If Helen Rosenthal wins the City Council seat she’s vying for next fall, we may be seeing a lot more graphs in city government.
“My family teases me because I do think in charts,” Rosenthal said in a recent interview at one of her regular Upper West Side spots, Café 82. “I definitely am a data-driven person, but if you can lay out the data without preconceptions, it will bring you to where you need to go. It is what it is. You can’t muck with it.”
Rosenthal, who has lived on the Upper West Side for over 20 years, is hoping to represent her home district in the City Council following the 2013 election to replace Gale Brewer, who is term-limited. With a background of using numbers and statistics to make crucial policy decisions, Rosenthal hopes to bring practicality and real analysis to the Council along with her infectious enthusiasm for addressing local issues.
Rosenthal grew up outside of Detroit and went to public school. She graduated from Michigan State University and got a master’s in public health before moving to New York City to work in the Office of Management and Budget. She worked under the Koch, Dinkins and Giuliani administrations, overseeing the budgets for 16 public hospitals and dozens of health clinics, crisscrossing the city to see the conditions at the hospitals to understand why money was needed and how it would be used.
“Luckily, I was there at a time when the budget people wanted to do right,” Rosenthal said. “We were not bean counters; we were helping make policy. Our job was to make sure that how we were spending the money was as fiscally responsible and efficient as possible.”
She recalled a time in the late ’80s when her department, in the midst of figuring out how to fund treatment at the height of the AIDS crisis, suddenly had to manage a tuberculosis outbreak. Regardless of the cost, they had to find a way to contain and treat the disease before it became a citywide catastrophe. Rosenthal compares that imperative to the one facing the city in funding the removal of PCBs from schools.
“When you have to fund something, you have to fund it,” she said. She has been a vocal critic of the city’s slow response to PCBs, and played an integral role in getting a new school opened on the Upper West Side when she was chair of Community Board 7. Rosenthal served as its chair from 2007 to 2009, preceding Mel Wymore, who is also running for the District 6 Council seat.
“We need to be thinking harder and more creatively about investing in ways that will create jobs,” Rosenthal said, pointing to the recent deal with Cornell University and Israel’s Technion Institute to build a new tech campus.
Rosenthal and her husband, an investment banker, have two daughters; one in high school and one in college. She is the chair of ParentJobNet, a nonprofit organization that helps public school parents connect with jobs and receive career training and counseling free of charge.
She believes that the City Council should be focused primarily on jobs and the economy and on community investment.
“I think that all residential buildings above a certain size should give back to the community,” she said. “If a 100-apartment building goes up, I’m not saying that apartment should be building a new school, but certainly they could be putting some money into an endowment for more teachers or maybe some other infrastructure.”
Rosenthal has raised over $60,000, enough to meet the city’s minimum for matching funds as of the January filing. She’s hoping to maintain that momentum.
“[On the City Council,] you’re responsible for thinking about public policy for the city, but also you’re responsible for that pothole on the corner,” she said.
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