- Interview by
- Meagan Day
New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams is running for lieutenant governor on a platform of ending mass incarceration, protecting and expanding women’s reproductive freedoms, environmental justice, affordable housing, and free high-quality public education.
His campaign is endorsed by the Working Families Party, Our Revolution, and the Democratic Socialists of America, as well as gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon. Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke with him about housing, corporate money in politics, immigration, and more.
You just spent all day in court, on trial. Why?
I’ve spent the past three days on trial, in fact. Back on January 11, somebody I know very well named Ravi Ragbir, a civil-immigration-rights activist, went for a regular check-in. For the last eleven years he’d gone to these check-ins and was always allowed to come back home. But that day, that didn’t happen. They tried to detain him — in my opinion it was a kidnapping — making use of a city vehicle, an ambulance.
Me and sixteen other people leapt in front of the ambulance and did everything we could to prevent it from happening, and we got arrested. Though he was taken into custody, we were able to highlight the issue, and a judge ruled in his favor, so he’s still here today.
Usually when I participate in civil disobedience — which I think is an important tool, and which I have the distinction of having done the most times of any City Council member — there isn’t such a sense of urgency. This one was about stopping an immediate act being done to someone I’ve known for so long. I always say do what you can, with what you have, where you are. I’m a cisgender male, a citizen, and an elected official, which means I have a responsibility to take more risks.
I refused a dismissal and decided to take this to trial, because I think we needed to shed light on what happened that day, how there was what appeared to be some kind of coordination between ICE officers and NYPD. I also felt that our actions were justified. Something illegal was happening, and if we hadn’t stepped in it would’ve continued. I wanted to make sure that discussion happened in open court. [Read more about the case and its outcome here.]
What are the biggest issues that are facing working-class New Yorkers?
Transportation is huge across the state. In New York City, it’s primarily the state-run MTA system that’s not being taken care of. In the rest of the state, you have another problem: the lack of public transportation, and roads which aren’t being kept up with tax dollars.
Another one is that people are unable to find jobs. There’s so much money that’s been put into the jobs programs, and yet there’s been no return on investment. It’s one of the biggest failures of the Cuomo administration. And in fact, with the Buffalo Billion program you saw that the money was given to people who had donated to Cuomo and the lieutenant governor’s campaigns.
Housing is of course a huge issue. I believe it to be the biggest failure of the administration. Depending where you are, you have rent regulations that aren’t strong enough because the governor wants to empower Republicans, who prevent them from being strong enough. And in other places there are no rent protections at all. There are areas where people are losing their homes, or rather, their homes are being taken from them.
Then there’s education. We need everyone to have access to quality public education for their children. A while back, the courts decided in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York that the state owed the school districts a lot of money, and Cuomo has just refused to pay that money. And we’ve seen the impact. Wealthy districts are able to spend $10,000 more per year per student than poorer districts. That makes absolutely no sense. People may have heard of the Excelsior Scholarship program touted by Cuomo offering free college tuition. They will be shocked to learn that only 3.6 percent of students are eligible.
What can a lieutenant governor do to help working-class New Yorkers and advance working-class organizing throughout the state?
I’ve been very excited about how people have received my vision of this office. The current lieutenant governor believes that the function of the job is basically to trumpet exactly whatever the governor says to trumpet. I reject that. I believe that office is a very powerful office that people have overlooked for far too long, and I decided not to overlook it anymore.
I believe the lieutenant governor should exist to get the people’s work done. I think it would be possible to work on that with Cynthia Nixon. But if that were not possible, as for instance with the current governor, somebody has to be looking out for the people. Therefore, I want to run to be the people’s lieutenant governor, not the governor’s lieutenant governor. In New York City there is a public advocate, whose purpose is to lift the voice of the public. There’s nothing like that in Albany and I think Albany has been suffering for it.
The bully pulpit aspect of it is very important. But you also have other roles that are very important, such as stepping in when the governor can’t perform their duties and voting in the state senate when there’s a procedural tie. That has come up in important cases such as with Roe v. Wade, bail reform, and so on. The current lieutenant governor has never taken these responsibilities seriously before.
Why did you pursue the endorsement of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)?
I was excited to learn about DSA and what they’re doing. I saw the value of the work they were doing and sought DSA’s endorsement before the awesome win of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
When I first got elected, the biggest complaint about me was that I was too much of an activist. I could never understand that. I got elected to make transformational change, and I believe the only way we’ll win that change is through activism and that’s the only way to keep whatever change we win.
I was the first elected official to publicly support Occupy Wall Street. I’ve been doing this kind of work for a long time, and then I start finding out more and more about democratic socialism through Bernie, and it all made sense to me. I believe that most Americans believe in democratic socialism, we’ve just been trained to not like certain words without knowing what those words mean. And that’s a problem. If you believe that people have a right to access health care, have a right to adequate food on the table, have a right to have a safe, livable home that they can afford, which I would posit that most Americans do, you probably have no problem with democratic socialism.
Do you call yourself a democratic socialist?
Yes. I have no problem saying I’m a democratic socialist and believe in democratic socialism, when asked. Being a democratic socialist shouldn’t be this crazy thing. The tenets of it are what most people want. It’s just that the people who make big money out of the current system, while other people are suffering, want us to believe that the terminology is anti-American.
How much is capitalism responsible for the problems facing working people in New York state?
Capitalism in this country is at the core of it. The way the system is set up, you can’t have super-rich people without having super-poor people. This system only works because there are a lot of people at the bottom of it. But the system is amazing, in that it allows everybody to really believe that at some point they too can be super rich — even though that can never happen, because if everybody joined that class, the system wouldn’t work.
Hope is a very powerful thing, but it’s being misused here. Many people push back against change that will make their lives better because they’re hearing, “You too at some point can be super rich, even if you’re not able to feed your family right now, even if you’re not able to get proper housing.” And of course, because you’re not, someone is already rich.
You recently announced that you were going to be giving back corporate donations. Why?
It’s something that was bothering me for a while. It can’t be our only criteria, we have to evaluate people in their entirety. So, if a Trumpite came by and said, “I’m not gonna accept corporate money,” we would still reject them, because their body of work is such that it doesn’t matter. I believe my body of work was important prior to this decision. Real estate would never endorse me to begin with.
But it did make sense to take corporate money out of the equation. For many people, like the governor, there’s a direct correlation between the money they take from real estate and the terrible policies on housing in the state. So, we had taken some corporate funds originally, but ultimately, we decided we’re gonna stick to what we know how to do, which is activism and grassroots.
To what extent do corporations’ and capitalists’ interests control the political process, and how?
To a great extent. Decisions are made daily based on who can cut checks. The Democratic Party in particular makes decisions based on how much money it can raise and incumbency protection, and less based on what’s good for the state and its people. I believe we have Trump in the White House because the bigots and the Nazis espoused their convictions, but the Democratic Party did not have the courage to do the same. Instead, they focused as usual on raising money and incumbency protection. Now the same leaders who brought us to this point are saying they want to continue leading us. That’s a problem.
What can New York state do to get money out of politics?
New York state can close the LLC loophole right now. The confusion comes from the fact that corporations are looked at differently. So, if you’re an S Corp or a C Corp, you can only give $5,000 in aggregate to four candidates. But if you’re an LLC or LLP, you can give $21,000 to the same four candidates — a total of $84,000. We can fix this right now by closing the LLC loophole and treating all corporations the same.
But if we want to really get rid of this problem, we need to go to public financing. The New York City Council changed the way it did business, and I believe changed who got elected, when it went to term limits and public financing. I don’t believe a community organizer like myself would’ve gotten elected without it, because we just don’t know the moneyed people. Public campaign finance amplifies the voice of people like me, putting me on more equal footing with those who had access to millionaires and billionaires. I think the Democratic Party is afraid of public financing because they know it will present a challenge to incumbents and to business as usual, and I think that’s a good thing.
What role do labor unions play in a just and egalitarian society?
Organizing is always important, and unions are particularly important. We know that power and money don’t concede anything without a demand. I always tell people, thank unions for the eight-hour workweek and the weekend. Businesses will always do what’s best for their pockets. People who have money will always try to take more money. So without unions you will always see abuses of workers, and nobody to stop it.
I will say that it’s sad that in New York state, a lot of unions have endorsed Cuomo and the lieutenant governor, even though they know that’s not the best thing for the people. My hope is that will begin to change as well. The governor rules by fear, but we have to have the courage to step up when necessary.
If you and Cynthia Nixon lose, and Cuomo and lieutenant governor Hochul win, do you plan to endorse them?
I think they’re both as close to Republicans and conservatives as you can get without calling yourself that, but I’m not sure they’re as bad as the Republicans who are running. So, my plan is not to support the Republican Party. To be honest, I plan on winning, but if that doesn’t happen my biggest concern will be the Working Families Party (WFP), which Cuomo tried to crush because they didn’t endorse him, and ensuring the WFP’s survival.
Should housing be shelter for people, or a commodity to be bought and sold?
Housing should be shelter for people, but we see across New York state that housing is seen as more of a commodity. That’s evident nowhere more than in New York City, where people literally invest in housing who don’t even live here and are trying to find things to do with their money, so they purchase New York City real estate. That explains why the higher up you go in cost, the more vacancies you have.
There are a few things we can do in the state where the governor has failed. One, we need to redo something called the 421a tax abatement, to give incentives for building low-income housing. There are many buildings going up that have none of that, and in fact, this governor is giving developers more money for less affordability. Ultimately, we have to stop developers from squeezing every single penny out of every single project. There has to be some social benefit included.
We also have to strengthen rent regulations in New York City and the surrounding suburbs, not just to control prices but also to give renters protections. When I was a community organizer and people used to come to me with housing problems, I used to ask if their rent was regulated. Because if it wasn’t, we could fix their problem, but they might not get their lease renewed when the time comes, and there’s nothing we can do about it. If your rent is regulated you have automatic lease renewal, so you don’t have to choose between getting your ceiling fixed and continuing your lease.
In other places across the state, there are no rent regulations at all. We need universal rent regulation across the state. And we need something called just-cause eviction, which protects tenants from being evicted without a reason and without going to court. We also need to stop people losing their homes to foreclosure, which is a huge cause of gentrification.
Do you detect a disconnect between the democratic-socialist movement and the black working class, or is that a myth?
There are a few things there that I want to unpack. What makes the system work the way it does is that whenever we see bad things happening, it’s usually blamed on some “other.” That has worked well across the country. Poor working-class whites who are suffering are told, “At least you’re not black or brown.” That has prevented folks from uniting together.
The truth is, there is a lot of poverty in the white community, but they experience poverty much differently than black and brown people, and that has to be acknowledged. They’re not going to have the same fear of police, they’re not going to be followed in stores, they’re not going to deal with the same trauma that comes from structural bigotry that has come down for generations. But that doesn’t change the fact that they too may not have housing, they too may not have adequate food.
The only benefit about now is how clear that actually is. Many folks in the white community are experiencing something they haven’t experienced before, and are now saying, “wait a minute” — even though there are black and brown people who have experienced it for a very long time.
I believe that we have to do a better job of discussing structural bigotry and structural –isms while at the same time acknowledging that there are white Americans who are suffering, and their suffering is just as real. We too often are talking about one or the other, depending on the audience. We need to have the whole conversation.
Everyone just has to acknowledge the privilege that they have. As a cisgender male, I have to acknowledge my privilege. Even the white brothers and sisters who recognize their privilege are not used to being in space with black and brown communities in a way that moves the ball forward and also empowers those black and brown communities to lead the conversation, particularly if they’re suffering the most. The best place I’ve seen that happen is in Black Lives Matter, where I saw white allies just be there to support, and that was an awesome thing to watch.
When white progressive communities engage with black and brown communities, they’re often coming to tell them what they should do instead of figuring out how to support them. It has to be done correctly.
What about the socialist theory that if you identify demands that working-class people of all races can materially benefit from, you can build multiracial solidarity around those demands? Does that hold any water for you?
Of course it does. I just think you have to be very careful to acknowledge that working-class white communities experience that very differently from working-class black and brown communities. And that has to always be taken into account every step of the way. We have to acknowledge that all of those issues are acutely important and if we’re gonna work on something, we have to work on it together.
Do you support the demand to abolish ICE?
I do. To me, abolishing ICE means abolishing what’s happening now. I always liken it to stop, question, and frisk, which is a tool that police officers were abusing, and we wanted to stop that, so our slogan was “Stop stop-and-frisk.”
ICE has been allowed to flourish even under the Democrats, let’s be clear, including under a president for whom we have a lot of admiration. President Obama deported a lot of people. There were a lot of issues I remember bringing up and being told we can’t talk about that because of who the president is. If we had taken care of it then, it might not have been able to blow up with Trump in the White House.
We have to abolish what’s happening now, there can be no equivocation over that. There are legitimate functions, but the way it’s happening right now, there should be no question that we stop this.
You were a Bernie delegate. What inspired you about Bernie and the type of politics he represented in 2016?
His politics was a progressive populism that made sure that people and not corporations were our focus. From health care to housing and education, his message was exciting to me. The Democrats went another way, with Hillary Clinton, and chose not to embrace that message, which was clearly working. This allowed the Republican messaging to be more effective.
Will you support Bernie Sanders if he runs in 2020?
I want to see what the field of people who are running looks like. I will say it was a fairly easy decision the first time.
What’s your relationship to the Democratic Party?
I’m a registered Democrat. But I typically think that when Democrats call for party unity, what they mean is that activists should shut up and be quiet, and not run. You know, Cuomo and the lieutenant governor could also not run, if they’re that concerned about party unity. The DNC said they would not endorse in primaries, but Tom Perez endorsed Cuomo and the lieutenant governor while they were attempting to prevent us from getting on the ballot. So, it’s usually a one-sided discussion, and I haven’t seen any efforts at party unity except in name.