Elections 2021: Marcos Sierra on Housing, Education & Employee Protection
The following story is an extended version of the one published in our latest print edition.
Marcos Sierra’s lived experience is unique compared to his fellow candidates in the 11th City Council District race. As a front-line healthcare worker, a survivor of gun violence, and a dad guiding his daughter through the trials and tribulations of remote learning, he said all these factors have helped shape his political outlook.
If elected to the now, vacant 11th District seat, following the resignation of former Councilman Andrew Cohen on Dec. 31 to take up a Supreme Court judgeship in the Bronx, Sierra, the current male district leader in the 80th Assembly District, hopes these factors will serve him in bridging the gap between what can sometimes seem like well-intended but theoretical policy formulation and real, day-to-day problems.
After launching his campaign during the second half of 2020, on Tuesday, Jan. 5, Sierra said he would not be participating in the upcoming District 11, March 23 special election, announced on Monday, Jan. 4, by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, as reported by the Norwood News. Sierra, and fellow candidate, Abigail Martin, who also announced that she would not be participating in the special election, cited health concerns over mass, person-to-person contact amid rising COVID-19 cases in the city, as his reason for pulling out.
“I love my district, and, above all, I genuinely care about the safety and security of its residents,” Sierra said during the brief, Jan. 5 Facebook Live announcement. “As candidates, we called for measures that would help keep our communities safe as we campaigned,” he said, adding that he and others had asked for health and safety changes to be made to the required petitioning process to get on the special election ballot, but that their calls had been ignored by both the mayor and the governor.
A minimum of 450 signatures is usually needed to guarantee that a candidate’s name will appear on the ballot. Generally, candidates seek many more than that, and with over a dozen candidates running for office in the Bronx’s 11th, 14th and 15th races, to name just a few, the increased risk of mass, human to human spread of COVID-19 cannot be downplayed. As of Jan. 9, 2021, statewide hospitalizations stood at 8,527.
Today's update on the numbers:
Total COVID hospitalizations are at 8,527.
Of the 258,031 tests reported yesterday, 16,943 were positive (6.57% of total).
Sadly, there were 188 fatalities. pic.twitter.com/D4vPC8dFx1
— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) January 9, 2021
On Thursday, Jan. 7, fellow District 11 candidate, Mino Lora, announced she had contracted COVID-19, though she said she had not been out canvassing prior to that news. She said, her staff, however, had been out collecting signatures on her behalf and she voiced her concerns for them and joined the calls for the signature requirement to be waived citing those same health concerns.
Sierra participated in a press conference with a number of other City Council candidates on Tuesday, Dec. 29, where they discussed different proposals to mitigate against the health risks associated with campaigning in the Northwest Bronx, along with suggested alternatives. All were in favor of either calling for a waiver of the minimum signature requirement or a reduction of the required number of signatures, as had been done during the June primaries, last year.
Another alternative discussed was a draft bill proposed by Manhattan Council Member, Ben Kallos, representing District 5, which would allow ballot qualification to be based on the minimum campaign contribution threshold set by the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB)’s matching funds program.
This voluntary, small-dollar, public matching funds program incentivizes candidates to rely on regular New Yorkers, rather than special interest groups and corporates, for contributions to their political campaigns. As a reward, for each dollar (up to a maximum of $250) contributed by a resident to a candidate’s campaign, the CFB program allots up to $8 in public funds to that campaign. Additional rules stipulate maximum allotment thresholds per contributor.
Sierra said while he was not opposed to the latter, his only caveat was that there were and are some smaller, grassroots campaigns, such as his own, which have not had the ability to yet meet the CFB contribution thresholds, and by choosing that alternative for ballot qualification, it had the potential to disenfranchise some candidates.
But with nothing forthcoming from the mayor or governor in terms of heeding the collective calls for a waiver, about a week after the press conference was held, Sierra took to Facebook on Tuesday, Jan. 5, to set out his plans for the June primary instead. “I have decided to not participate in March’s Special Election for Council District 11 and will focus efforts on the June Primary Election,” he said. “This time will allow for better preparation to safely campaign given the new level of infection that’s hitting our community.” Sierra implored the other candidates who were and are out gathering signatures “to be safe, be careful and to wear a mask.”
On Saturday, Jan. 9, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo appeared to respond to the calls, announcing the extension of a prior executive order issued in March which had reduced the number of signatures needed to get on the ballot from 450 to 315. We asked Sierra for his reaction to the news. He said, “I am very pleased that the governor was able to honor the request made of the candidates in the 11th Council District regarding the reduction of required signatures for the special election.”
In fact, not all candidates in the race had initially called for the changes. Dan Padernacht, Abigail Martin, Carlton Berkley and Sierra were first to give their opinion. Jessica Haller later voiced her support, as did Mino Lora. On Friday, Jan. 8, Eric Dinowitz issued a press release in which he proposed a number of measures aimed at protecting voters during the ongoing pandemic but they did not include addressing the minimum signature requirement.
For this part, Sierra added in response to the governor’s announcement, “I look forward to him extending the same protections for the June primary election.” Meanwhile, Padernacht said, “We appreciate that Governor Cuomo acted on our urgent appeal on December 29th to reduce the signature requirement for ballot access in our March 23rd Special Election for City Council.”
He added, “While we hoped for a greater reduction, this is a step in the right direction. I am grateful to Carlton Berkley, Abigail Martin and Marcos Sierra for working with me to bring attention to this matter.” Norwood News reached out to Berkley, Haller, Martin and Lora for comment also. Martin said, “Nobody should be put at risk for participating in the democratic process, yet this is what is happening every time someone agrees to sign a candidate’s petition. As petitioning continues, and COVID numbers continue to rise, there is no way of knowing how many candidates or campaign volunteers are spreading the disease.”
She added, “A reduction in the number of required signatures is not enough. There are safer ways to determine how candidates could qualify to appear on the ballot, the current system is antiquated and should be ended. Because of the petitioning process, it is likely that over a million New Yorkers from every neighborhood in the City will come into close contact with a campaign worker this campaign season. This is a preventable disaster waiting to happen.” We did not receive an immediate response from Berkley, Haller or Lora.
In terms of his campaign platform, Sierra said his top three issues are housing, education and workers’ protections, though he added that he was also concerned about many other issues. “Our housing crisis in the city is beyond the pale,” he said. “We have so many homeless people, so many homeless families in our city, especially in the Bronx, who are rent-burdened. Yet, there are almost a million empty apartments in the city.”
Sierra said that he was dismayed to learn that it was not possible to change the average median income formula at city council level, since it is a federal regulation. According to U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, the median individual income in New York City is $50,825, while the median household income in New York City is $57,782.
“It’s unconscionable that, in the Bronx, residents pay 50 percent of their income in rent, and you have an explosion in the homeless crisis that’s going on,” he said. In terms of addressing the housing crisis, Sierra said, “What the City Council can do is work with the New York City Housing Authority, give them proper funding, and work with them on a Land Trust project, and empower them to recommend zoning changes so that you can put more affordable public housing into the market.”
He added that there were areas in the Bronx that still looked like forests, that are underdeveloped, public land that the city could utilize. Norwood News mentioned that local environmentalists like Karen Argenti had previously raised concerns when the City began knocking out public parkland for different purposes because, according to Argenti, the land was cheap and it was an easy way for the City to build. We asked Sierra if what he was proposing would not raise similar red flags. Sierra clarified that he was referring more so to different residential areas around, for example, Co-Op City which, he said, was pretty severely underdeveloped.
“You have a row of normal houses, and then a big patch of land. It’s not taking care of itself and this is city property,” he said. “These are lands that the city can actively work on with nature, to develop and bring new affordable housing, but those major buildings that we have now, that are almost 100 years old – I grew up in NYCHA. I know what those buildings are like. We cannot continue to use the existing, public housing stock and think that it’s going to be, you know, usable.”
In terms of education, Sierra is also concerned that the impact of the pandemic has pushed students already at risk even further down the academic scale. “We had something like 50 percent of the students in New York City that read at or below the grade level at the implementation of remote learning,” he said.
“If we were at 50 percent, sitting in class, could you imagine how far the retention rate has dropped now that remote learning [is here] and the catastrophe that that is, how that has been implemented,” he said. Sierra has first-hand experience of the impact of this, having had to help his daughter reconnect virtually again and again when she would get logged out during virtual classroom sessions. He described this as another example of the City’s honorable intentions with the ideas it wants to implement but those same ideas not really working out that well in practice.
He gave another example of how the vendor hired by the City to install air conditioning for low-income seniors was delayed due to an apparent stalemate between the City and the vendor where the City allegedly owed the vendor, “something like almost a million dollars for service that was not paid,” according to Sierra.
In fact, The New York Times reported in August 2020 that the City “had to find additional funding for the $55 million program after the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, a state agency that promotes energy efficiency, declined to help pay for it. City officials had discussions with the state agency about providing $20 million in funding, but the state decided not to contribute.”
“That led to a significant delay in other seniors getting their air conditioners so from July to August, there were seniors who were not getting their air conditioners,” Sierra said, adding that he knew this because he works with seniors in the healthcare sector. We asked Sierra what he would do as a councilman to address such issues.
“There’s a lack of understanding at the distribution level of how the council comes up with ideas, but then it leaves it up to the frontline workers, the community-based organizations to implement them,” he said. “Oftentimes, because there’s no frame of reference, then it leaves the CBOs and the personnel workers scrambling to fix a problem that is outside of their control.”
“I, as a city council member, I have an understanding, and my design is actually to be a chair for the Department of Aging,” he said. “Because I have first-hand experience of what our seniors go through [and] also, what the organization has to go through to get the funding to keep the funding, to make sure that we are meeting the criteria, starting off dotting our ‘i’s and crossing our ‘t’s.”
Sierra said he would continue to fight to get the funding for the much-needed services that the community’s aging population need because he has the “frame of reference” for seniors, and said he would help them to stay in their homes, and help them get money back for paying for medical insurance unnecessarily.
Sierra has been the target of some criticism in recent months by one figure in the public domain. On Nov. 24, 2020, in a post on the Northwest Bronx Democrats Facebook page, Anthony Rivieccio, founder of said political club, questioned if there had been collusion between Sierra and the Board of Elections due to Rivieccio having been prevented from accessing two polling sites in the Northwest Bronx on Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020, from around 6.30 p.m.
Rivieccio said he had been accessing other sites up to that point all day in his capacity as a paid poll watcher by “one of the candidates” [in the 80th District Assembly race]. The Northwest Bronx Democrats had endorsed Republican candidate, Gene DeFrancis, in that race. Rivieccio said he had had his temperature taken before going to the polling sites on election day like everyone else. On attempting to enter M.S. 80, he said, “I was told by the BOE coordinator there that I could not go in, ‘because she was ordered by the Board Of Elections (BOE) not to let me in because I have covid.’ Despite both my surprise and shock, I just left and went to my next polling site at P.S. 56, where I was told the same exact thing, by another BOE coordinator.”
Rivieccio went on to say that he subsequently went home (without casting a vote) and that the next day, he took a COVID test at NYC Health + Hospitals/North Central Bronx, which came back negative a few days later. We asked Sierra to comment on Rivieccio’s public post on the matter.
Sierra said, “Mr Rivieccio claimed on Election Day at P.S. 56 or M.S. 80, one of those two schools, to cast his vote. As an eight-year veteran of the Board of Elections, I know that your polling site is matched to your residential address, so the problem with Mr Rivieccio’s story is that his registered address at New York City Board of Elections is [provides address] and based on that address, this poll site where he is supposed to go to cast a vote is not P.S. 56 or M.S. 80. It’s P.S. 008.”
Norwood News informed Sierra that it was our understanding from Rivieccio’s account of the matter was that he was there in his capacity as a poll watcher, to which Sierra responded, “Well, you can’t do both at the same time.” He added, “Observers, also known as poll watchers, are allowed to go to the polling sites on Election Day. That’s legal. However, there are regulations. There are rules for poll watchers that when they enter a poll site, they are supposed to go directly to the coordinator, identify who they are, and present their credentials.”
Sierra said when he was at the Tracey Towers poll site earlier that day, getting set-up and checking that everything was in order, [in his capacity as Male District Leader of the 80th District], he observed Rivieccio enter the poll site, enter the polling room, and approach a voting machine while a voter was casting their vote. “That’s a clear violation of the poll watcher procedure,” Sierra said.
“Not only was that a violation of the poll watcher procedure, it was also a clear violation of that voter’s right to privacy,” Sierra added. He said that, consequently, he spoke with the poll site coordinator and informed them that they needed to ensure that the poll watchers were kept in their designated areas. “Poll watchers are not allowed to walk around the poll site,” Sierra said.
Norwood News reached out to Rivieccio for a comment on Sierra’s account of what happened. He said, “As a poll watcher that day, a supervisor took me around to gather the poll’s numbers as they went. As a poll watcher, I was covering at least 2 polling sites M.S. 80 and P.S. 56 that I was denied [entry to] later in the night, to both do my job as a poll watcher, and submit an affidavit ballot.” Rivieccio added, “This complaint has already been submitted to The Bronx Democratic Party & The Board of Elections.”
Norwood News reached out to the Bronx Democratic Party for comment on the matter and we were informed on Jan. 5, 2021 that it was the understanding of the party that the matter had been referred to the Board of Elections. We also reached out to the New York City Board of Elections Bronx office and did not receive a response.
Back on the topic of Sierra’s campaign platform, and in the context of the city and borough’s economic recovery, Sierra said it was not only about reimagining what the future of the city would be, but the future of the economy post-COVID. “It’s about protecting the essential workers who have become a component, a vital component, to help keeping the economy functional,” he said.
“I’m an essential worker. I’m classified as an essential worker. Our seniors, whether they’re able to come out of their home or not, they still need to be provided with the services [they need] so that they can be safe, secure, healthy, [receive] nutritious meals, get their air-conditioning, and do their exercise to maintain their physical activity,” he said.
According to Sierra, it is essential to ensure that such front line healthcare workers have the relevant PPE and other workplace protections needed to assist seniors and other vulnerable people. On Jan. 8, the QNS reported that State Senator Michael Gianaris pushed for the passage of legislation that would implement better workplace health standards and penalize companies if they don’t protect their workers.
On workplace protections, Sierra said, “Sometimes, when exposed, we have to make a sacrifice for the greater good, because people still need to be provided services.” He added, “Our city needs to learn.”
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