City Council Election 2021: Gale Brewer Explains Why She Wants to Come Back

Gale Brewer in her office in May, 2017.

By Carol Tannenhauser

Gale Brewer’s decision to enter the race for her old City Council seat creates a challenge for her competitors—name recognition alone puts Brewer, the current Borough President, at the front of the field. An Upper West Sider for nearly 50 years, she also happens to be enormously popular here—she won her 2009 race with more than 80% of the vote.

But this is a different time and election. New York City primaries will now use ranked-choice voting—a system that allows candidates to team up to improve their odds. Two of Brewer’s opponents already have. There are new issues now too, like the controversy over the use of The Lucerne Hotel as a temporary shelter. Brewer and other officials have tried to mediate the dispute, with mixed results. “I talked to and have respect for both sides,” Brewer said, in a recent phone interview with WSR. “It’s not easy to bring them together.”

Brewer, 69, is the first of six District 6 City Council candidates whose ideas and agendas we will present over the next few weeks (in alphabetical order), in advance of the June 22nd Democratic primary. Known for her boundless energy, she has spent more than three decades in public service—from 2002 to 2013 as the City Council member from District 6, representing most of the UWS. We asked her about the issues facing the neighborhood today—and why and how she wants to take them on in what would be her fourth term on the Council.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

West Side Rag: Why did you decide to run for your old City Council seat?

Gale Brewer: Because I know there are ways that we can make government work better for the people. People are concerned about public safety, affordable housing, small businesses, homelessness, not to mention health care during this god-awful pandemic. Right now, I think government is too lackadaisical; it’s not focused on central services. People need a clear notion of what they’re paying for in terms of their government services. They expect their local officials to be responsive to them. I’m known for constituent work. Constituent work means people calling or walking into a community office, with every kind of school problem, housing problem, healthcare problem, they’re not getting food, they can’t figure out Access-A-Ride, and someone is there to help them. You’re supposed to do that! We’d have an office open six or seven days a week, with a staff that knows these issues.

WSR: One issue on the Upper West Side is street homelessness. How do you feel about the disbanding of the NYPD homeless outreach unit?

GB: I knew them very well, the officers, and they were actually quite upset, because they loved their jobs. The unit was disbanded maybe a year ago now, and the new system is not clear to me, that’s for sure. The problem in February, 2021 is that it’s hard to know who’s in charge. If you call the cops, they understandably will say they’re not, but the public is still going to call them. I don’t think it’s been handled well, to be honest. We need more mental health services on the street and, of course, more housing.

WSR: That brings us to affordable housing. It also seems to use an arcane system, with a small percentage of available units being won in a lottery.

GB: It’s terrible. What the mayor came up with is not a great program. It’s called Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH). On 96th Street there are two buildings being built. The first has one, ridiculous, affordable unit—and look at what they’re building: that big monster building where the Chase Bank used to be. If they don’t require city input they can do what they want, as long as they stay in the zoning.

The old Mitchell-Lama program was the best housing program we’ve ever had in the City of New York. We should think about why that program was so successful. It had both Section 8 people with low incomes, and middle-income residents. Maybe after the pandemic, there might be some interest in trying to recreate it.

This is why I think I could be good at this job: I know what doesn’t work—and I know that there are ways that we can make government work better for people. One thing I can do as a council member is not repeat some of the mistakes of the past.

WSR: What about the argument that it’s time for new leadership?

GB: There will be a lot of new leadership in the City Council—35 new members out of 51. New people are always welcome and I’m all for new ideas. But somebody has to implement these ideas, whether they’re about scaffolding, affordable housing, schools, parks, open space, environmental justice—the list is pretty long. I’ve been doing this for many years. I’ve seen what’s not happening. I don’t want to keep doing what doesn’t work. We don’t have to start fresh. We can say, ‘Okay this is what we want to get done.’

WSR: On schools, what’s your position on the elimination of the current Gifted & Talented program?

GB: The challenge is keeping children in public schools when you have an exodus due to the pandemic. It’s hard when this mayor and chancellor keep changing the rules. I want families to stay in the public schools, so I’m generally supportive of a diverse G & T, but it needs to be diverse. I’m also very supportive of magnet schools, where you have a focus, like dual language at P.S. 84, or art at P.S. 75.

WSR: Retail vacancies?

GB: Ech.

WSR: Everybody hates them, but what specifically can we do about them?

GB: I’ll tell you some good news. As borough president, I passed a law in 2019 requiring every owner of every building, by the end of this February, to tell the Department of Finance if they have a retail vacancy and the square footage. Where are they? Are they where there’s a BID? Are they under scaffolding? That gives us the data. Then you have to figure out what you’re going to do with these vacancies. How do we make sure local stores come in and not have these big chains reappear? On the West Side, I passed another law when I was in the council saying storefronts can only be 40-feet long on Amsterdam and Columbus, and banks can only be 25-feet long on Broadway and Amsterdam. Existing spaces are grandfathered in, and supermarkets are exempt.

The issue is what do we want in the neighborhood? Grocery stores, grocery stores, for sure! We could also sit down and figure out something entrepreneurial. Rents are very low right now. Nobody ever says to the entrepreneurial community, let’s talk about space. You can figure out what to do with it once you have the data. You can’t make policy without data.

Next: The newest candidate, Maria Danzilo.

NEWS | 23 comments | permalink
    1. Leon says:

      Thank you for the helpful interview and for hitting on some important topics!

    2. Barbaranyc says:

      You’re so beloved in this neighborhood, Gale. I love you; we all do. We welcome you back!

    3. UWS78 says:

      Anybody but her, the old city council “leadership” is toxic. She’s openly praising passing laws that put restrictions on what stores can occupy retail spaces that she purports to not want empty! Absolute insanity and cannot be rewarded.

    4. “The issue is what do we want in the neighborhood? Grocery stores, grocery stores, for sure! We could also sit down and figure out something entrepreneurial. Rents are very low right now.”

      Really?! Commercial rents are very low? That runs counter to everything I’ve heard, so I’d want to know more about her thinking here.

      As for this series; what a great idea. I’m a former world traveler, and I often read international and national news, but I often feel guilty because I’m not as informed a local voter as I’d like to be, so I look forward to learning a lot here in the coming weeks… so; commercial rents are very low right now, huh?

      That’s going to be hard to digest, since we seem to be running out of businesses to rent these inexpensive extremely numerous empty spaces…

    5. Michella Robbin says:

      Gale Brewer told the courts to allow the drug addicts to remain at the Lucerne hotel shelter even after she has information that there was a rise in narcotics arrests linked to the shelter in the summer of 2020. She further betrayed her constituents by failing to hold the service provider accountable for the incessant ambulances and police called to assist at the shelter. To date there is still no working group between the service provider and the community. It’s smoke and mirrors. Gale chose to silence the majority in favor of the vocal minority.

      • Mark Moore says:

        The neighborhood is just fine. Imagine being a one-issue voter and that issue is housing some homeless during a pandemic at the Lucerne.

    6. uws16 says:

      re: Lucern: “I talked to and have respect for both sides.” Pretty major issue, and Brewer won’t take a strong position either way before we are to elect her, really??

      • SmartGuy says:

        People know where she stands at this point. Why would she add fuel to the flames for people who don’t see things her way?

    7. young_man! says:

      Gale Brewer betrays the community at every opportunity to show how progressive she is. Stop voting in the people who have made the city go downhill for the past several years and vote for people who will make our city a safer and better place to live.

    8. Gale Brewer is the Upper West Side! Before she was our great MBP, she was a city council member with unparalleled skill who knew how to get things done, which we desperately need again! As a WBE small business owner who served with her on CB7 before her City Council election, I have always respected her dedication, skill, earnestness and, most importantly, INTEGRITY! We don’t have to agree on everything, but I know everything she stands for is to the benefit of our city and this community!

    9. Mark Moore says:

      What a bargain, we get Gale Brewer again instead of some left-wing neophyte do-nothing, or a buttoned-up centrist who just wants to use the office as a stepping stone to Borough President. Gale’s already been there and back again. Hard to imagine not voting for her.

    10. Joyce Lynn says:

      What wonderful news! I am a dedicated supporter
      of Gale, as she helped me so many times during
      her whole time on the Council – as well as many
      others in the bldg. I reside in at 160 W.77 St.
      I am a Sr. Citizen and she has always been
      100 percent for all us Seniors and the Upper
      West Side has a tremendous quantity of us
      living here. We need to get this particular
      care and interest back, as it seems none of
      the new younger generation politicians
      give a damn about us!
      We need and love you, Gale

      • Brandon says:

        “None of the new younger generation politicians
        give a damn about us!”

        Get a grip, Grandma. Senior citizens are afforded aid, protections and privileges that the rest of us in the “younger generation” do not get and maybe never will.

        For example, remember how we literally set aside life-saving medication — covid vaccines — to make sure senior citizens would get it first?

    11. Ivan Zelman says:

      I’m a new candidate as well and would relish the opportunity to speak with you and outline my programs and experience.
      I also disagree with Gale’s “reason to run”. Gale has served the district and borough for over 20 years. Enough is enough. What makes her feel that she’s the only one who can handle this job. What has she done that has helped this district that no one else could have done.
      More importantly what hasn’t she done that a new person might be able to do.
      I hope Gale decides that it’s better to be a mentor to new people as opposed to keeping new people out of government.

    12. Welcome Back says:

      Re: “she (Ms. Brewer) has spent more than three decades in public service….”
      1. To Ms. Brewer: “THANK YOU for your past service, and thank you for bringing those decades of knowledge and experience back to CB7”.
      2. To those who fret about her being part of ‘the old guard’, WHY?
      Didn’t we just elect for president a person who, because of his eight years as Vice-President and his many prior years as a U.S. Senator, knows his way around Washington politics?

    13. JennyFromtheBlock says:

      Time for new blood, we had Gale exclusively for 12 years and 8 as Manhattan boro president.

      20 years in power and yes she’s likable but it is truly time for change in nyc.

      Thankful we only have a year left of Helen Rosenthal…

      • Not Bruce says:

        Thank you Jenny.
        You took the words right out of my finger tips.
        Time for her to say good night Gracie…..

    14. Tired Small Business Owner says:

      Gale – Many small businesses are grateful a new high-end building is coming into the neighborhood. We need a mix of buildings and residents – not just 5 floor walkups and low income housing. We need a mix to keep this neighborhood diverse and thrive on all levels. The percentage of new high-end buildings to the rest of the UWS is small. There are a Hell of a lot more things you should have worried about the last 2 years instead of fighting the few new buildings. Do you want small businesses to survive or not?

    15. UWSer says:

      In this interview, Ms. Brewer seems to offer no solutions. Her biggest bragging point seems to be that she knows what doesn’t work, as if to say that her opponents only bring pie-in-the-sky ideas. For all her “success” enacting bills to control commercial tenants on Columbus and Amsterdam, and her love of “data,” there is no data to support that those laws helped small businesses in any way. Maybe it is time for that sky pie.

    16. LivableCity says:

      “You can’t make policy without data”
      “I know what doesn’t work.”
      With so much new energy coming in to the Council, it Is a GIFT to have the possibility of Gale’s experience and know how.
      These will be a very challenging few years ahead for all of NY City and even the UWS. A lot won’t be pretty. Thank you Gale for being willing to be there for your constituents yet again.

    17. Hally says:

      Anything (ANYTHING) is better than the two DSA candidates running, especially Sara Lind.

    18. W. 80th St., Block Association says:

      Welcome home Gail!