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Transcript: Mayor de Blasio Appears Live on the Brian Lehrer Show

December 13, 2019

Brian Lehrer: It’s the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC. Good morning everyone, and on Friday the 13th Boris Johnson won a decisive victory to rule the UK as many of you were just hearing on the BBC and the House Judiciary Committee is getting ready to vote for the impeachment of Donald Trump in the US. The Judiciary Committee is convening right about now after yesterday’s marathon day of debate. They are expected to vote on the two articles of impeachment, pretty soon. So we are giving you a choice this morning. We are streaming the proceedings live at WNYC.org, audio and video streaming. But also here we are, live on the radio, not preempted. And we are doing the Brian Lehrer Show live right now. We will obviously stay in close touch with the proceedings. We will go in and out of the committee room as events warrant. It will be our topic for most of the show on this historic day.

But we also have Mayor de Blasio and we have the MTA Chairman lined up for today as life goes on in Greater New York. So we will try to use good judgement and do all of what’s important. But again if you choose, the committee live stream is at WNYC.org. But we are paying very close attention.

It is Friday and yes, we will start with our weekly Ask the Mayor segment, my questions and yours for Mayor Bill de Blasio. But even locally the news of the world is so inescapable right now. From anti-globalism to anti-Semitism. To ask the Mayor something, call 2-1-2-4-3-3-WNYC, 2-1-2-4-3-3-9-6-9-2 or tweet your question with the hashtag #AskTheMayor. Good morning Mr. Mayor, welcome back to WNYC.

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Good morning Brian. I have faith in your judgement as you navigate these many news stories. Let me just offer one quick comment. I am really troubled this morning, I see so many main stream commentators breathlessly trying to use the British election as their excuse for why Democrats need to nominate a moderate for president and do everything in a moderate fashion. That is an absolute misread of what happened in Britain. There’s just no comparison. We are entirely different countries going through entirely different histories and unfortunately you know Boris Johnson had a decisive, clear message and Jeremy Corbyn didn’t and Jeremy Corbyn undermined his own validity over the last few years. But the answer my dear friends is not to run away from a strong, bold progressive message and progressive leaders. It’s to recognize that in the United States, we are in entirely different circumstance where voters want change. It’s a change election and they are repulsed by our president. Every poll shows it. You know I just wanted to put it out there because I am not surprised but I am troubled that a lot of folks are trying to use it as evidence for something that just doesn’t apply.

Lehrer: Well since you brought up, do you find no parallels between the British selecting Boris Johnson and the Americans to the extent that they are continuing to support Donald Trump?

Mayor: I literally believe there’s almost no or zero parallel because this look, what’s happening – the key issue in the British election was Brexit. We have no such parallel issue here. The incumbent was brand new, troubled, I have huge disagreements with Boris Johnson but he’s brand new. Donald Trump has been in office for three years, the vast majority of Americans are upset with him in a variety of ways. We have a multi-ethnic country that is more and more reflecting diversity and progressive values. Britain cannot say that. Britain is having a much deeper crisis over its identity. We have our own challenges but theirs is much deeper. We have very appealing strong progressive candidates, Jeremy Corbyn unfortunately although once promising invalidated himself in a variety of ways.

Lehrer: Anti-Semitism?

Mayor: Absolutely. Look he had to address that issue forcefully and every progressive should. There’s no such thing in my mind as a progressive who tolerates anti-Semitism. It’s a literal contradiction of our world view. Jeremy Corbyn failed that test, among others. He also failed to project a positive message to his country and he was wishy-washy on the central issue which was Brexit. So no, no, no, in fact look at the latest polls, two progressive Democrats, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren continue to poll very consistently strongly. And when you ask Democrats what they want, they want universal health care, they want the rich to pay more in taxes. They want the $15 minimum wage nationally. It’s not even close. There is no comparison.

Lehrer: Well there’s a pivot point to explicitly local news because to my ear Mr. Mayor after the apparent anti-Semitic mass shooting in Jersey City on Tuesday. You reacted even more quickly and forcefully then officials in Jersey itself. How much do you take this as a clear and present danger to New Yorkers?

Mayor: There’s no credible and specific threat to New York right now. And those are very specific words that we use Brian, when you know working with the NYPD. I know the level of threat that we are experiencing and we say no credible and specific threat, it means we are ever vigilant but don’t have a specific problem we are dealing with. But the larger problem is unquestioned at this point. A series of violent and anti-Semitic attacks around this country. Most of them fermented systematically and in an organized fashion by right-wing forces. This one the other day by a very quizzical, strange – two individuals with very strange views from what – you know we just don’t have a clear take on everything they were thinking and we need more investigation. But I will tell you something, the fact that this may have been the single most violent attack on the Jewish community in the New York metropolitan area, not only in recent history, possible in all of our history. That to me means that we need to recognize how cancerous anti-Semitism has become in this country and that it is taking on a more violent form and it is too reminiscent of the history that we saw in Europe in the last century. And so we have the NYPD on a state of high alert and deeply engaged in Jewish communities all over the city. But we have a lot of foundational work to do with young people and with a different societal dialogue but it really starts with saying it out loud. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in this country, in this city, in this country we have seen a rise of violent anti-Semitism, it is directly related to the permission that’s being given to hate speech in that last three years and that obviously connects to the election of Donald Trump, but it goes beyond that.

Lehrer: And yet it’s coming from left, if you want to call Jeremy Corbyn that over there and this group which was clearly not a white supremacist group, coming from various different political and cultural places.

Mayor: The challenge here and we have to have an honest conversation. And I’ve talked to a lot of Jewish leaders about this. There are folks who identify on the left who are saying and doing anti-Semitic things although it has not taken a systematic violent form, I am not going to ascribe any ideology to the two individuals in Jersey City. They seem incoherent but we need to know more obviously. We do know –

Lehrer: And that’s fair. I just want to reinforce that, that these are individuals as far as we know, just to be journalistically clear from our stand point to the listeners, as far as we know these are individuals, who acted alone, not on behalf of any group that they may be getting tagged as members of in the press so far.

Mayor: At the moment there is an ongoing investigation, but what we can say is we have no evidence so far of any connection to anyone else. They appear to be lone wolfs. But it’s deeply, deeply troubling none the less. But my point and I think we have to look it in the eye is, any ant-Semitism in unacceptable, any hate speech is unacceptable. Any violence is where we particularly have to put our attention. And what I am trying to argue here and I think there is a lot of evidence in this country, not just in terms of anti-Semitism, but violent acts in general that are premeditated and political, that’s coming from the white supremacy movement, Charlottesville is another example obviously. But the militias that have existed in many states who have attacked law enforcement, we’ve seen vivid examples over the last decade or two. The violence overwhelmingly is coming from right wing forces, white supremacist forces, direct linear descents of Nazism and fascism and the Ku Klux Klan. That’s the reality. Now, I don’t care if someone is a moderate or a left winger, if they are going to commit an act of violence towards the Jewish community, we are going to get them, we are going to stop them. They should pay the price. But we have to be clear about the difference between some of the folks who have said inappropriate things versus systematic forces plotting ongoing violence and that is the white supremacy movement in this country.

Lehrer: One other thing on this before we go to some calls, coincidently Jersey City happened just as the Trump administration was announcing it will declare Judaism a nationality and not just a religion for purposes for fighting anti-Semitism on college campuses as they portray it. Because anti-discrimination law on campus technically protects people based on national origin but not religion. And you know Jews will often say we are part of a people in addition to a religion. There are Jewish humanist which means Jewish atheists but they consider themselves part of the Jewish people. So on one level it’s accurate. But critics see this move as more of an attack on the free speech of Palestinian rights activists who advocate the boycott Israel or BDS movement on campus and that calling Judaism a nationality also risks calling Jews not really American. Do you have any opinion about that?

Mayor: First protecting people under attack, any people, we have the most extensive human rights law in the country. I don’t know why the federal government just doesn’t do the obvious and protect people based on faith and nationality and a whole host of other identities as we do here. So it seems a little strange that they would turn to nationality but not you know address the fact that discrimination or negative activity based on faith is not addressed. Second, I think this creates real questions. The notion of fighting anti-Semitism 110 percent I agree with that, but I don’t agree with something that would diminish civil liberties and freedom of speech. So I feel very mixed about this one and obviously I am wondering what the motivation is. The fact is I opposed BDS vehemently. I think BDS is extraordinarily negative and counterproductive to the prospects of peace in the Middle East and I think the State of Israel must exist, and I think that’s a progressive idea. But I also defend the right of folks who believe in BDS to have their freedom of speech. And there are people who believe in BDS who are not anti-Semitic and there are some bluntly who are anti-Semitic. We got to have a serious, mature conversation here. So in the end the problem I have is I don't understand if this order will interfere with legitimate American rights to expression as opposed to simply protecting people. We want to protect people but we want to protect freedom of speech. This city provides a great model. We have the most extensive human rights law in country – every conceivable tool to stop discrimination, but a vehement defense of freedom of speech at the same time.

Lehrer: By the way Mr. Mayor, and everyone – breaking news, the House Judiciary Committee convened. They passed Article I, they passed Article II. Both articles of impeachment passed committee without any debate, there was really no language to bring you live. They were just really calling the roll but the two articles of impeachment have now passed the House Judiciary Committee they will obviously go on to the full House next. We'll talk about that in detail in our next segment on the show after the Mayor. But Mr. Mayor you get the coincidental moment of having the first reaction.

Mayor: I thank them first of all, for saving us a day of agony of watching all the procedural fights and sniping. Obviously, look this is a foregone conclusion and the case made by the majority in the House Judiciary Committee was abundantly clear. And I think honestly any other President of the United States there would be a societal consensus by now that what happened in the conversation with Ukrainian President is grounds for impeachment. It is only because Trump has warped American politics and counter programmed pretty effectively, let's be honest. That he maintains even the base he has. But a reminder to everyone, including particularly my fellow Democrats and fellow progressives – look at every single poll in 2019. There's not been a single day where Donald Trump had a majority support in this country and more and more people have been decided that impeachment is called for. And on the specific issue of the Ukrainian call, I think the last poll I saw was 70 percent believe the President did something wrong there. These are numbers that it's very, very difficult to recover from. So I think it’s actually good to get this whole thing over with and get back to the bread and butter issues – health care and raising the minimum wage and protecting working people and increasing taxes on the wealthy all of those issues where we're going to have a strong American majority. Let's get back to those. But I want everyone to rest assured the people are speaking consistently and they believe this President should not continue in office.

Lehrer: Joel in Brooklyn, you’re on WNYC with the Mayor. Hello, Joel.

Question: Yeah, good morning Mr. Mayor.

Mayor: Good mooring

Question: Yeah, hi. You know I appreciate what the City has been trying at least to do to protect the Jewish population of New York City. I mean we have the Human Rights Commission, we have Office of Prevention of Hate Crimes. I believe roughly five percent of the population of New York City is made up of Orthodox Jews. And I am one of them. You do not have any representation in any of these commissions of any Orthodox Jews actually working there. Maybe you’re not going to have five percent. So you might have Jews over there. But they’re not really, really affiliated, and they don't feel what it means to walk around obviously Jewish as opposed to some of them that can maybe assimilate with the general population. And I don't believe that they really got the picture right. If you have somebody from the actual population in there, more then someone. Maybe the multitude, since we are the ones that are suffering the most.

Lehrer: Mr. Mayor talk to Joel.

Mayor: Joel, look, I appreciate deeply the question. Joel, I think you know that I have been someone who has represented the Orthodox community now for almost 20 years starting with the City Council seat that I held in Brooklyn which had Borough Park and Kensington in it. And I developed a very close relationship with the community and have continued that for my entire time in office. And I think the central question is, does the City government of New York City understand, respect, embrace the Orthodox community which is a big part of New York City and growing. And the answer is absolutely yes. Do we make it a point to listen to the particular concerns of the community? Yes. I'll give you a great example when we started our first and biggest initiative Pre-K, a number of yeshivas came forward and said they were concerned the way it was structured, couldn't work for yeshivas. We were working with Catholic schools, Muslim schools, charter schools, nonprofit organizations. But yeshivas in the Orthodox community said here's the problem with our schedule, the way it's structured. We spent months and months working that through and got to a point where the Pre-K program now is deeply involved yeshivas for the good of all. I can give you many, many other examples of this City government responding respectfully to the community and listening. And then there's other issues where it's like every community we have to work hard for some changes that we need. We know there were some other yeshivas in terms of education of kids at a higher level that needed to do work and we pushed them hard, and we're getting there. So I think the central question is is there an ongoing and respectful and positive and affective dialogue? Yes, overwhelmingly. I could use the example of what happened with measles in Williamsburg as another one.

Lehrer: And then he –

Mayor: But your point, your point is well taken. I’m finishing. The point is well taken. Do we have representation from the Orthodox community in many parts of City government? Absolutely. And I think Joel probably doesn't know all the specifics, and we’d be happy to help him to see that. And Joel, give you information to WNYC, and we’ll follow up. Do we want and need more? Yes. I think that’s absolutely yes. But I don't want to leave the impression there isn’t representation, because there is right now in many different places in City government. And on the Human Rights Commission since Joel specifically referred to the Human Rights Commission, Jonathan Greenspun, has been on the commission for years, my appointee who is an Orthodox Jew and works with the community all over the city. So, yes, we have a lot of representation, yes, we need more.

Lehrer: Enes in Brooklyn you’re on WNYC. Hello, Enes.

Question: Good morning, Brain. Good morning, Mr. Mayor. I wanted to bring to your attention an exciting potential merger of two schools in central Brooklyn.  [Inaudible] is an initially integrated school in Fort Greene and PS 305 is a longstanding neighborhood in Bed-Stuy that has Tidal I status.  A merger like this between these two schools with these two profiles has never happened before in New York City and it has the potential to be an important model for school integration in the district and the city and writ large.  A vote to decide whether it to goes forward will happen on Wednesday. I want to say leaders, staff, and parents like myself from both schools want this merger to happen. But we believe that hope is not a plan and we're nervous about the details of our planning, funding, and staff retention.  And we’ve been having constructive talks  with the Chancellor’s office, District 13 Superintendent Kamar Samuels and the community education counsel to get necessary support and resources to make sure this is a successful pilot in the name of equity and furthering school integration in the city. But my question to you Mr. Mayor is can we count on you and your administration to do what you can to support this effort? Because we really want it to work and we don’t believe that we can do without you.

Mayor: Thank you, and I like anyone who quotes the notion “hope is not a plan.” I feel that kindredly on many fronts. Enes I’m not familiar with the details, I will follow up with the Chancellor. I’m seeing him today and I will raise this to him and see what we can do. I'm glad you're in real conversations with a Chancellor’s team. But since I don't have a frame of reference on specifics, I don't want to get ahead of it, but we will – I’ll look at it today and make sure my team follows up with you. Please give your information to WNYC.

Lehrer: Tony in Manhattan you’re on WNYC with the Mayor, Hi, Tony.

Question: Hi, how are you doing?  Thank you for listening to me, Mr. Mayor. I have a question. I am an old New Yorker. I went away and came back. And I find the homeless problem to be something that is – should be taken a look more seriously. I was wondering if there is a possibility that the homeless could be trained, [inaudible] could be trained to help develop housing for themselves. In other words take whatever resources that you’re putting into the homeless already and getting something out of it from the homeless to help themselves?

Mayor: Tony, I appreciate the question, a couple points, we are constantly looking at new strategies to address homelessness. There’s a – I can't tell you how much seriousness, how much energy, how much expense is being put into trying to address this problem. I always say to people we've got so much more to do in New York City. We’ll be talking a lot about in the coming weeks. But let’s count our blessings that this is a place with the right to shelter, unlike so many cities in America that just have a massive street homeless problem far, far beyond what we experience. We’ve got a lot of work to do but we begin with the right principle which is to get people who are ready and need shelter to come into the shelter. But we still have real street homeless problem. The difference Tony – and for everyone's benefit, we have to keep saying this – shelter today is much more than ever in our history. The single largest group of people in shelter are working families, families with children. Homelessness used to be what we thought of essentially as a single male problem. That is still largely true on our streets when it comes to street homelessness. But that's not true in shelter. So we are doing a lot to get people who come into shelter – the permanent housing. In fact 120,000 people over six years in this administration went into shelter and then were helped to affordable housing. So it’s happening every single day in this city on a vast scale. The street situation needs a lot more attention and we’ve been innovating a series of approaches particularly around this HomeStat initiative that’s brought 2,400 people off the street and kept them off the street. We’re going to be doing more with that. So, I think the notion is exactly to help each individual to get back on their feet and get to permanent housing. And you’re absolutely right, if part of what you’re saying is the money we spend on shelter is a lot and we always prefer to get someone to affordable housing – that’s absolutely the game plan and the more we can move that along and get people out of shelter quickly, that’s what we intend to do.

Lehrer: You have a major new agreement with the City Council on homeless housing construction, right?

Mayor: Yes, it’s been a good and productive conversation. We’ve gotten to an agreement and I think it’s going to help us move forward in a systematic way and, bluntly, I think the Council was aware of this, to their credit. I think they wanted to make sure that after this administration these same kinds of commitments would exist. We’ve been able to reach very close to the level the Council wants on an ongoing basis. So, I’m confident that we’ll be able to do this going forward and I think we’ve ended up in a good place.

Lehrer: Do I understand correctly that you’re not happy with the headline in the Times on that story today? That puts the number 1,000 as the target for per year construction of new homes for the homeless?

Mayor: Look, I’m going to just keep this broad right now and say, we are finishing the details. We obviously have reached an agreement but until the legislation is passed it’s premature to talk about every single detail. But the point is, you know, we’ve seen each year different numbers in terms of affordable housing construction. That’s just been true for decades and decades. It depends on the conditions of each year but we’ve been able to get affordable housing construction and preservation to the highest level it’s ever been. So, we want to make sure that the plan is of course workable and realistic. I think we’ve gotten there in the agreement with the Council.

Lehrer: So – just so I’m clear and everybody is clear, is there no firm agreement that, if I’m understanding it right, there would be a 15 percent of new units requirement targeted for homeless New Yorkers in any construction project that gets City subsidies?

Mayor: It’s – you’re in the ballpark there but again since this is a multi-faceted piece of legislation and the agreement is very, very recent I want to be careful not in any way to give people the wrong impression. The basic concept is a 15 percent set-aside in new construction. There are some specifics beyond that but that’s basically the concept.

Lehrer: Tom in Hackensack, you’re on WNYC – hi, Tom.

Question: Hi, good morning. How are you?

Lehrer: Good. What’s your question for Mayor de Blasio?

Question: I was just wondering if he was familiar with the raid that happened a year or two ago on the church that was associated with the two Jersey City shooters, and really how dangerous this group really was, and what they found?

Mayor: Tom, the information that I’m receiving is from our Police Commissioner, Dermot Shea, and the heads of our counter-terrorism efforts in New York City. And I’m going to speak broadly. Obviously there is an ongoing investigation and I’m not going to say things that it’s not yet time to say but I would only say to you what Commissioner Shea said yesterday before the entire press corp – this organization has been familiar to the NYPD and to many New Yorkers. Organization may be too strong a word. This group has been familiar to New Yorkers for a long time in New York City, not associated with acts of violence. But that doesn’t mean we take them lightly for a moment. There’s a whole investigation going on and a new unit within the NYPD to focus on racially and ethnically motivated extremism and hate crimes. In terms of the specifics of that raid, I’ll get more information on that but I just want to tell you what Commissioner Shea has said publicly.

Lehrer: I want to ask you about the presentation yesterday by a Brooklyn College professor with a new report and criminal justice reform activists generally, calling for the NYPD to abolish its gang database. Here’s a clip courtesy of our news department of Althea Stevens who works with young people through the organization East Side House Settlement in the Bronx.

Althea Stevens: Being in the database is subjective. There is no real way or concrete evidence that shows why a person should be in the gang database or how they can get out.

Lehrer: So, is she wrong on those counts that getting labelled a gang member is subjective based on police perception not criminal activity and there are no objective criteria for getting off the gang database either?

Mayor: I’m going to say two prefaces. One, I will happily learn more about the specific mechanics and be able to speak to you more about it next week or whenever we next get together. Two, every single initiative of the NYPD is constantly assessed and reassessed, and no one does that more than Dermot Shea who when he ran CompStat, I saw it with my own eyes the way he would constantly question each approach to test if it was working, if it was achieving its goals, if there were any unintended consequences. We do that with everything.

But the most central answer I can give is, this database is a central tool in addressing a real problem in this city. Even though crime has gone down for six years in a row, the levels of violence are profoundly less than they were in recent years and decades. We have to remain vigilant and we have a huge amount of work to do, and one of the central ongoing problems in this city has been gangs and crews. So, of course we need to have a systematic effort to address that problem. And I just want to say very clearly to the activists and advocates, if you say should we keep assessing if it’s working, should we keep assessing if it’s handled fairly, should we look at ways we can make improvements – of course. But are we going to give up a strategy that is central to stopping gang violence that is afflicting so many neighborhoods? No, we’re not going to do that.

Lehrer: There are stories that they told of individuals. Here’s one that was published in the news organization, The City. “In 2016, Kraig Lewis, 28, was one of 120 alleged gang members arrested in what then-Manhattan Federal Attorney Preet Bharara called the ‘largest takedown in New York City history.’ … Lewis, however, wasn’t at home. He was studying for his MBA in Connecticut,” and it goes on from there and says, “According to a CUNY Law School Report released on the three-year anniversary of that raid, about half of the 120 people indicted were ultimately alleged to be gang members but 80 were not convicted of violence.”

Mayor: Brian, let’s just try and set the context here. To all the civil libertarians and folks who are concerned about making sure that there is justice, this is what we’ve been doing for six years. This is what we’ve been doing to transform policing, to end mass incarceration, to improve the ability for innocent people to get appropriate support. This is what we’re committed to doing. But we’re also committed to public safety. And the fact that – what I really need to say to folks who advocate is, be really clear about the fact that while approaching good and important goals, we have to constantly strike a balance.

I go all over the city and I talk to my constituents and the first thing they’re concerned about is safety. Of course they want to see people’s rights protected and that’s why we got rid of the broken policy of stop-and-frisk and made ourselves safer in the bargain. That’s why we stopped arrests for low level marijuana offenses. I can go through a whole long list. But we have a consistent gang problem and we’re going to use appropriate tools to address that problem. Now, the number of people in that database has been cut in half in the context of this administration. So, to my point at the beginning – we’re constantly reassessing. If that database needs improvements, we’re listening to critics, we’re listening to folks who have ideas about how we can improve it, and you never want to miss an opportunity to do better.

But we’re not going to miss the ability to use a tool to stop violence that affects everyday New Yorkers. And I’m sorry, this is something as a progressive and someone who wants a society that is defined by fairness, defined by racial justice, that also means protecting people including folks who are in communities that have borne the brunt of generations of disinvestment and discrimination but for whom safety is profoundly important, and I am saying it because I have heard from countless New Yorkers that that is their first concern. So, we’re going to strike a balance but we have a real gang issue to address and the database is part of addressing it, period.

Lehrer: Let me conclude then, unfortunately for today, with an update on one individual crime if you have it. I’m seeing reports that there is an arrest in connection with the Morningside Park murder of a Barnard College freshman, and the suspect is a very young teenager. Can you confirm that?

Mayor: I can only say to you – because this investigation is proceeding very intensely at this moment and what we said yesterday at the press conference that there’s a lot we cannot say because it might undermine the immediate work to bring these perpetrators to justice. But the bottom line is I am absolutely confident that any individuals involved in this terrible, heinous attack will be brought to justice and will be brought to justice quickly. That’s all I can tell you right now.

Lehrer: Mr. Mayor, thanks as always – talk to you next week.

Mayor: Thank you, Brian.

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