At a time when progressive and mainstream Democrats have increasingly drawn lines in the sand, City Councilmember Donovan Richards (D-Arverne, Brookville, Edgemere, Far Rockaway, Laurelton, Rosedale, Springfield Gardens) is more about figuring ways that best represent the needs of the majority of constituents and building bridges.
And now Richards, a lifelong Queens resident, is looking to bring that attitude and style to Queens Borough Hall in Kew Gardens as the next borough president, replacing former Borough president and current Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz.
“I don’t like to box myself into one category. I’ve always lived my life with the expectation of doing what’s right for people. So s long as our communities are benefiting from policies and resources, that should be the number one priority,” said Richards in a phone conversation with QCP.
Richards, who has represented Southeast Queens in the City Council since 2013, was born to a single mother and grew up all over the district with stays in Jamaica, St. Albans, Hollis, and Rosedale, with frequent visits to his grandparents who lived in the Rockaways.
After attending Jamaica High School and Redemption Christian Academy before studying communications, radio, and TV at Nyack College, Richards later received a degree in Aviation Management from Vaughn College.
His trajectory into aviation management was tragically sidetracked after a close friend was shot a killed, which inspired him to get more involved in his community and join the fight to end gun violence. He worked in numerous positions with then-City Councilman and now State Sen. James Sanders where he connected with the community and developed a hands-on approach to helping constituents. This knowledge has been crucial since being elected to represent the district he grew up in.
Richards noted that when he was first elected in 2013, he co-chaired of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus, having run as an insurgent candidate, but since being elected he has tried to focus on being a bridge builder.
“The Democratic Party has seen a lot of demonization with the progressives versus the establishment, but it’s time to unify and come together. We have bigger boogie men to deal with like our President Donald Trump. In order to defeat him we need a united front,” said Richards.
Richards said what troubles him currently about Democratic Party politics is that it seems all that run or are in elected office have to walk on water.
“In leadership, decisions need to be made, and sometimes half a loaf is better than a whole loave. Obviously, we fight for the whole loaf, but one of the most troubling things we see is that some folks see a zero-sum game – all or nothing – and those are not the ones most impacted by policy. Those most impacted are often the black and brown community and at the end of the day they are left holding the bag,” said Richards.
Richards said a case in point was the recent Amazon deal in Long Island City. While Richards was the only city council candidate in the borough president’s race to not sign onto the original letter in support of the deal until he saw the details, he was into working with Amazon to hammer out a plan that would work with everybody.
“At the end of the day Queensbridge Houses residents really lost an opportunity for jobs and nobody has gone back to them and how are we going to make this good for them,” said Richards. “People say the jobs weren’t going to be for them, but you don’t really know.”
Richards said Amazon pulling out of the deal was a real loss for Queens. When you think of the tax revenue, it was a leveraged opportunity to put that money into the 7 train or our colleges including LaGuardia College, Queens College and York College, which could have trained people to work at Amazon and become middle-class homeowners, he said.
Richards acknowledged a good part of the borough president position is to be both the Queens cheerleader-in-chief and the head defender of the borough.
“We are the up and coming borough with a growing community of 2.2 million people and 190 languages. We’re the gateway to the world with two major airports. We have so much cultural diversity and we have to make make sure the world knows we have a lot to offer right here. Any kind of food, we have it here. This is the most diverse metropolis in the country, and it’s where we celebrate diversity and not challenge it,” said Richards.
Richards also noted all the famous people who have made it ou of queens like the many hip hop and rap artists from southeast Queens to most recently, Asian-American Awkwafina.
“Awkwafina is what Queens is about. She made history and we need to celebrate that and show our young people there is a way out. No matter what your status, we can make it. Her story is such a celebration story,” said Richards.
In regard to individual issues, Richards advocates for a larger investment in the MTA Queens bus system that also includes real community involvement and planning. “The MTAs new plan is totally flawed. They are cutting services and saying they are speeding services up. The bottom line is New York City is growing and people are using different modes of transportation. The further southeast you go in Queens is more of a transportation desert. Bikes and e-scooters might work better in some neighborhoods, but busses need to run better in other neighborhoods,” he said.
As for his downtime, Richards said he hardly has any, but enjoys spending time with his wife and four-year-old son.
He also enjoys reading and said the last good book he read was, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. The 2016 non-fiction book by Matthew Desmond is set in the poorest areas of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and follows eight families struggling to pay rent to their landlords during the financial crisis of 2007–2008.
He is currently reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir The Beautiful Struggle, about coming of age in West Baltimore and its effect on him. “It’s a great story about young black men trying to make it in the innercity and the challenges around them,” Richards said.
Other frontrunners in the Queens Borough Presidents race include City Council Member Costa Constantinides and former Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley.
The special election is slated for March 24.