As counsel to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Kapil Longani and his staff tackle significant legal issues that come across the mayor’s desk. During the coronavirus pandemic that meant coming up with creative solutions to help ameliorate the impact of COVID-19 on the city. Longani spoke with City & State about his upbringing, what influenced his legal career and how his job changed during the pandemic. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Please talk about your background, your influences and how you ended up in the mayor’s office.
I was born in India, a long way from here in a village just south of New Delhi, the capitol. I came here when I was fairly young, about 6 months old. My parents’ marriage was arranged. They knew each other for about three hours before they got married. My mother is a school principal at a preschool that she runs in Florida. My father is retired after working 30 years at NASA. He was the person that handled safety and reliability when you hear the countdown and they’re asking people to check off on different parts of the space shuttle. He was a true rocket scientist.
My entire life has been about living a life that is passionate and fulfilling intellectually and which gives a voice to vulnerable people and those without a voice. I think that that comes from my background. My grandfather was a lawyer and he told me, “You want to do something with your life that will make the world better every single day that you’re at that job. You’re not going to change the world by yourself, but incrementally you want to make the world a better place.”
I graduated from Yale, and I called my grandfather, who at that time was closing in on 100 years old. I thought he was going to react very positively. Instead he said something that I’ll never forget. He said, “You know what that degree with its fancy Latin words on it means nothing. It’s just a piece of paper on your wall. It means nothing unless you use that paper to help people.”
I also had some great mentors. I worked for Judge Roger Gregory, who is now the chief United States circuit judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, and I remember him telling me, “Don’t ever forget, regardless of what position you’re in, don’t forget your values. It’s about justice. It’s about equity. But it’s making sure that you give a voice to people who don’t have one.”
When I became a federal prosecutor, I worked on the Flint, Michigan, water crisis and the federal government’s response to Hurricane Sandy, which again highlighted the importance for me to help the most vulnerable people. Then I became senior counsel for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform under Congress Member Elijah Cummings, who was not only a mentor to me, but really a father figure. When I came here to this job, I remember Cummings telling me, “You should take this job because you won’t find a more fulfilling job in your life. The opportunity to work on behalf of the mayor of New York City, the one elected representative of 8.6 million New Yorkers, is a privilege that very few people in their life will have. You have to attack that job with a level of passion and commitment that only people in New York can understand, because it is a town unlike any other.” I remember that every single day that I’m here.
How did your job change after COVID-19 hit New York City last year?
Frankly, there is no law school class called “Pandemic Response 101.” The scope of our work fundamentally shifted. We’ve been working on COVID from March of last year until this very moment, 24/7. And the goal every single minute has been to protect the public health of all New Yorkers. It was about finding solutions to problems that nobody ever envisioned. Creativity was at a premium. How do you legally set up the largest testing and tracing operation in the entire country? How do you legally set up checkpoints to ensure that travelers coming into New York City have filled out all the relevant forms and met quarantine restrictions? How do you set up legal vaccine distribution hubs? How do you govern?
One of the biggest shifts that took place (was) how, all of a sudden, government went from three branches and a system of checks and balances to really a one branch (of) government run by executive order, both at the state and the city level. My office was responsible for drafting every single executive order for the city. My office's job was to make sure that we did everything possible under the law to protect the public health of New Yorkers, but also respect the fact that the Constitution doesn’t die during a crisis. Every day it’s being able to work under extraordinarily tight deadlines and all the while making sure you are accurate.
We were also dealing with the state’s executive orders, being the primary conduit between us and the state, and making sure that the voice of New York City was being heard, legally speaking.
Look, the virus doesn’t sleep. Neither do we. These legal concerns are never static. You’re always weighing them because there’s not really a status quo. Circumstances changed so frequently, not just on a daily or weekly or monthly basis, we’re talking minute to minute, hour to hour. That’s the level of crisis that we’re dealing with. Like when we were figuring out how to get more personal protective equipment. We streamlined all of our procurement regulations to ensure that we could get contracts done very quickly to enable us to get more PPE into the city as soon as possible. We also relaxed restrictions that helped people who were innovating in the city. The mayor had said we would produce our own PPE and our own ventilators. It was my job to make sure that we got rid of the red tape so that the law didn’t get in the way, and in fact supported these incredible inventors.
We also became, from a public-facing perspective, the primary conduit of information to the public. We published “frequently asked questions” regularly about what these executive orders meant. I thought it was really important that that information got out there, because my mom is a small-business owner and an immigrant. I understood growing up what small businesses go through. I knew very personally what people were going through and how putting these pandemic restrictions on them was going to necessitate a major sacrifice on their part.
Sometimes those executive orders triggered lawsuits, right?
We defended those lawsuits vigorously. Not because it gave us or the mayor any joy imposing the restrictions, but because it was about protecting the public. We in America have an extraordinary freedom and the Constitution they say doesn’t die – but the Constitution is also flexible. It recognizes that there are times that the public good necessitates restrictions on our freedoms. But those questions are complex and necessitate a great deal of thought. And that’s why our executive orders have to be renewed every five days and the governor’s every 30 days. Because when you exercise your emergency powers, the idea is that you should have to think about them on a very regular basis. At the end of the day, it’s always about what is necessary to protect the public, and everything we do is driven by science.
What work lies ahead for your office?
Look, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. A lot more people are taking advantage of the vaccines. I’ll just say that the best executive order I’m ever going to write and that the mayor’s going to sign is the one which lifts all the restrictions that remain. And no one wants to get there quicker than the mayor.
Is that going to happen before the end of the mayor’s final term later this year?
I think trying to predict this virus and trying to put down hard deadlines is really not wise. I think over and over how we’ve been shown that this virus is a tough enemy, even though the numbers are going down and our businesses are opening up. The mayor has put out a robust recovery plan and we’re not going to let our guard down. For example the face mask mandate was dropped in other parts of the country. There’s no discussion of that in New York state. There’s no discussion of that in New York City. The mayor has said he’s going to continue to follow the advice of our scientists. And when they say we have won this war, we’ll be the happiest people in this town. That’s when we’ll write that final executive order.
What advice do you have for your successor?
If I could talk to my successor, whoever takes this job after I leave, I would just say it’s the best job you’re ever going to have. There is not a more fulfilling job than this job and to be at the center of the city’s legal response. It is exhilarating. I was privileged enough to know every day what I could do to help. There were tough times in this job and there continue to be really difficult times and frustrations. To do this job well you have to have a level of passion and commitment that is unrivaled.
You have to remember every single day why you’re here, and when there really are tough times, all you have to do is look outside the windows here in City Hall to get inspiration from your fellow New Yorkers. There were many times, especially at the height of the pandemic, that one felt a great deal of uncertainty. But it was this city that ultimately carried us through and understanding that we had to match that with the same passion and commitment, resilience and leadership that the people in this city have.
NEXT STORY: Eric Dinowitz isn’t declaring victory yet