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An Unusual New York City Election Tests Whether Global Warming Can Win A Local Race

An Unusual New York City Election Tests Whether Global Warming Can Win A Local Race
Science
RIDGEWOOD, N.Y. In a past life, during the halcyon days before hipsters colonized New York Citys outer boroughs, Costa Constantinides sold toys here in this working-class, immigrant neighborhood in central Queens.

It was a time when the city had more crime but fewer cars . Hometown slumlords werent in the White House, and a deadly superstorm hadnt yet given New Yorkers a taste of the climate catastrophe that now looms.

Yet its that Mad Libs of modern politics that set Constantinides on his current course, which found him back in his old stomping grounds last week knocking on doors in the cold evening drizzle. This time, he was selling something entirely different: himself, as the climate change-focused candidate seeking to be the new Queens borough president.

After serving six years on the City Council representing his native Astoria, a middle-class Mediterranean enclave in western Queens, Constantinides wants to work for the entire borough of 2.3 million people a place that, on its own, would rank as the United States fourth-largest city, slightly behind Chicago and ahead of Houston.

The job of the borough president is generally viewed as a perch for political patronage, but Constantinides is pitching himself as the candidate who cares most about the climate crisis an issue heretofore unheard of in the race for this relatively obscure seat.

Im running to completely transform this office and bring green jobs to Queens, Constantinides, told 31-year-old Franklin Mendez, after knocking on the door of Mendezs second-floor walkup. We can take back control. We can build clean power here, and we can own it ourselves, not let ConEd own it.

JOHANNES EISELE via Getty Images

The Unisphere fountain in Flushing Meadow Corona Park in Queens.

But borough presidents also oversee the community boards that control land-use and zoning policies, which can dictate developers fortunes and how the borough addresses its dire housing shortage, not to mention the planet-heating emissions that come from buildings.

Its here that Constantinides has created a path for himself in the crowded March 24 special election.

As the head of the City Councils environmental committee, Constantinides styled himself as New Yorks leading climate crusader. Last year, he passed historic legislation , dubbed a Green New Deal for New York City, requiring energy-efficiency retrofits on large buildings, increasing renewable power on rooftops, and starting the process of closing the citys two dozen oil- and gas-fired power stations. Other bills, including one to replace the jail complex on Rikers Island with a solar farm and water treatment plant and another to devoted to climate adaptation projects, have yet to come up for a vote.

His Green New Queens platform in the current race includes new programs with unions like IBEW Local 3 to train high school students in solar installation, doubling Queens green spaces by 2030, and appointing a new resiliency czar to serve as deputy borough president. Hes also promised to completely abandon the borough presidents personal car service and has backed a socialist campaign to municipalize the citys electricity and gas utilities.

Other parts of the platform are already gaining traction. Constantinidess proposal to give all five borough presidents voting appointees on Metropolitan Transportation Authoritys board, granting them more say over the citys ailing subways and buses, was introduced as a bill in the state legislature in Albany last month.

Theres a lot of power here, Constantinides said in an interview. Queens could be the fourth-largest city in the country yet we treat the borough president like its a ceremonial office, like theyre supposed to be a cheerleader. It should be a policy-heavy office.

Yet he faces serious competition in a race thats likely to see low turnout and geographical divisions the citys most diverse and physically largest borough. The eight other candidates who last month met the 2,000 signatures required to appear on the ballot include Councilman Donovan Richards, a real estate favorite with a strong base of support in climate-vulnerable southeastern Queens, and Elizabeth Crowley, a former councilwoman and cousin of former U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley, the powerful party boss dethroned byRep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in 2018.

The realities of climate change hit home in Queens in October 2012. Superstorm Sandy whipped Queens with winds of up to 85 miles per hour and inundated the coastal neighborhoods with surges up to 6.5 feet high, according to National Weather Service records . In total , 43 New Yorkers died in the city, including several Queens residents in the beachfront Rockaways who drowned in their homes.

Terence Cullen

Queens borough president candidate Costa Constantinides knocks doors in Ridgewood, Queens.

By 2019, 79% of Queens residents understood climate change was happening, 87% wanted schools to teach more about global warming, and 77% said they prioritize environmental protection over economic growth, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications county-level polling. Perhaps more tellingly: 66% wanted local officials to do more about global warming.

During Katzs final year as borough president, she budgeted $65 million for renovations, construction and other projects across the borough. That included $815,000 for a new boiler at the Queens Theatre, $1 million for affordable housing construction in the Jamaica neighborhood and $3 million for upgrades to a park playground in the Flushing area.

Constantinides is proposing to redirect much of that budget toward projects that would scale up solar, wind and battery power across Queens and invest in coastal projects that provide much-needed flood and storm protections.

Coupled with a broader set of proposals to expand disability access to public spaces and establish satellite offices with staff that speak the native languages of residents in immigrant neighborhoods, the platform echoes Washington Gov. Jay Inslees ill-fated bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. The former candidate, who dropped out last summer after failing to get more than 1% in national polls, ran as the races climate candidate, weaving progressive policy ideas into a book-length stack of technocratic proposals to drastically curb emissions by 2030 and transition the United States off fossil fuels.

Aside from the obvious differences between local and federal policymaking, Constantinides diverges from Inslees vision by prioritizing public utilities. Whereas Inslees plan emphasized forcing private utilities off gas, oil and coal, Constantinides leans closer to Democratic frontrunner Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as the only candidate in the borough president race to embrace the public power plan New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America put forward. The plan calls for a public takeover of the systems over which ConEdison and National Grid, two investor-owned utilities, enjoy regulated monopolies.

Electricity is a human right meant for everyone just like clean water and high-speed internet access, Constantinides wrote in an op-ed last November. Weve lost too many generations to illness and poverty because utility companies have withheld this right to line their own pockets.

From the outset, Constantinides faced an uphill climb.

For starters, the special election is just the first of five times Queens voters are tasked with weighing in on the borough president, as The City reported in January. After the March 24 ballots select a fill-in for Katz, voters of both major parties will return to the polls in June for a primary and again in November for a general election to complete the final year of Katzs term, which ends on Dec. 31, 2021. Next year, there will be another primary and another general election to choose a new borough president for a four-year term.

Winning the special election would give Constantinides an incumbents advantage in the races ahead. And he said he plans to stay for the long haul, ideally retaining the office through 2030, the deadline by which United Nations scientists determined the world must halve emissions or face irreversible climate destruction.

If I have the opportunity to transform city government around climate change, thatd be a decade well spent, Constantinides said. This whole office can be focused on fighting climate change.

The sudden departure last month of Constantinidess main rival for the progressive vote considerably improved his odds. Citing family issues, Long Island City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, a gay progressive who campaigned hard for Katzs left-wing opponent Tiffany Cabn, dropped out of the race. His exit eliminated competition for the increasingly left-leaning western half of the borough, which elected Ocasio-Cortez to Congress and went overwhelmingly for Cabn in the hotly contested district attorney primary.

Endorsements have poured in for Constantinides since January. State Sens. Michael Gianaris, the powerful Astoria Democrat credited with driving Amazon out of the borough, and Jessica Ramos, a hard-line progressive who ousted a conservative Democrat in 2018, have backed him. So does Josh Fox, the activist, Sanders 2020 surrogate, and filmmaker behind the Emmy-winning anti-fracking documentary Gasland.

Spencer Platt via Getty Images

Neighborhoods in the Rockaways remained damaged for months after 2012 s Superstorm Sandy.

Ive worked with him for years to stop fracking and defend New York City from climate change and his vision for renewable energy and sustainability in New York is desperately needed right now, Fox said. I endorse him wholeheartedly.

Yet Constantinides remaining opponents are formidable. One of the few public polls released in the race, from Crowleys campaign, showed Crowley leading among 1,282 likely voters in the election and Constantinides trailing in fourth place. And the party establishment is coalescing behind Richards, who is widely seen as the likely favorite to win next month. In December, U.S. Rep. Greg Meeks, the powerful Queens Democratic Party chieftain, endorsed Richards in a backroom meeting that both Constantinides and Van Bramer denounced as corrupt .

That hasnt stopped Richards, whose council district includes the storm-ravaged Rockaways, from gaining grassroots support. Milan Taylor, executive director of the Rockaway Youth Action Fund, took it as a slight that the Constantinides campaign hadnt yet contacted the local nonprofit. His group has yet to endorse, though Taylor noted he doesnt think theres a stronger candidate on climate change than Richards.(Richards campaign website instead focuses on criminal justice reform, affordable housing, immigrant rights and public transit.)

The fact that Costas campaign has not reached out to our organization were an organization in a frontline community made up of Black and brown young people it definitely makes that rhetoric just seem simply as rhetoric, Taylor said. The fact that youre saying all this stuff about climate change and you havent reached out to us? Thats a red flag.

Yet the message seemed to resonate when Constantinides pitched it directly to voters.

Peering out from behind the door to his apartment, Raul Neri, 19, admitted he hadnt thought much about climate change until seeing the hellish images of the inferno that scorched Australia in recent months.

Its scary, man, he said. Its good someone wants to do something.

Standing in her door jamb as the drizzle came down, Tran Nguyet, 78, listened to Constantinides repeat his pledge to double green spaces across the borough. She looked up at the bare deciduous tree on the sidewalk outside her building.

Hey, that sounds good to me, she said. She reached down to pick up her paper, and Constantinides quickly bent over to grab it for her. She smiled and said, Yes, Ill be voting next month.
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