A Q&A with the Upper Manhattan Councilmember
Given his standing among his colleagues and recent developments surrounding other candidates, Councilmember Mark Levine is well-positioned to become the next (and first Jewish) speaker of the City Council. While the public doesn’t vote in this election, NYJL wanted to give our readers a better chance to know Mr. Levine in advance of his possible selection as speaker of the City Council. In the following Q&A we discuss his role as chair of the City Council’s Jewish Caucus, Donald Trump, his favorite bakery and more.
NYJL: You represent a City Council district in Upper Manhattan, and have lived in Chicago, Maryland and Sevilla in Spain. What made you choose Manhattan to settle down?
ML: Once you fall in love with New York you’re hooked for life. I taught math and science at a South Bronx school at a time when violence and poverty were the dominant facts of life there. Afterwards I founded a credit union in Upper Manhattan so people from that community could access capital to start small businesses. I ran for City Council in Upper Manhattan, and was honored to be awarded a second term by my constituents last month. I hope to spend the rest of my life in this amazing city.
NYJL: Can you tell our readers a bit about what your responsibilities are as chair of the City Council Jewish Caucus?
ML: New York has always been a beacon for members of the Jewish community around the world, second only to Israel. The Jewish community in the five boroughs is wonderfully vibrant and extraordinarily diverse, both economically and culturally. The city spends tens of millions of dollars on nonprofits serving different segments of the community, from Holocaust survivors to the elderly to cultural groups. The caucus seeks to ensure that all corners of the community are provided for. There are also security and safety concerns that are an unfortunate part of life for Jews here and everywhere. We have a responsibility to make sure the city meets those needs, which is why earlier this year I fought for a $50 million hate crimes security grant to protect non-profits from hate crimes.
NYJL: You recently won reelection for your seat by a sizable margin against a candidate many view as anti-Semitic, or someone who used anti-Semitic rhetoric during the campaign. Did the type of divisive speech from your opponent during the campaign surprise you?
ML: At a time when decent people of all backgrounds need to denounce the hatred emanating from the alt-right, I was proud that my neighbors in the 7th Council District chose my message of unity over a campaign based on division and intolerance. Despite spending nearly $100,000 in campaign finance matching funds, my opponent’s vitriolic propaganda was overwhelmingly rejected by the Upper Manhattan community.
NYJL: Do you feel anti-Semitism is on the rise in New York City, and if so, what do you attribute this too?
ML: New York has witnessed a major spike in anti-Semitic incidents, and hate crimes in general, since the election of Donald Trump. It’s infuriating to think that the election of our president made many of our citizens less safe because of their religion or color of their skin. But the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville – and Trump’s appalling refusal to condemn it – was a stark demonstration of the situation we find ourselves in and a wake-up call to Jews and people of color. The city’s police department has done a remarkable job containing the problem in this political environment, but we need to stay vigilant.
NYJL: What do you say to constituents of yours who support Donald Trump?
ML: I would remind them that this president is badly dividing this country and inflicting harm to our city in countless ways.
NYJL: Your “Right to Counsel” bill recently passed in the City Council that guarantees within five year tenants will have lawyers representing them in housing court. Many see the bill as a massive victory for tenants — particularly low-income and the most vulnerable in New York City. What was the driver for you to push this type of legislation?
ML: Once I became aware of the staggering injustice the city’s tenants face in housing court I knew this was a fight I wanted to wage. Until recently, only about 20 percent of tenants facing eviction have been represented by attorneys, compared to nearly 100 percent of landlords – it was a totally stacked deck. Studies show that having legal representation in housing court reduces the chances of eviction by 77%, meaning thousands of New Yorkers will escape homelessness next year because of this law. That will save the city tens of millions of dollars in homelessness funding, but it would still be the right thing to do even if it didn’t save us a nickel.
NYJL: You have been referred to as a leading candidate to become the next speaker of the City Council by the New York Times, Daily News, POLITICO and others. What do you view as the most important role of the Speaker?
ML: The city is facing enormous challenges over the next four years. We have a public hospital system standing on a fiscal cliff, a chronically underfunded mass transit system, public housing in physical and financial distress and endless threats from a hostile administration in Washington. The Council is going to have to step up to this challenge, and the Speaker’s job will be to fight for the causes its members and their constituents care most about. Its leader has to be able to build coalitions and achieve consensus in order to get things done.
NYJL: On a lighter note … What is your favorite bakery in New York?
ML: Carrot Top Pastries on Broadway and 168th Street.
NYJL: Between JFK and FDR, who would you rather have a beer with?
NYJL: What is the last movie or television show you couldn’t get enough of?
ML: Game of Thrones.
NYJL: What is the first thing you read when you wake up in the morning?
ML: City & State First Read.
NYJL: Mets or Yankees?
NYJL: Thanks for your time, Councilman.