Jo Anne Simon is a state assemblywoman representing parts of Western Brooklyn in New York’s 52nd District since 2015.
This interview with Ms. Simon was conducted by the editorial board of The New York Times on July 27.
Read the board’s endorsement for the Democratic congressional primary for New York’s 10th District here.
Kathleen Kingsbury: I wanted to start — and I understand that by necessity you have to reject the premise of this question — but I hope we could talk a little bit about what you would be able to accomplish in a Republican-controlled Congress, and if you could be as specific as possible. But also, if there’s one big idea that you really want to pursue on a bipartisan basis.
So, I do reject the premise of the question. So, No. 1, that’s true. I think that when you are changing opinions and changing hearts and minds, that you have to be clear about what you are about. You have to be fact-based, and you have to be able to engage with people.
And a career of advocacy — very often where people are lacking in knowledge, for example, and have a lot of preconceived notions. And certainly my history as a disability civil rights lawyer at the dawn of the Americans With Disabilities Act, trying a seminal case in the area, I had to do a lot of educating of the court and of others.
And the only way you do that is to be honest, to communicate and to engage people where they are. I certainly have done that in the State Legislature, although in my house we could pass a bill, obviously, if it’s our bill on the floor. When I passed the red flag law the first time — and I passed it a couple of times before — the Senate changed and we were able to get it as a law.
Half of the Republican side voted in favor. Because they knew that this was about protecting people and about keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have guns. And I was able to communicate that. And because I have, I think, the trust and respect of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, they believed me.
Where there had been an earlier version, I made a number of changes to it that really tightened it up. That allowed people from upstate who were [inaudible] Democrats to vote in favor of the bill as well. You have to understand where people’s concerns are and how you can address them in a positive, constructive way.
So do I know exactly what that would be in a Republican-controlled House? For example, one issue I’ve been associated with for many years is dyslexia, and the issues of reading and learning. I know we share an interest in that. There is a Congressional Dyslexia Caucus, and it’s bipartisan. Because this affects everybody’s children. It affects people who didn’t know they had this disorder.
And the fact is that teaching our kids to read, that’s the way we’re going to save our democracy. We can empty our prisons if we teach our kids to read. And right now we’re not doing a good job of that for most students. And certainly an even less constructive job when it comes to kids with reading disabilities.
I mean, I can tell you the data, but I don’t know how much you want to get into it.
Mara Gay: Thank you. So inflation is hitting all Americans hard, but in your district, as you well know, the cost of living is really driving concerns. What would you do as a member of Congress to build more housing and ease that burden for your constituents?
First of all, we need more federal money into housing. The federal government has really abandoned housing for all intents and purposes for many decades. I think one of the things we need to be is intentional about who is doing that development and how it’s happening.
And so one of the concerns — and of course, we’re not running the City of New York, right? We don’t run their land use policies. One of the concerns that is always present in my mind is, are we being told that something is affordable when it’s not really affordable? We have numerous examples of that, I’m happy to go into more detail.
I think we need to be providing money for supported housing. We could — so many people who are currently homeless and need supported housing and could be independent with the supports they need. And the other thing is to free up access to capital for not-for-profit housing developers. They can build more units, more deeply affordable units, permanently, because they don’t have that profit margin to worry about.
So right now we’re kind of ceding control to big corporate developers who, if you do 25 percent of affordable housing, A, it’s not generally affordable to the people who need it, but even if it is, you’re — 75 percent of the project is luxury. And in my district, that’s all there is now, right? There’s a big stratification of that.
That leads to displacement. People grew up in my neighborhood, my district, can’t live there. Seniors can’t live there. Atlantic Yards, we ended up with 25 percent of the African Americans in Community Boards 2, 3, 6 and 8 have been permanently displaced. That promise of affordable housing hasn’t been affordable. And the few that were available at that band haven’t been built. And only a third of the houses have been built in the 18 years.
Mara Gay: Do you support building more truly affordable housing in wealthy areas of New York City, especially in N.Y.10?
Yes. I think that there is a missed focus in some respects. And that is not so much the wealthier areas don’t want affordable housing. I think that’s where the battle lines have been set. What they want is for it to really be affordable. So when we have advocated for more affordability, we’re always told they can’t do that. Right?
The issue is not quite what it is often set out to be by those vested interests.
Jyoti Thottam: Councilwoman, I just wanted to shift to a national issue. As you know, there are many threats to our democracy right now. If you’re elected to Congress, what do you think Democrats could do to protect democracy more broadly and specifically secure voting rights?
Well, I do think we need to pass voting rights legislation. The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, I’m very proud that New York did that. I was very engaged in that process. We have a good example here in New York State. I think that the real challenge is going to be the Senate.
I think the answer — and that would be before I would take office — is to flip a couple of seats in the Senate. There are flippable seats, and if we can neutralize Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema, we can actually get — I know it’s hard to do. But if you get two seats, you can make them less relevant. And you can do what you need to do to get rid of the filibuster, even if it’s only for certain types of legislation, and make some change.
That’s a real challenge to us as a democracy. I am hopeful because I’m seeing the generic ballot is starting to tip towards the Democrats. But the reality is we have to speak out. We have to be — talk about democracy all the time and preserve democracy, and have that be part of our conversation. We have to look at new ways to make that argument. Because currently, the old ways haven’t been working.
But if you are on the ground listening to people and working with the people from around this country who are incredibly diverse in their thinking, democracy is the one thing that we share. And we have an overwhelming effort on the part of the right to be Christian nationalists.
So we have to look at racism in every way that we can. I think the big issues in our world are climate, race, gender and the displacement of people. All of those things hang together, and that’s very much what our democracy can protect.
Jyoti Thottam: Thank you. I’m going to hand this over to Patrick. And apologies, I realize you’re an assemblywoman.
Patrick Healy: Do you think that Democratic elected officials today are out of step with Democratic voters on any issues? On immigration, on L.G.B.T.Q. rights, on other issues, just where you see the conversation happening among officials and then what you hear from voters?
Well, first of all, I confess that I live in something of a bubble, right? N.Y.10 is something of a liberal bubble. And so I think we have elected officials that, for the most part, are in step. I do think, however, that not everybody is listening to the people on the ground.
And that is where, for example, I think that I excel. I came up from community, I’ve been a community leader trying to get the attention of officialdom on issues that were cutting edge, on issues that were before and ahead of their time, where we were laughed at. And now those —
Patrick Healy: Any kind of a specific issue today where it feels like —
Environmental justice. Sinking the Gowanus Expressway into a tunnel. We were talking about technology that hadn’t been used in the United States. We were definitely laughed at until we finally brought the guys from Germany in who said, no, this can happen. Then we pass the laugh test.
And then it’s about funding, and it’s about the willingness of the state to actually build the project. And that did not go so well, although we have a plan that we can dust off and make happen. But we need to bring those federal dollars to that infrastructure money.
And if you take down the Gowanus Expressway, you will open up the waterfront. You will do environmental justice. You can clean the air if you do a tunnel. So these are practical, responsible and environmentally just approaches that I’ve been at the head of and leading on for 25 years.
Eleanor Randolph: So we have several yes-or-no questions, and we’d appreciate it if you’d limit your answers to yes or no. The first one is, do you favor expanding the Supreme Court?
Can I say yes and?
Eleanor Randolph: We’d appreciate it if you just said yes.
Yes. I would add the term limits.
Eleanor Randolph: OK. Now, expanding the Supreme Court?
Kathleen Kingsbury: She’s saying yes, and —
I said, yes, and —
Kathleen Kingsbury: She’d also create term limits.
Eleanor Randolph: Would you end the filibuster?
Eleanor Randolph: What about term limits for members of Congress?
Term limits for members of Congress I’d have to look at more closely. I think the biggest challenge we face right now as a country is the Supreme Court having lifetime appointments.
Eleanor Randolph: So is that yes or no?
It’s a maybe. It depends on what it is that we’re talking about.
Eleanor Randolph: What about an age limit for members of Congress?
It’s certainly something I would consider.
Eleanor Randolph: And should President Biden run again?
I’m not sure.
Eleanor Randolph: OK. Thank you very much.
Alex Kingsbury: I’d like to ask about Ukraine. I’m wondering if you think there should be an upper limit on the amount of taxpayer money that should go to Ukraine, and if there should be any limits placed on that taxpayer spending.
Well, I think one thing that we need to look at is really what those costs are in real time. I think setting a limit where you don’t know what it is you’re dealing with is a little difficult to do with any fidelity. So it’s something that I certainly would want to look into a little bit more. I can’t tell you that I know what the number is by any shades of the imagination. I’m not in that line of work. So I’m not good at estimating what that amount of money is.
But I also think that this is a major democracy issue. This is a democracy in Europe that is a bulwark against the encroachment of authoritarianism. And I think that that is a terrible influence on the United States. And so the question is going to be what costs democracy. And I’m not sure what that amount of money is. But I do know it’s something we need to be very careful and intentional about.
Nick Fox: What do you think Democrats could do about climate change in the face of Republican opposition and difficulties on the Supreme Court?
Well, I think, No. 1, if you’re just looking at the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in West Virginia, you need to codify some of the issues that they said were not — that Congress had not told the E.P.A. they could do. And they’re going to do that with other things as well. And so codifying actual — the regulations, in essence, is going to be more important as we go forward. This is something that the Supreme Court’s been leaning towards for quite some time.
The other thing, of course, is to embed climate goals and climate justice and money to everything we do. And so, any bill that we pass, we need to have climate as part of our focus. It has to be part of the lens through which we see. So when we talk about jobs, those jobs need to be jobs of the future. They need to be jobs that are not going to further the fossil fuel pollution of our country.
We are in the midst of a huge climate crisis right now, and our heat the last week or so is a clear indicator of that. We’re seeing that with record rainfalls, with flooding. So everything that we do needs to have a climate focus on it. That is, I think, the only way that we can make progress, and we need to encourage people to engage in that, right?
So we will save our climate ourselves if we compost, if we take certain actions, if we change or put solar on our roofs. That sort of thing. So we need to incentivize that. But we also need to make sure that that is included and anticipated in every bill that we pass.
Mara Gay: OK. What further action can Congress take on gun violence? Just one or two things.
Well, universal background checks is critical. We need to ban assault weapons. When we banned assault weapons, we had fewer mass shootings, right? Once we start — and research. Once they stopped researching gun violence, that precipitated additional gun violence.
I’m proud of having started the New York State gun violence research institute because — but we were forced to do that because the federal government hasn’t been doing it, and we have a lot of catch-up to do.
Mara Gay: And what about on abortion? Anything else that Congress can do?
Well, passing the Women’s Health Protection Act, for sure. But also making sure that what we do, when it comes to funding, when it comes to access, recognizing that just because you have a right to doesn’t mean you can exercise that right. You have to be intentional about the fact that X bill could be implemented in a problematic way so that people could in fact be denied access to that care.
I was an abortion counselor for years in Washington, D.C. It is something that I feel in my bones. It is something that I will never walk [inaudible].
Kathleen Kingsbury: Alex, did you want to follow up?
Alex Kingsbury: Just really quick. We hear about assault weapons bans a lot. There are about 15 million of these weapons in circulation right now. Does a ban mean buying them back? Does it mean just banning the sale of new ones? What are we going to do about all these millions of weapons that are already out there and beyond our control?
Well, I think buying them back is a great idea, if we can find a way to do that and fund that. I think the problem is once you have all these weapons out there, it’s very hard to get them back. One of the ways we might do that is this further passing of red flag laws in states and financing the implementation of that.
I passed the strongest red flag law in the country. But New York State didn’t follow up with implementing it. It was very hard for me to get data about that. I’ve been talking about us needing a public campaign, public awareness campaign, because people don’t know that they have the ability to move forward.
And we certainly saw that in Buffalo. We saw that — this was a young man who went out and bought a weapon in New York State, but he modified it with parts from Pennsylvania. So that issue about parts is important. That’s a federal issue, it’s interesting. We need to act on that as well. But I think it’s very hard to get weapons out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them unless we actually exercise those rights under red flag laws. We can do that. It’s not criminal, it’s a civil approach. And we can do that.
[The Times has not confirmed the state where the Buffalo gunman purchased the parts he used to the modify his weapon.]
Now, when it comes to people who have assault weapons who are not a danger to themselves and others, I think that public pressure, peer pressure, can also make a big difference when people realize that there’s no reason for a civilian to have an assault weapon. There just is no reason for a civilian to have an assault weapon. It’s like smoking. When you make it unpopular, people will start changing.
Mara Gay: Assemblywoman, we have a lightning round for you. First question is, how does Plan B work?
Mara Gay: Yes.
Kathleen Kingsbury: The morning-after pill.
Mara Gay: Yeah.
How does it work?
Mara Gay: Yes.
It causes the — it stops the implantation. If you get it early enough, then you’re not going to actually implant.
Mara Gay: It actually prevents or delays ovulation.
It prevents ovulation? OK. I took the poll in The New York Times, and I scored 100 percent on it. So I —
Kathleen Kingsbury: Thank you.
Mara Gay: It’s OK. I caught you nervous. Do you own a gun?
Mara Gay: Have you ever fired a gun?
Mara Gay: What is the average age of a member of Congress?
I have no idea.
Mara Gay: It’s 58.
Mara Gay: What about senators?
Probably older, I would say. Think it’s much older. I’d say, I don’t know, 75.
Mara Gay: Sixty-four.
Mara Gay: Please name a member of Congress, dead or alive, whom you most admire and may emulate yourself after if elected.
Dead or alive, wow. Well, I’m a big fan of Maxine Waters. I have great admiration for the folks that were leaders on the A.D.A., such as Senator Tom Harkin, Tony Coelho. But I think that somebody who’s got the finger on the pulse is good.
Mara Gay: What is your favorite restaurant in the district?
Mara Gay: Thank you.
Kathleen Kingsbury: I wanted to ask you about your decision to run for Congress as well as for re-election for your current seat. Which of those jobs do you want? Which one are you the most excited about?
Well, that’s a sneaky question. I’ll say, No. 1, first of all, I was running for re-election when this happened. So I was already on the ballot for November. As you know, in New York, you couldn’t get off the ballot now if you tried, for one.
I love my job in the Assembly. I had no intention of running for Congress. But Congressman Nadler made a decision that set in motion all these changes. And when the final map came out, I looked at it and said, this has my name on it. Because it’s communities I have worked in as a community leader, on big issues that connected communities. Like those traffic and transportation and environmental and health and safety issues. Leading on safe streets and traffic calming.
I’ve worked in every community in this district — in the Brooklyn side of the district — long before I was ever elected to office. So it’s an area that I’m very familiar with, and I really know the issues, and I know that I can deliver on, just as I have delivered on those issues for my constituents currently.
Patrick Healy: You were elected to the State Assembly in 2014. What laws did you personally sponsor that have improved the lives of New Yorkers?
I would say, No. 1, the red flag law that we passed. I closed the L.L.C. loophole. I have passed in both houses, finally, a bill that requires the community to be consulted and residents to be consulted and their needs addressed in the closing of assisted living facilities, which is happening more and more because of real estate deals. Really happened on Prospect Park West.
I have a bill to do the same thing for the closing of hospitals. We just weren’t able to get it past the Senate this year, unfortunately. I also changed the language in all of our statutes when it comes to firefighters and police officers. Instead of firemen and policemen, it is now firefighters and police officers. And that really changes the game, particularly for the women of the F.D.N.Y., for example. A very, very low rate of women firefighters.
I work very collaboratively with them, and they are working very closely with new recruits to make sure that the language is changed in all of the preparation of training materials, for example. And I think that that will have a long-term impact as well. And the other is my dyslexia bill, where we mandated that if someone has dyslexia, that schools actually have to call it that instead of making believe that they’re not allowed. Which is something they told the parents for 45 years.
Mara Gay: Thank you. So can you please talk to us a little bit about your path to victory? Others in this race have more money, some have powerful endorsements, like the 1199 S.E.I.U., which went to Carlina Rivera. So just tell us what your pathway to victory is in this very crowded race.
Well, my pathway to victory comes through community. I am deeply embedded in the issues in this district in a way that I think none of my opponents are. Much of labor is staying out of this race because they have so many friends in this race. So these are not groups that have been supportive of me in the past.
I have endorsements from people who matter on the ground. My predecessor Joan Millman, Senator [Velmanette] Montgomery, Deborah Glick has endorsed my candidacy. Margarita López, a former councilwoman who reached out to me wanting to endorse. As you know, she represented the Lower East Side in the council for a number of years.
Plus I have the most active Democratic clubs, both in Brooklyn and in Manhattan. Now, the Manhattan club that I went to, they didn’t know me. And based on the way I talked about those issues and my track record of delivering and being on the ground, representing people where they are and listening to community, they made the leap to cross the river to endorse in another borough, and they are the largest Democratic club in Manhattan.
And these are the people who are most activated. They are the most active voters. My district is roughly 30 percent — if you look at double prime voters — 30 percent of the turnout. And everybody is nipping away, of course. That’s what politics is about. But the reality is I’m very strong in my base. I’m very strong in the 44th A.D. I did very well in Sunset Park in the borough president’s race, almost overtaking Mr. Reynoso.
So people throughout Brooklyn — I have support from public housing in my district at Red Hook. So these are people who are activated voters, they know why they’re voting, they’re sophisticated voters, and they are going to be coming out for me.
Mara Gay: Thank you.
Jyoti Thottam: So, given your deep ties to this community, I’m sure you’ve heard from people, their concerns about what looks like rising crime in some of these neighborhoods, public safety. What do you say to those voters?
Well, public safety is many things. And so obviously you have to listen to people, and you have to respond. So the issues about public safety are often very clouded in rhetoric, but people are feeling unsafe.
And so one of the things I did at the state level was I passed a bill that would allow, for example, a judge who can, at any time, order a psych evaluation for someone with serious mental illness. And to be able to hold that person and send them to a place where they can get an evaluation right away. A competent place. There are many mobile units and others who can do that. Many of the Health & Hospitals, corporation hospitals, are very well equipped to do that.
And then that becomes treatment. And the response to that and the assessment of that individual becomes part of the conditions for release. Because the problem is, right now, what they do is, if someone comes in and is clearly seriously mentally ill and just bopped an Asian grandma over the head — scaring her and the community — the court will say, here’s a voucher, call this number and set up an appointment.
Well, that person is never going to set up that appointment. They’re just going to go out, bop somebody else over the head a couple of days later, making everybody feel less safe. So we have to deal with the real issue at hand, and that’s one of the real issues at hand. The other thing, of course, is to not give in to some of the rhetoric that is misstating what it is that the legislature did.
Yesterday the speaker issued a statement because Mayor Adams said: I want to have a special session in the Legislature to address these issues. But each and every one of the issues he was talking about are already bailable. Bail reform has nothing to do with those. So we have to be forthright and honest with people and say: Look, this is about something else. It’s important. And you’re right, and you’re right to be concerned. But this is about something else. It’s not about going bail reform, for example.
And then hate crimes. I have a bill — and, again, couldn’t get it past this Senate yet — that would change the burden of proof. So the big issue with prosecuting hate crimes is that prosecutors can’t make the case, because you have to prove intent. And how do you prove intent? You prove intent by somebody saying something despicable as they bop the Asian grandma over the head.
What I have proposed is a rebuttable presumption. By certain actions in certain communities, certain parties to the incident, for example, the person who is the victim, we can infer that, in fact, that is a bias crime, and then there’s a rebuttable presumption. So the defendant has the opportunity to rebut that with evidence that, no, it was not. I was just, just whacked this person over the head, but it had nothing to do with the fact that they were Asian, right?
So I think that’s important. I’ve heard some colleagues talking about raising the penalties. Well, you can raise the penalties, but if you can’t make the case, it doesn’t matter. Right? And this is about making the case and making people feel safe.