A few months ago I read a great piece by Rebecca Lamorte in Teen Vogue about how she became involved in politics. As a co-partner in #CripTheVote, an online campaign encouraging the political participation of disabled people with Andrew Pulrang and Gregg Beratan, I’m always excited to see disabled people running for office and involved in public service. Below is my interview with Rebecca.
Please share a little about yourself and your background!
I am a proud disabled New Yorker, union member, labor advocate, community organizer and Yorkville resident running for New York City Council in Manhattan’s 5th district. I moved to the neighborhood in 2013, just two months before the subway accident that changed my life, and live with my dachshund, Forrest, who is blind. I currently serve on Manhattan’s Community Board 8 and as Secretary of my local Democratic club, the East River Democratic Club. I am also an avid volunteer at local churches, shelters, food pantries, neighborhood associations and tenant coalitions. When not serving the community, I enjoy taking Forrest to Carl Schurz Park, sampling all the pizza the neighborhood has to offer and baking up a storm at home.
Professionally, I’ve spent my entire career working in the New York labor movement and am proud to have led campaigns that brought greater safety, dignity and higher wages to New York’s workers. I currently work for a labor union where I coordinate legislation and communications needs in support of 17,000 hardworking construction workers and 1,200 responsible employers.
I read a Teen Vogue piece by you in December 2020 on how becoming disabled launched your political career. I know being a disabled person in a non-disabled world politicized me at an early age. What was this process like for you since your subway accident 7 years ago?
My subway accident completely changed my life, making me thankful for the little things I took for granted before it and opening my eyes to the work we need to do as a society to truly be accessible and inclusive. I now realize that before the accident I was unaware of the barriers in our community and the entire City of New York. Within 24 hours everything changed for me, making those barriers that I hadn’t seen before impediments to my everyday life.
I came to know inaccessibility, discrimination and disregard intimately and became frustrated when I couldn’t change the circumstances around me. Everytime I came up against another accessibility barrier I felt angry, sometimes even breaking down in tears because all I wanted was to go about life without constantly explaining why I needed help or answering invasive questions about my accident and disability. Everyday became a fight and it affected my mental and physical health.
The transition to being disabled also revealed the deep determination for change and compassion I have for those too often overlooked in our city. I had to adjust to my new normal and figure out how to navigate my community and city because it was so inaccessible. For the first time, I was experiencing barriers to everyday life many New Yorkers in the disabled community had long been experiencing. I couldn’t take the subway for over a year because my neighborhood and the area I worked in lacked accessible stations. I barely left my apartment because I live in a walk-up apartment building and when I did, I needed help getting around or into local businesses that weren’t accessible. But the moment that made me fully commit to fighting for all of us was when City Hall security told me if I couldn’t walk up the steps there, then I shouldn’t be there. I was there in a professional capacity, asking for assistance and was disregarded, belittled and made to feel inferior. It was that moment I became more politicized than ever before and vowed to fight for disability justice, access and inclusion.
It can be difficult for a lot of people whether they become disabled later in life or born disabled to identify as disabled publicly or even think about it as a political identity. What helped you realize you were part of a broader movement and culture?
I didn’t refer to myself as disabled at first, naively hoping I would move past my accident, pain and cane. But the longer my pain persisted and increased, as my mobility decreased, and the more assistance I needed, I realized I was a part of a larger movement and culture. I also started doing research on accessibility in public transit and other services, and learned how little access there was in New York City. The more I learned and personally experienced because of my disability, the more grounded in this movement and culture I became.
People in towns and cities everywhere have a love-hate relationship with public transit. For people who aren’t aware of New York City’s MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority), what are some of the major accessibility issues in this major transit system?
Currently less than 25% of the entire public transit system in New York City is accessible. This means that most subway stations lack elevators, escalators and other services for vision and hearing impaired New Yorkers. My own neighborhood lacked accessible transit options until the Second Avenue Subway opened in 2017, for example. The MTA did expedite the transition to kneeling buses to better serve disabled New Yorkers. However due to bus overcrowding and few priority seats on the buses, many disabled New Yorkers, especially wheelchair users, are forced to wait for service so they can get a seat or so their wheelchair can fit and be secured in the accessible area.
Another issue with the MTA is the “grandfathering” in of inaccessible stations when repairs are done. The MTA will close stations for infrastructure repairs and based on federal law should be forced to make the station ADA compliant. However, they are able to “grandfather in” inaccessibility using the scope of work and budgetary implications as excuses for why elevators, escalators and other upgrades can’t also be made to the station.
In recent years, the MTA has signaled they want to prioritize making all stations and transit fully accessible but funding issues and public opposition has delayed the infrastructure updates.
What improvements and changes would you like to see with MTA such as their budget, leadership, and priorities?
There are a number of changes I would like to see made at the MTA, the main one being the prioritization of infrastructure updates to make every form of public transit and every station fully accessible. This requires exponentially more funding and deliberate action to make these updates a reality, regardless of public opposition or other budgetary needs. I would also like to see a shift to include disabled New Yorkers in policy making decisions and conversations around mass transit. To really affirm the MTA’s commitment to inclusivity in public transit, I also want to see the agency led by a disabled New Yorker.
You are running for New York City Council in District 5. What led you to this decision and how is the campaign going so far?
I am proud to be in the race for City Council in District 5. I entered the race to fight for my neighbors that are too often overlooked, including disabled New Yorkers, income capped seniors and working families struggling to continue calling the community home. We are running an aggressive race to ensure disability, housing and economic justice for New Yorkers. We already released five high profile endorsements, knocked on over 1,000 doors and maintained the most active presence in the community. I also secured public matching funds for our campaign with the help and support of neighbors, guaranteeing our ability to run a robust campaign in the 5th district.
On your website you state that you are a voice for accessibility, affordability, and economic equality. Can you tell me about the major issues facing residents of District 5 in the middle of a major economic downturn and the coronavirus pandemic?
The most pressing issues facing the community during the pandemic are housing and economic insecurity. Many residents lost jobs or had changes to their employment and/or financial situation as a result of the economic downturn. These economic changes then put many at risk of being unable to pay rent and household bills. Affordable housing is scarce in the neighborhood and market rate rents had many households rent burdened prior to the pandemic, leading some to move out of the City completely. These issues also led to greater food insecurity and gaps in healthcare at a time when access to care was more vital than ever.
In this major crisis, the COVID19 pandemic, where social inequality is exacerbated to even greater extremes, what does the city and state of NY need to do to help the most marginalized communities?
The pandemic laid bare the great inequality in New York, and the entire country. Many New Yorkers faced serious economic and housing insecurity as a result of the economic downturn and the city, state and federal government did not do nearly enough to empower those struggling. Locally, New York can begin to empower residents with pragmatic measures to help marginalized communities, while also working with the new administration to ensure federal aid. The City and State need to cancel residential and commercial rent, end evictions, improve public healthcare and hospitals, and increase direct aid to small businesses and residents, regardless of immigration status. We also need to give hazard pay to the essential workers that put their lives on the line to keep us safe during COVID-19. This must include vital healthcare workers and first responders, but also grocery store, delivery and restaurant workers, building supers and maintenance staff and other workers that have been overlooked. The City and State are both facing large budget deficits and to pay for such programs and direct aid, the State needs to increase taxes on upper income earners and bring other revenues into the budget.
How has the pandemic shaped the way you campaign and engage with the public? What else is challenging about running for office for the first time?
I never expected to campaign in a pandemic, but I’m happy to rise to the occasion and get creative for my community. COVID-19 has completely changed how I campaign, fundraise and conduct outreach. I stopped all in person indoor events in March 2020 and don’t have plans to resume them at any point before the election. I paused fundraising for 5 months because I wasn’t comfortable asking my neighbors to donate when the economic need was so real. I also stopped using my platform to amplify myself and the campaign, and shifted to sharing information about the virus, relief programs, healthcare, PPE, remote learning and other vital information. I felt then, and still do now, that above all else I have a responsibility to my community to put their needs before those of my campaign’s during such uncertain and difficult times.
COVID-19 has also caused all the traditional aspects of campaigning like events, fundraisers, forums, debates and voter engagement opportunities to become virtual. I spend more time on Zoom than I ever expected and have to curate backgrounds for them! The pandemic also changed the voter outreach I am able to do, shifting us to mostly phone and text banking, digital ads, mailers and outdoor events in parks, backyards or even as basic as on the sidewalk. This has made my digital campaigning much more important as well, making a strong social media presence vital for outreach and engagement.
Why is it important for disabled people to get involved in their local community whether it’s civic or political participation?
I worked for a woman that would say to me, “You either have a seat at the table or you’re on the menu,” and disabled people are always on the menu because we don’t have a seat at the table. Representation is crucial and disabled New Yorkers and Americans lack meaningful representation at every level of government. The lack of representation is directly linked to barriers that continue to exist and disregard for disabled people’s needs. The only way that will change is if disabled people get more involved in political and civic participation. I know that’s easier said than done, but I also know it’s necessary to bring about the change we need.
What does public service mean to you and what’s your advice to other people curious about running for office?
Public service is community service to me. It’s about continually rising in service for others no matter the issue, size or scope of the task, public opinion or pushback. It also means being accountable to my neighbors and centering the people most impacted by the decisions I make, policies I implement and legislation I support.
Running for office has been a white, affluent, able-bodied man’s game for too long and that makes many, myself included, question if we can or should run. My advice for people curious about running for office is simple: do it! It will be the most difficult but rewarding thing you’ll ever do, and will be worth it no matter the outcome. It will also bring you closer to your community and neighbors, and teach you things about yourself you never knew or thought possible. Again, it isn’t easy and takes everything you have to give, and then some at times, but if you believe in yourself and your desire to help your community, absolutely do it.
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