Cathy Rojas Offers Working-Class New Yorkers an Alternative

Issue 267

Queens public school teacher and PSL member Cathy Rojas is running at the left alternative in the Nov. 2 general election for mayor.

John Tarleton Oct 27, 2021

New Yorkers will cast one more ballot in this year’s mayoral race when they go to the polls for the Nov. 2 general election. Former NYPD police captain and Democratic nominee Eric Adams is the overwhelming favorite. Celebrity vigilante Curtis Sliwa is the Republican nominee. Carrying the banner of unabashed millennial socialism is Cathy Rojas, a full-time Queens public school teacher and multi-issue activist who is running as the candidate of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, a smaller, further left analog to the Democratic Socialists of America. The DSA has made its name in New York politics by knocking off a half-dozen Democratic incumbents in the past three years but is not contesting this year’s mayor’s race.

Rojas, 30, races from one corner of the city to the next as her schedule permits. She is calling for universal rent control, a $6 billion cut to the NYPD budget and the end of mayoral control of New York City’s public schools. She’s been endorsed by Brooklyn State Senator Julia Salazar and newly elected Harlem City Councilmember Kristin Jordan Richardson. According to her latest Campaign Finance Board filing, she’s raised $21,000, a total dwarfed by the $19.8 million in private and matching public funds Adams has garnered this election cycle. When we talked on the phone, our conversation came on the heels of a full day of teaching for Rojas in addition to her campaign work.

“It’s exhausting,” Rojas said. “But bigger than feeling tired and exhausted is my love for humanity and my love for working-class people.”

THE INDYPENDENT: On Nov. 2 New Yorkers will have the chance to vote for Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee, Brooklyn borough president, former state senator. Why should they vote for you instead?

CATHY ROJAS: Based on the people Eric Adams has been meeting with and the people who have been donating to his campaign, he has shown who he is and who he will be representing once he’s in office. He is the candidate who has received the most amount of funding from real estate developers, from millionaires, from Republican candidates.

Rojas’s platform calls for eradicating homelessness by enacting rent control in which nobody’s paying more than 20% of their income for housing. She also wants to fully fund education so students would have more access to after-school programs, to green space, to summer youth employment.

I have been meeting with public sector workers, with taxi drivers, with workers from Colombia. I’ve been going to rallies in support of abortion rights. I’m not a career politician. I’m a public school teacher, a community activist for 10 years, a daughter of immigrants born and raised in Queens. We need someone that not only comes from a working-class background, but continues to show that they are committed to putting the interests of working-class people first, not pandering to

wealthy donors. I think that we need a New York City that’s going to work for the New York City working class. That’s why people should vote for me.

Tell us about your background and the experiences that led you to identify as a socialist.

I grew up in Woodside, Queens. My father was an auto body painter, my mother a housekeeper. At a very young age, I was going out with her to help with housekeeping. Later, I worked in restaurants as a hostess, a waitress, a bartender. I was a cook in a concession stand. I saw the juxtaposition of interests in the workplace — how the boss many times is really just trying to exploit your labor as much as possible in order to gain the largest amount of profit. That led me to try to build a union in the last restaurant that I was working in.

As for what made me a socialist, I think it was my experience in New York public schools. The schools were predominantly Black and Latino, but the teachers were predominantly white. They weren’t invested in our well-being or empowerment. Many had racist ideas which led me to question why our culture was constantly being demonized. By sixth grade, I was seeing people being expelled or sent to juvie instead of receiving mental health services. In high school, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and it became very clear that we are oppressed to protect the profits of the rich.

In college, I was active in a coalition of CUNY and SUNY students protesting budget cuts and tuition hikes. I’ve been a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation for about five years now. I was one of the lead organizers in the campaign to kick out the proposed Amazon headquarters from Queens, which would have gentrified our community and displaced many working-class immigrant families. During the crux of the pandemic, I organized a weekly food delivery program when our undocumented community was completely and totally neglected, and wasn’t receiving any type of aid.

As mayor, how would you approach questions of policing and public safety differently from previous mayors?

I think we have to look at what works. Studies show the police spend only about 2% of their time solving major crimes. Most of the time they are targeting people for crimes of poverty — not paying their MTA fare, ticketing street vendors and so on. When we put people into the criminal justice system, that doesn’t create real solutions for when they come out.

We need transformative solutions like violence intervention programs that have been tested in different New York communities and in other cities. They hire people recently out of jail who are respected by their peers but who no longer want to engage in violent acts and want to help move their community past violence. They are trained to be mediators and to do conflict resolution between different groups of people in order to prevent further violence. Because people know them, many times they are told when there may be a confrontation that will happen.

We know that the communities that have the lowest crime rates are those that are the most funded. Our platform calls for eradicating homelessness by enacting rent control in which nobody’s paying more than 20% of their income for housing. We also want to fully fund education so students would have more access to after-school programs, to green space, to summer youth employment.

Eric Adams is overwhelmingly favored to win the election on November 2. What would you define as a successful outcome?

We want to expose as many New Yorkers as possible to our political platform. The power of the people is always greater than the power of any one politician. We want to see a New York City where the working class as a whole begins to demand this be a rent control city, where teachers demand an end to mayoral control of the school system, where there’s a mass movement in favor of violence prevention programs as opposed to criminalization. If we receive 10,000 votes, that will be the highest vote total that a socialist candidate for mayor in New York City has received since 1957. It would demonstrate a movement in favor of socialist ideals, of working-class ideals, of creating a society that is rooted in humanity as opposed to profit.

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