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Astoria Council Candidates Share Views in Forum Hosted by the Queens Post

Oct. 21, 2021 By Allie Griffin

The three candidates running to represent the 22nd Council District in northwest Queens offered insight into their views on numerous issues during a forum Tuesday night hosted by the Queens Post.

Tiffany Cabán, who won the Democratic primary; Republican Felicia Kalan and Green party candidate Edwin DeJesus answered questions on a number of topics. The forum addressed both citywide issues and happenings specific to the district, which includes Astoria, East Elmhurst, Rikers Island and parts of Jackson Heights and Woodside.

For instance, the candidates shared their thoughts on a mixed-use development proposed in the neighborhood, property taxes, the gifted and talented program at city schools, protected bike lanes, crime, Rikers Island, community boards, homelessness and more.

Three areas where Cabán, Kalan and DeJesus diverged the most in their responses were on the gifted and talented program, public safety and crime, and community board appointments.

The forum was streamed live on Facebook. It was later uploaded to YouTube.

Below are the questions asked and each candidate’s answers.

Do you think the mayor’s recent decision to phase out the gifted and talented program from city schools was the right one? 

Cabán: 

“I do and I say that as a G&T kid. I was in the Gifted and Talented program when I was a kid.

We have the most segregated school system in the country. We have really encouraged this scarcity mentality where parents and students are fighting over limited resources when the fact is that we have an almost $90 billion budget and we need to be pumping more of it into our schools so that every single child has the opportunity to learn and thrive no matter their ability, no matter the manner in which they learn and that we’re providing all kinds of learning experiences.

Coming through and out of the pandemic, it’s going to be that much more important that we are really focused on social-emotional learning, that we are incorporating more restorative justice programs into our schools and that we are being able to fund in a manner where we are allowing for a holistic learning environment for each and every one of our children. Every single school should be able to serve every single child in their neighborhood.”

DeJesus:

“I think it was a huge mistake. I think we should have expanded the Gifted and Talented programs. It shouldn’t have been all or nothing. We should be giving more opportunities to our students especially given the fact that it is true, some have more talents than others and we need to take that into consideration.

I went to a career and technical education high school that specialized in filmmaking. This is a public school [but] it has one of the best programs in the country. We need to be expanding that program so that students can be learning high skill trades like filmmaking, like culinary arts and construction, so that when they get out of high school, they don’t have to go into thousands of dollars in debt to get a college degree — and if they do, it should be affordable, but if they don’t, they should be given the resources and job training and job database programs so that they can actually get a high skill job in these sort of realms.

So I don’t think that getting rid of G&T was a good idea. I believe that we need to expand our opportunities for our children, not get rid of them.”

Kalan:

“I am against eliminating the Gifted and Talented programs. I believe we should be expanding those programs. I have two kids in public schools. Zaden is a first-grader. Zaria is a kindergartener. We should be expanding opportunities for children.

And I think this just goes to show why the mayor should not have full control over the education system. We need a school board, whether it be regarding Gifted and Talented programs or other decisions, we need parents at the table. It’s not good enough that the mayor can just decree a proclamation before he leaves that the Gifted and Talented program be eliminated. Parents have gone through so much over the last few years. I had make-or-break moments myself becoming an educator at home and we should be giving kids every opportunity to succeed, not taking their opportunities away.

I also just want to speak to the fact that Queens is the borough with the most overcrowded schools. We’ve had schools eliminated. We need to be building more seats, we need to be investing in our children, we need to get our class sizes down and again, the mayor should not have full control where he or she can make a decision and we need to have more participation by parents. I again would be for the Gifted and Talented program and my kids are not in that program. I actually didn’t even have Zaria take the test because we love our school, but I don’t want to take opportunities away from other children.”

There has been an increase in violent crime in the 114th Precinct and crime is up (especially compared to 2019). Many violent crimes are taking place on NYCHA properties and are often gang-related? What is your solution to combatting this?

Kalan:

“Well, I think public safety is the single most important issue in this race. It’s certainly the single most important issue to myself, our family and a lot of the residents in District 22.

We pay a $98 billion budget (It will be $98 billion next year) and I think public safety is a basic city service. First of all, we cannot be defunding the police. That is not the answer to the crime that is happening in our neighborhood. Transit crime is up in the 114th Precinct, robbery is up 15 percent, murder is up 28 percent — again this is all right here in our backyard. We have to fight for public safety.

At the same time, we should be investing in crime prevention. I think the best way we can do that is through investing in education and economic opportunities for people.

Again, to really talk about what we should be doing for public safety — we need to fund the NYPD, we need a city council person that will work with the NYPD, we need to restore and reform the anti-crime unit as in Eric Adam’s plan, we have to have police working and interacting with the community more, we need a lot of focus on public safety here in the community.

And I don’t support my opponent’s plan to completely abolish the NYPD. I really can’t wrap my mind around it to be honest when Ms. Cabán said there’s no connection between policing and public safety. I disagree with that statement. I think that there absolutely is a huge connection between police presence and a deterrent of crime.

So I’ll be the candidate that will fight to make sure our neighborhood is safe and I think that we really need to work with our vulnerable youth population — age 14 to 18 — make sure that they have after school sports and activities, make sure that we’re investing in internship and apprenticeship program, make sure that we’re again investing in crime prevention, investing in our most vulnerable communities, but we also have to address the rise in crime and we cannot do that by defunding and abolishing the police.”

Cabán:

“I’ve spent my entire professional career focused on public safety, focused on working within the criminal legal system, on studying violence, crime, policing, prosecution and incarceration not just here, but around the country and I am deeply concerned with public safety. And public safety is really tied to public health and it’s also personal… My parents grew up in the Woodside Houses, my grandmother stayed there until she passed away. My earliest memory was my mom pulling me behind a car on 31st Ave right next to the Woodside Houses because of gunfire. This is personal to me. Nobody wants safer communities more [than people who are directly impacted] because of what we experienced.

I want to invest in the things that work because we have the largest, most-funded police force in the country and police — only two to three percent of what they do is what you think they do; 97 percent has nothing to do with it. Two to three percent of their time is spent responding to violent crime — not interrupting, not preventing — responding to. Even by their own statistics, their clearance rates or their rates of accountability, of catching people, [is] less than 40 percent. Why would we pump more money into a police force that has proven to disproportionally brutalize black and brown folks and also not get good public safety results is beyond me.

So what I want to do is to make sure that we are using our money wisely and taking evidence-based approaches like expanding CMS and cure violence models, knowing that when you fully fund and scale them in communities, gun violence goes down by upwards of 70 percent. These things exist and we can be expanding them here. We just got approval to get them expanded in Astoria Houses as well as Woodside Houses and I think that’s going to be great. Holistic approaches — did you know that housing repairs reduce crime? In Philadephia, they gave housing grants to small homeowners to fix their homes. Within a month, crime went down by 25 percent. NYCHA’s dilapidated, not having safe, good repair homes contributes to public safety issues. Jobs, the number one thing, access to mental health care. It’s not okay that Rikers Island is the number one mental health care provider in our state. So making sure that we are going to the root causes of crime to prevent it before it happens and then actually instituting some accountability so that we’re changing behavior when people hurt other people. I am here to get the best public safety and public health outcomes period. And these things are empirically proven to work and they exist, they exist here and it’s a matter of making sure we all have access to them to get better results than we’re getting now.

And I just want to push back a little bit on some of the fear-mongering. Listen, violence is up because we are experiencing an economic crisis. Deprivation breeds desperation and any act of violence is one act too many but I do want to remind folks that we are experiencing historic lows in violence and we know what works. So while it’s ticking up, we should be going back to the models that helped us to get back down and that was things like cure violence, that was things like access to more mental health. We have defunded our hospitals. Queens in the past 20 years, we’ve lost 20 hospitals. The hospital I was born in doesn’t exist anymore. All of those things is where we should be spending our very big budget — though it’s still finite — to get better returns on our investments.”

DeJesus:

“I think we need to be investing in preventative measures and funding community leaders on the ground. For example, my friend David … who takes the youth around Woodside to do tree mulching and street clean-ups. This gives our youth a sense of community and a sense of purpose so that they don’t go down the wrong path of perhaps gang and gun violence which is on the rise. And if you look at what they’re doing in Brownsville right now, they established a gun buy-back program which provides financial incentives to give in your weapons and it has been so far incredibly successful and we can expand that program across the city.

Where I disagree with Cabán on her accountability platform, for example, is that the responsibility has to be on the victim to solve the problem and create an accountability plan with their abuser. I think that neglects the fact that victim might have experienced PTSD or trauma and kind of disregards that experience that they went through.

I also believe that not all crime, but a good chunk of it, the origin is poverty and so if we extinguish poverty through my universal basic income plan that I have we would be giving people the financial resources to survive and if we’d be living in a just society where crime is disincentivized, there would be no need for as many police on the streets because again we’d be living in a safe and just society. I will say this — as opposed to just looking for drops in the bucket from the police budget, there are literally trillions of more dollars that Wall Street, the big pharmaceutical companies, the fossil fuel industry, big real estate developers, big tech, private health insurance companies — let’s take money from those people because they have a whole lot of it and we can use that to fund every single New Yorker.

Cabán response to DeJesus:

“So restorative justice is what Edwin mischaracterized but brought up in his answer is one amongst many public safety strategies. We have to take a multi-strategy approach. And I want to point out to folks that it’s voluntary. People on both sides of the aisle have to opt-in and again my focus is always on the best public health and public safety outcomes. And what you’ll find is unfortunately our criminal legal system gives us two choices – do nothing or a jail cell, but when you talk to survivors of crime, there’ something that actually comes above punishment. They want to make sure that they are made whole and get to heal, that they’re never hurt like that again and that nobody else is hurt like they were. So restorative justice programs provide the opportunity to engage in that process. One quick stat I’ll give you — common justice restorative justice program only for violent offenses, over 90 percent of the survivors opt into this program and then the program gets completed and the recidivism rates are almost none — less than five percent of people recidivate. So again, I lean into the strategies that are empirically proven to work and to keep people safe.”

Do you think that the selection of community board members is done correctly? Some say that selections have become political, in which council members are appointing members that have the same political views to avoid conflict. How do you make sure that a cross-section of the community is picked and it’s not just a whole lot of people that go along with your philosophy? 

Cabán:

“I think that we need a commitment to making sure that there is a diverse cross-section of folks represented on the community board and going back and making sure we’re addressing historical inequities because we can’t ignore the fact that there are folks that have lacked representation on our community boards for a long time. So that’s really really important.

We have to make sure that we’re creating more onramps to civic engagement and political empowerment — so doing the political education to kind of tap folks and say ‘hey this is space is for you, you can engage, you can make a difference because if we are not actively working to create that access, we do end up with these homogeneous bodies that don’t reflect the diversity of our communities.

When I was a public defender, I worked literally every single day with folks on the opposite side of the aisle that were naturally adversarial, didn’t agree with me on a lot of different things — defense attorneys, prosecutors — but we had good working relationships and it was rooted in communication and also me understanding that as much as I need to be rooted in my core beliefs, my values, I needed to understand where that other person was coming from and be open to the fact that there’s still so much overlap in work that we can do together and really make sure that there is a robust exchange of ideas. So I think it’s important to look at demographics, at politics, at values and make sure that it really is truly representative.”

DeJesus:

“We need to have more representation from people who have been living in Astoria their entire lives such as myself. Whether you’re from Richmond Hill like Tiffany Cabán or Ohio like Felicia Khan, that’s totally fine, but we have to make sure that we put forward some sort of legislation so that people who have been living here for at least five years of residence in the district can be on that community board. That’s how we democratize the process, that’s how we get the seniors involved, the disabled community involved, veterans involved but also young people like myself. I’m at the border of millennial and gen Z but I shouldn’t be making all the decisions, we should [have] diversity in age group, diversity in ethnicities as well. And again there should be some sort of rule set in place that you need to be living within the community for at least five years, which I believe I’m the only one up here who can say that.”

Kalan:

“Just a little about my background. I was actually born in Indiana so get it right. My husband was born in New York. He’s a pastor and we moved here to Queens. We’ve been coming to Queens for nine years doing ministry work. It took us quite a time to save money to move here and we helped start our future here in the community. He’s no longer in full-time ministry, he actually does digital marketing, but I’m an Indiana girl so get it right. But I came to Astoria as soon as I could. This is where my heart is, this is where I raise my children.

As far as the community board is concerned, we need to make the process better for people to access, people from all different backgrounds. I actually tried to get on the community board, funny enough, just a few years ago and I was not able to do that. I don’t think that who is on the community board should be determined by a city council person. I think that creates a very political appointment and with a lot of the sensitive things that community boards are voting on like zoning, there could be a lot of corruption in those appointments. So I think we should really look to civic organizations or different religious organizations — someone to write a letter of recommendation, but I think we need to diversify the people that are on the community board. We have a great community board. There’s really good people who have been invested in the community for a long time. We can always make that better.”

Watch the video above to hear each candidates’ response to all the questions asked during the forum.

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