Kathryn Garcia, the former New York City Sanitation Commissioner, who previously worked in the City Department of Environmental Protection, is now running for mayor, one of more than 30 candidates who have tossed their hat in the ring to replace the term-limited Bill de Blasio, in the first mayoral election under the city’s new ranked-choice voting system.
Garcia finished in the top ten in campaign contributions, as of the latest fundraising filing, released earlier this month.
A moderate Democrat, Garcia speaks about economic fairness – but also about economic growth. She talks about the need for police accountability and community policing – but opposes reducing patrol officers or police budgets. She emphasizes the need to provide services – but says she is careful of overpromising, considering the city’s budget problems. She’d consider putting a fee on every package delivered by Amazon – but also says the city should be seeking to attract big companies and the jobs they bring.
In an interview in the Hamodia office in Brooklyn, Garcia, 50, discusses her plans for the city’s economic recovery post-COVID, crime and policing, and how to solve New York’s timeless problems of traffic and parking.
‘We’ve Got to Get Moving Again’
The most pressing issue facing the next mayor, on Day 1 of his or her term, will likely be the economic recovery from the COVID pandemic.
“We have to be laser-focused on getting our economy back up and running. Specifically, we have to be supportive of small businesses and our retail, and I’m very concerned that they won’t be there to reopen when we get post-COVID,” the candidate says.
Garcia says supporting “recoverable grants, eliminating some of the fines and penalties for those businesses, ensuring that they can easily get permits that they need, licenses, and not harassing them, is really what brings a small business back.”
But the candidate says that the city also has to continue providing “the core services,” because if people feel the city is unsafe or unsanitary, “they won’t come to your business.”
In late 2018, Amazon announced plans, after receiving government incentives, to build a large headquarters in Queens, in a deal hailed by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But following backlash from some progressive politicians and activists, as well as labor organizers, the company canceled those plans. Garcia bemoans this as a lost opportunity to promote jobs and economic growth. (The company later leased office space in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards.)
“I think we should be seeking to grow. The Amazon deal, I would have supported,” she says. “It was an opportunity to build the middle class.”
“I want us to grow. We need economic growth. We need to make it so that it’s fair. We need to make sure people are getting jobs in these companies. I’m very supportive of unionization, so that you don’t have somebody making $50 million and someone making $15. But I do think you need to have jobs in the city and continue to grow.”
“I think there’s been a real backlash about any development,” says the candidate. “There’s been real pushback in certain parts of the Democratic Party against having any of that happen. I oppose that pushback. We need more housing. We need more jobs. We have 16% of our population unemployed right now. We’ve got to get moving again.”
But Garcia says that as mayor, she would also regulate Amazon package deliveries, mandating that delivery personnel are Amazon employees. “The biggest concern I have,” she says, “is that Amazon seems to be outsourcing to a man with a van, which means they may or may not have any insurance.” She would also consider a proposal to impose a fee on all packages (not food) that Amazon delivers in the city, “to incentivize people to use their local stores, and to help reduce the amount of boxes that are moving through, and in many ways, clogging our streets.”
Many Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn have Amazon Marketplace stores. Asked by Hamodia if those Amazon Marketplace business owners who would be harmed by such a fee aren’t as much a part of the community as the local stores, the candidate replies that traditional stores are “a value to their broader community. Your day-to-day experience of your community is a lot about your commercial storefronts – how you feel walking down the street, whether or not there’s activity happening in those areas. So they add more benefit than just delivery.”
Asked whether this decision shouldn’t be left to the individual – the convenience of purchasing online versus the community experience of shopping in a store, without a government penalty for choosing the former, Garcia disputes that characterization of this fee as a penalty. “It’s a disincentive,” she says – “not a penalty.”
Garcia served as city Sanitation Commissioner from 2014-2020.
In 2016, de Blasio instituted nighttime trash collection for most of Boro Park, to reduce the congestion from daytime pickups in a neighborhood already suffering from serious traffic issues. Several people involved in the discussions with City Hall tell Hamodia that Garcia was opposed to this change due to its cost, but Garcia firmly denies it when asked by Hamodia if she opposed the plan. “No, I didn’t,” she says. “I designed the plan. You wouldn’t have gotten it done if I had not been there.” And she says that as mayor, she would continue the nighttime trash collections in the neighborhood.
For decades, eight large Brooklyn yeshivas had their trash picked up daily, just as public schools do – as opposed to the twice-weekly pickup for private homes and most private schools. Several years ago, when the city began implementing a separate collection for food compost, those schools lost their daily trash collection; instead, trash collection reverted to several times a week, with the schools having the option of having compost pickup on the remaining days. Many of those yeshivas declined the compost program – saying it was too difficult or cumbersome to institute an entirely new food disposal program – resulting in garbage piling up outside these yeshivas, whose trash is now picked up only with the block’s regular twice-weekly run.
Asked about this, Garcia says that “the yeshivas that did participate [in the food-compost program] had the most beautiful material I’ve ever seen. Perfect for composting. Because yeshivas actually home-cook meals more than public schools, you end up with actual real food scraps. You end up with the carrot peels and banana skins.”
The citywide composting program was canceled during the COVID pandemic. Garcia says that if elected, she would begin bringing back the compost program for everyone immediately, and once it is available citywide, make it mandatory.
Crime and Policing
2020 was a year that saw significant increases in shootings and murders across New York City, as well as sharp tensions between police and some communities in this city and across the country, as part of Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Garcia believes police should be held accountable to their communities, and is advocating for certain reforms, such as increasing the age of new recruits from 21 to 25, and mandating that all new recruits live in the city, “and begin to work on culture change from within.”
However, she says, “I am not for defunding the police” – though she believes some savings can be found in areas like IT – and “we cannot reduce our patrol strength.” But she does support “transformation of the police.”
Police “need to be held accountable when someone does something that is wrong,” the candidate says, “but we also need to celebrate the good cops who are out there, which is the vast majority who do the right thing day in and day out. We need to be looking at the data of what is driving the crime wave, which I am sure that the commissioner is currently doing and digging into, and making sure we have strategies to deal with the shootings and the increase in crime. We have to be partners with the DA’s, though. They have to prosecute as we move forward.”
Garcia says police have to enforce the law – but do so properly.
“People need to feel that the police are their guardians, not just enforcing or there to harass them because they’re riding their bicycle on the sidewalk,” she says. “But we cannot have open-air drug use and drug dealing, which is currently what is happening in Midtown Manhattan, in a way that I don’t even think was happening in the ‘70s. There’s a balance to be had, but you have to enforce the laws that are on the books. If we don’t want to enforce the laws that are on the books, we should change them.”
Some have blamed the crime spike on the recent bail reform. While Garcia believes in restoring judicial discretion in bail, she says no one can yet know the cause of the recent crime spike.
“I think that this is an area where you’re looking for causality, that you’re jumping to conclusions about exactly why, and I actually think if you go and look at some of the people who are experts, they will tell you that it’s too early to know. This is something that’s going to take some time, and to do some studies on.”
Traffic and Parking
Homeowners and renters across the city are often frustrated that they are unable to find parking in their own neighborhoods, at times because the parking spaces are being used by others. Garcia is proposing granting overnight parking permits to residents of each neighborhood (delineated by Community Board), to ensure that parking spaces are available for community members.
During the pandemic, with fewer cars on the road, de Blasio has reduced alternate-side parking to a maximum of once a week per street side. Garcia says she will reexamine alternate side frequency completely – possibly expanding it to more times weekly if needed on busier and dirtier streets, and perhaps reducing it to as infrequent as once a month in quieter areas.
New York has been synonymous with congestion since before the days of the automobile. One commonly blamed culprit is large delivery trucks that double-park on busy streets during peak hours. Garcia says, “I think we could look at something around how we time deliveries, but for some small businesses, that would be really hard. That would be my focus. But I’m certainly not going to tell New Yorkers whether or not they can or cannot own a car.”
The candidate says she hopes people will use mass transit to the extent they can, and that she will “continue expanding bike lanes.”
She approves of de Blasio’s program of opening sidewalks and streets to restaurants, even after the COVID pandemic ends, despite the lost parking spaces.
“We need to be rethinking about our street in general,” she says. “I actually still do like the idea of Open Restaurants. I think the activity on the street is good for a neighborhood. Not that I think we’re necessarily becoming the Paris cafe culture – but it’s a goal! That amount of socialization and activity, I think it gives a vibrancy to our neighborhoods.”
She is also in favor of the special bus lanes, which also have eliminated some parking spaces.
“It depends on the neighborhood,” she says. “But for the most part, I like rapid bus service – there are more people on the bus, and they’d use it more if it actually moved quickly.”
While she’d like to see car use minimized, Garcia says she understands that this isn’t feasible in all neighborhoods, and with all family sizes. For those who must use cars, she “would hope that they would move towards using low-emissions vehicles,” and to that end, is proposing a property-tax reduction for those who put car chargers in their driveways.
The candidate says she wants the city to move to more renewable energy: “I want to make sure that we have more solar, more wind, more turbines, more geothermal across the city. Obviously, geothermal doesn’t work everywhere.”
Asked if there is any way to enact all this energy reform without increasing energy costs on people or the government, the candidate responds, “Probably not. It is a long term investment.”
Security and Religious Liberties
New York City currently provides security funding for private schools with at least 300 students, and no funding for security at houses of worship. During a time of increasing anti-Semitic incidents, Garcia says, “I’m committed to making sure that everyone feels safe in this community”; however, “I can’t promise money right now. But I can promise that the Police Department will ensure that those houses of worship and those schools are safe.”
New York State is in the midst of formulating rules for secular education in private schools, including yeshivas. Garcia says she wouldn’t be looking to oversee the secular education in private schools – “I’m not seeking to extend my jurisdiction beyond the public school,” she says. But if the state did mandate increased secular studies, much of the enforcement would fall to the city Education Department, and “We would have to follow the law.”
Asked if she would make any regulation against circumcision, Garcia says, “I have no intention of making anything against circumcision. If there is a real health issue, I would come to the community to talk about what we were seeing in data. If the Health Department advises me that we have a serious problem, then I am definitely going to take that into consideration.”
Summer Youth Employment Program
Garcia would like to see the Summer Youth Employment Program (commonly known as Youth Corps) “evolve into something that gets people into their first real job, and is connected to the private sector in a way that it currently is not constructed. So my focus would be on getting internships and real first jobs for kids across the city,” in specific industries including finance, arts, technology, health care, film and media.
Many Orthodox Jewish teens use the SYEP program for day camps. Asked whether her SYEP plan would focus on those specified industries but also keep the current program for camps and other jobs, or if it would only allow the specified industries and eliminate other jobs like camps, Garcia responds, “I’m not going to be that specific, because honestly, I don’t think that we know yet exactly what we’re going to have to work with financially.”
While political candidates often promise various programs, Garcia knows that the city is facing a budget crunch exacerbated by COVID, that services are dependent on revenues, and the government will have to tighten its belt.
“I do not know how much money we will have, so I don’t want to overpromise,” she says. “The coffers may be empty when I walk in the door.”
She is in favor of progressive taxation, but only by the federal government, not cities or states, because she doesn’t want to see people moving out of New York to lower-tax areas. “I don’t like it when states get played off each other,” she says.
During the pandemic, de Blasio also made Garcia the city’s “Food Czar,” to handle various food-distribution programs. She says the Sanitation Department managed to do it “for cheaper, for more food, and for more people than it was under other agencies,” and she believes that this template of consolidating agencies can help the city save money during these difficult times.
Asked if she has any specifics on what agencies might be consolidated, the candidate tells Hamodia, “We are not prepared to put out specifics for that,” but promises, “you’ll be the first to know.”