(Bloomberg Opinion) — For more interviews in this series, click here.
Howard Wolfson: I wanted to start by giving voters an opportunity to get to know you as a person. You’re relatively new to the political scene, although you’ve been in government a long time. At one point, obviously, in your career, you decided to go into municipal government. Can you talk about your motivation?
Kathryn Garcia: I have always found government to be the most exciting place to work, where you can have the biggest impact on people’s lives. I actually started many moons ago at the Department of Finance, and left to do some work in the nonprofit sector and in the consulting world. But government is still the place where — it is just exciting to work on policy and implementation, getting the job done for 8.6 million people.
HW: Was that something you knew you were going to do when you were in high school and college? And when did the thought come to you that this was something you wanted to spend your life doing?
KG: Both my parents were civil servants, and I saw that the work they were doing had such an impact on so many people. That was a model I wanted to follow.
HW: You grew up in New York City, in Brooklyn. Tell me what life was like growing up in Brooklyn in the ’70s and the ’80s.
KG: I have a unique family. Three of us were adopted, and so it was a large group of five. And back in the 1970s into the ’80s, your block was really your social life. It was where you made your friends, where you played skelly or kick the can. There were no screens — [it’s] hard for my children to imagine a world in which you didn’t have the whole internet in your pocket — but you had to be creative and develop your own games. That was my life back in the ’70s: “How do you engage with a whole diverse group of neighbors and have fun?” And we did. Considering there were five kids, you always had a group to play with.
HW: Did you appreciate some of the challenges the city was going through at the time? Or was that something that, as a kid, you weren’t paying all that much attention to?
KG: I wasn’t aware of the challenges. It just was the city that I knew. By that I mean, I knew you couldn’t get on a subway after dark. It was just how it was, and I didn’t have anything to compare it to.
HW: I remember hearing an awful lot from my parents and grandparents — the constant set of comparisons between what the city was in the ’50s and the ’60s and what it became in the ’70s and the ’80s. So I think I was fairly aware at a young age of the challenges the city was going through.
KG: I have to say, both my parents are pretty optimistic people and very forward-looking. And [they] were raising the crew of us, making sure dinner got put on the table and, you know, only one glass of milk got spilled.
HW: You come from a fairly unique family. How has that influenced your thinking as you run for mayor?
KG: So, I am a white woman with black siblings. I was adopted, as were they. One of my siblings spent seven years in the foster system, so we aren’t exactly in age order, in terms of when [we] arrived in the family. It meant that I saw diversity in every aspect of my life, and the real strengths of that. But also, [I] saw that there were times when we got treated differently, and was aware of that as well — the need to stand up for each other. As my daughter says, we’re a family that’s like, “Ride or die,” you know. Super tight.
HW: And you have children? They’re —
KG: They’re in their twenties. One is turning 25 and the other is 22. A funny note: My son, who literally memorized 215 digits of pi, called me the other day to ask me what his Social Security number was. So parenting never ends.
HW: What does he do for a living? Is he a computer expert, a rocket scientist?
KG: He has a very interesting job. He works for an artist [who] builds sculptures that move and light up. So he codes for them. It’s at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
KG: Oh, it’s super cool. They make the most beautiful things.
HW: So you’re in government, and you develop, from all accounts, a reputation for competence and diligence. And you’re promoted up through the ranks, and you become the sanitation commissioner under Mayor Bill de Blasio. Were you the first female sanitation commissioner?
KG: No. Emily Lloyd’s the first female sanitation commissioner [under Mayor David Dinkins].
HW: Ah, I should probably know that. But it’s a fairly male purview.
KG: That’s an understatement.
HW: Tell me what it’s like as a woman managing a very male workforce.
KG: Sanitation is over 90% male. The job of managing that workforce is both different and the same as managing any other workforce. You have to develop strong teams. You have to get their respect and their investment in the mission you have for them, and be very open to their ideas. I always was tough, but fair. And that means you get respect.
HW: Did you ever encounter an incident or an individual who questioned your ability to do the job given your gender?
KG: One time I got questioned was actually when I was talking to a new class of sanitation workers, which is funny since they’ve been on the job about five seconds. They said, “What do you know about garbage?” And I said, “Well, I used to move waste in pipes [as head of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, which manages wastewater], and now we’re going to move it in trucks. So have some respect.”
HW: You got a lot of praise for your work as commissioner. But at some point in the de Blasio administration, you and the mayor had a falling out. Can you talk about that?
KG: It was really driven by the decision to cut sanitation so deeply without including me in that conversation — about why that was a bad idea, that it would have a serious impact on how the city looked and the overall goals of attacking climate change.
HW: Was your objection around process — that he didn’t include you? Or was it around outcome — that the cuts were made?
KG: Oh, it was around outcomes. It was around: “This is a bad decision. The people of New York are going to be impacted negatively by this decision.”
HW: Was that around the time that you began to think about running for mayor?
KG: I had thought about running for mayor earlier. That was the time when I decided, “Okay, I’m going to do this.” And I had told him earlier that I was considering it.
HW: What was his reaction?
HW: Well, let’s talk about that. The traditional trajectory to mayor has been current elected official, prosecutor or business leader. We have not, at least in my recent memory, elected somebody from within municipal government to mayor. What makes you think that you can navigate from municipal employee — if I were being uncharitable, I would say “bureaucrat” — to elected office as a chief executive?
KG: My experience — having been the chief executive of a number of agencies — is what the city needs right now. That is why the race is wide open. And when you look at polling data, [voters] want government experience and are skeptical of politicians who make great promises but can’t deliver. They want a manager with actionable plans [and] a proven track record of delivering.
It is not a step normally taken in part because there are parts of campaigning that you can’t do over a long period of time if you are still going to be working as a commissioner. I don’t — I did not have the luxury of keeping my job and fundraising, as others in the race are allowed to do.
HW: You talk about management as an important calling card. Can you talk about a management challenge that you found yourself facing and how you dealt with it?
KG: There’ve been a number. At DEP, working to cut our operating budget by 10% without a layoff and digging into how we were going to be more efficient in order to keep the water rate down. Or collecting garbage during a pandemic when we were not getting great information about what was safe, [and] working with all our unions to ensure that we could keep doing the job. This was at a point when we were told not to wear masks. It was unclear whether the virus spread on garbage bags. And we sat down in partnership with labor to work that out.
HW: I was enormously impressed, as I think most New Yorkers were, with the courage and the fortitude of the municipal employees who kept showing up to work in the early days of the pandemic. How did you motivate the workforce to do that? You have people who have families; you have people who themselves are at risk. They care about their own health and safety. How do you get people to wake up and go to work at a time where there’s so much uncertainty and fear?
KG: I honestly went and stood in front of them and talked to many [Department of Sanitation] garages, [saying], “These are the things we’re going to put in place to keep you safe. Here’s the information we have. Here is what we’re going to do going forward.” We [moved] collections of waste to split the shifts up to midnight and to 5:00 a.m., so [workers] weren’t out in the public as much. We shut the borders between garages, so they could be their own pods. And when it became clear masks were important, we worked hard to make sure there were plenty available, and that they had sanitizer, and that the trucks and garages were getting cleaned.
So they knew we were working hard to make sure they were safe. In other things I was working on at the same time, including food distribution [for city residents] — I would hear from the public about [how] hearing a sanitation truck during those dark days of March and April made people think that things would be okay. That there would be a normal again, after this time of ambulances and sirens.
One other thing that I think was important: We created a 24-hour hotline where [sanitation workers] could talk to a medical professional. If they weren’t willing to raise something they were worried about in a public setting, in a garage with their supervisor, they could call and be able to talk to someone about what was happening.
HW: You mentioned that you also had another job during the pandemic, which was to help ensure that hungry New Yorkers had access to food. Can you talk about how that came about, and how you effectuated that responsibility?
KG: Sure. I got a phone call on a Friday saying, “We want you to ensure that no New York City resident goes hungry [during the pandemic].” It’s like, “Okay!” [Laughs.] So it was putting together a strong team from all different agencies and literally setting it up over a weekend. Technology had to be brought to play. [There was] reaching out to taxi drivers who did the delivery; setting up distribution hubs at parks, recreation centers, Kingsbridge Armory, staffed by different agencies; and figuring out how we could put that all together. At a certain point, we’re delivering more than a million meals a day and distributing another 500,000 at school locations, and ensuring there’s no difficulty in being able to access it. We didn’t ask, “How much money do you make?” or “Are you documented or undocumented?” It was very straightforward: “Were you impacted by Covid and not able to get food? We will deliver it to you.” And then with schools, it was, “If you’re hungry, just show up and we will give you meals.” That made a huge difference during the pandemic.
HW: So now you’ve transitioned to full-time candidate. What’s the aspect of running for office that you like the most, and what’s surprised you the most so far?
KG: Oh, I like the retail part of politics. I like talking to New Yorkers and hearing their ideas and what they’re worried about, and how they see the future of the city. The thing that is strange is I’ve always been in roles where my job as the chief executive was to ensure that the frontline had the tools and the plan and the resources to get the job done. And it’s upside-down in a campaign, where your staff is actually focused on making you the most effective, rather than you’re working on making the organization the most effective.
HW: And what’s the thing that’s surprised you the most so far?
KG: I didn’t realize there were this many Democratic clubs in the city of New York.
HW: Yeah. A lot of clubs; a lot of Democrats. And you’re all campaigning virtually, which is a very unusual thing.
KG: It is. But I don’t know what it would be like in non-Covid [times]. So it’s less jarring to me than to some people who’ve done this before.
HW: Right. So, let’s talk about the city as you see it. Are we in a crisis — an existential crisis? How do you assess the state of the city right now?
KG: The city is at a crossroads. It has overlapping crises that have to be addressed effectively. And they range from the challenges we’ve seen with Covid, the fact that 30,000 people have died, to our education system, where kids will have probably lost almost a year, to how we are dealing with safety in the city and the uptick in crime. It is also an opportunity to really rethink what we want the city to be.
HW: Well, let’s unpack that a little. Murders did go up last year by 40%. Every day you read about another violent incident in the subways. What’s the Garcia plan to bring crime down?
KG: You have to make sure that you are digging into metrics of where we are seeing both violent crime — by that I mean, often shootings and gang-on-gang retaliation — but also the random crime that’s happened in the subways. They need two different approaches. And we know that the police need to rebuild trust with communities in order to be effective. You get what you measure, and we need to hold police officers accountable for what we want them to deliver. That is the first principle.
HW: Do you support reducing the police budget?
KG: I am sure that there are efficiencies to be found in the police budget. I do not support reducing our patrol strength.
HW: For people who would say, “Police are just as much, if not more, the problem than the solution,” what do you say to them?
KG: We need to have a safe city, particularly in communities that are bearing more of the brunt of the uptick in violent crime. And we can have both respect for communities as well as an active police force. We need to do creative things. When you are dealing with homeless folks in the subway, you need to embed mental-health professionals with them. We need to do better training of [the] NYPD. And it’s about also training the frontline supervisors, the sergeants, the lieutenants, the precinct captains. Because they are the ones who drive culture change. The retirements we’re seeing in the upper ranks at the NYPD [are] an opportunity to reshape culture. We know that our incoming classes and frontline [are] more diverse, that we are now a majority-minority force.
HW: The city also faces a fiscal challenge. We’re looking at a roughly $5 billion deficit this year, and deficits into the future. How do you approach budgeting in that climate?
KG: Our city is in financial trouble. The budget gap is $50 billion. We have a loss of $2.5 billion in our property-tax collection, and it was offset by about a billion-dollar increase in income-tax collection. But you’re right, it’s a sea of red ink up through 2024. We do need to grow. We need to get our economy back on track so we have revenue coming in, and stabilize our tax base.
There are some straightforward steps we need to take. We have to refinance our debt. We have to work with labor to realize productivity savings. We need to reduce redundancies in city government. We really don’t need a commissioner of information technology and like, three or four other mayor’s offices — chief technology officers, chief data analytics officers, chief cybersecurity officers. Besides being redundant, [they] also increase the bureaucracy and make us less effective.
But we should be making strategic investments that in the long run will reduce costs. For example, right now our solution to homelessness is shelters. We’re up to, I think, close to $2 billion in shelter costs, with that just continuing to rise. Getting folks into permanent housing is a better long-term investment. It’s better for those families. It supports their ability to hold steady employment and their kids’ ability to learn. So I believe you’re going to need to make strategic investments, as well as reduce the redundancies [and] have some real conversations with labor about productivity savings.
And if any candidate is telling you that they’re going to pay for their plan by taxing the wealthy, or getting the money from the federal government that completely recoups all of our losses— they haven’t paid for their plan.
HW: Does that mean that you’re ruling out a tax increase? You’re skeptical of a tax increase on the wealthy? How bright is that red line?
KG: Raising taxes is the last tool in the toolbox we should be using. The unintended consequences can be severe. We need to be a city that embraces businesses, because businesses employ people. Ensuring that they feel welcome here is critical. But I also believe that one of the ways out of the crisis is what differentiates New York City. New York City is differentiated by its diversity, by its restaurants, by its art and culture. Those industries have to take the lead. That brings back office employment. It brings back tourism. Getting that right is incredibly important.
HW: How do we get that right? I’ll give you an anecdote: I had to sign some papers, and so last week, in the middle of the week, I was in Midtown at 11:00 a.m. It was less crowded than Midtown on a Sunday in August. I went into a very large office building — probably during peak times, this is a building that has a bigger GDP than many cities in this country — and I did not see another human being other than the security guard who waved me in. Nobody in the lobby, nobody in the elevators. When I went up to the floor I was visiting, I didn’t see anybody else on that floor. It was shocking how few people have come back to work in Midtown. What do we do about that?
KG: Today, about 83% of the buildings in Midtown are vacant. Those employees have not come back yet. The way you bring those employees back is you lead by example, bringing back city employees. You make the subway safer, [because] the perception that the subway is dangerous keeps people from coming back in. A huge piece of this is schools need to open, because parents and particularly women have trouble coming in if they can’t have their kid at school.
And it’s also about support[ing] small businesses and restaurants and the arts and culture. I put out my “Reopen to Stay Open” plan last week, which includes using our open space more effectively, eliminating bureaucratic nonsense, [and] seed money for a crowdsourcing platform from the city so we can make microloans to small businesses. That begins to activate the street. You know, restaurants also make us safer because they’re open late. And having more people on the street and having it be more active is inherently safer. It’s about getting those core, fundamental city services, right? As well as supporting the industries that we know bring people together.
Fundamental to this is also ensuring that folks have the vaccine, and that we have vaccinated a significant amount of the population and reduce the possibility of there being additional deaths from Covid.
HW: You mentioned the importance of education. Where do you stand on the charter schools? Do you think we need more of them? Are you against them?
KG: I’m focused on public schools. But I believe that charter schools are part of our ecosystem and are educating tens of thousands of students. We need to figure out how we are going to accelerate learning for our kids in the coming years. And they need to be back in school. I am hopeful that they [will be] back in school this coming September. They need both the education enrichment of that, [and] also the socio-emotional support that they get from school, like learning how to take turns. The basic steps of growing up.
HW: You worked for Bill de Blasio. You had your disagreements with him. What grade would you give his tenure?
KG: Universal pre-K was [an] incredibly important win for New York City, really transformative for families. But after that he lost focus and new policy implementation stalled. And there were serious issues in the response to Covid. They failed to set up an accessible vaccine distribution program, even though they had months to prepare. It is not good management when you need me to step in and take over NYCHA [the New York City Housing Authority] and take over the plan for eliminating lead poisoning in children, and to ensure that there’s food distribution during Covid. City Hall should have been able to manage those things.
HW: So what’s that letter grade? I’m going to press you.
KG: I think I’ve said all I’m going to say about that. A letter grade seems a little like a hashtag.
HW: Yeah. Sometimes politics is like that. But I’ll let that go. This is going to be the first election that we vote for mayor in a ranked-choice format. Who’s your second choice?
KG: I don’t have a second choice.
HW: So you will not be filling out a ballot below “Garcia” when you vote?
KG: June is still a ways away. But if I had a strong second choice, I probably wouldn’t be running.
HW: Okay. Give me the Garcia path to victory. You have not yet qualified for matching funds, although I know you’ve been busy raising money. How do you get from here to there in this environment?
KG: As I said, the race is wide open. The latest poll has undecideds in second place, and the front-runner is 23 points below where he needs to be to win, with not much room to grow. And we’ve seen this story in other races: The early front-runners have been the most well-known, and ultimately lost. It’s still anyone’s game.
I am the best candidate who matches what New Yorkers are looking for right now. They want someone with a proven record as the go-to crisis manager. Voters want a problem solver who puts hard work above political platitudes. Voters want a clear agenda to get s*** done. They’re skeptical of politicians who make big promises and can’t deliver. They want a manager, and I have put forward actionable plans. And we are running a tight ship and a smart campaign.
The race is not just about [who’s going] to spend the most money. We’ve seen many well-financed candidates lose. And frankly, we don’t need a mayor who doesn’t understand how to spend money wisely right now. You know, anyone who works for me knows that I’m data-driven. My team made early investments in voter-targeting analytics, so we can focus on each of our voters and [get] our message to them in real time. The field is crowded, but many other candidates haven’t focused on all the voters who will be deciding come June. No one can claim that they have more outer-borough support than I do. It is across all five boroughs. I’m not leaving the Rockaways behind, or Staten Island. I’m going everywhere.
I’m a proud progressive, but I’m not afraid to run against what is popular on Twitter, speaking of hashtags. Other candidates chase social media — “Cancel rent.” I don’t understand how you do that and still pay for teachers, as we’re canceling rent, mortgages, property taxes. I have stayed true to my values through this, and voters respect that. And New York City is ready to elect a strong female candidate. I’m the person for the job.
HW: When you mention candidates who are spending too much time on social media, are you referring to Mr. [Andrew] Yang?
KG: Everyone is spending a lot of time on social media. He has a large Twitter following, but there are others who also spend a lot of time on social media, or get driven by what’s trending.
HW: Is your critique of the field that it’s too impractical? When you talk about, for instance, canceling rent, is your criticism that it’s pie-in-the-sky?
KG: Much of it is pie-in-the-sky. And it is also [a] lack of experience in understanding how you make government work. It’s not learned at a corporate retreat, and it’s not learned in some of the elected offices that people have held. Someone said, “Education is helping voters really understand what the mayor’s job is.” And they have seen that this year. They want execution. They want to know that their kids are going to school, their garbage is going to get picked up, their snow is going to get plowed, and they’re going to be safe in their communities.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Howard Wolfson has worked in New York politics for nearly 30 years and served as a deputy mayor to Mike Bloomberg from 2010 to 2013. He is currently a senior adviser to Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP.