Climate activist Jessica Haller seeks her seat at the table
As a candidate in the special election to fill a vacant City Council seat in the Bronx, Haller wants to bring Jewish values to public office
For Jessica Haller, 2006 was a watershed year. A managing consultant at MasterCard, her daily commute — from her home in the Bronx to New York’s Westchester County — gave her plenty of time to contemplate the issues of the day. That summer, some 5,000 miles away, a deadly war was raging between Israel and Hezbollah. Haller, whose father is Israeli and who has family in Israel, felt a mixture of discontent and helplessness.
It was during one of those commutes that Haller made the decision to quit her job and refocus her time on making a lasting impact.
“I remember driving to work up the highway to Westchester from the Bronx and the absolute utter frustration I had knowing that there is not anything that I could do for my people and the State of Israel,” Haller recounted in a recent interview with Jewish Insider.
Knowing she was unable to end a war on the other side of the globe, Haller considered the ways she could make an impact a little closer to home. A national conversation about climate change was beginning around that time, and Haller’s interest was piqued.
“That was sort of my evolution, waking up and saying, ‘I need to learn about this. I am frustrated by not being able to help or prepare anything for my children in the future,’” explained Haller, who announced her run for the New York City Council in early 2020.
Months later, she took part in a climate change-focused training session led by former Vice President Al Gore and began applying for graduate school to study environmental science. The rest, as they say, is history.
Haller, 46, was born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Her father, who was born to Polish Holocaust survivors in a displaced persons camp in post-World War II Germany, grew up in Azor, near Holon in central Israel. He came to the U.S. in 1970 and married Haller’s mother, a native of the Bronx.
After graduating from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Haller worked as a consultant for the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand and later as a managing consultant for MasterCard.
She received her master’s degree in environmental science and policy at Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs. After graduating, Haller partnered with two NASA scientists to create a climate data startup to bring data from the global climate models to municipalities and businesses. After it failed to secure funding, she started her own entrepreneurial and environmental consulting firm while working for various nonprofits and in local government.
Haller, a mother of four, suggested that climate change “has come to the point where we need leaders in elected office to understand what’s going on so that we can move as quickly as we need to.”
With many New York City councilmembers term-limited and leaving office at the end of next year, Haller had hoped to become one of at least 35 freshmen entering the 51-member chamber on January 1, 2022, as part of a new group of local legislators ready to push a progressive agenda. But the coronavirus pandemic and the early retirement of Councilmember Andrew Cohen, who will vacate his seat in the coming weeks after winning a state Supreme Court judgeship in November, has changed both Haller’s priorities and her timetable.
The special election to represent the 11th district, which includes the Bronx neighborhoods of Bedford Park, Kingsbridge, Riverdale, Wakefield, Woodlawn, Norwood and Van Courtland Village, will take place within 80 days of Cohen leaving his post.
Haller is running in a seven-person race, which includes Eric Dinowitz, a local public school teacher and son of State Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz; attorney Daniel Padernacht; social worker Abigail Martin; and local Democratic district leader Marcos Sierra. Dinowitz, who has both name recognition and establishment support in the district, is considered a leading candidate along with Haller. The two have each raised more than $70,000, enough to grant them public matching funds of $142,000.
The winner of the nonpartisan election — which will be one of the first races to use the city’s new ranked-choice voting system — will serve out the remainder of Cohen’s second term, which ends next December. The winner of the special election will have to simultaneously campaign for a full term that will begin in 2022. The winner of the district’s June primary is all but assured to win the general election later next year.
For Haller, winning the special election will give her a seat at the table ahead of the upcoming city budget debate, with the assistance of some veteran lawmakers including Councilmembers Brad Lander and Helen Rosenthal, with whom she has established relationships. “It’s exciting to hit the ground running and to learn from people currently serving in senior positions, and I think it would put me in a very good position for the new council,” Haller said in an interview with Jewish Insider in the River Run Playground in Manhattan, where she once played as a child.
Haller is a supporter of the Green New Deal and backs an initiative to cut the New York Police Department’s budget by $1 billion. But she is hesitant to define herself as a progressive candidate, in the mold of fellow Bronx native Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). “All these things come with so much baggage, and I don’t want to carry the baggage,” Haller explained.
“I share a lot of progressive values, but I’m not waving flags and screaming hashtags that are absolutes,” she continued. “There’s a lot of nuance and there’s a lot of balance that needs to go into making policy decisions for the future of the city.”
Haller has the backing of the Vote Mama PAC, the 21 in ’21 initiative, Women for the Win, the Jewish Climate Action Network, Bronx Climate Justice North and North Bronx Racial Justice.
Haller has another reason to run for City Council. Of the 16 members that are not term-limited and up for re-election in 2021, only Kalman Yeger (D-Brooklyn) is Jewish. The current council has 14 Jewish members, all but one of whom are part of the council’s Jewish Caucus, which was founded in 1991. Haller is worried that the number of Jewish legislators will be largely reduced after the 2021 election, leaving a lack of “voices of Jewish leadership for the next eight years in the council.”
And Haller is determined to serve on the council as both a woman and as a Jew, to speak out and advocate for the issues that she believes are most important.
Haller said she feels that her progressive bona fides are sometimes met with skepticism by her colleagues, which she attributes to her staunch pro-Israel positions. “I feel like sometimes that I’m holding it in, that I have to say that ‘I’m willing to stand with you for equity, and I’m willing to stand with you about Rikers Island, and I’m willing to stand with you and fight for racial justice, for climate justice, and that I have to make you comfortable, and you have to make me comfortable.’” she said. “And not everybody is willing to do that.”
Stu Loeser, a political consultant and resident of Riverdale, described Haller as “a model for a lot of young women who know they want to bring change in the world and also want to be great mothers of strong Jewish kids, an approach I think we can use more of in politics.”
Loeser, who first met Haller at Wharton, told JI that the candidate “has propelled herself forward in multiple worlds at the same time” and used her learning “to drive the fight against climate change forward.”
Despite suggestions from supporters that she should seek the backing of more progressive political groups, Haller told JI she would not seek the endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America.
In August, the DSA’s New York City chapter came under fire for distributing a questionnaire that asked city council candidates to agree “not to travel to Israel if elected… in solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation.”
Haller told JI that the DSA erred by inserting themselves in a debate that is largely irrelevant to the local races. Educational trips to Israel, she suggested, are of interest for lawmakers serving in the U.S. Congress because it is “vitally important” for them to experience what is happening on the ground before making foreign policy decisions. But for candidates running for city council, “we’re not going to govern differently” having been on a trip to Israel.
Even though the city council doesn’t determine foreign policy, Haller noted that many rising political stars use the council as an entryway to a further political career. It would be, she said, “a mistake to cut off a learning opportunity” for them by placing conditions on an organization’s support.
Haller suggested that the DSA questionnaire underscores why it’s “really, really important to have a voice that represents the width, the breadth and the depth of the Jewish community in this city, and why we need that voice to be strengthened by a Jewish caucus.”
In addition to being members of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Haller and her husband, Chad, co-founded The Kehilah of Riverdale led by Rabbi Dina Najman in 2014. The synagogue, which has no permanent location, has about 120 active members.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in March, the congregation has met regularly for prayer services in Haller’s backyard — in compliance with social distancing requirements — with a screen separating the area where they have only 14 men and 14 women at the weekly prayers.
Najman told JI that Haller “has inspired our synagogue to be committed to not only being responsible citizens and to encourage sustainability in our community, but to also be teachers and exemplars. And when we’re not, she makes sure — in a very responsible and respectful way — to reshift course, to make sure that we don’t lose sight of what’s important.”
In the wake of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent COVID-19 restrictions on houses of worship, Haller told JI that the pandemic has highlighted the importance of having an observant Jew on the city council. Having Jewish councilmembers, she suggested, may result in government officials being more sensitive to religious practices.
“I think there needs to be Jewish engagement around what the future of the Jewish caucus and the council looks like,” Haller said. “Given what’s going on, and given that there are different kinds of Jews with all different kinds of views, do we care? I maintain that I do care.”
Ari Hoffnung, COO of Vireo Health, a leading multi-state cannabis company, who considers himself a close friend of Haller and worked with her in the city comptroller’s office in the early 2010s, told JI: “There’s no question that she could be a passionate voice for Jewish New Yorkers, and that she will stand up against antisemitism and hatred in all of its forms.”
Part of that inspiration is derived from Haller’s mentor, former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, with whom she served on the board of Hazon. Messinger was one of the first people to encourage Haller to seek public office, and continues to offer her political advice from time to time.
Messinger told JI that she has long found Haller to be an “analytic and strategic thinker and somebody who is very interested in policy change, which is where I come from — it’s not just to do the right thing in your home kitchen, but try to change the government policies.”
In a post Haller published on her campaign website last week, she described her Shabbat observance and pledged to keep her office open with a dedicated and diverse staff so that constituents are served even when she’s disconnected and home with her family. “Shabbat, in my tradition, is not meant for working. It is a time for being with the community and for reflecting on our collective values and responsibilities: to ourselves, to the planet, and to the society we live in,” she wrote. “You can trust that my office will be available and if the community needs me, I’ll be there.”
Najman suggested that as a lifelong public servant, Haller “will continue to use her voice as an elected official for more action and more advocacy and be a voice for the people.”
Messinger said she was “very impressed” to see Haller committed to public service as she squares it with her Shabbat observance. “I think it takes skill in the industry to do a good job of representing everyone in your district.”