Brooklyn City Councilmember Jumaane Williams is hoping to make a difference in Albany. The activist legislator is running for lieutenant governor with gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, hoping to defeat incumbent Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul in the Sept. 13 primary.
Williams, a Democrat representing Flatbush and part of Canarsie, has earned the support of progressive groups including the Working Families Party and the New York Progressive Action Network (NYPAN), that was formed out of Sen. Bernie Sanders presidential campaign in 2016.
He is also backed by a number of elected officials including state Sen. Kevin Parker; Brooklyn City Councilmembers Carlos Menchaca, Brad Lander and Antonio Reynoso; and Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte.
Williams was elected to the 45th City Council District in 2009, defeating incumbent Kendall Stewart in a six-way race, then re-elected in 2013 and again in 2017.
He has served as deputy leader of the New York City Council, and chaired the Council’s Committee on Housing and Buildings. He also co-chaired the Council’s Task Force to Combat Gun Violence, and was a founding member the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus.
He is a first-generation Brooklynite and a product of the city’s public school system, attending Philippa Schuyler Middle School for the Gifted and Talented and Brooklyn Technical High School. He earned his bachelor’s in political science and master’s in urban policy and administration at Brooklyn College.
Williams previously served as executive director of New York State Tenants and Neighbors, and has been a long-time advocate for affordable housing and gun control.
Williams took the time to answer some questions for this newspaper.
Home Reporter: Let’s look at history – your challenge to Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul is not the usual practice, but it is not unprecedented. Former Gov. Mario Cuomo won in 1982 but his choice for lieutenant governor, Carl McCall, was defeated by Cuomo’s challenger at the time, former Mayor Ed Koch’s running mate Alfred DelBello. Do you think it will happen again?
Jumaane Williams: Well, my hope is that I will work with Cynthia Nixon, the person I’ve endorsed for the governor of the state of New York.
Home Reporter: Do you think the recent attacks directed at you by Hochul are because they are really taking your challenge seriously in Albany?
Williams: I believe that the establishment, corporate Democrats, realize the way they have done things for too long is out of favor. I wish they thought it was out of favor because it hasn’t helped as many New Yorkers as it could have but that’s not their biggest concern. Their biggest concern is usually reelection or higher office.
And now that that’s out of favor, they are trying to show that they are activists and are a part of the resistance which is quite amusing to those of us who are actual activists and have long been part of the resistance.
Home Reporter: Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul has said that you have not consistently supported women’s rights. How do you respond to that?
Williams: I think when people don’t like the information they have, they use their imagination. I’ve found that the lieutenant governor is quite colorful with her imagination.
Thankfully, my voting record and everything I’ve done on women’s reproductive justice is public information and we’re proud to have a lot of pro-choice supporters supporting me because they know that I have always supported a woman’s rights to seek a legal abortion.
Home Reporter: Are you encouraged by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent win over U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley and what do you see as the similarities between you and Ocasio-Cortez?
Williams: I really believe that everybody of moral conscience would be excited about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ win, except for those Democrats who were about incumbency protection over actually protecting the people.
I believe that we don’t have Donald Trump now because of Republicans, you know the extreme-right bigots. They voted for a bigot and that’s what they were supposed to do.
The Democrats did not do what they were supposed to do and so those Democrats tried raising money for incumbency protection. Because if it was left to them we would not have an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But those of us who have been trying to change the dynamic of the Democratic Party are all very excited because leadership takes vision, it takes risk and it takes courage. And we haven’t seen much of that in the Democratic Party in a very long time.
Home Reporter: Please tell me about your serving as a delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders during his presidential bid. What was that like and do you think he would fare better today in light of recent criticism directed at the Trump presidency?
Williams: Most of what I have done in my political career has been difficult. I’m thankful it has turned out to be rewarding as people look back and see it as pushing the Democratic Party by supporting someone like Bernie Sanders.
In hindsight, it’s easier for folks to talk about it now, but it wasn’t then. It was difficult, but I think it’s clear that the message that Bernie Sanders had was correct and should have been adopted by the Democratic Party.
When you say fare better now, I think we have the wins that we have now because of Bernie’s run. We’re in a stage now where the people are energized and they see hope in themselves by participating.
Home Reporter: You’ve taken a stand on a number of hot button issues. Please explain your views on gun control and the best way to stop gun-related violence.
Williams: There are two buckets that I see when it comes to gun control — the supply and the demand. Most of what we hear politicians like the governor speak about are about supply, stopping the flow of guns in our communities. That’s very important but that’s a very easy talking point because the governor has a favorite enemy, the NRA, and particularly the leadership of the NRA and people like Trump.
So that’s an easy target, even for the lieutenant governor who got an A rating from the NRA and voted for reciprocity for concealed carriers so that didn’t make much sense.
But the hardest part people talk about is the demand side. The demand side deals with the most direct access to change and the underlying issues that are causing gun violence.
To begin with, treating it like a public health crisis takes resources and dedication. The governor has pretty much done none of that and the lieutenant governor doesn’t even speak of it because of her lack of knowledge of what it actually means.
So in New York City where we took a direct role in addressing the demand side of violence by looking at it differently, treating it holistically, and putting resources on the ground with community groups that really addressed this issue, we’ve seen marked results in dealing with gun violence and even how policing is dealing with gun violence.
That hasn’t happened on a state level. So you don’t see the same improvement or the same results in the rest of the state.
Home Reporter: You have loudly voiced your opinion standing up against Trump’s aggressive deportation agenda. Please explain your views on this.
Williams: Last year, on Jan. 20 at 12 noon, I invited everyone to join me in front of Trump Tower. I said we have to resist from day one. Most Democratic elected officials did not come. A few did and I thanked them.
Donald Trump was clear in what he wanted to do. And we’ve seen this throughout history where they come for one person and then it branches out.
We were going after the “bad hombres,” and then we were going after legal immigrants and even stripping people of their natural citizenship. And that’s the way fascism works, and that’s the way this kind of regime works.
Home Reporter: You were recently found guilty of obstructing an ambulance during a protest involving your friend immigration activist Ravi Ragbir.
You were afraid he would be deported so you stood in front of the FDNY vehicle which was transporting him. You were convicted of obstruction of an ambulance but found not guilty of obstructing police efforts to move him out of the street. Why was it so important for you to put yourself on the line in this matter?
Williams: I’ve participated in a lot of civil disobedience before, but this one was different. Usually when you are participating in civil disobedience, you are fighting a policy that you feel is unjust, but rarely is the thing you are fighting about to happen right now.
And that wasn’t a planned act. That was a moment in time when something illegal and immoral was happening right now, and if you did not act something bad was going to happen. And thankfully 18 of us did that. I thought it was important to take it to court because of that.
Home Reporter: You’ve been in the news recently regarding $10,000 in back taxes you owe. Would you want to clear this matter up?
Williams: We have been talking about what our campaign is and making contrast with who the lieutenant governor is. And in one fell swoop, they proved it with an ad basically saying that the mere existence of debt disqualifies you from being able to run for office.
I think that three quarters of Americans are in debt. I’ve been open and honest about these issues for years. A lot of what they are saying is exaggerated and we plan to explain it all at some point, but I think it’s very interesting just to have it out there because it really shows who the lieutenant governor is and what the lieutenant governor cares about.
Home Reporter: Recent polls have you in a near tie with Hochul. If you win the primary, how would you turn the role of lieutenant governor, which some people view as ceremonial, into a more active position?
Williams: Well the current lieutenant governor has treated the job as ceremonial, primarily ribbon-cuttings and showing up to events. I want to be an active part of government in this state. I want to work with the governor when he, or hopefully in my case she, is doing the job of the people. I want to be the people’s lieutenant governor.
You know, there’s a public advocate in New York City but there is nothing like that in Albany and I think people are suffering because of that. I want to fundamentally change what the role of the lieutenant governor does in the state of New York.