In a time of division within the Democratic Party and efforts to build bridges between the black and Jewish communities, Councilman Donovan Richards, 35, seeks to unite Queens by running for Borough President in the Tuesday, March 24, special election. Earlier this month, he made his case at the Forest Hills home of Manny Behar, speaking before a packed living room to his friends and neighbors. “We have a rich history together, and we cannot go back,” Richards said. “The Council created the office to combat hate crimes to see the factors and look at the numbers.”

With an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents, Behar’s Forest Hills neighbors also asked about the recently enacted bail reform that eliminated cash bail for many crimes of physical violence, property damage, and acts of hate. “Bail reform is on a lot of people’s minds. As Borough President, I won’t have the legislative juice, but I’ll have a voice,” Richards said.

He then spoke to the crowd about the case of Kalief Browder, which inspired the movement that fought for bail reform. He was a Bronx teenager on probation who was arrested for stealing a backpack. Browder insisted on his innocence but could not afford bail and was sent to Rikers Island, where gang violence and beatings by guards were rampant. This led to solitary confinement, depression, and his suicide. “If he could afford bail, he wouldn’t have been at Rikers Island,” Richards said.

But he also spoke of the more recent case of Tiffany Harris, who was arrested for anti-Semitic assaults in Brooklyn, and then released as a result of the new law. She was arrested and released three times before she was held for a psychiatric evaluation. “We need judges to exercise discretion,” he said.

Richards said that with the closing of Rikers Island a done deal, the next step in the process is to make sure that communities hosting the relocated inmates see benefits from the city. “My job is to reevaluate the deals, address each and every concern, safety, and traffic. I have a federal prison in my district. We fought it. And it came in, but it is safe. An advisory board will be formed to put out any fires that may occur,” he said in regard to neighborhood concerns. He also said that a prison could result in jobs being created and a boost in customers for shops around the facility.

With many arrested individuals described by police as “emotionally disturbed,” Richards is pushing for more clinical workers and social service providers to work with the arrested individuals. He learned about the needs of the inmates from his position as chair of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, which also enabled him to visit Rikers Island, see its conditions firsthand, and speak in person to inmates and staff. His own interest in politics resulted from the murder of a close friend who was 20 years old. Richards resolved to tackle guns and gang violence through the political system. He earned experience in representing his district as the Chief of Staff for then-Councilman James Sanders. When Sanders was elected to the State Senate, Richards ran for Sanders’ Council seat in 2013, winning narrowly in a crowded contest.

Responding to recent hate incidents that involved black suspects and Jewish victims, Richards pointed to his Far Rockaway district as an example of cooperation. “They play basketball together and I thank Phil Goldfeder for this,” referring to the former Assemblyman from Far Rockaway.

Concerning economic development, Richards spoke of the $400 million project to transform a parking lot across from the Mott Avenue subway station into Far Rockaway’s downtown, the new 116th precinct for eastern Queens, and the Arverne development that includes a community center and supermarket. In contrast to his party’s leftist activists, Richards supported the Amazon deal that would have brought the global online retail giant to Queens. “The outer boroughs are becoming cities themselves.”

Returning to neighborhood matters, Richards spoke of legislation sponsored by his colleague Daneek Miller to raise penalties for overnight truck parking on city streets, a concern for Forest Hills and Kew Gardens Hills residents. Both neighborhoods are close to highways, and have seen trucks lined up overnight on service roads and residential streets.

Coming from the borough’s extreme southeast, Richards addressed the abandoned Rockaway Beach Branch, which runs between Rego Park and the Rockaways. Some groups advocate for its transformation into a linear park, while others wish to see trains return to it. “Anything we can do to support mass transit. There has to be a path forward. It can be a park and a train line. There has to be political will for it.”

 By Sergey Kadinsky