Robert Cornegy’s crowning heights

With his towering 6-foot-10 frame topped by a bundle of impressive dreadlocks, Robert Cornegy, Jr., a New York City councilmember who until recently claimed the title of tallest politician in the world, was hard to miss as he sauntered into Basquiat’s Bottle, a trendy bar and restaurant on a commercial drag in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. 

“This is one of the restaurants that’s kind of central to the community,” Cornegy, 55, told Jewish Insider on a recent Sunday afternoon, settling in at a table in the back while contemplating an order of shrimp and grits.

Cornegy, whose district includes Bedford-Stuyvesant as well as Crown Heights, is now competing for the more high-profile role of Brooklyn borough president — and he has been savoring the opportunity to step away from Zoom, hit the pavement and make a more personal impression on potential voters with just weeks remaining until the June 22 Democratic primary.

“Because I’m such an attraction, I’m used to meeting people and engaging people,” said Cornegy, who wasn’t boasting so much as accurately characterizing his striking height. “I’m on the doors, I’m in the streets, I’m in bars, I’m in restaurants talking to people. When people generally get a chance to speak to me and know me, whether they’re with me or not, they walk away with a solid impression.”

But Cornegy is relying on more than just his memorable presence as he jockeys to succeed Eric Adams, the outgoing borough president and mayoral hopeful. In recent months, Cornegy has established himself as a leading contender in the crowded field of more than a dozen candidates, tying for first place in one poll alongside fellow city councilmember Antonio Reynoso, with Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, who leads in fundraising, not far behind. 

Robert Cornegy in Coney Island (Courtesy)

While Reynoso has pulled in support from a number of leading progressives, Cornegy is carving out a center-left lane, having earned endorsements from several prominent Jewish community leaders as well as influential celebrities including Tracy Morgan and Spike Lee. 

Facing term limits in the City Council, where he has served since 2014, Cornegy believes that he is best qualified to usher his home borough into a post-pandemic era, citing his current role leading the housing and buildings committee as well as his prior experience chairing the small business committee.

“During the pandemic, it became incredibly evident to me that whoever was going to lead this borough had to have a solid understanding for the recovery process of small business and job creation and responsible development,” said Cornegy, who is also chairman of the council’s Democratic Conference. “While we try to fight for affordability in an ever-increasing, unaffordable borough, the person couldn’t be just a ‘no, no, no’ person. It had to be somebody who was willing to fight the hard fight around affordability and who had some acumen within that.”

The borough presidency is largely ceremonial, holding some substantive duties like community board appointments and zoning and land use recommendations. But Cornegy says he is excited by the role because it nevertheless represents a powerful platform. 

“We have the largest bully pulpit probably in the state outside of the mayor of New York and the governor,” he argued, indicating that the primary pillars of his campaign are job growth, affordable housing and public safety — perhaps the issue on which he is most passionate.

The city councilman was an active presence last summer at social justice demonstrations in his district, where a Black Lives Matter mural was painted in bright yellow letters onto a block-length stretch of Fulton Street he helped turn into a pedestrian plaza. But while Cornegy advocates for increased policy accountability, he has distanced himself from efforts to defund or abolish the police. 

“I don’t think it’s mutually exclusive to demand reform and accountability in the criminal justice system — I’m a Black man in America — while still supporting a platform for solid public safety,” said Cornegy. “I don’t think you have to abandon one for the other.”

He says his constituents are largely in agreement with his views. “My community, the community of Bedford-Stuyvesant and northern Crown Heights, has never demanded abolishing or defunding the police,” said Cornegy, who believes that police officers should live in the neighborhoods they work in and advocates for the establishment of a mental health emergency response unit. “They’ve demanded policing in their communities that didn’t violate their civil and human rights, and I think most people would agree with that as a narrative.”

Henry Butler and City Councilman Robert Cornegy speak during “The Last O.G. Season 2” Garden Party For Good at the Hattie Carthan Community Garden in Brooklyn on March 28, 2019 in New York City. 547100 (Credit: Mike Coppola/Getty Images for TBS)

Still, Cornegy has found himself at odds with progressives who support more sweeping reforms. “He’s trying to signal that he understands policing is a problem, but almost every elected official is saying that,” said Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the author of The End of Policing. “He does support some small investments in non-police public safety strategies, but those proposals are very small in scale and don’t reduce the burden of policing.”

Cornegy took issue with such criticism, noting that he is deeply engaged in reform efforts, pointing to his sponsorship of a chokehold criminalization bill as well as his support for ending qualified immunity, which has long protected police officers from wrongdoing. 

“I can go all the way back where we’ve been witnessing this regularly in our communities and trying to find a substantive way for long-term, substantial change, and have been working towards that,” he told JI. “I think that there was a little bit of a disregard for that hard work that some of us have put in.”

Others have appreciated his approach. “Security is a major issue, especially considering all the anitsmeitic incidents,” said Leon Goldenberg, a prominent Orthodox Jewish real estate executive and talk radio host in Midwood who, as a member of the Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition, recently endorsed Cornegy.

If elected, Cornegy said he will use the borough president’s office as a “sanctuary” for victims of hate crimes while working to assemble a task force for attacks within Brooklyn. “In order to get a hate crime designation, it takes almost an act of god,” said Cornegy, who adds that he will encourage Brooklyn’s district attorney to act more forcefully on such designations. “This kind of hatred, unchecked, only escalates.”

Cornegy has longstanding ties with Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community thanks in part, he said, to his support for causes like security funding of yeshivas. “My agenda for public safety certainly encompasses the Orthodox community and my narrative around public safety,” he said.

Such relationships, he says, have only accrued over time. “I celebrate the fact that, yes, while I’ve gotten Orthodox support,” Cornegy said, “it has come out of hard work together.” 

Robert Cornegy in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn (Courtesy)

“I’ve worked on behalf of an issue that was germane to a particular demographic, and so that demographic now feels confident that, as a Black man, I could still have Jewish issues or Hispanic issues or Polish issues. I have a Polish contingency,” Cornegy told JI. “But those are all forged out of doing work that positively impacted those communities. So there’s this kind of feeling that, ‘OK, he’s Black, but he has a larger view of what the needs of public communities outside of his own are, and potentially can advocate on our behalf as well.’”

“I would say his claim to fame is he’s really a consensus builder,” said David Greenfield, the CEO of the Met Council and a former city councilman who served alongside Cornegy. “In Brooklyn, which is a big, complicated, complex borough, he’s done a good job bringing people together.”

The son of a Southern Baptist minister who grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Cornegy — now a father of six — played basketball at St. John’s University, went to the Final Four and then played professionally overseas for 15 years. He spent some of that time playing in Israel in the early ’90s — while also living briefly on a kibbutz because he wanted to immerse himself in the culture — an experience he describes as formative. “I played on teams where they were professional athletes and still served in the military,” he recalled. “When I would ask why, there was a level of patriotism that existed that I didn’t even think existed in the United States.” 

“I’m a patriot,” Cornegy said. “I love the United States of America. But I hadn’t seen that before.”

Cornegy described the recent violence between Israel and Hamas as “incredibly disturbing,” adding: “I was there, and I understand protecting your homeland from people who really have to do that on a consistent basis.” 

“Because we’re such a diverse borough, it is always on my mind how to bring peace here, at least, because you’ll see that there are conflicts that are happening on our homeland because of what’s happening there,” Cornegy told JI. “That disturbs me a lot, because for the most part, here in the borough, we kind of live cohesively together, and I’m always thinking about what can I do as the Brooklyn borough president to alleviate some of that pressure that people are experiencing.”

Robert Cornegy at a rally

That impulse was on display, on a smaller scale, at Basquiat’s Bottle in Bedford-Stuyvesant the other day, when a kitchen worker approached Cornegy to thank him for providing a free suit for his graduation not long ago. And although the city councilman only had a glass of water, he still bought a round of drinks for the wait staff — he abstained — rather than leaving the restaurant without having ordered anything.

It was clear that Cornegy was enjoying his status as a kind of community fixture as he campaigns for the opportunity to expand his web of connections.

Cornegy gained some prominence outside of Brooklyn when, having undergone a rigorous vetting process, Guinness World Records deemed him the world’s tallest politician a couple of years ago. But he lost his crown after an insurance commissioner in North Dakota beat him by a centimeter. “A centimeter,” Cornegy emphasized, sounding a note of amused annoyance, “and some obscure elective role that I’ve never even heard of before.”

He didn’t seem too bothered by it, though. “I’m still the people’s champ here in New York,” he said. “I’ll take that.”

Dianne Morales veers from mayoral pack on Gaza

Donning their foreign policy hats, candidates in New York City’s hotly contested mayoral race were quick to weigh in as violence erupted between Israel and Hamas this week. “I stand proudly with Israel,” former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire pronounced Monday evening in a statement later echoed by Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president. Andrew Yang, the apparent frontrunner who has earned key endorsements from several Orthodox Jewish leaders, also made sure to signal his unwavering support for the Jewish state. “I’m standing with the people of Israel,” he said, condemning “the Hamas terrorists.”

The lone dissenting voice was Dianne Morales, the outspoken former nonprofit executive who, by varying degrees, has positioned herself to the left of every leading candidate in the crowded Democratic primary field. “Our world needs leaders who recognize humanity and the dignity of all lives,” Morales wrote on Twitter early Tuesday morning. “Whether in NYC, Colombia, Brazil or Israel-Palestine, state violence is wrong. Targeting civilians is wrong. Killing children is wrong. Full stop.”

With her statement, rhetorically limp by pro-Israel standards, Morales demonstrated that she is willing to stray from the pack on an issue where most mainstream Democratic candidates in New York, home to the largest Jewish population in the United States, are usually aligned. While the majority of her opponents identify as solidly pro-Israel, Morales has veered in the opposite direction.

During a private virtual event with Jewish high school students last December, for instance, Morales accused Israel of “apartheid” while describing a 2015 mission sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York as “propaganda,” according to leaked audio obtained by The Forward

“I’ve been to Israel, and I participated in what would be considered a propaganda trip,” Morales said bluntly in the recording. “The country is beautiful, so I understand why everybody wants a piece of it. That being said, I believe that Israel is an apartheid state. I think that is highly problematic. I cannot advocate for equity and justice in New York City and turn a blind eye to the challenges around those issues in Israel and with the folks living in Gaza and in Palestine.”

Dianne Morales at a march for transgender rights. (Courtesy)

Dianne Morales at a march for transgender rights. (Courtesy)

In a recent interview with Jewish Insider, however, Morales seemed hesitant to invoke the same feisty rhetoric. “The first thing that’s really important to say is that I really appreciate the opportunity to have taken that trip,” Morales said of her week-long excursion with the JCRC, which has been leading missions to Israel for more than two decades. “JCRC does really incredibly important work for the community of New Yorkers around leadership development and advocacy for the Jewish community, and I certainly look forward to continuing to support that work as mayor.”

But Morales admitted to harboring “really complicated feelings” about her visit. “I see myself as a champion for equal rights and protections under the law,” she said, without making mention of  “apartheid.” “I don’t think any child should be denied the right to a home or to their full potential and that everyone deserves to be free of state violence.” 

Even having softened her views somewhat, Morales’s public and private comments would almost certainly have come at a cost in previous mayoral races. Instead, it is Yang who has drawn intense feedback for his pro-Israel views. After his Monday night tweet, Yang found himself uninvited from a Ramadan event as pro-Palestinian activists disrupted a campaign stop in Queens. “Utterly shameful,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said of Yang’s comments.

By Wednesday morning, Yang had clarified his initial statement, sending out a white flag of contrition to his 1.9 million Twitter followers. “I mourn for every Palestinian life taken before its time as I do for every Israeli,” he said in a lengthy statement. 

“I’ve been to Israel, and I participated in what would be considered a propaganda trip,” Morales was recorded saying. “The country is beautiful, so I understand why everybody wants a piece of it. That being said, I believe that Israel is an apartheid state. I think that is highly problematic. I cannot advocate for equity and justice in New York City and turn a blind eye to the challenges around those issues in Israel and with the folks living in Gaza and in Palestine.”

Adams, too, has faced some criticism for defending Israel in the conflict with Gaza. Earlier this week, the Muslim Action Network announced that it was pulling its endorsement of Adams, claiming he had “failed to take a principled stance.”

For her part, Morales appears to be gaining a modicum of momentum as she slipstreams behind New York’s ascendant far-left, which has carved out prominent footholds at the state and federal levels in recent years. “We’ve been defying all kinds of expectations and also bucking the traditions as to what criteria you need to have in order to be considered viable or a contender,” she told JI. “This campaign is, in fact, resonating with New Yorkers.”

That boast comes with some supporting evidence. Having lagged behind her opponents in most polls, Morales suddenly found herself in third place with 12% of the vote, just four points behind Adams, who topped the list, according to a survey commissioned by the Hotel Trade Council’s political arm and released earlier this week. Those numbers suggest that the June 22 Democratic primary remains in flux as underdog candidates like Morales and Kathryn Garcia, the city’s former sanitation chief who received a surprise endorsement from the The New York Times on Monday, show signs of life. 

Further scrambling the dynamics, Scott Stringer, the city comptroller and until recently the leading progressive candidate in the race, was rocked by allegations of sexual assault that have hobbled his once formidable campaign. Morales, who has called for Stringer to withdraw his name from the ballot, believes his embattled position has likely pushed some voters to her side as she notches new endorsements that would otherwise have gone his way. 

“I think it’s freed people up who might have felt indebted to him to feel like they can back me or support me or be louder about supporting me,” Morales said, while making sure to add that her grassroots campaign would be cresting with or without the scandal. “We’re just starting to surge,” she said. “The groundwork for that has been laid over the course of the last year.”

***

Morales, a resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant, announced her campaign last November with the hope of becoming New York’s first Afro-Latina mayor. A former employee in the city’s Department of Education, she served for a decade as the executive director and CEO of Phipps Neighborhoods, an affordable housing nonprofit in the Bronx, before seeking office as a first-time candidate. “I spent my entire career actually working on the ground,” said Morales, casting herself as a candidate of the people, “helping communities that have just been historically disenfranchised, underserved, marginalized.”

“She was the most believable, transparent candidate that I met,” said Harvey Epstein, a state assemblyman in Manhattan who endorsed Morales in March. “She had a plan that was achievable and she had a track record that proved she could get things done.”

The platform Morales puts forth is unapologetically progressive, including a municipal Green New Deal, a public bank for underserved New Yorkers and a plan to provide free college education through the city’s public university system.

“She is predictably consistent on the left side of the spectrum,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, “opposing screens in school admissions, looking toward a highly collaborative form of school governance that gives greater weight to community education councils and parents than most other candidates have indicated.”

Perhaps most notably, Morales is the only candidate in the race who wholeheartedly supports defunding the police. “I understand that the language of defunding is scary to some,” she acknowledged. “But what it really means is that we need to be investing in alternative services and supports for our community members.”

After a shooting in Times Square last weekend, most candidates struck a balance in their messaging on public safety, calling for robust policing while emphasizing a need for reform. But Morales rejects such rhetoric, notwithstanding a violent crime surge that has put many New Yorkers on edge as the city emerges from a destabilizing pandemic. “We’ve seen the escalation in violence despite the fact that there actually has been no real decrease in policing, despite the fact that Times Square is one of the most heavily surveilled communities in the city,” she argued. “I think that we have to debunk the idea that the police are actually creating safer communities.”

Morales advocates for a “multi-pronged” response amid an uptick in hate crimes against Jews and Asian-Americans. “I think antisemitism, anti-Asian violence, anti-Black violence, all of these things are rooted in white supremacy,” she said, while advocating for a humanistic approach to public education that embraces differences. “From a social perspective, I think we need to meet the needs of communities,” Morales continued. “I think the systems right now pit communities against each other and fosters this sort of us-them dynamic, and we need to actually counter that and really sort of lift up this perspective of solidarity and combating these things together.”

Dianne Morales at a rally for Breonna Taylor. (Courtesy)

“I truly believe that all communities that have been historically marginalized or oppressed or harmed deserve to be centered and prioritized moving forward, and to me, that includes the Jewish community,” Morales said, adding: “I understand the history of oppression and discrimination and exclusion and the fear that so often can instill in people. I’m committed to actually creating a safe city for all of us to coexist peacefully and with dignity.”

Morales’s message appears to be falling on receptive ears. Her coalition, she says, represents a diverse patchwork of New York City’s voting populace, including teachers, LGBTQ voters and Hispanic women. Unemployed workers, according to Morales, make up 30% of her donor base. Morales has also been buoyed by a passionate young fan base of volunteers as well as digitally savvy supporters who are enthusiastically promoting her campaign on social media.

Last month, Morales notched an endorsement from the Jewish Vote, the political arm of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, whose 6,000 members live mostly in New York. “We want to make sure that the next New York City mayor is fighting to really transform New York City and fighting for people who are working-class and fighting for racial justice,” Sasha Kesler, who sits on the Jewish Vote’s steering committee, told JI in an interview. “Dianne fit the bill.”

“We want a mayor who takes a firm, principled stance against forms of state violence, militarism and abuse,” Kesler added, expressing her appreciation for Morales’s recent comment on the conflict between Israel and Gaza. “That’s what she said in her message.”

JFREJ says it remains neutral on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, only opposing efforts to criminalize BDS on free speech grounds — and Morales echoed that view in conversation with JI.  “We should not create an environment that penalizes people’s right to organize and protest,” she said, adding: “That being said, that doesn’t mean I support hate or fear mongering or antisemitism. I don’t think that those two things are one and the same.”

“I truly believe that all communities that have been historically marginalized or oppressed or harmed deserve to be centered and prioritized moving forward, and to me, that includes the Jewish community.”

Asked for her personal stance on the BDS movement — which is rejected by almost every mayoral candidate in the race as well as by a number of the most progressive candidates now running for public office across the country — Morales was noncommittal. “As a candidate and the mayor of New York City, it’s less important what I believe than what I’m going to uphold for New Yorkers,” she said. “I am going to uphold that it not be criminalized.”

Morales was equally hesitant to weigh in on a controversial questionnaire, distributed last summer by the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, asking that City Council candidates pledge not to visit Israel. “I never actually saw the questionnaire,” she said. “But what I understood was that it was just poorly worded.”

Morales said she was open to visiting Israel again if she is elected —  something of a rite of passage for New York City mayors. Bill de Blasio, the outgoing two-term mayor, toured the Jewish state on a 48-hour trip in his second year in office. But Morales made clear that any future visit would likely be on her own terms. “I’m not opposed to visiting Israel,” she said. “I would want to do that independently rather than through any kind of sponsored trip because I think it’s important to being able to maintain my own sort of independence, judgment and decision-making.”

Ultimately, Morales was reluctant to discuss such issues in much depth, despite her apparent readiness to speak out on social media and in at least one private forum. “I don’t want to distract from the race that I am in,” she said. “If I had wanted to get mired in the international stuff, I’d probably run for a different thing.”

But while New York City mayors wield no direct influence over foreign policy, Morales may discover that the scope of the job is broader than she expects. 

“There was a time in New York City politics, years back, that if you ran for mayor you had to go immediately and visit the three ‘I’s: Italy, Ireland and Israel,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic consultant in New York. “Now the ethnic population has shifted, so what’s left? Just one ‘I,’ and that’s Israel.”

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.”

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered daily in a must-read newsletter.