clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Former Sanitation Boss Kathryn Garcia Wants to Dig NYC Out of Its Mess as Mayor. But Can She Ditch Her de Blasio Ties?

Then-Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia gives a snowstorm update at One Police Plaza, March 7, 2018.
Former Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia gave a snowstorm update at One Police Plaza in 2018.
Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

As Sanitation commissioner, Kathryn Garcia had a unique view of city streets during snowstorms.

The camera displays in the department’s Lower Manhattan operations center were set up to show the feeds with the most white in them to highlight areas that needed plowing.

“I could see if we were having any challenges across the city,” she said. “We ran an algorithm. You want to see the ones that are bad.”

Garcia cited those screens as a key example of how she manages by seeking to identify — and correct — problems. Her reputation as a reliable manager and as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s go-to troubleshooter, she says, separates her from the crowded field of other mayoral candidates.

She earned high marks for getting snow off the streets, and praise for helping feed legions of hungry New Yorkers during a brief stint as de Blasio’s emergency food czar in the early days of the pandemic.

Then-Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia speaks about snowstorm preparation, Feb. 8, 2017.
Then-Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia speaks about snowstorm preparation, Feb. 8, 2017.
Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

But Garcia’s tenures as the city’s lead paint czar and interim head of NYCHA brought an accusation from the federal monitor overseeing public housing for delivering a “misleading impression” during testimony at a City Council hearing in 2019.

It’s also unclear whether someone who has largely operated out of the public eye and never held elected office can succeed at retail politics and build name recognition — especially when the pandemic has both limited candidates’ ability to campaign and raised the stakes for leadership.

“It’s the biggest challenge for Kathryn Garcia,” said Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University.

“She’s a bureaucrat. And I say that not in a pejorative way,” she added, noting campaigning is “not in her wheelhouse.”

Garcia’s ties to de Blasio, who is unpopular with many voters, are also complicating her candidacy, Greer said.

“On the one hand, you do want to say like, ‘Hey, listen, you weren’t snowed in like during the Bloomberg days. I actually did what I was supposed to do,’” Greer said.

“But that’s a really intricate conversation to try and have with voters, where the first thing to hear is, ‘Yes, I worked for de Blasio,’ ” she added.

‘Means What She Says’

Garcia’s campaign has pulled in $304,532 in contributions, with more than 200 donations coming from Sanitation Department staff, putting her monetarily in the middle of the pack of the more than 40 contenders. But she has not yet qualified for matching funds that would boost her coffers by more than $2 million from the city’s Campaign Finance Board.

Her supporters hope that her popularity among business leaders who’ve worked with her on city matters will spread.

“I think the larger business community still needs to really get to know her,” said Gregory Lettieri, CEO of New York-based Recycle Track Systems, a technology company that is focused on sustainability and recycling in New York and counts Citi Field, Barclays Center and the Javits Center among its clients.

“She is a person that is quite real,” he added, noting he’s backing her candidacy. “She’s direct in her behavior. She means what she says. That’s refreshing.”

The city is facing a historic downturn triggered by the pandemic: an estimated 1.4 million are behind on rent and more than 1 million are food insecure.

City Food Czar Kathryn Garcia speaks at a Hunger Free NYC press conference in The Bronx about getting more food assistance to families impacted by the coronavirus, Aug. 17, 2020.
Then-Food Czar Kathryn Garcia speaks at a Hunger Free NYC press conference in The Bronx about getting more food assistance to families impacted by the coronavirus, Aug. 17, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Over the past few years, de Blasio tapped Garcia to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing the city.

“I have shown that I’m highly effective at putting together the teams to execute on delivering services to New Yorkers,” she told THE CITY.

Several advocates and nonprofit leaders who worked closely with the Park Slope resident describe her as an able manager who listened to their concerns.

When operating as the city’s food czar, she had weekly calls with the heads of nonprofit leaders and other community partners.

“She’s a technocrat and may not always give off these warm and fuzzy vibes,” said one nonprofit executive director who worked closely with her during the emergency food drive.

“That may make it difficult to win a mayor’s race,” added the official, who asked to remain anonymous, citing contracts with the city. “But in terms of management sometimes that’s what you need.”

‘She Wasn’t Above Us’

Garcia, 50, began her career in public service as a 22-year-old intern in the Department of Sanitation. After graduating from Bachelor of Arts in economics and history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison she worked at Appleseed, a nonprofit consulting firm and advocacy organization.

In March 2014, she returned to Sanitation and rose to public sector prominence when de Blasio appointed her as the department’s commissioner.

The department was then struggling to recover from budget cuts made during the Bloomberg administration, said Joseph Mannion, president of the Sanitation Officers Association.

Garcia moved more than 100 supervisors who were picking up trash in the field back to their old managerial roles.

“She gave them the ability to do their job,” said Mannion.

His union, which represents approximately 1,250 sanitation supervisors, has endorsed Garcia.

“Kathryn was a people’s person,” Mannion said. “She wasn’t above us. We were equal partners.”

The larger Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association (USA) has also backed Garcia’s mayoral run, citing her push to fix furnaces in some garages and fund other improvements.

“She showed interest in workers that had to perform the duties,” USA President Harry Nespoli told The Chief-Leader. “You could always put a Band-Aid on something, but she started replacing furnaces so it would be warm in garages when our workers were working in snow — she fought for it.”

The endorsements stand out because unions representing frontline workers are frequently at odds with agency heads who have final say on disciplinary matters.

The labor leaders all noted that they didn’t agree with Garcia on every issue but overall saw her as a supportive boss who listened and looked out for the department’s 9,700 uniformed and civilian employees.

As commissioner she’d frequently show up at department garages throughout the city for question-and-answer sessions with rank-and-file staff and supervisors.

Some of those meetings generated a few strange questions, she recalled.

One sanitation worker asked whether he and others could wear tank tops in the summer.

“No, no tank tops,” Garcia replied.

A Lead Weight

But it wasn’t all seemingly random requests: staff, and union officials, told her they needed more smaller vehicles to plow snow on narrow streets. In 2017, de Blasio’s budget included $21 million for that equipment.

During one session near eastern Queens, workers complained how residents were buying large garbage cans made for automatic truck lifters. In response, the department limited the size of garbage cans New Yorkers can put out for trash collection.

“You just get a different perspective when you talk to the people who do the work and what are the things they are confronting,” said Garcia.

Kathryn Garcia
Kathryn Garcia, then nterim NYCHA chair, speaks with reporters at City Hall, Feb. 6, 2019.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In 2018, de Blasio named her the city’s “senior adviser for citywide lead prevention,” a position colloquially known as the “Lead Czar” — as she continued to head the DSNY.

The city in 2004 passed a landmark Local Law 1 designed to eradicate childhood lead poisoning by 2010.

That never happened.

Garcia’s appointment came as the City Council contemplated roughly 25 bills to close loopholes for landlords and put more pressure on them to reduce lead concentrations in water.

“De Blasio tried to jump on the bandwagon after it was already happening,” said attorney Reuven Frankel, who handles lead lawsuits and advocates for tougher laws.

“The Council’s legislation was more aggressive than what the administration was doing,” he added.

Frankel and other advocates have long argued the city hasn’t done enough to enforce lead laws already in place.

‘Clear Critiques’

Landlords who do not complete required lead inspections or perform lead abatements before renting apartments are rarely hit with fines, according to a 2019 report by advocates conducted by a group of advocates and reformers.

“We had some very clear critiques of the way the city was failing to enforce existing laws and shared them,” said Matthew Chachere, staff attorney at Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, who has helped draft some of the City Council laws.

“Was I pleased with what all of the outcomes were? No, but there were improvements,” he added.

Garcia touts how the citywide number of childhood lead exposures was reduced by 21% in 2019 and says she “put in place a really strong compliance department.”

Childhood lead poisoning has steadily gone down over the past 50 years in part because lead paint isn’t produced anymore, advocates say.

“There was a period when every year the city would put out a new press release, saying we’ve reached an all time low in lead poisoning,” said Chachere. “That’s about as useful as me putting out a press release every year saying I’ve reached an all time high in age.”

Her efforts at the New York City Housing Authority, where she was named acting chair from Feb. 5 through July 2019, were less successful, records show.

More than 1,060 children living in NYCHA were lead poisoned from 2012 through 2018, and THE CITY reported the issue persisted during the time she was acting chair, according to agency documents.

‘A Misleading Impression’

“When I was there, we were focused very heavily on making sure we got in and actually were compliant with both federal law and city law,” she said.

Getting rid of lead in any apartments with children was “absolutely a priority every single day,” she said, adding it was “challenging by the fact that the data at NYCHA is not great.”

In May 2019, THE CITY reported that a federal monitor overseeing NYCHA sent a blistering letter to Garcia, accusing her of giving a “misleading impression” during testimony at a May 7 City Council hearing about the housing agency’s efforts to remove lead from apartments with kids.

NYCHA federal monitor Bart Schwartz speaks via Zoom to Bronx public housing residents on Thursday.
NYCHA federal monitor Bart Schwartz speaks via Zoom to Bronx public housing residents, Oct. 22, 2020.
Screengrab/NYCHA Federal Monitor/Zoom

Monitor Bart Schwartz alleged NYCHA was still not aggressively tracking down all the apartments with lead paint where children live or visit frequently.

Garcia insisted her Council testimony was “truthful and forthright” and accused Schwartz, a former federal prosecutor, of misunderstanding what NYCHA was doing to live up to the lead paint agreement.

“Your decision to eschew the protocols available to you under our agreement in favor of an unexpected and unwarranted public expression of frustration is unfortunate and misguided,” she wrote.

Delivering on Meals

When COVID-19 hit in March, the estimated number of food insecure New Yorkers shot up to more than two million — and Garcia was tapped as the city’s food czar.

Within weeks the city was delivering more than one million meals to people in need via an army of contracted nonprofits and subsidized yellow cabs and car service drivers.

It got off to a bumpy start.

Initially, the food was sent to just seniors who previously obtained meals through senior center programs that had closed in March. The program later expanded to any homebound people in need.

The GetFood NYC program was also criticized for its poor quality kosher food in some locations, and its focus on prepackaged meals instead of more costly produce. Some food was also left to rot outside peoples’ buildings.

“In the end, what matters is the results,” said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America. “And I’m sure there can always be better communications, always more input, but I stand by that they got a heck of a lot done mostly quite effectively in a very short period of time.”

When Garcia and her team heard if a food provider was delivering poor quality dishes they were quickly let go, Berg said.

“They created a new program, over a few weeks, that home delivered a million meals a day,” he said. “I’m an advocate. I’m always pushing for people to do more and better, but I think we need some understanding of what a really remarkable accomplishment that was.”

‘A Sense of Public Service’

Garcia worked her way up through city government.

Before becoming the head of the Sanitation Department, she served as the chief operating officer of the Department of Environmental Protection. In that role she was in charge of the Bureaus of Water Supply, Water and Sewer Operations, and Wastewater.

Some of her successes involve the development and management of the department’s so-called H20Stat, similar to the NYPD’s Compstat Program, which tracks crime data by precinct. The numbers-driven oversight led to a drop in the department’s response time to 311 gripes and street-fix pleas, according to city records.

Her mentor in government is former DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd, who lived across the street from her family in Park Slope. “I knew her growing up,” said Garcia.

Her family has deep public service ties. Her dad, Bruce McIver, was the top labor negotiator for then-Mayor Ed Koch. Her mom, Ann McIver, worked as an English professor at Medgar Evers College and later was the executive director of the Morning Area Alliance, a nonprofit.

“There was a real sense of public service,” Garcia said. “You were supposed to do something that did good for the world.”

Her parents adopted her and two other children, and had two biological kids. Due to a change in state law, Garcia put in for her original birth certificate to learn the identities of her biological parents. The application needed “additional documentation” and she hasn’t reapplied, Garcia said.

“It’s something I go back and forth on,” said Garcia, a mother of two. “I’ve talked to my brother a lot about this. We have a big loving family. So at least for me there isn’t a hole I’m trying to fill.”

Falling Behind in Fundraising

More than 200 of Garcia’s 1,572 campaign donations through mid-January came from people who work for the Department of Sanitation, according to campaign finance board records.

Approximately 30% of her contributors were city employees, including staff from every major city government agency, her campaign staff notes.

Still, the total is far below some other candidates, including city Comptroller Scott Stringer and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

She argues she’s got a unique background to make up for lagging in campaign contributions.

“I’m the only person in this race who has ever had to deliver real services to New Yorkers and get New York City’s employees to make sure that work is happening,” she said. “They are unsung heroes.”

“Every single day is a Herculean effort,” she said. “And as someone who worked for me on water supply said, ‘10,000 things have to go right every day for us to do this job.’

“And making sure that those 10,000 things go right is what good management looks like.”

SUPPORT LOCAL NEWS. SUPPORT NEW YORK.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit newsroom dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York. Please consider joining us as a member today.

GOT A TIP?

We’re here to listen. Email tips@thecity.nyc or visit our tips page for other ways to share.

Sign up for the newsletter Get THE CITY Scoop

Sign up and get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning