Latoya Benjamin is nothing if not direct when asked why she considers herself the best candidate in what is a crowded field — with 10 hopefuls as of the Chronicle’s deadline — to replace Borough President-elect Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton) in the City Council’s 31st District.
“I have worked local, state and federal government,” the Southeast Queens native told the Chronicle in a recent interview. “People are going to need someone who knows how to navigate all three levels.”
Benjamin lays out a case to support that claim like the lawyer she once considered becoming.
Benjamin is a graduate of John Adams High School and began engaging in civic activities as a teenager. She attended Queensborough Community College in Bayside before enrolling at John Jay College, where she received a bachelor’s degree in public administration. She also earned a master’s degree in urban policy from Brooklyn College. In college Benjamin interned with the office of U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Queens, Nassau).
She now serves as director of economic development for state Sen. James Sanders Jr. (D-South Ozone Park) and has been on the senator’s staff since 2016.
Benjamin talks with pride of serving on the campaign of the late Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson in 2013, resulting in getting a job in his office. She eventually became an associate in the DA’s Office of Public Engagement.
She also has served as outreach director to the Second Chance Program for the National Action Network in Harlem.
“I’ve been active in this for 20 years,” she said. “I have the experience and the background. I’ve worked on policy. I have the vision and will make the effort to come forward in a bold way.”
Her first priority for legislation would draw from her healthcare and worker platforms.
“We definitely have to look into protections for essential workers,” Benjamin said. “Southeast Queens has a lot of essential workers. That’s the first place we have to look. We need to support unions, access to healthcare and hazardous duty pay. Covid is still a big threat, and they say we may be expecting a second wave.”
She wants to combine that with protections that will foster small businesses.
Every candidate for every office in the city has plans and proposals that will cost money. But Covid has decimated the public treasuries of both the city and the state by both blowing up expenses and cratering tax revenue.
Help from the federal government remains up in the air until at least the Jan. 5 runoff elections in Georgia that will determine the composition of the U.S. Senate.
Benjamin reiterated her experience at all three levels of government in terms of looking for grants and other means of funding city coffers up to and after the November 2021 city elections
“We’ll see what happens,” she said. “We’re going to have a new mayor, a new comptroller, half a new Council and a new borough president. People are going to need someone [on the Council] who’s not learning the job from scratch.”
She also does not foresee the desire or the need for massive spending cuts, saying she could not immediately identify a specific office, program or service in the city that needs to have its budget cut or eliminated.
“I’d like to see a bigger role played by the private sector,” she said, saying things like subsidies for large private businesses and industries should be looked at for cuts.
Her criminal justice platform incudes reforms she says would address the criminalization of poverty, homelessness and mental illness.
“In the Brooklyn DA’s office we ran programs that worked in some of the communities with the most violence,” she said. “We used forfeiture money for innovative youth programs. We can do that in Queens too ... about creating programs that address gun violence.”
On the subject of mental illness, while Mayor de Blasio’s Thrive NYC program has its critics for its combined massive price tag and lackluster results, Benjamin is not among them.
“Thrive NYC has allowed the community to have some important conversations in a safe environment,” she said.
With talk of mental illness leading to a discussion of homelessness and housing in general, Benjamin first takes issue with discussions of “affordable housing.”
“We need ‘attainable housing,’” she said. She favors eliminating subsidies for luxury housing construction, while incentivizing housing that can reasonably attract Southeast Queens residents, and attract others to come.
Asked to give de Blasio a letter grade, she gave the mayor mixed results, with a B for his first term, followed by a D for his second, particularly for the city’s initial response to the Covid pandemic.
“We didn’t have the testing and the [personal protective equipment] in time,” she said. “Nobody had a plan in place. And people died.”
Benjamin also gave the oft-embattled Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza a grade of B-.
“He’s tried to pull things together,” she said. “I think he has been trying to make up for years of problems at the [Department of Education] and problems left from previous administrations.”