Election Day for Queens City Council District 31 is February 23rd. NY City Lens continues with another installment in our “Five Questions for Candidates” series to help New Yorkers learn more about the people who are running. District residents will choose between nine candidates, via the recently implemented ranked-choice voting system, where they can list up to five candidates from most to least preferred.
For our fourth installment we caught up with candidate LaToya Benjamin. A native of southeastern Queens, Benjamin has worked for former Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson and State Senator James Sanders Jr. (This interview has been lightly edited.)
NY City Lens: Tell us about your background, where you grew up. How has your history shaped your views and your position in this race?
LaToya Benjamin: I’ve been in southeast Queens my entire life. I love this community and most of my family is here. I always wanted to solve some of the issues that I’ve seen growing up in this community. For example, I didn’t have the internet growing up as a kid. And so there was a community center here in Jamaica, that I would go to called JCAC, where I would go to print out my homework. And one day, I had to be about maybe eight, I remember going to the center one day, and it was closed. And, you know, I tried to go back the next day, and the next day, and it was closed. So I had to end up walking 20 more blocks just to go to the library to print out my homework. I never understood what happened to the community center that was right across the street from my house, but a few weeks later, a few months later, that community center had turned a liquor store. I remember being a child saying, who in the world would make the decision to change the only community center me and my friends had into a liquor store?
That’s when I started to get try to get a better understanding of policies and government and just how things are done. And that’s how I look at government. I look at public service, as an opportunity to support the local markets with the resources and the programming that resonate and have the means to improve people’s quality of life.
NY City Lens: You have quite an impressive resume, particularly with regard to your involvement in local politics. How has your background prepared you for this seat?
Benjamin: I’ve studied government systems and I understand the function of government from a science perspective. I’ve studied political science. I believe that my background and experience in policy will help, especially now in the city, where we’re looking at a $10.5 billion deficit and the city is trying to find creative ways to close this deficit and bounce back. I think with my background and experience of being a policy major that I would like to serve on the committee of state and federal policy, because we’re going to have to look to the private sector and state government to aid the city to help close this deficit.
So I think [my background] makes me uniquely qualified in understanding policy at the federal, state, and local level. I’ll give you a quick example. In my current role as director of economic development in the state legislature office that oversees the 31st district, I was responsible for creating programming for our community to help small businesses and entrepreneurs. There’s a federal legislation called the Community Reinvestment Act. It was legislation that was passed in 1977 that requires financial institutions to lend to the communities that they represent. So I will leverage that specific policy, that specific legislation to secure thousands of dollars in funding to our local nonprofits here in Southeast Queens. So, when I think about the deficit and the challenges that we face in New York City overall, I feel that we’re going to need a legislator, a local legislator that understands New York City, and understands how to leverage policies at the federal and state level to increase the aid to increase the local aid that we desperately need here in southeast Queens.
NY City Lens: Talk me through your priorities for the district. What are your top three issues you want to address immediately?
Benjamin: Our district was the first place where the COVID pandemic actually broke out. We were the second deadliest district, in terms of the pandemic, and a lot of people passed away, including family members. I worked in state government during the time of the pandemic, and you know how it’s common custom for local elected officials to send condolence letters for people who pass away? Well, the names started rolling in so fast between March and April that I couldn’t keep up. So not only was COVID-19 a health crisis, it also created an economic crisis for our district.
So my primary goal is to work on COVID-19 recovery. I want to ensure that our medical facilities have the proper equipment and bring more education around the virus and the vaccines, since a lot of the seniors are requesting the vaccinations. In addition to that, I want to focus on economic recovery. You know our businesses have been devastated due to the pandemic and the mandate of shutdowns. Workforce unemployment went from 3% to over 20%, and a lot of that is from our community. So I want to make sure that we have proper resources and plans in place to get people back in business, and of course, back to work.
The third thing would be criminal justice reform. Violence is up in this district, we have a lot of shootings that have taken place, particularly in the Rockaways. We have to do targeted investments and innovative programming that would address the issues of joblessness and poverty and trauma, because those are all variables that exists in poverty-stricken urban communities, and the 11691 is designated as a low-income area. I want to make sure that we prioritize innovative programming to address violence and crime in the community.
NY City Lens: What are your thoughts on ranked choice voting in this election? How do you feel the new system will affect participation or the outcome of this race?
Benjamin: So the concept of ranked choice is good, right? I do see our race—because there’s nine of us and we’re all part of this community, you know—I do see this race going into ranked choice voting. I did my best to educate the community on the concept, so we’ll see how the numbers roll. But I do think we’ll go into ranked choice voting. I don’t see anyone pulling 51 percent.
NY City Lens: Finally, please tell us more about your advocacy work around the digital divide. How have you experienced it and how will you prioritize closing the digital inequalities in District 31?
Benjamin: The mayor has a master internet plan, and I definitely want to get on top of that. I want to make sure that as that discussion moves forward throughout New York City that our district is absolutely prioritized for it. You know, when we think about the COVID pandemic, and we think about remote learning for children, we think about people having access to their doctors from their phones or their computers—when you think about the digital divide, it’s really a life and death situation for many families. You know, there’s so many children who don’t have access to Wi Fi, that are not keeping up with their education. That is a problem. You have a lot of seniors in our community, who may have to access their doctor through technology, and they don’t have it, or they don’t understand how to navigate it. We have to think about these conditions within our vulnerable populations, with our seniors and our immigrant communities. It’s a necessity for many residents in our community to have access to the internet so they can have a connection with the government and the world.