There is nothing gimmicky or grandiose about mayoral candidate Kathryn Garcia, Just an excellent public servant who has successfully led the city’s Department of Sanitation, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the New York City Housing Authority.
This thought came to mind while interviewing her while having brunch this past Sunday on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope. I arrived a few minutes early figuring to go through all the usual hoopla when sitting down with a mayoral candidate, but it never materialized. There was no advance team to size me up. No burly bodyguards to sweep the area with their eyes. When Garcia arrived it wasn’t stepping out of a running SUV with tinted windows. She simply walked up to me from down the street. We sat down and ordered the relatively inexpensive food and got right down to business.
PoliticsNY: “I used to frequent a tavern where a firefighter with five kids moonlighted as a bartender to make a few extra bucks. He used to say that the NYPD was New York’s finest, the FDNY was New York’s bravest and sanitation workers were New York’s richest. Do you agree with that?
Kathryn Garcia (KG) “No, sanitation is New York’s strongest. It’s not that their contract is more robust than a cop or a firefighter, it’s if there is a really bad winter they are on 12-hour shifts for weeks at a time. This past winter, they did 12-hour shifts for almost a month.”
PoliticsNY: So what was it like running the male-dominated Department of Sanitation as a woman?
KG: I gave them a vision of what could be true. That meant sometimes talking to sanitation workers at five in the morning about what you were doing and where you were doing it and being able to be the face of the agency whether it was during downed trees or snow.
PoliticsNY: What campaign challenges do you see as somebody trying to break that glass ceiling and becoming the city’s first woman mayor?
KG: It’s very interesting. I come out of running a mostly male-dominated industry. Out of sanitation and the DEP and yet there is this consistent drumbeat, ‘are you viable?’ “No one says are you prepared for the job to the male candidates. They don’t ask that of men. Could you do the job? They focus on are you viable, and I think that’s a real problem that women in this race face.
PoliticsNY: Women make up over half the electorate. Do you think there is such a thing as a woman’s vote?
KG: I don’t think there’s necessarily a woman’s vote, but I do believe that women will be a huge part of the electorate in June. I think that you have to make sure that you speak to their issues. What are going to do about education? What are you going to do about safety and what is your vision for the future?. So they’re not necessarily different than other voters. I wish I could just say ‘women vote for women but that’s not the case.
PoliticsNY: What message would you give to a woman to vote for you?
KG: It’s the same message I would give to a man. I’m the most qualified person in this race and I can deliver for you.
PoliticsNY: One of your opponents, Andrew Yang, was recently critical of the UFT [United Federation of Teacher] as being partly culpable for schools not reopening and the disorganization surrounding the reopening. Do you agree with that assessment?
KG: This is where the current administration does a press release before they have a plan. Rather than having a conversation with both the UFT and the parents or an announcement when is it happening? How is it happening? But kids have to be back in school. They need to be back with their teachers. I have a five-year-old and a 10-year-old niece and Zoom is not working for them.
I believe you can work with unions and labor but at the end of the day it’s your decision how you move forward, but I know with sanitation workers, they had to be working all through the pandemic. We sat down with labor and worked out what that was going to look like. The same thing can be done with teachers. They want to teach and need to be in front of their kids. I believe they would be more than willing if they feel safe and are getting vaccinated. So they will be able to know they are safe…going back into classrooms
PoliticsNY: And now with so many public school kids doing remote learning many are falling behind.
KG: I think we’re going to have to be prepared not only now, but going into next year. We need to talk about rapid acceleration for the lost learning, really doing almost individual identification. Where are the weaknesses for each kid and having a plan for really intensive tutoring going forward, but also for their social and emotional issues. There is a lot of trauma out there. One in a thousand kids lost a parent or guardian And you don’t know how that’s going to play out and having a plan for really intense tutoring going forward but also to prepare for their social and emotional issues.
PoliticsNY: What’s your feeling towards charter schools?”
KG: I’m a proponent for public schools, but charter schools are educating over 100,000 kids in the city of New York right now so I would keep them as part of the ecosystem. I don’t like co-locations of schools, but if you’re a poor parent and want to have a choice and can’t afford Catholic school, yeshivas or independent schools, this gives you a choice.
PoliticsNY: Give me a sense of your managerial style. Are you more of a micromanager or delegator?
KG: I like to empower my staff and I will get to the point of what day-to-day is telling me and if we need to have a conversation about where we’re going. I like to make sure every day is going well and can tell where the problems are and what the problems are and what needs to be fixed.
PoliticsNY: I mention this because Mayor de Blasio, reportedly has difficulties listening to the people around him.
KG: Yes, he [de Blasio] did not do advice well. I want to have really smart powerful people around me. They make it more interesting, help you craft solutions and they feel they can drive policy. You get great people to work for you and they can be part of real change.
Editor’s Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.