Michael Benedetto has long supported mayoral control of New York City’s public schools from his perch as chair of the state assembly’s education committee. Jonathan Soto is a school parent-activist who wants to shift away from an “achievement model” of education that he says “expresses itself in standardized testing and scarcity-based programs like gifted and talented programs.”
On June 28, Democratic primary voters in Assembly District 82 in the Northeast Bronx will choose between the competing visions of Benedetto and Soto on public education, criminal justice, climate action and more. The contest between Benedetto, 75, and Soto, 37, embodies both the ideological and generational divides in the Democratic Party.
Benedetto has served in Albany since 2005 and is a close ally of New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, also from the Bronx. Soto, a democratic socialist, is backed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Working Families Party. Assembly District 82 reflects those same divisions: It is home to both a high percentage of city workers, including law enforcement personnel, while its younger voters have trended left in recent years backing the congressional campaigns of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman.
The Indypendent recently spoke with Soto about the varied experiences — being raised by working class Puerto Rican parents, leading Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Center for Faith and Community Partnerships and working as an aide to Ocasio-Cortez — that inform his political ideals and how he would govern differently than Benedetto. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
THE INDYPENDENT: How have your experiences as the child of working class Puerto Rican parents informed your priorities now that you’re running for office, including your intention to defend unions and increase taxes on Wall Street?
JONATHAN SOTO: My parents bought a home in 2007 during the mortgage crisis. We had just arrived from Puerto Rico, and my parents were able to participate in Obama’s loan-modification program, but it still wasn’t enough. My parents now work at nursing homes — my dad is a cook and my mom is a home health aid. During the pandemic, nursing homes were the most vicious environments. My dad was worked to the point where he had a worker’s compensation claim and had to sue and eventually quit his job. I saw how my parents were struggling and how these experiences can break the worker. I believe we need to move to a service-based economy, rather than a commodities-based economy. We need to honor service workers, reorient our priorities and change our economic structure.
The contest between Benedetto, 75, and Soto, 37, embodies both the ideological and generational divides in the Democratic Party.
Does that experience describe your district as well? How would you describe your district in the northeast Bronx?
It’s primarily working-class, with a lot of municipal and unionized workers and majority Black and Latino communities. This includes the communities of Co-op City, Throgs Neck, Pelham Bay, Country Club, City Island and East Bronx. Young people in the district are becoming much more progressive. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez represents this district, and before the redistricting, Congressman Bowman represented Co-op City. There is also a high density of police officers and service people in my district. As we have seen across the country, Black and Latino men are becoming more conservative, and I think our media has become fear-based. Many more people in my district voted for Trump in 2020 than in 2016. A lot of aggrieved folks feel that inflation is a major problem within the Democratic Party’s philosophy, and I agree. If anything, the person I am running against is Michael Benedetto, who took money from Trump. We need to look at the process of politics, at executive control and at how money is sloshing around.
You were involved in relief work in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria as an interfaith leader in the de Blasio administration. Could you speak more about that experience, and the ways in which communities can come together in difficult times? How did that experience influence your intended policies regarding climate legislation?
I worked at City Hall with interfaith leaders during times of disaster to create resiliency plans and mitigation efforts. But in Puerto Rico, I noticed two disturbing trends. A community near my hometown of Aguada was fighting against the removal of their school grounds on the basis of lower enrollment, a tactic that Mayor Adams is using. I also noticed that their waterfront was given to a developer, which is the exact issue I’m fighting against in my community here with a waterfront property acquisition by Trump for his golf course. Because Puerto Rico is a colony, the effects are felt most viscerally there. Much like during COVID, the government was not responsive to the people of Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria. It is an issue of corrupt government and centralized control, which is why I am running on this platform.
You mentioned your work in Puerto Rico and during COVID. Can you elaborate on the work you did as the leader of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Homework Helpers Program, which provides tutoring to students during the pandemic? How does that experience factor into your broader approach to education and why you have made that the centerpiece of your campaign?
I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to have worked with the congresswoman’s vast volunteer network to respond to constituents’ direct needs. They are currently providing 500 students with free one-on-one homework help once a week. I believe having one-on-one engagement is critical and having a remote option allows for more personalized, safer interactions.
I take inspiration from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I believe the hierarchy of interest and influence in education is something we need to end. We tried to structure the program as a peer-to-peer model, and that is the way I’d like to see our schools function.
How does that reflect how you would operate differently as an assembly member than the current incumbent, Michael Benedetto?
There is definitely a clear distinction. One of the major problems with education is a lack of accessibility and a lack of individualized learning models. I believe in an enrichment model of education rather than an achievement-based model. I think achievement is a function of the false idea of American meritocracy, which in education expresses itself in standardized testing and scarcity-based programs like gifted and talented programs. I want to do away with all of that, which is a very different approach. We need a model of community-controlled education. The right[wing] is engaging in these models of organizing with parents and school boards. That same energy could exist on the left. Mayoral control took away school boards, but returning to school board elections and participatory budgeting is a way of introducing more democracy.
“I take inspiration from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I believe the hierarchy of interest and influence in education is something we need to end.”
Speaking of education and mayoral control, the 2023 New York City Council budget was recently decided on. There has been significant backlash over the $215 million cut to New York City schools. If elected to the assembly, how would you address that cut in funding?
It is outrageous that we are defunding schools with the excuse of enrollment drops. I think there is public interest in taxing Wall Street and we could use those revenues to refund education. On the political side, we need candidates who are committed to standing up against leadership during budget votes. On the policy side, we need to tax Wall Street and find new revenue to fund education.
Your opponent, Michael Benedetto was the Chair of the Education Committee. What do you think about the role he has played in that position?
Benedetto recently blocked a bill to remove city oversight over claims from special education parents. He, along with Betty Rosa, the commissioner of education, made a deal to give the mayor oversight: Parents of children with special needs now need to go through the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH), rather than allowing school districts to have independent arbitration over their claims. Additionally, Benedetto was quiet about remote options during the pandemic, because Mayor de Blasio and Mayor Adams didn’t want that. As an individual candidate, I would love to organize this movement against mayoral control. I would love to engage in a project studying different models of school governance, so that when this model comes up for reauthorization in two years, we have alternative models to present.
You have a lot of experience working with social justice in the context of interfaith groups, as the former executive director of the Mayor’s Center for Faith and Community Partnerships and the associate vice president of strategic initiatives at Union Theological Seminary. Did those experiences with interfaith groups influence your views on participatory democracy and localized control of government?
During the pandemic, Soto oversaw a program started by AOC that connected hundreds of her volunteers with schoolchildren in her district who needed extra tutoring.
Absolutely. I think from a faith perspective, there is a lot of reactionary spirituality that makes you hate this life and love the next so that you feel no loyalty to anything here. That is politically disempowering. I take a lot of inspiration from Jesus’s words and the idea that the kingdom of heaven must be actualized in the present. We should organize for the immediate liberation of our present circumstances. However, I have also seen how religion is used to oppress people — some movements fetishize the prosperity gospel. On the political left, I think there is a lot of shaming and mocking of the excesses of this rightwing political culture.
Is there something people are missing when they reflexively shame religion?
I think that’s exactly the problem. Shame is a cousin to fear, and we need to move entirely from a shame-based culture. I view organizing as moving from fear to care. It’s really that simple.
In your campaign, you have prioritized adopting a restorative justice model to change the way the country envisions the prison system. Mayor Adams has a plan to close Rikers Island and create a borough-based system of more modern jails. Do you believe that that’s the solution? If not, what kind of legislation do you hope to pass to create this system of restorative justice?
I don’t believe we should be investing in developing jails in any way, shape or form. I am also concerned about the state using surveillance to persecute people. We need to try something we have never tried before: investing in preventing the causes of crime and while also keeping people safe. I frequently discuss with constituents that we need to find forms of accountability for people who cause intentional harm, but locking more people up can’t be the solution. We need massive investments, community-based crime reduction programs for young people, and collaboration with community organizations and houses of worship.
Is there anything else you would like to say about yourself or your campaign in these last two weeks of the race?
I’m really excited about what is going to happen in the assembly, especially in light of the failures that we saw with the recent budget and the Good Cause Eviction bill, as well as the passage of the Build Public Renewables Act, which people know Benedetto failed to co-sponsor. Cost of living is a major issue, and a major part of what is driving these costs is rising energy costs. So we need a long-term plan for renewables, and I am excited to be a part of that movement.
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