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Maloney challenger wants a four-day work week and affordable rents

January 3, 2020 Joe McCarthy
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Peter Harrison was standing on a street corner outside of the Greenpoint Avenue G train stop on a recent Saturday afternoon, wearing a “Bernie 2020” pin and handing out flyers describing his platform.

Harrison is a first-time candidate challenging veteran incumbent Carolyn Maloney in New York’s 12th Congressional District, which encompasses parts of western Queens, northern Brooklyn, and eastern Manhattan. He’s part of a new generation of activists running for office in the footsteps of representatives like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and State Sen. Julia Salazar, two democratic socialists who beat long-term incumbents by championing working class issues.

Harrison is a democratic socialist, too, and he’s concerned about the same crop of problems: inequality, climate change and health care. The core issue that drove him into politics, though, is housing.

When Harrison’s apartment building in Stuyvesant Town was bought out by corporate landlords, they tried to evict him from a rent-stabilized unit.

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“I saw a lot of people in housing court that weren’t as lucky as me and it radicalized me,” he recently told the Brooklyn Eagle. “I saw that the housing market was working the way it was intended, which meant kicking a lot of people out of their homes.”

“I decided at that point that I wanted to fight back and have been ever since,” he added.

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He joined a tenants association, earned a masters in urban planning at Columbia, co-founded a tenant organizing app and became the senior housing advisor for Data for Progress, a progressive public opinion research group.

Harrison said the housing market has become deeply dysfunctional and wants to take on powerful interests — “Wall Street, corporate landlords, Airbnb speculators, and foreign investors” — who he said are raising rent prices to unsustainable levels. A 2018 study found that nearly half of New Yorkers are “rent-burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent.

Harrison said he wants to protect tenants from rent hikes, build co-op homes and worker-owned rental housing. He believes that housing is a human right.

“When these policies are supported by smart and consistent government intervention, they work,” he said. “And they will work again when we recommit to housing as a basic human right.”

Maloney has served in Congress since 1993 and was recently appointed chair of the House Oversight Committee, which is leading the impeachment investigation into President Trump.

“I think Rep. Maloney has done good work for this district and I don’t have anything negative to say about her as a person,” Harrison said. “But for the 13 years I’ve lived in the district, I’ve seen neighbors, coworkers, students, and friends suffer under the housing crisis and Rep. Maloney is on the wrong side of it. She relies on donations from big real estate developers, Wall Street, and wealthy individuals who make money off of the crisis.”

The Democratic primary in Maloney’s district is stacked with contenders. Three other candidates are running to unseat Maloney: Lauren Ashcraft, Suraj Patel, and Erica Vladimer. All four are coming after Maloney from the left, and Ashcraft is a fellow member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Harrison, for what it’s worth, said he won the DSA straw poll election.

Patel, a former Obama White House staffer, faced off against Maloney in the 2018 Democratic primary and secured 40 percent of the vote.

All the candidates competing against Maloney are rejecting political action committee money as a way to draw a contrast with the incumbent, who has so far raised an estimated 45 percent of her reelection funds during the 2019-2020 cycle through PACs, according to Open Secrets.

Whether the emphasis on getting money out of politics resonates in the district remains to be seen. The median household income in the area is $82,360, compared to the citywide median of $57,782. The district also includes several public housing developments, including the Queensbridge Houses, the largest development in the country.

Throughout her 26-year career in Congress, Maloney has remained a reliable liberal, supporting causes ranging from LGBTQ+ rights to immigration reform. She has long favored gun regulation, job creation, and compensation for first responders to 9/11.

A spokesperson for Maloney’s campaign said the congressmember has been a progressive for decades, despite the primary challengers arguing otherwise.

“From kicking the mob out of NYCHA in her City Council days to fighting the sale of public land to private developers, her work has earned support and endorsements from tenant leaders throughout the district,” the spokesperson said. “She’s also a co-sponsor on the Green New Deal for Public Housing – and it’s Carolyn Maloney who’s written a bill to ensure that NYCHA resources can NEVER be used as a piggy bank for unscrupulous developers, but remain in public hands for public good.”

That bill, the Public Housing Residents Protection Act of 2019, was introduced in the House on Dec. 17 and would require that the sale or lease of public housing to private developers result in a demonstrable financial benefit for public housing residents.

Harrison’s platform runs the gamut of democratic socialist priorities. In addition to housing, he’s a proponent of Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, the ambitious climate action plan proposed earlier this year. Harrison emphasizes the unique role cities can play in fighting climate change.

“We need leaders who will champion cities,” he said. “I believe that cities are our best weapon against climate disaster.

“NYC should be leading the way on free public transportation, public control of our power grid, and equitable resiliency projects,” he added. “The fact that our current leaders aren’t out there fighting for cities is unacceptable.”

Harrison is a strong supporter of immigrant and refugee rights and wants to heavily regulate the financial sector. He’s a staunch advocate of Medicare for All because he thinks healthcare is a human right. He also thinks it would be cost-effective, and unlock human ingenuity.

“As someone who was a bartender for almost 10 years and an entrepreneur that has started two companies, I didn’t have health insurance for most of my 13 years in NYC … and I don’t have it now,” he said. “If you want to unlock the true potential of every person in this country, to be the next great artist, the next great inventor, or the next great local activist, then provide healthcare for them. Provide affordable housing for them. That’s true freedom.”

The “Issues” page of Harrison’s website include a plan for a four-day work week. He believes that people are working far too much for far too little and that the productivity gains of the past few decades should have led to more leisure time.

“The four day work week is about a larger conversation we need to have about America and capitalism,” he said. “Our economy should be working for us, not the other way around. We don’t have to sacrifice our well-being or the well-being of our families to make a living.”

“This way of life is literally killing us,” he added. “We deserve better.”

True to his organizing background, Harrisison argues that these progressive policies can only be secured with the support of a broad-based working class movement. Taking a page out of presidential candidate Bernie Sander’s playbook, he’s eschewing big money interests in favor of the working class.

“As I often say, if you only make money when you’re awake, you’re working class,” he said. “And guess what, the billionaires funding our politicians aren’t on your side. If we recognize this, we can work together to make our political and economic institutions work for us, not them.”

“That doesn’t mean we won’t disagree on important issues, but it does mean we’ll live in a system that allows us to improve our lives materially and work out our differences democratically.”

Joe McCarthy is a Brooklyn-based journalist writing about climate change and social justice. 
Update (Jan. 3 at 3 p.m.): A statement from Rep. Maloney’s campaign spokesperson has been added.

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