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Jumaane Williams on the Campbell Conversations

Jumaane Williams
Jumaane Williams

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Jumaane Williams, one of the democratic candidates running for governor of New York. He's served as New York City's Public Advocate, or ombudsman, since 2019. For a decade prior to that, he represented a district in Brooklyn on the New York City Council.

Program Transcription:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to The Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is one of the Democratic candidates for governor in New York state. New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. He's been the city's public advocate or ombudsman since 2019 and for ten years prior to that, he represented a district in Brooklyn in the New York City Council. Public Advocate Williams welcome to the program.

Jumaane Williams: Good. Good morning. Good afternoon. Thank you so much, Grant. Always a pleasure. Appreciate being here.

GR: Well, we really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us. So let me just start with a very basic question and briefly, if you could. What is your case against electing Kathy Hochul as governor of New York?

JW: You know, quite frankly, one of the most irritating things I keep hearing leaders saying is that we have to return to normal and that to me says you don't really understand where we were before because normal didn't work for most New Yorkers. It didn't work for most people who are in Syracuse who have been struggling, trying to figure out how they're going to pay the rent, how they're going to pay the mortgage, how they're going to get good food, how they're going to get good health care. And so what I want to do is normalize people's lives. But I don't want to go back to where we were. And people know the dysfunction that had been Albany and are continuing to see the dysfunction that is happening here. And I said when I was running that unfortunately, I believe the current governor is going to be more of the same or worse. And the past several weeks have really borne that out. And we have a vision that actually uplifts the people who have been dealing with the worst of how Albany operates in Syracuse and across New York.

GR: I want to get into some of those things a little bit later. But let me just stick with these overview questions first. So why again, briefly, do you think you can do better than she can? What is your case for putting you in that office?

JW: We've been pretty consistent since I was a community organizer. That's before anybody knew what that was, because Barack Obama hadn’t been president. My mother asked me to please get a real job. And I had to explain to her it's a real job. Well, we've been pretty consistent on how we looked at government working. Then I got elected to the city council and now as a citywide elected official. When I was at the city council I was listed as the most productive council member. And in the past two years, we've passed more bills than almost all public advocates combined before me. And that was when people say we wouldn't be able to do it. Politics wouldn't work. Are you too much of an activist, are you too much this? And I said, no government has to work for people. And that means pushing back against status quo, but actually making sure government works. The Democratic Party that I belong to we have been terrible when it comes to speaking about public safety, in particular, speaking about things like taxes and the economy, just horrible at it. And we're letting other folks drive the narrative Those are actually areas that I've been leading on public safety, especially. I've been a leader on that conversation and helped New York City get to where it was in 2018, 2019 which is the numbers that people now look at because we were the safest we'd ever been. Gun violence has been something that I've always focused on. And as we can see across this state, and certainly across the country, those are very big issues and we have great experience and evidence-based ways to deal with it.

GR: Well, you've anticipated just about all the topics that I want to dive into a little bit in more depth. And before I do that now, let me ask you a question about the primary and how primary voters tend to vote and then the implications for that for upstate in particular. So as you well know, the primary voters tend to be more at the extremes of either party. And that could serve you well, because I think you are seen as running as the more progressive candidate, certainly in comparison to the incumbent. But can you reassure upstate Democratic primary voters that you're not too far out on the left edge in order to win a statewide general election?

JW: Well, one I always want to make sure we're being clear what we say when we say progressive because that Monica is often weaponized or adopted depending what benefits the person. If you had spoken to Andrew Cuomo, if you speak to Governor Hochul they will at points tell you, look, I too am progressive. Here is what I've done that is progressive, which says to me that the things that are being pushed are things that everybody wants, but people weaponize them politically. So when I go upstate, which I fell in love with running over this entire state, when I ran for lieutenant governor, what I found is there are differences culturally there differences in governments, beautiful differences that I see, what I found to be similar was people who are dealing with housing issues, who are dealing with public safety issues, who are dealing with health issues, who are dealing with not having enough health care or not having broadband to get the telehealth that they need. So there was certainly commonality in the buckets. If there were differences in how they played out. And so that to me says, Albany has a way to unite folks around these issues. So the question to answer is absolutely. My concerns that I've learned about being elected in New York City actually helped me when I ran for lieutenant governor dealing with those same issues all across the state. I also ran a statewide organization called Tenants and Neighbors many moons ago, dealing with housing issues as well. And so this is a we have to recognize and make sure we're always acknowledging the differences in quote-unquote, upstate, downstate, but also know that people sometimes use that to divide us in ways that we shouldn't be.

GR: You're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with New York City Public Advocate, Jumaane Williams, who's running for governor in this year's election. So you mentioned that you think that the Democratic Party has not been very good about talking about the economy, for example, and I wanted to ask you some questions related to that. New York state perennially ranks at or near the top of all the states in the country for tax burden. And since you're running on some of the issues that you're running on, whether we're going to call that more progressive or not, there would be, I think, some concern, particularly upstate, that you’d move the state even higher and its tax burden. Is there anything in your past record either on the city council or as public advocate that you could point to in order to address those concerns or alleviate them in some way?

JW: Well, one, when we talk about the tax burden, we have to talk about the cost of living. So New York state is often at the highest amount of cost of living in certain spaces. As well. As a matter of fact, in some parts of the state that are now the highest rents in the entire country, surpassing San Francisco. So the cost of living is a problem. So we have to make sure people can live here, too. I am actually in the middle of a lawsuit now with the former administration, mayoral administration in the city of how taxes are not equitable in the city and how particularly middle-class property owners were paying too much of a burden in their taxes. So I've been pretty consistent on this as well. At the same time, we believe middle-class, working-class, struggling folks who are paying more than fair share, more than their fair share, the people who actually gained more than $220 billion more than the state budget during this pandemic have to pay their fair share. There's no way around that. And so the governor unfortunately gained $20 million in a week after she told people, we're not going to raise any taxes on you. We want you to come back to New York. That's a Republican line that's meant to scare people that will never feel the impact. And so what we're saying is the struggling, working middle-class New Yorkers can't feel the impact of that. But the millionaires and billionaires who have not left this state, they just haven't even this governor's own budget director said that, the people who have left are the people who can't afford to stay here. We have to have a conversation with them about civic responsibility, doing what you have, doing what you can with what you have, where you are. And that includes paying a fair share so that people can get the health care that they need, can get the broadband that they need, can stay in their homes, can live in a safe space. And that is what leadership is about. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party has not been able to have that conversation.

GR: What other things would you be looking to do in order to better strengthen the state's economy?

JW: Well, you know, we have learned that the number one thing to deal with many of the issues of safety or whether it's violence is jobs. Like if you look at the data, one of the top ways to cut violent crime arrests of young people is an eight-week job. So I was proud to be one of the leaders in pushing us where we are to almost universal summer youth jobs in the city. That's something we have to look at in the state as well, making sure that our young people, particularly in the towns where they're most likely to get involved, are something to have and be occupied with a time and gain some experiences as well as some funding. You know, many of the tax breaks that we give to these bigger organizations that never pan out, whether it's the film studio in Syracuse, whether it’s the first Buffalo billion or now the second Buffalo billion that never get the economy going the way people say it should, that those same tax breaks can be given to small business owners with the same requirements to hire jobs and frankly, to small business owners in Syracuse are more likely to hire the people in their neighborhoods then the big conglomerates that get these tax breaks and having been a small business owner myself I understand how tough it is to operate in the space. We are not getting some of the support that you need. But you want to do the best you can for your family and for your community. So I think about those things and often think I'm best situated when I'm, you know, making sure workers have the money they need. But as a small business owner myself, understanding what it's like to try to navigate these spaces.

GR: You connected some of the things you'd like to do with the economy to crime in a way, you know, providing work experiences for youth, particularly disadvantaged youth. And you also mentioned earlier that you've noted that the Democratic Party, you think, hasn't done a good job in talking about crime and addressing crime. And so I want to ask you a few questions about that. First of all, in the last year, bail reform and criminal justice reform more generally have been big issues. And they've gotten a lot of ink. Lowering the spike in crime, which you alluded to, is also a top concern among state's voters. The surveys of the public in New York are showing that over and over again. So what changes would you like to make again statewide to address issues of crime and particularly in New York City, where there's been a big spike of it, violent crime in particular?

JW: Well, one is we have to make sure we're putting this in some kind of context. If you're a victim of crime, by the way, data means absolutely nothing to you. You could be the one person that was harmed. And we say, oh, it was only one person. And we say, that doesn't matter to you. At the same time, as leaders, we have to look at what's happening and what's trending and what we see happening across this entire nation. Is crime going up in transit hubs across the nation, un violence going up in states that have never changed their bail reform and that also already consider dangerousness. So that doesn't mean we shouldn't look at these things but we have to look at it with some kind of lens. What I do know is that every New Yorker wants to be safe and feel safe. Those are two different things. My mother, who's… a bullet went through her car door while I was parked in front of her home, is one of them. And I think about those all the time. I think about the people I lost who are no longer here. I went to school with because of gun violence. And I was told that simply and only sending police will solve the problem. And we found that not to be true. So one thing the former governor almost got right is he withdrew municipalities funding and said, I won't give it to you until you give me a policing plan. We said to the governor, don't do that. What we need to do is give a public safety plan of which policing will be a part of. But these communities have been dealing with so many issues for such a long time that we have to link all those things together. And that will provide a hub of safety for those communities. And no one has been able to do that because people are pandering. And are more worried about getting elected than keeping us safe. We asked for $1,000,000,000 for gun violence prevention youth program and also victims services. People lift up victims of bad policy but don't provide the services they need. We could not get that billion dollars in the budget. What if we had a governor who would hold up the budget, say, we have to have this funding in there so that we can deal with these issues? But what we did get was a governor who held the budget to give $1,000,000,000 to a billionaire in Buffalo to build a stadium that's not even in the city dealing with those issues. And so it's very important to have someone who's not just learning on the fly how to deal with these issues that understand our police and our law enforcement. We have to lift them up because they're actually doing some hard work getting these guns off the streets. And we want to make sure we're doing with transparency and accountability. But if we really want to help them, we have to stop asking them to solve all of the problems. And so any way you go in the state we see our law enforcement have access to unlimited overtime but our departments of mental health do not. Our Department of Social Services do not. And so we have to make sure we're having a full conversation on this. And we've been unable to do that and allowing other people to run bad conversations.

GR: I have a quick follow-up question on that, but we'll have to take a break first. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO, Public Media I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm talking with current New York City Public Advocate and former city council member Jumaane Williams. The Democrat is running for New York State Governor in this year's election. Before the break, Public Advocate Williams, you made a distinction between a public safety plan and a policing plan. And I wanted to ask you more about that. You're also talking about not putting all the burden on crime reduction on police, but on the broader issues that lie underneath that. You have been in the past a proponent of what's been called the defund the police movement. And I wanted to give you a chance to explain what that means to you and whether you're rethinking your commitment to that. To that label, in light of the increase in violent crime that we've been talking about.

JW: You know what's most interesting I ask folks who bring that up. I say, if you could do me a favor and please find one video not two just one of me saying defund the police. I'd love to see it. You actually won't be able to because I've never said it. And that was because at the moment in time, even when I was, you know, out on the street trying to make sure people can express themselves the way they are without feeling undue fear. I thought at the time that may not be the best way to express what people were thinking. But what I said to my leaders and my colleagues, our job cannot be to focus on telling people in the street how to express their pain and trauma. Our job is to take that pain and trauma and turn it into real policies and solutions that will keep people safe. And unfortunately, we failed at that. We had a wonderful opportunity to have a discussion about public safety, and we missed it because people got focused on this word that was being weaponized again, instead of doing the hard work, making the hard decisions to keep people safe. And when you talk to folks about, you know, should police be responding to mental health crisis, everybody says no. And then if you say, well, why don't they have the proper funding to do those things? Everybody says that's true. And I agree. And so there are ways to have this conversation. If people were less worried about winning an election and more worried about keeping New Yorkers safe. And that is a campaign that I've always run, and that's the campaign that I'm running right now.

GR: I took that assertion about your endorsement of that phrase from news reports of. So I guess I fell into that trap myself. Well, let me move to a different topic related to crime and I know it's something that all of our listeners are aware of, and I know it's something that you've been thinking a lot about. And that's the particularly disturbing and heinous crime that recently occurred in Buffalo, the racially motivated mass shooting that left 10 people dead. Are there changes in the policies or laws at the state level that you as governor would be pushing for that would help lower the likelihood of future events like that happening?

JW: That was such a traumatic event for everyone, especially those communities that seemed to be besieged with violence from every direction. We put out a report. My second or third report actually in over a decade on gun violence and public safety. In that report, we actually raised the issues of red flags and having to strengthen that law and having to make sure that it's enforced because we knew that that could be a problem. And had that been adhered to, this may not have happened. You know, access to guns, unlimited access to guns is a problem that the federal government has to do better at. That is just, that is what I call the supply side. The demand side is something that we can work on. So when we ask folks for funding to help prevent hate crimes, help prevent gun violence, we mean it. I was incensed by that crime. I was also incensed that the governor came on and talked about the area of Buffalo being a food desert, being a transportation desert, and then saying, oh, I'm 10 minutes away. I understand that pain. In my head, I'm thinking to myself, didn't you know this beforehand? Didn't you have an opportunity to deal with those issues beforehand? I guarantee you, 10 minutes away, where you live is not a food desert, and where you live is not a transportation desert. Now we're talking about these issues and now all of a sudden you've learned that these issues are there. And so what I want to look at is gun violence in its totality. The gun violence that hate crime was related to and the gun violence that just killed an 11-year-old child in New York City. And we have to look at those things together because some of the answers are together on those. And if we have a governor that's just discovering some of the problems, that's a problem. I've been working on this since the governor was accepting an “A” rating from the NRA and bragging about it. And I'm proud of us being able to help address some of that and getting our city to 2018 and 2019. I would like to do that same for the state because from Buffalo to Syracuse to Brooklyn, many of the same communities are dealing with the same thing. So I agree we have to deal with hate. And even in our social media, we have to deal with access to those type of guns. We have to deal with mental health issues, we have to deal with a whole bunch of issues as well when we're looking at violent crime and public safety.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media and my guest is New York gubernatorial candidate, New York City Public Advocate, Jumaane Williams. Well, you mentioned Governor Hochul there, and I wanted to ask you a question about her more political one, again, related to upstate, and that is that she is the first female governor in the state but she's also the first upstate governor in many, many decades. If you were elected, you would be another city New York City Democrat. So why should voters here in our upstate listening area want to change that and risk losing the understanding and the influence that they might feel that they have in the governor's office by having an upstate governor?

JW: You know, first I want to say you know that last question, has been bothering me for a while, I waited some time to speak on it because I thought I wanted to give folks some time to mourn and go through what they're going through. But it is time to speak about you know, how we're going to deal with these issues going forward. But, you know, to your question, there's never been a woman elected governor. There's never been a black person elected governor. Either of us can make history. I do think it's important to have both voices and women's voices in these spaces. So that's really important. And I can see the importance of having a geographic representation as well. What's more important to me is that whoever's there, it's not the identity they have would actually mean they're going to fight for the things that those identities mean for me. And what I have seen from this governor, from when I ran for lieutenant governor, I said, what if we had a lieutenant governor that when the time comes, we'll speak up for everyone who's being harmed? Upstate, women, black and brown people. We didn't have that until we lost over 70,000 people in a pandemic. And people then began to have the courage as this governor was on his downward spiral. We needed that courage before. And so what we've shown as we run and show our experience is that we've always had the courage to speak up for women, to speak up for black and brown New Yorkers, to speak up for working-class New Yorkers, to speak up for upstaters who are dealing with some of the similar issues we're dealing with downstate, making sure we're using our collective abilities to fight for these things. And we did that despite the political repercussions that could come. And that's the type of leader you need as governor. I always say on the first day, I believe if this governor was elected, she'd be trying to figure out how to get reelected. I'd be trying to figure out how to shake up Albany as much as possible and do as much damage, I think, to the way Albany has been operating because it hasn't helped people in Syracuse and it hasn't helped the struggling and working New Yorkers.

GR: We've got about 4 minutes left, but actually, you provided the perfect segue way to the last couple of questions I wanted to ask you, because I did want to give you some time to talk about the way Albany works and voters perceptions of that. And certainly, I think it's fair to say that every gubernatorial candidate says that they're going to change the political culture of Albany and none of them, at least to my knowledge, in recent decades, have succeeded. You could say that Andrew Cuomo arguably made that climate even worse than it was. So what's going to be your secret? I asked this question in a previous interview with Congressman Suozzi. I said, what is your secret sauce? But what is going to be your secret sauce to change Albany? It seems like it's an impossible task.

JW: Well, the only thing I can say is that you should look at all of our histories in politics. And you will see my experience going against the status quo and changing how we make decisions and not only that still being productive and making government work. And that's really important. I am more proud of how I lost the lieutenant governor's race by just a few percentage points than I would have been of how Kathy Hochul won it. Because to do that, you had to be attached to someone who I know was going to be harmful. And even if that meant better for my political career, that's not something I was willing to do because I'm really in this because I want to help New Yorkers not because I want to get elected, which, you know, I always say I didn't get elected to get reelected or go to high office. I want to do both of those things. So I want to be clear that the main purpose is to help New Yorkers, and that's been throughout my entire career. And that's there. And you can see it. And that's one of the differences is, you know, it's OK. And I think the Democratic parties understand it's OK sometimes to lose an election, but it's not OK to harm New Yorkers. And we see what's happening with these elections and these lines. It's all because of people trying to be as greedy as possible. And now we have confusion beset upon our state when it comes to these elections. And the worst thing we could have done, which is this governor has done, was choose a lieutenant governor because he needed someone who fit a bunch of checkmarks from a swing district at the same time saying that Congress needs as many Democrats as possible. How selfish is that in terms of how we look at our politics but I'm thankful our track record does not show that type of selfishness. It does show doing what's possible to help New Yorkers, which is why at times we don't get the same amount of money as folks get and the same amount of endorsement from establishments. But that's OK because the voters have continued to show that our message is the one that people want to see.

GR: And you've already spoken to this, I think, at several points. But this is my last question. We've only got about a minute left. If you could state this in a nutshell. Why is Albany so dogged by this political corruption, or at least the appearance of it, if not the reality? But certainly, it's a perennial problem. What is the kernel of the problem?

JW: The kernel of the problem is that we have to elect people who realize the seat that they're holding is not more important than the people they represent. And that people are making decisions continually because of this, we need to protect status quo. Jay Jacobs and the current governor who are leaders of this party have fallen into the same trap that Democrats always fall in. They're better at giving boogie boogeymen for people to vote against. What we're trying to do is give a reason for people to vote for. Both parties do the same. But the Republican side now, the voters have begun to say and tell them, we are going to support non-status-quo elected officials. That's harmful, I think, because the things that they're pushing are very harmful. But the Democrats, on the other hand, are doing all they can to hold on to status quo elected officials from 2016 to now. And the results have been disastrous. And we have a campaign to change that.

GR: That's great. We'll have to leave it there. That was New York City Public Advocate, Jumaane Williams. The Democratic primary for governor is June 28. Early voting begins on June 18. And absentee ballots must be requested by June 13. You can also find my earlier interview with Congressman Tom Suozzi, who is another Democrat vying for the nomination on The Campbell Conversations web page. Public Advocate Williams, I want to thank you again for taking the time to talk with me.

JW: Thank you. Have a great weekend and rest of the week for you as well.

GR: Thank you. You've been listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

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Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.