Menchaca’s Goal: ‘I Want to Be Part of a Movement’
In Public Service: Councilmember Seeks New Voices in Government
Carlos Menchaca shocked the political world in 2013 when he defeated incumbent Councilmember Sara Gonzalez in the Democratic Primary in the 38th Council District. But Menchaca, who went on to win the general election that year, said he doesn’t want to be the only one making political waves.
“I want to be part of a movement,” Menchaca told the Brooklyn Eagle during an interview in his district office at 4417 Fourth Ave. in Sunset Park.
Menchaca (D-Sunset Park-Red Hook) candidly admitted that his ultimate goal is to entice large numbers of everyday New Yorkers to become more actively involved in the political process and have a say in how the city government is run.
He also wants to inspire young people to run for public office, he said. “Hopefully we will create a new generation of elected officials to run for public office,” he added.
“We can change things. Policies and laws are passed by elected officials,” Menchaca said, adding that “change comes when you elect the right elected officials.”
Two recent developments illustrate Menchaca’s ideology at work.
One is his commitment to the city’s participatory budgeting process. Under participatory budgeting, councilmembers set aside a portion of the discretionary budgets (usually between $1 million and $2 million) that they receive from the city budget and allow residents in their districts to decide how the money is spent. The residents decide which capital projects to fund through a popular vote after a series of public meetings are held.
Menchaca also played a key role in the passage of the Identification Card New York City program, or IDNYC, in which residents can obtain photo ID cards to use as official, government-issued identification in order to complete government-related tasks such as opening a bank account.
The IDNYC program, which went into effect this year, is open to U.S. citizens and non-citizens alike. It was designed partly to give undocumented immigrants a doorway to become more involved in city life.
A popular feature of the IDNYC card is that it allows the cardholder to obtain a free membership in select cultural institutions in the city. “Cultural institutions were excited,” Menchaca said. He called the free memberships “a great gesture.”
Menchaca was a main sponsor, along with Councilmember Daniel Dromm (D-Queens) of the legislation that created IDNYC. He called the IDNYC program one of his proudest achievements as a councilmember.
“The idea was floating around for a while,” he said. Other cities had tried it. But it had never been attempted in a city as large as New York, he said.
Once he and Dromm got to work, they found they had a lot of eager partners.
“The mayor jumped on board,” Menchcaca said, describing Bill de Blasio as “a real partner.”
A public hearing on the ID card plan surprised many political observers who had expected that those testifying in favor of a municipal ID program card would largely be immigrants and immigration advocates. The witness list was much more diverse, according to Menchanca. “Seniors testified at the hearing. Homeless New Yorkers who didn’t have IDs came to speak.”
The LGBT community also favored the bill, he said. The ID card allows you to self-determine your gender.
Young people came out in large numbers. “There was a broad base of support. The mosaic of New York was asking for this to happen,” Menchaca said.
The endorsement of two major institutions, the financial sector and the New York Police Department (NYPD), helped put the program over the top, Menchaca said. “The banks came in. Credit unions said we should adopt the card,” he said. Getting the NYPD on board was the key “because if they decided not to accept this card as an official ID, it would have been a major setback,” Menchaca said.
The ID card program allows people to “move into the fabric as a fully functioning New Yorker,” said Menchaca, who proudly took out his card and showed it to a Brooklyn Eagle reporter.
On participatory budgeting, Menchaca embraced the process as soon as he came into office and has made sure his council district is part of it each year.
Participatory budgeting is a good way to get everyday New Yorkers involved in the governing of the city, he said. People get to learn how government works and government officials learn to work in partnership with residents on specific projects. “We are creating voices and communities to engage in a city process,” he said.
Menchaca said he loves the fact that ideas come from constituents of all ages. “Some ideas are coming from third graders,” he said. One child offered an idea for a butterfly garden.
Twenty-seven of the council’s 51 members take part in participatory budgeting. Does Menchaca feel that he is diluting his own power to decide on budget issues by giving that power to constituents? “Power isn’t finite. It’s me creating small pockets of power,” he answered. “I never shy away from empowering people.”
Menchaca’s tenure in the council hasn’t always been smooth sailing, however.
Earlier this year, he was bounced from his position as co-leader of the council’s Brooklyn delegation. He holds no bitterness, he said. “There is a part of the council that has yet to see major changes. I’m not giving up,” he declared. “It’s a long journey.”
And Menchaca was hit with intense criticism and garnered an avalanche of negative publicity when he failed to reach an agreement with the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) on the development of the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Sunset Park.
Menchaca said he fought for more community input in the plan and that EDC officials walked away from the table.
The issue of community involvement was important to him and it was why he stood his ground, he said. “It affects the core mission,” he added.
The future of the waterfront is one of the biggest issues facing Sunset Park, he said. “We are defined by our waterfront. Getting the waterfront right is imperative. I’m fiercely protective of that,” he told the Eagle.
The experience ended up as a positive, he said. “We created a constructive space,” he said.
The negotiations began again and ended up with the community getting some benefits, including a second entrance to Bush Terminal Park, a design for a playground and a design for an eco-dock, Menchaca said.
Menchaca serves as chairman of the Council’s Committee on Immigration. He is also a member of the Small Business, Transportation, Ethics and Standards Committees. He is now also a member of a new committee, Legal Services.
He is proud of his role as Immigration Committee chairman. “Immigrants are part of what makes us unique,” he said.
He is happy that New York welcomes undocumented immigrants, in contrast to other parts of the U.S. “The system is broken,” he said, referring to the country immigration laws. “It does not reflect New York City. We have a strong commitment to immigrants.”
His view on immigration was formed in childhood. Menchaca was raised in public housing in El Paso, Texas. “I grew up in a border town,” he said.
The U.S.-Mexico border was crossed daily, he said. “The Rio Grande River is smaller, narrower, than the East River,” he said. From his side of the Rio Grande, he could easily see his friends and family on the other side. He visited them often.
Before running for public office, Menchaca worked for Marty Markowitz during Markowitz’s time as Brooklyn borough president on budget and economic development issues.
He also worked as the LGBT liaison for Christine Quinn when Quinn was the City Council speaker.
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