Guests: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYS Board of Elections Commissioner Andy Spano
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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
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De Blasio on his new retirement security program for private sector workers
BdB: “Well, thank you, Bill. Thank you, Morgan. That was a very much appreciated overview and I thank you for understanding how much for my wife Chirlane and I this is really about that deep connection with the people we serve and an understanding of the challenges they face, particularly since the Great Recession that really changed the rules of the game for people. And I want to thank you, Bill, because you have pushed the issue of improving retirement security for people in this city and beyond and it is amazing, in an era where we’ve seen retirement security undermined now for decades, that there have been so few meaningful solutions put forward, but you’ve certainly fought here in this city to get this city in the game addressing this issue. We’re proud to be doing that now.”
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Bill Samuels: “Well, I have to say, Mayor, you listened. You’re the only mayor, literally, in the United States that is willing to try to do something in our great city. You said in the State of the City the following: “Fewer than half of all working New Yorkers have access to a retirement savings plan and many who have started to save don’t have much.” And then I love this sentence: “We won’t accept a status quo where people work all their lives only to be left with nothing.” So, Mayor, can you take us through some of the highlights and specifics of your thoughts of how to solve this problem in our city?”
BdB: “Yeah, Bill, and I’ll tell ya, this is a beginning to what we’ve put forward, but I want to emphasize at the outset, the solutions, the bigger solutions we need to income inequality and certainly the retirement security problem as one of those crucial elements is a federal government, and obviously true of state governments everywhere, that really addresses people’s fundamental economic needs comprehensively. And this is what a healthy society should be all about. This is what economic stability for the entire country should be based obviously on; the stability of our families and our working people.
So this is our contribution to New York City towards what I hope will be a much bigger forward march of history and it certainly aligns with what we’ve done on the other issues you’ve talked about like paid sick leave and affordable housing, pre-K, et cetera. This is a package of things that have to change urgently, not just at the local level but up to the federal level. On retirement security… we looked at the fact that we had more than half the people in this city who didn’t have access to a meaningful retirement security plan.
And I obviously think Social Security is a crucial element of our nation’s contract with its people. But we all know that Social Security ends up for so many people to be a very small amount of what they need. So thinking about pensions, thinking about the fundamental retirement security that so many Americans used to have and now, relatively speaking, so few have, we said, “Okay, if we’re going to reconstruct that reality of actual meaningful retirement security, what can the city do on its own?”
Well, we realized that what we could do was require the employers of the city, in this case any employer with ten or more employees, to have to offer a voluntary plan. That’s something the city would manage and we would put some initial investment into. And it would give every worker the opportunity to join a retirement security plan that they could really depend on, would not evaporate because it would be supported and backed by the City of New York and it would mean putting their own resources into it. But it would be in a way that is accessible. It would be in a way that they could have a sense of a guarantee and security with. And simply providing working people with that option would mean more and more would actually have a foundation for meaningful security later on. And again, an important step, but far from all that we have to do with what we know we could do right now.”
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De Blasio on the Brooklyn Queens Connector
Morgan Pehme: “Mr. Mayor, that’s very exciting and along with your retirement security initiative, another centerpiece of your recent State of the City address was the Brooklyn Queens Connector, or BQX, a state of the art streetcar that would run along the waterfront from Astoria to Sunset Park. Since I take the G train from Greenpoint to Long Island City every morning on my way to Manhattan, I am painfully aware of the need for more transportation alternatives between Brooklyn and Queens. I’m curious, how this idea came about? Did it take root in your days as a Councilman representing a number of the Brooklyn neighborhoods the BQX will run through?”
BdB: “Well, I want to give credit where credit is due. It really came from the grassroots. I certainly benefitted in this discussion from the fact that I had represented a number of communities either in my time in the City Council, or even before that as a school board member, I represented communities like Sunset Park and Red Hook in Brooklyn. And once upon a time as a young bachelor I lived in Astoria, Queens. So I had a good sense of a lot of communities that would be served and I certainly knew that in many cases they just didn’t even come close to having the transportation options they deserve. Red Hook is a classic example of a community that’s really been cut off in too many ways.
So I knew the ground well, but the idea itself emanated from civic leaders and business leaders who, I think very wisely, looked at what was happening around the country. They saw that things had come full-circle and the street cars that used to dominate our cities and then were torn out without much forethought were coming back in cities around the country.
And here was an ideal circumstance, a 16-mile route, 400,000 people living along the route. About 40,000 of them live in public housing, another 300,000 jobs along that route, so 700,000 people would be affected. But we think there’s going to be tens of thousands of more people living and working in this area in the years to come. So it really made all the sense in the world to add both something that would benefit those communities directly, but also to recognize, just like you’re experiencing, Morgan, this is not a city today where the entire economy revolves only around Manhattan and the only question is about how to get into Manhattan in the morning and how to get back out to the outer boroughs at night.
This is a city now with, increasingly, a five-borough economy. People go from a home in Brooklyn to a job in Brooklyn, a home in Queens to a job in Queens or a home in Brooklyn to a job in Queens. You know, there’s a whole different set of permutations. Why don’t we build a transportation system that reflects the twenty-first century and the five-borough reality of New York City? And here was a place that we could do it ideally, where we could find the revenue to do it and we had such density of people and jobs. I also think this one could be the template for other opportunities to add streetcars and light rail, including—there’s been a lot of calls for Staten Island. I’m hoping that this example here in Brooklyn and Queens opens the door for us to be able to use this model elsewhere.”
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De Blasio on the LinkNYC Program
MP: “On Friday, the City launched LinkNYC, a new program which is transforming the city’s old payphones booths into slick Wi-Fi kiosks. These kiosks will create the world’s largest and fastest free public Wi-Fi network, and also enable New Yorkers to make free domestic calls, charge their electronic devices at no charge, and contact emergency services. By the end of July, there will be over 500 of these kiosks in the five boroughs and 4,500 around the city by the middle of 2019. I know that in some neighborhoods in the city, particularly lower income ones, it can be more difficult to get reliable Wi-Fi service than others. Has your administration targeted the placement of these kiosks to address that concern? Also, it is my understanding that despite this being a free service for everyone to use, it will actually generate revenue for the city. Is that correct?”
BdB: “That is correct. The beauty of this approach it’s really a public-private partnership and the company that is going to run these kiosks is going to, over the course of the next decade, provide about $500 million in revenue for the city because they’ll have the opportunity to do advertising. They’ll be responsible for the maintenance of these kiosks. So, there’s something in it for the company, but there’s so much in it I think for the people in the city, free Wi-Fi, free long distance calling, obviously, total access to emergency services, 911, and certainly 311 as well. The fact is that there is a charging station for cell phones and other electronic devices and a lot of great benefits. And the beauty of this is these were the sites where we had payphones that were antiquated, that were no longer helping people, but we could update them for the twenty-first century and make it a really multi-faceted tool for people.
But in terms of the digital divide, your first point, it’s a profound problem. We have a city—and I’ve talked about the ‘tale of two cities’ for a long time—we have income stratification and other inequalities we’re fighting every day. But the digital divide is particularly pernicious because today if you want to have the greatest opportunity for education or for economic opportunity, you need Internet access and that cuts along economic lines. This is a rich get richer situation. The folks who have the most access are the folks who are doing well. We want to level that playing field.
So the free Wi-Fi and the other services that these kiosks, as part of LinkNYC, that’s one part of the equation. We’re wiring public housing developments now in a whole new way and providing broadband access to places that really have had the least. We’re providing through our libraries, including mobile devices that folks can take and give themselves access, the MiFi devices. So there’s so many different pieces of the equation, but with this piece, with LinkNYC, we’ll have the fastest and biggest municipal Wi-Fi network anywhere in the world, really. And it’s a big step in fighting inequality.”
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De Blasio on the local share of Medicaid and expanding home rule
Bill Samuels notes that Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget increases New York City’s local share of Medicaid by $650 million over the next two years. After pointing out that New York City already pays approximately $5.4 billion annually for Medicaid, Samuels says that because New York is the only state in the nation that makes its counties pay a local share of Medicaid. He asks the Mayor is he agrees with him that Albany should phase out the local share of Medicaid.
BdB: “Well, look, I’ll speak broadly about what the city and state relationship is and then I want to specifically talk about the surprising proposed Medicaid cuts we saw in the governor’s budget proposal. On the broader point, look, we have a lot of work to do to get the relationship between the state and the city to make sense for the 21st Century because right now the City of New York, which is the economic engine of the state, one of the economic engines of the nation, there are still so many things we need to go to Albany for approval on that at this point in history we shouldn’t. I’ve said it’s a semi-colonial dynamic that really needs to be overcome at this point. And so I would say in the context of many, many issues, there has to be a rethinking of that relationship because we’re trying to get things done for people. And I think this has been talked about on a number of recent issues coming out of Albany. There’s a growing recognition, certainly a lot of our editorial boards have noted this fact, that for the City of New York to do what it has to do for eight and a half million people we can’t constantly be hindered by an often arbitrary approval process in Albany. That’s come up recently on affordable housing and a number of other issues.
So I would just say there’s a bigger discussion to be had that spans many issues, Medicaid and beyond, about what a fair arrangement would be. On the specific cuts that were proposed, they obviously came as a surprise to me. I expressed my opposition immediately. And as you remember, the Governor at the time said that the cuts would not cost New York City a penny and my response has been one of appreciation for that clarification, but I’ve also said I’ll hold him to that commitment. That’s all going to play out now over these next five or six weeks and I think a lot of members of the Legislature take this every seriously. They do not think it’s fair for the State of New York to supplant and transfer more and more costs from the state onto the city for Medicaid nor do they think it’s appropriate for the city university.
So, as they used to say back in the Sixties, Bill, the whole world is watching now on these issues. And I think we’re going to be able to prevail in this case with the help of a lot of other people who feel as I do, but this is only the beginning of what needs to be a much bigger discussion about a more fair balance between the state and the city.”
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New York State Elections Commissioner Andy Spano
Spano on whether New York should move to open primaries
AS: “Take a look at the elections right now. Take what’s happening with Bernie Sanders and what’s happening with Donald Trump. They are in the positions they are in right now because of the independent voters and the independent thinking Republicans and Democrats. Certainly the issues are quite different and the kinds of people for each are quite different. But there are more and more independents and I think that’s going to be the movement. The movement is going to be away from the party situation and into an independent, more open situation, similar to California and similar to the open primaries that you see in many states. We should be there. I think that what you’re seeing with the millennials and the younger people is that they’re more into that. They aren’t into parties. And I’ll tell ya, I’m a lifetime Democrat and I’m having my problems.”
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Spano on whether the State Board of Elections has considered online voting
AS: “We have had discussions, privately, about that. I can’t say the whole board, but at least the Democratic side. Our problem still is preserving the credibility of the elections and protecting the elections process. You know, when you hear that the Department of Defense gets hacked, when you hear about all the major corporations that get hacked, you really have some concern over the integrity of the system if it’s online.
I’m a big online guy. I love everything online. I think it’s less expensive. It’s quicker, more accurate in terms of the information you get. The only thing we have to worry about is the security. We can certainly do it. You talked about turnout. I think if we had a simplified system for people to access information and get in information in an easy way—the Internet—that the turnout would be greater. For instance … you go online and you type in your address and immediately every candidate that is in your district or that you are eligible to vote for comes up. You hit this person that you want to look more at and all the information on the person comes up. You can access data from the Board of Elections. You can get data from wherever. But one of things you do here, too, is you could put a section on there for the candidates themselves. … And the key to it would be the government entity, in this particular case it would be the state that would then market the site through the entire election cycle so that people would know exactly where [to access it]… Or you’d need an app on your phone or your laptop or whatever to get into it. It would be easy and simple. And I think the simpler you made this access to information, all kinds of it, so people could look at one guy’s answer to a question, another guy’s answer to a question, that you would get a better turnout.”
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Spano responds to whether the fact there are four election days on the calendar in New York State this year is a problem for the Board of Elections
AS: “I think it’s $24 million for each election. I mean, you’re talking about in terms of Boards of Elections coming out and doing their jobs. We have tried to consolidate. We tried to consolidate the congressional and presidential [primaries]. That wouldn’t work. Again, ya know, we had difficulty within the Legislature between each side. We did have a long discussion on the Board about that. The Democrats were in favor of consolidating. The Governor has put the special elections into the presidential primary, which is helpful because we would’ve had another problem if they were anyplace else.
But this is a major problem and on top of that problem, by the way, you have the special districts, fire districts, towns, villages, school districts which all have separate elections throughout the state. This is a problem that really has to be addressed and the Board of Elections is in favor of consolidating. In fact, some of the sections, some of the villages and other people still have the old machines… We’ve got that coordinated now, I think, for the upcoming elections.”
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Spano responds to Bill Samuels’ suggestion that politicians should lead by example and refuse to take LLC contributions
AS: “That would be hypocritical of me since I always took LLC money.”
BS: “Andy. Andy, you shouldn’t be telling the truth like that.”
MP: “He’s not in office anymore.”
AS: “Everyone should know that it was legal to take LLC money.”
BS: “Yeah, that’s true.”
AS: “It was legal, OK? … And when you’re in a campaign and you’re up against, as I was my first time, a guy who puts $3 million into his campaign and two million of his own money—I mean, I’m an educator, so you accept the money as long as it’s legal. Now what you don’t do is—and this is going to become a major, major issue if we start, I should talk about our enforcement counsel in a few minutes—that you’re looking for money, you’re trying to make sure it doesn’t all come from the same person. … If each LLC is a legitimate LLC in business. What’s happening now, and we should change that, too, by the way, right now I would suggest, if we could do it and we could make that statement. …”
BS: “You know, Andy, I think you’ve said something that I hadn’t thought about that’s right. It’s not a question of telling our elected officials in general not to take LLC money, it is calling on them to be sure when they do they’re legitimate LLCs, not formed just for the purpose of giving $61,000 dollars. And that’s something I hadn’t thought of and I think I would join your call that all of our elected officials, at minimum, do that.”
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Spano on how the NYS Board of Elections has changed since the embarrassing hearing the Moreland Commission held in 2013 probing the BoE’s problems
AS: “I got on that commission. That’s what’s changed.”
MP: “It’s a new day!”
BS: “By the way, I think that’s true.”
AS: “It just happened to coincide with something the governor does not get credit for, OK? And he got criticized about the Moreland Commission and no one ever mentions the flipside of all of this, OK? At the same time, we got an enforcement counsel, Risa Sugarman. The enforcement counsel has lawyers, has investigators—something we never had before. We now have two divisions, one called Compliance and the other one is called Investigations.”
BS: “Was that something you always could do or did Governor Cuomo sponsor new legislation that allowed that?”
AS: “This was part of the arrangement that he made and insisted on in order to get a lot of the cases that even the Moreland Commission was looking at on the table on a constant basis. It’s part of new legislation and, not only that, the enforcement counsel is autonomous. She works in the Board of Elections but you don’t hear about everything because these are confidential cases until they get public. But every meeting, we have a confidential meeting afterwards. And the enforcement counsel presents cases to us, where she wants subpoenas—and the subpoenas have the full force of law—the bank accounts and everything else she wants. And she wants permission to send it on to district attorneys or to the Attorney General.
They are in the hopper now, probably 170 cases. … And they deal with everything. Now when the Moreland Commission did their fact-finding or whatever they did on the Board of Elections, a lot of it was true, but a lot of it was unfair, okay? First of all, they didn’t have the staff to do this. We had, I don’t know, how many judgments were out there—oh, thousands—where we already had the judgments but we couldn’t get any money from anywhere. We couldn’t go after anybody. Now we go after everybody. In the last filings of various candidates and people that are in office, we had to go through 40,000 filings.”
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Spano on whether the Board of Elections is hobbled by the partisan gridlock that comes from having an equal number of Democratic and Republican commissioners
AS: “OK, you’re partially correct. In the enforcement counsel legislation, the confidential discussions and in the vote she [Risa Sugarman] breaks the tie. … Ok, so now when it’s 2-2, it goes to her and she is the third vote and it goes ahead. So no problem in enforcement, OK?”
MP: “But it does pose a problem in cases like the LLC as you were talking about earlier.”
AS: “Yeah, it does and this is part of an arcane system that started I guess in 1982 or 3. You know, where the two parties were major and that’s just the way it was set up so we’re protected from each other. But it’s very different today and there should be a look at how it’s structured so that decisions can be made. You look at what happened with Scalia dying now and what will happen with the Supreme Court if it’s 4-4, given that there it’s not a party thing per se, but in terms of the ideology … It really prevents the Board from functioning on these issues. Now it seemed very logical to me, and I was new to the Board, that on the LLC issue, that if we made the rule, that we could take away the rule. And then we had one of the commissioners say, ‘No, this is a legislative matter.’ Well, if it’s a legislative matter, how come we did it in the first place?”
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