Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




The Conspiracy in Queens is Beyond the DA Ballots

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(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)

Election officials in Queens are counting ballots in the District Attorney Democratic primary recount exactly as the law prescribes -- and it is an injustice for Queens and an affront to democracy. 

After a stunning reversal of fortune that saw Melinda Katz erase a 1,090-vote gap after absentee and other ballots were counted, Tiffany Cabán is challenging the rejection of a small number of provisional ballots that she thinks will turn the tide back in her favor.  While there are many reasons a ballot could be rejected, the main cause at play here is that voters were not properly registered with the Democratic Party in time to vote in the June 25 primary.

Some are enrolled in a different party or no party at all, while others just didn’t enroll at their current address within the six-month window required by our state before this vote. Whatever the reason, many Queens residents came to the polls to vote in an important election and were told that their voice was not welcome. 

New York, unlike most other big cities in the country, uses a closed primary system to determine who will be on the general election ballot. This means that only voters who are properly enrolled in a political party may vote in a taxpayer-funded partisan primary. The winner of each partisan primary, or the party nominee if there is only one candidate, then advances to a general election open to all registered voters. 

In a city where Democrats represent nearly 70% of the electorate, this means that the relatively few people who show up and are allowed to vote in a Democratic primary essentially choose the winner of the general election.

The Republican nominee for Queens District Attorney has all but acknowledged the fruitlessness of trying to win, openly admitting he had not decided whether he would even bother to campaign for the office. The most likely outcome no matter if Katz or Cabán prevails in the primary recount, is that a county of nearly 2.4 million people will be represented by a District Attorney who received the support of barely 4% of registered Queens Democrats. 

In a democracy, residents are supposed to choose their elected officials. In New York, politicians from both the Republican and Democratic parties have worked hard to turn that idea on its head and pick their constituents. New York’s ballot access rules are among the most restrictive in the nation and the results speak for themselves -- apathetic voters who can’t be bothered to engage in a system that makes it hard to participate and where they do not feel that their vote really matters. 

Open primaries allow all registered voters to vote in a primary where all candidates for office are grouped together regardless of party affiliation. If no candidate receives 50% of the vote, the top two then face off in a general election, even if they are from the same party. It’s a system based on encouraging democracy.

Open primaries also allow new candidates from nontraditional backgrounds to break into the system. In the current structure, voters often avoid casting a ballot for candidates outside of the traditional parties for fear of spoiling the election in favor of someone they truly dislike. Traditional parties have intentionally perpetuated this dilemma to keep new players out and keep a broken system and the privileges that come with it in place. 

Opening up primaries to all voters, regardless of party affiliation, gives candidates a reason to appeal to a broad range of the electorate, while head-to-head general elections take the spoiler-effect out of the equation and free voters to vote for the candidate they like best.

The editorial boards have opined that there is no conspiracy at play by machine Democrats to steal the primary, and that the rules are being scrupulously followed. However, the proceedings in Queens show once again that the rules are the conspiracy. It is time to replace New York’s outdated, unjust system with something as open and inclusive as our residents deserve. 

Michael Volpe is the Chair of the SAM Party of New York and former candidate for Lieutenant Governor on the SAM line. He is the former Mayor of the Village of Pelham. On Twitter @SAMforNY.

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I'm Not Running for Congress; Here's Why

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Senator Gustavo Rivera, the author (photo: State Senate)

To someone who isn’t from the borough, the mention of the Bronx may evoke images of Yankee Stadium, the Bronx Zoo, or Arthur Avenue. A lesser-known fact is that the Congressional District that covers all three landmarks, and most of the South Bronx, is home to an open seat and will host a highly-contested election in 2020. The future of one of the poorest and most densely-populated districts in the country will be determined next year, making it one of the most important upcoming elections in New York City.

New York’s 15th Congressional District is geographically one of the smallest, with 730,000 people living within its lines. Nearly 97% voted for Barack Obama in November of 2012, making it the most Democratic district in the country. This means the congressional election will be determined in the June primary, not the November general.

For almost 30 years, this district has been represented by the consistently progressive voice of José E. Serrano, who announced his retirement earlier this year. This vacancy is an opportunity to bring new leadership into the House and this district, but it also carries a significant obligation to continue the progressive legacy of the Congressmember while blazing a new trail to effect change.

As the State Senator representing part of this Congressional District, I know well the needs and challenges of this community. The 15th Congressional District faces significant obstacles that are exacerbated by the current federal government. We need bold leadership who fights for fair housing and treats public housing residents with respect; who recognizes that healthcare is a human right; and who stands up for all residents of the district, regardless of citizenship status. The 15th Congressional District also needs a leader who sets an unparalleled ethical standard, just like our retiring Congressmember has done for decades. The work cannot stop; we need someone who will double down on the fight ahead of us.

I believe in public service, and in the positive impact government can have on people’s lives. This belief drove me to run for the State Senate in 2010 and it has been at the center of my efforts in office.

This past year, the State Senate regained the Democratic majority and passed a slew of progressive legislation that New Yorkers badly needed, including the Dream Act, the Reproductive Health Act, criminal justice, voting, and housing reforms, driver's licenses for all, gun regulations, and LGBTQ protections -- among others. I was also given the great honor to chair the Senate Health Committee, a position that had never been held by a person of color or a Bronxite, despite the disparities these groups have faced in accessing healthcare for generations.

The New York State Senate is enacting true change and fighting to help all New Yorkers thrive, but our work is far from done. This responsibility has influenced my decision to not seek the open seat in Congress next year. Representing my community in the State Senate has been the greatest honor of my life, and it is exactly where I believe I can best serve for the foreseeable future. This is particularly crucial since state government is one of the most effective checks and balances on the great national threat from Washington, D.C.

Nonetheless, I cannot ignore the importance of this election at such a critical moment.

The Federal Administration makes a mockery of our democracy daily, and actively works against the communities of my district, the Bronx, and New York City. As we look at a crowded field of Democrats vying for this seat, one thing is clear -- we have a serious responsibility to identify and unify behind a strong leader who will speak on our behalf and will join the new class of Congressmembers that reject the status quo of corporate politics. The 15th Congressional District deserves the very best, and I look forward to hearing from the candidates and eventually endorsing someone who will fight for that same standard for our community and our country.

State Senator Gustavo Rivera represents parts of the Bronx and chairs the Senate's health committee. On Twitter @NYSenatorRivera.

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6 Real, Meaningful Changes New York’s New Campaign Finance Commission Should Pursue

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(photo: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

New York State government has often failed to address our biggest challenges. Surprisingly, during the 2019 legislative session real protections for renters were approved over the objections of New York’s powerful real estate industry. Congestion pricing for Manhattan’s central business district was written into law, along with far-reaching climate change legislation. Cash bail was abolished for most crimes, and bump stocks that cause rifles to fire like machine guns were banned. Women’s rights and LGBTQ rights were enhanced in important ways.

Yet, efforts to reform the electoral process stalled after a few notable successes. To revive momentum, Governor Cuomo and the Legislature created a commission and charged it with issuing rules to implement public campaign financing by December 1. The commissioners were named last week and are about to set to work.

Structural change to New York State’s campaign finance system is crucial. The ease with which legislative influence is traded for money in Albany has created a culture of corruption that promotes special interests above the public interest.

We have yet to come to terms with rusting bridges, crumbling infrastructure, and failing public transit networks. Public housing slides further into disrepair daily. Young people of color are denied quality education. Nearly 1 million New Yorkers have no health insurance. The public will be ill-served on these and other matters if legislation responds to the demands of the highest bidders.

As the campaign finance commission begins its work, here are six ways to ensure our state elected officials represent everyone, not just the wealthy and powerful.

1. New York needs lower election contribution limits, a cap on campaign expenditures, and a ban on donations from political action committees, businesses, and unions.

Current law allows candidates for statewide office to accept the obscene amount of $47,500 from a single contributor, and more than $65,000 if they face a primary. State Senate candidates can accept $18,000, aspiring Assembly members more than $9,000. The threshold for all these offices should be lowered to $5,000 so that no single contributor can hold sway over an official. Candidates should also be subject to an overall campaign cap of $1 per constituent to limit the quest for cash.

2. New York should join 29 states that wisely ban elected officials from fund-raising during the legislative session. Cashing checks while passing laws creates the undeniable appearance of corruption. Violators should be forced to forfeit all of an event’s contributions, along with a penalty of an equal amount, into a public election fund.

3. New York should establish a statewide public finance system that mirrors New York City’s. Candidates who meet minimum thresholds should receive $8 of public matching funds for each dollar of a donation up to $250. This would encourage candidates to seek support from all their constituents, not just the rich.

4. Candidates for public office should be required to release five years of federal and state tax returns to enable voters to determine how official decisions might affect a lawmaker’s pockets.

5. Increasing New York’s ban on lobbying after government service from two years to five would provide a greater buffer against the risk of lawmakers trading votes for the promise of future employment.

6. The campaign finance commission should signal support for legislation sponsored by Senator Liz Krueger to strengthen the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE).

She has proposed a nine-member commission with five selected by the chief judge of New York and the presiding justices of each of the state’s four appellate divisions, and the remaining four chosen by elected officials. Decisions should be determined by a majority vote.

In addition to overseeing lobbying, the new JCOPE should exercise enforcement power over campaign finance so that the crucial elements of the Albany Arrangement’s pay-to-play culture are monitored by a single entity.

These proposed reforms will diminish the corrosive influence of cash on politics. Transparency and accountability will rise, and the public interest will displace special interests as the most important influence on our lawmakers. The campaign finance commission has a rare opportunity to effect long-lasting improvements to our democracy. They should seize the moment and act boldly.

Chris McNickle is a historian, author, and businessman. On Twitter @NYChrisMcnickle.

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The Year of the Public Defender

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Larry Krasner and Tiffany Cabán (photo: @MonicaCKlein)

“I was a public defender. I didn’t become a prosecutor.”
-former Vice-President Joe Biden, addressing former prosecutor Senator Kamala Harris during a Democratic presidential primary debate, June 27, 2019

Public Defenders are familiar with getting little respect. Law school classmates assume you couldn’t get a real job. Family members ask why you aren’t trying to make money. Acquaintances ask with distress and disgust, “How can you represent criminals?” Court officers sneer at you for representing [derogatory word they use to describe your clients]. Prosecutors treat you as if you are gum stuck to their shoe. Judges kowtow to prosecutors. And the media lionizes prosecutors.

True, too, that many of your clients don’t trust you. After all, your service is free and in the United States we believe that anything free is worth what you paid for it. You are appointed by the same government that prosecutes them. And poor people accused of crime don’t get to pick their lawyer – you are foisted upon them (the court adage is that a poor person is entitled to a lawyer but not to one of his choosing).

Most Public Defenders have heard clients say to them, with all sincerity and heartfelt best wishes, “Maybe in a few years you’ll be able to make it to prosecutor.” Other clients, with less well-meaning intent, let you know they wish they had money for a “real” lawyer because they’d beat the case easy. Public Defenders have been referred to by clients as Public Pretenders and Dump Trucks (i.e., they just want you to plead guilty so they can dump your case).

In addition to an often-bruised ego, being a Public Defender can also be hazardous to your career. For those thinking long-term, being a Public Defender isn’t exactly the key to career advancement. You might think that with all their courtroom experience there are a slew of Public Defenders in the judiciary. Well, starting at the top, the last Supreme Court justice with any criminal defense experience was Thurgood Marshall. On the other hand, there are and have been many former prosecutors appointed and rapidly confirmed to the Supreme Court.

And you don’t have to aim that high judicially to be disappointed, and you don’t have to focus on conservative Presidents. Around 14% of President Obama’s nominees for federal district and appeals court judges had experience working in public defense. Meanwhile, 41% of his nominees had experience working as prosecutors.

It’s the same at the state level. A 2011 study found that 15% of State Supreme Court justices had experience as public defenders, compared to 33% of State Supreme Court justices who had experience as prosecutors.

What about legislative aspirations? How’s this for a campaign slogan – “I’m a Public Defender. Elect me your Senator.” Just listen to the debates for the current Democratic presidential nomination and count how many times one of the two dozen combatants intones, “Well, I used to be a prosecutor.” Think back to Clinton v. Trump and how he lambasted her for having been appointed to represent a man charged with raping a child in 1975. I guess his point was that that made her unfit for office.

Yet now it seems Public Defenders are all the rage. There’s even no need to ask or wonder what kind of a Public Defender the person is/was (even though it is well-known that in addition to the many zealous, committed and brilliant Public Defenders, there are quite a few less than brilliant ones). Just wear your Public Defender badge and you’re good to go. 

So much for those who looked down their noses at you and with barely concealed contempt asked how you felt about getting guilty people off on technicalities (which happens as often as Haley’s Comet makes an appearance). The worm has turned. Public Defenders are trending.

Consider the Public Defender for District Attorney movement. It’s hard to keep up with, every week another Public Defender is off and running to become a District Attorney and prosecute the clients they had just been defending (though in much gentler, kinder and more thoughtful ways). While the movement comes as a shock to most people, I imagine Public Defender clients are in full “I told you so” mode (see supra – “Maybe in a few years you’ll be able to make it to prosecutor”). 

And the Public Defender for District Attorney blitzkrieg is growing as several Public Defenders have pulled off dramatic victories. Now the battle cry is extending beyond mere District Attorney offices as calls abound for Public Defenders to run for judicial office. It might be worth calling a timeout on that one.

While it’s too early to comment on the performances of all the Public Defenders who’ve become prosecutors, there are an awful lot of judges who formerly defended the people they are regularly, and with seeming relish, sending to state prison. 

But with all the ever-growing viral love for Public Defenders, nothing can match the latest shout out. Former Vice President, former United States Senator, former Chair of the Judiciary Committee investigating the claims of Anita Hill against Clarence Thomas, he of all people, in response to a withering attack from Senator Kamala Harris during a nationally televised debate, when she accused him of cozying up to racists and racist policies, he, Joe Biden from Scranton, invoked, of all things, his service as a Public Defender. In fact, he threw it back at Senator Harris by almost sneering that she, on the other, less virtuous side, was a prosecutor.

As a former Public Defender, I had palpitations. I mean maybe there are kids out there in America who instead of reading To Kill a Mockingbird and dreaming of becoming a defender like Atticus Finch, will point to that moment as the day they decided to become a Public Defender. I am not sure if Biden ever really was a Public Defender, or for how long, or how competent, but that doesn’t seem to matter to anyone anyway. Just say you were a Public Defender and you win the day.

Think of it. Are there parents out there tucking their kids in at night saying “Dream big, child. One day you can be a Public Defender and then become President” (or maybe after that debate performance, just Vice President).

The Public Defender movement is undeniably gathering steam. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, herself a former prosecutor, has said that there need to be more judicial nominees with backgrounds as civil rights lawyers or Public Defenders. The aforementioned Senator Kamala Harris is showing respect for Public Defenders she didn’t display when she was District Attorney of San Francisco by proposing what she calls the Equal Defense Act that provides for massively increased funding for Public Defenders. Why maybe she’d appoint a Public Defender to the Supreme Court. 

But let’s not stop the Public Defender juju there. We need more Public Defenders as pundits and commentators. Are you listening MSNBC? Maybe instead of every five minutes saying, “I’d like to turn now to our expert analyst and former prosecutor,” it could become “What does our resident Public Defender have to say?”

Apparently, public defense isn’t a calling or a political stance but rather is a stepping-stone to bigger and better things. I hear there are some races coming up for police commissioner. Isn’t there an opening for a new Head of Customs and Border Protection? Maybe a Public Defender to run Homeland Security? Seize the day Public Defenders. The sky’s the limit.

Steven Zeidman is a professor of law at CUNY School of Law and a former Public Defender. On Twitter @SteveZeidman.

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After Rightly Declaring Climate Crisis, the Next Important Step for the City Council

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Council Member Reynoso (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

It is heartening that the New York City Council recently voted unanimously to declare a state of climate crisis. 2019 has already brought a string of droughts, record-breaking heat waves, crop failures, and storms, and it is obvious that this is the challenge of our lifetimes.

Having declared an emergency, now comes the time for swift additional action. After state and city lawmakers passed mandatory building retrofits, congestion pricing, and statewide emissions reductions, the next major climate bill our local government must pass is the Commercial Waste Zone Bill (Intro. 1574 before the City Council).

What does garbage from New York City’s more than 100,000 businesses have to do with global warming?  

Our office buildings, pizzerias, hospitals, and grocery stores send about 2.2 million tons of waste per year to landfills and incinerators, where it slowly decomposes and produces methane, a climate pollutant 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

When it comes to basic recycling and composting of waste, New York’s business sector lags far behind cities like Seattle and San Francisco, which currently diverts 65% or more of their commercial waste. We simply will not meet our climate goals if we do not tackle our wasteful sanitation industry. 

Second, the 90 or so private companies that collect New York City’s commercial waste exist in a highly dysfunctional “Wild West” system in which they operate inefficient truck routes, cut corners on recycling, and pressure workers to complete dangerous and grueling shifts, as the owners attempt to compete for customers and ensure profits. Exhaustive studies commissioned by the City have found that this scheme results in 18 million unnecessary truck miles per year -- enough to drive to the moon and back 37 times.  

But, less tangibly, it also means that investments in better recycling facilities, customer education, and waste reduction initiatives such as food rescue are a low or nonexistent priority for the city’s private waste industry.

The City Council can enact a common-sense, proven solution to this decades-old mess. The commercial waste zones bill (Intro. 1574) sponsored by Brooklyn Council Member Antonio Reynoso will make this system far more rational and safe by selecting a single, high-performing waste company for each commercial zone.

After selecting 20 or so providers through a competitive bidding process, the City can hold these haulers accountable to high customer service, environmental, and safety standards through comprehensive, enforceable contracts.  

With the right incentives to make investments and adopt industry best practices, the new system can rapidly achieve the same recycling and composting rates as successful west coast cities -- which would prevent a whopping 2 million tons of greenhouse gas pollutants each year by reducing the huge amount of business waste trucked to landfills. That is equivalent to removing one in five cars from New York City streets.

Moreover, we would create hundreds of new, green jobs in and near our city as recycling and composting facilities employ far more workers than do transfer stations, landfills, and incinerators.

Moving the needle on climate emissions is a daunting challenge that will require action in every sector of our economy. The good news is that we don’t need to wait for further studies or new technologies to change our highly polluting private waste system.

Dozens of other cities have adopted similar zoned or franchised commercial waste systems, and many have rapidly increased their recycling rates while maintaining excellent customer service and fair prices for their business communities.

It would be a huge lost opportunity if the fear-mongering by a few well-financed business  interests were to delay the passage of this common-sense, historic reform. We applaud the Council for naming climate change as a crisis, and call on Council members to pass the Commercial Waste Zone bill this summer.

Justin Wood is Director of Organizing and Strategic Research at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. On Twitter @NYLPI.

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The Mayor Must Stop Leaving Summer Camp Providers and Parents Scrambling

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(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

Yasmin Schwartz is the Assistant Division Director for Middle School Programs at Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation (CHLDC), a settlement house in Brooklyn. Starting this week, CHLDC expected to run a School’s Out NYC (SONYC) summer camp five days per week for more than 100 middle school students.

Summer camp activities require careful planning and program directors must hire and vet staff through both New York City and State background checks, register students, and secure appropriate space for programs. However, Yasmin and her team were only able to officially start these lengthy processes on June 21, after the city finally agreed to fund summer camps and the Department of Youth & Community Development was able to announce contracts.

This year, like most, Mayor Bill de Blasio refused to provide funding in his budget plans for summer camp for 34,000 middle school students and summer camp providers had to endure a “budget dance” and wait for the City Council to step in and restore the money at the last minute. Enough is enough – the mayor must permanently fund summer camp for our middle school students, ensuring an end to the uncertainty and more stability for adults and children alike.

Summer camp programs provide safe recreation and education for New York City youth. Research shows that these programs help close the achievement gap, prevent summer learning loss, and keep children safe while parents work. Summer camp provides benefits for thousands of children, but access to programs is particularly important for low-income families, who may be unable to afford the cost of other summer programs.

On top of providing continued learning and stability for working families, summer camp also offers nutritious and reliable meals. In fact, 64 percent of parents of children in summer camps rely on these programs for free, healthy meals for their children.

When the mayor eliminates funding for summer camp, he isn’t just hurting children and their families, he’s doing a disservice to program directors and staff at settlement houses and other community-based organizations across New York City.

Due to Mayor de Blasio eliminating this funding from his budget, program directors like Yasmin are left waiting for budget negotiations to conclude before planning their programs. Summer camp providers must then scramble to organize their programs for middle-schoolers. For Yasmin and her team, last-minute decisions and reduced funding means late planning, fewer summer camp slots, reduced paid staff, and starting programs a week later than CHLDC typically starts camp.

This year, CHLDC was prepared to offer 414 middle school youth spots in its SONYC summer camp programs, but now can only offer 150. Yasmin and her team also had to cut their staff from 40 to 12 and notify some parents in their community that they don’t have room for their children to attend summer camp with CHLDC this summer.

These challenges don’t just impact summer camp, they put unnecessary strain on staff and community relationships that inform year-round programming. Not to mention, in the lead up to the launch of summer camp, program directors, staff, and families had to once again head to City Hall to protest and convince the mayor to do the right thing and fund summer camp programs for middle school students. Without the City Council restoration, summer camp programs for middle-schoolers may not have received funding at all.

It is time for the mayor to make 2019 the last year without baselined funding for summer camp.

Susan Stamler is the executive director of United Neighborhood Houses, a policy and social change organization representing 42 neighborhood settlement houses. On Twitter @UNHNY.

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Connecting Astoria and the Upper East Side: A No-Brainer for NYC Ferry

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(photo: @NYCferry)

Thanks to New York City’s investment in a brand-new citywide ferry network, waterfront communities are flourishing with shorter and smoother commutes and a wave of economic activity.

Serving close to 10 million riders since launching in May 2017, NYC Ferry has almost single-handedly opened the Astoria neighborhood to the rest of New York City, doubling the annual attendance at many of our attractions and cultural institutions like Socrates Sculpture Park and the Welling Court Mural Project, providing Queens residents with reliable and efficient ferry service across the City’s waterways.

One of the most attractive aspects of a ferry service, unlike other large transportation infrastructure projects, is its ability to be nimble. The routes can be adjusted to accommodate a changing workforce and development landscape. The more connections, the better, as access to transit options improves overall quality of life, which is why we hope the city will throw a ferry life line directly from Astoria to the Upper East Side.

A distance equivalent to three, short city blocks lies between the Astoria landing in Halletts Cove and the East 90th Street landing across the East River on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, but currently no direct NYC Ferry connection exists. Both sides of the river have advocated for a ferry connection, which is an easy fix, as the infrastructure exists at both landings.

This has been brought to the attention of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC), which is not planning to consider new, additional routes until 2021. However, this isn’t a new route. It’s merely a new logical and necessary connection.

EDC should recognize that with a simple green light, millions of New Yorkers will have a less than five-minute connection between Astoria and the Upper East Side, saving in excess of a 45-minute headache-inducing, subway-plus-bus commute. The connection would reduce the number of cars sitting in traffic on local streets, as well as enable easy access to the heralded Second Avenue Subway, allowing businesses to prosper, and spur additional growth.

Connecting the two sides of the river would bring about cultural and employment benefits, including easier access to work opportunities, particularly at the East Side hospitals and educational institutions, and will enhance recreational opportunities for people throughout the boroughs. A connection to the Upper East Side would also be welcomed with fanfare from the locals of Roosevelt Island and the growing tech community at Cornell.

We urge the City to approve the connection so New Yorkers can hop on board and enjoy smooth sailing, short commutes, and maximize the benefits for our residents and communities. It only makes sense to bridge the boroughs, which will quicken travel time and lessen traffic, leading to a happier and healthier New York City.

Tom Grech, President & Chief Executive Officer, Queens Chamber of Commerce. On Twitter @tomgrech.

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Paying New York City’s Debt to Taxi Drivers

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(photo: @NYTWA)

When financial bubbles burst, it’s almost always regular people whose lives are ruined. The fraudsters and scammers often avoid serious consequences. So it was with America’s mortgage crisis in 2008. And so it has been with New York City’s own home-grown mortgage meltdown: the collapse of yellow taxi medallion values since 2014, which has had a devastating impact on the lives of thousands of yellow taxi drivers.

New York City only allows a fixed number of the iconic yellow taxis on its streets--creating over the decades a consistent, recession-proof source of income for drivers. The medallion that taxis are required to affix to their hoods was an asset that commanded a steady, solid price. For countless immigrants, owning a medallion meant that the grueling work of a taxi driver could offer a path to the middle class.

Then in the early 2000s medallion prices began rising from their historically stable value of about $200,000, to a dizzying peak of over $1 million by 2014.

The medallion bubble was pumped up in part by the same forces that caused the housing mortgage crisis. Industry lenders and brokers exploited vulnerable borrowers. And thousands of owner-drivers ended up with monthly mortgage payments of as much as $4,500, an oppressive sum for workers whose earnings from fares and tips, after expenses, may only amount to $5,000 per month.

Then, in 2014, the bottom fell out. The value of medallions plummeted in the past five years, losing 80 percent off their peak. Drivers and their families who invested their life savings to purchase this asset now face financial ruin. For some the pressure has been unbearable. At least three yellow taxi drivers burdened by debt have taken their own lives.

There is no shortage of parties to blame for this debacle: overly aggressive lenders, lax financial regulators, shady loan brokers.

And then there’s New York City government -- which directly contributed to this crisis.

In 2004 the City began auctioning off new medallions to plug budget gaps. This gave the very people overseeing the industry an interest in pumping up valuations. And that’s exactly what they did.

Ads run by the City called the investments “better than the stock market,” implying medallion values would continue to rise. The City agency that regulates the taxi industry failed to act in the midst of glaring signs of financially questionable transactions and price collusion among major players. 

And the City didn’t just pump up the bubble, it also inadvertently expedited its bursting, by failing to manage the explosive growth of Uber and Lyft, which flooded the streets with upwards of 80,000 new vehicles, and used their rich valuations to undercut the regulated taxi fares.

Along the way, the City made hundreds of millions of dollars in sales at medallion auctions, including a round as late as 2014 when it set the minimum medallion bid price at a staggering $850,000, despite the fact that it was already clear by then that these assets were poised to decline.

The City profited handsomely from the medallion bubble. Now we owe a moral debt to the thousands of New Yorkers whose lives have been ruined.

The City needs to consider dramatic plans for securing loan forgiveness for owner-drivers, so that medallion mortgage payments are capped at reasonable levels -- and no driver is ever again forced to live on $500 per month after expenses.

We need to create a retirement fund for drivers as well, so those struggling with medallion payments no longer need to keep driving into their 60s, 70s, and even 80s just to make payments. The hard-working drivers who have kept our city moving for decades deserve to be able to retire with dignity.

And we should do something impactful now that would help bring immediate relief: hire an attorney for each and every one of the driver-owners with underwater mortgages.

At present the vast majority of drivers going through foreclosure proceedings are doing so without representation by an attorney, putting them at a severe disadvantage. Likewise, most have no attorney to support them in the complicated process of mortgage renegotiation. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance has provided legal support to hundreds -- but there are thousands more still in need of help. We need a robust investment by the City to close this gap. Any cost for a legal assistance program will be miniscule relative to the $850 million windfall the City reaped from the sale of medallions during the bubble years.

Lenders will have to be pressured to sit down in good faith with drivers and their representatives. The City should not be afraid to publicly call out any banks, credit unions, and hedge funds that refuse to adjust loan terms. As was the case in the housing mortgage scandal, lenders are not immune to public shaming. Statements from federal and state regulators voicing support for renegotiation of the loans would also be extremely helpful.

One thing is clear: the City helped create the medallion crisis, and we have an obligation to help fix it.

We cannot undo the damage done to thousands of lives -- some of which have already been lost -- by this scandal. But we as a city can at least do everything in our power to ensure that, for once, regular people are not abandoned while the wealthy and powerful skate away unscathed.

City Council Member Mark Levine represents parts of Manhattan and Bhairavi Desai is the President of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. On Twitter @MarkLevineNYC & @NYTWA.

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Dominating Harvard, and Redemption

bard prison initiative

(photo: @BPIBard)

One of the oldest and highest-regarded debating teams in the world just got beat by a team of incarcerated New Yorkers. But we shouldn’t be surprised; they’ve done it before. In addition to this most recent match with Cambridge, the Bard Prison Initiative debate team’s 9-2 record includes wins against Harvard, Morehouse, and the University of Pennsylvania.

For 20 years, BPI has been championing the talents and potential of underestimated students, and debate, it turns out, is just one of the things our fellow New Yorkers are really good at.

For too long, we have held low expectations for whole groups of our neighbors: confining people to extended periods of incarceration; inadequately supporting their personal, educational, and professional growth; and then expecting them to return home and somehow overcome all of the barriers put in their way.

As we reevaluate how criminal justice should work in New York City, BPI and its alumni are a powerful example of what’s possible when we invest in incarcerated women and men and support them as they return home as our neighbors, colleagues, and friends.

For 20 years, BPI has operated an ambitious college, now in six New York state prisons. Close individual attention and a vibrant academic community – the same experience students get at leading colleges – propel BPI students into ambitious academic work and, when they come home to New York City, into meaningful professional careers.

A new documentary film, College Behind Bars, produced by Ken Burns, will provide an unprecedented perspective of their stories when it airs nationally on PBS later this year. 

College in prison and support for alumni returning home helps formerly incarcerated people rebuild lives, and it also saves taxpayers money. The RAND Corporation estimates that every dollar spent on education for incarcerated students saves four to five dollars because those students return to prison at much lower rates.

BPI alumni are a model of that: more than 95% of them stay out of prison, in comparison to just 58% of formerly incarcerated New Yorkers more broadly. BPI alumni do much more than stay out of prison: they become our treasured neighbors and colleagues. You’ve probably worked with, lived next to, or passed one of these alums on the street today. 

BPI alumni are having a profound impact across the New York City landscape, changing the face of philanthropy, public health, community service, business, and technology. They work at a diverse array of organizations including the Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundation, Harlem United, Bronx Defenders, the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, the Center for Court Innovation, the New York City Department of Health, Hugo Neu Corporation, L&M Development – the list goes on. 

It’s not just incarcerated and formerly incarcerated New Yorkers who benefit from this type of investment in education and professional development. At the Brooklyn Public Library, an extraordinary new college was launched last year. BPL partnered with the Bard Prison Initiative to launch the Bard Microcollege at Brooklyn Public Library, bringing a tuition-free liberal arts college to a group of New Yorkers ages 19-66 ready for the challenge, but without the resume or resources of the typical student at an elite college.

When students finish their AA degrees, they’ll get support transferring into bachelor’s degree programs at leading colleges and universities, for which they will be well prepared.

When we invest deeply in the education of underestimated New Yorkers – in prisons and in communities – we create a generation of powerful leaders who represent the actual diversity of New York. That impact makes our city better. 

A proven pathway to higher education exists, and New York City is better for it. 

City Council Member Justin Brannan represents parts of Brooklyn. On Twitter @JustinBrannan.

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Public Defenders are Exactly Who We Should Be Electing as District Attorneys

caban district attorney public defenders

(photo: @CabanForQueens)

Imagine this: you're a 50-year-old black man working as an assistant manager at a Gristedes in lower Manhattan, where you've worked for the past 25 years. It’s a typical evening: you close up the store and prepare for your long journey home to Harlem with a couple bags of groceries you bought for your family.

Once aboard an uncrowded A train, you set your groceries down next to you on one of many empty seats. At the 125th street stop, two uniformed NYPD officers board the train. They spot you, grab your groceries, dump them onto the floor, and place you in handcuffs. They proceed to take you to jail where you spend the night for the crime of "occupying multiple seats on a transit facility."

Many often characterize our criminal justice system as “broken.” The system is not broken — rather, it functions exactly as designed.

It is a well-oiled machine that fails to indict the likes of NYPD Officer Daniel Panteleo, who choked Eric Garner to death over cries of “I can’t breathe.” Yet it sends another man to prison for giving a single Xanax to an undercover officer who feigned withdrawal. These are not malfunctions or misfires, they are successes for a racist institution. Prosecuting, incarcerating, and disenfranchising people of color leads to perpetuating racial oppression, which is and always has been the purpose.

According to the NAACP, though African-Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32% of the U.S. population, they comprised 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015. If African-Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%.

District Attorneys prosecute poor people of color for jumping a turnstile or walking through an exit gate, possessing a minor amount of marijuana, ‘obstructing’ a park bench, or occupying two seats on an empty subway car.

For the past decade as a public defender in Manhattan, I've seen firsthand the oppressive system at work. I’ve watched as police officers have justified under oath unconstitutional stops and arrests, viewed video recordings of coercive interrogations, and seen line-ups that were fraught with inherent racism. District Attorneys utilize coercive plea bargaining, withholding of evidence, and trial processes that favor disproportionate sentencing over fairness, rehabilitation, and respect for a person’s humanity.

The system subjugates and criminalizes the very existence of black and brown people, attacks the trans community, remains disproportionately lenient on those who abuse their power over citizens, and regularly disenfranchises society’s most vulnerable populations. "Broken" is a mischaracterization that ignores the deliberate mechanisms that create countless inequities.

Sweeping reform needs to occur to ensure that the system really works.

Manhattan—with all our privilege, status, and wealth—ought to set an unparalleled example and eliminate every type of discrimination in our criminal justice system. However, we have already fallen behind Philadelphia, Boston, St. Louis, and now Queens, with the likely election of Tiffany Cabán as the next District Attorney there. The grassroots forces that propelled Cabán to victory must come to Manhattan next.

The time for an equitable justice system in Manhattan is long overdue. Now is the moment for the borough to catch up and completely reimagine the justice system. To fight recidivism, crime, and assure real justice, we need to rebuild the system from the inside out.

A public defender, like Tiffany Cabán, is the only one in the courtroom who intimately grasps the trauma and indignities of what our system does to people of color and others who lack the means to hire private attorneys. Public defenders on the front lines have always known that our system is racist and classist. Presently we have two systems of justice, one for the wealthy, and one for the poor.

Right now, by electing public defenders as District Attorneys, we are finally seeing a movement to make sweeping changes, and we may have a chance to create a justice system that truly works.

Eliza Orlins is a public defender in Manhattan. On Twitter @eorlins.

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