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Meet the Harlem Reverend Who Wants to Unseat Mayor Bill De Blasio

By Jeff Mays | August 24, 2016 7:05am
 Sitting in his office above the sanctuary at Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem, the Rev. Johnnie Green doesn't hesitate when asked why he's joined forces with Michael Bloomberg associate Bradley Tusk to try and unseat first term Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Sitting in his office above the sanctuary at Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem, the Rev. Johnnie Green doesn't hesitate when asked why he's joined forces with Michael Bloomberg associate Bradley Tusk to try and unseat first term Mayor Bill de Blasio.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — Sitting in his office above the sanctuary at Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem, Rev. Johnnie Green doesn't hesitate when asked why he doesn't want Mayor Bill de Blasio to get a second term.

"There's five reasons why he doesn't deserve to be re-elected," Green says, spreading his fingers.

There's an affordable housing plan that Green and the pastors of the three-year-old group he is president of — Mobilizing Preachers and Community (MPAC) — don't believe is affordable enough for members of their congregations. There are the multiple federal investigations swirling around de Blasio's fundraising, his support of "Broken Windows" policing, and the mayor's criticism of charter schools.

 The Rev. Al Sharpton said Mayor Bill de Blasio has mostly kept his promises to the black community.
The Rev. Al Sharpton said Mayor Bill de Blasio has mostly kept his promises to the black community.
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Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

But the thing the 54-year-old pastor and entrepreneur, who has joined forces with Michael Bloomberg associate Bradley Tusk against de Blasio, is most critical of is the mayor's record on minority and women contracting, known as MWBE.

De Blasio, whose campaign theme was a "Tale of Two Cities," has been criticized for the fact that firms owned by minorities and women received only 5.3 percent of the $13.8 billion in construction contracts in the 2015 fiscal year, according to a report from Comptroller Scott Stringer's office.

Black and Latino firms received only 0.43 percent of those contracts.

READ MORE: De Blasio Gets D+ on Minority Contracting in Comptroller Stringer Report

READ MORE: Black Voters Should Reconsider Supporting De Blasio, Says Former Ally

READ MORE: De Blasio's Minority Contracting Plan Is 'Insulting,' Business Leaders Say

An announcement by de Blasio of a $20 million bond and loan fund to help minority and women developers was greeted as a patronizing slap in the face by advocates who said it wasn't nearly enough compared to the billions in contracts the city awards each year.

"We thought we found a candidate who was sympathetic and understood the inequality issue," Green said in explaining why some MPAC pastors agreed to pull their early support for former Comptroller Bill Thompson, an African-American mayoral candidate in the last election, to back de Blasio.

The mayor's popular and successful initiatives such as universal pre-K and a $15 minimum wage, still leave blacks and minorities struggling and don't get to the "root cause" of problems, Green said.

"What's missing from his inequality platform is economic empowerment," Green said. "The black community, the minority community is being starved when you fail to give those contracts."

'DECADES OF DISPARITIES'

City Hall spokesman Raul Contreras said the city is making progress on its MWBE goals in areas where it has discretion in awarding contracts. Since making changes, the city has seen $6.1 million more in contracts awarded to MWBE firms.

The number of MWBE certified firms is the highest it's ever been in city history and the city is also working with the state to allow it more discretion in awarding contracts. De Blasio also recently hired a senior MWBE adviser.

"We are committed to reversing decades of disparities in the contracting process and are doing more than any administration in New York City history to level the playing field for our city’s diverse firms," Contreras said. "We know that when we open the door for minority and women-owned firms to compete, we’re investing in local jobs and related investments that flow back into our communities."

Bertha Lewis, head of the The Black Institute and a founding member of The Working Families Party, which supported de Blasio for mayor, has issued two reports criticizing de Blasio over MWBE contracting. She called the administration's changes "window dressing and happy talk" that don't solve the problem.

A requested meeting with the banks the city uses to speak with them about increasing their MWBE lending has not materialized, she said.

"The mayor thinks we don't matter; the black churches, Rev. Green, the Black Institute. These so-called progressives are progressive when it comes to poor, low-wage workers but are not progressive when it comes to closing the wealth gap. They don't want to talk about real power," said Lewis.

"Look around this city. Development is going on at a feverish pace. At best, minority businesses are marginally participating as subcontractors," she continued. "That's why I am happy that the black clergy is organizing, coming out and saying we are tired of this. People of color, minorities, black folks, we elected this man."

De Blasio received 96 percent of the black vote in the 2013 mayoral election.

The mayor of New York City isn't the only politician that Green and MPAC are taking to task on minority contracting. Green and his group have also been critical of Gov. Andrew Cuomo over minority contracting levels on major state projects such as the rebuilding of LaGuardia Airport.

"WHERE ARE THE "ICONIC ACTIVISTS?'"

Advocating for economic empowerment is in his blood, said Green, who has owned two early childhood centers in New Jersey for 16 years.

As a kid growing up in Dallas, Green remembers his first involvement with activism came in the early 1970s after a police officer falsely accused a 12 year-old of petty theft and fatally shot the child. Green witnessed protesters out with signs and defying the police.

Green began preaching at his Baptist church in Dallas at 15 and was ordained by 17. From there he graduated with a bachelor's degree in philosophy and religion from Dallas Baptist University before going on to obtain a Master's of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry from Drew University.

His first involvement in New York City politics came protesting the police shooting death of Sean Bell during which he was arrested. Green is also a former board member of Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network.

Now Green and MPAC aim at "iconic activists" who support de Blasio, Green said in referring to Sharpton, perhaps de Blasio's most well known African-American supporter.

Green has criticized Sharpton as being too focused on national issues and now says Sharpton is not holding de Blasio accountable for supporting "Broken Windows" policing, where police focus on minor crimes to prevent larger ones. It's a tactic Green and others believe, and statistics show, focuses unfairly on minorities and the poor.

"Where are the 'iconic activists?' Are they in such a partnership with this mayor that they refuse to press him on this issue?" Green said. "De Blasio thought that he only had to answer to Al Sharpton and not any of the other black clergy."

'WE ARE NOT NEUTRAL'

Sharpton told DNAinfo New York that MPAC should look in the mirror before criticizing him over "Broken Windows" because they supported Thompson, who did not call for dismantling or reforming aggressive police tactics like stop-and-frisk during the 2013 race unlike other candidates.

"I'm glad to see they've converted because they supported a candidate that ran on that and they are affiliated with Bradley Tusk who was part of the administration that put that in," Sharpton said of stop-and-frisk and "Broken Windows" policing.

From his vantage point, Sharpton said, de Blasio has mostly kept his promises to the black community.

"I think he has fulfilled his commitment in large part on stop-and-frisk, which is down 90 percent. He has fulfilled his commitment in terms of pre-K. Are there other things like 'Broken Windows' that we are debating him about? Absolutely," Sharpton said.

Sharpton was not happy with the installation of Bratton as police commissioner and he said he has a meeting planned with Bratton's successor, Chief James O'Neill, who is expected to continue largely with Bratton's style of policing.

"We are not neutral on the new commissioner," Sharpton said. "We want this commissioner to end 'Broken Windows.'"

When it comes to de Blasio's MWBE record, Sharpton said he's talking to Lewis for guidance.

"I have talked to the mayor about it and with Bertha Lewis who has a long track record in this and says there needs to be a lot more done," Sharpton said.

But the decision on whether or not to support de Blasio for a second term will be based on the candidates, not pressure from MPAC.

"You can't beat somebody with nobody. I'm not going to be manipulated by somebody who is with the administration we opposed," Sharpton said, referring to Tusk.

'THE ENEMY OF MY ENEMY IS MY FRIEND'

Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University, said black disenchantment with the Bloomberg administration is still strong enough that Sharpton's criticisms will resonate with some of the people MPAC is trying to influence.

"Where were all these pastors when Bloomberg did nothing for minority and women businesses?" Greer said. "This mayor can do more but he's trying to make substantive incremental change. That's like turning around a ship, you can't do it quickly."

To counteract MPAC's criticism, de Blasio will likely have to speak directly to his supporters in the black community. Quinnipiac University recently found that 75 percent of black voters polled have a favorable opinion of the mayor and 63 percent approve of the job he is doing.

"One of de Blasio's greatest strengths is that he is not awkward around people of color or people of a particular class like Bloomberg or [former Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani were," Greer said.

Criticism of MPAC's alignment with Tusk annoys Green, who popped up in his chair when asked about it.

"The enemy of my enemy is my friend," Green said. "This is not about Bloomberg. That's the past. Black people didn't elect Bloomberg. Our focus now is on what de Blasio's doing."

Tusk said Green and MPAC "are going to be an important voice as we get out the message of Bill de Blasio's failed leadership" during the 2017 election.

"We created this partnership because we share a vision for the future of New York City — one that involves honesty, integrity, and competency inside City Hall," said Tusk.

Green says he sees MPAC as filling a role similar to that of the late Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a fellow Harlem Baptist pastor and activist from the pulpit who became the first African-American from New York elected to Congress.

Powell led boycotts of store owners on 125th Street who wouldn't hire black workers.

"Historically, black churches and black clergy were at the forefront of the fight for civil rights and activism. For the last 45 years, the black church has not asserted itself," Green said. "If the black clergy don't step up now, who will?"

Green's phone won't stop ringing during an hour-long interview. MPAC pastors are planning a protest in front of Gracie Mansion. He's reminded of a meeting with Cuomo administration officials about MWBE hiring. The group is also meeting with politicians who are thinking about challenging de Blasio and recruiting other churches across the city to its cause.

"De Blasio's progressive platform is a sham. He can't fix the ills of the black community through universal pre-K. You can't live comfortably in New York City on $15 per hour," said Green. "It all goes back to economics. If your economics aren't right, then your community won't be right."