Months before the coronavirus took hold of the city and stopped a spring special election for Queens borough president, Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) dropped out of the race, citing his mother’s struggle with dementia.
In January, he announced that he would take another shot, framing the inequities brought to light by the pandemic as the basis for his campaign.
“I think our approach to everything has to change because of what we’ve all experienced, what we’ve all witnessed particularly in Queens,” he said.
The battle against now-incumbent Borough President Donovan Richards, and former Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who formally announced her campaign last week, is taking on a similar shape to the state of the race just before the pandemic struck the city in early 2020.
Van Bramer has framed his candidacy as the left lane in the primary race, pointing to his refusal of real estate campaign donations as a clear difference between himself and Richards.
“I think one of the defining issues of our time is housing, is development, are the ways in which that impacts people’s lives and exacerbates inequality. And so I think not taking real estate money is very important,” he said.
Addressing the city’s housing crisis, he said, is at the top of his list of priorities. That list also includes transportation and community board reform, issues that Richards began his tenure in Borough Hall addressing head on.
Van Bramer has about $382,000 campaign cash on hand, leading up to the June Democratic primary, coming in behind Richards’ $516,000 and Crowley’s $617,000. His campaign has culled the endorsements of left-leaning politicians and candidates including state Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Jackson Heights), Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Flushing), former gubernatorial candidates Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon as well as a growing number of progressive Council candidates, bolstering his bid as the left candidate.
In some ways, his views on land use extend beyond the executive functions of the borough president. He told the Chronicle that the city’s land use process needs to be completely reformed, so that every development gets a racial impact study. He also thinks that community land trusts, a form of tenant-owned housing, need to play a major role in the future of the city’s housing policy, referencing a Council bill that would allow the borough president to actively support a land bank for the whole city.
After the election for the next mayor and City Council, “all of us need to come together with the community, with organizations, activists — folks who have been doing the work — to come up with a process that starts with community,” he said. “I think that means an end to [the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] as we currently know it.”
“And I think as borough president, I would certainly use the current and future ability to advise and weigh in on land use decisions to take a really strong position on projects like the Flushing waterfront rezoning,” he said, citing his opposition of the project.
On transit, Van Bramer has pitched a protected network of bike lanes that spans the entire borough. Richards also raised a similarly ambitious vision of bike infrastructure during his State of the Borough address. For either candidate, power to execute such a plan will rely heavily on the next mayor’s transit agenda.
But as far as what’s in the borough president’s purview, Van Bramer said that he would make efforts to overcome community board resistance to bike lanes.
“Look, community boards are advisory,” said Van Bramer. “What we need to do is incorporate community feedback, and involve stakeholders across the board, but I don’t think any one community board vote should have the ability to torpedo the plan,” he said.
In addition, Van Bramer said he supports a robust Citi Bike ridesharing program in every neighborhood throughout the borough, and the push to implement more busways. He would also push to get the borough president a seat on the MTA board.
While Richards’ transit plan developed to overlap with much of what Van Bramer is pitching, Van Bramer said that his approach to community boards is one thing that distinguishes him. Though Richards recently touted his office’s successes in diversifying new appointees and imposed several reforms, Van Bramer suggested that he would be more draconian on the community board reappointments.
“I would not have reappointed Kim Ohanian to Community Board 7,” Van Bramer said, citing comments Ohanian once made at a civic meeting that pedestrians who are using their phones as they are crossing the street, “deserve to get run over.”
Of the 373 appointees across Queens’ 14 boards, 263 were existing members who were reappointed. Van Bramer said that he would have pared that number down to create even more slots for new members.
“It’s not personal, right? I respect someone who wants to give 30, 35, 40 years of their lives to being on a community board. But the practical effect of that is to limit the number of new people who can serve their neighborhood,” he said.