As political leaders fight to ensure New Yorkers can get out to the primary polls this summer, would-be political leaders hoping to succeed them are still working to get out their names and message. All of that despite the fact campaigns have seemingly grinded to a halt in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
Andom Ghebreghiorgis is one of five Democratic candidates running to unseat 30-year incumbent Eliot Engel in New York’s 16th Congressional District. And although he was one of the first people to challenge Engel this cycle, it’s been difficult for the educator to become part of a political conversation that instead has centered more on another challenger, Jamaal Bowman.
Ghebreghiorgis hasn’t given up, however, and doesn’t plan to. Even with the current crisis. Instead, he followed the examples of schools, community centers and colleges by taking his operations online, kicking off with a virtual town hall March 17. There, in the glare of his computer monitor, Ghebreghiorgis answered questions about how the government should assist families and businesses who have lost work as a result of the pandemic, and also how to deal with NIMBYism, the set attitude against new construction and development that has people saying “not in my backyard.”
His background in education is the backbone of Ghebreghiorgis’ platforms, from public education to housing and immigration equality, he said.
“It became something for me that, over the years of being in education, seeing that this was the reality that people in communities in community that are less than two miles away from where I grew up — we have some people living very luxurious lives,” Ghebreghiorgis said. “We have other people that are being really put on the school-to-prison pipeline.”
Ghebreghiorgis grew up in Mount Vernon and attended Ethical Culture Fieldston School, returning to the east Bronx after college to teach special education.
His entire life has been lived in the district, he said, and both attending and teaching at schools in the area has given him a look at the range of issues his classmates and students deal with.
Ghebreghiorgis isn’t the only educator in the race. Jamaal Bowman is a former public school teacher and current principal best known for pushing for the opt-out movement, which allows students and parents to choose not to partake in standardized testing.
Educators are on the “front lines” Ghebreghiorgis said, and see everything that plays out in their communities.
“We see both government intervention and government neglect,” he said. “It not only impacts our ability to teach, but also impacts young (people) and their families. And we see this over a longer time horizon than most people can, unless they’re doing, like, a longitudinal study on what’s going on in a community.”
Some students had chronic absences, missing up to 80 days of school. Often, those students had unstable housing or were moving through the shelter system, he said.
That was a stark contrast to his own middle school years at Fieldston, where Ghebreghiorgis said students rarely missed more than a few days of school a year.
Housing and food instability, along with discrepancies in the quality of public schools, are all tied to larger issues, he said.
“In parts like Williamsbridge or Baychester, up to 80 percent of low-income people are severely or moderately rent-burdened,” Ghebreghiorgis said. “This happens in Westchester, too. You have high rates of student homelessness in Westchester.”
There are two big ideas he wants to focus on, he said. The first: Securing a global Green New Deal, breaking with the military industrial complex, and working to solve global issues including climate change, the refugee crisis, and, in recent weeks, global pandemics.
“The other thing is securing economic justice for all Americans,” Ghebreghiorgis added.
That would include single-payer Medicare for All, better education, and a federal jobs guarantee.
“Which means that the government serves as an employer of last resort,” he said.
That “last resort” and the jobs guarantee would be a way to make sure people in need of in-home aides would be taken care of, that universal child care could be achieved, and to ensure Bronx public housing buildings were not “laced with mold.”
“All of these things are intersectional,” Ghebreghiorgis said. “They’re all interdependent on one another. Those are the ways in which we can achieve economic justice in this country.”
The coronavirus pandemic is shining a new light on existing problems.
“It exposes a lot of fissures that already existed in our society, and the gaps that we already had in our society,” he said. “You know, the fact that our country is not in a position to be able to deal with this crisis, I think should be really eye-opening for a lot of people.”
Ghebreghiorgis supported completely suspending rent payments, a common request from New Yorkers over the past week. But he also supported freezing debt payments and loans.
“It’s the only way that we’re going to have some semblance of life coming out of this,” he said.
Following his first virtual town hall, Ghebreghiorgis and his campaign announced they would launch a series of online programming, including a question-and-answer segment and “story time” for children home from school.
Ghebreghiorgis said he knew it might be easy to overlook his campaign, especially with Engel and Bowman grabbing most of the spotlight.
“We’re sort of seen as this, like, extra candidate,” Ghebreghiorgis said. “Almost like a third wheel type race. But we do have a lot of strength.”