Schumer calls on Biden to address broader range of issues in Iran talks

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called on the Biden administration on Thursday to address a range of issues in addition to Iran’s nuclear program in its negotiations with Tehran during a virtual event with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

Schumer emphasized that he opposed both the 2015 nuclear deal when it was signed as well as the Trump administration’s withdrawal from it three years later, which he said “isolated the U.S., instead of Iran.” 

“Today Iran has a greater ability — they’re closer to producing a nuclear weapon — than they were the day Trump pulled out of the agreement or the day Obama signed the agreement,” Schumer said.

The longtime New York senator indicated that he would like to see a broader deal with Iran addressing a range of issues including terrorism, ballistic missiles, human rights and hostage-taking, rather than focusing on the nuclear issue alone.

“I understand why the current administration is in negotiations and I don’t have any problem with them sitting down and talking, but I also believe… we have to follow through on all of these issues,” Schumer said. “It’s not that we shouldn’t sit down, because if we don’t sit down, Iran could just go forward and produce a nuclear weapon… but when we do sit down we have to make sure there are a lot of issues on the table.”

The Senate majority leader also said he plans to push for $360 million in funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) for fiscal year 2022. In 2020, the House approved $360 million in funding, while the Senate only approved $90 million; the chambers compromised at $180 million.

“I wanted $360 [million]. I was only minority leader in December. I got it doubled to $180 [million], now we’re going to try to get the full $360 [million] a year, which is very much needed and has broad support, so I’m very optimistic,” Schumer said.

Last week, a group of House members — roughly one-third of the legislative body — expressed support for $360 million in NSGP funding for 2022, which is also the target amount for a number of Jewish community organizations lobbying on the issue.

In recent weeks, however, several senators who had been vocal supporters of the NSGP program declined to provide to JI a specific target level for 2022 NSGP funding.

Earlier on Thursday, Schumer paid a shiva call to the family of Pinchas Menachem Knoblowitz, who died in the stampede at a Lag B’Omer gathering at Israel’s Mount Meron last weekend that killed 45 people. Schumer told the family he has “a deep faith in Hashem. 

“I have a Jewish heart — a neshamah,” Schumer said. “I have a deep faith in God. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be in this job.”

Also Thursday, the New York senator stopped by Junior’s in Times Square, digging into a slice of the restaurant’s famous cheesecake, to celebrate the location’s reopening.

“If there’s an iconic place on the planet that tells the toil of COVID, it’s Times Square,” Schumer said. “All of Times Square is coming back. And we’re here to say now that in Times Square there is light, there is liveliness, and there is cheesecake.”

Shaun Donovan’s brainiac bid for NYC mayor

On paper, Shaun Donovan seems to stand out as an eminently qualified candidate for New York City mayor. The 55-year-old housing and urban development expert with two master’s degrees is a policy wonk who held top jobs in the Obama White House and Bloomberg mayoral administration, and in conversation, he projects an air of academic forbearance reminiscent of his former bosses.

In his 200-page campaign policy book, released last month, Donovan lays out his painstakingly detailed and rather creatively rendered plan for New York City as it emerges from the ravages of the pandemic, calling for equity bonds of $1,000 for every child and envisioning a plan to engineer a series of “15-minute neighborhoods” in which “a great public school, fresh food, rapid transportation, a beautiful park and a chance to get ahead” are all within walking distance.

On Tuesday, Donovan announced a new initiative, “70 Plans in 70 Days,” in which he will lay out one new policy proposal every day until the Democratic primary on June 22 — a meticulous approach he is hoping will set his candidacy apart from the crowded field as a “campaign of ideas.”

“The plan for New York City is the best expression of that, and I really do have the boldest, most comprehensive ideas about the future of this city,” Donovan boasted in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. “But I also have the deepest experience in government to be able to ensure that those ideas can make a real difference in people’s lives.”

Donovan’s proposals have, appropriately enough, earned plaudits from serious policy experts in New York. 

“I’ve been impressed with Shaun Donovan’s focus on getting New Yorkers back to work,” said Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director for the Center for an Urban Future. “He has identified a number of strong models that New York City can build on — from apprenticeship programs to nonprofit tech training — and made it clear that he would invest heavily in skills-building infrastructure. That’s what the city will need to rebound from the current crisis and build a more equitable economy in the future.”

But it remains to be seen if Donovan has the wherewithal to pull off an upset. Several analysts who spoke with JI described the mayoral hopeful as a “talented” individual, while also observing that, despite his policy chops, voters don’t seem to be rallying behind him.

Shaun Donovan, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, testifies at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee hearing on Nov. 6, 2013. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

“Shaun Donovan is a tremendously talented public servant,” said David Greenfield, the CEO of the Met Council and a former city council member. “The challenge that he faces is that he’s always sort of been in the background and therefore doesn’t have the same political profile as some of the more active and better-known political candidates, many of whom have either held office or run for higher-profile office before.”

Polling suggests as much. Donovan seems to be lagging significantly behind the apparent frontrunners in the race, including Andrew Yang, the charismatic former presidential candidate; Eric Adams, the brash Brooklyn borough president; and Scott Stringer, the seasoned city comptroller.

But Donovan remains uncowed, citing another set of statistics that he claims supports his case. “I wouldn’t trade my place in this race with anyone,” he said. “I think it’s reflected in polling that New Yorkers want change and they want experience at this moment, and I really believe I’m the only candidate that represents both of those in the sense that nearly every other candidate is, in some way, part of the status quo.”

Donovan, of course, isn’t exactly a fresh face in New York City government, though it has been some time since he was on the scene enacting what experts characterized as meaningful change.

From 2004 to 2009, he served as former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s housing commissioner, creating the city’s first inclusionary housing program offering “density bonuses to developers who agree to set aside units as affordable,” according to Ingrid Ellen, a professor at New York University who specializes in housing.

“He left a legacy of improving the lives of so many people who don’t have the means to get habitable housing,” said Rabbi David Niederman, president and executive director of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, who worked with Donovan on issues of affordable housing back in the aughts.

“I worked extremely closely with mayors across the country and saw, again and again, that particularly at a time when our national politics could be divisive and dysfunctional, mayors really touch people’s lives.”

Following his tenure in city government, Donovan accepted an appointment from former President Barack Obama to helm the Department of Housing and Urban Development, during which time he helped lead a revitalization task force in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, among other things.

“I worked extremely closely with mayors across the country and saw, again and again, that particularly at a time when our national politics could be divisive and dysfunctional, mayors really touch people’s lives,” said Donovan, who went on to lead the Office of Management and Budget under Obama. “They are close to the ground. They are the leaders that can make the most difference in the day-to-day lives of New Yorkers and people in their communities.”

In conversation with JI, Donovan, who was raised on the Upper East Side, emphasized his family’s own personal connection to New York as an explanation for why he is now mounting a mayoral bid. 

His father, Michael Donovan, an advertising executive, had Jewish, Catholic and Protestant grandparents, and was “beaten up as a child because of that,” Donovan said. Michael, who was born in Panama and grew up in Costa Rica, “had a deep connection to his Irish roots, but also a sense of being an outsider,” Donovan added. “He came to the U.S. to go to school like so many immigrants, and then came to New York to find opportunity, and found it.”

“I would say my entire family owes everything to New York in a fundamental way,” Donovan elaborated. “But at the same time, I also grew up in New York in the 1970s and ’80s. I saw homelessness exploding on the streets. I saw the South Bronx and so many other communities around the city struggling, even burning to the ground, and that really lit a fire in me to go to work on behalf of this city that I love.”

Shaun Donovan
Shaun Donovan

“My platform is really about repairing and rebuilding the city but also about reimagining it as a city that works for everyone,” said Donovan, who advocates for investments in bus rapid transit as well as keeping libraries open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so New Yorkers will have increased access to broadband.

But getting elected and implementing such policies is in many ways a more challenging task than earning an appointment to public office, particularly in New York, where many prominent figures have tried and failed to do so, including Joe Lhota, Richard Ravitch and Daniel Patrick Moynihan

“This is a longstanding challenge,” said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning who directs the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University. “It’s not unusual that people who succeed in appointed life can’t make it in New York City politics.”

Donovan seems intent on proving that he will be an exception to the rule. In the first TV ad of the race, released in February, he painted himself as a veteran of the Obama administration with ties to the current president, Joe Biden — though such appeals appear largely to have gone unnoticed as other candidates gain traction. 

“I would say my entire family owes everything to New York in a fundamental way.”

“Donovan’s going to have to do something creative over the next couple of months to be able to catch people’s attention and be, if not their number one choice, their second or third,” said Jake Dilemani, a managing director in Mercury’s New York office.

Donovan is now mounting an aggressive TV ad blitz as he seeks to earn name recognition in the new ranked-choice voting system, buoyed by $2 million in independent expenditures from his father. “I am following the law,” Donovan said of his father’s super PAC contributions in an interview with WNYC host Brian Lehrer on Tuesday. “There are dozens of these groups supporting many different candidates who are running, and I don’t coordinate with any of them.”

In the end, Donovan, who has staked out a position, for better or worse, as one of the brainiest candidates in the race, wants to focus on the ideas. “I think, especially in this moment of crisis, New Yorkers are really hungry for a mayor who has the boldest ideas about how we rebuild our health and our economy, how we make this a more equitable city.”

“Shaun Donovan is very smart, very capable and very knowledgeable about New York City,” Moss acknowledged. But in the highly competitive mayoral race, he said, “It’s not enough to be smart.”

Mark Levine, NYC’s pandemic darling, vies for Manhattan borough president

Before the pandemic, Mark Levine, a Democratic New York City councilmember who represents Upper Manhattan, was widely viewed as an ambitious lawmaker with a strong progressive bent. Beginning in 2014, his first year in office, Levine helped revitalize the council’s Jewish caucus into an activist vessel focused on matters impacting the Jewish community and beyond, while sponsoring historic legislation guaranteeing free legal representation for low-income tenants facing eviction.

But over the past year, Levine’s profile has risen dramatically as he has become one of New York’s most trusted public health resources on all matters COVID-19 — an unlikely role for the councilmember, who chairs the city’s health committee but has no experience in medicine. When the pandemic tore through New York last March, however, Levine emerged as an early, outspoken and sobering voice of reason, urging caution, championing science and, when appropriate, dispensing nuggets of restrained optimism from his widely followed Twitter feed — earning praise from one colleague as “the Anthony Fauci of the New York City Council.”

As the vaccine rollout continues apace, Levine’s social media presence has transformed into a veritable catalogue of available appointments as he seeks to ensure that residents across communities — particularly those that are underserved — schedule a time to get the shot.

“His platform has become one of the most important to follow for up-to-date information around vaccine access,” said Dara Kass, an associate clinical professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, lauding the councilmember’s steadfast effort to publicize city resources while advocating for real-time change when certain approaches proved ineffective. “I have seen him absolutely shine as a leader through this pandemic.”

David Greenfield, the Met Council CEO who worked closely with Levine during his time as a city councilmember from 2010 to 2017, said his former colleague “has attracted a citywide following” thanks to his work during the pandemic. “That has made him tremendously popular even outside of Manhattan.”

That reputation will no doubt serve Levine well as he now competes in the Democratic primary for Manhattan borough president, which will be held on June 22. While there is no public polling on the race, Levine is one of the most recognizable candidates in a crowded field that includes fellow Councilmember Ben Kallos, New York State Senator Brad Hoylman and former congressional candidate Lindsey Boylan

“I’m going to be a public health warrior for the rest of my life,” Levine said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. “As borough president, I will fight really hard for a full and just recovery from this pandemic.”

The 51-year-old councilmember announced his candidacy in January of 2020, just before the first confirmed coronavirus case was documented in New York, and has since raked in endorsements from a number of prominent city figures, including City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who is now running for mayor, Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), former Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) and former City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

Mark Levine

Though Levine was initially somewhat cavalier about the emerging pandemic, denouncing COVID-19 “fear mongering” in an early-February Twitter message featuring photos of an appearance at the crowded Lunar New Year Parade in Chinatown, his rhetoric shifted significantly when he and his wife, Ivelisse Suarez, contracted the virus. “It undoubtedly makes it more real and gives me authority to say that this is anything but just like the flu,” he said. “I see my role, as standing up for science, for equity, for compassion.”

As he takes stock of the pandemic, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives and shuttered untold numbers of small businesses in New York, Levine sees an opportunity in the wake of such devastation to advance sweeping change. Recovery, he argues, will need to address the glaring inequalities laid bare by the virus. He calls for “unprecedented investment” in universal healthcare as well as an expansion of the city’s parks system and renewed investment in mom-and-pop stores and the arts. “I’m running for borough president to take on the fight for our comeback,” he said.

Whether he will be in a position to enact such priorities as Manhattan borough president, a role that is largely viewed as ceremonial, depends on how effectively he can wield the limited number of responsibilities that fall under his purview. Levine, for his part, believes he’s up to the task. “I think the office is incredibly important, now more than ever, to lay out a bold agenda for this borough, and to use the many levers of the office to enact it,” he said, citing his ability to introduce legislation, appoint community board members and make recommendations around zoning, land use and preservation.

“I’m going to be a public health warrior for the rest of my life. As borough president, I will fight really hard for a full and just recovery from this pandemic.”

“What it really all adds up to is a very powerful platform for organizing, and this is how I’ve led in the council,” Levine asserted. “As one member in a body of 51, I don’t have absolute power, but we enacted right to counsel for tenants, really historic legislation, because I led a three-year organizing campaign. I think that my record as chair of the Jewish caucus proves that I can take on a role that has been seen as ceremonial and use it to organize for impact.”

Greenfield backed up that view. “I would say that he has tremendously impressive organizing skills,” the Met Council CEO said of Levine. “He really has a unique ability to bring people together, and his reign as the chair of the Jewish caucus was a very inclusive one where everybody, regardless of their background, felt welcome.”

Throughout his four years leading the caucus, Levine worked to address Jewish poverty, foster intergroup relations with other minority communities and raise awareness around antisemitism, which he personally experienced during his campaigns for City Council in 2013 and 2017. He also visited Israel on a delegation of council members. “We came under attack for that,” Levine recalled. “There’s a real double standard. There’s been delegation trips to Russia and Turkey and China that led to not a peep of protest. But our trip to Israel certainly, unfortunately, did.”

Over the summer, Levine spoke out against a questionnaire distributed by the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America asking that local candidates pledge not to visit Israel if elected. “I think it would be absurd to say that I couldn’t travel to visit my cousins,” said Levine, who has family in Israel and is fluent in Hebrew. He began learning the language in his 20s after visiting the Jewish state a number of times, and views it as “a central part” of his Jewish identity.

Mark Levine

Yiddish is on his to-do-list. “I wish I knew more,” he told JI. “The pandemic disrupted it.” Still, Levine said he has been working with a group of activist parents to create a dual-language Yiddish public school program as part of what he describes as his passion for dual-language education. “I fight hard for government communication to be more available in Yiddish,” Levine said, charging that the city’s failure to develop strong ties with Orthodox communities in New York “really hampered the public health effort” during the pandemic.

The Orthodox community has been “scapegoated in often ugly, vicious terms” throughout the course of the virus, Levine said. “I remember last March being asked by a reporter whether I thought there was something unique about Jewish ritual that makes us more vulnerable to the coronavirus,” he added. “So I’ve been outspoken about both the need for the city to be better about building ties to the community and pushing back against the kind of vicious scapegoating that has been an unfortunate feature of the last year.”

The Chicago-born politician, who grew up in Maryland, lives in Washington Heights with his wife and two sons, and attends Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation, a Reform synagogue. He first ran for City Council in 2001 and was long active in local Democratic politics before he assumed office seven years ago. “A phrase which motivates me every day when I get out of bed to do this work is tzedek tzedek tirdof,” Levine said, referring to a line from Deuteronomy that translates to “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” 

“It’s the pursuit of justice,” he said, “which our sages have taught us is such an essential value.”

“He’s not afraid to stand up for the Jewish community and for Israel,” said Greenfield. “I think that positions him well not just for Manhattan borough president but for future citywide office.”

“A phrase which motivates me every day when I get out of bed to do this work is tzedek tzedek tirdof.”

But as Levine prepares for the June election, he swats away any speculation of that kind, even as his newfound status as a de facto public health ambassador has likely introduced him to a number of voters who were unaware of him before the pandemic. “I’ve got my hands full with this race, and being borough president would be a dream job,” he said. “So no plans beyond that.”

He is also, of course, still busy raising awareness about the virus — a job he envisions folding into the borough presidency in one form or another if he is elected. “These are going to still be urgent matters come January 2022,”  said Levine, who is hopeful that the city will soon emerge from dormancy as New Yorkers get vaccinated. Still, “it will be, undoubtedly, a main focus for me as borough president for years.”

“It’s been a year-long fight, and I have seen clear communication as just a pillar of the public health response,” he told JI. “This fight is not over.”

Liz Crotty takes the middle path to Manhattan DA

Liz Crotty, one of eight Democratic candidates running for Manhattan district attorney, occupies something of a rarefied lane: She is the only avowed centrist in a field crowded with progressives who have pledged to reshape the office in dramatic fashion.

While some candidates brandish do-not-prosecute lists, Crotty argues that it is not in the job description to decide which crimes should be ignored. Where many of her opponents emphasize the need for increased police accountability, Crotty calls for more cops on the subways as well as a renewed focus on law and order. And while Crotty believes that “restorative justice” is in some cases a viable alternative to incarceration, she is not nearly as gung-ho about the concept as several others in the race.

“I thought that there was a real voice missing in this race as someone who’s a 21-year practitioner on both sides of the courtroom and really standing up for the good things that the DA’s office does,” Crotty, a former assistant district attorney who now practices criminal defense law, said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. “I really saw a lack of a voice for the everyday, ordinary New Yorker who wants to ride the train and feel safe.”

Lest she be branded as a conservative in overwhelmingly blue Manhattan, Crotty, 50, was quick to make clear that she is “a lifelong liberal Democrat” and that she wears that designation as “a badge of honor,” while cheekily adding: “The only time I voted Republican was not for [New York City Mayor Bill] de Blasio, so that’s the kind of Democrat I am.” 

Whether Crotty prevails in the upcoming election will, in several respects, function as a barometer of voters’ priorities for the next district attorney, who is poised to lead one of the most high-profile prosecutors’ offices in the country. Last year’s widespread protests against systemic racism — many of them in Manhattan — sparked a nationwide reckoning over criminal justice reform at the same time that violent crime spiked across New York City.

The recent DA race in Los Angeles may function as something of an early test case for how Manhattanites will weigh such concerns. In November, George Gascón, the godfather of the so-called progressive prosecutor’s movement, unseated the incumbent Democrat, Jackie Lacey, after she was targeted by Black Lives Matter activists for her failure to prosecute police officers.

In the Manhattan race, however, candidates have no incumbent to compete against as Cyrus Vance, Jr., prepares to step down at the end of the year after more than a decade in office. Not that he has avoided criticism from many candidates in the race, thanks in part to his decision not to pursue investigations into powerful New York figures like Harvey Weinstein and former President Donald Trump’s children.

The June primary includes a diverse field of candidates, including former federal prosecutors Tali Farhadian Weinstein and Alvin Bragg, former district attorneys Diana Florence and Lucy Lang, former public defender Eliza Orlins, state Assemblyman Dan Quart and civil rights attorney Tahanie Aboushi

Crotty, for her part, isn’t eager to praise the outgoing DA. But even as her views are, in many respects, out of step with her opponents, she believes she is walking a path Manhattanites will appreciate. 

“A lot of people in this race are speaking to a national, progressive platform, and not a localized, ‘what is going on here in Manhattan’ platform,” she said. “All politics are local, and I think they should speak to the problems that we’re seeing in New York — especially, since COVID, crime has risen, and I think we have to really speak to it. Being honest about what we’re seeing and what’s going on is more important than a political point of view.”

A New York native, Crotty attended Fordham University School of Law and then went on to serve as an assistant district attorney under Robert Morgenthau, whose emphasis on prosecuting white-collar criminals she vows to revive. 

After six years, she left the office to work at Kreindler & Kreindler, an aviation law firm in New York, and then started her own boutique criminal law practice, Crotty Saland PC, with Jeremy Saland, a former fellow assistant district attorney.

“There is no candidate that has done what she has, both served as a Manhattan prosecutor and been in the trenches on the other side as a defense attorney in the courts,” Saland said of his partner in an interview with JI. “I know Liz as somebody who is not just prone to getting along nor is she prone to some gimmicky slogans about justice. She’s done it, she’ll do it and she’ll believe what is right not just based on her own gut but based on facts, based on realities.”

“All politics are local, and I think they should speak to the problems that we’re seeing in New York — especially, since COVID, crime has risen, and I think we have to really speak to it. Being honest about what we’re seeing and what’s going on is more important than a political point of view.”

Crotty takes a measured approach to many of the hot topics in the race. She rejects calls to defund the police, for instance, while pointing out that it also isn’t within the district attorney’s purview to implement such changes. “The police play a vital role in the running of New York City,” she said. “Now, can the police do a better job? Sure, who couldn’t?”

“Police need to be trained longer and better and paid more, and I think that that’s what we need to be working on,” she added. “They are a stakeholder in the criminal justice system because they make arrests and then we decide what — or not — to prosecute from there. But it starts with an arrest. So I’m not willing to give up on the idea that police can do better.”

As for whether she will seek fewer prosecutions on, for example, drug possession, as some candidates have promised, Crotty was consistent. 

“The legislature is the one who decides what laws there should be and should not be, and as a constituent, I’m very happy they legalized marijuana,” she said, adding her belief that misdemeanors shouldn’t always lead to a criminal record or jail time. “But I think you definitely have to hold people accountable.”

That view applies to hate crimes, which have recently seen an uptick in New York. Though Crotty sees an upside to restorative justice, which seeks a form of mediation between victim and offender, “part and parcel of restorative justice is the defendant understanding that they did something wrong,” Crotty told JI. 

“I think a lot of hate crimes, some of them do come from ignorance, and I think you have to look to education,” she said. “But I think you have to really say, ‘Listen, we’re going to hold people accountable, especially in hate crimes, and especially in antisemitism.’”

“It’s not like we can’t be fair, and it’s not that the district attorney’s office can’t do better. But I understand that public safety in every neighborhood should be the priority of the next DA.”

But above all, Crotty vowed to prosecute violent crime in Manhattan, an approach she says she wouldn’t necessarily have prioritized if she were running for the office a year or two ago. 

“The 2019 platform for district attorney is way different than the 2021 platform for district attorney because crime has shifted,” she said, “and I think we have to be responsive to that.”

She believes reducing crime will take a multi-faceted approach that goes beyond the DA’s jurisdiction. “What is the mayor’s next plan for homelessness, for mental health services?” she said. “These are the things that are going to drive whether or not people get arrested.”

Ultimately, Crotty is confident her message will resonate because of her status as the race’s only self-identifying moderate. “The everyday, average New Yorker wants safety, and I think that I’m the candidate who’s been talking about it from the beginning, and I’ve never wavered,” Crotty said. “It’s not like we can’t be fair, and it’s not that the district attorney’s office can’t do better. But I understand that public safety in every neighborhood should be the priority of the next DA.”

“I’m actually running to prosecute crimes.”

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