How Scott Stringer Would Run New York
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HOWARD WOLFSON: You grew up with politics in your blood. Your mom [Arlene Stringer-Cuevas] was the first female council member from Washington Heights and was a tremendous trailblazer. And I know that you suffered from her loss in the last year. Talk a little bit, if you could, about her life and her influence on you.
SCOTT STRINGER: My mom was an amazing woman, a single parent who raised two boys back in the day in the 1970s. And while she was helping us grow up in Washington Heights, she also was very political and ran for the New York City Council and won that seat. She was the first woman elected from uptown. She was elected at a turbulent time in the city. It was during the fiscal crisis. It was when there were 2,000 murders a year; the A train was a rolling crime scene. And my mom used to say, When you guys take the train, sit in the conductor car. I'm glad to say that people don't say that to their children anymore.
I had a front-row seat watching her make decisions and raise kids while in government. I remember campaigning with her and people would stop and say, Why aren’t you home with your husband, taking care of your husband? Why are you running for political office? And she would say, I don’t have a husband. And people would just scratch their heads. It was a different time. I also had a cousin who was running for mayor while my mom was running for City Council. And her name was Bella Abzug. It was just the beginning of women running for city office and winning these seats. It was an exciting time to grow up in, gave me a lot of headwind to know what I would want to do in terms of contributing to the city.
HW: I’ve been blessed in my political career to have worked for some really dynamic women. I think when you are around female politicians, you learn a lot about how gendered our political discourse is. And I think that’s especially true in New York. I’m wondering, given your front-row seat, watching your mom, watching Bella Abzug, are there differences in how men and women navigate city politics?
SS: It was a very tough time for my mom as a woman running for office. It just wasn’t acceptable. You had to be 10 times better than the man. And the campaigns were rough. They were personal. It stuck with me because as a teenager who had that single-parent mom, I wanted very much to be able to protect her. I couldn’t always do that. These women were trailblazers. They were at the forefront of the women’s movement. Many of the women we now support — they’ve had a tough road. But they’ve had people who paved the way. And I think my mom was one of those folks.
We did a house party for Alessandra Biaggi, the young state senator who was running a difficult race against Jeff Klein in the Bronx in 2018. And we had 50 people in [my mom’s] apartment in the Bronx, and I just remember when Alessandra was speaking, my mom turned to me and said, “You know, it was all worth it.” Her faith was worth it. That was a powerful moment for me. And since she’s passed away, I’ve thought about that night on many occasions.
HW: You lost your mom to Covid last year. That must’ve been an extraordinarily difficult thing to go through.
SS: It was a very difficult moment. She was in her 80s and she was going through some serious health problems. She was in and out of the hospital. But they did not expect her to die from this unknown virus that took her so quickly. And I remember the night she died, the doctor telling me that this virus was not just taking our parents and grandparents — he said I had to know that this virus was taking younger people in the Bronx, people in their 50s and 40s, Black people, Latino people. And the reason that they were dying was because they suffered from serious health conditions, distinct health disparities.
And a lot of it, as I thought about it, was about the bad decisions government had made over the years. We didn’t really try to solve people’s health conditions; we managed them. And then the decisions we made about siting dirty bus depots and peaker [power] plants in communities of color. A lot of us now look back and say, That’s not sustainable anymore because that really is environmental racism. And if it was covered up for decades? The truth is, Covid exposed it. And so there’s a lot that I’ve been grappling with in the past year to try to figure out what kind of city we want to build back, what kind of economy we want to build back. I don’t think we can reopen this town the same way we closed it. It speaks to a new approach in government and city government. And I’m going to have an opportunity to create an opportunity for that change.
HW: What should we have done differently around Covid? And what should we do going forward?
SS: In my role as comptroller, we’re investigating, auditing the city’s response to the Covid crisis. We’re doing it because whoever the next mayor is needs to look at what the city’s response did well and what we didn’t do well. The only way we’re going to learn from this crisis is to drill down on it. We didn’t prepare economically for the crisis. And our health response was slow and indecisive. When it came to managing the city’s finances, in the boom years that we had in the last seven years, we did not save enough money to meet another crisis that would come our way.
You know, when Mayor Mike Bloomberg left office, we had saved 18% of spend, and in the ensuing years, we went from 18% to almost 8%. I remember going to the City Council finance committee saying, Folks, we’ve got the boom economy, we’ve got to get our spend, maybe not to 18%, but certainly to 12% of savings. That means we’ve got to put away another billion dollars. I testified, I think it was the first week in March, and I said, We have to save in good times. We never know what crisis is going to come, when we’re going to need the reserves. And a week later we had Covid, and in 30 days, our employment rate went from 3.4% to 20%. Among communities of color, it was 25% in a month. Young people, 36%. We had added 970,000 jobs in the last 10 years, and we lost 900,000 within 30 to 40 days.
So part one was not understanding the reserves that we need. Part two was we don’t have a template for thinking about potential crises. We didn’t know Covid was coming; we do know from a lot of research that there was a lot of discussion about potential viruses and some of the dangers that we could expose our people to. But I don’t think we fully understood emergency management or how to anticipate some of these crises. That has to change. And though we may not have seen the virus coming, we knew that the vaccine was coming and this rollout has been slow. It has not been full blast.
HW: You talk about better management and you have said that you want to manage the hell out of the city. That’s one of your catchphrases. Can you talk a little bit about your management style? What kind of manager is Scott Stringer?
SS: Well, I had a lot of management experience in the city, especially as Manhattan borough president, and as the city’s chief financial officer, as comptroller. I manage an office of 780 people with an annual budget of $100 million a year. I’m in charge of a $240 billion pension fund, which is the fourth-largest in the United States and 14th-largest in the world. Part of my ability to do a good job has not that much to do with me but with my ability to attract the best and the brightest into government and to give them a mission and direction. I didn’t get to divest $4 billion from fossil fuel, double the investment in the green economy, audit every city agency, finance $800 million in debt, take on the City Hall bureaucracy when they’ve been wrong, take on the Department of Education because it was all about me. What I was able to do is build capacity to do all this.
And that is what the next mayor has to be ready to do. You gotta be ready on Day One to walk into city government post-pandemic. You have to understand where to put people, to do the tough things that need to be done.
That has been the success of the work I’ve done. I’ve been able to attract new people to government — diverse people, by the way. Women now hold seven out of eight deputy comptroller positions in our office. It’s not by design, it’s by merit. And then when you have people in place, you can then dream big. That’s why we have a great plan to build real low-income housing. It’s why I think we can create a child-care plan, zero to 3 [years], put two teachers in every classroom and do this work because we’ve got the skills, the financial understanding and the programmatic heft to come in and radically change this government.
HW: You would be replacing a fellow Democrat in office. You talk about a radical change. What’s your biggest critique of our current mayor?
SS: He has been able to articulate a progressive vision for this city, which is something I think is important. And I do give him credit for the work he did expanding pre-K. I’m not going to take away from it. But unfortunately, a lot of his rhetoric was not backed up by actually doing the work of governing. When you’re a mayor, you are the chief executive and you have to land your big ideas. We did not see enough of that. We had the best economy in a generation. We had tremendous surplus in our city coffers. This was the eight years to solve the housing crisis, not to continue it. This was the time to maybe eradicate homelessness or fix NYCHA [the New York City Housing Authority]. And none of this was realized because he didn’t build a government that was able to meet these challenges. He did not buckle down and focus on the day-to-day management of the city.
The next mayor has to be somebody who has big dreams. You could look at the city and make it more fair and just. I think that has to be top of the line. But you’ve got to have the skills to manage the hell out of the city. You cannot kick the can down the road and use rhetoric and not solve these problems within the eight years. Unfortunately, this mayor had more ideas for 2035 than he did for the years he was actually in office, and that has to change. I’m not going to give you the things that should happen in 2040. I’m going to give you a management brief year to year on things that I will accomplish while I’m there.
HW: You talk about being ready on Day One. And you also say that now is not the time for a mayor on training wheels. Are you talking about Andrew Yang?
SS: Well, I think, Andrew — nice enough fellow. I think a lot of his ideas are silly. I think he views this office — which is, I would argue, the second-greatest job in America, as well as the toughest or second-toughest — as a consolation prize. For me, being mayor of New York City is the greatest opportunity to do the greatest work in your lifetime. And I prepared my whole professional life for this moment.
I wake up every morning when I think about this campaign, and I look at these two little guys [my sons], and I say, I’m doing this for them. I’m doing this to make sure they have a good life. I’m doing it for my kids. And I’m also doing it for your kids and the kids we’re never going to meet — 100,000 kids who go to a homeless shelter, who don’t have internet access for learning. The kids living in public housing, their playgrounds are falling apart. That’s what motivates me. I think you’ve got to use your skill and really have a vision for this city to do a good job. And, you know, Andrew, I’m sure he can do a lot of things. Well, this job will not be one of them.
HW: You recently criticized Mr. Yang for taking on the teachers union around the pace of school reopenings. Tell us what your positive vision is for education.
SS: We have to end the school-to-prison pipeline, keep kids away from the criminal justice system and keep them in school. That starts the moment they’re born. We need to create a 0-to-3 child-care program at triple the number of kids that would be eligible for subsidized child care. I call it NYC Under Three. I have a plan to close child-care deserts, a plan to create the financial mechanism so that we can have that kind of a child-care plan. And the reason we need this is because 80% of brain development occurs [by around age 3]. Free child care is an excellent way to begin educating children. It’s also important for families because when we have child care available, then people, mostly women and mostly women of color, can go back into the workforce.
And that would provide more additional taxes being paid, more people who can create family safety nets. Step one in the educational layer is our NYC Under Three plan. And then, with K to 5: My proposal is for two teachers in every classroom, a master teacher and an assistant teacher. That would give kids in public school a real shot at intense one-on-one education — having two teachers that can deal with so many of the social issues, education issues in the classroom. You know who’s doing this? Private schools. And you know why they do it? Because it works. Do you know why parents who have resources provide teaching assistants in the public school system? Because they know it works. I want that opportunity for every single classroom, and we can do it based on reallocating resources within the $32 billion budget of the Department of Education.
HW: Just to clarify, you don’t think that we will have to spend additional money on schools to have one new teacher in every classroom?
SS: I think there is enough money. We estimate $300 million a year. I think we could redirect that money by getting our full Medicaid reimbursements, finally, from the Feds. Then I think we can look at waste in the Department of Education. I’ve done the audits in the Department of Education. I’ve seen the waste in the budget and the ThriveNYC program, for example. I’ve seen how the bureaucracy of the DOE has been layered and layered, but with non-teaching personnel. It is a boondoggle. Give me a year to go find that $300 million, and I will put two teachers in every classroom. And if we’re wrong on some of the costs, there’s a lot of buckets that we can turn to to get this done.
We can do revenue raisers in Albany, but we can also look at ways to redirect some of the wasteful programs under this administration. I believe two teachers is the centerpiece of education of quality, and I think we should do it. And when we do it, it will make a big difference. But I also recognize that the next logical question is, What are we going to do about teachers in general if 40% of our teachers leave after five years? And I think it’s time to set up a teacher residency program where we can give teachers the professional development they want. We do it for lawyers and doctors. It’s time to do it for teachers. Part of my plan will be to attract another 7,000 teachers to the system and keep them in the system beyond five years. Our teacher residency program will provide stipends for teachers in the last year of their education to come into classrooms, spend time with a senior teacher and begin to feel that this is a profession worth pursuing for the long term.
HW: Do an increased number of charters play a role in the Stringer education agenda?
SS: Look, they’re here. And they’re about 7 or 8% of the system. And sometimes I feel that we’ve spent too much time talking about charter schools versus public schools. The challenge right now is with the 1.1 million schoolchildren in the city. That’s where the focus has to be. A lot of charter schools are very well resourced. A lot of the public schools and classrooms are not. And I think we have to address that first and foremost.
HW: Are there any differences that you have with the United Federation of Teachers?
SS: I think the UFT has represented the teachers of the city very well. I have been aligned because I believe that the teachers in this city are very special. We send our kids to school, and here’s what we ask our teachers, our principals to do. We ask them to feed our children. We ask them to educate our kids. We ask them to make them safe during the school day. We ask them to do all kinds of things that we don’t even come close to doing as parents because we’re working. I think it’s an awesome job being a teacher. So when I’m pro-teacher, it’s not because I’m being political, it’s the truth.
HW: I want to give you one more chance: Is there an education issue that you disagree with the UFT on?
SS: Let me quote a great mayor, Ed Koch. He said, If you agree with me nine out of 12 times, you should vote for me. If you agree with me 12 out of 12 times, you should see a psychiatrist. So I am sure over the course of 30 years that I have had agreements and disagreements with just about everybody. At this moment, to get our school system up and running post-pandemic, we’re going to have to align our principals and teachers to work together, to make sure that we educate every child. I’ve put forward an agenda that is going to ask teachers and principals to do more. We’re going to need the cooperation of everybody. I think for Andrew Yang to politicize the crisis in our schools, when he has no understanding of this, and then my other opponent, Eric Adams, going after him for it — when he has not exactly been aligned with the thinking of our teachers, who’s basically supporting charter schools. I think that there’s a real difference between me and some of these other candidates.
HW: Is your primary critique with Mr. Yang that he doesn’t understand the city, that his ideas are not fully formed, that he’s not from here? What’s your primary issue with his candidacy?
SS: I don’t think his ideas meet the moment. Rolling out a casino on Governors Island? Not only is it illegal — it can’t happen — it diverts from the real challenges the city faces economically. Talking about TikTok [collaborative] houses for artists — does that fully give you a sense of the enormity of the homeless crisis and the fact that we actually have to build real low-income housing? His half-baked UBI proposal [universal basic income]? It was intriguing nationally but his New York City proposal is underfunded and would basically give poor people $5 a day and tell them to be on their way. You couldn’t even buy a Subway sandwich for $5. So when you look at the proposals, with a couple of months to go before the election, is that what you’re going to take a chance on? Or when you look at what I’m proposing — serious policy initiatives that could get us through the pandemic — and from somebody who was ready on Day One? I think that’s the difference in this campaign, and the voters are going to have to make a decision. I think that is the difference between our candidacies.
HW: You talked about growing up in the ’70s and the ’80s where the A train was a rolling crime scene. We’re very far from those days now, thankfully, but murder did increase last year by 40%. It’s up 10% this year over last. Last summer during the height of the George Floyd protests you called for defunding the police. Given the increase in murder since then, is that something that you have reconsidered?
SS: The challenge we face is real, and we have to create a community safety plan that is going to keep our citizens safe, and at the same time meet the social justice moment of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Eric Garner. I released a plan with recommendations on improving safety in the communities. And the driving idea is that the city must be bold in applying models for public safety. First and foremost, we’ve got to limit hostile interactions with the police. New York City must follow the lead of other cities like Eugene, Oregon, and other states in decriminalizing offenses that pose no risk to public safety. This will need to include multiple agencies that focus on public health. The way we do that is by reinvesting police dollars into community-centered solutions.
That would require us to not spend as much money on the police tactics and programs that have failed our city. But make no mistake: Part of my plan is to up the clearance rates, meaning we’ve got to go catch the dangerous criminals who are doing the shootings and doing the dangerous crime. Our clearance rates now are 26%, which means we have to have beefed-up homicide bureaus, both in Brooklyn and the Bronx and places where we know the crimes are occurring. Crime is predictable. We know exactly what’s happening. We just have to go out and put senior police officers and detectives in to make those arrests. And that’s how we reduce crime.
At the same time, we also have to keep kids away from our criminal justice system. You can’t cut summer jobs in a pandemic. You can’t devalue youth programs and mentorship programs, because once a kid gets wrapped up in the criminal justice system, it’s very hard to bring that kid back. So I believe I have a very balanced community safety plan. As I mentioned, I grew up in this town during the toughest times, and I’m going to make sure all the children are safe and I’m going to do it in a responsible way, but we’re also going to honor our communities of color that have been overpoliced with a whole host of tactics that did not really reduce crime but that really reduced trust with the police department. And that I think has to change.
HW: Talk a little bit about Covid recovery from an economic perspective. As comptroller, you see the data around taxes and receipts, and you know that the city is suffering from economic distress. What does Scott Stringer do to put the city back on its feet economically?
SS: I’m proud to have played a role in making sure in the midst of this pandemic that we held City Hall accountable financially. When the pandemic broke, I took seriously my responsibility at reporting, in a transparent way, the loss of revenue, so the business community and the advocate community would know exactly what was happening. I also said that we would be strong enough that we would not need to borrow billions and billions of dollars and give the mayor walking-around money. The reason I opposed that borrowing is because we did not yet understand the full impact of the Covid economy. I made sure that the mayor did not have his borrowing plan implemented because we then would be stuck with a $500 million-a-year bill to service our debt.
I always knew that we would need to have that borrowing ability in our back pocket. And I made sure that we continued to refinance our debt, taking advantage of low interest rates. We were able to save $600 million as a result of refinancing. And I said to the mayor, You have to find efficiencies, so we don’t have to make the false choice of cutting jobs for kids or cutting city workers and adding to our huge unemployment rate.
We held the line, we have a balanced budget, and we have $6.1 billion in stimulus money. Now we have manageable out-year gaps. And what we have to do going forward is have a mayor who is not just going to be able to spend $6.1 billion — that’s easy. The question is, How do we strategize about investing that $6.1 billion so we actually use that money to fight Covid, bring the city back differently, make sure that this money lasts because we invested wisely? The stimulus money is only going to be good for a year or two, maybe a third year. This money must be invested carefully. We have to have a manager who has experience with city agencies, knows which agencies waste money, which agencies need to be doubled down on.
I think I bring that unique perspective to the Covid crisis and how we open up the city. Covid showed us where we have to close health disparities, where we have to create healthier communities. We need a climate change agenda, an affordable housing agenda, an education agenda. All of this will be in some part with Covid money. Wall Street made bank, $38 billion in profits. I know I’m on Bloomberg. But Wall Street did just fine during the pandemic. The people I worry about right now are the small-business owners, the thousands of businesses that closed that have employees of 50 or less. We need to have a relief package for those businesses, and I’m going to be announcing a program [this] week that addresses what the stimulus money can be used for as it relates to small businesses.
HW: You cite the $6.1 billion that we’re getting from Washington. You talk about gaps in the out-years, budget gaps being manageable. And at the same time, you support calls for a state tax on wealth. If that was enacted, New York would be the first state in the nation to institute a tax on wealth. Is that wise, given the number of people who’ve left the city and given the ability of people to work from home outside of New York?
SS: First of all, everybody who left New York, I want them to come back, and that has to be the goal. I want the wealthiest people to come back. I want this city to continue to be the magnet for everyone in the world. Everyone should be able to come here. But the question for the next mayor is, What’s the value proposition and what are people coming back to do? We need to continue to have massive investments in park space and a working education system. We have to solve the homeless crisis. We have 60,000 people who will sleep in shelters tonight; 30,000 are children. We also have 72,000 people who are one step away from homelessness. And if we’re going to do big things with more revenue, I believe the next mayor can sell it to the people who could throw in a couple of bucks to help along the way.
We had this value proposition and part of what people want is safe streets, clean streets, an excellent public school system. People will be willing to pay more to get that done. I also think we’ve asked a lot of our frontline workers, the delivery workers who sacrificed their lives to get us the food we needed. The nurses, the doctors, the people who didn’t have protective equipment. The small-business owners that kept their stores open so people could get supplies. I do think we’ve all had to sacrifice for the greater good of the city. That’s a conversation that a mayor has to lead.
This is not to be punitive. This is not to create division. We don’t need that. We need to come together, but I believe it all has to be on the table. You have to have rational discussions on all sides. There are very few people running for mayor who have had those rational discussions with everybody — Albany, the different groups we’re going to have to bring together. My mantra is, Everybody’s got to do something, everyone’s got to give back, and everybody’s got to get off the sidelines and help this city no matter what.
HW: You have a very ambitious affordable-housing plan. Can you describe it?
SS: If we’re going to solve the housing crisis and solve the homeless crisis, we have to build housing that could be an anchor for the 30% of people who live in shelters but who work. My housing plan is robust. It’s different than the Michael Bloomberg plan and the Bill de Blasio plan, because what I want to do is rather than rely on luxury developers to build unaffordable affordable housing, I want to give city-owned land to community-based organizations, give land back to the people with a redirected subsidy that can build the 40,000 low-income housing units we desperately need over the next four years. That’s step one. Step two, I believe we have to set aside 25% of new developments for affordable housing. Right now, the City Council, the mayor, build affordable housing, which is really not affordable. Everyone tinkers development project by development project; give and take 10 units, 15 units, 20 units. We are losing this fight badly.
Not only is NYCHA collapsing, not only are the numbers in our shelter system going up, but we’re not building the housing that we need. We build more housing for families of three who make $150,000 or more as opposed to the families that make less than $40,000. That is why we’re finding ourselves in this crisis.
HW: You endorsed a number of candidates who were also supported by the Democratic Socialists of America in primaries last year. You have spent a lifetime in politics and you are very familiar with the system. You recently endorsed a number of challengers to that system. Is that an evolution on your part?
SS: Yeah, it goes back to the beginning of this conversation. I know how hard it is for women, especially progressive women, to take on the political power structure. I saw with my mom back in the 1970s. I saw it with Bella in the 1970s. In 2018, we faced a state Senate that was controlled by Republicans because Democrats would get elected and then caucus with the Republicans. That is why the city of New York had no voice in Albany. And I decided to support candidates that would be willing to challenge Democrats in a primary with the goal of ending this Independent Democratic Conference that was basically a front group for the Republican majority.
And so I stood up for Alessandra Biaggi and candidates like Jessica Ramos, Julia Salazar and Robert Jackson in these important races. And we basically won them all. And what happened? We finally had a Democratic majority in the state Senate and we’ve had some important legislation pass. We now have a Senate majority that is pro-New York City, something we had sometimes and not other times. And these women who have been elected are the future leaders of the city. I cannot be more proud to have stood with them. This is what challenging the power structure is all about.
I also know that younger people, whether they’re in finance or in social services or not-for-profits, want a better city than before. They want people in politics to challenge and have a real resiliency plan and talk about climate change. They want an affordable city. They want to challenge the status quo. This is not something that the establishment should be afraid of. The establishment should embrace change because that’s been the key to New York’s revival.
HW: This is the first ranked-choice election in the city’s history. I assume you will be putting your own name first. Who is your second choice?
SS: I love ranked-choice voting. I’m actually enjoying listening to people rank the candidates, myself included. I have a hunch that ranked-choice voting will be better left to the voters than the candidates. And I think my job is to make my case for No. 1, but I certainly would be happy if I was a 2 or 3 along the way.
For more interviews in this series, click here.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Howard Wolfson has worked in New York politics for nearly 30 years and served as a deputy mayor to Mike Bloomberg from 2010 to 2013. He is currently a senior adviser to Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP.
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