Jumaane Williams on his wild week

Ali Garber
New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams

Jumaane Williams on his wild week

The New York City councilman on his arrest and his run for lieutenant governor.
January 17, 2018

Brooklyn City Councilman Jumaane Williams has has been all over the news lately.

On Thursday, he was very publicly arrested for protesting the deportation of an immigrant activist. Four days later, Williams announced that he is forming an exploratory committee into running for lieutenant governor, a way to challenge Gov. Andrew Cuomo from his political left in a race that - unlike the governorship - may actually be winnable.

Williams is so focused on a statewide run, he says, that he asked not to chair a committee in the New York City Council – and that it wasn’t political payback from one-time rival City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. Williams says he’ll tour the state testing the waters for an LG candidacy, but claimed he’s already gotten validation of sorts from an important source: Cuomo’s top aide. Here’s what Williams told City & State reporter Jeff Coltin about his wild week.

C&S: You’re one of the few New York City Council members who didn’t get a committee chairmanship. Was this retribution for staying in the speaker’s race?

JW: I’m probably one of the few council members who didn’t ask for a committee chairmanship. I haven’t felt any type of retribution from the speaker. I’ve seen the reporting on this, and I think people report from the paradigm that they’re used to. In this type of race, folks have to, I guess, choose winners and losers, and the only thing they’re used to was committeeships. It’s clear now I had some focus on some other things.

I respect this institution a lot, and I would not ask for something that I could not fully give attention to. Particularly with Housing and Buildings, I think we’ve done a lot of great work, and I wouldn’t ask for that committee again unless I could give 100 percent from the beginning. The things that I did ask for, I’m very excited that I’ll have the opportunity to work on stuff like diversity in the workforce, which is a big thing that I brought up in the speaker’s race. I would say 95 percent of the things I asked from the speaker, he responded positively to.

C&S: Was not asking for a committee chairmanship a way to focus on your statewide ambitions?

JW: I’m always going to do my job as a council member. But I knew I wanted to open this exploratory committee, and it’s hard to focus on an exploratory committee for lieutenant governor – and hopefully it turns into a full-fledged run – I believe it would be hard to do that and chair a committee like Housing and Buildings. A very, very important committee, I believe, and a dense conversation. And I’m very proud of the work I’ve done in the past four years with it.

C&S: You won’t chair a committee, but you are the chairman of the Task Force on City Workforce Equity. Is that a new group?

JW: Yes, absolutely. That was one of my primary requests, gauging the time and resources I’ll be able to put into something. This is a key issue for me. I made (the name) very plain, about diversity generally speaking, specifically in the workforce and in government, and making sure that people have equity across the board. Particularly the higher up you go in many agencies, and appointees, we need to take a hard look at that, because there’s a feeling that everyone’s not being represented, and I think that feeling is correct. 

C&S: Is there a particular area you expect to look at?

JW: I’m not sure we’ve done this on this level before, so I don’t want to presuppose what direction it’s going to go. But I know, just having been in the council for eight years, when I am questioning agencies across the board about diversity, generally speaking the higher up you go in most agencies, the less diverse it is. That’s unfortunate. We’ve got to figure out what’s happening there. And when there are appointees to powerful positions, where there’s chairmanships, or just other appointees, there’s often the feeling that it’s not diverse enough. And we want to make sure that we can put some data behind it and get some pictures.

C&S: The NYPD just had a big leadership shake-up, including a new chief of department. Have you had a chance to look at the new leadership? Does it reflect the diversity you hope for?

JW: I did see the new leadership. I haven’t put a microscope to it yet. I am glad, at the same time, that there is a response occurring for the many of us who have been pointing out that this is a problem for a very long time. We should never be putting people in place just because they fit a diversity bill. But constantly hearing insinuations that "we can’t find qualified people" doesn’t make sense. So I’m happy that changes are coming and I hope to see more. The NYPD is one agency, there’s a lot of other agencies, and a lot of other places we have to look at.

C&S: You were roughed up and arrested last week protesting the planned deportation of immigration activist Ravi Ragbir. You’ve written about it since, but you mentioned Tuesday that neither New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio nor NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill had reached out to you to talk about the incident. Have they still not talked to you? Were you expecting that?

JW: I have not spoken to them directly since. Based on my experiences I thought someone would (reach out). I expect probably after this press conference (Wednesday night) or in the next few days, if they haven’t reached out, I will.

C&S: Elected officials are often arrested quite peacefully, but in this arrest, you were pressed against the hood of a car. Do you think the officers should be disciplined?

JW: My first thing is to get some questions answered. And I’ll be talking about it more at the press conference (Wednesday night). Whenever these things happen, when they happen to me or someone else, my first focus – and many people don’t realize this – I try to make sure that I remember that there are human beings on both sides. So in this case, human beings were protesting, and the human beings who are in the uniform responded. My question is, what information was given to the NYPD? What information was given to the Strategic Response Group? Generally, what information was given to them? And what information was given to them on that specific day? Because it doesn’t seem that they responded to a non-violent protest that was protesting deportation. So I need to know what was given to them and how that communication was made.

I also want to know if and how, did any city agency assist with the deportation of Ravi. Obviously, within that, we’ve seen cases of just too much force for that was going on. And I’m not sure if they’re aware, when the ambulance came out of Jacob Javits (Federal Courthouse), there were not lights, no sirens at that moment in time. So there are a lot of questions that we’ve got to figure out. A lot of things happened at once, very much unexpectedly, but I want to make sure that the department has a good way of getting information back and forth so there’s not an overuse of force.

C&S: How do you expect to get these answers? Would an internal investigation by the NYPD be enough for you?

JW: I think all of us are still trying to figure out the best way to do this. I know that internal investigations have to happen. I’m not a fan of internal investigations being the final word. I know that there’s much interest in Speaker Johnson, who I’m thankful was very vocal on this. The Public Safety Chair (City Councilman Donovan Richards) and Oversight and Investigation Chair (City Councilman Ritchie Torres) have all expressed interest to move forward on the powers of the council to find out what happened as well.

C&S: You’ve formed an exploratory committee to run for lieutenant governor. What is that first step? Just meeting with people and gauging interest? What can we expect in the next few weeks?

JW: You are correct. I want to meet with people, have conversations, move around the state a little bit. I want to see if there’s appetite for my type of politics and my type of campaign, and the viability of running a winnable race. This is not something symbolic. This is something, if I do it, I intend to win, and I want to make sure that viability is there, and I think this is a small way to do it. 

C&S: If you were to win, how do you expect to fit in the role? Would you travel around the state for Gov. Andrew Cuomo like Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul does now? Or would you be more of a public advocate-like position?

JW: I really view this position in a way that I don’t think many folks have. I do view it as a vehicle to advocate for the public on issues that either haven’t been advocated on coming out of the governor’s mansion, or haven’t gone far enough in helping voice people’s concerns that may not feel like their voice is being heard. I believe the governor has earned a primary, and I hope he gets one. And I look forward to speaking to whomever that person may be to see if there’s something we could move on together. If not, and it turns out to be me and the governor, I’m not oppositional for opposition’s sake. So that’s not how I plan to begin. But I do intend to push on the issues I care about in the same way I’ve pushed on them for the past eight years, and I don’t intend to change that. The governor, ostensibly, from the State of the State, shouldn’t be oppositional to what I’m presenting, based on what he’s saying. That’s part of my concern, there are a lot of folks who have tested the political winds and see that it’s time to put on a progressive coat. And there are those of us who are creating the progressive wind. And I want to make sure there are people there who really believe in this, who are going to push it irrespective of what the current political climate is.

C&S: Is there a particular candidate you’re hoping will challenge Cuomo for governor? Do you favor Cynthia Nixon or Terry Gipson?

JW: There have been a lot of names floated out. Nobody has said that they’re active – or I think there’s one person (Terry Gipson) who has said that they are actively searching. I think it’s way too early to begin those conversations, and I want to focus on the decision that I’m trying to make right now.

C&S: On Tuesday, Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa appeared on “The Capitol Pressroom,” saying “I read that he is against marriage equality and that he is against a woman’s right to choose, and as a progressive Democrat that troubles me tremendously.” What’s your reaction? Do you still hold those views?

JW: One, she’s obviously heard wrong. I will say the fact that they came out so hard, so early was, to me, a check that I have a very viable candidacy if I choose to go. I viewed it as a badge of, "Hey, I’m really making an impact here."

Unfortunately, they used incorrect information. This came up before, and the response is the same. I made that clear to everyone. Very succinctly, I support marriage equality, and I support a woman’s right to access safe and legal abortions, and I will fight to make sure those things are in the state of New York.

The part about it, to me, that was kind of honoring, is that I have a body of work for the past eight years on the issues that they say they care about. And they’re real. I was, from your own publication, the second-most productive councilman behind the speaker. Legislative, budgetary impacts – that was not able to be attacked. That body of work is solid, and it’s consistent, which is something that we need. So they went to archaic and wrong information to try and punch holes, which is obviously going to be unsuccessful.

Jeff Coltin
Jeff Coltin
is a staff reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.