New York State

Brad Hoylman talks about why he wants to leave Albany

A Q&A with the prolific state senator who is now running for Manhattan borough president.

State Senator Brad Hoylman wants to leave the state Senate, where he’s served since 2013, to become the next Manhattan borough president.

State Senator Brad Hoylman wants to leave the state Senate, where he’s served since 2013, to become the next Manhattan borough president. Submitted

If conservative interests in New York were adamantly opposed to a new law in the past couple of years, there’s a good chance that the legislation was sponsored by state Sen. Brad Hoylman. He was behind the Child Victims Act, which extended the statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse cases; the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which made gender identity and expression a protected class under state law; and the TRUST Act, which gave congressional committees access to President Donald Trump’s state tax returns. And that’s not to mention his bills repealing the religious exemption from vaccinations and his attempt to institute a pied-à-terre tax on luxurious second homes.

And yet, Hoylman wants to leave the state Senate, where he’s served since 2013, to become the next Manhattan borough president. The current borough president, Gale Brewer, will be term-limited out of office at the end of 2021, so on Monday, the 54-year-old Hoylman announced his intention to enter the June 2021 Democratic primary. Other candidates for the seat include New York City Council Members Mark Levine and Ben Kallos, former Manhattan Community Board 7 Chair Elizabeth Caputo and Kimberly Watkins, Community Education Council 3 president.

Hoylman talked about how there’s been so much discussion lately of homeless people living in Manhattan. “People in dire personal circumstances adjacent to multimillion-dollar condos,” he said. “And I hope I can help leverage one on behalf of the other and really make a difference in people’s lives.”

Hoylman, an attorney, was raised in rural Greenbrier County, West Virginia, and came to Manhattan after studying at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and graduating from Harvard Law School. City & State spoke with Hoylman about why he wants to leave Albany, running for two seats at once and his residential land use philosophy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’re the chair of the state Senate Judiciary Committee and you have sponsored so many major bills in Albany. Why are you trying to leave the state Legislature?

What we want in a borough president is someone who can identify a problem and a solution, build a coalition to address it, and make change. And I think that’s exactly what I’ve done as a legislator, and what I would want to do continuing my public service as borough president.

I also think that this is such an important time in our city’s history. There really are now people asking, “Does Manhattan have a future?” The answer has to be “yes.” And I feel a call to arms at the level of public service to help navigate this extremely difficult path when we emerge from COVID-19.

So it’s not about the long drive up to Albany?

It really isn’t! One of the charms of Albany is that it’s a small town and you’re focused on your work and you’re in a bubble. It’s an incredibly efficient place in which to do work.This is a watershed moment in our city’s future, though. And I feel like making a contribution to helping in the recovery.

You just won the Democratic primary in your state Senate district and you’ll win the general election in November. Were you open with constituents about the fact that you were planning on running for another seat?

Well, I didn’t announce until (Monday). And part of it was strategic because I had bills in the Senate. But also, I hadn’t fully decided. It is a matter of personal process.

To be clear, even though I hadn’t made a decision until I announced today, when people asked, I never denied. I think you probably heard the rumors too. This is not uncommon for elected officials like me to have an office and seek another.

You live with your husband and two daughters in Greenwich Village. Has there ever been an openly gay borough president – in any borough?

No! I would be the first. And I’m proud and honored to be the only openly LGBTQ person in the Senate at the moment. And the second candidate who’s run as an openly gay candidate, (Assembly Member) Deborah Glick being the first.

You were previously general counsel at the Partnership for New York City, which is the voice of big business in New York City. Do you plan to be a business-friendly borough president?

I think my credentials in office suggest I have a healthy degree of skepticism towards issues like deregulation and attempts to combat unions and curb worker protections. But like any borough president, relationships matter.

We, as a borough are confronted with enormous challenges on a business level. But we’ve also seen certain industries have an unfair advantage: tax breaks for luxury development; the global superrich not paying property taxes on their pied-à-terres; landlords who have forced out tenants to try to find wealthier renters. Those are issues that I’ve taken on as a senator, but I plan on continuing that fight for tenants and middle- and working-class New Yorkers in the borough presidency.

New York has 92 billionaires, and probably all of them live in Manhattan. Should the government be courting them to make sure they stay and pay taxes? Or if they want to leave, should New York let them go?

Well, I don’t think it’s as straightforward of a question as that. No less of a billionaire than Michael Bloomberg was eager to increase taxes on the super wealthy. And I think that it comes down to this question: Will the city be able to have the tax base to pay for essential services – services that make this such a great world city, like our public schools and mass transit and arts and cultural institutions as well as protecting the most vulnerable? Or will we slide into something that is a hollowed out version of our current self? If we don’t get the money from Washington, we’re going to have to look to our own tax base. And if we’re looking to our own tax base, we have to tax progressively. So the most wealthy who have had significant tax breaks, at both the corporate and personal level under numerous administrations, but particularly this federal administration, are going to have to step up. The next borough president and mayor and the governor are going to have to frame this as a matter of civic duty to ensure New York’s survival as an attractive place for future generations to work and live.

Should Manhattan be growing in population? Do you support building more housing at any cost, or do there need to be stronger controls on who builds where?

It depends on the neighborhood and community participation. Some community boards in Manhattan are eager for more housing – but particularly affordable. And that’s what we’ve seen lost over the last several decades because of failed subsidies that try to create affordable housing by feathering the nests of luxury developers. I really believe the city needs to get into the direct subsidy of housing and cut out the middleman who oftentimes try to bilk the system.

We need more affordable housing. We have to do it in a way that’s grounded in a community planning process. And that’s exactly part of the role of the borough president that I’m most eager to participate in. I’m a former community board chair. I served for a decade on my local community board, and I know that development is better when it has significant neighborhood input.

What’s your philosophy on residential land use?

That without a planning process that takes into a wider lens of issues and significant community involvement, the end result is often unfortunate. And we end up selling parcels without concern for the wider public good. I think we can do better. It’s something that I think Gale Brewer has shown in her involvement in, for example, the South Street Seaport development, making certain that the community is engaged at the ground level and not as an afterthought.

What would your top priorities be as borough president?

I really believe we need what I call a Manhattan Marshall Plan. The borough president could use its planning authority powers under the City Charter to advance a formal plan for the economic and neighborhood recovery of Manhattan after COVID-19. This is such an important moment. We have 20 million square feet of office space vacant in midtown Manhattan. We have a chance for a reset on thinking about how best to utilize that space, whether it’s through community retail, New York City-owned businesses and/or affordable housing.

Second, like a lot of Manhattanites, I’m concerned about the decrease in city services. So I want to create, within the borough president’s office, a Manhattan task force on city services and quality of life. Under the borough president’s powers in the City Charter, the borough president has public service complaint powers. And I want to use that to address declining government services around homelessness, trash collection and crime.

Third, I want to create a thing I’m calling community board budgeting. You’ve heard of participatory budgeting. Community board budgeting would be a little different. I’d like to divest the borough president’s broad discretion over capital dollars by delegating significant authority for funding to local community boards. Let them make the decisions. Let’s make this a new function of community boards, to have an actual direct role in setting the capital funding agenda for the borough. Again, I’m a strong believer in grassroots participation. Community boards are town halls of Manhattan.

And finally, as a public school parent, I have been confused about the enrollment process for getting your kid into school. It seems like every school has different criteria. Some of them are available publicly. Some it seems to me you need to know a secret password to understand what’s going on. So to address that, which has a harmful impact on low-income Manhattanites, is to create what I’m calling a public school parent resource and advocacy center within the borough president’s office. I’d help parents in low-income Manhattan communities navigate this Byzantine public school enrollment process, which I think would simultaneously advance strategies to integrate our public schools.

So those are my four big issue areas I see at the moment. But again, I passed 79 bills in Albany. I think I have a record of not just picking a problem, but identifying the solution and bringing it across the finish line. And that’s in the spirit of these four agenda items.

You led the charge to release President Donald Trump’s tax returns. Any chance they’re made public before Election Day?

I hope so. I am mystified why the United States Congress has not taken advantage of my law, the TRUST Act, which would, upon written submission by the House Ways and Means Committee, provide Congress with Trump’s state taxes. Maybe they will. But it’s frustrating that they have yet to do so. Whether it’s Congressman (Richard) Neal, who’s the chair of the Ways and Means Committee, or (House) Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi, I’d urge them to look closely at this law and use it on behalf of the American people. That’s why we passed it. We are offering Trump’s taxes on a silver platter to the United States Congress. They should take advantage of it.

The borough president has to be a cheerleader. What’s your favorite spot in Manhattan?

I have to say Hudson River Park. There’s few places where I can walk, alone or with my family, and take in the salty air, and look almost wistfully on a city that has so much promise and has changed the future of our world. It gives me great hope to walk along that park and it makes me very proud to be a New Yorker.