From the living room of her Brooklyn townhome, Kathryn Garcia ’92 is on a mission to become the next mayor of New York City. A veteran public servant who approaches times of turmoil with the gritty determination, level head, and homegrown dedication of a born-and-raised New Yorker, Garcia has led the city through such crises as water supply complications in the aftermath of hurricanes, childhood lead exposure with the New York City Housing Authority, and widespread food insecurity in the face of a deadly pandemic. Now, the former Department of Sanitation commissioner is ready to tackle her biggest challenge yet: seeing the city through its recovery and revitalization as it approaches the end of the COVID-19 pandemic — that is, if New Yorkers will let her. A first-time candidate with little name recognition in a saturated race, Garcia is committed to overcoming the hurdles of virtual campaigning in order to help New York City come back stronger than ever.
You’re a career civil servant for New York City who has never run for public office. What has been your experience so far as a first-time candidate campaigning in the unconventional circumstances created by the pandemic?
Normally, you would only have two or three events a day because of logistics. Now, you can do 10 or 12. It’s a lot of Zoom, to Zoom, to Zoom. That is both a positive and a negative. You can reach a lot more people, [and] things don’t get canceled because of the weather. But it means that you are only presenting yourself through a screen, and it is harder to connect with people personally in that format, because when you are campaigning, you want people to not only know your positions, but get a sense of you as a person.
You’ve mentioned that you were never interested in running for public office. What changed?
Being a politician does require giving up a certain level of privacy, and that was a real critical hurdle that I needed to get over. I did not have [nor want] a Twitter account. I liked thinking more deeply about problems than a hashtag, which seems where much of our politics lives, but I came to the conclusion that the only way to make significant change and really fix the problems was to be the person who ran the shop.
Did the pandemic have any influence on your decision to run?
This is the moment in which you have to step up; you can’t think everything’s [just] going to be okay. There’s just too much work. You’ve got to know how to make the trains run on time on day one.
You’ve already been involved in pandemic-related crisis control, both as the sanitation commissioner and then as the food czar. What about that experience made you want to wade even deeper into the city’s pandemic recovery?
Unexpected emergencies are not things that scare me. What worries me is that we don’t confront it aggressively. We have, I would say, three cascading crises that predate the pandemic. The issues and challenges of racial justice were there before; the pandemic just made them so much more clearly visible. Issues of our education system being so incredibly varied depending on where you lived was true before, but then, when you suddenly had to be in Zoom-school world, or half-school world, or somewhat-school world, who had access and who didn’t was really put in sharp relief. And then, we also found, obviously, that there were vast health disparities.
What will a Garcia administration look like?
A Garcia administration will be very hard-charging but with a real heart around what the people need. How are they their best selves? And that means everything from ensuring we’re doing the investment in the public housing authority, ensuring that if your kid needs broadband, that they have it. [If] you need to open a business, we need to be out of your way. We need to help you and support you, because New York City is a city of entrepreneurs, a city of immigrants. People come here to raise their families and really strive. We need to help them do that.
Many of your policies incorporate sustainability as a major tenet. Why do you see sustainability as such an integral part of the city’s recovery?
Sustainability is just always the smart choice. It’s so much easier to keep it clean than to clean it up. And it improves not only our environment, but it improves our health, both our physical health as well as our mental health. You have a completely different perspective of the world if you are spending time with natural processes, and we can embed them in how we govern and in how we approach our everyday life.
If you win this election, you would be the first female mayor of New York City. What would that mean to you?
Oh, we might break the 400-year-old glass ceiling. The city will celebrate its anniversary during the Garcia administration. I think folks think that the [United States] started with the Revolution, but, here, it started a little earlier. Having the first woman means that 50 percent of our population is represented at the highest office in the city, and women, I believe, bring a different management style to how they lead and can be effective team builders, which is what you need in order to accomplish your goals.
I have to congratulate you on your early victory in the best bagel order preliminary election. I noticed that your order featured the most robust toppings and specified an open-faced bagel. Was that a reflection of the many hats you’ve worn, and the transparency with which you hope to run a Garcia administration?
I’m just being me; that is who I am. I didn’t think about it. I got the sense that other people thought about it a lot, like, “Here’s my political politician answer.” And I was like, “No, this is just the one I have. This is the way I like it.”