TLD Interview: U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez
Nydia Velazquez has represented the Lower East Side in Congress for the past 20 years. But this spring, as she campaigns for the Democratic Primary to be held June 26th, Rep. Velazquez is getting to know quite a few new constituents. This is because her district has undergone some changes in the aftermath of redistricting, triggered by the 2010 Census. The newly created 7th Congressional District now includes most of Grand Street on the LES, as well as a few more blocks in Chinatown.
Last week, we visited Velazquez in her district office on Avenue B to discuss the campaign (she’s facing three challengers), as well as key issues affecting the neighborhood. We began with the Seward Park redevelopment project, which is currently winding its way through the approval process (Community Board 3 will vote on the land use application next month). The city’s plan for the Seward Park site allows for 50% affordable housing for 60 years.
Many community activists have been fighting for permanent affordability — and Velazquez supports their point of view:
I will say this. I think the biggest challenge that we have, especially here in Manhattan, is affordable housing. Beyond public housing here, you don’t see affordable housing… This land is city (owned) land and before that we had housing built by the federal government. This is a one shot deal. Whatever is built here we have to make sure, thinking about the future, that what we’re building here is the right thing, not for today but for tomorrow… Given the fact that this is public land, I think the community is entitled to have a portion of the development devoted to affordable housing and it shouldn’t be for 25 years or 60 years. It should be permanent. That’s my position.
Velazquez, who is the top Democrat on the House Small Business Committee, also weighed in on another controversial issue related to the Seward Park plan — big box stores. The land use application makes allowances for large retail outlets on the second floor of several large buildings envisioned along Delancey and Broome streets. CB3 hoped to prevent stores larger than 30,000 square feet but the city rejected this part of the community board’s planning guidelines. Velazquez is skeptical of large corporate businesses that are not rooted in the community:
When you have stores that are organic, that come out of the community, you have a level of investment that goes beyond the capital that has been invested into that store. The local owner feels more invested in making sure the entire community is more stabilized… I would just like to see one report that shows that big box stores really provide good wage jobs that have been promised… I think we need to do more evaluation and assessment — (and to determine) what will be the better fit in terms of business development for that area.
Another issue Velazquez has been hearing a lot about from voters is transportation. Especially in Chinatown (but also on the Lower East Side) there are, of course, major concerns about the unregulated interstate bus industry, as well as traffic congestion and pedestrian safety. She noted that many residents continue to be frustrated by the closure of Park Row, more than a decade after 9/11.
Several years ago, Velazquez secured $750,000 for a NYC Department of Transportation traffic study in Chinatown. She’s hopeful the study, when it’s finally finished, will lead to street-side improvements in the neighborhood. Velazquez said she’s also hopeful Congress will be able to pass a new highway bill, which could unlock more than $100 billion for infrastructure improvements nationwide over the next two years. She’s hopeful — but in a presidential election year — not especially optimistic:
Here we are struggling with this economy and instead of passing a re-authorization of a transportation bill that will immediately put money into ‘shovel-ready projects’ — it’s all about politics, it’s all about not giving a victory to the president. If we could pass a six year, or even a 2-year re-authorization bill that would inject immediate federal money into different localities (it could make a big difference). A lot of these bills that are meaningful are not being dealt with not because the nature of those bills but because of the presidential election.
In the past few months, Velazquez and City Council member Margaret Chin have spoken out repeatedly about the tragic death of Army Private Danny Chen, who apparently took his own life in Afghanistan after weeks of racially tinged bullying. Velazquez said she’s relieved that Chen’s alleged tormenters will likely face military trials in this country, allowing Chen’s family to attend. Now the focus is on the larger issue — changing the military culture that permitted Chen to be hazed and abused in the first place. Velazquez said she and her Congressional colleagues are determined to keep the pressure on the Pentagon:
We requested a comprehensive study of hazing and we requested a joint hearing with government oversight and the Armed Services Committee. It took place three weeks ago. It was great to have (representation) at the highest levels of the military. They expressed their outrage and expressed their commitment to eradicate this culture of hazing… They have not (in the past) collected data so as part of this review that is one of the things they are doing… I think they understand that the Congress is watching and that it will be a big embarrassment for the military if there is any other situation like Danny Chen. So they are very committed to integrate into the training of new enrollees that hazing is not to be accepted in the military.
Velazquez often tells voters she has a passion for helping small businesses thrive. In her political career, she has championed entrepreneurship as a way for women and minorities to improve their economic fortunes. In our conversation, she talked a lot about how difficult it’s been for small firms in the past three years, as the economy floundered.
There’s no doubt in her mind that small businesses will lead the U.S. out of the financial doldrums, as they have following other recessionary periods. Noting that the economy needs to add at least 200,000 jobs per month in order to recover, she said “it’s been quite slow and it’s been very difficult.” When the bailout was being considered, Velazquez was chair of the small business committee. She said it was an agonizing vote, but she saw little alternative:
I supported the bailout because we were seeing pension funds wiped out… and even though I really struggled with that vote because I believed it was like compensating bad behavior, the greed from Wall Street — on the other hand I felt if we didn’t provide the bailout ‘what would have happened with the economy in this country?’ One of the concerns I brought to the table to Larry Summers and Tim Geithner (the president’s top economic advisers at the time) as chair of the small business committee, was to make sure there was money flowing to small businesses… How can we guarantee that banks will start lending?
Banks, of course, did not start lending. This is why, Velazquez explained, she advocated for the Small Business Lending Act in 2010. “I authored provisions in that bill to lower the cost of loans, to incentivize banks to loan to small businesses… For two years that was the only game in town,” she said. Another bill intended to boost small business lending was passed. Unfortunately banks only accessed $4 billion out of the $30 billion available to them. Finally, in the past quarter, banking reports indicated small businesses are having more success acquiring loans, but Velazquez acknowledges, “jobs are not being created at the pace we need.”
In the upcoming primary election, Velazquez is being challenged by Brooklyn City Councilman Erik Dilan, a close ally of Brooklyn Democratic Party boss (and Velazquez nemesis) Vito Lopez. Also in the running: political newcomer Dan O’Connor and George Martinez, a former district leader. The 7th District snakes through Lower Manhattan, as well as parts of Queens and Brooklyn. Velazquez, who has not faced a serious challenge in many election cycles, indicated she’s taking the contest seriously:
Every 10 years, when there is redistricting and new areas are included in the district, you’re going to see people looking at possibilities and I think that is a healthy part of the democratic process. I’m going to stand up there on my record and people have an opportunity and the voters will decide. I have made a commitment to go and to listen. We have been having meetings in the new parts of the district… I always keep an open door policy. I don’t have all the answers. I want to hear what the concerns are and how we can work together. One thing (new constituents) will learn immediately about me is my integrity and transparency. I am a person who wants to see results. You give me a problem, I will hear options and ideas. I aspire to be the best representative a community could have and the only way to achieve that is by listening. What I love about my district is that we have strong communities, strong people, and all of them are invested in one thing and one thing only – how can we make our communities better? How can we work together to make sure we provide a better tomorrow for our children?
We’ll have more on the other candidates running in the 7th District race in the weeks ahead.