Originally published in Norwood News.
Integrity, leadership, the ability to listen and craft creative policy that’s fair to everyone; these are the core attributes State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi sees in New York City Comptroller, Scott Stringer. Passionate in her expression of just how aligned she is with his way of thinking, the progressive senator, who represents parts of The Bronx and Westchester, spoke to the Norwood News about why she was among the first, if not the first, in a hefty list of elected officials to immediately throw support behind Stringer when he officially announced his mayoral bid on Sept. 8, 2020.
Having grown up in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, a place where Stringer said a single mom like his could afford to give her boys a middle-class life, the comptroller chose to launch his campaign in nearby Inwood. Later that day, he crossed over into the Bronx, accompanied by Biaggi, who he had previously endorsed when she ran for her Senate seat in 2018. There, they chatted with Riverdalians about what they wanted to see in their next mayor.
Though he is not the first city comptroller to run for mayor, Abe Beame being at least one other, as the person who has, since 2013, overseen the largest municipal and regional economy in the United States, Stringer’s financial experience is central to his platform, and is clearly an asset at a time when the City seeks to emerge from the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
While conservatives would argue that campaign policies touted by progressive candidates can appear overly idealistic [since every government program has to be funded], Stringer already has the inside knowledge on how best a fiscally responsible budget can be achieved. “Bringing leadership back to City Hall means dealing with the budget crisis,” Stringer said at his campaign launch last September. In tackling the $4.2 billion budget deficit reported at that time, he added, “I’ll root out waste. I’ll enact smart, targeted revenue generators.”
The comptroller also warned that any borrowing would have to be limited to ensure the City didn’t get stuck in a cycle of reliance on debt, and that bringing leadership back to City Hall meant that the City’s economy could not be reopened the same way it had been closed. One of the ways he plans to do this is through investing in small businesses and bringing back traditional retail corridors.
Indeed, Stringer said the measure of the City’s success in recovering from the pandemic cannot be whether the Dow Jones continues to rise, a measure that was frequently cited by former President Donald Trump in touting his economic successes. “The measure of our success must be, instead, whether we finally build a city for everyone,” Stringer said during his launch. “I will ask the most fortunate among us to pay a bit more in taxes. We asked frontline workers to be heroes, and the wealthiest New Yorkers should do their part.”
This is not, of course, to undervalue the fiscal contribution that Wall Street makes to New York City’s economy which, in 2018, accounted for about 5 percent of the city’s private sector jobs, 6 percent (US$3.7 billion) of city tax revenue, 17 percent (US$ 13.2 billion) of state tax revenue, and a fifth of the city’s total wages, but even Crain’s New York Business had written the previous year, in 2017, that Wall Street’s reduced contribution to the City’s economy was a good thing, in terms of diversification.
Last July, Fox 5 NY reported that in May 2020, state tax receipts from Wall Street were down 20 percent, and city sales tax collections were down 32 percent, amounting to $196 million in lost revenues in a single month. We reached out to the City’s Independent Budget Office (IBO) to get a better handle on what the final, overall impact of the pandemic was on Wall Street revenues for the entire year. Despite reports that some firms may still leave the city, Wall Street actually had something of a bumper year.
According to an IBO report published in January 2021, New York Stock Exchange member firms profits soared to $27.6 billion over the first half of 2020, and IBO projects that profits will top $47 billion for the year as a whole—a total exceeded only in 2009, when Wall Street was rebounding from the steep losses at the onset of the Great Recession. IBO forecasts Wall Street profits to subside to $25 billion in 2021 and then hold in the $23 billion to $25 billion range over the rest of the financial plan period.
This does not mean the city’s economy has not been impacted by the pandemic of course. According to the IBO, it will collect $11.3 billion less tax revenue than had been anticipated —a 4.2 percent revenue shortfall that has tested the city’s ability to meet its mandate to maintain a balanced budget.
In reference to the economy, Stringer added during his launch bid last September that there should be “no more giving away the store to developers.” According to the IBO, Mayor Bill de Blasio has, so far, been able to balance the budget utilizing a number of strategies, some of which the IBO described as questionable.
Included in Stringer’s platform is a commitment to building permanently affordable housing “that working people can actually afford.” He also plans to triple the number of new apartments built for homeless families, saying [economic] disparities that begin at birth have to be addressed. In that same vein, he added, “We will enact my plan, #NYCUnder3, to extend childcare assistance to all families making less than $100K a year.” He added, “It’ll more than triple the number of kids in city-backed childcare.”
With so much emphasis on budgetary policy, we asked Biaggi if she thought the comptroller would have voted in favor of the City’s contentious adjusted budget last June, amid widespread calls at the time to “defund the police,” and after it became common knowledge that the NYPD’s annual budget was in the region of $6 billion, with many feeling that that money could have been better spent elsewhere.
“It’s hard to speak in a hypothetical, but I know the comptroller’s values and his principles, and I think that he has led with them for his entire career,” she said, adding that Stringer had proven himself to be someone who made sure there was enough money for social services, education, and basic necessities, when such services had previously gone underfunded.
Referring to her belief in the comptroller’s ability for creative policy formulation, she said reimagining how the city budget is managed was a must. “I think that that’s very much in line with how he thinks, but I don’t know how he would have come down necessarily on the [June 2020 adjusted] budget, up or down,” she said. Norwood News reached out to Stringer’s campaign with the same question.
In fact, the comptroller said last June that the budget is as much a moral document as it is a financial one and should reflect the values and the strength of everyone’s commitment to progress. He described the adjusted June budget as failing that test. “The ‘$1 billion cut’ to the NYPD proposed by the Mayor and the City Council is not a $1 billion cut—it’s a bait and switch and a paper-thin excuse for reform. That is especially true of proposals to slash uniformed police overtime by 60 percent with no plan on how to get there.” The comptroller did not, however, at least as part of that statement include specifics on how he would have managed the budget differently.
Biaggi, meanwhile, said having a police budget as large as the NYPD’s, compared to the education or mental health budgets means making sure police officers are not responding to mental health calls. “They don’t have the training to do that, and they should not be doing that,” she said.
On the topic of mental health, and in order to safely diffuse what are often volatile situations involving the police, we asked Biaggi if she agreed that it was perhaps necessary to reimagine the mental health system itself. In making it a 24/7 service, for example, mental health experts could then be on standby to accompany police to locations where there may be mentally unstable people who are armed, or people whose abilities may be impaired by illicit substances, and who may pose a risk to themselves or others.
“I think that that’s a very smart idea,” she said. “Yes, I think that that’s right. When you’re in an emergency, you and I know to call 911, and I think that people use 911 as the emergency service call number for every emergency, and not every emergency falls within the purview of the police department.” She added, “One of the many reasons why I’m supporting him [Stringer] is because he listens. He is reasonable. He is rational but he also has a growth mindset, and having a growth mindset is absolutely essential right now in our government.”
We discussed with the senator about the mayor and Commissioner Dermot Shea’s apparent approach to the initial George Floyd protests last June, how the mayor publicly rejected the then-president’s offer to send in the National Guard, how, initially, there seemed to be a “hands off” approach to the protests, how later when the looting and rioting started on Fordham Road and elsewhere by other groups on June 1, there seemed to be less police visibility, and how the mayor was then criticized for not having done enough to protect small businesses.
We asked the senator if it was not a case of the mayor trying to walk a fine line, and appease all sides, and if she thought the comptroller would have have handled the situation better.
“I think the best way to answer this is that when you are committed to your values, which is what the comptroller is, and you live by those values and those principles, your center is very… it’s a strong core that you hold on to, when you have updated thinking,” she said. “For example, if I believe something today, and it’s the right thing today, and then I learned something and I realized, ‘Oh, I have to update my thinking, I have to like re-evaluate what I thought,’ and then you do that, but you still maintain your core principles, and values.”
Biaggi said playing both sides is not leading and that you have to take a stand, and that this describes Stringer, in her view. “That is who he is,” she said. “And because of that, it means that when you lead from that centered place, it’s not about, ‘Everybody has to like me,’ and I think that that is very clear, because he [Stringer] has taken lots of risks. It’s not about, ‘I’m making decisions so the whole city likes me,’ when you lead. Inevitably, people are not going to like you,” she said.
“But what they will do is respect you, because it always turned out that when you have leaders who are strongly-rooted in principles and values, and they make a decision that perhaps people today say, ‘I don’t agree with that,’ 2020 hindsight will be usually in favor of that leader who has made that decision, and what I’m basically saying is trailblazing and being a maverick is part of leading.”
The senator said that this meant doing things that people may have never even thought about or are comfortable with. “But it’s got to be the right thing to do, because it’s, ‘What will be the greater good or increase public safety or whatever it is?’ Mostly, public safety, what I was really thinking about is COVID, not policing,” she added.
On policing, itself, she said, “You can support law enforcement and take a very strong stand on reform for law enforcement. They’re going to be mad about that, but you can stand and believe in their mission and purpose, and the fact that they want to uphold the integrity, or allege to uphold integrity, is something that can happen, while you are also doing what needs to be done to reform, transform, and really make sure that whatever issues are in front of you are taken care of,” she said.
In an effort to further understand the apparent reticence to cut the NYPD budget, and acknowledging the recent increased security threats posed by domestic White supremacists, we asked the City’s Independent Budget Office (IBO) how much of the NYPD’s budget is allocated to counterterrorism and intelligence gathering.
We were informed that in 2020, the City spent $228.2 million on intelligence and counterterrorism, that the 2021 budget includes $187.9 million in this regard and that $189.7 million has been allotted for 2022. The IBO could not confirm what was behind the reduction from 2020 to 2021.
A representative said this may have been in part a reflection of federal dollars not yet received since the City doesn’t account for some federal money until it’s actually allocated. The IBO confirmed that last year, the NYPD got over $424 million in federal and other revenue, while this year only $168 million is currently budgeted. The representative said in the two prior years, the City had gotten in the $200 million+ range.
Staying on the topic of criminal justice reform, law enforcement and police brutality, Biaggi said Stringer is someone who likes to bring all sides to the table, which she said was incredibly unusual in the current political climate. Referencing a speech he gave last summer in the context of respect and honor, she said he talked about how nobody deserves respect for respect’s sake. “You earn respect. You earn the honor,” she said. “Those are privileges.”
In terms of his relationship-building abilities, we asked the senator if, in her experience in Albany, she felt the reported dysfunction between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the mayor impacted negatively on everyday New Yorkers, and if she felt the comptroller would better navigate that relationship if elected mayor.
She agreed that the alleged friction between the two leaders was not good for ordinary New Yorkers and she was critical of the seemingly frivolous way their relationship was characterized and covered in the media, though she commended The New York Times for an opinion piece in which it was suggested the two should stop the quarreling in order to work constructively on fighting the pandemic.
“There’s a lot of joking that goes around on it, where it’s like, ‘Oh, look! They’re fighting again,’” she said. “I actually don’t find it funny at all. I think it is one of the most damning things to New Yorkers. New York City – one of the largest cities in the world – managing it well requires partnership. It requires thoughtfulness,” she said.
The senator added that there would always be disagreements between leaders because that is the essence of leading. “Different people have different opinions, but what has been created here [with Cuomo and de Blasio] is really troubling,” she said. “It’s all about getting there first. It’s like a rush to the finish line – who can announce what the new idea or policy is first, and that’s childish.” By contrast, Biaggi said good leadership entailed leaders collectively using their power to help the most people.
In this, she said Stringer is committed to uniting. “That’s a very broad thing to say, but he doesn’t stoke division,” she said, adding that even when he disagrees with people, he can work with them and said he has done so throughout his entire career.
In the current political environment, Biaggi said there was also an absence of rewarding creative thoughts, behaviors and programs. “When you ask somebody walking down the street, ‘Do you think government’s creative?’ I think the first thing that they would say is, ‘No.’ Nobody thinks government’s creative. That’s like a joke, but it’s not even a funny joke because the lack of creativity in our government actually is damning to all of us.”
Another reason Biaggi supports the comptroller is due to his zero-tolerance stance on sexual misconduct, a cause the senator has been vocal on throughout her career, saying Stringer had been ahead of the game even before the #MeToo movement became a global phenomenon. She added that he was someone who never accepts the status quo. “Scott is someone who has proven that the progressive issues of today are his issues. The greatest city in the world deserves the greatest leader — and that’s Scott Stringer.”