirus executive

Mayor de Blasio gives a budget presentation (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

For his first six years in office, Mayor Bill de Blasio enjoyed the fruits of a booming economy and massively increased the size and cost of city government. But this week, he will present his executive budget proposal for the 2021 fiscal year facing a possible $6 billion revenue shortfall, hundreds of millions in cuts and cost shifts from the state, and almost complete uncertainty about the future as the coronavirus outbreak continues with New York City at its epicenter. 

De Blasio’s preliminary budget proposal for the 2021 fiscal year, which begins July 1, was a $95.3 billion spending plan, up more than $20 billion since he took office in 2014. Year after year, the mayor has taken advantage of quickly growing tax revenue, increasing the municipal worker headcount by more than 30,000 and only paying lip service to finding savings and efficiencies at city agencies. Though his administration kept putting away money in reserves – nearly $6 billion for the current fiscal year – budget watchdogs warned that it would be insufficient to survive a sustained recession. What the city faces now is no mere economic downturn.

Coronavirus, estimated to have now killed more than 10,000 New Yorkers as of April 14, presents a fiscal crisis of unprecedented proportions. It’s unlike previous recessions, which had cost the city between $15-20 billion in lost revenue over three years. There is no clear end in sight to the crisis and no guarantee that even once it is over, the city will be able to bounce back as quickly as it did in the past. That has forced the mayor toward the first truly hard budget choices of his tenure.

The city has already found $1.3 billion in savings and cost re-estimates under a Program to Eliminate the Gap (PEG) that the mayor quickly instituted after the outbreak. But far from recurring savings, it includes programmatic cuts and delays that may not be sustainable, and some will be far from palatable to New Yorkers. It also reflects adjusted spending estimates as a result of the coronavirus’ impact on how city residents access local government.

For instance, the PEG includes a $100 million reduction in fair student funding, and $124 million saved by cancelling the Summer Youth Employment Program. It delays the expansion of the 3K for All program, temporarily reducing expenditure by $43 million. It includes $52 million that wasn’t spent on snow removal this winter, though there’s no guarantee that next year will be as mild a season. Another $106 million is meant to come from a hiring freeze and vacancy reductions at city agencies.

The mayor has even said the city may have to consider borrowing in the short-term to cover costs, for which it would need authorization from the state Legislature.

“[W]e've had to go through a really tough process around cuts to the budget and savings and PEG program,” de Blasio said at his daily coronavirus briefing on Tuesday, when he was asked about the prospect of seeking that authority from Albany. “But we're going to have to look at everything to figure out how we get through this.”

Mayoral spokesperson Laura Feyer would not say whether the city plans to draw on its reserves to cover costs for the coming year, among other details about cash-flows and prepayments that Gotham Gazette inquired about. “We will be presenting the budget this week and will have more to say then,” she said in an email. “One thing you can count on now and always: we are committed to keeping New Yorkers fed, safe, healthy and sheltered.”

It’s unclear what new savings or savings plans de Blasio will announce when he presents the executive budget this week. 

There could be some relief, as the city is anxiously awaiting the next round of emergency funding from the federal government, which is currently being negotiated among Congressional leaders and the Trump administration and may be aimed at state and local governments experiencing steep revenue shortfalls. In media appearances on Wednesday morning, de Blasio emphasized that those funds will be crucial, particularly in ensuring that the city's emergency response mechanisms and services aren't hobbled. "We're not going to be able to provide basic services and actually have a normal society if we don't get help from the federal government so we can restart, so we can actually have a livable working city again," the mayor said on CNN's New Day. "If it doesn't come from the federal government, it's not going to happen. So Congress has got to get back and do a stimulus that helps cities, helps states, helps everyone get back on their feet and actually sustain a normal economy again."

But there is also the possibility of mid-year cuts from the state, with the recently-approved state budget allowing Governor Andrew Cuomo to periodically reduce spending if state revenues should come in below already-lowered expectations. As it stands, the budget could add several additional costs to the city’s books, including $200 million for healthcare, among others.

[Read: 10 Ways the New State Budget Impacts New York City]

There are also new costs the city is accruing in fighting the coronavirus, such as additional spending on emergency food and related services. The city has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its coronavirus response, the mayor's office told Gotham Gazette.

In an analysis released March 23, city Comptroller Scott Stringer projected the city already faces losses of up to $6 billion in revenue between the current and next fiscal year from the economic effects of the coronavirus.

“The City should explore all budget actions that protect essential services, the social safety net, and our long-term fiscal health, and the federal government must step up with substantial financial support for New York City as the epicenter of this crisis,” said Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson for Stringer, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “In that context, while it would be premature to rule out any specific course of action, we urge caution before the City engages in borrowing to cover operating costs, which would create debt service obligations that have the potential to crowd out funds for the very services and people we are trying to protect.”

The city often uses revenue surpluses at the end of the fiscal year to prepay certain costs, such as debt service, for the next fiscal year. As the comptroller noted in his analysis, the city expected a surplus of $2.7 billion, and if those funds are used to balance the budget, then next year’s budget gap would potentially increase to $4.5 billion, a number that would have to be closed by the time a spending plan is approved in June.

The City Council is the other key participant in the city budget process. A spokesperson for Council Speaker Corey Johnson said, “We are facing unprecedented budget challenges with rapid shortfalls in revenue and rising unemployment, but we must continue to deliver for the thousands of New Yorkers who rely on that social safety net, especially our most vulnerable populations: the elderly, homeless, disabled and low-income families. We are going to have to make very hard decisions about where to find savings and efficiencies. At this point, nothing is off the table.”

Johnson has said the City Council is working to develop ways to hold budget hearings digitally -- the Council was in the midst of its hearings on de Blasio’s preliminary budget when the coronavirus shutdown began. On April 7, Johnson and Council members who chair budget committees offered a formal response to the mayor’s budget, noting that de Blasio’s spending plan was released in early January when the city was in a very different place.

“The impact of COVID-19 on our economy has been much like the effect of the virus itself – sudden and with a quick decline,” said Johnson, Finance Committee Chair Danny Dromm, and Capital Budget Subcommittee Chair Vanessa Gibson.

They gave their “estimation of the components of the baseline budget that are essential and must be preserved even in the face of impending budget cuts,” and while recognizing the need to cut the budget, said “as we make the tough decisions about where to find savings and efficiencies, it is imperative that the basic social safety net programs remain untouched, and in some cases expanded with additional investments.”

They identified seven key areas for protection and even increased funding: Maintaining Public Health; Addressing Food Insecurity; Protecting the Senior Population; Keeping New Yorkers Housed; Supporting Human Services Providers; Protecting Tenants and Small Property Owners; and Supporting Small Business.

Budget watchdogs have several prescriptions to rein in costs, though some may be hard pills to swallow for the mayor. While it will not help in the current crisis, they have renewed a push for creating a dedicated rainy day fund, which requires state legislative approval. And they all agree though that short-term borrowing should not be the mayor’s first instinct.

“Borrowing funds is the last resort,” said Andrew Rein, president of Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit watchdog organization. “The first step is to look at savings and make significant changes. That certainly hasn't been the pattern in this administration but we need bold action now.”

Rein said the mayor should deliver, at minimum, a $3 billion savings plan for the next fiscal year focused on agency efficiencies, with savings that will recur year after year. “This is not a one year problem,” he said. 

[Read: Coronavirus Recession Makes New York City Rainy Day Fund More Urgent, Watchdogs and Legislators Say]

The outyears will also be impossible to predict, since there’s no telling when people will be able to go back to work and when major industries that the city relies on like tourism, food service, and hospitality will recover. “We haven't experienced a shock of this kind before so it’s not readily clear what the response from tourists, from New Yorkers, from businesses will be in terms of how quickly people get back to normal,’ said Ana Champeny, Citizens Budget Commission’s director of city studies.

Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said the “easiest thing” would be to institute a public sector wage freeze, which could save the city a significant chunk of money but is an unpopular decision that the mayor is unlikely to embrace.

Part of the problem with planning the budget, Gelinas noted, is not knowing the level of aid to expect from the federal government. “Unless we get tens of billions of dollars of federal aid in the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic, we're going to not have a very good recovery,” she said, “and then you don't want what should be a temporary crisis to become a permanent crisis."

Gelinas said the city should focus on maintaining core services – such as fire, police, EMS, corrections, and sanitation – instead of cutting them, which is what she criticized in the mayor’s $1.3 billion PEG.

“I think it's disturbing how quickly they went to make cuts to frontline services,” she said, noting the cuts to bike lane construction and organics collection programs. “If that's the first thing you're going to cut that saves you like a tiny, tiny fraction of a percentage of the budget, it doesn't seem like you’re starting out in the right frame of mind.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note - this article has been updated with the mayor's comments from a CNN New Day interview. 

Amid 'Really Tough Process' Adjusting to Coronavirus Recession, De Blasio Set to Release Executive Budget Tue, 14 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000