In early May, before the Democratic primary, I had the pleasure of interviewing Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries. Jeffries is currently the Democratic nominee for New York's 8th Congressional District, which covers neighborhoods in Central Brooklyn, South Brooklyn, and Southeast Queens. Our conversation explored what Jeffries' election would mean for residents of the district, particularly on the issues of education, health outcomes and jobs. Below is a transcript of our dialogue,.
Disclaimer: The author has volunteered with the Jeffries' campaign on a non-monetary basis.
Andrew Wilkes: Brooklyn and Queens are renowned for religious organizations that champion quality education for all, from kindergarten to college. Rev. Dr. Emma Jordan Simpson, a pastor at Concord Baptist Church and President of the Children's Defense Fund in New York, comes to mind in this regard. As a junior member of congress, what would you do to help ensure that a quality, affordable education is available to all of your constituents?
Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries: During my time as a state legislator, I've pushed for significant investment in public school districts. In congress, I would look forward to increasing federal public investment in education through initiatives like Race to the Top. As you may know, Race to the Top is the Obama administration's education effort. In the assembly, I co-sponsored the Race to the Top bill, which helped secure $700 million in education funding for students in New York State. In congress, I'll work hard to encourage investment in education, particularly with respect to technology and bridging the digital divide.
AW: Many communities of faith host job fairs and serve as a de facto referral source for jobs, in addition to employing hundreds of residents within the district [8th Congressional district]. If elected, how will you take action to retain and attract jobs?
HJ: Churches are a very important part of the socioeconomic and cultural fabric [in the 8th Congressional District]. It will be important to partner with spiritual leadership in addressing the employment crisis that impacts our neighborhoods. In congress, I would work with the Obama administration to pass the American Jobs Act as well as to bring about the commitment to provide public housing residents opportunity that results from HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] funding that public housing receives. New York City Housing Authority has an obligation under federal law to create job opportunities for public housing residents and the surrounding community whenever a construction opportunity is federally funded. The city has not met its obligations under law and [subsequently] thousands of jobs that should have been created do not exist. It will be my job, as a member of congress, to aggressively push the city of New York to meet its obligation to promote jobs and meaningful employment when major projects take place in public housing.
AW: Prophetic religious leaders insist that one important test of political leadership is making a positive difference in regards to the most vulnerable among us. What can be done to ensure that decent jobs are available to all residents with the district, regardless of skill and educational levels?
HJ: Significant construction activity exists within the district. I want to make sure that jobs that are created are available to residents in the community. Developers throughout the district have the potential to address our employment crisis. I also plan to hold developers accountable for providing jobs when government funding is involved. When a project is exclusively funded by the private sector, our capacity to help is much less than when there is public funding. My job in congress is to identify projects with federal or some other public component and then to push developers to provide employment opportunities to neighborhood residents.
AW: What are some of the tools that can be used to push developments that have some aspect of public funding to provide employment?
HJ: As a precondition of federal support, jobs should carved out and set aside for community residents, especially in high unemployment areas. There is no excuse for development projects to take place in our backyard and then to leave out the most vulnerable among us. That paradigm is one that needs to change. It will be important to negotiate project labor agreements with developers that mandate significant employment opportunities within our communities.
AW: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King viewed healthcare, income, transportation and education as critical indicators of community well-being. How is New York's 8th Congressional District faring across these four indicators in relation to other congressional districts in New York City?
HJ: Transportation infrastructure, with respect to subway and buses, is generally consistent with what exists in other outer borough neighborhoods throughout the city. There is a crisis in health, education and employment, and I plan to address these issues with a laser-like focus to improve the quality of life for individuals within the district. Neighborhoods in the 8th Congressional District have disproportionately high levels of heart disease, childhood obesity, HIV infections and respiratory illness. This is a crisis of epic proportions and must be confronted in order to lower the mortality rate of residents and reduce the financial burden on the healthcare delivery system.
AW: How does faith -- in both a civic and religious sense -- shape your approach to public service?
HJ: The political process is rough and tumble by definition and being grounded in faith in a Higher Power has proven helpful in navigating the difficult terrain. When all is said and done, I have faith that God has a plan for the wellbeing of the community and remain hopeful that I can do my part to help bring out the goodness of people and to help those who are in need.
AW: Thank you for your time.
AJ: Thank you.
This article was originally published on the Huffington Post on May 8th, 2012.