Jim Gennaro served as the District 24 city councilmember for three consecutive terms before heading to the state Department of Environmental Conservation as its deputy commissioner for New York City sustainability and resiliency. Seven years later, he wants his old job back.
“I have to confess I did a lot of good work, but I don’t like to work within a bureaucracy,” Gennaro said on leaving his high-ranking position for his old seat, adding that he has “unfinished business” to accomplish. “I was able to get the most things done for the most amount of people as a city councilmember. There’s no job where you have the ability to do that amount of good for so many people.”
Gennaro, a District 24 resident since 1983, first served as its Council representative from 2002 to 2013 and was known for his environmentally conscious legislation and for introducing the law that raised age restrictions for tobacco from 18 to 21, which was eventually adopted by the entire nation. He was succeeded by Rory Lancman, who formally resigned in November to begin a new post as special counsel for ratepayer protection with the Governor’s Office. Gennaro, who will appear on the ticket as “James F.,” hopes to succeed his own successor in the Feb. 2 special election. The winning candidate will serve in the role until Dec. 31, 2021.
Here is where Gennaro stands on three key issues.
Gennaro believes he is the ideal candidate to balance the budget after the economic hardships caused by the pandemic. He has been through 25 budget cycles: first as the senior policy adviser to former Council Speaker Peter Vallone and then as a councilmember, his first year of which required dealing with the economic shortfalls caused by Sept. 11. He was also on the City Council for the 2008 recession.
“The No. 1 priority is make sure your district is kept safe. The budget is balanced on the backs of districts where the members aren’t budget-savvy. The money has to come from somewhere,” he said, claiming that the 24th District would be left vulnerable in the hands of his inexperienced opponents. “All the other 49 members have been around for many budget cycles, so this district will be vulnerable, but it won’t be if I’m elected because I’ve been through it ... I’m the best able to protect this district.”
As part of his campaign, Gennaro promises to “hold the line” on property taxes, a notion that has not yet been proposed during the past year, but was raised the last time Gennaro was in the chamber.
Following the 9/11 attacks, Mayor Bloomberg proposed raising property taxes by 25 percent, but the City Council eventually approved raising them by just 18.5 percent instead. Gennaro, who was absent from the vote due to a family death, said the lowered percentage was due to the Queens delegation’s fight for appropriate taxes, a value he’d continue to observe.
For the 2022 budget, which will be crafted in the coming months, Gennaro’s focus will be ensuring funding is appropriately distributed rather than implementing new initiatives.
“We don’t have enough money to balance the budget. Period. There is going to be pain. I’m a truth talker and this budget is going to be one in which we protect vital services and what the people need because there are going to be attempts to cut services across the board and they’re more likely to get cut in a district without an experienced representative,” he said. “It’s really all about protecting this district in this budget and not get its pocket picked in regard to services.”
Law and order
Gennaro will not vote to defund the police like the City Council did last year.
“We’ve seen a degradation in law and order. That’s a stone fact. It has to be restored,” he said.
The way to do that is to support the NYPD, the former councilmember stated. He does believe there is room for reform within law enforcement, but a cut budget would not achieve it.
The anti-crime unit was disbanded in July after the NYPD’s budget was cut by $1 billion, which Gennaro said contributed to rising crime throughout the city. Though overall index crimes in New York actually dropped by 0.6 percent, shooting incidents skyrocketed by 98 percent from 2019 to 2020.
“The No. 1 job of the people in government is to keep the residents of your district safe,” Gennaro said. “Don’t confuse police reform with defunding ... It gets you less protection and [less] fair policing.”
During his previous tenure, Gennaro used his discretionary funding to purchase police body cameras for the officers in his district, a tool that has provided evidence, solved complicated crimes and held officers accountable on the job. He’d continue providing the NYPD with the technology, especially since it’s become less expensive in recent years.
In addition to pumping funding into programs for youths and seniors, a tradition he called “councilmember 101,” Gennaro looks forward to re-establishing a relationship with The Doe Fund, a nonprofit that employs formerly homeless, formerly drug addicted and formerly incarcerated individuals to clean city streets.
“I hate dirty streets. I can’t stand it,” he said, adding that he’s already contacted the group. “It is my goal to make sure we don’t have one overflowing litter basket in the 24th District ... Every city street is going to look like Main Street in Disneyland.”
Since the pandemic began, Gennaro has heard complaints from parents throughout the city on the mayor’s handling of public schools. Though the solution may not be simple, the former official said the first step is:
“Until parents have a stronger voice we cannot proceed intelligently.”
Mayor de Blasio and the Department of Education have halted in-person learning on three occasions throughout the pandemic, the most recent of which was met with dismay and anger from students, parents and teachers. Establishing fragile thresholds rather than listening to what the community needs is where Gennaro thinks the administration is failing.
Though he has some ideas on how to support schools through the unprecedented academic year, Gennaro said the best way to tackle the education problem is to go back to the drawing board with the most important stakeholders: parents.
“The current form in place now gives [de Blasio] more carte blanche than I’d like to see him have,” Gennaro said. “I’m more concerned with the voices of the 24th District parents than the mayor’s agenda.”