Cruz promises to be a principled leader - Queens Chronicle: Queenswide

Cruz promises to be a principled leader

by Christopher Barca, Editor | Posted: Thursday, August 30, 2018 10:30 am

Catalina Cruz was not born in the United States, but the debt of gratitude she says she owes to the nation that welcomed her and her mother decades ago can never be repaid.

The best way the native of Colombia believes she can make a dent, however, is by representing in Albany the many western Queens immigrant residents with whom she says she has so much in common.

“I grew up undocumented and I’ve always felt like I’ve had these great doors open for me,” Cruz told members of the Chronicle editorial board in a sitdown interview last Thursday. “Yes, I grew up very poor. My mom had to collect cans at times and we had a tough life. But I’ve had great opportunities given to me by our country and so I’ve always felt like I needed to give back.

“All of the political stars aligned.”

Cruz has held a variety of government jobs on both the city and state level, ranging from chief of staff to former Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland to director of Gov. Cuomo’s task force to combat worker exploitation.

The next one she is eyeing, however, is that held by Assemblywoman Ari Espinal (D-Jackson Heights), one of her two opponents, along with Yonel Sosa, in the 39th District’s Democratic primary on Sept. 13.

Asked if running for office had always been a goal of hers, Cruz said it had been in the back of her mind but not something she ever actively thought about — the Latino Lawyers Association of Queens president had been hesitant to give up her career to do so.

But it was after Ferreras-Copeland announced in May 2017 that she would not seek re-election when Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) started lobbying her to run for the seat being vacated by then-Assemblyman Francisco Moya — he was leaving the chamber to run for City Council.

“I had all this experience and a little bit of guilt,” she said. “When Danny came to me and encouraged me to run, saying he needed a partner, I felt like it was the right decision to make. It felt like I had no other choice.”

In races across the country, many Democrats have pledged to not accept any contributions from corporate interests or political action committees.

When asked what separates her from Espinal, a fellow liberal Democrat, Cruz cited a number of examples, beginning with her refusal to accept funds from such groups.

“I’m the only candidate in the race that takes absolutely no corporate funding,” she said, referring specifically to luxury developers and others. “The only entity I’m beholden to is the community.”

According to Cruz, her average donation is less than $100 and about 80 percent of her contributions come from the district.

“I am the candidate that listens to the voice of the people and works with the people to come up with actual plans to improve the living conditions in our community,” she said. “It’s not enough to simply say, ‘We’re going to fight against Trump.’ That means nothing. How are we going to do it? Our people deserve a plan of action.”

Of the three candidates in the race, Cruz says she’s the only one with concrete policy proposals as opposed to just talking points and platitudes.

One of her top priorities if elected, she said, would be extensive rent reform focusing on tenants’ rights, taking on unscrupulous landlords and stabilizing the average cost of rent in the district.

In order to protect longtime tenants against harassment from landlords, Cruz specifically said she wants to replicate on the state level New York City’s “Right to Counsel” program, which guarantees low-income people free legal representation in housing court when faced with eviction.

“I’m a former housing attorney and I have seen the difference between someone who shows up to court with a lawyer and someone who doesn’t,” she said.

Cruz also supports eliminating the use of major capital improvements as a way for landlords to permanently raise the rents of their tenants. To incentivize property owners who might be unwilling to make physical improvements to their buildings, should the use of MCIs be abolished, Cruz suggested tax breaks — a policy Assemblyman Brian Barnwell (D-Maspeth) told the Chronicle recently that he was considering.

“If they repaired something, give them the same value of that something in tax breaks,” she said, “so they’re getting that money back instead of tacking it on, for eternity, onto a tenant.”

Another way to address the high cost of living, Cruz added, would be to raise the minimum wage beyond $15 an hour — something she said the state needs to at least consider in the coming years.

Asked about solving MTA-related issues such as underfunding and poor service, Cruz said she is the only candidate who has a proposal to do so — one that involves a form of “mayoral control” similar to that of the city school system.

“I want to refinance the debt. I want to give management of trains and buses over to the city,” she said. “For the last 30 years, we have continued the same attempts to fix the MTA and it’s not working. So let’s try something new.”

Cruz, however, did not specifically address how she plans to tackle such an ambitious goal while Mayor de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo publicly lash out at each other over the MTA’s woes.

Protecting the rights of both immigrants and those with special needs are also high priorities, she added.

Regarding the first group, Cruz said she will fight to allocate $100 million in the state budget over five years to build up New York’s Liberty Defense Project, a $10 million public-private partnership that offers free legal counsel to immigrants regardless of residency status.

“I’m a firm believer that you don’t have due process unless you actually have the tools to protect your rights when you step into court,” Cruz said, adding she has already had positive discussions about the plan with lawmakers and other candidates for office.

“The immigration system is complicated enough for a lawyer,” she said. “Expecting a child, expecting someone who may not speak the language to understand that process and representing themselves is contrary to the idea of protecting constitutional rights.”

Asked about Home Stability Support, an anti-homelessness initiative pushed by Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi (D-Forest Hills), Cruz admitted she didn’t know much about it. She added, however, that honesty is always what her constituents will get, if elected.

“I’m not going to be one of those folks who will say, ‘Of course I know what it is,’ and talk out of my side.”