With a field of about 30 New Yorkers running for mayor, it’s going to be challenging for most candidates to stand out from the crowd. Zach Iscol, a former marine turned entrepreneur, will have to overcome his newcomer status in city politics. He touts a resume of military and business experience that he says has given him the exact-right preparation for a job like mayor of New York – even though a path running outside of government work has rarely ever led to City Hall.
Iscol admits even a year ago he didn’t fancy himself a potential candidate for public office.
“I have a wife, three rescue dogs, four kids; I was running three businesses and a nonprofit that’s one of the leading large providers of mental health care in the U.S.,” said Iscol, 42, referencing the Headstrong Project, which he co-founded to provide military vets with mental health care. “If you’d asked me a year ago if I’d be running for mayor, I would have thought, ‘You’re out of your mind.’”
But as is the case for so many others, the pandemic changed Iscol’s perspective, and now possibly his career trajectory, after a pivotal experience when he was named Deputy Director of the Javits Medical Center in late March. He said building the center from the ground up into a real hospital with the capabilities to care for COVID-19 patients while coordinating with state and federal agencies sparked a belief that he could apply this experience to the numerous other crises that exist in the city.
“It was that experience ... and just seeing the possibility of what can be done when you get government to work together ... that really led me to making the decision to throw my hat into the ring.”
Iscol outlined a few ways in which he would govern differently than Mayor Bill de Blasio: establish more private-public partnerships to solve the problems facing the city, use the city’s abundant resources more effectively, and establish better communication between city agencies.
“The only way you get through a crisis, and the only way you solve seemingly intractable problems, is by working together and by deep cooperation and synchronization of effort,” said Iscol, adding that City Hall operates as an antiquated bureaucracy. “New York City spends $90 to $95 billion a year, and that’s more than 48 of 50. States. You look at the potential for what can be done if we had a mayor who engaged the private sector in solving some of these problems – and the scale of these problems are huge, but so are the scale of the resources available in this town to solve them.”
He said the de Blasio administration’s inefficiency at equipping students with tablets and computers was one prime example of how it’s failed New Yorkers during the pandemic.
“In less time than it has taken this mayor to distribute 60,000 or 70,000 tablets to kids, public-private partnerships have developed a vaccine for this virus,” said Iscol. “It would be funny if this wasn’t people’s lives.”
In an interview with Our Town, Iscol detailed how he would approach some of the most urgent issues facing New York City:
Homelessness: “We’ve tripled the amount of money we spent on homelessness in the last six years. The number of homeless people in the city has doubled in size. We spend about $2.9 billion a year on keeping people in shelters, not on how to get them out or how to keep them from entering them in the first place. There are models out there that show that we could be effective in ending homelessness in New York City, and we have the resources to do that, and we’re choosing not to. It’s actually more cost effective, these solutions, than just paying to keep people in shelters.”
Education: “Right now, if I was mayor of New York City, I would be convening a task force of the greatest minds in education, of technology companies, education companies – like PBS and Nickelodeon – to come up with ways of really understanding where every child in our school system is in their learning journey, especially with arithmetic and reading. And I think we could right now be developing the tools to get a comprehensive understanding of where every single child is while we are still in the middle of a pandemic so we have the data to understand what we need to do to catch up each child next year.”
Jobs and Businesses: “First off, the city needs to be doing a lot more to support restaurants and small businesses. That’s number one. And we need to make it easier for people to start businesses and bring business back to this town by reducing red tape and finding creative financing mechanisms so that the businesses that we’ve lost, people are going to come back and start more businesses. One of the things that we’re working on as a campaign is a million jobs plan. And we’ll be releasing more information about that in the coming months. We need to make sure we have art and cultural institutions. In fact, if you really want to help promote the growth of small businesses and restaurants and retail in the city, one of the most important things you can do is increase the number of art and cultural institutions in the city.”
Policing and Public Safety: “I think that there is an opportunity to reimagine and reinvent what effective policing and public safety looks like in the city. We know these problems are interconnected and interrelated. To reduce crime, you need to have partnerships across city government, you need to bring to bear many different agencies. Law enforcement has one role to play. There’s a role for social workers and mental health care providers. There’s a role for community policing. There’s a role for community groups, and violence interrupters, and things like the city’s crisis management system. There’s 300,000 other city workers, dozens of other city agencies that can be working in those neighborhoods to reduce the need for police. And we need to have a more comprehensive model that does that.”
“It was that experience [of being Deputy Director of the Javits Medical Center] ... and just seeing the possibility of what can be done when you get government to work together... that really led me to making the decision to throw my hat into the ring.” Mayoral candidate Zach Iscol