Over his nearly two decades in public office, Simcha Felder has been known among his Brooklyn constituents and neighbors as soft-spoken, mild-mannered, and unassuming. “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” Teddy Roosevelt was known to say, an adage that could well apply to Felder.
Indeed, the man who dresses simply, and can be seen quietly davening in the corner of shul or shopping alone at a local supermarket, has at times been the most powerful man in Albany.
But when it comes to discussing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Felder does not speak softly, instead delivering criticisms severe even for a politician.
In an interview with Hamodia, the senator details how he believes de Blasio has failed New York City’s special-needs children and driven a surge in crime with his criminal-justice reforms. Felder also discusses — in softer language — what he feels are mistakes by the state government during the coronavirus pandemic, including banning hospital visitors, closing sleepaway camps, and mandating that nursing homes accept COVID-19 patients.
Special-ed is an issue close to your heart. Can you discuss the city’s and state’s responses to special-needs children during the pandemic.
Unfortunately, I think that some of the problems with addressing education in general during the pandemic were magnified when it came to special-needs kids, because it was difficult enough to have children at home for so many weeks. And when it came to kids with special needs, it certainly was complicated by the fact that learning over the computer was something that really didn’t work.
As things started to improve, we spent a lot of time asking the Governor to prioritize education — originally it was supposed to be at the end of Phase 4 — to move some of it up.
We got day camps — which I consider to be education — to be allowed to open, and with regard to the question of special-ed kids, first of all, certain schools that cater to special-needs kids are able to open during the summer because they have 12-month programs, and even certain therapies and other educational services that are focused toward special-needs kids are able to get it now during the summer and not have to wait.
For a child with special needs, there’s no way for me to emphasize enough how critical it was to get it done as soon as possible.
My understanding is that the state said that, as of July 6, localities can open in-person special-needs schools. It wasn’t until a week before July 6 that New York City announced it, but ultimately they did announce that it was opening July 6.
That’s correct. Our dear city, and I say that facetiously, has a history throughout this pandemic of not really doing things when they were permitted to do [them].
You’ve been criticizing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio sharply about special-ed in general, regarding reimbursements to parents and schools for these services. Can you discuss that a bit?
The discussion with regard to special-needs kids is a very simple one: the incompetence and inefficiency of the de Blasio administration.
I had many conversations, going back to the beginning of my tenure in the state Senate, about the special-needs children and the services they deserve and that are mandated by federal law. The Mayor gave me and then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver a commitment to expedite the process by which families get the services, and to expedite the process by which payments are made for the services rendered.
For about a year — this was around 2015 — he kept his word.
And then, for whatever reason, he just went back to his old self, and we did everything humanly possible to get him to keep his word, but he lied. And that’s why in November, I placed a full-page ad in Hamodia, headlined, “Mayor de Blasio, STOP LYING!” I don’t like talking that way. But with special-needs kids, who are in such desperate need and vulnerable in so many ways, and their families, for the Mayor and his administration to be so arrogant and neglectful is nothing short of abominable.
The money is there; it’s a federal program. All the city has to do is the paperwork — review the applications from the special-needs family, get them approved, and they get the money and they’re able to pay these providers. They can’t get their act together, and as a result, these families and the providers have been suffering through the de Blasio Administration’s special torture chamber for the last few years.
What is the typical time frame from when a claim is filed until it’s paid?
It varies, but some providers are waiting for reimbursement for years. How do you expect a provider to be able to provide the services in 2020 if they are still waiting for a payment, for example, from 2017? How do they survive? How are they supposed to pay the therapists?
When was the last time you had a face-to-face with de Blasio about this?
I haven’t [had a personal meeting with] Mayor de Blasio in many years. I’d say it’s probably four years.
Have you reached out to him to try to schedule meetings since then?
In the earlier years. Not anymore, because I don’t want to catch anything. There must be some bug that he has that causes him and his administration to be incompetent and inefficient. I don’t want to catch that bacteria.
You mentioned that the city has sometimes been slow in approving other things during the pandemic, even once they got permission from the state. Can you give some examples?
Just most recently, there was state guidance to open the playgrounds. And in the city, some playgrounds were open, and others were not. In our district, in a neighborhood where you have more kids than most other neighborhoods in the city, the playgrounds were not open.
Most of the time, if you ask me what is the best way to accomplish things, I would say it’s behind the scenes. But this time there was just no way around it, and that’s why I joined with Councilman Kalman Yeger and Assemblyman Simcha Eisenstein — it was symbolic, in my mind, of the Mayor and his administration’s incompetence and lack of being efficient, and in this example, being inequitable, because there were other playgrounds open and these were not open. It just didn’t make any sense. So we cut the chain in a park.
I would be remiss if I didn’t compliment the Parks Department here in Brooklyn: They are wonderful, really; in general, whoever you talk to in government they will tell you that the Parks Department in Brooklyn does a phenomenal job. So it’s clear they didn’t get the order to open the parks, because if they had it would have happened quickly.
So we cut the chain in one park, symbolically.
And then, of course, a week later, the playgrounds were allowed to open when the city entered Phase 2. So that day it wasn’t safe, but a week later it was safe? It just doesn’t make sense.
Many Jews feel that we should lobby and advocate for our rights but should never take the law into our own hands. What would you respond to that? And before engaging in the parkbusting, did you ask a Rav?
Good question. I agree with that philosophy.
It may have seemed as though we were taking the law into our own hands. I would have to admit that we did somewhat — because we did in fact cut that chain. But I did speak to a Rav and I explained the situation. I also explained that there was guidance from the state that it should be open and there were other playgrounds open at the time. And the critical nature — I didn’t pasken this, but the sakanah of after all these months, emotionally and physically, having kids cooped up in the house. And there was no real safe space for the kids. The kids were playing in the streets; it was dangerous. So I did ask a she’eilah, and I did do it, and I do say that I had mixed feelings about doing it for that reason, and it’s not something that I think I’ve ever done before, or that I would do it again that quickly.
I absolutely got approval from a Rav before doing this. We informed the city, in fact — that was part of the psak I got. It was interesting because the Rav asked what would happen if I let the city know beforehand. I said to him, “I’ll do whatever you say.” And we did let City Hall know what we were going to do.
And when we went to open it, there were no cops there, no one said, “Don’t do it.” I don’t want to be disingenuous: I’m sure they would have preferred our not doing it. But they certainly knew we were going do it, and they didn’t make a fuss.
There have recently been protests in New York, as well as around the nation. What do you think about the message and the demands of the protesters, and about the Mayor and Governor permitting the protests while still banning other gatherings?
The protesters, on the whole, are anarchists and socialists, and all they’re trying to do is destroy the fabric of our country. We live in a medinah shel chessed, the most wonderful country in the world. And this is not some fly-by-night protest for something. These are organized protests; they tried with the Occupy Wall Street years ago; this is a consortium of Marxists, socialists, communists, and anti-Semitic and racist organizations. I’m not saying each one of them. But there are a bunch that are involved in a concerted effort to destroy the fabric of this wonderful country.
And the fact that the Mayor, and others in charge, allowed them to do what they did reminds me very strongly, unfortunately, of the Crown Heights pogrom, in some ways, where it was clear as a result of the reports that came out afterward that the city and the state allowed these hoodlums in Crown Heights to vent for three days, so that they can feel better, while they were hurting people and killing Jews. In this case it’s not the Jews, but the people of New York and their property. The people in power — the Mayor, and the Governor to a certain extent — allowed these organizations to vent, and do whatever they wanted for quite some time. Its destructive nature and the impact of those protests are going to be felt for a long time. And unless the city does take control of the situation, it will have a terrible impact in so many ways, on the economy and the safety of the city.
Do you blame de Blasio for the rioting and looting?
Of course I blame him. He’s responsible. Do you think that Rudy Giuliani would have allowed that to go on? Do you think that Mike Bloomberg would have allowed that to go on? I don’t think the protesters would have even tried it.
Shortly after the period of the heaviest protests, there were massive illegal fireworks displays at very late hours, and a rise in shootings and homicides. Do you believe that there’s any connection — that because de Blasio allowed and even encouraged the protests and said that police should use a “light touch” in policing them, that that in any way emboldened criminal elements?
There’s no question that Mayor Bill de Blasio is directly responsible for the death of law and order in New York City.
I remember speaking somewhere five years ago and saying that this Mayor, as he’s getting rid of the “broken windows” approach, he’s getting rid of stop and frisk, and he has demoralized the police department — I said, you’re not going to see it today, because it’s going to take time, but as time progresses, law and order is going to go out the window, and we’re going to be heading toward the years that this city was a place that no one wanted to live in because of the demise of law and order. And here we have it.
We have protests that are out of control. We have looting out of control. We have the reports recently that there have been the highest number of shootings since 1996. That’s not happening by accident. That’s happening because you have a Mayor that a few years ago told the cops that you are nobody, you are nothing, you must let anybody do whatever they want, let them pour water on your head, let them throw firecrackers into your car, don’t do anything, you know, be nice and let them do whatever they want with you. And now you have graffiti, you have the squeegee people, you have boarded-up shops, you have vagrants all over the place. It’s hefker. And that is Bill de Blasio’s responsibility. It’s to his credit.
In discussing the recent crime spike, police officials have complained about criminal-justice reforms like bail reform and the new “diaphragm bill” which says a cop can’t sit or kneel on a suspect’s back, in addition to the fact that the courts have been closed during the coronavirus pandemic. De Blasio did not mention the police reforms as being a problem — he blamed the coronavirus-related issues like the courts being closed. What is your response to his view of the uptick in crime?
The Mayor is in denial.
He’s a good talker. But he has never been willing to take responsibility.
I’m not a psychologist, but it doesn’t take much to understand that what’s happening in New York City today didn’t start today. The only thing that happened was that there was a crisis, there was a pandemic, and there were a lot of people out of work, a lot of kids hanging around doing nothing, but it didn’t start today. It started five or six years ago when you got rid of the things that were critical, the foundation of law and order. And now we have the death of law and order, because people think they can do whatever they want. That’s the story, forget about a hundred different excuses. It’s like every time something goes wrong, there must be some book that the Mayor has that you look up in the index “Excuse for …” and you find five different excuses. He has to own up to it. You, Mr. Mayor, got rid of stop and frisk, you got rid of all of those things, you demoralized the police department, and now things are out of control and you’re telling me that it’s because the cholent got burned? What are you talking about? You are responsible for it.
What do you think about the cutting of the police budget?
If I wasn’t around to see it, I wouldn’t believe it. Because you would think that now that law and order is hemorrhaging, the Mayor and his administration would at least want to save the city — not only don’t cut, but increase. I remember at some point, I think it was during the Giuliani administration, they hired an additional 10,000 cops to bring order to the city. The message that the Mayor should have been giving is, “No, we will not allow you to take this city and do whatever you want with it. We are hiring 5,000 cops. And we are going to put an end to this era of looting and everyone doing whatever they want. The people of this city have to be safe. We cannot have young children being shot. We have to unshackle the cops, and they’ll stop the crime.” Instead of sending that message, what was the message? You listen to the looters.
Moving on to some coronavirus-related issues: There’s a lot of blame being placed on Governor Cuomo and Health Commissioner Zucker for saying that the nursing homes have to take COVID patients. They respond that they were just following federal guidelines.
I think that’s shifting blame.
There’s no question that the nursing-home owners were begging and beseeching state government for guidance and asking them for help to be able to keep their patients safe. But they got nothing of the sort. What they got was they were told tell that they have to accept new patients with the virus. And as a result over six thousand people died needlessly.
I think it’s really important to be able to say, “I made a mistake; I’m sorry.” Of course, 6,000 deaths is a big, big mistake. But the state government was facing a crisis — I can’t remember in my lifetime when we faced something like this. And they made a terrible, tragic error that caused the deaths of many people.
Certainly one thing is clear: that the owners of the nursing homes did everything humanly possible to keep their patients safe, and did not get any help. In fact, just the opposite. The terrible situation was compounded by the mistakes of state government.
There are typically 42,000 Jewish kids in sleepaway camps in New York state. Now sleepaway camps have been banned.
I felt strongly that they should open the camps. I thought it would make the state safer by having thousands of kids in quarantine. I’m really sorry that it didn’t work out, to say the least.
What do you think is going to happen this summer, with thousands of kids in the streets of New York City who normally would be upstate in camp?
I don’t know what’s going to happen, but it certainly can’t help, in so many different ways. Whether it’s regarding the pandemic, I’m not an expert, but I have to say that it’s more likely that the virus spreads with kids running around on their own than being quarantined in camp, but besides that, it’s just not a healthy thing to have kids running around in the summer.
Many of the camps, Jewish camps and others, gave an opportunity for children from poor families or from depressed areas to have a few weeks in the sunshine in the mountains, a healthy summer. It’s both physically and emotionally such an important part of growing up. If I had to trust anyone to do what’s best for the kids I would trust the parents. And I just wish we could have helped more because it’s clear that the parents certainly wanted the children to have the ability to be in camp for a while.
If I have to trust somebody to do what’s best for the kids, you always trust the parents. That’s a fact. Because they know what’s best for the kids. And they wanted the kids in camp.
I suspect that the state’s decision had a lot more to do with politics than the safety of the children or New Yorkers.
What sort of “politics”?
I think it was the upstate localities. I don’t blame them entirely, because I understand that when it comes to a pandemic, even intelligent, rational people react in ways they would not normally react. If the upstate localities could have prevented anyone from coming upstate, they would have preferred that.
They could not prevent the homeowners or bungalow owners. But at least the camps, they wanted to do whatever they can to prevent anybody else from coming up — and the camps were the sacrificial lamb in this case.
In mid-March the state banned most visitors from hospitals. This continued for a few months, and there were many reports of neglect in hospitals because there was no oversight from the visitors. Now the state is allowing visitors, though it’s up to each hospital to make its own policy.
I think it’s clear, now that we’re at this point, that the fact that family members or close friends or volunteers were not permitted to visit at all, was a cause of many deaths. How do I know that? Because I’ve been in the emergency room with family members not during the pandemic, and I could tell you that my own experience is that if I had not been together with my family member, it would have been terrible and life-threatening. Certainly during the pandemic, that should have been the case.
The past is the past but what we have to do is make sure that when tragedies happen, we look at it and we learn from it, and we try our best under human conditions to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The state Senate’s going to have hearings that will cover a whole slew of issues, but there is one section of the hearings that I am going to be chairing that is going to take place in August, which will be addressing the problem of visitation.
We have our own piece of legislation, called the Compassionate Care Program Bill, that would compel the hospitals, during any time, to allow either family members or somebody on their behalf to be able to visit somebody who’s there for at least short periods of time.
We’re going to have hearings.
Very often tragedy happens and then people forget about it. If you want to change things, when we publicize the hearings it’s going to be critical that people who suffered through these tragic times come and testify and say to the public what happened during those times and how they believe that their family members either died or suffered terribly during those times. We know that there are going to be people who come to testify to say there was no problem, and if there is no one else to testify otherwise, then we’re really not going to be able to accomplish anything.
Any final thoughts?
May Hashem continue to guide us and protect us.