Exit Interview: David Greenfield Reflects on His Eight Years in City Council

 

by Yochonon Donn

Ever since his come-from-behind victory in a special election in 2010, David Greenfield has been a master at local politics in his Boro Park and Midwood council district. Since the beginning of the month, Mr. Greenfield formally assumed the role of CEO of the Met Council on Jewish Poverty, the city’s largest Jewish charity organization. But it’s not that different from representing a district of 175,000 constituents in government and helping 100,000 people in the private sector, Mr. Greenfield told Hamodia’s editorial board in an exit interview last week.

How did you spend the first snow day that you didn’t have to run around making sure the district gets resources?

My first snow day? On the one hand it was a relief, because snow days are always really stressful days for an elected official. Really it goes back to when we had our big blizzard when Michael Bloomberg was the mayor. If you recall, our streets literally were not plowed.

I’ll never forget that when I held a press conference, the deputy mayor, Howard Wolfson, was out of town, and as soon as he landed he called me back and said, “What is this? How dare you?” I said, “Listen, do me a favor. On your way home, stop through Brooklyn and you’ll see for yourself.” He said, “OK, I’m going to do that.” He drove his SUV through Brooklyn and then he called me up and he said, “I’m sorry, you’re right,” because the streets were really at an unacceptable level.

The two lessons I learned from that were, first of all, we need more snow equipment. So the next year I went out and I bought a dedicated piece of snow cleaning equipment for Community Board 12. We literally have one piece of equipment that sits there all year long just to clean the streets, which is still in use, which is something I think is significant, especially on the smaller streets.

The second thing is that before every storm you have to go out and see for yourself who is at the garage. Who is there, what are they doing, and are they really doing what they’re supposed to be doing? Also, have a direct line to every agency while the storm is happening: the Sanitation Department, OEM, Department of Transportation — you really need to interact with all of them.

So it was certainly a relief in the sense that this is not my job anymore. At the same time, I must have spoken with Kalman [Yeger] 10 times on that day to make sure that his first big challenge was going to go smoothly. Which I will say, he got through it with flying colors.

My real world issue was that it was day three of my job as a CEO of the Met Council, which of course is the largest Jewish charity in New York, and I had to make a decision. On a 5:30 a.m. conference call, I had to decide whether we were going to keep the Met Council open or not. And so, in a similar vein, based on the idea that the Met Council services hundreds of thousands of people who have critical services, and their needs, I believe, actually become more acute on days when there are extreme temperatures and extreme cold, we decided to keep the office open.

The short answer is that it was still a very stressful day, but it was a different kind of stress dealing with the issues of running a large tzedakah and the staff and 100,000 people in need of services, as opposed to being on-site and literally driving through the streets of Boro Park and Flatbush and making sure that the streets were clean. Kalman did that, and I think he did it very well.

You mentioned the press conference before. I remember at the time thinking that it was a shock, because Michael Bloomberg had just endorsed you. And with the current mayor as well, you’ve had your independent way. How did you feel about going off independently right away?

My allegiance was always to my constituents; the people who elected me are the ones that I have to look out for. It’s very easy, and I think one of the reasons why people in general hate Congress is because I think the pitfall of what happens is that you go down to D.C., you don’t see your constituents. You live with your family in Washington, D.C. You visit maybe once a week — or maybe even once a month, depending on how far you are — and you sort of forget where you came from.

And then you get so wrapped up — between the lobbyists and the special interests and the fancy dinners — that you forget the folks from Oklahoma sent you there to take care of their needs.

The advantage (and this is the reason I actually — with due respect to my friends who are Congress members and Assembly members and senators — think being council member is the best job) is that you get to sleep at home every night. You’re seeing your family, even if it’s for a few minutes in the morning. You’re shopping at your local stores. You interact with people. You’re not getting sucked into the fancy dinners and the infrastructures. So you’re getting that constant feedback.

So for me, my master, shall we say, was always the constituents who elected me. And I think it’s easy to forget that when you’re outside of your home area. And if I have to choose between promoting my career or promoting my relationships with particular elected officials or helping the people — 175,000 people whom I represent — it was an easy decision for me. So that’s my view.

I tend to think it worked out well. One thing I found in politics is people respect consistency. I had an incident in Ramallah where I was at the equivalent of the Consulate for the United States government. The security guards for the consulate and the organizers told me: You have to take your yarmulke off when you walk out of the consulate (which is right next door to the Palestinian National Guard). They complained and said: We can’t have a guy walking out with a yarmulke. The natives are not happy. They said it was a security risk.

It gives me a lot of credibility when I can explain to people: Listen, my whole life my first job on Capitol Hill when I was 18 years old and I was an intern, I was the only guy on Capitol Hill wearing a yarmulke. It gives me consistency to say: Look, I’m not taking off my yarmulke. And if that’s a threat to me, that’s a threat I’m willing to take. And your job, literally — at that point I flashed my American passport — your job is to protect me.

I’m not getting into the details but I’ll just share this thought with you. A couple of years ago I had lunch with a top political strategist in New York. And he said, “You know, David, if you just change a few of your political positions I could run your campaign for mayor and you could win.” And I said, “That’s nice, but I’m not changing my political positions.” He said, “But everybody does it.” I said, “That’s great, but I’m not changing my political positions.”

Because it’s the same idea, I’m responsible to my constituents, and when they elected me they knew what they were getting. This is who they’re getting and I’m not going to change.

Did that appreciation for your consistency extend to City Hall also? Did it affect your ability to secure programs, funding?

I think it’s refreshing, and I think that the broader news media viewed me as an honest broker and an honest voice, and someone who, when I said things, they took it seriously.

For example, one of the things you may have noticed is I didn’t jump every day and yell anti-Semitism when I saw something. I carefully considered whether things, in fact, were anti-Semitic or not. I was very selective on statements that I put out and how I did that.

This goes back to the guidance that I got from Harav Shteinman, zt”l, when I went to visit with him before I decided whether to run for office. I spoke to him for probably a half an hour about whether I should run or not run. We ran through everything, and at the end of the conversation he encouraged me to run. He said, “Listen, people make a mistake. Everybody thinks the job of an official is to make a kiddush Hashem. It’s not true. The job of the official is not to make a chillul Hashem, and then make a kiddush Hashem.”

And that stuck with me for life; before I put something out there, before I said something, I would always err on the side of “We might make a chillul Hashem so I’m not going to say anything.” Today, people say, “How did you know what to say when the Palestinian protesters were yelling from the City Council chambers?” And the answer was, “I didn’t know what to say.” And that’s the kiddush Hashem. The words came into my mouth. It wasn’t a planned speech where I had a state of the union address and 19 different people were wordsmithing, and we field tested it.

In the last four years I was chair of the Land Use Committee, I believe that I may have been perhaps the most influential chair ever because of that same idea, which is I took care of whoever my constituency was. And in that case it was the council member who was coming to me for advice and said, “Listen, I have a big project for my district, and there’s a controversy whether we should build housing, or affordable housing or rezoning” — they knew that I was giving them the best advice. I wasn’t looking out for my career, cutting a side deal … or that would make the administration happy. They knew they were getting the best advice.

Do you remember any times that you were trying very hard and it failed?

Sure. The first thing that I tried that failed was the first time I sat down with the Parks Commissioner eight years ago — his name was Julius Spiegel. He said, “What do you want to do? You have a couple of parks.” And I said, “Commissioner, I have this crazy idea: I want to renovate every park in my district.” And he laughed and said, “You can’t renovate every park in the district. It’s not possible.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “Well, it takes too much time and money.” I said, “Listen, time I have. And money, I’ll figure it out.”

He said, “No, you don’t understand what it cost to build these parks. The costs are astronomical.” I said, “Well, how much could it be?” So we went through the whole kit and caboodle. There’re 13 parks in my district. We ended up with, it would cost $25 million. And I said, “OK, I think I could do that over the next four, eight, or 10 years. I’ll figure it out.” And then I said, “By the way, the premiere park in my district, of course, is the park at 18th Avenue. And we forgot to include the bathroom.” The bathroom over there, it’s around 400 square feet, so what do we figure, $250 a square foot to renovate a bathroom? That’s a fair amount of money. “Let’s add another $100,000.” And the commissioner says, “No, I’ve got to call you back tomorrow to give you an actual quote.” I said, “How much could it cost?”

I’ll never forget. I was driving back from City Hall, and this was pretty early in my tenure. And right before you go into the tunnel there’s a dead spot. Your call breaks up. So the commissioner called me and he said, “I have a quote here on the bathroom. It’s $1.6 million.” I thought I didn’t hear him correctly, so I said, “Commissioner, I don’t want to build a new bathroom, I just want to renovate it.” And he said, “Oh, if you want to build a new bathroom, that’s $4 million.” I couldn’t believe it.

I said, this is crazy. I’m a Council Member. I’m a very important guy, obviously, because I just got elected to City Council. There are only 51 of us. I’m going to change this. And it took me six months to realize that it’s more difficult to change a system. You’re better off just working within the system, which, in my case, was just getting the money.

So after six months, I called and had meetings, and it wasn’t going to change. This was a system that was in place for 50 years, for better or for worse, mostly for worse. This was it. And most council members took the view “I’m just not going to build parks because it’s too expensive.” So I said, “Listen, I’ll find the money.” I called the commissioner and I said, “I need to do this, so let’s just add it and we’ll call it $26.6 million,” including the bathroom. And he said, “David, bad news, the price has gone up to $1.8 million.”

To make a long story short, the final bathroom actually costs $2 million, but the concession they gave me was that they agreed to build a new bathroom instead of just renovate the bathroom at $2 million. This is just the flipside of how politics is a funny business. People say, “Well, it’s a $2 million bathroom. That’s crazy.” First of all, the only reason you know it’s a $2 million bathroom is because I told you it was $2 million, since I’m very transparent. And I complained about the $2 million bathroom. But it doesn’t matter.

You have to ask yourself, the city is spending $85 billion here, and they’re wasting billions of dollars here. It’s just the nature of the system. Would you like some of that waste to come into your community or would you like to stand on principle and say, “OK, let that waste go into Manhattan but Brooklyn is not going to have any waste, so we’re not going to have a bathroom.”

So that’s sort of the decision where, politically, it’s a tough decision to make. Because you know you’re going to get criticized by people because, wow, you spent $2 million on a bathroom, which I have gotten criticized for. At the same time, look at the bigger picture, which is, listen, this is just the cost of bathrooms in New York City. I’m not the mayor. I can’t change the cost. But I could deliver your bathroom, and that’s what I did.

And when I left office a week ago, every single one of my parks was fully funded. They’re all in the process of either being constructed or designed. And the proof is in the pudding. If you walk around the community we have new parks everywhere. And the commissioner has publicly said that I’m the only council member who has renovated every single park in his district, when normally, parks get renovated once every 50 years. We did that in the span of eight years, every park. I think that’s something that was significant.

David Greenfield in his new office at the Met Council building in Manhattan.

Fair enough. You started off as a beginner and the community put their faith in you, and you were elected. Why did you not continue on this path, maybe a different higher office in politics? What made you leave politics to go into a whole different field?

The answer really is a multilevel answer. Twice a year I have lunch with a friend of mine who went to law school with me. And my friend is a very successful law partner in a very large firm and he makes millions of dollars a year. But he has a slightly different worldview from me, and whenever we get together he always tells me, “David, what are you doing? Come and join my law firm. You could share the real estate. You could make millions of dollars here.”

And I say, listen — and I always tell him and my other close friends, everybody has a different view of what they’re trying to accomplish. Some people, at the end of their lifetime they’d like to say, look, I collected a lot of money, for which we know there’s a big race. There’s Bloomberg News which is dedicated to this. And that’s sort of where their goal is.

For me, my goal is to try to see what kind of positive impact I’ve had on people’s lives, and that’s really the way I measure my success on a regular basis. So it’s a combination of two things. In the City Council, I set out to accomplish a lot. I’ve accomplished almost everything I wanted to accomplish. And at a certain point, part of being mature and responsible is realizing that you’ve gotten it done. I’ve never wanted to be in a situation where I’m just there because I’m there — I’ve been there for 10 years and I’ll be there for another 10 years. I think that’s a very bad place to be. And I always try — I’m not saying every week, maybe every month, certainly every year — to say, am I still accomplishing the things that I want to do? That’s the first thing.

And to that end, I set some long-term goals, including things like not just renovating parks, but passing a security bill, trying to increase funding for yeshivos, which we did, a record amount of money, $27 million. Universal pre-K, which we were able to expand to the yeshivos as well, and other kinds of after-school programs.

So for me, quality of life. Anything from stickers that we got rid of on the cars so it could make it easier for people to park, and yeshivah school bus parking as well, to the roads that got repaved in the summer, which we’ve never done before. All these sorts of things were things that we tried to do, and we got them accomplished. That’s the first thing.

And then the second thing is, the question is, where do you have the potential for the biggest impact? I was approached with what I believe is an unprecedented opportunity, which is to run the largest Jewish tzedakah in New York, that impacts literally hundreds of thousands of people. And it’s no secret, this tzedakah has gone through a tough time over the last five years, and has really sort of been stuck in a certain place and is desperate for new leadership.

And so for me — and I certainly had a conversation about this with my Rav as well — but it really was, where can I have the biggest impact? I was happy in the Council and making a big impact, mindful of the fact that I’ve accomplished a lot of things; understanding, of course, that there’re still things to do. Other challenges are going to come up.

But at the same time, this was a very unique opportunity to run the largest tzedakah, that has a $40 million budget, over 200 employees and services hundreds of thousands of people a year, and to really try to take that to the next level. When Eric Goldstein of UJA Federation called to pitch me on the job, his pitch to me was, you have a very unique set of skills that I think would lend itself to being successful in this particular role.

What do you think are the main challenges that we, as the Jewish community, face in the city?

I think that the challenge we’re going to face is that, more than ever before, we’re going to be on the defense now. I think that’s a new normal that we’re just going to have to acclimate ourselves to. The reality is that our community’s politics put us in the minority of New York City, right? If you look at the map of where the Orthodox Jewish community lives, those essentially are communities that supported Trump, and they basically stand out, beyond Staten Island, which of course is a conservative bastion in New York City. That’s basically where you have, whenever you see like a little red dot in New York City, that’s sort of where it’s conservative.

It’s a problem, because the city’s become so polarized that the Democrats and the left in the city generally despise people who support Donald Trump, and that’s what people have to understand. So you’ve really changed the equation. It used to be we can agree to disagree. It’s no longer agree to disagree.

I think what you’re going to see is these efforts in which many people will try to cloak under good intentions of “helping” the yeshivah community with their secular curriculum. I think that we should be skeptical of the motivation of some of these efforts. Are there people who generally want to help the frum community? Yes. Are there people who are pretending to help the frum community and really have their own agenda? The answer is yes, as well. We have to separate those two categories of people, and I think that’s really the challenge.

Those are all issues that we’re going to have to contend with over the years ahead. I tend to think that it’s temporary, because I tend to think that politics swings. Right now, we’re on sort of the leftward swing, and eventually, it’s going to swing back to the center. But we’re in that swing right now, so it’s good to know that it’s going to, eventually, sort of like the stock market, go up and down.

I always say that if a new planet was discovered, the Blue Planet, and they came here from outer space and they came off their spaceship, and they all started walking off, and they were blue people and they looked blue, and people would be like, wow, this is so great. Let’s learn about their culture and their ideology. The blue people! Where are you from? People are so fascinated.

Not so with the frum community. With the frum community, unfortunately, a lot of people tend to look down on, and not appreciate the values of, the culture. No one wants to discuss the fact that not a single Jewish school — forget frum — not a single Jewish school in America has a metal detector. There is a value there. It speaks to the ethics and the values and the teachings of the schools that it’s a safe environment and people are protected. That’s not to say we don’t have bullying — of course we do — but we don’t have physical assaults of the kind you’ll see in other schools; even in some other religious schools, right?

People want to cherry-pick, and I think you have to look at the broader community as well, and I think that, among other things, we have a PR problem which we desperately need to be working on.

(L-R) Shraga Homnick, David Greenfield and Yochonon Donn at the interview in Hamodia’s office.

What is the best advice that you gave Kalman?

The best advice I gave Kalman is to spend some time deciding what it is that he wants to do longer term, and focus on those goals. Because it gets very easy to get sucked into the day-to-day job of being a councilman where you’re helping thousands of people, where you’re dealing with all the problems.

And so, one of the things that I did when I got elected was, I was very focused: OK, I want to achieve certain things. I wanted to fix my parks: Mark when I got that done. I wanted to pass the first law in the country providing police security guards for the yeshivos: able to get that done. I wanted to make sure that quality of life issues were there. I got that done. I passed the first initiative in the city called NYC Cleanup, where we now hire people to clean the streets throughout New York City. We have people cleaning our streets, the streets are repaved. We’ve changed the rules on union leaders.

So have four or five big issues that you care about, and work on those issues. Because otherwise, you just get sucked into the day-to-day issues. Every single day, people have problems. And the job of the government, our job, really, as a council member, is to solve problems. I always tell people: If 3-1-1 worked, I wouldn’t have a job, right? If it was easy, you just pick up the phone and call 3-1-1, then I wouldn’t have a job. 3-1-1 doesn’t work. It works for some things, but not most things, right? So that’s why you need a councilman.