Three candidates running in the upcoming Democratic 82nd Assembly District primary election faced off on Thursday, June 9, as BronxNet’s Gary Axelbank moderated a debate between incumbent Assemblyman Michael Benedetto and challengers, Al Quattlebaum, minister, business owner, U.S. Army and National Guard veteran and Jonathan Soto, urban planner, human rights advocate and faith-based organizer.
The three debated several policy issues impacting Bronxites ranging from crime to infrastructure. The 82nd Assembly District covers the neighborhoods of Baychester, City Island, Co-Op City, Country Club, Locust Point, Pelham Bay, and Throggs Neck.
There were no opening statements. The first question was on each candidate’s experience in terms of fulfilling the role of assembly member. Quattlebaum kicked things off. “I understand what we need in our community,” he said. “We need to have someone who understands and cares about the community. During the pandemic, my organization was out there feeding five thousand people a month.” Quattlebaum was the owner and head Chef of Big Al’s Soul & Catering, which he said had to close its doors amid the pandemic.
Nonetheless, according to his campaign website, he found a way to stay close to what he loved by providing food to people in need. During the height of the pandemic, Quattlebaum said he and his team were feeding up to 5,000 people a month Bronx-wide. He added that he believes the different positions he has assumed throughout his life and career to date have helped him understand people better.
Soto, the youngest of the three candidates, said, “I’m organizing for whole communities and safe streets because our streets cannot be safe if we are not whole.” He advocated for better public education, better mental health services, and a better budget. Soto is the former executive director of the Center for Faith and Community Partnerships, a former organizer for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) who has endorsed his candidacy, and he also worked in the de Blasio administration. He is trained in law and urban planning.
For his part, Benedetto said, “I think I am the only candidate who has lived in this community their whole life. I’ve worked for this community before I was even elected. I know the people, I know the issues, I know the history. I was elected because the people knew me.” The assemblyman has served in the State assembly since 2005, and is chair of the education committee. He also founded the news publication, The Bronx Times.
Axelbank then asked the candidates about a topic for which Soto has been a strong proponent: budget cuts to the NYPD. The candidate explained his stance, saying, “One of the things that we’ve seen, especially with policing, is that we are asking our police officers to do way too much.” Soto said he believed that crime should be prevented, not reacted to, and that education should be better funded than policing. “Just having more police officers does not mean having more safety,” he said, referencing the recent mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas as an example.
For his part, Benedetto responded, saying, “We need a well trained police force to [keep people safe]. We can’t defund the police or eliminate or abolish the police. We need to make sure our citizenry is safe.” Quattlebaum said safety was his number one priority. “We’re using the wrong words; we need to reallocate,” he said. “We need to bring resources into our community to prevent crime.”
Soto contended the issue was more about divesting. “It’s outrageous that we have more police officers than mental health services in our schools,” he said. Benedetto responded, saying “I understand the need for mental health services.” He added that as chair of the education committee, he had provided funding for mental health services in schools and had ensured there was enough [funding].
The next topic was on special education, and a new bill that aims to protect students with special needs. The question was directed at Benedetto as the law has not yet been passed. According to the assemblyman, there was a backlog of cases relating to special needs students’ specific educational needs that had been raised with the assembly as a whole. He said that backlog was subsequently addressed by his education committee to the extent that the referenced backlog was cleared.
Meanwhile, Quattlebaum said he was tired of educational matters not being addressed and also appeared to speak more generally about other matters also not being addressed. On the topic of education, Soto said, “The mayor has control now over this [education] process, which is out of control.” He added that he was against mayoral control of education, especially with regard to OATH [The Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings].
As reported, the mayoral control of schools policy was implemented during the Bloomberg administration. The policy shifted control away from borough presidents, charged with assigning two members to the then City Board of Education. Opponents of the Board had said the power shift towards it created corruption and chaos within the public school system, evidenced during the years the Board was in place, and before its 2002 demise. Today, a 15-member Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), according to Chalkbeat, approves major contracts and some policy decisions, such as school closures. The mayor has retained control over other educational matters for at least another two years.
In December 2021, executive order 91 by then Mayor de Blasio transferred “adjudications related to impartial hearings under the education law to OATH.”
Soto continued, “We need to have leadership that’s going to stand up for the most vulnerable in our communities, and special education and kids with special needs should not, in any way, shape, or form, be left aside in order to give the mayor more control over the education system.” Benedetto responded, saying, “The [special needs students] cases have dwindled down, and that is a good thing.” He added that OATH was an independent City agency.
Mayoral control then became a point of contention during the debate when Benedetto brought up that Soto used to work for former Mayor Bill de Blasio and alleged Soto had not challenged any of the former mayor’s policy positions. Soto rebutted this by saying he had challenged the former mayor on different topics.
The next discussion revolved around bail reform, the purpose of which was to reduce the mass and long-term incarceration of people who could not afford to pay bail and who were being held on Rikers Island for what were considered to be minor offenses, such as in the tragic case of Kalief Browder. It was introduced in early 2020, before the pandemic hit, and even then had its detractors, particularly among the NYPD. Essentially, some felt the work carried out by police in making arrests following various crimes was being negated by certain judges who were perceived as being “too soft” on certain criminals who police felt were dangerous and prone to recidivism. The legislation was pared back earlier this year.
The topic was first addressed by Quattlebaum, who said he was not satisfied with the latest rollbacks, which aimed to prevent violent criminals from walking the streets while awaiting trial. Quattlebaum said he was not satisfied because “we still have babies dying in our streets,” the general suggestion being that those who are released on bail are endangering innocent people.
On the other hand, Soto said he was in favor of bail reform because of “grave injustices” in relation to bail, and added that he also did not want to bring back the policy of “Stop and Frisk.” He remarked on what he saw as Benedetto’s contrasting voting positions on the topic while commending Quattlebaum for his firm stance on the matter.
Benedetto rebutted, saying, “I voted for bail reform, and that was a good vote. Bail was being abused. There were too many people thrown into jail, incarcerated without trials and it needed to be reformed.” He added that making a mistake, and admitting to it was what made one fit for office.
Quattlebaum, who is also the founder and president of the People First Democrat Club in Co-op City, then suggested it was not legislators who had been responsible for instigating change when it came to bail reform but New Yorkers themselves who had called for a balance between the opposing stances taken by the two main political parties on the topic.
Soto was then asked about his views on urban planning and housing. He described the process of community zoning as “byzantine” and said it needed to be changed. He also called for legislation to allocate more funds for affordable housing, especially in Black and brown communities.
The topic led to a point of contention around land development, campaign contributions and allegations that Benedetto had accepted campaign contributions in the context of the Trump Ferry Point Golf Links. As previously reported by Norwood News, a judge ruled in April that Trump Ferry Point LLC, a firm affiliated with the The Trump Organization, may continue to operate the 18-hole, 222-acre golf course, driving range, clubhouse and ancillary facilities located on city-owned land at Ferry Point Park East in the Throggs Neck section of The Bronx, despite an attempted contract termination by the de Blasio administration following the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in 2021.
Trump Ferry Point LLC was contracted on Feb. 21, 2012 by the City of New York during the Bloomberg administration to operate the golf links under a 20-year license agreement. A 2011, City-issued press release confirmed the Trump Organization had been selected to run the golf links through a public Request for Offers, issued by the Parks Department. Benedetto said the golf links site had been considered parkland at the time and had been used for trash dumping and drag racing primarily [before it was re-zoned].
The assemblyman said he never took cash contributions and added that any campaign contributions received were later donated to the New York Immigration Coalition. Soto and Quattlebaum argued this point, citing Benedetto’s campaign finance records. Norwood News followed up with both Soto and Benedetto on this point following the debate. Soto alleged that Benedetto accepted $2,500 on September 2, 2014 from Trump, himself, after the former president had “spread his racist birther lie that slandered President Barack Obama.”
He further alleged that Benedetto accepted $4,100 on September 21, 2015 “from Trump’s golf course company after he [Trump] announced his run for the presidency and [had] ‘slandered’ Mexicans.” Soto went on to say that on May 21, 2019, Benedetto voted against requesting the release of Trump’s tax returns to the Congress, and that the subsequent donation by the assemblyman to the The New York Immigration Coalition was Benedetto’s “attempt at pandering.”
Soto further alleged that Benedetto donated the money to the immigration coalition 5 years after he received Trump’s campaign contributions, and only after he was asked to comment on a City & State article which cited references to the Trump campaign contributions which Soto had highlighted amid his [Soto’s] announcement of his run for Benedetto’s seat. New York State Campaign Finance Board records substantiate Soto’s allegations regarding the contribution amounts and dates in question.
We reached out to Benedetto’s campaign for a comment on the matter. A spokesperson for the assemblyman responded, saying, “Over three years ago, I redirected two very old donations made by Donald Trump and his organization to the New York Immigrant Coalition, a group fighting back against the worst parts of the Trump Agenda. I was no different than many Democrats who had accepted campaign contributions from him over the years including President Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Chuck Schumer, Ruben Díaz Jr., and Jimmy Vacca.” [Norwood News has not yet fact-checked the later assertion regarding the referenced candidates.]
The statement continued, “The case was closed then but my opponents, who lack any record of professional or community accomplishment, can not let it go because they have no record to run on themselves. I’m a pro-labor, pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-environment, pro-public education Democrat with a record to match.”
The statement concluded, “I was a Barack Obama and Joe Biden delegate and I was at the Philadelphia convention in 2016 when we nominated Hillary Clinton for president. I have never supported Donald Trump for anything a day in my life. Personally, I think he’s guilty of treason and a cancer on our democracy. My opponents chose to lie about me because they cannot speak to anything they have done for our community, and because their policy prescriptions, like defunding and abolishing the police, are unpopular in our community.”
Norwood News also contacted Soto for comment on Benedetto’s allegations that Soto could not speak to anything he has done for the community and on Benedetto’s comments regarding Soto’s alleged position on “defunding and abolishing the police.” Soto responded, saying, “As the first-ever executive director of the Mayor’s Center for Faith and Community Partnerships, I connected hundreds of houses of worship and community organizations to mental health support, food assistance, housing and small business services.”
He added, “As a public school parent and neighbor, I organized with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to provide free virtual tutoring to over 500 students during the pandemic. I look forward to continuing serving my neighbors with people-centered care as the next Assembly member for the 82nd district in the East Bronx.”
Norwood News previously reported on the efforts by the congresswoman’s team to recruit volunteers to carry out free, virtual tutoring to students in need who were struggling with remote learning amid the pandemic.
Towards the end of the debate, the discussion reverted once more to the topic of mayoral control, with Quattlebaum saying Benedetto had “waffled” over the matter when he shouldn’t have. He said Bronxites needed straightforward action. Meanwhile, Benedetto argued he was the one who had passed legislation to better educational policy in the City. Soto argued against mayoral control once again and said he favored municipal control over education.
Closing statements by each candidate ended the debate.
Assembly District 82 is not affected by redistricting in the upcoming 2022 primary or general elections. New York State assembly district lines will be redrawn in time for the primary elections in 2024, according to a recent court ruling dated June 10, as reported.
For more information on how and where to vote, click here.
*Síle Moloney contributed to this story.
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