District 26 Candidate

Brent O’Leary

Campaign Website: Olearyforcouncil.com

NYC Campaign Finance Board–funds raised.

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QUEENS POST QUESTIONNARIE

What Office/District are you running for and why? I’m running to represent District 26, encompassing the neighborhoods of Long Island City, Sunnyside, Woodside and parts of Astoria, in the New York City Council.

I’m running because I believe in the power of community service, and that through legislation and services our City can be responsive to communities’ needs and give every New Yorker an equal opportunity to go as far as their hard work and dreams can take them.

The American Dream is an ideal, I am fighting to make it a reality.

I was born to an immigrant working class family right here in Queens. It was only through my community, my public school education, and financial aid for college and law school that I was able to follow my dreams. Now, I have a responsibility to make sure all have that opportunity.

New York City is one of the richest cities in the world, and we have the power to provide for our people so that no one should go untreated, unsheltered, uneducated, or unrepresented. To that end, my decision to run and my work in office are grounded by these priorities:

● Healthcare is a human right. The measure of a compassionate society can be seen in how they take care of their sick, old, and weak.
● A free, fair, high quality education is a nonnegotiable right for all. I will fight for the resources to enable our schools to provide the best education possible and I support free college education and vocational training.
● We are in an affordable housing crisis. It is becoming harder and harder for working class people to afford this city. I will fight for true affordable housing and rent protection for both renters and small businesses.
● Money in politics and the influence of special interests are a threat to our community and our democracy. We must remove these corrosive forces entirely for true representation and to empower our community and achieve the ideals of American democracy.
● True representation is essential for a socially and economically just society. All of the members of our diverse communities must have a voice and seat at the table to make sure their needs are met; our LGBTQIA community, our communities of color, our Muslim communities, our communities of people with disabilities, our immigrant communities, and everyone who comes together to make Queens the best place in the world.

Fundamentally, I believe that no one in our city should be left behind, and everyone should be able to achieve the American Dream right here in Queens.

How long have you lived or worked in the District and how active are you in the community right now? I have lived in the community for 12 years, but have roots here going much further back starting with my grandparents, who immigrated to Sunnyside from Ireland in the 1930’s. My father then grew up in Sunnyside, and attended St. Teresa’s School on 50th Avenue in Woodside and then Long Island City High School. I was born in Jackson Heights and then lived in a number of places, including 10 years in Japan, before moving back to the US and settling back here in Long Island City.

As soon as I moved to this area, I became involved in fighting to help my community. Ten years ago, I founded the Hunters Point Civic Association to fight overdevelopment and empower our community to determine our own future. We have had monthly meetings for those ten years with elected and government officials to advocate for schools, libraries, green space, transportation, safety and other infrastructure necessary for a healthy neighborhood along with hosting street fairs, tree lightings and doing charity food and toy drives.

Six years ago, I joined Woodside on the Move as a Board Member, and was later elected President of the Board. Our organization has provided free after school programs in sports, arts and education at P.S.151, P.S.152, P.S. 11 and P.S. 361, senior services, and a tenants rights advocacy program through our housing program that now assists over four thousand people every year.

Over the last seven years, I have worked closely with Hour Children, which supports families during a mother’s incarceration and, upon release, helps families get back on their feet through housing, job training, food support, and education services. I have arranged monetary grants for their Working Woman’s program, organized annual food drives for their pantries, organized Holidays Parties so their children could enjoy the holidays as other children do, and distributed PPE to them during the COVID-19 crisis.

In addition to these long-term commitments, I have also contributed to my community in number of other ways, including:

● Helping organize, along with local unions, Build Up NYC and their mission to fight overdevelopment and get large developers to contribute towards schools, more green space and infrastructure.
● Volunteering for Citizenship Now in helping immigrants apply for US citizenship.
● Organizing two accessibility canvasses across the district to digitally map which stores in the area are accessible to those with disabilities.
● Organizing and participating in waterfront and park clean ups
● Helping form community groups such as the Boys & Girls Club of Woodside-Sunnyside, Long Island City Lions Club and Blissville Civic Association.
● Fundraising for Puerto Rican Hurricane Relief, reuniting children and parents separated at the border, the Floating Hospital, the Queensboro Dance Festival and Sunnyside Fire Relief, which raised money for employees who worked at the stores which burned down on Queens Boulevard a number of years ago.

It’s no secret that when COVID-19 hit, everything changed for our community and local families. I immediately sprung into action, knowing in particular that many families would be pushed into food security. Until this past year, I had never run a food pantry before, but I established two emergency pantries, one with the Mosaic Church and the other with Woodside on the Move. The food pantry at Mosaic is still going after ten months and has served more than 100,000 food insecure people. To supply these pantries with fresh produce, I arranged shipments of food from various parts of the country through the FDA Farm to Family program to our food pantries and Sunnyside Community Service Center. To date, we have received over 50 truck loads of roughly 50,000 boxes of fresh food for our neighbors. Together we have made sure no one is our community is food insecure during this crisis.

For the past ten years and through this current COVID-19 I have fought for our neighborhood. Community service is a way of life for me and in the Council, I will continue this and always make sure the people of our district are protected and provided for.

What is your current occupation? I have been an attorney for over 25 years. I was a Senior Associate at one of America’s top law firms, White & Case, in their Tokyo office specializing in business and finance law, then as a compliance attorney for Bloomberg LP for 15 years. Currently, I work with Axiom Legal Services doing legal consulting. I think these skills and my long experience in the fields of law, business and finance backed by my blue collar values will be a tremendous asset in allowing me to stand for our community in the City Council.
What were your thoughts on the Amazon HQ2 proposal in Long Island City? I did not support Amazon’s HQ2 proposal.

There were significant problems with the amount of public land they were taking, the amount of tax breaks, and the fact that the jobs offered were not for our community. In the financial crisis we are entering, we could not have afforded the $3 billion in tax breaks. This lost revenue would have been transferred to the working people of our district. This is not right– the richest company in the world should be able to pay its taxes. And, we need all the public land we have. The public land which would have been lost to this project is extremely valuable, and could go towards much better uses. Lastly, the promise of 25,000 jobs was not a promise of 25,000 jobs for New Yorkers– they were relocating their executives and tech talent from around the world.  Any and all jobs created through public investment should be for the people who are already here.

Amazon moving to Long Island City would have led to rising rents and the displacement of large segments of Western Queens’ residents– just as they did in Seattle. In addition to the corporate relocation itself, a large part of this deal was a luxury housing component: nine 70-story buildings that would have put untenable stress on our local infrastructure, including school seats, transportation, and sewers.

I will make sure that the land Amazon was slated to move to is developed, but developed in a way that keeps our public land for resources we actually need, such as schools, cultural and recreation centers, truly affordable housing, and green space and must include a proper resiliency plan. Any development should provide for jobs for New Yorkers, not displace the current residents.

What is your view on the Phipps Houses rezoning proposal on Barnett Avenue in Sunnyside? Phipps Houses used to be an example of a good non-profit landlord and developer. But, it has now turned into the 11th worst landlord in NYC, as per the Public Advocate’s most recent ranking. The conditions that its residents are forced to live with are deplorable, and yet Phipps has been unresponsive to their requests for years. We should not be rewarding Phipps with a lucrative rezoning before they show they can be responsible landlords.

Beyond the fact that Phipps is not a responsible developer, I take issue with their use of Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, Mayor de Blasio’s fake affordable housing program, to entice local leaders and the City Council to approve this rezoning. Since de Blasio has started this program, rents have risen across the city profoundly and homelessness exploded. A recent study shows that the plan met less than 15 percent of the need of the lowest income New Yorkers and the vast amount of apartments went to those with much higher income brackets. This program must be replaced as soon as new City leaders take office in 2022 with a truly affordable housing for those most in need.

Lastly, this rezoning will also remove parking from the area. Parking is a key asset, and the loss of it will force a number of businesses, including Steve Madden, to leave the neighborhood. This will take jobs and economic activity from our local business.

A rezoning application is likely to move forward on the private property surrounding the Anable Basin in Long Island City where Amazon was proposed to go. It is likely to involve thousands of residential units and hundreds of thousands of square feet of commercial space. Would you approve such a development? What would you be looking for? Zoning rules are in place for a reason. I will be pushing for a zoning plan for the area which comprehensively address our needs as to schools, transportation, green space, resiliency, etc instead of these spot rezonings which are dis-coordinated from the overall neighborhood plan and are designed for the developers interests.

If a developer is requesting a rezoning it is because they are looking to take a public asset such as air rights or build higher which puts a burden on the rest of the public infrastructure. So my thoughts on the zoning proposal would be guided by my same principles as to the public land which is next to this development which is as follows:

I organized two community meetings with community leaders, including 12 presidents of local organizations, and tenant leaders from local NYCHA developments to come together and discuss how the public land at Anable Basin could best be used. As a result of these meetings, we issued a public report.

The report outlined the top needs of our community for Anable Basin development as:
● Resiliency and flood mitigation measures,
● At least two schools,
● A community center for arts,
● Recreation and meeting space,
● Continuous waterfront park land and green space
● Retail and small business space,
● Quality jobs from union-built developments,
● Keeping as much public land as possible for for public use,
● Medical facilities,
● True affordable housing.

Any rezoning next to this land must not infringe on the public land and must be for the community benefit.

Do you think the rezoning process (ULURP) is working? If not, how would you change it? As might be expected, the real estate industry, one of the largest contributors to political campaigns in NYC has had too much influence on zoning changes in our community. That is why I was proud to be the first candidate for this district to refuse all donations from real estate developers. My decisions on zoning will be in the interests of our neighborhood, not outside interests.

Our present ULURP process has a number of problems, the first of which is the public input process. The government needs to do a better job reaching out to our diverse communities to let them know about the proposed changes and how to get their input in. Secondly, once a proposal enters ULURP, it is impossibly hard to change, making incorporating community input extraordinarily difficult. We need to be able to get input and adapt the plan as it moves through the process. In addition, ULURP approvals are often given with stipulations that developers and the City agree to, but the City never enforces. We need enforcement mechanisms (including the potential for developers to face fines for not abiding by stipulations) and strong, binding community benefits agreements. Finally, the ULURP process needs to take into account the racial and economic impacts of proposed developments. This is not currently part of the process, and must be in the future so that our city can work towards equity and desegregation.

Do you believe in member deference when it comes to rezoning? Yes, I do. Our City Council Member is the person we trust and elect to represent our community and is the one accountable to us. Zoning has a huge impact on our community, and our Council Member should be empowered to stand for us in the process. They, more than any of their colleagues, know the needs of their neighborhoods and the feelings of their constituents, and should be given deference and held accountable for exercising it by their communities. I am ready for that responsibility and accountability.
Should the city council cut police funding? If so, by how much? Yes. We can move at least $1 billion from the police budget to other services while making our neighborhoods more safe. I am an advocate for moving those resources into quality employment, saving our small business, affordable housing and health care which will bring the crime rate down.

In my work with Hour Children, who provide job training, housing and other social service support to formerly incarcerated woman, I’ve seen the real and positive benefits of enhanced social resources. Hour Children’s historical recidivism rate for participants is less than 5%, compared to state-wide rates for women of 29%. Hour Children proves that with the proper support and resources, people will stay away from crime. This is a powerful example in showing how many people’s lives have been destroyed by lack of proper resources– and this should be addressed by investing in access to those resources.

Do you think non-citizens (including undocumented immigrants) should be able to vote in New York City elections? Yes. Non-US citizens in our communities pay taxes and contribute to our society in a number of ways, and the decisions of the City Council profoundly affect their lives. They should have a say in how their city is run.
How would you select community board members and is the current system working? I believe a Community Board must speak for the community, and therefore I do not see how one can say it speaks for the community if its members are politically appointed without the say of the community. I believe in direct election of Community Board members to give them legitimacy and authority to speak for their neighbors. Though it could take many forms, we need a mechanism for the community to approve of its board members.
Are you an advocate for protected bicycle lanes in the district and, if so, where do you think they should go? Yes. Bicycles are a great form of transportation. They are carbon neutral, good for your health, enjoyable, inexpensive, and require a small physical footprint. Use of bicycles should be encouraged with a robust bike network across the city with both protected and unprotected lanes depending on what is appropriate for the area. For protected bike lanes, the roads need to be wider. To that end, I think Northern Boulevard and Queens Boulevard would be the best streets in our district for protected bike lanes.
What is your view on the transportation network in Queens? What would you do to improve it? The MTA is one of our worst run agencies, and needs to move to City control. We need our transportation officials to be accountable and take responsibility to deliver on the jobs they were appointed to do. Albany is not holding our MTA officials accountable, but the Mayor and City Council would. This transition may take time, so in the meantime we need a mechanism to appoint more NYC members to the MTA board and more transparency from the agency.

Our transit system has major physical needs. We also need to make it accessible since MTA is extremely difficult for those with disabilities or persons with strollers to navigate. Further, considering all the transportation deserts in Queens, we need more rapid bus service with more bus only lanes. Luckily, the city is empowered to invest in bus only lanes without state approval and can do so relatively inexpensively compared with other MTA expansion mechanisms. To that end, I believe we must follow the example of the 14th Street Busway, a 100% City-government planned and funded project, to expand transportation access and speed in Queens where subways do not reach and/or do not have sufficient capacity.