Scott Stringer Engages the City

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Scott Stringer wants to look at the glass as half full.

As Manhattan borough president, he thinks his office, along with the other layers of municipal government, creates more opportunities for discussion and democracy among New Yorkers. While critics take a half-empty approach, arguing that these positions are a drain on limited tax dollars, Stringer sees a crucial role in coordinating services and troubleshooting on a borough-wide level.

As he begins preparing for a 2013 mayoral bid, we talked to the former West Side Assembly member about the charter review commission, funding the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the latest developments in his love life.

Q: Do you have any exciting personal announcements?
A:
Yes, I’ve gotten engaged. So, it’s been a very exciting week. Before I announced it to the West Side Spirit and Our Town, I had to go to a couple of senior centers and tell all the seniors, who for years have been saying, “So? Are you going to get married?”

Q: Tell us who the lucky lady is.
A:
Her name is Elyse Buxbaum. She works at the Jewish Museum, and she’s very sweet and nice.

Q: Would she be upset if you divulged to us how you proposed?
A:
Uh, maybe. It was very nice and private and tasteful.

Stringer and his fiancée, Elyse Buxbaum. Photos by Andrew Schwartz

Q: Tell us what you’d like to see in the charter revision.
A:
I’d like to see a new agency on food and markets so we can talk about food production and food supply. Right now, we have one person working on food issues, procurement issues, health issues.

I just issued a big proposal on the Buildings Department that basically said, “There’s hundreds of thousands of open violations on so many of our buildings—15,000 serious violations that remain open on schools and on public hospitals—we’ve got to figure this out.” So why not propose, which I have, that we create an Office of Inspection for this city?

Another thing I want to do: We need a real Commission on Veteran’s Affairs. We have young people coming back to our city, serving abroad. They need to find jobs, they need to find healthcare, there’s so much we can do.

Q: The New York Post recently editorialized for the abolition of the borough president’s office, which obviously you have differing views on. Do you boycott the Post?
A:
I read all the papers, including the Post. Part of what I feel is that the borough president and public advocate doesn’t have enough meat. A big part of the problem is that our budget—the public advocate and borough presidents’ budget—is controlled by the mayor and the City Council. We should make sure that we should not depend on the mayor and City Council for our budget because we become more dependent on them and less independent in our roles.

Q: Switching to the Department of Education, we found out that we have an even higher number of waitlisted kindergarteners than last year. What do you think happened?
A:
The three overcrowded reports my office issued exposed this crisis throughout the borough of Manhattan. The problem that we face is, because of an inadequate capital plan, we are going through this on a yearly basis, and it is unacceptable. Parents should have the expectation that they can send their child to a local public school and that is something that we must do to keep parents here. Because the moment they feel that they can’t get their kid into a local school, they take their kids and their tax dollars and leave town.

But I also realize that the larger issue is that we have to invest more capital dollars in building new schools. We talk about the fact that a million more people are going to come to this city in the next 20 years, and we’ve got to make sure that those children who will be here have the opportunity to get educated.

Q: The MTA has taken a lot of heat for recent cuts from all sorts of politicians, yourself included. But I understand that the problem is that the MTA is under-funded by the city and state. Is some of that anger misplaced? Should we be mad at elected officials?
A:
Totally. The state has abdicated its responsibility for our mass transit infrastructure and it’s now showing. But I think the MTA has not been smart in terms of how it makes its case and how it identifies solutions. The real issue for me is, why we can’t reinstate the commuter tax and earmark it to our mass transit system that benefits people who live in the suburbs, as well as New York City, and create a recurring fund that helps us run what’s arguably the best mass transit system in the world?

Taking out the budget crisis on students who need MetroCards to go to school and Access-A-Ride seniors—the most vulnerable of our population who are barely surviving as it is on a fixed-income—is just not the way to get things done. Why can’t we ask our friends in suburbia to leave a little something behind for our police, sanitation and mass transit system?

Unfortunately, I was up in Albany when there was the proposal to get rid of the commuter tax. I was against it, I thought it was absurd, and I introduced legislation to bring it back every year. We’ve been trying to recover that deficit every year since the day we eliminated the commuter tax.

Q: In January, the Times reported that you had hired some finance committee people for a potential mayoral campaign in 2013, you had Stringer2013 reserved for the website and you were also going to do some house parties to see what people thought of you outside Manhattan. Have you started that?
A:
We are in the process of having those meetings in people’s living rooms throughout the city, and we are going to begin that process. It’s going to be a great opportunity to go around the city, talk about the issues I’ve worked on, and hear from people from all walks of life in every borough, and have a conversation. The great thing about the city of New York is, it’s divided among the boroughs, but we need to have discussion among the boroughs. Manhattan people have to understand the hardships and dreams of people who live in the Bronx and Staten Island. Brooklyn has to have that relationship with Queens, and you really do a better job as an elected official if you look at policy to impact the entire city. So from a government perspective, not just politics, I’m very excited about being able to do that in the coming years.

Q: Any chance that you would leave the Upper West Side, maybe for Gracie Mansion?
A:
I’ve been very lucky. I grew up in Washington Heights, which was just a wonderful neighborhood to grow up in. I’ve lived all my adult life on the Upper West Side, but, I gotta tell you, East Side living is good, too. I’ll be right across the Park. I can come back any time.

Transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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