In a time of “threats to our democracy,” Mayor de Blasio wants you to get a little more involved with your local government.
Hizzoner delivered a civically-minded State of the City address Tuesday — rolling out plans for a charter revision to focus on voting and campaign finance, efforts to boost voter turnout and participation in the next U.S. Census and for new civics classes in city schools.
“It’s our mission to define what a fair and just society looks like, to show it through our deeds and in our everyday lives,” de Blasio said at the soaring Kings Theater in Brooklyn. “To take that quintessentially American egalitarian spirit and make it come alive again.”
While he reviewed a lengthy “12-point game plan” to becoming “the fairest big city in America” — comprised entirely of previously announced policies like expanding pre-K to 3-year-olds, closing Rikers Island and insisting Albany ensure any money raised in New York City for the MTA is spent in New York City — the speech contained no new proposals in areas like education, criminal justice or transportation.
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Instead, the mayor focused on new proposals surrounding elections and voting — following up his 12-point fairness plan with a 10-point democracy plan, headlined by the City Charter Revision Commission that he said would be given a mandate to propose a plan for public financing of local elections in an effort to scuttle the influence of big donors.
“Our goal is for elections to be funded primarily by public dollars, thereby greatly reducing the power of Big Money,” said de Blasio. “More New Yorkers will be encouraged to run for office, and candidates will spend their time talking to everyday people — not their big donors.”
The call comes after years of probes into whether de Blasio did favors for his own big donors — some of whom bundled cash for him under the city’s existing campaign finance rules, and others who donated to his now-shuttered political nonprofit, which operated outside the city’s rules.
The proposed commission — which de Blasio said would also be tasked with changing the charter so the city could handle outreach and information efforts typically handled by the Board of Elections, which he has criticized — would be appointed by the mayor. The plan comes after Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Public Advocate Letitia James issued their own call for a charter commission, which would have featured appointees from an array of elected officials and reviewed a number of topics.
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De Blasio — whose contact with lobbyists was also the subject of scrutiny in his first term — also pledged to disclose meetings between lobbyists and city commissioners and staffers “who report directly” to him by March 1.
“The people deserve to know who’s trying to influence elected officials and their senior staff,” said de Blasio, who recently refused to explain why Long Island restaurateur and donor Harendra Singh, who later pleaded guilty to bribing him and Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, met with his top staffer Emma Wolfe at City Hall for a lease renewal typically handled by a city agency.
De Blasio also promised $500,000 for election cybersecurity, citing recent Russian efforts to access voter registration rolls in the country.
He’ll also create a Chief Democracy Officer tasked with increasing the city’s dismal voter turnout figures and registering 1.5 million voters in four years. That comes just a few months after de Blasio was re-elected with what he deemed a “mandate” — even though fewer than 22% of the city’s voters bothered to show up to vote for anyone.
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To help toward those goals, the city will reach out to every 17-year-old public school student who will be eligible to vote in the next election and rolling out a civic curriculum, as the News reported this week.
The mayor will also hire a census coordinator to make sure New Yorkers are adequately counted in the 2020 federal census, set up an online portal to make it easier for people to run for office or join their community board, and will push Albany to follow through on promises to enact early voting, he said.
De Blasio began his speech by honoring city heroes — including correction officer Jean Souffrant, who was seriously injured in attack on Rikers Island.
“We will not allow our correction officers to be assaulted. Period,” de Blasio said.
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But a heckler in the audience echoed a message that was also found outside on a mobile electronic billboard: “You gotta do more!” he shouted, as he was escorted out. “You’re not doing enough.”
The mayor also honored police and EMT officials and the late Private Emmanuel Mensah, the Army soldier and Ghana immigrant who perished late last year while rescuing New Yorkers from a fast-moving and fatal Bronx fire.
“With true New York guts, he ran into the fire not once, not twice, but three times to save his neighbors,” de Blasio said. “Tragically, he did not emerge the last time.”
De Blasio was protested outside the event by about 500 people, including New York City Housing Authority residents who had a mobile billboard and fliers that declared the state of NYCHA was “freezing.”
Groups representing tenants, correction officers and immigrants chanted and waved signs. There were no arrests. “Nobody has listened to us,” said Beverly Rivers, 62, a retired day care worker who has lived in Flatbush for over 30 years. “The rents are still too high. Landlords are pushing people out. Nobody has real security.”
Rivers and her fellow members believe the mayor’s efforts for affordable housing are not enough.
“We need stronger rent laws,” said Valery Coles, 74, a retired nurse who has lived in Flatbush for almost 40 years. “Rents are at an all-time high. Landlords are reaping the benefits and tenants are being displaced. Homelessness has never been this bad.”
About 200 of those protesting were corrections officers.
“We struggle every day,” said Steven Bell, 34, a 13-year veteran of the city’s jails. “We endure assaults on a daily basis.”
“There is no respect for our stature as peace officers,” said Bell, as officers chanted “Save the jails!” “I hope the mayor hears our cry.”
With Kerry Burke
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