Sal Albanese is a former five-term City Councilmember who’s run for mayor twice as well as for the Assembly and Congress. Bob Gangi has been a leading criminal-justice reform advocate for decades. Mike Tolkin is a guy with significant personal financial resources.
All of the Democrats challenging Mayor de Blasio in the September 12 primary face very steep odds but most of them have some edge to cling to: experience seeking or holding elected office, some measure of name recognition, or a substantial amount of money.
Richard Bashner has none of the above. Among the dark horses in this year’s Democratic primary for mayor, he is arguably the darkest. Maybe that fact should give him pause, but this does not appear to daunt him. “I think that if people start focusing on it and writing about it,” he said of his candidacy in an interview with City Limits last week, “I think I’ll become the consensus candidate. And I’ll win this election.”
“And if I don’t, I’m still happy I jumped in,” he added, “because now we’re talking about criminal justice and all these issues that are vitally important and they haven’t been talked about it in a coherent way by any of the other candidates.”
Those other candidates—especially Gangi, who has articulated a passionate critique of criminal justice policy for decades, or even de Blasio himself, who has reduced stop-and-frisk, cut down on arrests, instituted a new form of community policing and vowed to close Rikers—might disagree with that assessment. But particularly in the case of the mayor, their words ring hollow to Bashner.
What was missing from the August 23rd debate between de Blasio and Albanese was any real recognition, Bashner said, of “The ongoing war against black and brown people going on in this country and in this city” by law-enforcement policy.
“We need to close Rikers Island prison and we need to close it not in 10 years,” he said. “There’s really no need to wait that long. The fact that 80 percent of people who are there have never been convicted of a crime is a scandal.” With extensive use of pretrial release and electronic monitoring, Bashner said, there is no reason for the city’s jails to be filled by people awaiting trial. He also supports expunging the records of all arrests that occurred under the stop-and-frisk regime, arguing that those busts are invalid because they were “fruit of a poisoned tree.” De Blasio, Bashner argues, “can’t be as aggressive at doing reform as he should be because he’s already lost the trust of the police department.”
The irony there is that de Blasio played a big role in giving Bashner what government experience he can claim. Raised in the Bronx and educated at Harvard and NYU Law, Bashner clerked for a federal judge and then went into private practice; he now heads the real-estate practice at Becker, Glynn. In 1999, he was appointed to Brooklyn Community Board 6 by Councilmember Steve DiBrienza but after de Blasio took over that Council seat in 2002 he reappointed Bashner to the board four times, which allowed him to have a term as chair.
This does not earn the mayor any love from the fellow Park Slope resident and father of two. “He’s too timid. His approach to policy is to try to find some big policy idea that is basically dangling a shiny item in front of the voters,” Bashner said. “Instead of fixing the subway and buses, he dangles the BQX streetcar. It’s lip service and it’s not a real proposal.”
De Blasio would note that there have been some real deliverables during his time as mayor: pre-K, sick leave, rent freeze, ferries, and so on. But no actual back and forth between the men will occur because of the change in campaign law signed by the mayor last year that raised the financial threshold for debates, which kept Bashner, Gangi and Tolkin out of last week’s televised affair and will also make the second and final pre-primary debate, on September 6, a two-man event for Albanese and the mayor.
While Bashner won’t make the debate stage, his financial position, though not good, is better at the moment than what faces any other Democratic challenger to de Blasio. Having raised $118,000 and spent about $104,000, he has $14,000 on hand – more than Albanese, Gangi or Tolkin at last count, but slightly less than the $5 million the mayor has.
With a substantial YouTube presence and a list of short but interesting policy ideas, Bashner does offer more than harsh words about the mayor (“a weak and ineffective leader” who “continues to say things that alienate people on both sides of an issue”), although some of Bashner’s platform points are stronger than others. He argues, for instance, that the city can build a lot more of the senior housing it needs by creating new buildings with small individual rooms but comfortable and welcoming common areas, like kitchens and living rooms, that the aged can share—a prospect for late-life communal living that a few aging New Yorkers would adore but most would run screaming from.
More practically, he also proposes ending most of use of bail, legalizing marijuana, cutting city funds to not-for-profits that pay their CEOs too much, instituting citywide participatory budgeting, lowering campaign contribution limits, allowing tenants to certify housing-code violations, monitoring abused children and their families by video conference—and, a policy proposal tailor-made for the obligatory tabloid “here’s a crazy guy runnin’ for something” article—he wants to repeal the city’s cabaret law so we can all dance in bars.
In 2009, Bashner donated to de Blasio’s campaign for public advocate in 2009 and in 2013 cut a $1,500 check to de Blasio’s mayoral effort—part of about $10,000 in local campaign donations Bashner made before he began collecting his own. He has also been modestly generous to national Democrats. He sent checks worth $2,500 to Hillary Clinton in 2016 and $4,000 to Obama in 2012. Back in 2008, he gave to one ($4,600 to Clinton) and then the other ($7,300 to Obama).
*Correction: The original version of this article erroneously attributed to Bashner a quote from a letter that appeared in the New York Times during the 2008 presidential race. We regret the error.