New York City

Julie Menin, NYC’s new Census czar, says stakes haven’t been higher

A Q&A with New York City’s newly appointed census director.

Julie Menin

Julie Menin Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Among other gigs, Julie Menin has been an attorney, a redistricting commissioner, the head of consumer affairs in New York City, the city’s film czar and an adjunct professor at Columbia University. Now New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s trusting her with two new jobs, as she leads the city’s response to the Trump administration’s controversial approach to the 2020 census. Menin spoke with City & State after the Wednesday announcement of her new job, weighing in on the Trump administration’s “attack on immigrants,” protecting funding for New York and saving congressional seats.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You were just given two titles, New York City census director and executive assistant corporation counsel for strategic advocacy. Are they two separate jobs?

Well, they really go hand in hand. They’re two separate jobs, but they very complementary. We’re going to be looking at voting rights issues, disenfranchisement issues, gerrymandering, which goes hand in hand with the census. I’m really thrilled to have the senior corporation counsel role in the law department.

The other big issue we have on the legal front is the citizenship litigation. We are in court right now, we expect the district court judge to issue an opinion shortly. The initial rulings have been very positive for the city. That said, we have to use every tool in our legal toolbox to fight the citizenship question, which we believe is entirely unlawful. The census has not asked a citizenship question since 1950, so the fact that now, with Trump’s war on immigrants – as evidenced by the Muslim ban, the wall, threats to sanctuary cities – this is yet another attack on immigrants.

My mother came to New York as an immigrant, having survived the Holocaust. She hid in a cellar in Budapest with my grandmother and grandfather. And many other family members were killed, simply because they were born Jewish. This threat to immigrants is deeply personal to me. And we can’t have a situation where there’s a severe undercount.

Close to 40 percent of our city’s population are foreign-born immigrants. If they don’t fill out the census, what’s at stake? We’re talking about $700 billion that the federal government apportions nationwide to over 300 census-driven programs. It’s everything from our public schools, our senior centers, public housing, job centers, emergency preparedness. Everything that people really care about is based on the census!

Taking public education as an example, in 2017, $779 million in Title I funds based on census numbers were allocated for children in New York City living below the poverty line. So if we have a severe undercount because people are worried about the citizenship question, disastrous effects could happen in the city.

You’re taking this job at the very beginning of 2019 – can you give a brief rundown of the timing on the 2020 census?

In 2020, in mid-March, the first mailer is sent out. And for the first time ever, the Census Bureau is requesting a response online, which actually will give us, the city, real-time data. So that’s actually a positive. Then there’s many subsequent mailers that are sent out. For those that don’t want to fill it out online, then a hard copy is sent. For those people that don’t respond at all after a certain number of tries, then the census department does door-knocking. That’s called the non-response follow-up period and that starts the first week of May 2020, and that ends in late July. We have to hit the ground running right away, because we want to do outreach to every community in the city – to houses of worship, to community groups, to neighborhood groups, to immigrant groups, to labor, to every corner and sector of the city to explain what is at stake here. The stakes literally have never been higher. And we cannot allow the Trump administration to win and to drive immigrants underground and be silenced.

So to be clear, you’re hoping to prove to the federal government that our population isn’t that low, so that New York can hold on to one of those congressional seats?

We have to ensure there’s not an undercount. So the state is going to be working really hard. We’re going to be partnering closely with the state on efforts. The city, because we do have such a large immigrant population, we really are going to go to the mat to ensure that every single person shows up and fills out the census, so that no one is disenfranchised.

We stand to lose between one and two congressional seats statewide. At the end of the day, if you look at what the Trump administration is trying to do with this citizenship question – let’s be honest, they want to give less money to blue cities that have large immigrant populations and give more money to red states. This affects the Electoral College – the stakes could not be higher.

You mentioned voting rights and disenfranchisement as part of your job. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has often criticized the state’s voting laws. Will you be advocating to change those?

Certainly in Albany a lot of those efforts are underway. I think there is a galvanizing call for election reform. We heard that and saw that with our own eyes loud and clear. So that’s certainly something that is going to be a big focus.

The mayor described you as “someone that knew how to fight for a good cause, no matter how difficult.” Do any good causes stand out?

Certainly helping to organize our community in the wake of 9/11. I’m really proud of the work that I did as a seven-year chairperson of (Manhattan) Community Board 1. People counted us down and out in Lower Manhattan and said that people would never want to live and work in Lower Manhattan ever again. And now Lower Manhattan has over double the population it did before 9/11. And we built so many new public schools and parks and affordable housing. I’m really proud of the work we did there.

Another big fight I took on was the fight for the Islamic Cultural Center and Mosque. We were the ones who led the charge in favor of that project, in favor of the fundamental right to practice religion.

Another big fight that we took on was around Occupy Wall Street – standing up for the right to peacefully protest.

You ran for Manhattan borough president in 2013. Are you considering another run for office in 2021?

I’m totally focused on the census work and on the legal work. We have so much at stake. We have billions of dollars at stake, not to mention our core, fundamental democratic principles. Are we going to allow the Trump administration to tell our immigrant communities around the city that they don’t matter? I can’t think of more important work than the work I’m about to take on, and that is my sole focus.

You’re closing out two and a half years as commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, with a pretty fun portfolio. What’s the one coolest thing you did in that job?

One was creating economic opportunity for women and minorities. I really wanted to focus on people who had been shut out of media and entertainment. So we launched dozens of new programs to help people get more access and inclusion. For example, we launched a $5 million fund for women filmmakers and women playwrights. We’re the only city government in the country that is giving direct cash grants to women filmmakers and women playwrights. We launched an animation program to give training to 1,800 underserved youth who had gone through the probation system, to give them training for careers in digital animation. We created the Made in New York writers room for diverse writers, so that they had more economic opportunity. We had dozens of these programs that we launched, and I’m really proud of the work that we did there.

I’m impressed with your ability to stay on message and not talk about going to the Grammys.