Campaigns & Elections

Mark Levine has 1.7 million handshakes to go

The New York City councilman wants to meet every Manhattanite during his run for borough president.

Manhattan Borough President candidate, Mark Levine.

Manhattan Borough President candidate, Mark Levine. Emil Cohen/New York City Council

New York City Councilman Mark Levine has taken an early leap into the race for Manhattan borough president. Although the Democratic primary is still a year and a half away, the term-limited councilman said he wants as much time as possible to pitch himself to Manhattanites.

He spoke with City & State about his top priorities, how he plans to use the power of the office and why he’s forgoing campaign cash from real estate developers. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

2021 is still a long way off. Why announce so early?

This is a big borough, home to 1.7 million people. I got a lot of folks to meet and I want to start early, reaching out to every single person from end to end in Manhattan. And I know what I’m doing. This is my plan and I’m excited to do this.

What are the top one or two priorities that will be central to your campaign?

Tackling the homeless crisis, top of the list, through a multipronged strategy that includes doing even more to keep more vulnerable families in their apartments, in part by expanding our first-in-the-nation right to counsel law. We have to make sure that when we do build new affordable housing, much more of it is specifically earmarked for families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. In addition to tackling the homeless crisis, I want to work to protect mom and pop stores. I want to ensure we have balanced development policies in place so that we can protect our neighborhoods while continuing to build much-needed housing that the city does lack. I want to ensure that our public school system, which is currently arguably the most segregated and unequal in the country, becomes more equitable. And I want to protect and strengthen green space and parkland in the borough.

Looking at the specific powers of the borough president – a position that some criticize as largely ceremonial – how will you make the case to voters that you’ll be able to keep your campaign promises?

There are significant powers in land use, in running the community boards, in the ability (to direct) capital funding towards cultural institutions, and appointments to pretty much every board in the city. But in the end, it amounts to a powerful platform for entrepreneurial activism, a platform to put forward an agenda for the future of this borough over the next five to 10 years, and to organize and implement that vision – not that much different from what I’ve been able to do in the City Council, except at a much larger level. We have used the power of organizing to pass one of the most historic pieces of legislation of recent decades, which is establishing a right to counsel for tenants in Housing Court. And that required bringing together a large, diverse, effective coalition. And that’s the model I would use as well as borough president.

You’d succeed Gale Brewer, who has a reputation for effectively wielding her bully pulpit. Would you continue in her style?

I can only hope to aspire to be the kind of elected official that Gale Brewer is. She is the role model of somebody who is smart, principled and above all, effective. And she does it (through) relentless hard work and policy smarts, and through being attentive to every single corner of this borough. It’s a model I aspire to and example I would look to build on. She certainly proves what is possible with this office. She has proven the power of this office, and I don’t think anyone can question its importance and influence for the future of Manhattan.

You recently participated in a march against anti-Semitism in response to a series of anti-Semitic attacks. The attacks have also sparked debate about making changes to the state’s new bail reform law. Do you think the law should be altered this year?

I want to point out that this horrible string of attacks occurred prior to the new bail law being implemented. I am a strong believer that no one should be incarcerated in this city based on their ability to pay bail. I strongly supported these reforms. And I think it would be a mistake to undo them. We have got to do everything we can to keep New Yorkers safe and to protect vulnerable communities and institutions. We’ve got to do more to keep Jewish communities safe. But undoing progress that we’ve made towards fairness would be a mistake.

What prompted your pledge to not accept campaign donations from real estate developers?

I want to emphasize that my record is second to none on fighting for tenants’ rights, for historic preservation, for balanced development. And I’m running for an office that is, in many ways, defined by its power (over) the land use process. To avoid even the appearance of conflict, I’ve decided to forgo contributions from developers.

Why just developers and not the rest of the industry, such as brokers and landlords?

Brokers, for the most part, are middle-class New Yorkers, and they have no kind of power over development decisions which are shaping our borough. And the borough president has no particular power over the work of real estate brokers. It’s developers who are coming to the borough president’s office, often, for land use actions. In the case of landlords, because of my right to counsel (law) and so many other tenant issues, you won’t be surprised that I don’t get landlord money. I think that someone who owns a two- or three-family home shouldn’t be lumped into the same category as someone who owns thousands of apartments. And I think most fair people would make that distinction as well.