The New York City Public Advocate race grows more crowded by the week as Melissa Mark-Viverito has joined the growing candidate list that includes Council Member Jumaane Williams. The race was triggered after current Public Advocate Letitia James’ 2018 midterm election victory to become New York’s next Attorney General. An election date to elect the next NYC Public Advocate has yet to be announced, but the date will be set for sometime in early 2019 after James is sworn in as NY Attorney General.
Nomiki Konst is one of the NYC Public Advocate candidates that local media like to paint as an outsider despite her history of taking on corruption as an investigative journalist and as a member of the Democratic National Committee’s Unity Reform Commission.
Konst sets herself apart from the other Public Advocate candidates by pushing a progressive agenda that includes not accepting real estate lobby donations and committing to staying educated on city business deals prior to endorsing them. With the recent victories of other NYC progressives who also denied real estate money like Congresswoman-elect Alexandira Ocasio-Cortez and incoming New York State Senator Julia Salazar, Konst is running for local office at a time when the awareness of corporate influence on political decisions is elevated. Greenpointers reached out to Konst to find out what her policy positions are on current hot button issues in NYC like Amazon HQ2. Full disclosure: Nomiki Konst and I worked together briefly at the political news outlet TYT Network over the past year.
You have a long history as a watchdog, not only working as an investigative journalist, but as a Bernie Sanders surrogate during the 2016 campaign, and as a representative in the Democratic National Committee’s Unity Reform Commision. How would you utilize your experience investigating national issues to bring more accountability to New York City?
NK: The Public Advocate’s office has the unique ability to investigate separately from the Comptroller, for instance, to investigate conflicts of interest, to figure out where local sources of corruption are coming. And not just advocate for the city and New Yorkers, but specifically to be a check on the City Council, on the agencies as well as the Mayor’s office. So my experience on the Unity Reform Commission was incredibly powerful in that just like the Public Advocate’s office we didn’t have litigation power or the ability to subpoena, or present legislation really, but that’s a separate issue. So what I had to do was I had to be very creative about how we figured out where the corruption was coming from. And of course, being an investigative reporter I was probably a little bit more familiar with those strategies. So I first went to the budget and started looking through the budget, and I started figuring out what sort of conflicts of interests there were.
Often times when you see a conflict of interest that can be a form of corruption. An example today, would be the Board of Elections in New York, which has caused several dysfunctional elections that have disenfranchised several thousands of New Yorkers. We learned that the head of the BOE in New York City is also on the board of the company which the BOE has a contract with that failed to scan thousands of New Yorker’s ballots. So that is a conflict of interest. Now, that’s a local issue that obviously has consequences nationwide because it’s in New York City. You know, exposing conflicts of interest and calling for investigations and putting out investigations is more of an issue than people are really highlighting. I’d say that’s one area in particular I would use my accountability experience to solve some of the issues of localized corruption that really do feed all the way up to the national level, especially because the real estate industry is such a large player in New York City.
A lot of the local reporting on your candidacy for Public Advocate frames you as an outsider when in experience you’re an insider for rooting out corruption and investigating wrongdoing by public officials. How do you view yourself in this race?
NK: I think what we’ve gotten into a pattern in New York and nationwide, is anytime someone comes from the left and challenges the corporate structure, they’re labeled as an ‘outsider’ and the press strategically does not give proper attention to those who are challenging the corrupt institutions within the city.
When you look at this race it’s likely to be a very, very low turnout election and there are several candidates in the race. At this point there are no insiders or outsiders, it’s going to come down to a few votes. So it’s really the person who’s able to relate to voters the most, but also get their message out to voters. And if you want to look at who has the largest audience, it’s me. I don’t know what that means in terms of outsider or insider. The former speaker of the city council only won her election by 40 votes in her own district after she rezoned it. A video that I post on an afternoon gets more views than half of these launch videos. I’m OK with them thinking I’m an outsider because we’re just going to bury our heads down, and do the work and organize, and keep calling out these conflicts of interest and these real estate interests.
The bottom line is there’s not a lot of creativity in some of this reporting. I’ve had some reporters not even get my bio correct when it’s literally Googleable. This is something that has happened over and over and over when you have someone who’s from the actual left, who’s not taking corporate money or real estate money challenge the status quo. But, I think even more so because this position is supposed to be an independent watchdog for the city, and I’m actually the only person who’s an independent watchdog running for this.
A few days ago you were on a panel discussion with incoming NY State Senator Julia Salazar who made NYC real estate law reform and donations from the real estate industry a central part of her campaign. Why is focusing on real estate in this day and age a winning political strategy?
NK: I’m not sure about strategy, I just think it’s what’s right. This office in particular, it came out of a real estate scandal in the late 80’s and that’s why the office exists. It’s there to check the system and the government. If you look at the last 40 years of government in New York City and where it has gone wrong and where the corruption has existed, there’s always a tie back to these big developers.
If you look at the inequity in this city. We have the highest rate of income inequality in the country at the worst moment in history. Our laws are being dictated by not just the corporate class, but the fact that we’re not collecting taxes from the wealthiest of the wealthiest, and the real estate developers are making our city unlivable. So when you’re not collecting that tax revenue and when you hear today that Andy Byford wants to start going after fare evasion to make up for lost money. How about you actually tax the people who are breaking down our infrastructure? The city is already unlivable and is already way too expensive; you keep raising the fairs and now you want to put people, to arrest people for fare evasion because they can’t afford to get across town to go to work, or worse if there’s an emergency? That’s not what our society should be built on and if you look at the root cause of inequality, I would say that the number one cause right now in the city other than the banks which is more of a global issue, is the deregulation of the real estate industry.
Last weekend you were at the Sanders Institute gathering in Vermont, where you told NY1 News that the Amazon HQ2 deal that Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo brokered in private was the “antithesis of being good for New York.” Why do you view the Amazon HQ2 deal as bad for New York?
NK: Other than the way that this deal went down behind closed doors, which needs to be investigated immediately and I’m surprised that the current Public Advocate hasn’t called for that, other than just that we knew what Amazon was, so frankly, I’m even calling out the lawmakers who signed that letter. There are lawmakers, and some have learned, and said ‘I wish I had known more about Amazon more.’ But there was a responsibility when you earned the office of the people you represent, especially if you’re claiming to be progressive.
There was a responsibility, an inherent responsibility in understanding the companies that were invited to our city to supposedly bring high paying jobs: The responsibility to understand that Amazon is an exploitive company that has driven up homelessness. The Austin City Council now is suing Amazon to try to get the tax incentives back because Amazon doesn’t live up to its bargains, they treat their workers unfairly. They’ve already shut down enough small businesses digitally. On top of this, some of the City Councilmen were part of the rezoning around the neighborhood. This is a real estate developer’s dream.
There’s a plan by Council Members Brad Lander, Jimmy Van Brammer and Jumaane Willaims to block the use of non-disclosure agreements by city officials. Do you support the plan?
NK: This is Jimmy Van Brammer’s neighborhood that he rezoned. Jumaane Williams signed the letter and every single time he was on stage with us trying to defend it, he did not seem to understand Amazon’s history. Now, of course I support having a transparent process, but that’s already technically the rule. I think that a lot of politicians found themselves on the wrong side of history and are now trying to make up for it through introducing legislation and having press conferences. That’s especially true for those running for Public Advocate like Jumaane Willaims, you really have to have a deeper understanding of what these deals represent before they go wrong.
Jumaane Williams might be considered the other “most progressive” candidate in this race, what are the major differences that you’ve found between your two policy platforms?
NK: Number one: I have never taken real estate money and I will never take real estate money. Not only has he taken tens of thousands of dollars in real estate developer money, he’s taking it from one of the most conservative pay-to-play families, the Ratner family, and after promising to give it back, he has not given it back.
Number two: I am 100 percent pro-choice. I’m a pro-choice advocate. I have been an advocate for the LGBTQ community and there’s still a question of where he stands on both of these issues.
Number three: I believe that the speed limits of New York City should be lowered. I live on a very busy street. I believe that transportation issues are an extraordinary problem and he was the only Democrat to vote against lowering the speed in New York. And, he received over 25 speeding tickets in school zones in the last five years. It’s also an issue that concerns a lot of communities.
There are quite a few issues that I think we’re separate on and I think its good to have people in solidarity with you at protests, and I think he’s been progressive on a handful of issues, but I think his actual holistic record is not as progressive as many people think. I have never, ever, ever gone to an AIPAC event. I have been invited to different events by AIPAC for the last 10 years of my career and I have always said ‘no.’ I understand what AIPAC represents. I understand who they are. I understand their coordination with a rightwing government including our own rightwing government, and I would never ever, ever open a conversation with them because that is how they start to regulate our leftist lawmakers. Yes, it is important to converse with people, I have conversed with Republicans and debated Republicans my entire career, but I don’t go to their events