Campaigning during the coronavirus pandemic made Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon feel like a fish out of water.
“I’m a retail politician,” she told BkReader, referring to her preference for interacting directly with supporters — shaking hands and meeting with large groups.
“As a community leader and coalition builder for many years, I talked to people on the street. I’ve always done that. Sometimes that doesn’t work so well, like the time a guy tried to hold me up at gunpoint,” Simon recalled with a chuckle.
The longtime Brooklyn community advocate is a civil rights lawyer and educator who championed climate justice before it was universally recognized as an issue. She also advocated for women’s equality, as well as rights for people of color and the disabled, while battling big real estate developers.
Since 2015, she has represented the 52nd Assembly District, which covers Downtown Brooklyn, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Gowanus and part of Park Slope.
She now has her sights set on becoming Brooklyn borough president.
Why she is running
Simon, a Boerum Hill resident who grew up in Yonkers, is a top tier candidate in a field of more than a dozen rivals seeking to succeed term-limited Borough President Eric Adams.
She launched her campaign in October and would become the first woman to hold the office if elected.
“I love my job in the Assembly. It’s not that I wanted to leave. So, it wasn’t an easy decision,” Simon, who has served as female district leader for the 52nd Assembly District and president of the Boerum Hill Association, said.
She stated a lot of people encouraged her to run for the borough presidency. After speaking with former borough presidents and chiefs of staff, she decided to jump into the race.
Simon believed that she could impact lives boroughwide by tackling “major issues, like education, climate justice, gun violence” that unquestionably affects everyone in Brooklyn.
“These are big issues I was dealing with as a neighborhood association president, collaborating with community organizations around the borough. These are issues I cut my teeth on. It brings me back to my roots, and it’s something that the borough president could impact,” she said.
Her vision for Brooklyn
Simon envisions a Brooklyn that’s equitable.
“The borough president has the power to lead by convening, by coalition building and through the strategic use of capital funding,” she explained.
From her perspective, there are several overarching problems that, if properly addressed, could fix other issues down the line. It’s a web of sorts, in which main threads touch other matters.
The most critical overarching issue is COVID-19 recovery.
“The COVID-19 pandemic affects housing, small businesses, education, health care,” she said. “It exacerbates every inequality we have in our system.”
In the same way, climate justice and race/gender issues have an overarching impact on many aspects of people’s lives — from equal access to job opportunities and proper housing to quality-of-life issues.
As gun violence and hate crimes increase across the borough, Simon said increasing the police presence shouldn’t be the only response.
She called on Brooklynites to “step up our game” and be part of the solution. That could include people not ignoring what they see. “We all need to be about protecting people,” she added.
“We are asking the police to do everything, but they are not trained to do everything. They are not social workers,” she said. “We need to allocate resources to where people can get the help they need.”
Giving Brooklynites a voice
If the past is any indication, Simon will be tough on real estate developers as borough president. She recalled, as a community advocate, rolling up her sleeves and putting in the sweat equity to work with community boards and community-based organizations on issues like Downtown Brooklyn rezoning.
She has also taken on developers and government agencies on the Atlantic Yards project and, most recently, the contentious Gowanus neighborhood rezoning process.
Last year, she stepped into the Gowanus fray by penning an op-ed urging city officials to put the brakes on the rezoning process during the pandemic to allow residents to weigh in fully on the proposal.
“The role of the borough president is very simple in some ways. It’s about using the power of bringing people together to solve big issues and using the bully pulpit and advocating for Brooklynites,” she said.
“The vast number of Brooklynites don’t feel that they have a voice in the decisions that affect their lives.”
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