Kathryn Garcia

MAKING A CASE BASED ON COMPETENCE: Kathryn Garcia is hoping the knowledge and experience she gained as first Environmental Protection Chief Operating Officer and then Sanitation Commissioner will be valued by voters over political experience when they vote for a Mayor who figures to have to hit the ground running next year to deal with budget and other operational problems the city is likely to still be confronting.

The first reason Kathryn Garcia cited for her optimism when asked Feb. 21 about her run for Mayor was that the sun was shining brightly—something that was particularly appreciated by someone less than six months removed from being Sanitation Commissioner.

"I feel really good about the campaign," she said. "We are moving in exactly the right direction. Polling shows folks really want experience; they don't necessarily want an 'elected.' "

Pretty Cheerful at 2%

It seemed unlikely she was referring to the one public poll, by Core Decision Analytics, that had been released Feb. 10. While it showed Andrew Yang running well ahead of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and City Comptroller Scott Stringer, with 28 percent of the vote compared to their 17 percent and 13 percent, respectively, Ms. Garcia had just 2 percent, leaving her tied for sixth in a field which includes more than 30 candidates for the Democratic nomination.

Mr. Yang's lead was largely a product of the high name recognition he garnered during his run for President last year, which didn't win him any delegates before he dropped out after the Iowa Caucuses but got more-positive notices than the candidacies of Mayor de Blasio and another former Mayor who is a more-successful entrepreneur than he is, Michael Bloomberg.

But Ms. Garcia, a former Chief Operating Officer at the Department of Environmental Protection before becoming Mr. de Blasio's Sanitation Commissioner, became his version of a Swiss Army Knife, doing double duty first in overseeing the scandal-torn Housing Authority and later running an emergency food program during the early months of the pandemic. One of three former de Blasio aides seeking the mayoraltyformer Counsel to the Mayor Maya Wiley and ex-Veterans' Affairs Commissioner Loree Sutton are the othersshe will be emphasizing her proven competence in running government agencies that needed strong administrators.

When she resigned last September to explore a run for Mayor, she cited as one reason cuts to the Sanitation Department that meant the loss of 400 jobs to attrition as part of Mr. de Blasio's response to the financial crunch caused by the coronavirus's impact on the city's economy.

Spoke Up for Workers

"The last people you want to get rid of are the people keeping the city clean and who came to work every day during the pandemic," she said then.

The appreciation went both ways. The most-prominent union endorsement she has gotten so far came from the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association, whose president, Harry Nespoli, said early this year that from the time she came on the job Ms. Garcia impressed him with her engagement and willingness to press City Hall for resources and the funding for needed repairs in Sanitation garages.

She is also being backed by the unions representing Sanitation supervisors and chiefs, and Service Employees International Union Local 246, which represents auto mechanics, a large contingent of whom are employed by DSNY. She also has the support of Teamsters Local 813, which represents private sanitation workers.

But she has yet to reel in any of the more-coveted endorsements of larger city unions, while Ms. Wiley got a needed boost to her campaign earlier that weekend with the backing of SEIU Local 1199, the giant health-care employees union that has long been among the most politically active.

"I think we are definitely in the game for some bigger union endorsements," Ms. Garcia said.

PBA Probably Not on List

The Police Benevolent Association does not figure to be among the possibilities, primarily because Ms. Garciawhose father is Bruce McIver, who spent four years as Director of Labor Relations for Mayor Ed Koch and held similar positions for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the League of Voluntary Hospitals, which negotiates contracts for the city's private facilitiesdid not sound sympathetic to its push for pay raises significantly higher than those already negotiated with police unions representing those in the ranks of Lieutenant and above.

For more than two decades, PBA President Patrick J. Lynch has called for raises for his troops well above the established city patterns, contending that his members have continued to lose ground to cops employed not only in suburban police departments but also at the MTA and in Newark.

"I don't think they have a special claim on extra dollars just because there are differences outside the region," Ms. Garcia said of the PBA, which had its contract expire 43 months ago and is awaiting an arbitration proceeding overseen by the state Public Employment Relations Board that has been delayed 10 months already by the pandemic.

But she said if that stalemate was not resolved by the time she became Mayor, "I would hope they would come to the table and not go to PERB."

Feels Differently for EMS

She was unequivocal, however, in expressing her belief that something special should be done to bridge a festering salary gap between Emergency Medical Service workers and Police Officers and Firefighters. Top pay for Emergency Medical Technicians is roughly $35,000 below what is paid to members of those other employee groups at maximum salary, a carryover of the lower standards and lesser regard for EMTs over a half-century ago when they were under the jurisdiction of the city hospital system and were not part of the group of uniformed workers for whom salary relationships were established.  

"Clearly I support EMS workers in this fight," Ms. Garcia said. "They have stepped up over and over during the past year, and there's no reason they shouldn't be moving toward parity. There is also a racial and gender-equity issue here," referring to the high numbers of women and people of color in EMT jobs, in contrast with the firefighting force.

Until now, attempts by EMS union leaders to close the pay gap have been thwarted by Mayors including Mr. de Blasio and Michael Bloomberg who have cited the importance of conforming to established pay patterns unless there is a compelling reason to do something special. The current Mayor infuriated the EMS unions by insisting two years ago that while their members did outstanding work, their jobs and those of Firefighters were "different," notwithstanding the fact that the city now handles far more medical-emergency calls than it does fires.

"I am a big believer in pattern bargaining," Ms. Garcia said, "but we have to understand when there is an inequity that can't be overcome by the pattern. You need to have an inherent sense of fairness."

A Medical Pathway?

She said that in addition to addressing the salary issuewhich has led to a steady exodus from EMS to Firefighter jobs for which EMTs get hiring preference through a special promotion examshe would explore creating "pathways into the medical profession," using training to prepare EMTs to become nurses and doctors.

"You want to make sure there are chances for advancement," she said.

She said constraints on the city budget created by the virus's effect on the local economy will not vanish if the $1.9-trillion economic-relief package President Biden is trying to move through Congress is approved over the next few weeks, bringing both the city and state billions of dollars in Federal aid to compensate for their losses over the past year.

"The stimulus bill will make it better," she said of the city's financial outlook. "It is still going to be bad. We are going to have to rebuild our economy with some important pieces missing." She cited huge fall-offs in revenue from sales tax and the hotel occupancy tax that she said wouldn't rebound to their old levels in the near future.

"The next Mayor is going to have to start driving that train really fast," Ms. Garcia said, adding to the value of her extensive experience in city government. Two unique features of New York that other cities can't match. she continued were its arts and cultural offerings, meaning revivals of Broadway and museums would be key components in a turnaround, particularly due to their impact on tourism.

Schools, Policing Vital

But benchmark city services were also key, she said. Pointing to two areas where there has been a fall-off over the past year, she said, "We cannot allow crime to rise and we really need to get kids back in school."

She said Mr. de Blasio hadn't done enough to get two groups back to in-person classes fulltime: younger students and those with special needs.

She also said she was "very concerned" that high-school students were still taking all their classes remotely, largely because of concern that they are more likely to spread the virus than elementary-school students, with the Mayor saying he hoped to have them attending school before the end of the term in June, but with no target date set.

"It could be, for some of them, an entirely lost year." Ms. Garcia said. "Young teenagers, part of their development is to be separating from their parents and creating an identity with their peers, and that hasn't happened."

While there are some police-reform efforts she supports, the plan to shift School Safety Agents from being trained and overseen by the NYPD to Department of Education control is not one of them.

'Agents' Not Like Cops

"I actually don't view the School Safety officers as Police Officers," Ms. Garcia said. "I feel they are there to protect the students," in contrast to the view of the student activists who criticize them as an intrusive force and want them and metal detectors removed from schools, with the savings used to hire more counselors.

She said that she believed Principals should play a greater role in directing the School Safety Agents, but "I think it is fine for them to stay under Police Department jurisdiction. DOE did not do a good job of managing the program back in the day," which led to the transfer of control in 1998, under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, from the old Board of Education to the NYPD.

Regarding the continued use of metal detectors, Ms. Garcia said, "I don't think kids should be going through metal detectors, but does the data say the schools are safe? If they don't feel safe in their classroom, it is very hard for that to be an effective learning environment."

The most-controversial of the City Council initiatives that was signed into law by the Mayor last yearthe one subjecting police officers to criminal charges if they compressed the diaphragm of someone with whom they were struggling, has drawn complaints by street cops as well as the PBA that it inhibits their ability to make arrests if someone resists. Ms. Garcia said, "I think it is worth understanding what police officers are seeing out there," but would not commit to seeking any modifications to the law.

During last year's protests that were triggered by the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by a veteran cop in Minneapolis who pressed a knee into his neck for nearly eight minutes, Ms. Garcia said, "I saw some things that I thought were very problematic. It was generally peaceful, but I saw an order to 'kettle' the protesters" in Brooklyn's Fort Greene section, referring to a tactic under which police look to shut down a protest by funneling participants in one direction.

Waited, Then Hurried Up

Asked whether that occurred because the protest had gone beyond an 8 p.m. curfew the Mayor had imposed to allow cops to be redeployedto prevent looting that had previously within the protests or while they were going on because other parts of the city were short on patrol officersshe said, "It came after, but hours after" the curfew took effect. "It wasn't like there was a notification they had made that was ignored. If you're going to...just let them march for a couple of hours" past that time, it shouldn't be curtailed abruptly.

Ms. Garcia favors the closing of Rikers Island, saying, "I believe we should go to a borough-based prison system." But the surge in crime over the past year has pushed the average daily jail population up by 1,500 detainees, to 5,400more than the four jails in every borough except Staten Island would be able to hold if Rikers were shut down, as scheduled, in 2027.

"I'm very concerned" about the rise in the detainee population, she said, explaining that beyond it signifying a more-dangerous city, it could also mean "our court system is not working effectively" in processing cases.

She said her experience in dealing with other municipal unions besides the ones in Sanitationwhich has generally been regarded as a model of labor/management cooperationwould come in particularly handy given the challenges likely to face whoever succeeds Mr. de Blasio.

"I think the next Mayor is going to have to be working on all cylinders" from the time he or she takes office, Ms. Garcia said. "Understanding how to deal with labor is a key piece of that."     

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