When the remnants of Hurricane Ida walloped New York City last year, Jonathan Soto was working for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, fielding calls from constituents in The Bronx and Queens whose homes had been flooded.
He says he began hearing from neighbors who were concerned that the government needed to do more to address the risks on the horizon.
“It was really devastating to see so many people just lose everything that they had,” Soto told THE CITY. “A lightbulb went off in many parts of the district where I think people prior weren’t necessarily paying attention or thought about climate policy, and there was kind of like a reawakening of people understanding that we need urgent action now.”
Soto, who is challenging incumbent Assemblymember Michael Benedetto to represent the northeastern Bronx in the June Democratic primary, is among a group of Assembly candidates focused on fighting climate change as a key pillar of their platforms.
Some are running against incumbents, while others want to grab open seats. They all say they share the conviction that state lawmakers need to take more aggressive action to green the electric grid and protect communities, and they want to pick up what they contend is the Assembly’s slack in recent legislative sessions.
“I don’t think Albany is doing enough. I think a lot of people are sitting on their hands, and that’s why we’re challenging a lot of folks who are in power,” said Illapa Sairitupac, running to represent District 65’s open seat in Manhattan’s Chinatown and the Lower East Side. “We see ourselves, as electeds, just being organizers with more power.”
The candidates said they’re ready to work as part of a progressive bloc to push the legislative body, including Speaker Carl Heastie, to pass legislation for green projects and prioritize funding for climate-resiliency efforts. They see environmental protection and slashing emissions as intrinsic to good health and quality of life — as well as being interconnected with a host of other issues.
The primary election for state Assembly races is June 28, with early voting starting June 18.
Bark With No Bite
The Assembly primary elections come less than a month after Albany wrapped up the 2022 legislative session with little to show environmentally.
Multiple candidates told THE CITY they were frustrated with what they described as the legislature’s failure to move key climate bills this year, risking the goals of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act of 2019 (CLCPA), under which the state must achieve a carbon-neutral economy by 2050.
Kellie Leeson, one of four Democrats vying for AD 73’s open seat in Midtown and part of the Upper East Side, said that climate plans from the Paris Climate Agreement to New York’s CLCPA are “beautiful on paper” but meaningless without action.
“We are tying our hands to meet the goals we set for ourselves in the CLCPA, if we do not get some of these pieces of legislation passed and passed now,” said Leeson, whose career was previously focused on refugee aid in Africa. “We know that this is nation-leading legislation, and yet, it’s not really being put into force.”
Specifically, the legislature this session didn’t pass the All-Electric Building Act — which would have banned gas-powered appliances in new buildings under seven stories starting in 2024 and all others in 2027. Nor did the Assembly get on board with the Build Public Renewables Act, which would’ve given the New York Power Authority the go-ahead to build renewable electricity generators and sell the energy to low-income residents.
The latter bill was pushed in large part by the Public Power NY Coalition, a group of environmental organizations and chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America, which ultimately wants public ownership of private utilities (though the BPRA would not do that).
The DSA is backing three new Assembly candidates in New York City districts — Samy Nemir Olivares and Keron Alleyne in Brooklyn and Sairitupac in Manhattan — who are all making public power a main issue and arguing the state must scale up renewable energy immediately.
“We’re paying exorbitant amounts of utility bills because we’re still, as a state, dependent on fossil fuels,” said Nemir Olivares, who is running against Assemblymember Erik Dilan to represent Brooklyn’s Bushwick and Cypress-Hills, and has protested against a gas pipeline snaking through the borough.
“We need to put the environment and people over profits,” he added. “We need to have a government-run system that guarantees the rights of our environment, including clean air and clean water.”
In a statement, Dilan noted the Assembly’s passage of the Environmental Bond Act, a limited moratorium on cryptocurrency mining and land preservation legislation.
“While there’s always more to do, I’m incredibly proud of all we’ve done,” he said.
‘Every Tree We Lose Is a Problem’
For some, Hurricane Ida delivered a wake-up on climate change, spurring increased demands to protect New York from storms and advance policies and investments to help the state slash planet-warming emissions that lead to even more extreme weather.
That was true for Jessica Altagracia Woolford, who is challenging Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz in AD 81 to represent the western part of The Bronx, including Riverdale and Kingsbridge.
She said she was shocked to see the Major Deegan Expressway flood in a way she “had never, ever, ever” seen before.
“If we’re not really putting the money into these projects that could have a real and long lasting impact in the fabric of our neighborhoods, from a resiliency perspective, then we’re wasting opportunities,” Woolford told THE CITY. “I want to make sure that when we are talking about climate, like the climate crisis, we are starting from asking the most vulnerable communities what you need and what you’re not getting enough of.”
One of the main types of investments she would like to see are those to expand green space around the city to absorb water and provide places for neighbors to hang out and grow fresh food.
This is also a top priority for Alleyne, a community gardener who is competing for ’ the East New York AD 60 seat held by Assemblymember Nikki Lucas. He said he’s committed to ensuring state funds and initiatives benefit communities that have been chronically underinvested in and even more at risk of environmental- and health-related threats.
“Communities like ours suffer the most,” said Alleyne. “When Manhattan has a cold, we have the flu.”
For years, he’s witnessed the regular, chronic flooding in the nearby area known as The Hole, which sits below the city’s municipal sewer network. After helping his neighbors recover from Ida flooding, he said, he’s noticed and lamented storm-downed trees.
“Every tree that we lose is a problem because every additional tree that we lose affects how cool our neighborhood can be when it’s extremely hot,” he said.
The Holistic Approach
For many of the candidates, spotlighting the climate crisis in their campaigns illuminates a slew of problems with related potential solutions.
Juan Ardila, who is running for AD 37’s open seat in the Queens neighborhoods of Woodside, Long Island City and Sunnyside, emphasized how his climate, housing and healthcare plans overlap.
“It’s holistic, it’s all encompassing,” Ardila said. “These little things add up to a greener environment and a much more sustainable New York.”
For example, Ardila said he’d push to legalize so-called accessory dwelling units, built by converting basements, garages or attics to living spaces with specific standards. Creating housing in this way, Ardila said, would help make apartments safer and more affordable for New Yorkers across the state.
During Hurricane Ida, at least 11 people died in basement apartments when they flooded.
“If you’re putting them [units] under proper safety measures, they’re actually dignified spaces for tenants. You’re not going to see lives or homes destroyed from flooding or anything like that,” Ardila said.
For Wilfredo Lopez, who is challenging Assemblymember Eddie Gibbs to represent East Harlem’s AD 68, helping people access healthcare in addition to affordable housing is also linked to tackling the climate crisis.
Citing the respiratory diseases from which many of his neighbors suffer, Lopez said he would work not only to advance explicitly green bills to lessen air pollution but also fight for measures like the New York Health Act, which would create a single-payer healthcare system in New York. (Versions of the bill have died several times in Albany since 2015)
“As we’re dealing with root causes of these environmental impacts and these health impacts that are caused by the environment,” Lopez said, “we need to take care of the people and make sure that everyone has access to quality health care, regardless of whether or not they have insurance.”