The Jewish Week asked the top candidates in June’s Democratic primary for New York City mayor where they stood on a range of issues. Find the other candidates’ responses here.
Kathryn Garcia, who grew up and still lives in Park Slope, was appointed as the 43rd Sanitation Commissioner for New York City in 2014 by Mayor Bill de Blasio, and served as “COVID-19 emergency food czar” to the five boroughs at the start of the pandemic — stepping down to run for mayor. Previously, she served as Interim Chair and CEO of the New York City Housing Authority.
After a year in which concerns about anti-Semitic hate crimes rose, we are now seeing increasing reports of attacks against Asian Americans. How would you prevent and punish hate crimes, and how would you balance calls for solutions from law enforcement with those that seek less police involvement and more education and community outreach?
First, we need anyone in leadership to strongly denounce all forms of hate — whether it be Anti-Asian or antisemitism, or anything else. Leadership matters, and we must have a strong united front against racism and bias. As mayor, I will always speak up and call a spade a spade, and hire leaders that are both representative of the communities and serve and share my unwavering commitment to being an inclusive and equitable city for all New Yorkers.
Next, hate crimes must be punished to the fullest extent. However, in order to prevent and punish hate crimes, we need to have reliable data. I am very concerned about hate crimes that go unreported — we need to make sure that victims feel empowered to come forward, and that we are using trusted community leaders to get the message out about reporting.
Hate crimes were a problem before the pandemic. I believe hate is taught, which means that in order to truly prevent it, we must do a better job within schools to have culturally competent curriculums that teach the history of our diverse communities, and tell the stories of the immigrant groups that helped build our city and our country. Within city government, I would streamline the work that exists across numerous agencies and offices to make combating hate crimes more effective. Under the current administration, combating hate crimes falls under several groups: the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Task Force, the City Commission on Human Rights, the Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes (under the Mayor’s Office for Criminal Justice), as well as various education programs within the DOE.
This summer, the relocation of homeless men to hotels on the Upper West Side became a topic of debate within the Jewish community living there. Some supported the move as a gesture of compassion and a necessary solution to a housing crisis, and others objected that it had been done without sufficient community input and it presented a danger to the area’s permanent residents. How do you intend to address the plight of those sleeping unsheltered on the streets and in the subways, along with the safety and quality of life concerns of the city’s residents and business owners?
First and foremost, we need housing that heals. That means moving away from shelter strategy and to a housing strategy. We spend ~$3 billion annually on homeless shelters and services that fail to adequately serve NYC neighborhoods and families. Of that $400 million goes to rent hotel rooms that are temporary and don’t provide necessary support. Instead, we should use that same funding to build 10,000 units of supportive housing to provide permanent shelter, services and support for people experiencing street homelessness and those most at risk — including buying empty or underused private properties for conversion.
In the short term, housing those experiencing homelessness in hotels has reduced overcrowding and slowed the spread of COVID among the city’s homeless population — a life-saving intervention. However, this policy does nothing to solve the underlying problem of the city’s housing shortage and lack of deeply affordable housing.
At the height of the Covid crisis, some sectors of the city’s haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community were seen to be flouting safety guidelines. At the same time, leaders of the community felt singled out by the mayor, health department and law enforcement for public censure and fines. What lessons in governance did you draw from this issue?
The goal of any of these policies is to protect our communities, but they can’t be successful without community input and buy-in. First, the governor and the mayor should have worked with trusted community leaders to develop and communicate the policies. Second, we should have done everything possible to allow people to practice their faith while making it safe- even if it means getting creative with outdoor tents, for example.
Jewish students have historically been disproportionately represented in the city’s specialized high schools, and Jewish alumni of these schools are justifiably proud of the education they received and excellence they represent. At the same time, the number of Black and Hispanic students has been vanishingly low and has plummeted in recent years. How would you increase diversity in the city’s specialized schools? Would you eliminate the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test?
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We need structural change that will desegregate and incentivize better educational outcomes at every single school in the city, so that families feel confident that the closest school to their home will provide a quality education for their child. Fixating on the SHSAT pits parents against one another unnecessarily; I would leave the SHSAT as is, and build new additional seats for the top 10% of the class at every middle school. At the high school level, we also need to reward schools that demonstrate progress with students entering at lower proficiency levels and ensure students at all high schools have access to rigorous and specialized courses taught by teachers that are strongest at online learning — one of the benefits of virtual learning that we can carry forward. The limited number of seats in gifted and talented programs creates a perception of “scarcity” for a good public school education–which must be available to all children. Instead, identifying students for advanced learning opportunities should be ongoing and context specific. Finally, we have 140 NYC schools with more than 20% homeless students; we need to provide more support and resources for these schools.
The Covid crisis caused many New Yorkers to question their commitment to city life, and to consider relocating to the suburbs or other parts of the country. What’s your best case for convincing Jewish New Yorkers to stay or come back, and what specific policies will you pursue to keep them or welcome them back home?
It’s been an unprecedented and challenging year — we’ve seen countless lives lost, plans uprooted, experiences and special events missed, and inequities exacerbated. There’s no question recovery will be tough, but it’s also something to look forward to. Recovery means kicking our vaccination efforts into high gear, sending our students back to school with the support they, their parents, and their teachers need, reopening and supporting our small businesses, revitalizing our arts and cultural institutions, and reminding the world why New York is the best city in the world, and why everyone else wishes they were New Yorkers. There is so much potential in this city, and as mayor, I will be so excited to work together to unlock it with you as we move toward a swift, strong recovery.
From whom do you seek advice on Jewish communal affairs? Who on your staff serves as a liaison to the Jewish community?
As a public servant for 14 years that has served New Yorkers, I’m very lucky to have worked closely with many advisors on Jewish communal affairs that I continue to call on today, including those who practice the Jewish faith and who are secular. My administration will have liaisons to the city’s Jewish communities.