Q&A With Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon: For NY-10 Democratic Candidate, ‘It’s All About Community’

NEW YORK — The crowded field of Democratic candidates running in New York’s newly drawn 10th Congressional District has its healthy share of both bold-faced names and extreme long shots.

New York Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon (D), a seasoned legislator with a small social media footprint and deep local roots, does not fit into either category.

A disability rights attorney who has represented downtown Brooklyn and neighboring brownstone strongholds in Albany since 2015, Simon has worked on passing tighter gun regulations, combating climate change, protecting reproductive rights and expanding health care access.

Simon entered politics as a neighborhood activist seeking to fight environmental pollution and the displacement of longtime residents by new real estate development. She continues to be an outspoken critic of real estate projects that she believes are being done irresponsibly and without adequate community input.

New York’s 10th, which encompasses lower Manhattan and parts of downtown and central Brooklyn, is one of the safest Democratic seats in the country. Simon is one of 15 candidates running in the Aug. 23 Democratic primary.

HuffPost is running an interview series with the 10th District candidates. Check out our previous interviews with Mondaire Jones, Yuh-Line Niou, Bill de Blasio, and Carlina Rivera.

Simon, who enjoys doing needlepoint work and frequenting local Italian restaurants with her husband Bill, is up against opponents with more campaign cash and name recognition. She also lost her 2021 race for Brooklyn borough president to Antonio Reynoso, who has endorsed Rivera in the congressional primary.

But Simon maintains that her base of support in the Brooklyn enclaves with some of the highest voter participation in the district gives her a clear path to victory.

Over cold beverages on a busy stretch of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, HuffPost asked Simon how she would translate her passionate local advocacy into federal policymaking, where she would fit in ideologically, and what she thinks of President Joe Biden’s performance.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

“I certainly have more experience working with Republicans to advance various goals in the state Assembly than a number of candidates who have not served, or not served in a long time.”

– New York Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon (D)

Why are you running?

For me, this is an extension of the work that I’m already doing. The neighborhoods that are represented in this district are neighborhoods that I’ve worked with in many ways, whether I represented them or not. I was a community leader and activist for many years working throughout Western Brooklyn with communities all up and down the I-278 corridor on environmental justice and transportation issues.

These are all communities that I know. I know something about the issues that affect them. And I felt that this was an opportunity to serve more communities, and continue the kind of work and leadership that I have had before.

Manhattan, of course, doesn’t have the same exact issues, but they have many similar issues. I was just endorsed by the Downtown Independent Democrats. I’m the first person [in this race] to be endorsed by a political club in a different borough.

What does that look like at a federal level — fighting for environmental justice? How would you prioritize that? And what would a successful first term look like?

I would prioritize climate over many things. We have a few broad issues that the world is grappling with, as well as the United States: climate, race, gender, and the displacement of people. You see that with the refugee crisis, but you see that here with people being pushed out of their neighborhoods, intentionally or otherwise.

There were certainly times in our history where that was very deliberate and very intentional. We have vestiges of approaches to planning and land use that carry forward a lot of the systemic racism that America created 400 years ago, but also things that come from the law of unintended consequences. Every bright idea isn’t necessarily fully baked.

Those are the things that the community feels most deeply and connects to most deeply. Certainly climate is a very real part of that.

I have in my district right now the Gowanus Canal superfund site. That toxicity is huge.

How do you think you might be able to tackle climate specifically — or that element of climate in Congress?

There are many efforts in Congress. I certainly do believe in the Green New Deal. We have to get away from the old ways of doing things. We need to really get ourselves out of fossil fuels. And we need to incentivize and create new job opportunities in those environmentally sustainable fields.

That’s a very big picture and there are lots and lots of ways that can be done. Clearly, one of them is when you’re looking at transportation, you’re talking about federal highway money, and what we do along those interstate highways. It also requires working with different levels of government. Having worked at the state level and representing [the interstate highway in Brooklyn], I have experience in three levels of government and with the community and leadership that needs to be there at the table in a very significant way. When you’re in Congress, you can fight for those kinds of things with a different voice and a different platform.

The difference from your current work in the state Assembly is that, barring an unlikely scenario, Democrats will not be in control in the House. Do you have experience working with Republicans to advance these goals?

Well, I certainly have more experience working with Republicans to advance various goals in the state Assembly than a number of candidates who have not served, or not served in a long time. What you find when you work with people is that they are also concerned about many of the same things. They can’t say some of the same things you can, but there is a reservoir there of people who really are concerned about dying in a fire, for example.

In Congress, you really do have to be able to work with people on the other side, even though nobody necessarily talks about it. When I passed the red-flag law in New York — and of course, it didn’t pass in the state Senate until after the 2018 election — I had half of the Republican conference vote for that bill. And it’s because it made sense. It absolutely was very strong on due process and protecting people’s rights under the Second Amendment, but it was also very clear what the basis for decision-making was. It’s a very strong bill. We’ve just strengthened it recently, because it’s been used sporadically in different counties.

Where do you currently stand on the redevelopment project in Gowanus? I know you opposed it for some time, even though it did get support from progressives like Brad Lander (though his support was contingent on investment in NYCHA developments).

I actually believe that a rezoning makes sense because I think you needed some cohesive structure there so you didn’t just get every owner doing whatever they wanted.

The issues with regard to the rezoning in my mind were the level of toxicity that was not really being dealt with. The EPA filed extensive comments to the environmental impact statement and asked that several sections be redone and that a racial justice analysis be done. The city ignored that.

It wasn’t so much about what they were going to build and where they weren’t going to build it, per se — although there was a lot of discussion around the most toxic site and the amount of housing that would go there. But it’s a marsh so it’s not easy to build — you have to have your pilings go deep, etc, etc. Just because we’ve covered it up, it’s still marshland. The marsh knows it’s marshland! And it also affects the way coal tar disperses. So it’s a very, very heavily polluted site that they’ll be sucking coal tar out of for the next 50 years.

There are significant challenges of how we go forward when we haven’t done the main things that we were supposed to do to protect the environment and clean this up for the health and safety of the community. You don’t want new people coming in and being poisoned. I don’t think that’s anybody’s goal — certainly not the developers’.

New York State Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon (D) says she would join the Congressional Progressive Caucus if elected. She supports Medicare for All and student debt cancellation.
New York State Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon (D) says she would join the Congressional Progressive Caucus if elected. She supports Medicare for All and student debt cancellation.

Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

I have no reason to doubt that your environmental concerns are sincere. There is a sense though, especially among some younger people in the city, that there is always a reason to object to development. Sometimes it’s the environmental impact; other times it’s building height and shade and the character of the neighborhood. And a lot of these just sound like ways of saying, “When I came here, the neighborhood was one way, and I want it to stay that way forever.”

I’m very familiar with that. Many people do say those kinds of things [about opponents of redevelopment].

Here’s the thing: Most of those critics do not really understand land use planning in the city of New York and they haven’t been around long enough to see the mistakes that have been made.

Part of the reason this district is so different than it was, for example, when I moved here, is because of re-zonings and 421A [a property tax exemption favored by developers]. That rule never builds enough affordable housing — or affordable enough housing — for the people who live here.

People have been displaced. Atlantic Yards displaced many tens of thousands of African Americans, who were supposed to be the people who get the preference for the affordable housing. They have still only built about one-third of the housing there, but the effect of the displacement has already occurred.

Community can make difficult decisions. They can be supportive of affordable housing. They can make sure it happens, but their voices need to be taken into consideration.

The development process in New York City is not really designed to actually incorporate voices of the community. It’s post hoc. Somebody comes out with the design, and then you’re in a battle.

Aren’t the “voices of community” usually a few dozen people who are always opposed to development?

That is not true. That is people’s perception. There are certainly people who have been involved with these fights because they’ve lived here long enough to understand how to read between the lines.

In Congress, do you envision yourself being a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus?

Certainly.

I want to list a number of different policies that people ask about when assessing Democratic candidates’ ideologies. Do you support Medicare for All?

Yes. I’m a sponsor of the New York Health Act, and have been since I first joined the Assembly.

What about tuition-free public college and student debt cancellation?

I favor canceling debt. I think the most viable proposal right now seems to be to cancel up to $50,000 of people’s student debt. There’s room to go further than that, but that is a good first step.

Do you support expanding the Supreme Court?

I’d expand it. But for each action, there’s an equal reaction. So a seat opens up when there’s a Republican administration — they’re not going to change their stripes.

I think we need term limits. The fact that they are given lifetime tenure was originally done to insulate people from the political vicissitudes at the moment. But it’s very clear that organizations like the Heritage Foundation have been making their lists and checking them twice, and fighting for a Supreme Court that would be reactionary and really against democracy.

Do you think the New York Police Department budget is too big, too small or just right?

What I think is clear, is that we are asking cops to do things for which they aren’t qualified. They’re not psychologists. They’re not social workers. I think we need to allocate resources to those services that would actually help people in their communities.

In the state budget, we did a lot of work to provide additional funding for the Cure Violence programs and violence interrupter programs, and educational programs that help young people make decisions differently in their lives. They’re very, very successful. That’s another on-the-ground, community-based program that is much more successful than a top-down kind of thing.

“It would be helpful if the media didn’t focus on the price of gas as much and focused on the civil rights and individual rights and liberties of the people in the United States, and the fact that we have a democracy that’s teetering on the edge.”

– New York Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon (D)

Do you want that kind of violence prevention money to be in addition to police funding, or in lieu of some of it?

I don’t spend all my time looking at every detail in the NYPD budget. They are certainly well funded. There are probably things that they are funded for that are the kinds of things that are not traditional law enforcement duties. Those funds can be reallocated to the kinds of things that people need in their communities to really reduce the likelihood of people coming into contact with law enforcement.

Do you think the left has ever gone too far?

I think that the right has gone way too far!

But, for example, New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D) was elected almost on the premise that the activist left was having too much influence in the discussion of some law-enforcement issues —

That’s a pundit’s take on why the decision went that way. And that’s what people write about.

He certainly ran that way. You could argue about —

I’m not a pundit. I’m not an opinion person.

Communities want to be safe. Safety means many things, and like everything else in life, there’s a certain balance to be struck. By really talking to the people that you represent, meeting them where they are, hearing their concerns, is where we will end up getting to a better place.

So for me, it’s all about community.

What can Congress do — or the president do — to provide relief for women who may be affected by the Roe v. Wade decision?

I know the White House is looking seriously at that. There are some limitations, certainly, to what they can do as a matter of executive order. I think the first thing Congress needs to do is pass the Women’s Health Protection Act. That is critical.

It’s very clear that the Supreme Court has said this is not a constitutional right. That means it has to be a federal statute. I think that’s one of the first orders of business.

President Biden’s approval rating is quite low. There are Democrats who are either speculating about his plans or actively encouraging him not to run for a second term. How do you feel about the job he’s doing and where he could improve?

Again, I’m focusing on my race. I’m not going to be challenging the president on what he is doing or not doing.

But here’s the thing: I think he’s been far more successful than a lot of people thought he would be. Unfortunately, we had this war in Ukraine that just really impacted the country. We have had years and years of policies enabling outsourcing of manufacturing to other countries that have come back to bite us in the rear end when it comes to the supply chain.

The problem always is that the Democrats fix things up and then the Republicans mess it up later. He is coming after a guy who took all the toothpaste out of the tube, and Biden is left to try and put a lot of that back in. We need to be careful to not be overly critical, but to include the concerns that people have and find creative ways to address those issues. The role of Congress is to be a partner to help the president move forward, because that’s really what the American people want from Congress.

Simon, center right, hands over a stack of signed petitions to the office of then-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2015. She has a history of opposing new real estate developments.
Simon, center right, hands over a stack of signed petitions to the office of then-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2015. She has a history of opposing new real estate developments.

Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Do you have any ideas about how to address the supply chain issues, and relatedly, help combat inflation?

First of all, inflation is starting to drop. There are supply-chain issues that are easing in some cases.

Like a lot of things, we’re seeing a pendulum that will moderate to a more even position. There are some global issues that we cannot control in the way that people would like.

It would be helpful if the media didn’t focus on the price of gas as much and focused on the civil rights and individual rights and liberties of the people in the United States, and the fact that we have a democracy that’s teetering on the edge. To me, that’s the more critical issue. And that’s what I’m going to be focusing on.

One thing that you would have an opportunity to potentially impact in Congress that is outside of your current purview in Albany is foreign policy. An issue that is always present in New York City and New York state politics is U.S.-Israel policy. There are some progressives who think that the U.S. uses carrots and sticks with Palestinians, but only uses carrots with Israel. Do you have any thoughts? Would you entertain conditioning U.S. aid to Israel or restricting how it can be used?

We have a situation where two peoples both have a right to a homeland. They need to be the ones to resolve that and come to an agreement. To the extent that we can be supportive of that, we should. To the extent we can support defense, like Israel’s Iron Dome technology, for example, it makes good sense.

We shouldn’t be encouraging [Israeli] annexation [of land], which is now being talked about. We shouldn’t be encouraging expansion of settlements. Let’s face it: [Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and Trump did a great deal of damage to the likelihood of success of the peoples whose homelands these are.

There is a sense though that whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican in the White House, and whether it’s Labor or Likud in the Israeli government, there’s an official U.S. policy that Israel should and expand settlements that lacks any credibility because it is rarely meaningfully enforced. Is there anything that can be brought to bear to make opposition to settlement growth more than just a gentle recommendation?

I’m sure there may be. I can’t tell you that I’m an authority on this issue. So I don’t want to be speculating about what that might be — what might be the thing that tips this in a different direction. I would certainly be talking to and listening to people with a lot more experience in that area.

“One candidate certainly has 100% name recognition in New York City. But that’s name recognition; that’s not the same thing as people willing to pull the lever for them again.”

– New York Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon (D)

Would you have voted to give $40 billion in aid to Ukraine?

I would have probably, but I can’t say that I was focused on it at the time — all of the arguments back and forth.

It’s always a concern to me, that the people who are screaming the loudest about protection, law enforcement, and this and that, and the other thing, are always voting against anything that provides any money to support those goals.

It tells you a lot about what’s going wrong with our country right now. There should be no reason why people who are concerned about national security would vote against it.

You ran unsuccessfully for Brooklyn borough president in 2021 and lost some of the sections of your Assembly district. What is your path to victory?

My path is: 30% of the [congressional primary] vote comes out of my Assembly district. I have won my district. So the higher-voting sections of the Brooklyn portion of this Congressional district voted for me. People know me.

And everybody’s concerned about democracy. We’re concerned about choice.

But I’ve actually passed legislation to provide a woman’s right to an abortion. I’ve worked as an abortion counselor. I had a very deep connection to this personally, as well as legislatively, and as an advocate. And people know that.

One candidate certainly has 100% name recognition in New York City. But that’s name recognition; that’s not the same thing as people willing to pull the lever for them again.

I share a good deal of name recognition, as well as a lot of support on the ground, which I’m hearing from people every day as I campaign.

You mentioned the guy with the 100% name recognition. That’s obviously former Mayor Bill de Blasio. Do you have a case to prosecute against him as a rival in this race?

Probably, but I’m really focusing on making sure people know about my race.

You’ve said you’re all about community. There is somebody running in this race who moved here in order to run — Congressman Mondaire Jones.

I’m all about community. He can make his case too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.