Campaign kickoff: A Q&A with Michel Faulkner

We are two years away from the 2017 mayoral election in New York City, and Bill de Blasio already has his first challenger, the Rev. Michel Faulkner, a pastor at New Horizon Church in West Harlem. Faulkner announced his campaign this month, hoping to get a head start on making de Blasio a one-term mayor.

Faulkner, a Republican and former NFL defensive lineman who played one season for the New York Jets, spoke with City & State’s Nick Powell about his mayoral aspirations, his thoughts on policing and education, and whether he still keeps tabs on the gridiron.

The following is an edited transcript.

City & State: You announced your 2017 campaign for mayor last week. What was your thought process in pondering whether to run? Was there a tipping point in the direction the city is moving under de Blasio that motivated you to throw your hat in the ring?

Michel Faulkner: Some of it is the same reason I ran for Congress. As an American citizen, I really feel like our elected officials should be public servants and serve the greater good, and I don’t see that as the trend these days, and that’s across the board – specifically, as it relates to New York. I love New York and I got so tired of seeing it divided into factions, and when I hear the mayor talking about the wealthy and blaming them for the woes of the poor, and then saying the solution is to tax them and distribute it to the poor, so that they can have what they need to be wholeI don’t believe that. That’s garbage. And the poor that I work among, that I live among, that I talk to, don’t feel that way either. That is a liberal philosophy which has kept my people in bondage for far too long.

C&S: But with such an enormous gap between the city’s wealthy and middle class, what would you say is the root cause of income inequality?

MF: Is there a huge gap? Yes there is. Is it growing? Unfortunately, yes it is. The only way we will close it is socially, educationally and morally. Socialyou’ve got to really bring back some family structure. Aimlessness in the inner city, it just doesn’t work, you need a family process that helps motivate people to get up and to get out.

Educationally, the deficiency is alarming. Nobody knows what to do. We’ve spent more money than anyone else, we’ve got great teachers, we’ve got really good schools, and everybody works really hard, but you get these kids coming to schools that have all kinds of problems that don’t allow the teacher to teach. Then you’ve got a bureaucratic structure within the educational system, so that’s got to be looked at. But it really begins with the desire for kids to do better and parents motivated to help their kids do better. We’ve got to address those issues, and it’s not all a government fix. That’s the difference with Michel FaulknerI don’t believe that it’s all about a government fix. I believe that we have to empower citizens and communities to get involved in the healing of these communities.

C&S: Based on what you’re saying about the education system, is it safe to assume you are pro-charter schools?

MF: Oh yes, I’m very much a supporter of charter schools, but I don’t believe that they’re the silver bullet panacea, they’re not, but I like the approach and in certain situations I think they will absolutely help. But we have some really good public schools, and charter schools are public schools.

Here’s one of the theories that I have: Charter schools really, really work because parents have to work hard to get their kids into school. So you’ve got a motivated parent population. I don’t agree with the advocates who say that somehow there’s a brain drain, or somehow the charter schools are taking the best and the brightest out. You have parents that care enough to read, to stand in line to do whatever it takes. You’ve got kids who are motivated, with a parental structure, that dynamic that says, “I want my kid to have the best, what does it take to get them into this school?” And then, by the fact that they’re in that charter school, the parents are gonna work a little harder to keep them in that school, they’re gonna care a little more about the grade, so naturally the kids perform a little better. I think we have to go back to parents and let them know that the education of their children is a partnership. The whole “takes a village” thing is cute, but it’s true. We really do have to participate, and unless we all participate, we all fail.

C&S: I’m interested to get your take on policing issues in the city. You’ve voiced your displeasure with the mayor’s relationship with the NYPD – does that extend to the reforms made to the stop-and-frisk policy and instituting community policing?

MF: The relationship between City Hall and the police force is abysmal right now. It’s very disconcerting because it destabilizes the city, and that’s a problem. The reason being, we have to have a police force that’s professional and accountable, but we also have to have a police force that’s beloved and affirmed. We started a blue-ribbon campaign, and it’s spreading throughout communities of color, where we wear blue ribbons saying we appreciate our cops, we affirm them, we’re gonna hold you accountable for being professional, but we are also as a community going to be accountable for how we treat you and how we interact with you. Do cops need better training? Absolutely. We constantly need better conversations, we need cops to know the neighborhood, we all know those things. But you cannot start blaming the New York City Police Department for some of the social maladies and problems that we have.

There was a quote from a guy who was standing behind me at my campaign announcement, he said, “I used to be a criminal, and I want stop and frisk because there are too many guns on the street, and I’m afraid.” In communities of color, the law-abiding citizens are like, “Yeah, it’s an inconvenience, and yeah, we don’t like it, but you know what? If it helps to make things safer, do it. If it helps to make me feel better in my community, I’m fine with it.”

Stop, question and frisk, I will start now having conversations with communities, and I won’t call them town halls, I’ll call them conversations with the communities, and start really talking to citizens and members of the community about what are the alternatives, how do we do this? During the Bloomberg administration I was part of a group of religious and community leaders that the mayor had in Gracie Mansion, and we sat around the table for several hours, the better part of a day, and we went through the whole stop, question and frisk, and then Mayor Bloomberg said, “Let’s just say we take it off the table, what do we put in its place?” And there was silence. We didn’t have an answer. To a person, everybody’s scratching their head because there was no definitive answer. The constitutional questions, it’s a slippery slope, but in communities where murders are happening, where crime is rising, and where there are so many illegal guns on the street, we’ve got to find a way for those citizens in those communities to be safer. I will be searching for a way, but I will not take stop, question and frisk off the table.

C&S: As a Republican, you know better than most the challenges of swaying an overwhelmingly Democratic electorate in New York City. How do you plan to win over those voters in the two years leading up to the 2017 election?

MF: There are some voters I will never win over simply because I’m a Republican. When you look at me as a Republican, I am a “new” Republican. I am a Frederick Douglass Republican. I am the likes of a Jack Kemp Republican, who was very popular in the black community. But my political party affiliation is very much subordinate to my affection for the community. I’m not going to have trouble with Democrats, per se, because they’re looking for the answer as well. We’re all in this together, we’re New Yorkers. Fair-minded New Yorkers are going to give Michel Faulkner a listen, and when they do, they will hear something different, and when they look at my track record, and look at what I’ve done, they will see how I have served the poor and the disenfranchised. I’ve started not-for-profit and for-profit businesses, I’ve hired people, I’ve helped people, we have a jobs program. We have micro-programs in our community and through our community centers and through the things that I’ve done, that have actually served this community, and I’ve continued to do that. Not politically motivated, but motivated through what I believe is my callinghelping every person reach their God-given potential.

In some ways, the bigger challenge may even be Republicans because they’re not used to someone who, while being a fiscal conservative, believes the Republican Party has lacked the right message. There are people in the Republican leadership who are now starting to say, “Wow, OK, Michel, you’re making a good point here.” I fully expect, when the real dialogue begins to happen, and the public debate about which direction the city is going to go in, I believe the people are going to listen to me, not because I’m a Republican or a Democrat, but because I make sense, and because I’ve been a public servant for years.

C&S: You ran against Charlie Rangel in 2010, and did pretty well for trying to take out an incumbent in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. I’m curious why you didn’t try to challenge him again in 2012 and 2014, or try to make a bid for that seat with Rangel retiring after this term.

MF: To be honest with you, I was no longer interested in a federal seat. I believe my real calling is to be a leader in the city. The congressional district also is very, very, very hard, if not impossible to win heavily dominated by one party. Mr. Rangel has served many of his years, I dare say most of his years have been honorably served and in the last few it’s been really bad, and people continue to elect him and continue to vote for him. I just felt like my vision was a little broader than this congressional district. As I went around the city, I had many people saying, “Wow I wish you were running in my district, I’d help you.” To a large degree, it just wasn’t for me to do another congressional race. The diversity of the city is really my strength. My calling is to use the diversity of New York City as a strengthening agent, not as a weakness. In a congressional race, you have to play to one side of the electorate, you can’t play to everybody.

C&S: As a former NFL player, do you still keep tabs on the NFL or the Jets, your former team?

MF: You can’t grow up in D.C. without being a fan of the Redskins. It’s impossible. But I do stay in touch, and lately the NFL has had a real push on getting older players, they call us “legends,” involved. No matter how long you played, they really want to see you involved and in the lives of the community. The Jets have done an outstanding job with this new regime at bringing us in, every event, we’ve been invited to games and so forth. I’ve been participating in a lot of alumni functions, and seen some of the guys I’ve played with. Like I said, I was only there for one year. People ask me what position I play, I say “left out.” But as a fan per se, it’s hard for me because I’m so busy on the weekends, it’s very seldom I get a full three hours to sit down and really watch a game from beginning to end. Sunday’s a pretty busy day for me.

C&S: There has been a lot of controversy over the last few years about the concussion problems in the NFL, and the health issues former players are experiencing. As an ex-defensive lineman, a very high-impact, physical position – is this an issue that’s not going away anytime soon?

MF: I think it’s actually safer than the game has been. I think the rule changes are certainly safer than when I played. I played in college, and I still could use a head slap, and that was really lethal for offensive linemen. I had a few head injuries, not in the pros because I wasn’t there long enough but it was part and parcel for the game. They are certainly taking a lot more precautions now, and the headgear is a lot better now. Football is a dangerous sport, it’s a collision sport. And it’s really interesting, while on one hand the equipment is much better, but the athletes are much better. You’ve got guys at 300 pounds that are moving really fast, so you’ve got that much speed or velocity, when those two forces come together, there’s gonna be some give. You just don’t want the brain or head to be part of that equation, but shoulders, knees, that’s part of it. It is a game for big strong men to play who like doing that.