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East Harlem Tenants Group Rejects De Blasio Housing Plan, Offers Its Own


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A Movement for Justice in El Barrio rally


An East Harlem tenants group is gearing up to battle Mayor Bill de Blasio over his housing plan, saying that the plan will see local mom-and-pop stores bought out by chains, further incentivize landlords to push tenants out, and destroy the culture of Spanish Harlem.

The group, Movement for Justice in El Barrio, is countering the de Blasio rezoning proposal that they call a "luxury housing plan" with a 10-point agenda of its own designed to preserve current housing stock and protect the community from gentrification. It hopes to push the local community board to vote against the mayor's two rezoning proposals and wants a face-to-face meeting with de Blasio to discuss concerns.

Movement for Justice, an immigrant-led community organization formed in 2004, plans to make its opposition and proposals public at a Friday afternoon press conference at the corner of East 103rd Street and Lexington Avenue.

The tenants' decision to oppose de Blasio's sweeping affordable housing plan didn't come easily or quickly, they say. "We spent a lot of time analyzing the plan, yet we understand lots of people in the city haven't opened their eyes. We are very hopeful we can make our case to the public and convince them we are on the moral high ground," said Josefina Salazar, a founding member of the group and 20-year resident of East Harlem.

Movement for Justice in El Barrio held a series of community meetings and workshops starting this past spring that its members say involved thousands of Harlem residents. Only after formulating their position, creating a plan of their own, and reaching out to the mayor's office did they decide to take their position public.

Tenants' biggest concerns, which mirror those being seen in other neighborhoods around the city where de Blasio is first looking to rezone to create more density, are led by the administration's plan calling for all new residential development to set aside 25-30 percent for "affordable" housing units, but with affordability rates they say are too high.

"Affordable" as defined in the de Blasio plan is incomes between $46,620 and $62,150 for a family of three. According to census data the current average median family income for an East Harlem family of four is $33,600, according to 2010-2012 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Remaining units in new construction would rent at the real estate developer's discretion, also known as market-rate housing. Developers must agree to the administration's terms in order to build in areas being rezoned by the city.

In order to meet de Blasio's ambitious affordable housing goals, maintaining or building 200,000 affordable units over ten years, the administration argues that it must increase density in underdeveloped neighborhoods. The administration is starting with places like East New York, Flushing, and East Harlem. El Barrio is particularly interesting because it is represented in the City Council by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, largely an ally of the mayor.

Supporters of the plan note that the affordable housing would be mandatory for developers to include in their projects and it would be permanent. But the group fears that their current apartments and those of their neighbors will not be protected and as the neighborhood gentrifies landlords will be motivated to push them out to rent to higher-income tenants.

Community boards across the city have to decide whether to approve the mayor's Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability plans. City Limits recently reported that while most of the boards have yet to vote on the proposals, the majority of the ones that did rejected them and that there are widespread concerns about the plans as tenants and small business owners worry about being squeezed our of their neighborhoods.

Movement for Justice in El Barrio plans a series of protests and continued community education to push back against the zoning plans before they comes to a vote at Community Board 11 on November 17. The Community Board is scheduled to hold a hearing on the matter on Nov. 9.

"When we watch TV we see de Blasio promotes this plan as an affordable housing plan," said Salazar. "But this is pure propaganda. We did the math and we realized after reading the report on housing and his ten-year plan that this is not truly an affordable housing plan. It favors the creation of luxury housing that we don't consider affordable."

The group has put together its own ten-point plan members want to see adopted to preserve existing affordable housing in their neighborhood.

The plan calls for independent oversight of the city's Housing Preservation Department; establishing a public education campaign to inform tenants about HPD's role; empowering a new body or building inspectors to collect fines against landlords; having HPD make repairs not completed by the landlord in the specified amount of time and then billing the landlord; making inspectors carry citations in multiple languages and send out reports in multiple languages; forcing landlords to make repairs within 24 hours of emergency violations; establishing an East Harlem HPD oversight team as a pilot for other areas with at-risk low-income housing; providing inspections 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week; and improving HPD's follow-up on violations.

Zorayda Aguirre, a member of Movement for Justice who has lived in East Harlem with her husband and three young children for 16 years, said she fears for the community she has grown to love. "This plan will destroy our culture and change the face of East Harlem," she said of the mayor's proposals. "Not only that but the landlords will become more aggressive and try to drive us out. We will see our small businesses replaced by large ones that cater to the rich and it will become very expensive to live here."

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer shares some of the group's concerns."The history of New York City is one of constant change, but that change can't leave current residents behind – it needs to benefit and complement existing communities," Brewer told Gotham Gazette. "I will be working hard throughout this process to ensure the existing community is at the heart of the discussion. Any rezoning in East Harlem needs to address the full range of neighborhood issues like housing preservation, schools, and community-based small business."

In response to de Blasio's plan, Brewer called for an inclusion of even more affordable housing, a reduction of luxury housing included in deals with developers, increased vigilance by HPD to make sure existing affordable housing units are not lost, that there are tenant education clinics (with no income restrictions) in areas where upzoning is proposed. Brewer has also focused on helping mom and pop shops stay in business as major chains move in.

"We will never have enough affordable housing if we are not able to help tenants remain in existing affordable units. HPD must help prevent evictions by coordinating with the State Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) to ensure rents are legal and to enforce housing codes," Brewer wrote in a Febraury response to de Blasio unveiling his housing plan.

Amy Varghese, spokesperson for Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, said that the speaker encourages the community to get involved in the discussion of the city's housing plan.

"The East Harlem rezoning is an opportunity for all residents and stakeholders to engage in a community-driven, neighborhood-based planning process that addresses real local needs and concerns," Varghese said in a statement. "We need to have diverse voices at the table having meaningful conversations around these issues, from housing to transportation to open space and more. True to her grassroots leadership, Speaker is committed to facilitating these discussions in an empowered, productive environment and strongly encourages all residents to get involved, participate and harness this opportunity to make a difference in the neighborhood we are so proud to call home."

Members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio say they will do just that, making their voices heard in the coming weeks as community boards across the city consider the plan.

"This is a David versus Goliath type of battle," said Salazar. "The mayor is very powerful and has a propaganda machine. We really want a face-to-face meeting with the mayor. I think we can change his heart," said Salazar. "We want to tell him that we don't think his plan will preserve the simple, humble people of El Barrio."

The mayor's office did not return request for comment.

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

City Council Developing New Protections for Workers in ‘Gig’ Economy


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Council Member Lander with carwash workers (photo: William Alatriste)


There are more than 1.3 million freelancers working in New York City and with the help of the City Council, these workers may soon be afforded certain protections on par with full-time workers.

Initially focused on wage protection and health benefits, Council members and advocates are also looking at legislation to expand collective bargaining rights to certain groups of workers in the “gig” economy.

The on-demand economy of such workers has mushroomed in the city with Uber and Lyft drivers, Handy.com cleaners, and the more traditional writers, graphic designers, and other artists. These temporary, “for-hire” workers largely perform their various efforts without the benefits of job security, health insurance, pension buy-in, or paid sick leave. Even their wages are regularly not guaranteed. Eight out of ten freelancers have complained of being victims of late payment or non-payment of wages according to reports compiled by the Freelancers Union.

With the City Council aggressively tackling workforce issues, Council Member Brad Lander, a Democrat who represents part of Brooklyn, has taken the lead in developing legislation to help people in the gig economy.

Lander is working with the New York City-based Freelancers Union to create a legislative framework for wage protection for freelance employees. In September, He appeared at a Brooklyn town hall hosted by the Freelancers Union to launch the #FreelanceIsntFree campaign, seeking to raise awareness and push for legislation.

“It has very real dark sides to it,” Lander said in a recent phone interview with Gotham Gazette, referring to freelancing and the company payment cycles that cause hardships for freelancers. “The rent is due and you still gotta put groceries on the table,” he said.

Lander believes that the best possible scenario would be a “cutting edge,” enforceable administrative solution, similar to protections guaranteed by the state Department of Labor and the Attorney General. Currently, the only legal recourse freelancers have is civil court, an expensive and time-consuming option. Lander wants to introduce a bill within the next two months.

But worker protections go beyond simply wages and Lander has found support from his colleagues for other ideas. Lander and Council Member Corey Johnson are working closely with the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance on a “drivers benefit fund” that would use a small fare surcharge to provide health benefits to for-hire drivers. After wage protections for freelancers, drafting this legislation is Lander’s next priority; and with the city looking at rules reform for the Taxi and Limousine Commission, he said this “is a good time to move it forward.”

Inevitably, workforce issues revolve in some important way around organized labor. On-demand gig workers are by their very nature unorganized. That’s where the Freelancers Union stepped in and now the City Council is moving toward creating new worker protections.

Eyeing Seattle, where a City Council member is pushing a bill to allow taxi drivers, for-hire drivers, and those from ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft to unionize and exercise collective bargaining, Lander is considering a similar path in New York.

Uber’s success in the city, and its disruption of the long-standing taxi/black car marketplace, has garnered the for-hire industry new attention. The ability for drivers, who are seen as independent contractors, to unionize would change the game for thousands, and the company, of course.

Uber has added more than 20,000 cars to their service in the last three years and also handled more than 100,000 rides each day in July, four times its record from last year.  During a summer face-off between city lawmakers and Uber, the Mayor de Blasio and the City Council brought about a temporary detente by landing on a four-month study of the effects of ride-sharing companies like Uber (and no cap on the growth of the industry). The results of that study are due soon and will likely play an important role in the future of ride-sharing in the city.

An Uber representative declined to comment for this story.

The city’s efforts to create space for independent contractors to unionize may run up against federal law. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 protects the right of employees to collectively bargain with their employers. It lays down specific definitions for employees and employers which could preempt local jurisdictions from taking action since independent contractors do not qualify under the law’s criteria.

A class-action lawsuit brought by three drivers in California against Uber highlights this basic issue. The drivers are arguing for benefits as employees of the company while Uber maintains they are independent contractors who are not eligible for these benefits, and therefore should not have received class-action status. 

“Seattle’s leading the way,” said Council Member Lander. The proposed legislation in Seattle would create a precedent and likely face numerous legal challenges. Lander recognizes this fact. Even though the NLRA preempts the City Council from legislating, he believes there is room for cities to take action for workers not covered under the federal legislation. Currently there is no draft legislation but Lander said any proposal would attempt to protect workers across the on-demand economy and not just specific companies.

(He also talked of changes to the city’s human rights laws to clarify the workers covered. He said this could happen in the next few months after these initial bills.)

The Council recently took controversial action to help car wash workers unionize, but that is being challenged in court.

Council Member I. Daneek Miller is firmly in support of any proposal that would help on-demand drivers organize. As a former labor union leader, Miller’s perspective on the issue is decidedly pro-labor, and his position as chair of the Council's civil service and labor committee puts him at the front lines in addressing it. 

“The whole concept of the shared economy has to be put into perspective,” Miller told Gotham Gazette. “I don’t think it’s a sustainable model.”

He said the “irony” of the situation is that the shared, gig economy is contributing to its own demise and disempowerment -- a younger generation with few responsibilities finds flexibility and mobility attractive and then later on when people want security, they find themselves left out in the cold.

For the system to work, he said, there need to be checks and balances in the form of collective bargaining and the right to organize.

“I’m less inclined to create public policy legislation around this,” he said about the issue of unionization, perhaps recognizing the challenges involved. “We’ll let them do their job and give them the tools to support them. We’ve got our finger on the pulse of organized labor.”

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by Samark Khurshid
@GothamGazette

2015 General Election Results


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Gov. Cuomo votes on Tuesday (via the Governor's Office on flickr)


Although there weren't many high-profile races in yesterday's election, New York City now has two new members of the City Council (one in Queens, one on Staten Island), two new District Attorneys (Staten Island and the Bronx), two new Assembly members (Queens and Brooklyn), a new state Senator (Brooklyn), and a few new judges.

On Staten Island, former Congressional Rep. and City Council Member Michael McMahon, a Democrat, defeated Republican Joan Illuzzi to become District Attorney. The seat was left vacant when former DA Daniel Donovan was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Democrats now hold the DA position in all five boroughs. 

The Bronx got its first new DA in 26 years as Darcel Clark was elected to the seat. Clark, a New York Supreme Court judge, replaced Robert Johnson who resigned to run for Supreme Court justice.

A Democrat also won the City Council seat from Eastern Queens. Former Assembly Member Barry Grodenchik beat his Republican opponent, Joseph Colcannon, a retired police captain. The seat belonged to Mark Weprin, a Democrat who left the Council to join Governor Andrew Cuomo's administration. The Staten Island City Council seat went to Republican Joseph Borelli, an Assembly member who ran unopposed to replace Vincent Ignizio, who had resigned for a job as a nonprofit leader. Borelli joins the Council's Republican minority, returning it to three members in the 51-seat body. Both Grodenchik and Borelli will have to run in 2017 to retain their seats.

As was the case with the two Council seats, the three special elections for New York City-based seats in the state legislature remained with the same political party. All three state legislative seats stayed Democrat. With a whopping majority, Democrat Assembly Member Roxanne Persaud won a Brooklyn Senate seat over Republican Jeffrey Ferretti, owner of a real estate company. The seat was left vacant when former State Senator John Sampson was convicted in July on federal charges of obstruction of justice and false statements.

The two Assembly seats were also won by Democrats. Pamela Harris, a retired corrections officer, defeated Republican Lucretia Regina-Potter to become the only African-American to represent a majority white district in the city. The district covers parts of southern Brooklyn and the post was left vacant when the former rep resigned to take a private-sector job.

In the special election to complete the term of Democrat William Scarborough -- who was forced from office after accepting a plea on corruption charges -- Democrat Alicia Hyndman beat her opponent with a wide margin. Hyndman, Harris, and Regina-Potter will all have to run for re-election next year, in 2016 when all of the state legislature goes up for election, to retain their seats.

In one of many unopposed races, Democrat Richard Brown won the seat of Queens DA for the seventh consecutive term.

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by Samar Khrushid
@GothamGazette

With Risks, P3s and Design-Build Seen as Beneficial to Infrastructure Planning


MTA MetroNorth garage

A new MTA MetroNorth facility (photo: MTA/Patrick Cashin)


At an Urban Land Institute conference last week, two panels of transportation experts – one from the public sector, the other from the private sector – discussed the issues plaguing tri-state transportation systems and the potential of public-private partnerships to address them.

“Transportation agencies are great at delivering state-of-good-repair projects, delivering normal replacement projects,” former New York State Department of Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald said during the first panel. “I’m not so sure that transportation agencies are the entities best-suited to do some of these mega projects that are not just about transportation.”

With transportation infrastructure, a public-private partnership, or P3 agreement, is used most often in a design-build contract - design-build is a method of project-delivery in which a private contractor wins a bid to design and construct a project. Ongoing regional public-private infrastructure projects include the construction of a new Port Authority Bus Terminal and an MTA project to build a Long Island Rail Road station beneath Grand Central Terminal (known as East Side Access).

Organized by the Urban Land Institute’s New York, New Jersey and Westchester/Fairfield chapters, the forum was hosted at Shearman & Sterling’s East Midtown headquarters, drawing a crowd of around one hundred.

During the panel of current and former public officials, moderated by CityLab New York bureau chief Eric Jaffe, the speakers disagreed on the role of public-private partnerships in terms of their potential for improving transportation infrastructure.

“The bigger you get, when you have many more stakeholders, many more local zoning laws, then it becomes more difficult,” Steve Santoro, New Jersey Transit's assistant executive director of capital planning, said of expansive P3 projects.

All agreed, however, that area transportation infrastructure is in a state of crisis.

“The term 'transportation Armageddon' has been used,” Jaffe said, referring to Senator Chuck Schumer's remarks about the potential results of the damaged Hudson River tunnels. If the existing New York-to-New Jersey tunnels close - a plausible scenario given their age, deterioration and the fact that they have reached current capacity - it would be disastrous for commuters and the regional economy.

In remarks after the panel, Drew Galloway, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor chief of planning and performance expressed openness to working with a private sector contractor on the Gateway Project, a proposed high-speed rail corridor planned to help solve a potential crisis with the tunnels, which are used by NJTransit and Amtrak and bring many commuters into New York City.

“We absolutely intend to consider [public-private partnerships] and will welcome the proposals as it goes forward,” Galloway told Politico New York.

After the conference’s 15-minute networking break, the private sector panel convened to discuss the best P3 business practices globally, as well as the potential hazards and benefits of P3s.

“You have competition among entities of the private sector to come up with the best and most cost-effective design,” Karen Hedlund, national P3 advisor for Parsons Brinckerhoff, said at the panel, which was moderated by Urban Land Institute's senior vice president, Rachel MacCleery.

For underfunded tri-state transportation agencies, design-build can be an attractive method of cutting project costs. As Mike Parker, of Ernst & Young Infrastructure Advisors, LLC, pointed out, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey estimated that it saved ten percent by using a P3 for the Goethals Bridge reconstruction versus a public plan.

In the case of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, Hedlund explained, its dire need for infrastructure repair may repel potential private partners.

“Would they be willing to accept the cost of bringing the Northeast Corridor up to a state-of-good-repair?” Hedlund asked. “It's a much more complicated question than sometimes some politicians would like you to believe.”

Last year, P3s, especially as design-build, were recommended by the MTA Transportation Reinvention Commission, a team of 24 local, regional, and international transportation experts. In July, New York State Budget Director Mary Beth Labate again endorsed their use in a letter to MTA Chair Thomas Prendergast, calling design-build and other P3 tools a means of reducing the agency’s capital program costs and achieving “faster project delivery."

Certainly, the MTA needs faster project delivery - a recent report by the Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), a nonpartisan watchdog group, estimated that MTA repair and upgrade projects will be finished by 2067 at their current rate. The Second Avenue Subway extension is notoriously behind schedule and beyond budget.

But though public-private partnerships are recommended for MTA repair projects, the CBC report warns that a “P3 can leave public agencies at risk when private parties fail to perform adequately,” as they did in the early 2000s with a London Underground repair project.

“The London experience showed that there’s some problems with P3s that dealt with a lot of maintaining existing assets and bringing existing infrastructure up to a state-of-good-repair,” Jamison Dague, the report’s author, told Gotham Gazette. “And that’s not to say that you can’t have a P3 that does those things successfully, but that was one challenge that they saw there.”

Meanwhile, design-build contracts for New York infrastructure, Dague added, have proven successful in the past. The newly approved (and controversial) MTA five-year capital plan was reduced by billions of dollars after the agency accounted for increased use of design-build and other cost-saving strategies.

From a policy standpoint, measures can be taken to prevent private sector malfeasance when engaging companies in major infrastructure projects. In his remarks, Galloway emphasized the need for transportation officials to independently estimate a project’s cost before private sector involvement.

“Otherwise, they will price their own investment in such a way to cover that risk,” Galloway said. “And you very quickly lose some of the advantages that you would otherwise see in a public-private partnership.”

Transportation officials and others have suggested oversight mechanisms as a means of preventing similar problems before. Independent evaluation of projects before private-sector involvement was recommended by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli in a 2013 report, which also calls for the creation of an oversight entity for public-partnership agreements and other changes to the state's P3 policies.

Jaffe mentioned the ongoing concern: “The fear is always that in the long run, the public will end up paying more than they said they would pay up front.”

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by Ryan Brady, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette 

In New De Blasio Heath Care Plan, Limited Coverage for Undocumented Immigrants


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Mayor de Blasio holds his IDNYC (photo: William Alatriste)


According to a recent report from Mayor Bill de Blasio's office, there are 345,507 undocumented immigrants in New York City who do not have health insurance. The Mayor's Task Force on Immigrant Health Care Access seeks to provide coverage next year to 1,000 of those individuals.

A new plan from the de Blasio administration, called Direct Access, is intended to expand health care to New Yorkers who do not have it and diminish the mounting number of undocumented immigrants without insurance. Direct Access is lauded by Task Force members, whose work led to the plan, but has critics and immigrants wondering if it is enough.

The Direct Access program will launch in the Spring of 2016 as a year-long pilot, coordinating access for 1,000 uninsured, undocumented immigrant New Yorkers, while accomplishing other goals. The launch is intended to be a preliminary step to collect data to design a larger citywide model. The estimated cost of the pilot is $6 million, paid for by a mix of public and private funds.

Dr. Ramin Asgary, professor of population health at the NYU School of Medicine, is skeptical. “The thinking is right, but it is nothing and close to a joke,” he said of the plan and its affect on the overall population of uninsured undocumented New Yorkers. “On paper they can say we are doing something, but it is a drop in a bucket in the ocean.”

Nancy Berlinger of the Hastings Center for Bioethics and Public Policy defended the number. “You don’t want to launch a citywide program and then realize you don’t have enough doctors, social workers, and nurses,” she said. “You make a commitment to people when you promise ‘direct access.’” The Hastings Center co-released a report on immigrant health care access with the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) in March with recommendations for the mayor’s office.

Uninsured undocumented immigrants in New York City have a handful of insurance options, but all come with hurdles in an increasingly complex health system.

For instance, the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, is not an option. The healthcare legislation from 2009 shut out undocumented immigrants, and made them ineligible for federal Medicaid. As a result of few options, 64 percent of undocumented immigrants in New York City go uninsured.

In emergencies, older immigrants use safety net health insurance at some hospitals. The New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC) and community health centers are the primary safety-net providers that care for uninsured New Yorkers.

However, some undocumented people find the cost of care prohibitive, and have major gaps in referrals to specialists for chronic conditions, according to the Hastings Center and NYIC report. Community centers and hospitals do not have access to the same specialists, so health providers often find themselves at a loss for where they can send their patients in situations of chronic conditions like diabetes and arthritis.

Young people are the select few with the opportunity to apply for help through Medicaid, but only on a state level, and only after applying for the protected status of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). While the program’s participants are not eligible for the Affordable Care Act at the national level, five states, including New York, offer health insurance to low-income youth granted DACA.

Direct Access, Mayor de Blasio’s plan, aims to address four issues for the undocumented uninsured: language barriers; coordination shortfalls between health centers and hospitals; lack of education of healthcare options; and the mountain of high-priced services.

The mayor’s task force brought together 25 agencies and nonprofits beginning in June of 2014. The plan, released in early October, estimated the large number of undocumented immigrants who are uninsured, a higher figure than the previous estimate of 250,000 in Beringer’s 2015 report. The NYC Center for Economic Opportunity's Poverty Research Unit worked with the task force to develop a model to estimate the number of uninsured undocumented immigrants in New York City based on information contained in the Census Bureau's American Community Survey data.

Young Adults Struggle through a Two-Step Process
Applying for DACA is no easy task.

The initial deferred action application requires applicants to prove their age; that they arrived to the U.S. before their 16th birthday; have continuously resided in the US since 2007; were physically present on June 15, 2012 - the date of the president's announcement; are currently in educational programs (school, vocational training, etc.) or graduated from high school/have a GED; and haven't been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or more than three misdemeanors.

Many of the above are difficult for people who did not keep records, don't have a bank account, cannot speak English, or were not enrolled in school. Limited DACA enrollment keeps undocumented youth from accessing Medicaid, and creates more need for a program like de Blasio’s Direct Access.

Cesar Andrade is a 23-year-old deferred action holder interested in becoming a physician in order to address the very problem he endured— lack of access to vital services for undocumented immigrants. Andrade was insured through the Children's Health Insurance Program, which expired when he was 19. He was uninsured between the ages of 19 and 22, while he was attending CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College.

“I always had to be cautious,” Cesar explained, “If you play soccer and tear your ACL, that’s a lot of physical therapy. Once I got insurance, there was a sense of relief. I got glasses and got treatment for an autoimmune disorder.”

In the meantime, CUNY was able to offer him clinic check-ups, which cost $20 each. Cesar became insured last year through Medicaid after DACA made him eligible.

Deferred action applications are seven-page forms, and must be mailed to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services along with a $465 fee. Cesar said it was straightforward if you know English, but what gets most people, other than any language barrier, is the evidence one must submit.

Claudia Calhoon, director of health advocacy at the New York Immigration Coalition said, “The take home is really that given how tough it is for you and me to understand, you can imagine how this is for an immigrant with low-English proficiency, who may be new to navigating the U.S. healthcare system.”

As DACA enrollment continues, the number of enrollees in Medicaid will increase. According to the New York State Statistical Handbook, the average monthly number of Medicaid beneficiaries in New York has increased, with approximately 424,740 new enrollees in 2013. Sixty-three percent of the recipients lived in New York City. An unspecified number were new DACA holders and thus undocumented immigrants.

Kinsey Dinan, acting deputy commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration’s Office of Evaluation and Research said in an email, “We do not have the ability to specifically identify DACA clients in our Medicaid data.”

An unknown number of DACA recipients are accessing an already existing healthcare option. One of the plans for the Direct Access program is to educate uninsured immigrants on the options they may have if they have a protected status like DACA.  

Harvard Professor Roberto Gonzales is working on an initiative, the National UnDACAmented Research Project, which is a study to assess the effects DACA access has among undocumented young adults.

Gonzales and the American Immigration Council published a report in 2014 that announces preliminary findings where over 21 percent of survey participants obtained health care since receiving the benefit. Although the number of applicants to health insurance is low, he thinks there are reasonable explanations for this.

“The more likely option is that some DACA beneficiaries are acquiring health care coverage through work and college. Our survey was carried out in late 2013, 16 months after the initiation of deferred action. I suspect that since then more of our respondents have acquired health insurance.”

Still, Medicaid for deferred action recipients only addresses a small percentage of the 345,000 uninsured immigrants in New York City.

Can Community Health Centers and HHC serve the rest of the population?
Community health centers do not ask for documentation for patient treatment, so undocumented immigrants often go to these centers for emergency procedures. Over 400,000 of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation’s 1.4 million annual patients are uninsured.

For those earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level, these patients are offered a sliding scale for HHC health care services, including prescription drugs. However, patients and taxpayers often fall under tremendous financial burdens from copayments and subsidized care.

“If they are undocumented and don’t have financial resources, they aren't going to be able to pay the bill. The government will have to pay the bill. It is a cost effective perspective that is idiotic not to address,” said Dr. Asgary, of NYU Medical.

Asgary also mentioned that most undocumented immigrants do not have preventative care options that accompany being insured. “Imagine if someone has diabetes or heart problems, and doesn’t see a doctor in ten years. If they have kidney failure or an emergency, society has to pay for dialysis or surgery. One single night in a CCU in a public hospital will cost [taxpayers] $6,000. Five nights in a hospital will cost 20-30K, and they will need follow-up care. Forget just being a decent human being. There are a lot of costs on the line.”

An official statement from the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene mentioned the expansion of current safety net services as outlined in the task force plan.

“The Direct Access program will build on New York City’s strong safety-net health care system. It will help make our safety net system more coordinated, will focus on prevention and primary care by providing “primary care homes” and will improve coordination of care while still preserving federal and state funds,” a representative from DOHMH wrote.

The Plan
Launching in the Spring of 2016, the initial $6 million cost of the plan will be partially funded by the Robin Hood Foundation through the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City. The New York City Council has also committed $2.5 million toward related education and outreach efforts, including a recommended medical interpreter training program to address language barrier issues in immigrant health care access.

In a statement, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs expanded on the details: “The Direct Access program will provide predictable costs, provide a primary care home, and increase coordination of care. By providing a defined network and package of health services, set eligibility criteria and predictable fees, we will be enhancing the existing system for the uninsured in our city.”

The hope is that the program will expand access to health care, and coordinate many independent efforts throughout the city, including the new Caring Neighborhoods initiative, recently announced by Mayor de Blasio. Caring Neighborhoods,  a new program led by HHC and the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC), will expand community health centers in all five boroughs, so that 100,000 new patients will be able to receive care. The City is dedicating $20 million over two years to cover costs for new health centers.

According to the de Blasio administration press release on Caring Neighborhoods, the initiative will complement the Direct Access plan for immigrant New Yorkers by expanding services at Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) in neighborhoods with high concentrations of immigrants.

There is also hope that the recently launched municipal identification card program, IDNYC, will play into removing the paperwork barrier for the undocumented. The Direct Access program will require a verification of identity and residency in New York. The program will allow use of IDNYC to verify both, and as a participant ID card that will expedite access to care.

Berlinger, of the Hastings Center, is hopeful that the plan will bring together private and public health providers who do not typically work together. “You have to figure out how they share information, how they work together, how they share patient info. Then you have to figure out what it is a better way to reach the population,” she explained.

Enough?
Not everyone is satisfied with the plan as it stands. The Task Force report shows that in the neighborhood of Flushing, 14-37 percent are uninsured non-citizens.

City Council Member Peter Koo, of Flushing, is aware of the high population of uninsured undocumented immigrants, and has held community meetings that promote the use of MetroPlus Health Plan, the insurance plan of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation.

A recent Monday afternoon meeting had 75 attendees. Koo’s Chief of Staff, Elaine Cheung, said, “In terms of the Mayor’s Task Force report, Councilman Koo believes that there will be a huge demand for these services and we would like to see the number of participants expanded, especially in an community such as Flushing.”

In Brooklyn, 14-37 percent residents in Sunset Park are also uninsured non-citizens. City Council Member Carlos Menchaca addressed the issue in a statement: “The inaccessibility of care for immigrant communities in our City continues to be of great concern for me, and for the City Council as a whole. In the Council, we’ve allocated millions of dollars in the last year alone to help bridge some of the information and access gaps that exist on this front.” The Caring Neighborhoods Initiative recently announced that two of the community health expansion sites would be in Sunset Park and Queens.

Asgary recommends the pilot target senior citizens. “I would target the elderly undocumented. In terms of cost saving, it should be directed toward elderly. They are equally neglected as children. This program moves in the right direction but needs to be expanded.”

The Direct Access plan is modeled after assessments of several other cities’ health plans for immigrants. The plan, with adjustments, is based on Los Angeles’ My Health LA, a no-cost program for low-income residents regardless of immigration status. It offers care through 164 community clinics, and incorporates a preventative health approach.

Of the estimated 400,000 remaining uninsured in Los Angeles County, 280,000 are being served through the plan.

***
by Sarah Betancourt for Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Note: this article has been corrected to note that the Hastings estimate for undocumented uninsured New Yorkers is 250,000, not 150,000; to remove mention of use of passport for DACA age verification; and to clarify City Council funding toward relevant initiatives and rates of non-citizens who are uninsured in certain neighborhoods.

As New Yorkers Go to the Polls, Activists Launch 'Vote Better' Campaign


voter registration via NYC Votes

Voter registration efforts (photo: @NYCVotes)


On Tuesday morning - Election Day - in Manhattan's Foley Square, a large group of New Yorkers will hold a rally, kicking off a campaign to address two of New York's enduring problems: voting access and voter turnout.

While New York City voters go to the polls Tuesday to fill vacant City Council, District Attorney, and state legislative seats, as well as to vote for judges, a coalition of advocates and activists, including good government and community groups, will launch a petition drive toward passing legislation it says will "modernize elections in New York."

The "Vote Better NY" coalition is led by NYC Votes, the voter outreach arm of the city Campaign Finance Board; and also includes Dominicanos USA; Generation Citizen; New York Immigration Coalition, and other advocacy groups, along with good government organizations Citizens Union, League of Women Voters, and NYPIRG. The push is to garner popular support and "show lawmakers" that "New Yorkers from across the state want election reform to be a priority in Albany."

The petition calls for three key reforms to make voting easier in New York:
-The Voter Empowerment Act (A5972/S2538A) to upgrade our voter registration system
-The Voter Friendly Ballot Act (A3389) to establish better ballot design
-Early voting so New Yorkers have more than one day to cast their ballots

The hope is that Albany lawmakers will pass these measures during their 2016 legislative session.

Speaking of 2016, New Yorkers will go to the polls several times next year as they vote in presidential, congressional, and state-level elections on a variety of dates. Then, come 2017, there will be another round of New York City elections featuring a mayoral race as well as other citywide and City Council seats.

First, though, there's this Tuesday's Election Day. There aren't a lot of high-profile races on the ballot, but New York City will soon have two new members of the City Council (one in Queens, one on Staten Island), two new District Attorneys (Staten Island and the Bronx), two new Assembly members (Queens and Brooklyn), a new state Senator (Brooklyn), and perhaps a few new judges.

Judicial elections can often be the most mysterious, as City Limits recently pointed out, along with its discussion of how the election for Bronx District Attorney has transpired in a fashion that good government groups and other watchers have called an insult to democracy.

On Staten Island, the district attorney race has been far different as two candidates seek to replace Congressional Rep. Dan Donovan. It's unclear who has the edge heading into Tuesday's vote as former Rep. Michael McMahon, the Democrat, faces Republican Joan Illuzzi, a longtime prosecutor.

Along with its voter guide for Tuesday's city elections, the New York City Campaign Finance Board offers, "To learn more about judicial candidates running in your district, visit the online Judicial Voter Guide published by the New York State Unified Court." Still, there's limited information to be found on the candidates, as City Limits has shown.

The CFB outlines candidates for several special elections taking place on Tuesday to fill vacant seats in the City Council or the state Legislature.

The two Council vacancies are due to members who resigned to take other jobs. There are three vacancies in the state Legislature that are being filled. One, a Brooklyn Assembly seat (District 46), is due to a resignation for another job opportunity. Two others are due to corruption, where the former members were forced to resign. Those two seats include one Queens Assembly seat (District 29) and one Brooklyn Senate seat (District 19).

In District 23 in Queens there is a City Council vacancy created by the resignation of Mark Weprin, who took a job in Governor Cuomo's administration. The Democratic candidate, Barry Grodenchik, faces Republican candidate Joseph Concannon. Grodenchik, a former Assembly member, came out of a crowded Democratic primary.

In District 51 on Staten Island, there is another vacancy being filled - it is an uncontested race for City Council, where Assemblymember Joseph Borelli will be elected to the Council to fill the seat vacated by former Minority Leader Vinny Ignizio, who resigned to take a job as a nonprofit leader. Like Ignizio, Borelli is a Republican.

Borelli and the winner of the Grodenchik-Concannon race will have to run for re-election in 2017, when the entirety of the City Council and the citywide officials will be on the ballot.

First, a year from now, there will be elections for all the seats in the New York State Assembly and Senate. Just ten months from now, there will be primaries in those races.

As both former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and form Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos head to trial this month on corruption charges (Silver's trial starts Monday), speculation continues to swirl around whether either will still be in office come next year's elections, and if they are, whether they will see significant challenges.

While there is more intrigue ahead in 2016 and 2017, don't forget to go out and vote on Tuesday in the 2015 elections, if you have races to vote in - check your poll site here, via the City Board of Elections. Turnout is expected to be quite low this year, even lower than it has been in other recent years with more high-profile offices on the ballot, part of why 'Vote Better' activists are launching their campaign Tuesday.

***
by Ben Max, editor, Gotham Gazette
@TweetBenMax

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

The Week That Was in New York Politics, October 26-30


week in review bus readers

photo: Stanley Kubrick via Museum of the City of New York


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday October 30

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: Officers line up on Merrick Blvd in Queens outside the funeral of fallen officer Randolph Holder, killed in the line of duty and posthumously promoted to detective, via the 103rd Precinct; Mayor de Blasio on Staten Island for the third anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, via John Kenny

NYPD funeral

bdb sandy john kenny

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:
1. Three Years After Sandy: October 29 marked three years since Hurricane Sandy hit New York, destroying thousands of homes, killing 53 people, and causing $32 billion in damages statewide. On Thursday on Staten Island, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city’s Build it Back program aims to finish its work repairing homes by the end of 2016. So far, the Build it Back program has spent more than $100 million to repair homes and has began construction on nearly 1,900 homes, according to a report released by the Mayor last week.

2. Success Academy Scrutiny: A report published by The New York Times on Thursday revealed that at least one school in the network singled out students who they wanted to get rid of - allegations that the network and CEO Eva Moskowitz had repeatedly denied. Success Academy representatives defended their integrity at a Friday press conference. The network’s high student suspension rates continue to draw attention while Moskowitz continues to explain the schools’ approach.

3. Departures: On Monday, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch announced that she would step down from her post when her term ends. This week, Andrew Albanese, acting superintendent of the state Department of Financial Services, and Matthew Anderson, the agency’s spokesman, resigned from their respective positions amid a disagreement with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office over the agency’s independence. And, one of Cuomo’s top aides, Joe Percoco, is leaving the administration. Cuomo says Percoco’s departure was a personal decision and is not related to ongoing investigations in Albany.

4. Gun Control: On Tuesday, Mayor de Blasio, NYPD Commissioner Bratton, and Manhattan District Attorney Vance announced two indictments of gun traffickers for selling loaded handguns, assault weapons, and ammunition. Over the past six years, the Violent Criminal Enterprises Unit, working with the NYPD, have taken over “1,000 illegal guns off city streets over the course of 21 indictments filed against 64 gun traffickers,” said Vance. Most of the guns are believed to have come from out of state. On Friday, the New York Times reported that Governor Cuomo plans to take a lead role in the national fight to enact more gun control laws, pledging to work with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. [Read: As Cuomo Pushes for Federal Action on Guns, New York Measures Await His Support]

5. Honoring Police Officer Holder: Services took place this week to honor Police Officer Randolph Holder, who was shot and killed while on duty October 20. Thousands of police officers gathered at Holder’s funeral on Wednesday to pay their respects. Holder has been posthumously promoted to Detective by Commissioner Bratton. Holder’s death marks the fourth time in less than a year that a New York City police officer has been killed while on duty.

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

  • 91 cents is how much New York gets back in federal spending for every dollar it sends to Washington, D.C. in taxes - well below the national average of $1.22.
  • 1.8% decline in shootings citywide, with 947 incidents as of October 25.
  • $837,000 in restitution and fines for more than 6,000 employees has been secured by the Department of Consumer Affairs since New York City’s Paid Sick Leave Law went into effect.
  • $750 million in incentives is how much New York State has offered SolarCity to locate its GigaFactory in Buffalo, which has promised to create 5,000 jobs.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

  • It was a good week for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who held his first re-election fundraiser Thursday night, which was expected to bring in about $1 million for the mayor’s campaign.
  • It was a bad week for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who endorsed Hillary Clinton for president Friday morning after his delay in doing so earned him a lot of negative publicity and, likely, fewer friends in the Clinton camp.

THE FLASH:

  • Around this time 111 years ago, on October 27, 1904, the New York City subway opened.
  • Around this time 29 years ago, on October 27, 1986, the New York Mets won the World Series by defeating the Boston Red Sox 8-5 in Game 7 at Shea Stadium.
  • Around this time 129 years ago, on October 28, 1886, the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France, was dedicated in New York Harbor by President Grover Cleveland.
  • Around this time 3 years ago, on October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit New York, resulting in the death of 53 people and the destruction of thousands of homes, causing an estimated $32 billion in damages statewide.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

De Blasio Attempts to Undo Negative First Impressions, by Ben Max

Hearing Will Examine Pay for Workers Serving City’s Most Vulnerable, by Meg O’Connor

As Sheldon Silver Heads to Trial, A Democratic Challenger is Poised to Run, by David Howard King

Brooklyn Neighborhoods Look to Address School Overcrowding, Avoid Rezoning Issues Seen Elsewhere, by Ryan Brady

As Cuomo Pushes for Federal Action on Guns, New York Measures Await His Support, by David Howard King

More NYC Families Will Soon Have Access to Care, by Nisha Agarwal, Commisioner of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs (opinion)

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

  • In an interview with City & State NY, David Miranda, president of the New York State Bar Association, discusses the organization’s constitutional convention committee and some of its priorities for 2016, including gun control reform.

***
NOTE TO READERS: we hope you enjoy this new Gotham Gazette weekly feature - please share it if you do; on Twitter, use our handle @GothamGazette.

If you have feedback on this feature for us, you can email editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Watch Sunday evening for our latest Week Ahead in New York Politics, which gives you a preview of key issues and events to be aware of for the week about to start. In the meantime, catch up on the latest original reporting from Gotham Gazette here. And have a great weekend!

***
by Meg O'Connor and Ben Max

Hearing Will Examine Pay for Workers Serving City’s Most Vulnerable


rosenthal contracts alatriste

Council Member Rosenthal (photo: William Alatriste)


For six years, a particular group of workers employed through contracts with the city, and filling important roles, saw their wages stagnate. In May of this year, however, Mayor de Blasio announced that his Executive Budget for the 2016 fiscal year, beginning July 1, 2015, would provide a 2.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment increase and an $11.50 per hour wage floor for some of New York City's human services providers - workers who staff senior centers, homeless shelters, foster care agencies, and more.

Though the wage adjustments have been hailed as a much-needed step and heralded as part of the mayor’s equity agenda, an upcoming City Council oversight hearing will explore the process for implementing them and ways in which wages can be raised even further.

On Monday morning, Council members and advocates intend to discuss ways to raise the wages of a human services workforce that is increasingly in need of the types of provisions and programs - such as food stamps - that they help provide for others. One aspect of this is ensuring that the mayor’s promise materializes, part of the impetus behind the hearing, according to Contracts Committee Chair Helen Rosenthal, one of two City Council members who will preside over the hearing - which comes five months after de Blasio’s announcement.

Previewing the hearing, Rosenthal told Gotham Gazette, “It’s truly an opportunity for the administration to explain how they’re implementing this policy goal and I think we’ll learn a lot of critical details and answers to questions we've been asking for the last few months."

Mayoral spokesperson Amy Spitalnick told Gotham Gazette in a statement that "The City is actively working with the non-profit service provider community and the appropriate City agencies to ensure that implementation covers all the intended employees and programs, and that it is done in an efficient manner that doesn’t place any undue burden on providers. It will be retroactive to July 1."

Human services nonprofit organizations, which employ these workers and contract with the city, have seen years of cuts in funding. The wage floor and cost of living adjustment announced by de Blasio came much to the relief of the sector’s many low-wage workers, Michelle Jackson, associate director and general counsel of the Human Services Council, a coalition of nonprofit human service providers, told Gotham Gazette.

"Our workforce has been chronically underfunded for years. During the recession, there was divestment, and [prior to this year] we hadn't seen a reinvestment since the recession. Since 2010, there had been about $1 billion in cuts to human services across the state," Jackson said.

"I think there’s a misperception that people who work for nonprofits do it as volunteer work - these are crucial services that government is not providing, that they have contracted out to nonprofits," Jackson explained. "Looking at state and city cost of living adjustments over the last few years up until this year, human services workers have been forgotten about. We’re about 15 percent of the state’s workforce, and it's the government’s job to make sure that human services workers are compensated fairly because they are employed through contracts."

These human services workers provide a range of critical programs to some of the city’s most vulnerable populations, including in foster care, senior services, early childhood education, after-school programs, homeless shelters, job training and placement, and community health services. Nonprofit organizations on human services contracts delivered about $2.3 billion in services to New York City in fiscal 2015, according to the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services.

On Monday, November 2, the City Council Committee on Contracts, in conjunction with the Committee on Community Development, will hold an oversight hearing to evaluate the administration's progress in implementing the policy change and allocating funding for the wage floor and the cost of living adjustment.

Council Member Rosenthal told Gotham Gazette that she expects representatives of the de Blasio administration to come to the hearing "with a clean and easy-to-understand explanation of how the money is being allocated. We want to find out which agencies and which programs within each agency is being affected, how many employees are getting the increase, and what the cost is per program.”

Although the mayor set aside a certain amount of money in the budget to pay for the wage adjustments, Rosenthal explained, "the budget did not dictate exactly which agencies and which contracts and which programs would get that pay increase. So, it's my understanding that what's been happening over the last three or four months is that city has been collecting information from contract service providers about the workers they have, the titles, and how much they’re currently being paid in order to now allocate the lump sum of money to the specific agencies."

Allocating the funds can be a complicated process, given that in Fiscal Year 2015, eight City agencies, including the Department of Youth and Community Development, the Administration for Children's Services, and the Department of Homeless Services, registered 16,524 contract actions, according to the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services. In the human services industry, those contracts are awarded to vendors, predominantly nonprofits, for the purpose of providing programs such as day care, housing and shelter assistance, and counseling services.

The 2.5 percent increase for approximately 35,000 of the city's 125,000 contracted human services workers and the wage floor for roughly 10,000 social services employees fall short of salary adjustments advocates were pushing for, but are still generally viewed as a significant step in the right direction.

"It really is a crucial first step and shows a real commitment from the mayor in investing in human services workers," Jackson told Gotham Gazette.

Going forward, human services advocates plan to push for continued investment into the sector. "We want to see the cost of living adjustment systematized so it's not the case that every five years, groups have to advocate for one," Jackson said, "there should be consistency in how cost-of-living adjustments are applied for nonprofits."

Rosenthal said she also hopes the hearing will "help to give us a sense of how much money it would cost to get these workers up to $15 an hour. As we understand that, we can start to advocate for that increase in the budget for next year - I think we'll learn a lot more about the details of getting us there from this hearing."

Governor Andrew Cuomo has recently come out in support of a statewide $15 hourly minimum wage for all workers, calling for the wage to be phased in by 2019 in New York City and by 2021 across the state. The move is part of a nationwide push to raise the minimum wage, as cities like Seattle ($15 by 2021), Los Angeles ($15 by 2020), San Francisco ($15 by 2018), and Chicago ($13 by 2019) have passed legislation to phase in a minimum wage increase.

Just last week, Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner increased the minimum wage for the city's employees to $15 an hour. The raise affects about 69 employees, including laborers and information aides, some of whom had previously made as little as $8.75 an hour (the state’s current minimum wage), The New York Times reported.

Some have wondered why Cuomo, who said during his minimum wage announcement last month, “every working man and woman in the state of New York deserves $15 an hour as a minimum wage,” doesn’t lead the way by raising the wages of state employees, more than 15,000 of whom make less than $15 an hour living wage, according to a New York Post review of records kept by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office.

There is room to ask the same of de Blasio with those on the city payroll or working through city contracts.

Though the human service nonprofit sector would indeed be affected by a statewide minimum wage increase, Jackson told Gotham Gazette, nonprofits under contract with the government would need more funding in order to pay their employees higher wages since, unlike businesses, human service nonprofits cannot simply raise the price of their services to cover the costs of paying their employees more. "We would need the increase to be covered in contracts. The government would need to pay that," Jackson said, explaining that when Mayor de Blasio wanted human services workers to have a higher wage floor, for example, he increased funding for contracts in order to pay for that increase.

Human services workers are not the only ones who would benefit from higher wages. Research has shown that higher wages sharply reduce employee turnover. “We [human services workers] have a very high turnover rate,” Jackson said. “There’s a consequence of that turnover rate on the people in need of services. You want to retain talented workers. These are people who do really important jobs in the community - taking care of your children, your parents, people with mental health issues and substance abuse problems.”

Raising the wages of human services workers by increasing funding in the human service nonprofit sector would contribute to the city’s efforts to reduce homelessness and inequality, since outreach programs, supportive housing, drop-in centers, and other programs are more successful with greater consistency and quality of service.

“These are workers who basically work for the city,” Rosenthal told Gotham Gazette. “The city is having these workers provide services for our residents, whether it's in homeless services, senior services, or as caregivers. I think it’s critical that we pay our workers $15 an hour, and for many years, these workers have languished without any salary increases.”

***
by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
@MegOConnor13
@GothamGazette

De Blasio Attempts to Undo Negative First Impressions


de blasio press conference distance

De Blasio at a press conference (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


It's hard to go a few hours in New York political circles without hearing a joke about the mayor being late. Mayor de Blasio earned the taunts, having had a punctuality problem, which offended many New Yorkers. These days, de Blasio is almost never late for public events, though, seeming to have corrected what should have been an avoidable mistake of his early tenure.

Still, nearly two years into his term, de Blasio is dogged by a reputation for tardiness, as well as other negative elements of the first impression he gave many New Yorkers. The mayor is now in the midst of efforts to solve a public perception problem that siphoned some of his popularity and led de Blasio to adjust his approach on several fronts.

While you only get one chance to make a first impression, de Blasio and his team are at work to see how much they can do to change popular criticisms of him and the general sense, among some, that he has the city headed in the wrong direction.

Along with chronically late, some have come to see de Blasio as dogmatic, narrow-minded, and insulated; Self-aggrandizing, with his head in the clouds - more concerned with national politics than New York potholes; Ineffective at mitigating problems like homelessness; Anti-business, anti-wealth, and, perhaps most damaging, anti-cop.

Fair or not, these are the details of the de Blasio caricature. Most don't see de Blasio as all these things, but each appears a popular - or damaging - enough characterization that the mayor has sought to correct them all.

Negative public perception of the mayor has been fueled by unnecessary errors, like showing up late or frequent trips out of town; by calculated decisions - insisting Albany approve a tax increase on the city's highest earners, for example; and by those who never liked de Blasio, disagree with his worldview, and want to see him defeated.

The number of de Blasio critics has grown, media memes have taken hold. This summer, as cries about the mayor's focus and about a rise in street homelessness blared, de Blasio's poll numbers sunk.

The mayor appears to have taken notice.

Consciously, assertively, de Blasio is working to change his first impression. The mayor talks about the NYPD in almost exclusively positive terms now; he has made more appearances on the radio and on Staten Island, partnered with real estate developers and other business leaders, and even begun treating his predecessor with more esteem.

To some extent, he has already been successful. With wealthier New Yorkers and police unions, de Blasio appears to be digging himself out of holes he burrowed last year. But while de Blasio insiders feel they are on firmer footing, they await public opinion polls showing more widespread improvement.

"The mayor has made a concerted effort in the last year to reach out to members of the business community," said Kathy Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for NYC, a leading business group, "to get to know them, to hold roundtables with various sectors - finance, media, tech - where he has listened to the issues that the key industries are facing. For those that have had the opportunity to sit down with him, to get to know him, they have felt very positive about his commitment to many priorities that the business community shares."

On the day of this article's publication, de Blasio was set to "meet with CEOs from the TAMI – technology, advertising, media and information – sector" and then hold a press conference outside a home on Staten Island to make an announcement about Sandy recovery, according to his public schedule.

"There's an appreciation that he's made a real effort to build relationships," Wylde said on Wednesday in a phone interview, "most recently including reaching out to Mayor Bloomberg."

Wylde confirmed that de Blasio's changed tone toward Bloomberg and the fact that they had planned an event together had been received positively in the business community, which Bloomberg is of and adored by. The event, a tree-planting to celebrate completion of a Bloomberg initiative, was rescheduled due to the killing of police officer Randolph Holder.

De Blasio's relationship with the police and strident NYPD supporters has been more tense than with any other group. Holder is the fourth police officer killed during de Blasio's mayoralty, a statistic not lost on his harshest critics, who despised the mayor's campaign - which focused on NYPD reform and criticized Bloomberg and Commissioner Ray Kelly - and predicted a return to 'the bad old days' with de Blasio in office.

The city has not experienced such unraveling, but as de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton reform policing, scrutiny of public safety is heightened. As is de Blasio's perceived level of support for the police. While Holder's death is certainly a setback, the mayor has made some headway since last winter, when two officers were murdered and others turned their backs on the mayor.

Last December, before those officers were killed, de Blasio reacted to the grand jury decision not to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner by explaining that he and his wife had to teach their son to take extra care when interacting with police. In 2015, his tone is different. De Blasio reacted to Holder's murder by stating that "We need to understand that the police are us." Officers did not turn their backs on the mayor at Holder's funeral, at which he made remarks.

Since last December, de Blasio has become more protective of the police. He announced new bullet-resistant vests and technology for officers; and funded 1,297 new officers in his latest budget. He has heaped praise on the NYPD at numerous ceremonies and press conferences.

Late last month, one of de Blasio's loudest critics, sergeants union president Ed Mullins, said that the mayor "takes a look a little differently at policing today than he did nine, ten, twelve months ago," according to the Daily News.

Mullins, who is a registered Republican, also said that he continues to see a philosophical difference with de Blasio.

That has been and will continue to be key for de Blasio: figuring out certain shifts in rhetoric and behavior that smooth important relationships with people who don't share his liberal bend, building broader support, and also remaining true to his progressive bona fides and base.

Asked about the mayor's efforts to correct negative impressions and build better relationships, de Blasio spokesperson Karen Hinton said in a statement, "The Mayor is the same man today that New Yorkers voted for two years ago. That said, an effective leader always adjusts to changing circumstances involving city programs and services. Mayor de Blasio listens to the views of all New Yorkers and works to reflect their input in actions and policies that are appropriate and fair."

Wylde, of Partnership for NYC, indicated that this is happening. She gave the mayor and his team credit for working with business leaders to alter some of the more "intrusive" City Council bills aimed at regulating industry and personnel decisions; and praised the mayor for his essential support of state-level changes to the corporate tax code.

Of de Blasio and the city's business elite, Wylde said, "The political ideological alignment is never going to be there, but that doesn't stand in the way of the commitment that the business community feels to having a strong city and supporting the mayor's efforts to ensure that New York has a great education system and its economy continues to thrive."

Asked if grumbling about the mayor had quieted in the business community, Wylde said, "New York City is a place where there's always grumbling, but people understand the city is doing well."

And of de Blasio's 2014 pursuit of higher taxes on top earners and a different 2015 relationship with business, Wylde said, "He hasn't called for a tax increase since, and that's appreciated."

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@TweetBenMax

As Sheldon Silver Heads to Trial, A Democratic Challenger is Poised to Run


Paul Newell Sheldon Silver

Paul Newell at a housing rally (via @NewellNYC)


Manhattan District Leader Paul Newell is gearing up for his second bid to replace Assemblymember Sheldon Silver. Newell told Gotham Gazette that he has started fundraising and is "close to running." A political lifetime ago, in 2008, Newell ran a grassroots campaign to unseat Silver, who was then at the height of his power.

Things have changed since then. Silver was indicted on multiple corruption charges earlier this year and then deposed from the Assembly speakership that he held for 21 years. His trial starts November 2, almost exactly one year before Election Day, though Newell would be challenging Silver in the September 2016 Democratic primary. That is if Silver is still in office and decides to run for reelection.

Silver has already pleaded not guilty to charges that he hid what amounted to political kickbacks, traded state funds for referrals to his law firm, and influenced real estate companies to do business with his law firm. "This is going to trial and I hope, I'm confident I will be vindicated after a full hearing," Silver told reporters earlier this year. Silver will remain in office unless he is convicted.

According to the state Board of Elections website, Newell has raised a little over $46,000 this year through his Friends of Paul Newell committee and has a little over $47,000 on hand.

Newell ran in 2008 as an anti-Albany candidate, pushing ethics reforms and calling out Silver as an impediment to real reform in Albany. The stance won him the endorsement of the New York Times, whose editorial board wrote:

"[T]here are two Democratic races in New York City that offer a chance to make a change in Albany or, at least make a strong statement about how badly change is needed. The most important of these races is in Lower Manhattan, where Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, one of the most powerful people in the state, is facing his first real challenge in decades. It is still an uphill fight for any opponent, but the race has already made one difference. It has brought the ever-secretive Mr. Silver out to meet voters and campaign for his job."

Silver faced Republican challenger Maureen Koetz in 2014. She ran on Silver's mishandling of a number of sexual harassment suits against his members, but Silver won easily. Generally Silver has escaped facing any well-funded challengers thanks to his immense power and connections.

Newell said Silver's very public fall from grace this year has residents of lower Manhattan's 65th Assembly District excited for new representation.

"Mr. Silver has the right to a trial, but there is no question the era of Sheldon Silver is over," Newell told Gotham Gazette. "Lower Manhattanites are aware of that. We are going to have new representation whether it is now or two years from now. We have a representative who no one wants their photo taken with, someone who can not actively represent our community, not because he is distracted, but because he no longer has the capacity to build the type of coalitions you need to help the district."

Douglas Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, said that should Silver survive his trial and run for reelection, Newell could easily find himself the underdog again. "The bottom line is you can't beat somebody with nobody even though Silver is clearly weakened," said Muzzio.

Newell, who has served as district leader since 2009, is a community organizer who currently consults for a number of non-profit organizations. He's used his non-paid role as district leader to raise his profile, and this year there have been more opportunities as his district faces the reality that their representative, who was once arguably the most powerful man in Albany, will no longer be bringing millions of dollars in funding to community organizations. Newell has been outspoken about the need for local service organizations to reduce redundancy and work together in what are sure to be leaner times.

Newell also said Silver's replacement has to focus on reform of social service funding in the state "so that it isn't based on who sits where in Albany." He said going forward Silver's replacement, whoever it may be whenever it might be, will have to work at "building coalitions statewide" and working with the new leadership in the Assembly and Senate.

In the wake of Silver's arrest, Newell quickly took to The Daily News to write an op-ed expressing disappointment in Silver on behalf of the community and outlining the need for reform in Albany. He also explained his on-the-ground role as a district leader.

It is unlikely Newell will be the only one looking to either challenge or replace Silver. Another district leader, Jenifer Rajkumar, is also rumored to be interested in the seat. Rajkumar was defeated by incumbent City Council Member Margaret Chin, a Silver ally, in a 2013 bid for the Council. Rajkumar did not return Gotham Gazette's calls at publication of this story.

A number of other potential challengers appear to be waiting for the outcome of Silver's trial before committing to a run. Many observers expect that if Silver doesn't run, he will certainly have a horse in the race.

"If he gets convicted everybody and his mother is going to jump in," said Muzzio.

No matter how many candidates run, it's virtually certain the race will focus on Silver, Albany, and ethics.

The attention on the race could boost voter turnout. In 2008 only five percent of the district's 127,000 residents voted in the primary contest between Silver, Newell, and Luke Henry. Silver won 68 percent of the vote with 6,743 in his favor. Newell received 23 percent with 2,301 votes and Henry received 879 votes.

Newell said that regardless of the outcome of the trial anyone who challenges Silver next year is not likely to face the same resistance he did in his unsuccessful 2008 bid.

"It's unlikely you will have 25 members of the Assembly standing with [Silver] on Grand Street like I did in 2008," said Newell.

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing



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