Democratic Mayoral Hopefuls Pitch Higher Manhattan Membership

City Hall (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor’s Office)

Nine Demcocratic candidates for mayor of New York City appeared one-by-one Thursday night at an online forum hosted by the Uptown Community Democrats. The moderator of the forum was Kyle Ishmael, a club leader who also serves as both Executive Director of the Manhattan Democratic Party and Executive Director of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus.

The nine participants — part of an even larger field trying to succeed term-limited Mayor Bill de Blasio by first winning the June primary — were Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, former federal housing secretary Shaun Donovan, former city sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia, former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire, former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, city Comptroller Scott Stringer, former city veterans services commissioner Loree Sutton, former counsel to the mayor Maya Wiley, and Brooklyn City Council Member Carlos Menchaca.

It was the latest in a series of local and issue-focused candidate forums that began last year and the pace of which will likely accelerate as the primary approaches.

Each candidate appeared for about 15 minutes, with time allotted for an initial pitch, five standardized questions from Ishmael, three questions from the audience (entered into a virtual chat), and closing remarks. The five standard questions dealt with how candidates would return trust and respect to the government, what issues they would commit to completely resolving in their tenure, their thoughts on the state Hecht-Calandra Act and other education issues, if the New York Police Department’s budget should be reduced, and if New York City should be “a more progressive city.”

Maya Wiley
First to appear at the forum Wiley pitched herself as an “unapologetic progressive” and said she’s running because she saw the government being a “treadmill of incrementalism rather than beating a path to transformation.”

Wiley, former counsel to Mayor de Blasio and chair of the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board with oversight of some police discipline investigations, among other roles, said some societal issues most important to her campaign are fighting street homelessness, improving public safety through community input and investment, and expanding access to health care.

In her allotted sixty seconds to describe her top priorities, Wiley called the shelter system ineffective, and said the city must prioritize placing homeless people in homes. Wiley also said she wanted to improve public safety by targeting gun violence and making sure “it’s easier to get a job than a gun.”

Regarding health care, Wiley noted that hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers lacked health insurance prior to the pandemic, and she would provide support to health clinics and independent hospitals.

A former co-chair of the New York City School Diversity Advisory Group, assembled by de Blasio and the city schools chancellor, Wiley said she stands by the sweeping recommendations the group made but the de Blasio administration has given limited attention to.

When asked, she expressed support for state repeal of the Hecht-Calandra Act, which would return the power of admissions to the city’s top specialized high schools to the city, though she did not outline a plan for changing admissions at those schools, which admit very low percentages of Black and Hispanic students. She said schools “should reflect our population and how we look” and advocated for student support teams in every school and furthering resources across the board.

Wiley said the budget of the NYPD “absolutely should be reduced,” moving some of its funding to other departments and services. She cited the gun violence reduction platform she has released, and mentioned it includes a participatory justice fund, where communities most impacted by gun violence can specify “the kinds of social and emotional trauma informed supports they need.”

While Wiley praised de Blasio’s universal pre-kindergarten program, she criticized him for the lack of transparency regarding opening and closing public schools during the pandemic. And she advocated for more transparency across the board, saying that “without consultation, people feel like decisions are made without any explanation or clarity or they’re not made at all,” and that the solution was “being straight up, honest, telling it like it is.”

When asked if New York City should be a more progressive city, Wiley said “progressivism is government seeing its people as its greatest resource and asset,” and said solving issues like crumbling public housing would benefit the city as a whole.

Loree Sutton
Sutton, a self-described “moderate liberal,” served for over 20 years in the U.S. military and was most recently the founding commissioner of the city’s Department of Veterans’ Services, appointed to the position by de Blasio.

A psychiatrist, Sutton said her top priorities revolve around determinants of health, citing housing conditions as “unacceptable, unconscious,” nutritious food as not widely available, and inequities in access to transportation across the city.

While Sutton said she supports repealing Hecht-Calandra, she sees it as “[bringing] control over who gets admitted to which school” back to the city. However, she explicitly noted that she’s “not going to get involved in what I see as false choices between charter schools versus conventional public schools, or the specialized high schools versus other types of experiences.”

Despite that, Sutton said there should be more specialized schools, particularly in the Bronx and Queens, and there should be expansion of gifted and talented programs in underserved communities. She advocated for partnership between public schools and the private sector, including “adopt-a-school” programs, and said she wanted to see schools open year-round and become “[some]where parents and kids and teachers and community civic leaders can all come together.”

Sutton said she has “been adamantly opposed to the movement to defund the NYPD,” but added that in talking to senior leadership, both active and retired, “they know that there needs to be reforms.” She doesn’t see it as a budget issue, advocating instead for police teams to be trained and incorporating social workers.

Sutton also said she was willing to work with members of the community regarding rezoning in Inwood, but did not express a position on the rezoning. She supported investing in the arts, and suggested she would try to incentivize landlords so that creators had “space to be able to do their craft and their art.” Sutton would also fund efforts to reduce and eliminate homelessness, she said, including peer based coordinators, a hotline for landlords, and would additionally look to address the mental health side of homelessness.

When asked about progressivism, Sutton said she’s “not big on political labels,” but highlighted that she was excluded from an earlier forum for being “too conservative because I stood up for public safety in the face of what was going on following the George Floyd murder,” when she had called for protestors to get city permits. She said her political beliefs meant she “values community over everything,” specifically mentioning the private sector, nurses, police officers and teachers as key stakeholders.

Shaun Donovan
A former Obama cabinet official as housing secretary and as budget director, and housing commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Donovan said he wants to be mayor as a native New Yorker and lifelong public servant. As he often does, he repeatedly stressed his ties to Obama, as well as other national figures, including incoming President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Donovan said he was committed to creating “15-minute neighborhoods” for every New Yorker, which would guarantee that “within 15 minutes of your front door, you have access to a great school, good transportation to get you to a job, fresh food, a park.”

Donovan pledged to make sure every New York City high school student has a paid internship before graduation, and all students have the option of attending a CUNY school after high school or are able to find employment. He also expressed support for repeal of Hecht-Calandra, but he is not in favor of scrapping the SHSAT exam, instead seeking to broaden the admissions metrics for the specialized high schools. He said admissions screens for middle schools should be eliminated, and those for high schools should be reduced., and that it is important to increase diversity in student teachers.

Citing his experience leading the Obama administration’s strategy that eradicated military veteran homelessness in more than 80 cities and states, Donovan said he would commit to not only ending veteran homelessness, but ending street homelessness in the city within eight years. He would also follow through on the plan to close the Rikers Island jails, he said.

Pointing to his experience in Obama’s 21st Century Policing Task Force, Donovan said the NYPD budget should be reduced, though he didn’t specify an amount, and added, “we need to reimagine policing and criminal justice” by investing in “community-oriented solutions.”

And again citing his past experience, Donovan said he believed he was “the most progressive candidate in this race because I’ve actually gotten big progressive things done in this city and across the country.”

He also said he was against the tax cuts passed under President Trump and Republican Congress, and added that “we need to ask more from those who have the most” when asked about taxing the wealthy.

Eric Adams
Adams opened discussing his philosophy about turning around what he describes as dysfunctional government, saying that “instead of going upstream and giving families and children the support they need, we feed our crises.”

“The first classroom is in a mother’s womb,” Adams said when discussing his top priorities, touching especially on education and health care. He said children need nutritious food and access to high-quality education from as early as possible and pledged to focus on maternal care.

When it comes to Hecht-Calandra, he said, “I’m not running for state office, I’m running for citywide office. Let [the state] address that problem.” Adams said his focus was on prevention, upstream work, and “focusing on the 90 percent of students [that] are not receiving a quality education.” Adams has taken a position to eliminate the SHSAT admissions exam and then reversed his position. He now appears interested in avoiding the topic of specialized high schools admissions.

Adams, a former NYPD officer who rose to the rank of captain before retiring and running for elected office, supports reducing the NYPD budget, but stressed it “should be no reduction that will impact on public safety.” He said policing is currently too reactive and not proactive, and as mayor he would change that. Adams suggested reallocating some of the $400 million spent on officer overtime and using it to fund civilian work instead. He said there is “no reason an officer has to go to a vehicle accident or past crime. A civilian can do that.”

Adams said there should be higher taxes on top earners, which he defined as those earning $5 million or more per year.

He also wants to increase governmental efficiency by clarifying the missions of each agency and making sure no agency is carrying out tasks that are in conflict with the mission of another.

Adams also stressed his background, as a CUNY graduate and former police officer. “We have not had a blue collar mayor in this city over 70 years,” he said. “It’s time we have a mayor that has gone through a lot, so he can help people who are going through a lot.”

Ray McGuire
McGuire, a former Citigroup executive who left his job to run for mayor and bundler to Obama’s presidential campaigns, pitched himself both as a candidate who comes from the underprivileged class, that he knows “what it’s like to watch the tinfoil,” and who has risen to success that shows he has the skills to manage the city and the relationships to make big things happen for New Yorkers.

McGuire said his priorities revolved around the economy, safety, and education. His economic plan is “going big and going small.” He said he would make sure projects like Amazon and Industry City go through so those jobs and revenue can bolster the local economy. The “small” part of the plan is investing in and incentivizing small businesses — the city needs “to give them a lifeline,” he said. He did not provide details on either side of the equation.

When asked about Hecht-Calandra, McGuire pitched his “cradle to career” education vision but did not directly discuss the law or specialized high schools admissions. He said he would implement a tutor core so that every child would be able to read at grade level by the third grade. After he’d met that standard, McGuire said he planned to start exposing students as young as in the sixth grade to different opportunities such that by the time they graduated high school they could get employed. He added that he wants “to bring the private sector into this.”

Regarding the NYPD budget, McGuire said he’s against defunding the NYPD but for reallocating some of the budget and for reforming and restructuring aspects of the department. He supports funding mental health officials to go into communities, returning to community policing initiatives, and an overall push to get guns off the streets, he said, though he offered few details for how he would accomplish that latter goal.

McGuire also said focusing on precursors to violence is important, and that “some tough things are taking place because of tough circumstances.” By using his education initiatives and making sure students have opportunities during school and post-graduation, he said, it would address some stem issues of citywide violence.

When asked about Inwood zoning, McGuire said he believed those issues were being resolved in court. However, he added that the city’s land use review process needs to be reevaluated, and said he would advocate for more community involvement in the zoning process.

Scott Stringer
Stringer painted himself as someone with “vision and experience in government and politics” ready to lead the city after the devastation of the pandemic.

Stringer said his main priority is addressing affordability across the city. He said he would create a land bank and a land trust and would give community organizations the opportunity to build housing for low-income people. He reiterated his key policy plank that he will work to require all new development to set aside 25% of units for affordable housing.

Stringer also pointed to his record as having voted against weakening rent laws twice as state Assembly member, and called de Blasio’s housing plan “a failure,” saying it “basically built unaffordable affordable housing…we did it in the name of building luxury development, and look where it’s gotten us: more homelessness, no real ability to create housing with supportive services.”

Stringer supports the repeal of Hecht-Calandra, and said “we just have a broken admission process” for specialized high schools, but he did not offer a plan for what admissions should look like. He said the city has an obligation “to make sure that every kid accesses schools so everyone has a fair chance to make it.”

He said the city “can and we should ship responsibilities and dollars away from the NYPD towards vulnerable communities most impacted by police violence and structural racism.” He cited his record as being the first elected official to put forth a detailed proposal to reduce the police budget by $1 billion. Stringer said he would look to fund mental health professionals to work with quality of life or mental illness concerns — calls about which he said comprise 40% of 911 calls.

Stringer also opposes the Inwood rezoning “because it makes no sense to price out the people who built up Washington Heights and Inwood.”

When asked about progressivism, Stringer said a progressive city or government “is simply helping people.” He added that being progressive meant taking real action “because talk is cheap in a pandemic,” and said he had the skills to attract diverse leadership to the city.

Dianne Morales
Like Wiley, Morales stressed her background of not having come from public office, and that her “candidacy is 100% rooted in a grassroots, people-powered movement.”

Morales said her priorities lay in defunding the police and housing. She said she’d reallocate funds from the NYPD, replacing cops in school with social services, mental health counselling, and educational enrichment. Other uses of those funds would be investing in local small businesses and job training for young people, she said.

Morales calls for housing for all, stating she believes you cannot separate issues of public safety and public health from everyone having access to housing.

A graduate of Stuyvesant High School, Morales said she not only supports the repeal of Hecht-Calandra, but she wants the removal of all admissions screens from schools so students could have equal access. She added that she wants to redraw districts to encourage school integration.

Morales says she wants to overhaul how education is structured, creating a new curriculum that centers three core areas: digital literacy, financial literacy, and civic and democratic literacy.

She also said she wants to change how land use decisions are made to put community members at the forefront and she re-committed to the creation of a public bank, stating it is “a critical pillar” in keeping and growing the local economy.

When asked about progressivism, Morales said “we need to move towards a whole new model of leading this city.” She said that entails “a radical reimagining and transformation of the way things have operated.”

Kathryn Garcia
Garcia opened by noting she’s a lifelong New Yorker and her vision of a city where “every family can do what my family did, which is raise a family, be able to take care of them, be able to send them to college.”

Garcia said her priorities would be a strong recovery, economic mobility, and fighting the climate crisis. She said she would look to create connections between public education and the private sector to provide employment opportunities to students. She said her climate priorities “in all honesty won’t be solved in two terms,” but progress needs to happen, like moving towards clean energy.

She supports expanding bike lanes and making sure that there is rapid mobility for buses, including further utilizing technology that allows traffic lights to turn green when buses approach. Garcia said she prefers dual-stream recycling in the city, in part because it saves money.

Garcia supports repeal of Hecht-Calandra, and suggested implementing the “Texas model,” where a certain percentage of top-performing students at every middle school is offered seats at specialized high schools. But she said she would still look to invest in early literacy, and like McGuire, make sure every student can read at grade level by the third grade.

Regarding the NYPD, she said the department needs to raise the minimum age of recruits to 25, that new recruits should be mandated to live in the city, and that officers need to be held “rigidly accountable.”

Carlos Menchaca
Menchaca said he has the kind of energy and “fresh approach” the mayor’s office needs.

He said his priorities include making sure everyone can get vaccinated against COVID-19 as well as public safety. He pointed to his current work in the City Council in engaging with hard-to-reach communities such as immigrants, public housing residents, and undocumented workers. He said he would make sure language barriers are overcome in the vaccination process.

Menchaca said he is the leading member in the defunding police movement inside the Council, and suggested a $3 billion budget cut to the NYPD, which would halve the department’s annual operating budget. Those funds would be reallocated to housing, food, and vaccination projects he said.

He said he supports repealing Hecht-Calandra. While he did not outline a plan for reforming the specialized high schools admissions process in the allotted minute answer, Menchaca said he would look to work he took part in in District 15, where schools removed screens from the admissions process in middle schools and saw greater integration. Menchaca said he would also prioritize increasing resources at all high schools.

He repeatedly pointed to the areas he currently represents, Sunset Park and Red Hook, as a “very high need immigrant, public housing community that has learned how to get responses from city agencies,” and that experience would serve him well as mayor.

When asked, Menchaca said he feels most politically aligned with opponent Morales, saying they both prescribe to “rethinking how we understand our government and its connection to our communities and our neighbors.” The question was prompted by the fact that New York City is about to implement a new ranked-choice voting system for special and primary elections.