TLD Interview: City Council Candidate PJ Kim
Today we have the third installment of our series of interviews with the candidates running for the 1st District City Council seat currently held by Alan Gerson. The District includes the Lower East Side, Chinatown, Soho, Wall Street
and Tribeca. We have already heard from Margaret Chin and Pete Gleason, two of the candidates hoping to deny Gerson a third term. Today, it’s PJ’s Kim’s chance to talk about the issues impacting the District.
Kim was vice president of Single Stop USA, a company that helps low income families access government services such as food programs and health care. He also worked as Director of Income Policy for FoodChange, now part of the Food Bank of New York. Kim graduated from Princeton in 2001, and moved to New York to work for McKinsey, the management consulting firm. He served on Community Board 1 for two years.
In these interviews, we want the candidates to be able to lay out their positions fully. For that reason, editing was kept to a minimum. We removed extraneous comments that were repetitious or not directly related to the question asked, and streamlined questions. For more information on the campaign, including our interviews with Chin and Gleason, see below. The full interview with PJ Kim can be found after the jump.
TLD: Why are you running to represent the 1st District in the City Council?
Kim: The main reason I’m running is that I feel like local politics and local government downtown really hasn’t kept pace with how rapidly the neighborhood has been changing, both in terms of population growth, changing usage of land in Downtown Manhattan. The other really important issue- I think people downtown have not been very well served by the way politics has worked traditionally in this District where people run from a specific neighborhood or as a specific ethnicity and try to (attract) a very small percentage of the vote. I want to be competitive across the entire district and try to bridge some of the older, longer time residents who have been here and then a lot of the new people who are moving in. We have to have a pretty delicate balancing act, as long as we’re living in the same small space. As I was looking at getting into this race – initially I wanted to work for a candidate… got to know a lot of different candidates who were running, went to their events… I didn’t really see anyone who I thought could bridge some of these divides. And I also didn’t see anyone who was really tapping into the enthusiasm and energy from people who are interested and excited now by local politics. So the main reason I’m running is to try to re-energize the political process… Some of the ideas I hear talked about don’t really reflect the urgency of what’s been happening downtown, both in terms of the economy – with small businesses and large businesses and, again, with the tremendous demographic changes that have happened and the pressure on services at the local level that haven’t been addressed for many years.
TLD: What do you think is the biggest issue facing the 1st District?
Kim: The central issue is government services, from schools to open space to social services and my background before I got into this race was in the anti-poverty world, and how to help low income and working class families get access to government benefits, and also private benefits as well, whether it’s legal counseling or financial counseling. And in the Lower East Side and Chinatown I had the chance to work with Henry Street Settlement and Grand Street Settlement. We saw there was a huge gap in terms of the number of people who qualify for some of these benefits, especially among the immigrant communities… We’ve also been working all around the city, in Long Island City in Woodside in the Bronx and in East New York as well and I’ve had the chance to work with a variety of different local officials, with officials in the Bloomberg administration, the Borough president’s office – and I saw varying levels of sensitivity to some of these issues and I saw varying levels of organization and responsiveness. Under girding anything that happens in the City Council – it seems to me at the legislative level the City Council hasn’t been very active in the past few years in terms of introducing anything that’s really groundbreaking or innovative. I mean there’s stuff at the margins that seems to happen. The central issue I’ve seen, the central role that the Council does play is in constituent services, addressing some of the day-to-day quality of life issues. And in ways that people can access those services… One thing that I think is very difficult, people who have families or are working full time jobs, is really to be able to find the time to attend a City Council hearing at 3pm on a Tuesday or to even go to a Community Board meeting at 530 or 630pm. And one of the concerns for me – I was on a Community Board for two years and then I wasn’t appointed for a second time around – I was out of town my second year, in California and Newark, New Jersey, trying to expand these anti-poverty programs. And I noticed there were also very few young people… on the board, simply because if that’s the only mechanism you can have input into local decisions, it’s not feasible in terms of people’s schedules to be able to do that. So one of the things I want to do is make sure extended hours for City Council- both physical offices and have a much more robust virtual presence. I understand not everyone has internet access… but for a large number of people I think people would be surprised… how powerful that tool can be to get input about local community issues and as a way to get information back out as well. One of the things we’re going to launch on our campaign web site is, by neighborhood, a function almost similar to Yelp where local users can generate their own complaints or suggestions about issues local to the neighborhood… and you can harness the wisdom of the crowd to figure out which issues do actually resonate with the vast majority of people… The one thing I admit is that I’m not going to be a person who knows the answers to all of these different issues. But I think what I can be is someone who is accessible to the people who do have the best insights… because I think this district is so diverse that no one person can get their head around every single issue that’s happening every single day.
TLD: The 1st District is remarkably diverse – both economically and ethnically. How would you go about building consensus on key issues?
Kim: I think one of the things that paralyzes decision making in Lower Manhattan is a lot of the personal history that exists between people over many, many years. Thankfully I haven’t been involved in some of those personal conflicts, so I think one easy way that I can help forge consensus better than most people is that I don’t have some of this baggage in terms of history. So I have no preconceptions about who has the right answer, who has the wrong answer, who I should or should not be talking to. Secondly…on most issues two sides have already drawn lines in the sand, everyone knows their talking points… very little happens for the people who live in the district but don’t have the patience to put up with the charade that sometimes happens… I think that these groups that have been active have a tremendous amount of institutional memory, and have done a tremendous amount of good… I would go to them to see where there are areas where we can agree… Other people are really turned off when they hear about a shouting match at a community board meeting. That kind of incivility shuts people off… and then it’s the status quo, nothing really happens after that.
TLD: How would you manage the difficult issue of unrestrained development in Chinatown?
Kim: This has always been a residential community for decades and that’s changing, a lot of the older residents being pushed out because of new development. And a lot of the younger people, some of the children of people who grew up here, can’t live here anymore… At the same time you see a lot of the traffic patterns, certainly because of Chatham Square, Park Row being closed a lot of the congestion around here is also exacerbating pedestrian danger… all around Chinatown … What hasn’t happened is enough community input about decisions that are made both in terms of the big issues like Chatham Square and Park Row but also some of the smaller issues, too, like the bike lane. I’m a cyclist myself and I take the Grand Street path… but I understand that for people who live here, who have businesses here it is a tremendous burden. And that’s not to say that the bike lanes should or should not be there but the process by which that decision was made seemed to be heavy handed and it did not involve enough people in the community.
TLD: What do you believe should happen on the affordable housing front?
Kim: I think the biggest issue as far as affordable housing is the Seward Park Urban Renewal
Area… My view is that there should be a mix of housing – low income, middle and market rate, as well as some commercial development, because we need to balance some of the amenities people need, especially the newer residents in market rate housing with the people who- some of whom were pushed out many years ago- all the people who were pushed out expect to be able to move back in. That was a promise that was made that was never fulfilled. So there needs to be a portion of that area… set aside for low income… a mix of income levels is important. That’s what makes Lower Manhattan such an interesting place to live. The other issue in terms of development is school overcrowding and the fact that a lot of housing that was built in the last few years didn’t have enough space set aside for things like community centers and schools. Right now there is no building happening obviously because of the economy. This is the time to do the planning so that when the boom starts happening again we can make sure we’re ahead of the game and not trying to play catch up like we were five years ago…
TLD: What’s your position on the Department of Transportation’s level of interaction with the community and what’s your overall assessment of the Bloomberg administration’s transportation policies?
Kim: What I hear from the community is that the Department of Transportation has not done a good enough job reaching out to the community before decisions are made. From Community Board 1 there was the bike path through City Hall Park which the Community Board repeatedly said ‘don’t put it there’ and they did anyway. And it’s still very dangerous in terms of you walk around City Hall Park, and your have families, strollers and you still have bikes whizzing across City Hall Park and not walking bikes in certain areas where they’re supposed to… You also have some people, primarily delivery people, who go against the flow of traffic on many many different streets and that is a very simple enforcement issue… I think we can all agree we need to enforce the laws that are on the books to make sure that people are following the rules… I think one of the problems with this issue is that a few, I’d say less than 10-percent, of the bicyclists who are not following the rules are giving the rest of us who do follow the rules a pretty bad rap and it sort of poisons the relationship between cyclists and the community… A lot of traffic enforcement out on the streets we have footage of them not doing anything when violations are happening- speeding, cars that are parked illegally, especially here in Chinatown. Jan Lee and a couple other folks in Civic Center Residents Coalition have done a great job documenting the cars that are parked, city owned cars that are parked illegally in Columbus Park. They had to do multiple touch points with the commissioner and with elected officials… That’s a simple enforcement issue. There really shouldn’t be a lot of debate about whether the law should be enforced or not. The law should be enforced… On the larger transit issues the temporary fix the MTA has for the regional payroll tax for employers that’s something that needs to be extended to be a permanent commuter tax. It doesn’t make any sense that people who don’t live in New York City don’t bear any of the burden to subsidize their fares. There’s no other transit system in the world that fully funds its operating costs from fares… I’m also really disappointed that congestion pricing didn’t pass. I think that really could have alleviated some of the traffic flow, especially in Downtown Manhattan where people are trying to use the few bridges and tunnels because they’re trying to avoid paying tolls uptown. That’s had a hugely negative impact in terms of pedestrian safety but also air quality…
TLD: What do you think should be done to solve the transportation issues around Chatham Square?
Kim: I’ve had a chance to look at both the city’s proposal and the Civic Center Residents Coalition proposal… My bias right now is to go with the Civic Center proposal only because it’s had more community input. At the same time I know the city has also spent a tremendous amount of time studying the issue… There should have been more community involvement… we cannot indefinitely have our neighborhood in Chinatown be a command bunker for, to be in lockdown mentality in perpetuity. We need to recognize this is a residential community with specific needs…
TLD: The city has rejected calls to reopen Park Row due to concerns about protecting Police headquarters. Do you believe Park Row should be opened to traffic?
Kim: I think Park Row should be opened up. I agree that Park Row is not the best or safest location for the kind of work the Police headquarters is involved in… I think there may be more appropriate places to house a police headquarters. Even if Police headquarters is there, though, I think there are ways you can open up Park Row… In the short term I think we can all agree that maybe there are ways to mitigate the impact that (headquarters) has in the community. That’s an issue where for many years different sides have staked out pretty definitive positions… There are ways around the margins we could mitigate some of the areas that are impacting businesses and residents here…
TLD: In 2001, three Chinese Americans split the Chinatown vote in the 1st District Council race. This year, there are two Asians running- you and Margaret Chin. How important do you believe the issue of race will be in 2009?
Kim: I think it is a bit provincial to think about ethnicity that way in this race because if you look at all the prime voters in Chinatown there are not enough Chinese prime voters, assuming that there was one Chinese candidate who could rally everyone to vote, there aren’t enough of those voters in Chinatown to win the election. If you look at the breakdown of the candidates in 2001, it’s wrong to assume they only got Chinese American votes… Each candidate got their own constituency, particularly Rocky Chin was very competitive across the whole district with progressive voters on the west side, younger folks in the Financial District as well. So I think that anyone who wants to win this election- this goes back to my original point about why I think politics here are so provincial and so divided – everyone runs as the candidate from this particular neighborhood, or from this particular political club or this particular ethnicity… there’s not enough votes to win an election in a way that gives you any kind of mandate. But more importantly after you win you can’t really govern that way if you’re seen as a candidate from that particular ethnicity or that particular neighborhood. So what I’m doing is I’m actually not running as the Asian American candidate. I’m certainly not running as the Korean American candidate. By my count there are only 352 registered Korean Democrats out of 60-thousand, so I certainly can’t run as the Korean American candidate and I wouldn’t want to. I’m running as the most progressive candidate, the candidate that’s worked in business and in the non-profit sector, who’s solved problems outside of government, outside of politics – who hasn’t been campaigning constantly for years or decades but someone who’s been trying to deliver results and get things done and that’s the message I’m taking to every single part of the District… I do know that people are seeing this race through the prism of race. I’ve seen some comments from people saying I’m in the race to divide the Asian vote. Well I have a tremendous amount of respect for Margaret but we are very different people… I’ve been able to deliver results in other areas of my life and I want to bring that same energy, organizational focus and responsiveness to the City Council to solve problems on a day-to-day basis.
TLD: You are the youngest candidate in the race and you don’t have a long history in city government. Do you see that as a major disadvantage?
Kim: I actually think that’s a benefit, especially in this – when you look at the dysfunction in Albany, when you look at the slush fund scandal in City Council – it doesn’t seem to be to anyone’s credit to have a long history in politics in New York City… People are open to the idea of someone non-traditional… (I am) someone who’s actually led people. I had over 200 paid employees when I was running the Free Tax Preparation Campaign, managed a multi million dollar budget, hundreds of volunteers, 11 locations all across the five boroughs of New York City… In terms of management and organization and leadership I might be the youngest candidate in the race but I think I have a significant amount of managerial experience and…I have experience really getting past the rhetoric, getting past the posturing, just to say we need to get this done…The key to effectiveness for a City Council member is being able to manage a staff, manage the work so you can prioritize and make things happen…
TLD: Wha’s your opinion about Councilman Gerson’s decision to support Mayor Bloomberg’s campaign to extend term limits?
Kim: I would have voted to send it back into referendum. I was not happy with the way that decision was handled, the way the City Council as a whole voted on that. I understand that Alan tried to propose an amendment to have a voter referendum and I was disappointed he didn’t follow that vote up with a vote to actually vote against it. At this level of government people do sometimes become entrenched and they become sometimes complacent and I think one of the reasons I am running is if you do extend term limits and your argument for extending limits is to increase the choices that voters have, then I want to present a choice….