Vanessa Gibson was a Bronx assemblywoman for eight years. Like almost every one of her colleagues, she could’ve stayed in that position for as long as she wanted. Very few incumbent state legislators are defeated.
Instead, Gibson chose to run for the term-limited New York City Council this year in District 15. She won. That means, two terms and eight years from now, she’ll be out of the Council without a guaranteed elected official gig available to sweep her up and keep her in power.
So why did Gibson go this route?
“I prayed a lot,” Gibson said. “I thought about an opportunity to serve my community on a local level and to serve on a more meaningful basis.” She said she saw the city’s government going through a “dramatic change” at every level — 21 new Council members, the “first Democratic mayor after 20 years,” four new borough presidents and a new public advocate and comptroller. She sees her new job as “a more meaningful role with the new administration and bringing a voice to the community with experience in the state Assembly.”
Gibson doesn’t know what she’ll be doing in 2022, “but you can do a lot of things in eight years,” she said. And she does mention her “passion for teaching.”
She grew up in Brooklyn but came to the Bronx after she began working for Aurelia Greene, a veteran Assemblywoman who is now deputy borough president. She moved to Morris Heights in the Bronx in 2006, went to Soundview and is now back in Morris Heights. “I love my community,” she said. “I live far west in the district and it gives that part of my district a voice. It has been isolated, not high on anyone’s radar list.” (District 15 also includes Highbridge and Melrose.)
When asked what she intends to focus on, Gibson is clear. “My number one priority will always be jobs, and a lack of sustainable jobs that pay living and union wages,” she said.
She said she couldn’t make it to the protest of unions and elected officials at LaGuardia Airport on Jan. 19, but she supports the efforts to raise wages there. “In the past I have been involved in unionizing fast food and car-wash workers,” she said, adding that she supports paid sick-leave legislation “and any development project in the Bronx, and making sure that living wage is part of the conversation.”
These are progressive positions. So, with a progressive mayor and speaker who promote priorities she shares, is Gibson going to join the Progressive Caucus?
“During my campaign … I was not focused on joining but attempting to see if their vision aligns with my own vision and priorities,” she said. “I do see a lot of similarities. I have not joined the Progressive Caucus. It’s something that I would still consider but have not made a decision yet. (Of the three new Council members in the Bronx, only Ritchie Torres has joined the Caucus. Andrew Cohen has articulated a similar wait-and-see approach to Gibson’s).
Gibson, 34, actively backed Melissa Mark-Viverito in her campaign for re-election to the City Council in the fall. But, as is true for every Bronx Council member except Torres, Gibson didn’t support Mark-Viverito for speaker until Council members voted unanimously for her at the very end of the process. Nonetheless, the speaker appointed Gibson a member of five committees and chair of the Public Safety Committee.
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“I’m excited at the opportunity,” Gibson said, mentioning that public safety was not an issue she focused on in the Assembly. “And I appreciate the confidence [in me] to control an important committee when you talk about public safety for all of New York City.”
Because Mark-Viverito dropped two Bronx Council members (Andrew King and Annabel Palma) from their former chairmanships, and didn’t appoint them to new ones, it appears that she’s offering freshmen members like Gibson and Cohen the benefit of the doubt.
“At the end of the day I’ve still had a working relationship with Melissa prior to her speakership,” Gibson said.
Mark-Viverito was the only Council representative of Bronxites who used participatory budgeting with residents to decide what a million dollars would be used for. (Councilman Cohen intends to try it in his district. Last year, Mark-Viverito’s constituents funded a Youth Build technology center in the Bronx for computers.)
But Gibson, who thinks it’s an “interesting and creative approach to help people,” is wary. Because the 16th District has low voter turnout (as most Bronx districts do) which might translate into few participants in a rigorous grassroots policy project like participatory budgeting, Gibson said she would need some support from the speaker’s office, which she has heard is possible. “If that is still the case, it’s definitely something I would consider, because I would definitely need some help getting it off the ground and running,” Gibson said.
In the meantime, Gibson will continue the neighborhood policy council started by her predecessor, Helen Foster, and Foster’s father (and Council predecessor), Wendell Foster. “Helen Foster would argue that it was her form of participatory budgeting, but they only advise Council members,” Gibson said. “The only goal is to meet every month to talk about housing issues, talk about park issues; African and Muslim community issues; the SCRIE [senior citizen rent increase exemption] program; and youth groups talk about issues relevant to young people.”
As a former Brooklynite, she sees similarities between that borough and the Bronx. “Both have huge communities of diversity, inequity, people living below the poverty line,” she said. “It’s somewhat of a destiny, and that was God’s desire for me, to be a leader bringing change to a community that has been shortchanged for quite a while.”