She’s Running is a FIERCE series highlighting Latinas running for office in local, state and federal elections.
New York City, considered one of the most progressive municipalities in the nation, has no women or people of color in its highest levels of public office, and Melissa Mark-Viverito isn’t OK with that.
In November, the former city council speaker said she was running for public advocate, where she would ensure women’s voices and perspectives are being heard at the decision-making table and be an aggressive watchdog to city government.
The Puerto Rican candidate isn’t new to the game. A long-time activist, she entered New York City politics in 2005, serving on the city council for more than a decade. In 2014, she became the first Latina to hold citywide office in New York when she was elected council speaker, leaving in 2017 because of term limits. Since then, Mark-Viverito, 49, has worked as a senior adviser for the Latino Victory Fund — a PAC aimed at increasing Latinx representation in local, state and federal government — where she recruited leaders, expanded fundraising and increased public involvement in a position that widened her political profile outside of the five boroughs.
But Mark-Viverito is back in New York, where she hopes her track record, including making the first citywide calls to close Rikers Island jail, securing funding to provide immigrant minors with attorneys, and putting free tampons and pads in the city’s public schools, shelters and prisons, could help her beat out her competition in the crowded Feb. 26 special election and ensure another woman of color fills the public advocate seat that’s been vacant since predecessor Letitia James became the first African-American woman elected New York attorney general last November.
We spoke with Mark-Viverito about her run for public advocate, having New Yorkers define her agenda, how she’d hold elected leaders accountable to the needs of the people, what government and communities lose without women of color in leadership positions and not fearing being aggressive to get the job done.
FIERCE: Why did you decide to run for New York City Public Advocate?
Mark-Viverito: I’ve been a fighter for equity and justice my whole life and really trying to make sure that we work toward a more just and equitable city when I was in government, when I was councilmember, when I was speaker. It was about always trying to ensure that all New Yorkers felt that government was being responsive to them. And that’s what I want to do as advocate. The advocate has a more direct relationship with New Yorkers to talk about, advocate and build coalitions around issues that they care about, like the debilitating and crumbling infrastructure, for instance. It’s being an independent watchdog to the mayor, making sure that the programs they administer are effective and really address the needs of New Yorkers. It’s about continuing that trajectory that I have of being a fighter for social justice with a track record of success, and I want to bring that experience to this position to continue to effect change. That’s my interest. One of the other things I’ve been talking about is when Letitia James made the decision to run for attorney general, I was already out of office and working in the private sector, and the idea that once she won we were not going to have any women in city leadership was something that was alarming to me. So I started to look at that, be concerned about that, talking to people, saying, “look, we have to make sure that we elect a woman.” I started talking to people that I have a relationship with and asked, “what do you think if I decided to run? Maybe there’s something I can offer here. I believe I can offer something here.” So that was something that led me to this decision to run, that lack of gender balance in government and the need to have a confident, capable, strong woman in a role in order to have our voice and perspective at the decision-making table.
FIERCE: You’ve definitely stressed that this is something you were concerned about since the beginning of the race. In fact, when announcing your campaign for public advocate, you said, “As the state and the nation move in one direction, our city is slipping backwards.” Currently, the highest positions in New York City are held by three white men — de Blasio; Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller; and Corey Johnson, council speaker. What do you think governments and communities lose without female leadership?
Mark-Viverito: It misses out on a lot. I mean, in terms of laws we enacted that do impact the quality of life of women, when we talk about flexible scheduling, how that impacts women in the workplace. When we talk about paid sick leave, how that empowers and affects women. When we talk about feminine hygiene products, in our schools and our correctional facilities, that’s a law that Julissa Ferreras-Copeland and I pushed forward and promoted. When we talk about the lack of perspective — the mayor and commissioner just recently sat at a table to talk about the historic lows in crime in New York City, which is great, but there was no mention of the fact that we had seen a spike in the number of rapes. And they’ll say it’s because of more aggressive reporting that’s resulted out of women feeling empowered with Me Too, but it doesn’t matter, it’s still an issue that needs to be addressed. The fact that that wasn’t even touched on is very dismissive and impacts us, so that perspective is really incredibly needed. Our experiences are unique, and we need to make sure that that perspective is brought to the table, and that’s what we miss. We miss out on being a more just and equitable city when we don’t have government that’s representative, whether on the gender side or when it comes to race and ethnicity, because we are the most diverse city in the country.
FIERCE: You identified the New York City Housing Authority, which you’ve called a “humanitarian crisis,” and New York City transportation, what you’ve called “a disaster,” as two of the biggest issues impacting New Yorkers. But you’ve also stated that you want the people of New York to define your agenda if you are elected. Why?
Mark-Viverito: Government should be in ongoing dialogue with those it represents. This position is not just about me and my interests, although I do want to definitely focus on NYCHA and I want to definitely focus on the MTA because both are such crises in our city that cannot be ignored. But the issue also is that there are different needs that arise. My interest through my Office of Community Engagement, where I’m going to hire community organizers to aggressively go out to all five boroughs to engage with communities, through my dialogue when I do my town halls, when I have my meetings, I want people to understand what this role is and what you think this office should be focusing on and have them help dictate. I won’t be able to address every single individual issue that comes up, but if there are certain issues that keep percolating up to the top and that I constantly hear is of concern, then that’s something that we can investigate. If a city agency is not performing in the best way for the disability community, or whatever it may be, whatever is emerging from the dialogue and that conversation is a way that leads the agenda that we craft as the Office of the Public Advocate.
FIERCE: As you stated, this position is one of being a watchdog and also holding elected leaders accountable to the needs of the people. How do you intend on doing that?
Mark-Viverito: Always shedding light on stuff is important, so I would want to do investigations, take a look at issues. For instance, I use this example that in my conversations with people, I was talking to a group of restaurant owners recently, and some of them were from the Washington Heights area, and one of them raised the concern that he felt the Department of Health was being very punitive to certain neighborhoods in terms of how they issue fines. So that’s something we could investigate and take a look at. The fines that are being issued by the Department of Health, are there certain neighborhoods that seem to be disproportionately impacted and why is that the case? This is about holding government accountable and making sure that government is being truly representative of all, so those are issues you can look at like, what are the disparities and how do we try to create more equity, more justice, more fairness? Those are things to talk about.
FIERCE: When announcing your run for public advocate, you stated, “I think it’s about time for a progressive — even aggressive — Latina woman to lead, to advocate, to fight for you.” Aggressive is a word many would shy away from in politics. Why do you think it’s necessary in this position?
Mark-Viverito: We are severely underrepresented in this city. We have less women in the city council. We have no women in citywide leadership. And we’re supposed to be this progressive city. We cannot call ourselves a progressive city if government is not representative. Those of us that do, once I’m in that position, I’m going to be one of a very limited number of women. So you have to be aggressive. You’re bearing a brunt and a responsibility to represent the interests of women and make sure our voices are being heard, so you cannot be drowned out. You can’t allow others to try to intimidate you, so it is a level of being aggressive and being forceful and being outspoken and not being afraid. And I’m not going to shy away from that language. That’s the truth. I’m not apologetic about being aggressive. Being aggressive is what you define it and in this case it’s about making sure that I’m bringing my ideas to the table, making sure my voice isn’t drowned out and that I’m being heard, and that does take a level of aggression and being aggressive to do that.
FIERCE: As city council speaker, you broke several times from Mayor De Blasio, most memorably pressuring him into supporting the planned closing of Rikers Island and into providing lawyers for undocumented immigrants. Do you think this track record could help you win over New Yorkers in this crowded race?
Mark-Viverito: Yes. I’m by far the most progressive, consistently progressive, candidate on all issues. I have a track record of having built coalitions over decades in my activism, working with all communities. I will prove that while visiting communities and talking about my track record and my record of accomplishment. I can differ and be at odds with the mayor, but as speaker I also have to build consensus and move an agenda forward. So I was able to negotiate. This is a very different role, where it is about being an independent watchdog, so it is about eyes and ears and looking at what’s going on, figuring out what things we can do better, where is the city going wrong and being very watchful of all of that. My track record speaks for itself. As I said, I am a passionate, social justice activist with a track record of success. I have differed with the mayor and I have also agreed with the mayor at times, but I am able to be very much understanding of the role I’m going to assume and playing the role of making government more effective. That’s what this role is about. It’s about being mindful of that.
FIERCE: Finally, as a seasoned New York politician, I think you can offer a lot to young Latinas who aspire to run for office. Do you have a message for Latinas with political dreams but perhaps see those as unfeasible?
Mark-Viverito: One of the things I did, understanding there was a lack of women in the city council and the concern of seeing such a drop in numbers, me and a colleague of mine, Elizabeth Crowley, created and founded the 21 in ’21 initiative here in New York, where we wanted to create a space where women could feel comfortable to come in and say that they were interested in running for office and surround those women with support, create a network, having women get to know each other, bring in women with experience on how to run a campaign, how to raise money, demystify what it is to run for office and that whole process and make women feel comfortable and know this is something they should think about. This is a profession. This is a job. Serving people is something that is a calling. So definitely creating opportunities to network and mentorship is important, and I did that with that initiative, and it’s going really well and we are getting a lot of support in it. You have to build a network around yourself. You have to find those people who really know who you are and who will keep you grounded and will provide mentorship along the way, depending on whatever path you take. You have to make sure. It’s a two-way street. Young women should be looking and seeking out assistance and we have to make ourselves open as women to mentor other women and reach behind us and be open to working with young women and taking young women in. So women should not be afraid to step up and seek that mentorship from others. We can’t expect that to happen for us. We have to be looking for it. So I would encourage young women to think about who those people are who ground you and know you and that regardless of what direction you take will always always be there to support you and to also be real with you, to tug at your coattail when you are not being true to yourself or losing yourself a little bit. You have to surround yourself with people who will be very honest with you.