Donovan Richards, chief of staff to City Councilman James Sanders Jr. (D-Laurelton), always wanted to help others, even at an early age, but his dedication to civic duty came full circle after a tragic event.
On March 13, 2003, his friend was shot and killed after getting into a dispute with another man. The incident led him to attend a community meeting where Sanders was speaking about gun violence, and he was eventually hired by the lawmaker, whom he called his “mentor.”
Now, Richards plans to run for his boss’ seat when he is term-limited out in 2013 and has the councilman’s full support.
“I’ve trained him and I’ve seen his growth,” Sanders said. “I love my district. I live here, and I am looking for a person who can take the path that I’ve made and turn it into a superhighway.”
Richards said he has always been civic- minded. At age 12, he went on a trip as a missionary to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to help the people there, under the supervision of the Rev. Henry Simmons, pastor of the St. Albans Congregational Church. “That lit the flame of community service for me,” Richards said.
He was also part of the church’s Christian Youth Organization, through which young people would visit nursing homes, veterans, the sick and shut-ins, trying to bring some joy into their lives.
Sanders, who is well-known in his district as a charismatic speaker with a friendly demeanor, has represented the areas of Rosedale, Laurelton, Springfield Gardens, Far Rockaway, Arverne, Bayswater and Edgemere since 2002.
“He always puts the community first,” Richards said of Sanders. “He is dedicated to working with others towards a solution. Sometimes we can’t solve the problem right away, but if constituents see that you are trying, they applaud your efforts.”
Richards, 28, who will begin fundraising in January, said, if elected, he would focus on gun violence, flooding and youth programs, especially new and innovative ways of helping children.
“All schools should have playgrounds,” Richards said. “It’s a crime that some don’t have them; especially with the obesity rate being as high as it is, children need a way to stay active.”
But that’s not the only plan Richards has.
The district has long been in need of a community center, but since there appears to be no space for one, Richards suggested adding a second floor to the Laurelton Library for that purpose. He would also like to see a library constructed in Springfield Gardens.
“After eight years, I have really gotten to learn how government works, how to serve the community and how to use the government as a catalyst to help others,” Richards said.
Richards also offered his views on a number of other key issues.
He supports the living wage bill, also known as the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, which would require developers receiving at least $100,000 in city subsidies for their projects to pay workers $11.50 an hour or $10 plus benefits.
“We need it,” Richards said. “Prices in the city for rent and other things are not going to get lower any time soon, and if we are going to subsidize these developers for these big projects then they should be giving people decent pay and healthcare, especially in America.”
The recently married Springfield Gardens resident expressed similar sentiments on the proposal to construct a mall at the Bronx Armory, which was rejected by the City Council by a vote of 45-1. He reiterated that if developers are going to get rich building things using taxpayer money then their workers are entitled to fair wages and benefits.
Richards opposes a Walmart opening in the city, stating that studies have shown it hurts small businesses and added that the retail giant has a reputation for paying low wages and not providing healthcare benefits.
Although Richards said he recognizes that the borough loses money when people shop at Walmart in nearby Nassau County, he believes that in the long run, if people spend a little more and patronize area merchants, it will benefit the entire community, noting that those stores tend to hire people who live in the neighborhoods where they are located.
In order to reduce the city’s budget deficit, Richards suggests raising taxes on individuals who earn more than $200,000 annually. “They have to pay their fair share,” he said. “The working class can’t keep footing the bill.”
Sanders said Richards has had numerous accomplishments since becoming his chief of staff, including being a leading force in expanding his office’s outreach to the community through the Internet and email.
He has also fought to get numerous traffic signals added to the district to improve safety, has been aggressive in disseminating information to the community about the recent string of sex assaults in Southeast Queens and is consistently pushing Queens District Attorney Richard Brown to conduct another gun buyback program.
Richards said he was heavily involved in the most recent gun buyback program and that he was nearly brought to tears when it resulted in more than 900 guns being taken off the streets of Southeast Queens, increasing his hope that even though he couldn’t save his friend, it might prevent another person from being shot and killed.
Sanders said there may be other worthy opponents, but only Richards is “ready to take over now,” and “will know what to do from day one.” He added that his protege realizes that the position involves multiple important tasks.
“Donovan has learned that this job is a thousand little things,” Sanders said. “Anyone can do one big thing, because its obvious, but its the following up on the issues, anticipating what will happen and defending the community that is important.”
Sanders is not the only leader who thinks Richards would make a good successor.
“I think Donovan is well-qualified for the position, but I’m not prepared to make an endorsement right now. It’s still early,” said Assemblyman Bill Scarborough (D-Jamaica). “Donovan has been a positive force in the Southeast Queens community and should he get the position, I think he would do a good job.”
Another person who at this early date is a possibility to run for the seat is Mike Duncan, who was also a former chief of staff to the lawmaker. Following some disagreements, he quit the office, and ran against Sanders in 2009, but lost. Duncan said last Monday he hasn’t decided yet whether he will run.