Pothole Politics: Understanding the Mayoral Town Hall in Council District 39

By Ilana Cohen

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For many, the thought of a mayoral town hall evokes caustic images of citizens whining about airplane noise or monologuing about a plastic bag snagged in the branches of their favorite tree. In the beloved show Parks and Recreation, town halls are where a bold Leslie Knope confronts the minutia of her constituents’ lives. Others may imagine a town hall as an opportunity for the intense scrutiny of public officials—a coveted chance to put a politician in the hot seat. Both scenarios reflect parts of the Mayoral Town Hall that took place in the auditorium of Middle School 51 last Thursday, October 26th, a night characterized by an odd blend of political tension and gratification.

The event began with an introduction from District 39’s Councilmember Brad Lander, followed by a brief word from Assembly Member Robert Carroll. As each spoke from the center of the gym floor, the Mayor reclined in a swivel chair. Wherever he pivoted, audience members’ eyes followed. When the gray-suited, six-foot-five man finally rose to speak, his stature alone commanded attention. He began with a family anecdote, fondly recalling his daughter Chiara’s experience playing basketball in the M.S.51 gymnasium. His familiarity with the space seemed to lighten the mood as he transitioned into shop-talk, mentioning universal pre-K among the progressive policies he enacted during his first term.

When new Assembly Members, State Senators, Members of Congress, and Public Advocate Tish James filed into the town hall, they were periodically recognized by the Mayor or Councilmember Lander. Administrative officials from the Mayor’s office and various city agencies lined the back hall of the auditorium as the Mayor spoke, ready to be called on stage at any given moment. The first question asked by an audience member came from a Park Slope Civic Council representative who inquired about small business protections. From there on, the questions ranged in topic and scope from citywide school segregation to a dangerous intersection only blocks away. Middle school students from M.S.51 shared their support for Vision Zero, while high school students from across the city inquired about youth participation in government and lowering the statewide voting age.

As the night continued, the Mayor’s back-and-forth with audience members became more charged. The Mayor began shushing constituents who he believed were wasting time with the mic. He also increasingly called upon the government officials that he deemed accountable for constituent issues and even sparred with some of those officials on stage, questioning the timetables for city projects. Deriding the “bureaucracy,” de Blasio seemed to distinguish himself from the agencies working under his administration. A few questions were met with Oprah-esque enthusiasm from the Mayor as he seized upon opportunities to provide quick fixes, like the filling of a local pothole, yet refrained from addressing related issues on a citywide scale.

Chris Stauffer, a senior at Bard High School Early College Manhattan and Vice Chair of the Youth Progressive Policy Group, left the town hall feeling conflicted: “It was great to see the Mayor reaching out to the community. But [sometimes] the Mayor dodged the question, which left me a bit disappointed.”

Tensions rose when Mayor de Blasio was asked about his stance on the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a group of State Senators who are elected as Democrats yet caucus with Republicans once in office. Raising his hands, as if in defense, and taking a step forward, the Mayor expressed a desire to work with any willing politician and recognized Jesse Hamilton, the State Senator and IDC member in the audience. The Mayor subsequently emphasized the need for a Democratic majority in the New York State Senate and called for an end to gerrymandering.

The Mayor also played defense on several questions pertaining to the Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Crown Heights. Students and parents from Medgar Evers challenged the school’s lack of facilities, expressing their desire for a gymnasium and an auditorium. After the Mayor brought Lorraine Grillo, President of the New York City School Construction Authority, on stage, the two sparred with Medgar Evers constituents, who were planted throughout the audience. The discussion quickly turned from the lack of school facilities to government-proposed changes in the school’s application process, changes many in the Medgar Evers community fear will be damaging to the school’s established and seemingly successful approach to admissions. Eventually, it was agreed that Ms. Grillo would arrange a new visit to the Medgar Evers site and speak with school representatives.

The end of the town hall seemed a relief for both the Mayor and city constituents. Some audience members approached city officials before filing out. Others joined a lengthy line to snap a picture with the Mayor. All of the night’s talk seemed to have produced little progress; the quick fixes of pothole politics did not come anywhere near close to resolving or even facilitating honest discussion around looming city issues. Still, many constituents left with the feeling that their voices had been heard—if not by their Mayor, then by their fellow New Yorkers.

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