Interview: Special Election Candidate Manny Silva On Building A New Political Infrastructure in the Rockaways

After Khaleel Anderson’s surprise win and Moumita Ahmed’s decisive loss, the Queens Democratic establishment is looking to shore up power before June. Will one of their former staffers set them on the back foot?

Rob Katz Feb 15, 2021

Just three weeks after the first election in an already pivotal year for New York City’s political future, southeast Queens’ City Council District 31 may see yet another standoff between the Queens political establishment and the borough’s progressive flank.

As the district’s former representative, Donovan Richards, vacated the post for the Queens borough presidency last December, nine candidates emerged to compete in the special election scheduled for Feb. 23rd. The establishment has largely coalesced around Selvena Brooks-Powers, who earned the nods of major players including Rep. Gregory Meeks, State Sen. James Sanders Jr., and Richards himself — although Richards and Brooks-Powers were competitors vying for the seat in 2013.

Matching her fundraising momentum is Richards’ own former chief-of-staff: Manny Silva, a Rockaways native and self-identified social democrat who initially won Richards’ attention through years of community work on the peninsula.

Silva entered public service in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which tore apart the Rockaways in 2012. After working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Silva served as a coordinator within the Worker-Owned Rockaway Cooperatives Project, a recovery effort that blossomed into community-controlled, democratically-run businesses along the peninsula, and then worked in the nonprofit sector before receiving a job offer from his councilperson.

His campaign promises to put an organizer grounded in his community in City Hall. If elected, Silva has pledged to create a professional development mentorship program to foster one-to-one partnerships between local professionals and 100 in-district young adults in his first term. He plans to implement a new co-governance program, made of two community-led district working groups in the district’s separate Rockaway Peninsula and southeast Queens branches, that would have a say in Silva’s own voting decisions.

Silva also stressed putting up a “wall of accountability” outside of his district office to track all of his campaign commitments physically and online.

Though Super Bowl Sunday’s light snowfall blanketed the city, Silva informed me that after our Zoom call he’d be strapping on his winter boots and going out to canvass. “It’s the best time to knock doors; everyone’s home!”

Indypendent: What are your top priorities if you are going to fill Donovan Richards’ seat? 

Manny Silva: We have two levels of priorities. We have all our pillars that are like big city-wide goals. And then those break down to, what actionable items can we do as a council member to get there? 

The first pillar is dignified housing for everyone. Now you can say that, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen tomorrow. We have to do things to move our city closer to that goal. 

The second pillar is a public safety system that has empathy at its core. And right now, with the current public safety system, we can’t get there. But at the same time, I don’t support saying, let’s get rid of something before we build something new to take its place. There are actionable items we can do to begin building something new and to take the place of the current system. We need something more comprehensive. We need something that’s built on empathy, something made up of armed and unarmed officers, mostly unarmed, something that includes social workers. 

The third pillar is equity in our educational system. And it is very obvious that for the last 50 years, our educational system in southeast Queens has been at a disadvantage and has not been on par with the rest of the city. I want our neighborhoods to have the same access to resources as every other neighborhood. There is an idea I have for that, which is PTA matching funds so that our PTA’s can compete with some of the PTA’s around the city.

Can you talk a little bit about your own experiences during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and its aftermath?

Hurricane Sandy absolutely destroyed a large chunk of our district — literally just wiped it out. We were all living in darkness for months. Our streets were a mess and full of debris, and for months there was no cell service. But since Hurricane Sandy, we’ve seen a lot of growth. Hurricane Sandy brought a lot of attention to the Rockaways, and we’ve seen a lot of opportunities come. 

“We’re seeing a lot more unity from the establishment in this race. They don’t want to lose again.”

However, the government realized they are sitting on some very valuable property out here. Only time will tell what that means to New York City and what they’re going to do, but I plan on ensuring that whatever the city does, the community is going to have a platform and the power it needs to push for what they want to see done with our public land out here.

How has [southeast Queens-based progressive elected to the Assembly in 2020] Khaleel Anderson’s win affected the dynamics in your race?

We’re seeing a lot more unity from the establishment in this race. They don’t want to lose again. And they are pouring their resources into ensuring that they don’t. I think that Khaleel’s race just woke them up and got them a little more united than they would have been.

They are taking their candidate, introducing their candidate to everybody. They’re telling community leaders to support the candidate. They are calling up the unions, having the unions support the candidate and they’re using their power, influence, and resources to try to make sure that the person they want to win wins.

What are your hopes for a progressive presence in City Hall after all the ballots are counted for the June primary? 

First off, I want to see 31 progressives coming to the City Council. The one thing I am a little wary of, though, is that a lot of people start off progressive, a lot of people have great ideas, a lot of people want to do a lot of work. But then once they get in, they become a part of the system. 

You could even look at the progressive caucus of the City Council that already exists. At first it was this powerful force that brought in Melissa Mark-Viverito, a progressive female Speaker. Then when the next speaker race came up, they all wanted to be Speaker. And they all took as much real estate money as they could. That is not where they started. People change, people grow, but I don’t want to see this political system and this game of money absorb the new council members. I want us to remain with our integrity and remain with our focus on people and the interests of people. 

I believe Rockaway Youth Task Force needs to be dissolved. The culture built there was not a productive culture, it was an oppressive culture.”

You have to have people around you that are going to remind you you’re still a person. You have these goals. You’ve got to be able to keep yourself grounded. But beyond that, I think the only way to really be able to say everybody else is going to be able to keep their integrity is by removing money from politics. Money has to go if we’re really going to ensure that there’s no outside influences and people remain progressive and not just progressive in name, not just progressive in legislation, but progressive in their character — humble. 

I want to get your thoughts on the recent developments with the community organization Rockaway Youth Task Force, whose founding executive director, Milan Taylor, is stepping down after multiple women involved with the organization accused Taylor of sexually assaulting and harassing female staffers. What’s the place of the Rockaway Youth Task Force in the district going forward?

I believe Rockaway Youth Task Force needs to be dissolved, and I believe that the culture that Milan instilled as the executive director cannot easily be changed just by getting rid of him. They still have the same board that empowered him. They still have the same people on staff that were experiencing his terror. I believe that really the only way forward, unless you’re going to get rid of the entire board, is to dissolve the organization. The culture that he built there was not a productive culture, it was an oppressive culture. 

But I do think there is a need for that kind for an organization that can organize people within our district. We have a lot of young people that need to be organized and activated, but we also have a Spanish-speaking community that doesn’t really have anyone organizing or even educating them on the resources available to them. We also have Caribbean communities that can be organized. And even our Orthodox Jewish community could be organized to fight for progressive causes. 

What I’ve been trying to do with the entire campaign is use the campaign as an opportunity to engage people in our community, enlighten them, empower them and teach them how to run campaigns — not even teach them, but learn with them, grow with them. So then after our campaign is done, you have 20, 30 people that know the ins-and outs of campaigns. The next time anybody is interested in running for something, you already have this infrastructure built out, especially if we want to challenge the status quo.

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