A Q&A with Mayor Potential and NYU Alum Sal Albanese

Miranda Levingston
NYU alum Sal Albanese is running for mayor in New York City this upcoming election on Nov. 7.

Sal Albanese, NYU Class of 1976, is running for mayor of New York City as the Reform Party candidate. He wants to create policies that reform the political system and support affordable housing, education and small businesses. Albanese, a former public school teacher, became a city councilmember after running a grassroots campaign inspired by his negative interactions with local elected officials regarding public school issues. Washington Square News sat down with Albanese to discuss his platform, how his policies would affect college students and why he is running for mayor.

Washington Square News: Tell me about your time as a city councilmember. What did you accomplish? What were some challenges you faced?

Sal Albanese: I’m proud of the fact that I was the most independent member. I always voted in the public’s interest, and you know very few people did that. I had a number of really good accomplishments — the two tops ones were being the swing vote on the gay rights bill in 1986 when it was very controversial to vote for gay rights. Another major bill that I passed was the city’s first living wage law which was in 1996. What that did was require the city to have their contractors pay their workers a living wage, which, at that time, was about $11 an hour with some health benefits. That was in 1996. And, in terms of education, we created the first technology high school in the city which is the Bay Ridge High School of Technology and Communications. It was redesigned from what was then a failing high school called Bay Ridge High School and now it’s one of the best high schools in the city.  

WSN: What were your biggest takeaways from your time at NYU?

SA: I loved the school. I got my masters degree in health sciences and it actually opened up my eyes to a number of issues like substance abuse and sex education. I actually took a number of courses in sex education when I was there because I taught at a high school at that time. I also received a significantly better understanding of drug abuse — that it’s more of a health problem than a legal problem. I also loved the atmosphere of NYU — Bobst Library, hanging out in Washington Square Park — the environment was great and although I was a part-time student, I did get to enjoy the aesthetic quality of NYU.

WSN: Tell us about your career path.

SA: I was an immigrant who came here from Italy at the age of eight. My dad was disabled and my mom was a garment worker so I went through the public school system. It was CUNY that elevated my family to the middle class.

I became a public school teacher, I taught at public schools for 11 years and became a city council member by virtue of serendipity because I got involved in local school issues in my area which was Bay Ridge, which was heavily Republican and very conservative area at that time. I was elected to the school board and so I got to interact with some of the local elected officials and realized they weren’t very good at representing the people so I ran a grassroots campaign for city council. We made front pages and surprised a lot of people with the support we received. I also went to law school in Brooklyn and got my law degree.

WSN: Why are you running?

SA: I think under Mayor Bill De Blasio, the city has become less livable and more corrupt. I’m a major reformer, I’m an independent and I’m a lifelong Democrat voting on the reform line.  One of my main issues is [reforming] our corrupt political system. I have a number of proposals that would do away with huge conflicts we see in the city right now. I’ve got a plan to revamp our campaign finance system — it’s called democracy vouchers. Democracy vouchers would eliminate bundling the money by lobbies and it would really make the city a much more democratic town. De Blasio just escaped indictment because the Pay-to-Play Law is very murky. The U.S. attorney said he acted unethically and inappropriately. De Blasio has made things a lot worse here to the point that most people believe, and they’re rightly so, that the government is for sale in New York City.

But, it’s bigger than De Blasio — it’s about changing the political system, and New York City has the ability to do that though charter revision.  My goal is to change the city charter by appointing a commission as soon as I get elected and I will place democracy vouchers on the ballot. I’ll promote lobby reform, whereby now if you leave government you can come back and lobby people that you work with — I want a five-year ban on that. I also want to implement non-partisan elections because we really need to overhaul our political system, partially by increasing participation. Nonpartisan elections will do that. So, that’s one of the main reasons I’m running.

The other reason is that I think mass transit has been totally ignored by the mayor and the governor. I take the subways everyday and I think it’s an important service in the city and it’s being ignored by the mayor. During my campaign, I brought it up a number of times because I’ve been on the mass transit for years.  For example, in 1996 I rode the subway for 24 hours to point out that the system is underfunded and going to melt down. We have to fix and fund the system; otherwise New York will not be able to continue to be the global city that it is.

Homelessness, of course, is at an all-time high and De Blasio has mismanaged all that. There is, of course, tremendous displacement in regards to zoning policies. There are neighborhoods in the city like Crown Heights, East Harlem, Bed-Stuy that are revolting over zoning proposals where they’re building these huge, expensive high rises in a slip up of so-called affordable housing which is driving up property value in the area. People are speculating that real estate development is driving working people out of these neighborhoods who can’t afford to live there. By the way, 34 percent of the people in shelters actually work for a living. So, it’s caused massive displacement and I’ve made it a pledge for this campaign not to accept big money from real estate.

I want to pass a bill to tax international investors who buy up expensive city real estate by 15 percent. I want to tax those people at a higher level because if you are a global investor, this is just a place for you to park your money, which it is for a lot of people, but I want to funnel that money into an affordable housing program. We have a lot of concrete ideas.

WSN: What components of your platform specifically affect college students?

SA: Mass transit affects students because they need to get around this town, and many are late for class — I’ve heard that from students. We have some of the greatest institutions in this town, like NYU of course, and we’ve got to make sure that young people have the ability to move around the city.  

The other issue is housing — affordable housing is essential and I want to build tens of thousands of affordable housing in the city so that once people graduate, they can live here.  Even though they aren’t wealthy, they are very talented and should be able to live in New York City.

Also, making sure the cultural institutions in the city are well funded so we don’t raise the price for students and others to go to museums, art shows, and things of that nature. We want to make the city more livable for students.

WSN: For the upcoming election, what does your campaign highlight as its goals?

SA: To reform our political system. We can do it in New York City. I want our city to be the mecca of political reform — we have a corrupt political system at the state and federal level.  We could be a shining light of democracy where money is not the answer to everything, where money doesn’t corrupt our politics, where we increase participation and we make it easy for people to vote and feel like they’re invested in our government. That’s one of my top priorities, and of course addressing the other issues that I outlined earlier.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 6 print edition. Email Miranda Levingston at [email protected].

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