Kaegan Mays-Williams is running against Sen. Kevin Parker and David Alexis to represent District 21 in the state senate.
Mays-Williams, a lawyer, hopes to offer an alternative for those wishing to vote for someone who is not associated with the troubled Brooklyn Democrats, is not known for anger issues, and promises to show up for the constituents on issues that matter to them. If elected, her focus will be on tackling crime (from assault weapons laws to package theft) and advocating for renters, small landlords, and homeowners.
The redrawn SD21 includes two parts of the district where Sen. Parker is the incumbent (Flatbush, East Flatbush), parts of Sen. Roxanne Persaud's district at the southern end and Sen. Simcha Felder's on the west side. Mays-Williams has lived in the community for the last 13 years, got married here, and is raising her family here. We talked on the phone about the district, the race, and why she hopes to get your vote in the August primary. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Bklyner: Why should SD21 vote for you?
Kaegan Mays-Williams: Most people in this district have lived here for 20, 30, 40, and 50 years, and they've had the same state senator for the past 20 years. Many of them remember when he first came into office and, as one person put it yesterday, kissed babies and was more visible. But the truth is, he's just not showing up. And I think that can be felt throughout the district of just not having representation that shows up, which is really a huge part of why I ran.
I've spent my entire career working as a public servant. For ten years, I worked at the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. I wanted to be a person who fought for children and fought for people who had suffered sexual assaults. It's really difficult work, and not everyone has the stomach for it. But I thought since I did have the stomach and kind of the fiery passion for advocating for people who had been harmed, I should do it. After six years, I wanted to have an opportunity to build a case rather than simply react to it.
I moved to the public corruption unit, where I had an amazing experience investigating the elected officials, people who were employed by the government, who held the public's trust, including members of the NYPD, and who abused that trust and hold them accountable for those abuses of force, and the abuses of power. And then, I went on maternity leave, and when I returned to the office, I decided to further branch out and do work investigating long term financial frauds, which was really interesting. My absolute last trial before I went on to do policy work was, you know, the case of a woman who pretended to be a German heiress and essentially fooled the rich [ed.: Anna Sorokin aka Anna Delvey].
I really enjoyed being at the DA's office because you're helping either one person at the time, as they did in the trial division when I was prosecuting violent crimes, or helping, you know, a few more people a lot of time during investigative work. Working on policy was an opportunity to shape how whole communities could improve their lives.
I wanted to do more than wring my hands about feeling helpless. And that's when I ultimately accepted the offer to go to Everytown for Gun Safety, where I work right now. That work has been very helpful in taking the frustration of the daily gun violence and mass shootings and firearms, suicides and unintentional shootings, and all the different iterations of gun violence that this country finds itself boiling with and has been dealing with for years, and having an opportunity to look at the data.
Bklyner: Do you think legislation is an appropriate response to our gun problems?
Mays Williams: I think it's one of the appropriate responses because gun violence requires a holistic approach. There are people who have demonstrated behavior that's either violent or shown a predilection toward trying to harm others or themselves who, frankly, shouldn't have access to weapons. They're currently protected at the federal level. And when we aren't getting the protections that we need at the federal level, it seems like we're in a moment where the state legislature can do more to help protect our communities.
But legislation can also be in the form of making sure that there are certain budget allocations, to make sure that we are investing in community-based intervention programs that provide wraparound services for people at risk of committing crimes, that people at risk being victims of crimes. But one way that we fight gun violence is by making sure the budget adequately supports and invests in not only community-based organizations, not just hospital-based organizations but making sure that holistically we are investing in communities so that some of the triggers of gun violence, such as poverty and not having jobs, are addressed. And so, when we talk about legislation, I think it's a very broad topic, one that I'm very familiar with, which is why I chose to run for office.
Bklyner: Why did you decide to run right now? Why this office?
Mays-Williams: When the pandemic began, I looked around, and I saw fast-growing food insecurity lines along Coney Island Avenue, Glenwood Road, Foster Avenue, Flatbush Avenue, you name it. And then you watch the news at night of farmers dumping out milk and getting rid of all of this food because the supply chain had been disrupted by closed restaurants and closed schools. Our larger state policies were not talking to one another.
I thought to myself, you know, when we are in a place where we have a pandemic and are really in crisis mode, we're constantly reacting rather than having a proactive approach to how we are going to make sure that we are caring for the most vulnerable people in our community.
So many businesses were closing. Some of them have been closing in part because commercial landlords really do hold most of the power in renegotiating a lease, and there is very little that a commercial tenant can do. But small businesses are critical to improving the economic health of our communities. They bring more people to our community. The business owners in our district are also our neighbors, and they employ our neighbors. And I think that's what makes them so important and why it's so important to support small businesses.
I don't think everybody knew about [the eviction moratorium]. I don't think that every commercial landlord complied with it. I started to see so many things breaking down around us, and I didn't see any of the representation out there helping. Or at least talking to us about ways that they were going to try to address some of the issues that we were seeing. What I did see is that we had members of the legislature that were just continuing to be our representatives because we weren't doing anything about it. We were just happy to continue to let them take the seat without actually doing the work.
And so maybe it's something that I could have noticed before, but when you say 'why now?' I would say 'now' because my eyes were opened, and I've already done the work at the state level [on gun violence prevention]. And I think that I very much understand the process of what it takes not just to draft a bill but also to build a coalition with other organizations that are similarly minded and make sure that they're not only at the table when it's time to testify before a hearing, but they're also informing some of the language [of the bill].
You can't be the expert in everything, and I will not be saying that I am the expert on every policy issue. But where you're not an expert, that's where you talk to the community. You talk to the community about what it is that they need. And then you talk to the experts about some of the best ways to achieve that. And then you have to really do the work to talk to your colleagues and try to get your colleagues to give your bill a hearing. I don't think a lot of people understand the process of how a bill becomes law, and that's something that I have quite a lot of familiar familiarity with because of my past three years with Every Town.
A lot about being an Assistant DA feels like constituent services. It starts with the trauma that someone has suffered, but a lot of my work really felt more like that of a social worker, where a witness might need a new place to live, a phone, or language classes - a lot of my work was trying to provide other services when people's lives were destabilized. So I think of my experience both as, you know, an ADA and as, you know, a policy counsel at every town makes it perfectly suited for this particular role for a district that I really care about.
Bklyner: What have you been hearing from residents as you knock on the doors?
Mays-Williams: I've been hearing a lot of different things, but also a lot of things that are very similar. The number one thing that I've been hearing was – whether they had Sen. Parker or Sen. Felder before – people said they've never met their representation. Some people say they've never even seen what Mr. Parker looks like before. And the people who have seen what he looks like said that he came around a long time ago and that once he got what he wanted, he didn't see them anymore. And so they're like, if I give you my support, you have to promise I will see you again. You need to check in with us; you need to see that we're okay, you know? So that's one thing I've been hearing a lot about.
I'm hearing quite a lot about housing, including some things that surprised me. Housing cost has been rising, certainly for renters, and it's really a topic that really dominates the conversation. And I think that it's important to make sure that people have affordable, safe, clean housing, but what I didn't really realize is that a lot of homeowners feel very much left out of the conversation in Albany.
Bklyner: The district has a lot of one- to three-family homes.
Mays-Williams: Right. The people that live in these single-family homes, if they don't live there with their own families in multi-generational circumstances, then they are providing some of the only truly affordable rental housing in the district in the city. As you know, rents are completely out of control, and there are a lot of black and brown homeowners in the district. And I read a very scary statistic a few months ago that black and brown homeowners in our district are losing their homes at a rate almost surpassing 2008 when a lot of black and brown people were schemed out of their homes with bogus mortgages. And foreclosures.
The people in our district were very hard hit by this pandemic. People lost wage earners in their homes, a lot of people lost their jobs, or just are not earning enough to keep up with their mortgage, to keep up with rising property taxes.
So I just think that there is room for advocacy for both renters and homeowners. I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We don't have to choose. And it feels like too many homeowners that I've spoken with have been forgotten in the conversation.
Of course, everyone is really concerned about gun violence, and more than gun violence, people are saying that they're concerned about violence in general. I had a very interesting conversation with a man in Flatbush in the winter because, you know, this campaign has been going on for a very long time. And he was saying, 'Do you live in a neighborhood where you feel like you can just take your television out of its box and just put the box in recycling? Because I don't. I feel like I have to take my box, cut it up into pieces, and then put it in recycling a few doors down or in the dump. Otherwise, people come into my home, and they try to take my stuff.'
Almost every door I knock on has a sign – it doesn't matter where I am in the district – that says 'Do not leave packages on my porch anymore.' I think a lot of people are really concerned about crime in a way that I didn't realize.
So I would say that the three things that I hear the most about are: People are really concerned about housing costs. People are concerned about their safety, and people are really concerned about having somebody that will actually show up and not disappear, one they actually get to see.
Bklyner: If elected, what would you hope to have accomplished by this time next year?
Mays-Williams: That's a great question. One thing that I think is really important to do is to update our assault weapon law. The current legislation basically lists a bunch of features and attachments to a particular firearm that are prohibited. And what the gun industry has been really clever about doing is carefully reading the legislation and creating models of guns that can do the same amount of harm as an assault weapon around those specifications, so technically, they are not actually creating assault weapons. But what we should do is think about how these firearms work and make sure, for example, that certain types of firearms have fixed magazines rather than detachable magazines (for which you can load different types of cartridges with different ammunition capacities).
I know that when we passed our assault weapon legislation in New York, it was, again, reactionary and brash. I don't want to wait for another tragedy like what happened in Buffalo, so I want to update our assault weapon ban legislation.
But I also really do want to wrap my hands around how we can help homeowners that are really at risk of losing their homes and therefore deepening this housing crisis that we are currently experiencing. Because when these landlords of these small homes lose their homes, it really hurts the renters that live with them as well. And obviously, it's just bad for the economy at large.
I also want to make sure that we are either letting the community know or creating opportunities for younger children to have some sort of work or internship, which I think it's also a part of a holistic plan to reduce gun violence in a lot of communities. Really trying to increase economic opportunities for a lot of the kids around here that need it.
I would start with what I know. I would start with the weapon.
Bklyner: Do you think that can be accomplished in six months?
Mays-Williams: It's a good question. I have tried to get other states to update their law, but they weren't in a political space where they were able to pass that. But given what happened in Buffalo and what happened in Sunset Park, we're in a moment where I feel like people are just like, 'come on,' you know, if there's something else that can be done that we know about, let's try to do everything that we can. Will there be some resistance? Upstate, I'm sure. But we've actually passed quite a few gun violence prevention measures. We've had passed a really great budget for gun violence prevention last April. So I think it might be able to be done. I think it's quite possible. People seem to be taking it seriously.
Bklyner: A good part of the district is also in the flood zone. What can you do for the flatlands of Brooklyn?
Mays-Williams: New York State has gotten quite a lot of money from the Build Back Better legislation at the federal level in order to support and bolster the infrastructure that we have. Sen. Parker passed a very ambitious climate change legislation maybe four years ago, and we have yet to really start to do the work of actually implementing any of the policy solutions proposed in the legislation.
Because it doesn't seem like we have taken any real steps in trying to make sure that we have a climate change plan that is really going to make sure to reduce the flooding, I know a lot of people in the southern part of the district particularly worry about, but we're worried about right here in more central areas too. I would hope to make sure that we are doing the work and not just saying that we're going to do the work.
Bklyner: Let's talk a bit about transportation. MTA has long-term plans for the Interboro Express, but much of the district is really not well served by public transit.
Mays-Williams: I think it's critical. We are pretty lucky that we are able to have access to the B and the Q. Many of the people in the district also have cars, and we have bike lanes. I wish they were protected a little bit better because another big concern I'm hearing from people is street safety. A lot of people are worried about street safety.
I see that city council members are rolling out new traffic cameras, which I think is a start, but it only captures the offense after it's already happened and can maybe capture, you know, a fatality or an injury. But what a lot of people have been asking across the district are speed bumps or different engineering solutions for their streets to prevent the accident from happening in the first place.
It is also true that once you get past Flatbush Junction, it is very hard to find reliable transportation. It is very much a car economy out there because there are no subways and busses are not reliable, and people need to get to work. We need to expand public transportation, so people do not have to rely on their cars as much as they do because, frankly, they have no real alternative.
One voter who works at Brooklyn College was talking about how we could bring more students to Brooklyn College. There are students that come from Queens, but there are a lot of students that don't finish school because it becomes a hardship; it's too far. If we had better transportation, maybe we could increase the number of people that come to our borough to get their education.
Bklyner: You are positioned between two different establishments.
Mays-Williams: Right. I know that DSA would not like to think of itself as establishment, but I think that it is just a different sort. Honestly, people are sick of having a representation that is accountable to somebody else. Kevin Parker is probably accountable to the people who are funding his campaign. David Alexis, I think, would be held accountable to the DSA, which is putting him in the seat.
I really do think I'm the only candidate in the race that is accountable to the people that live here, just to my neighbors, just to the people that I'm listening to. I don't have any other strings or people that I owe anything to. It's simply just representing the people that live here, where I live. Given what people have said about not being able to find their representation or talk to them, that would be a breath of fresh air after all this time.