Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, a disability civil rights lawyer and community activist, has long done the work serving her constituencies without needing to be in the spotlight. Now she’s in the final weeks of her race to represent parts of her district in Congress. Unlike Rep. Mondaire, who moved to the district to run, Simon has lived in Brooklyn over 40 years.
The current race is an interesting one, with over a dozen candidates vying for a total of about 70,000 votes, assuming that Democratic primary voters show up at about the same rate as they did in June primaries. Simon was elected to Assembly in 2015 and will be on the November general election ballots for reelection this year.
Simon is skilled in building consensus to solve community issues and passionate when it comes to protecting the environment, transportation, housing, and special education in particular. She also really knows the Brooklyn side of the district that stretches from Sunset Park to DUMBO to Manhattan south of 14th Street.
We spoke over iced tea on Atlantic avenue about her race, plans, and why she thinks you should vote for her. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Bklyner: Why should Brooklyn voters vote for you?
Jo Anne Simon: Because I’m easily the most qualified. I already represent 30% of the voters in the New York 10 area. And I have worked in communities throughout all the neighborhoods in New York 10 on the Brooklyn side. Over the years as a community leader, whether it was in and around downtown Brooklyn, down the western portion of Brooklyn, organizing to sink the Gowanus Expressway into a tunnel. We worked with every single community throughout the corridor, getting to the point where people agreed on what the solution was. Individual issues and problems with the roadway were different depending on their experiences and where they were at, but the answer was the same answer– get rid of it and do it in a way that was environmentally sustainable.
That has given me a handle on the issues, the different neighborhoods, and communities. When I go to Sunset Park, people remember me for having been there, and having worked in the community. I know the issues, and people, and have long been a voice for the community. And I have cross borough appeal. I’m supported by the largest Democratic club in Manhattan, which are the people that are the most engaged, high-information voters.
Bklyner: What have you found to be the issues that are top of mind for residents of CD10?
Jo Anne Simon: The challenge always is that people in their heads don’t just think about Congress versus anything else. The issues are the issues for them. Clearly housing, affordable housing is a big issue. Abortion is a big issue. Climate is a huge issue. Climate falls on all of us, any level of government has to be part of it. Those are, you know, big issues.
The other thing people talk to me all the time is about education. It is not a hot-button issue this year, but it certainly is currently in a lot of people’s minds about the current budget cuts that they’re experiencing in New York City, as well as the fact there’s long been issues with regard to special education and the delivery of services. And the U.S. special education law is federal. When I have spoken with folks in the Orthodox community, the thing they most want to talk about is special education, which is a conversation I’ve had numerous times.
I’ve represented a lot of people, and I think they are supportive because my staff and I have delivered for them. Helped people with the problems in their lives. This one guy came up to me and said, you know, you helped my wife and I save our home six years ago. And I don’t even remember what I did. But people remember that, and they remember that you have a staff that actually cares about public service. And for people and for voters, that’s what they care about.
Bklyner: What do you think about the most important issues Congress should be addressing now?
Jo Anne Simon: Well, clearly, gun violence, which is an issue people do talk about in the neighborhoods as well. Climate and the economy go hand in because we really do need to shift to a clean energy approach which will create lots of jobs for the future. Coal is dead. It’s been dead for a long time. West Virginia has an outsized influence, but in the rest of the world, in the whole energy mix, it’s been changing for years, for decades. But the effects of climate are huge. So people talk about that. But that’s really where federal money will make a difference.
Infrastructure, right? We have an infamous interstate highway through Brooklyn, and that federal infrastructure money is critical to changing the way we do freight. Transportation is a big issue that’s federal, and federal money going to it, which will affect so many things, including the economy and jobs for the future, and the generation of energy. The wind farms right off of Brooklyn, tremendously important, building for that future of zero emission. So those are big federal issues that we could deal with.
Obviously, abortion. We need to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act. The Supreme Court’s decision was about a federal right to privacy under the Constitution, but Congress can pass statutes. It’s passed in the House. We don’t know where it’s going to go in the Senate right now, doesn’t look too far. If we flip a few seats, we can make that happen. And there are flippable seats around the country. We went through this in the state legislature a few years ago with IDC. So it’s similar.
Bklyner: If you had to pick one or two, which would be the issues that you think you can make the biggest difference in?
Jo Anne Simon: Probably gun violence and choice. I’ve been an abortion counselor. There is nobody is stronger on abortion rights than me. I think that gun violence is where we’re starting to see some progress with the other house. There’s a lot more work to be done, but the bipartisan Safer Communities Act that they just recently enacted will make a lot of difference and will show that legislation and empowering states to pass red flag laws like mine and implement them. It will lead to good results and will make communities safer.
But there’s so much that is really federal because it’s interstate. If you look at the shooter in Buffalo. Bought a gun on his 18th birthday in New York. We don’t sell assault weapons in New York. So he went over to Pennsylvania and got parts to modify it and make it an assault weapon. That is something that is a uniquely federal issue that we have to address.
I think the ideology on abortion, I think we can make progress. It’s flipping two seats in the Senate to make that happen. But certainly, there is a lot of room there.
And then the other big, big issue, of course, is preserving democracy. Now, I think anyone legislator has to be part of that and stand up for that, but no one legislator is going to change the course of democracy, certainly not a freshman. But that is, in fact, an overarching issue that we all need to talk about.
Being impactful is about picking your lane and being able to make progress on certain issues that you can speak to. And I like to think that those issues of education, reading in particular, and dyslexia are areas where I have a unique ability, unique experience and history, and can really make a difference.
Bklyner: Would those be the same issues you hope to focus on?
Jo Anne Simon: Sure. You know what I’ve also learned from having been in a two House legislature with the Republicans on the other side. I think you can’t know it until you until you’ve done it. The dynamics are very different than in a place like the city council, where it’s so overwhelmingly Democratic, and it’s one house. And that doesn’t mean everything goes smoothly there either.
The issues that come up that you deal with are often issues that just come up. They’re issues in the community. Something happens. Chris Murphy didn’t go to Congress to do gun violence prevention, but he represented Newtown, and now he’s become an incredible leader on that issue. So you never know.
We worked very hard to get design-build authorization so that we could construct along the BQE in a more efficient and effective manner. I’m not an engineer. I don’t know that I would have thought when I went into the legislature that I’d be talking about design bills. I knew we’d be talking about the highway from an environmental point of view, from a structural point of view, from a community organizing point of view, and addressing the needs of the corridor. But that kind of stuff happens, so you also have to be able to adjust to the issues at the time.
Something happens in the world that changes what it is we’re dealing with. I was working on gun violence prevention before Parkland. But after Buffalo, that really rattled a lot of people in New York State, including people who had been more conservative on a lot of gun violence issues because it’s close to home in a different way. And you hope that there are fewer of those things that have come from trauma. But, you know, issues present themselves. And you have to be able to respond to those as well. None of us have a crystal ball.
You need to be able to work across party lines and with people within your own conference. Being the loudest voice does not have anything to do with whether anything gets passed or who your allies are. You have to sometimes keep an ear to the ground to figure out who your allies are.
Bklyner: Are there any issues that are non-negotiable with you, where you have a position that you are incredibly unlikely to change?
Jo Anne Simon: Being pro-choice. But, you know, it would depend on the issue and what the proposal is. I’m a big fan of reading the legislation and reading the bill. Supporting democracy – It’s not something I am going to waiver on. We fought world wars about this stuff. American democracy is a great experiment, and it is very much in danger right now. Too many authoritarian forces and too many people who don’t understand what it’s about but just feel aggrieved. There are plenty of people who are selfish, and I think we see a lot of that. More than a fair amount of that in Congress as well. People who will do anything to self-aggrandize, to get attention, including voting for the insurrection.
Bklyner: You don’t think they were also thinking about their reelection?
Jo Anne Simon: Of course. But they are part of what politicized this to make it about their reelection. Now there are people who are even more invested in the fact that this was stolen than they were at the time. But that’s really the echo chamber. The way the GOP will say and do anything. Because they don’t care. Because it’s about them, their reelection. And the country can’t survive if people don’t act for the good of the country. And that is something that I’m not going to waiver. It’s something that we’re seeing way too many people.
Bklyner: Do you think there are any issues where the good of the country would not be in the best interests of New York?
Jo Anne Simon: I can’t think of any off the top of my head. But, you know, New York always acts in many ways against its own interests by helping other states. There are a lot of states that won’t do anything to help. New York is a donor state. We pay more in taxes. We send more to Washington that gets distributed to other states all the time and often in greater priority. And when people are in danger, when we had Sandy, other states didn’t want to provide relief to New York, didn’t want to provide relief to New York for 9/11. So I think New York has more often than not behaved in a way that actually is helpful to other states that may not be in its personal best interest. I think relief coming to New York is in New York’s interest when New York needs that relief, but New York doesn’t have to be as forthcoming and as helpful to other states as we have been.
Bklyner: Let me ask you about the diversity of the district. Where do you see the common ground among the various constituencies?
Jo Anne Simon: First of all, all of us here pretty much are immigrants and descended from immigrants. In my case, it was my grandparents’ generation, but my own mother was raised in a household that spoke a different language and didn’t learn English until she went to school. It’s not that long ago, and that is the history of America. Is the history of immigration. Immigrants have saved our country numerous times.
What’s interesting to me is how many immigrants I meet who’re running businesses and who may not actually be interested in helping other immigrants. I ran into a guy just the other day in Grand Derby Plaza, and he said, ‘I don’t want to give away all my money. I mean, I don’t think it’s bad to make money kind of thing.’ And I said, that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about paying people a prevailing wage, making people a livable wage so that they can take care of their families. And he was okay with that.
I’ve represented a lot of small businesses. We have worked very hard to try and be supportive of them. These are our neighbors, and they are eyes on the street. They are what makes our neighborhoods vibrant. So our small businesses are a critical part of that. And I think, you know, we have to provide support to them wherever we can.
I think that diversity can be many things. There’s also diversity of thought. And this is a district that I have certainly seen change over the years. When I moved here more racially diverse. I moved here because I could afford the rent. What has happened is a lot of development, a lot of other people thinking that they knew better for Brooklyn, not investing enough in Brooklyn in some cases. That has actually changed and really pushed out a lot of people who made this community much more diverse.
If you look just at Atlantic Yards alone. While we’re making a promise for affordable housing, it’s not affordable to the people. It’s often promises that no one is able to keep. Government isn’t able to keep it. The developers aren’t able to keep it. And that inexorably leads to displacement, which is a huge issue. A huge issue in Manhattan. I think one of the challenges to providing more housing and more affordable housing is how do we do that without pushing people out. Because New York is becoming increasingly stratified economically and racially. We still have the most segregated school system because it’s really around neighborhoods.
Bklyner: There were programs at the federal level post-World War II that funded a lot of affordable housing. I was curious if funding for housing is something you have been thinking about?
Jo Anne Simon: I think the federal government has to start putting more money into housing and into the diversity of housing. Programs like Mitchell Lama, programs that provide affordable homeownership, like the New York City Partnership. Programs like the federal 202 housing. I’ve been talking for quite some time about more money to be available in access to capital for not-for-profit housing developers. They can build more units and more deeply affordable units. And that’s really where the need is, more units of deeply affordable housing. But they don’t have the access to capital because that’s really been taken over by the big private development market.
If you do 25% affordable housing, 75% is luxury, and that then changes whether you can get a quarter milk. Or what you paid for it last year because the shopkeepers respond to the market and the people who are now here who have more money to spend and or, you know, almond milk instead of cows or whatever. You can see that changing in the shelves wherever you live. So that’s important.
The other thing is investing it in supported housing. We have so many people who are currently homeless that could live independently if they had support. Supported housing works. It’s affordable. We just haven’t done enough of it.
Bklyner: I have one more question. What are some of the specific things that you can do for the district?
Jo Anne Simon: Speaking about fighting for the dollars that will improve people’s lives. Right. That’s going to be on public transit. I’m a Subway girl. I use public transit all the time, and most people do. We need to incentivize that. We need to incentivize electric vehicles and charging stations, to help change fleets to be zero emission.
And obviously money for housing, you know, both for repairs in NYCHA, but also for improving that mix of funding to allow us to develop the housing that’s needed in this district. And if you look at Lower Manhattan, it’s a lot of new development there that’s pushing people out. And so the energy there is around against displacement. The number of affordable units in Lower Manhattan is extremely small.
So the infrastructure money, the money for transit, which is part of that infrastructure money, as well as housing, are two big issues. The other thing, of course, is resiliency. This is a waterfront district.
The Gowanus Canal area. Really, it’s marshland. So you look at Red Hook, you look at parts of Carroll Gardens. It’s a lot of flooding day to day that people have in their basements that is not a big storm event. It’s the flash floods. You know, you have sewage in the Gowanus Canal with just a healthy rain. That really needs to be cleaned up and shored up. And we need to really work on water and sewer in this area because, you know, the marshland knows it’s marshland. It’s been filled in for 150 years, but it knows it’s marshland, and we have to recognize that. You know, you can’t fool Mother Nature, and plan appropriately for that, based on fact, not on what we want. There’s a lot of rhetoric around these things, a lot of ideal ideology, a lot of ambitious statements, but we also have to deal with the reality – you got to deal with the marsh being a marsh.
Bklyner: Anything you wish I had asked, but I didn’t?
Jo Anne Simon: I think it’s important for readers to know that I have a unique background in problem-solving and in-depth grassroots experience with community. That’s why I’m supported by public housing leaders in this district, that’s why I’m supported by the most active voters, reform Democratic clubs. I have a history of standing up, truth to power, standing up to the NRA, and standing up to predatory county leaders. Those are actions that speak louder than words. And a history of service.
Bklyner: Thank you very much. Good luck!