Congressmen Jamaal Bowman (NY-16) and Mondaire Jones (NY-17) are just over one year into their terms serving their respective parts of Westchester County in Congress. We sat down with the two legislators to speak with them about their freshman year in Congress and the biggest challenges facing local businesses and families.
NY-16, covering Southern Westchester
(Yonkers, New Rochelle, and Mount Vernon)
What would you say you were able to accomplish most in your first year?
Jamaal Bowman: You know, I think connecting with communities that have been historically underserved and marginalized, but not really engaged in both the political but also the social process of their own development has been really humbling and exciting to do. I represent some of the most poverty-stricken parts of Westchester; Yonkers, and Mount Vernon, parts of New Rochelle, as well. And I’ve tried to be very intentional to connect with those communities and involve those communities in the political process and in understanding not only who I am as a congressperson, but how Congress works and how Congress should work for them. And part of that is not just being present and engaged. But it’s also reflected in our collaboration with Governor Hochul to bring in 6 million additional dollars to fight the issue and deal with the issue of the rising gun violence in parts of our district. It also included collaborating with community-based organizations throughout the appropriations process, which, when all that is said and done, will bring in an additional $6 million. My involvement and work with Charles Schumer and Mayor Noam Bramson to make sure $12 million was invested in the LINC Project that will reconnect communities of color with greater New Rochelle. Those just a few examples, as well as bringing in four COVID vaccine sites once vaccines were available. Two of those site were in historically marginalized parts of Westchester, one in Yonkers and one in Mount Vernon. Being present and engaged, and working with the community to bring in the resources they need has been just a tremendous honor of a lifetime.
What would you say is the biggest issue impacting Westchester County families and businesses?
JB: Thank you for including businesses in that, because continuing to support small businesses through a pandemic has been continuing up into this point. Ensuring businesses know the process of accessing resources to support them is key, but also helping new businesses to have the opportunity to open up and have the resources to open up is going to be key. Another issue that I think is really important is the health of the children in the district, and all parts of the district. You know, we recently had a child die by suicide in one part of the district and it’s incredibly heartbreaking talking to people who are from that community. This is not the first time something like this has happened. The conversation of opioids and other addictions has come up in relation to the mental health of young people. There was a 15-year-old girl in Yonkers who overdosed on fentanyl at the beginning of my tenure. I’m concerned about the mental health of young people and young people in general. Dealing with the complex trauma of a pandemic is hard enough, dealing with that and the pressure of being a perfect student who can get into the best colleges is also just a lot of pressure. And we don’t want to take the time to pause and really understand what’s going on with our kids. That’s key. The other thing I would add is, you know, poverty rates remain concentrated and high in parts of the district. And that needs to be dealt with directly and aggressively pushed by the federal government but also private investment. And then the issue of the unhoused. We have a high concentration of unhoused people, in Yonkers specifically, and affordable housing and resources to support vocational and mental health development for those who are unhoused are key as well.
What accomplishment has made you the proudest during your first year?
JB: Ensuring services. You know, I have an incredible, incredible, incredible staff on my team, and this work doesn’t happen without a great staff. And we’ve been able to respond to 100,000 correspondences from constituents, which is an amazing, incredible number. And we’ve been able to close over 2,600 cases within our first year. And those cases range from getting people passports when the passport process was lagging behind and really struggling. It ranges from immigration issues, supporting the people commuting regarding immigration, to evacuating 12 families out of Afghanistan during that transition. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but our team working on those evacuations might have been might have been the most impactful thing we’ve done. I mean, that was so important, because you remember when, when as we pulled out of Afghanistan, the Taliban was coming back into government and there were issues with violence taking place during that time. So getting them out safely was pretty powerful. And then there’s one conversation that happened at my district office with a person who presented with suicidal ideation. And we were able to stay on the phone with them and talk them through that until we sent help to their home.
You’ve been on the forefront of the socio-economic benefits of people in the county, what’s your next step from that? Where are you moving towards with those initiatives?
JB: Great questions. So, you know, we have a lot of national focus for this first, the first quarter of the new year, because we have to mobilize and organize around voting rights, to get voting rights done in Congress. That’s going to be key. Another key is passing the Build Back Better act, which makes historic investments in climate, housing, childcare, and universal pre-K in jobs and takes care of our seniors. This is a transformative bill that absolutely needs to pass and connects directly to what’s happening here locally. Some of the local issues that we’re going to be focused on are climate issues, as well as really working with the county, cities, towns villages, to answer these concerns and consider a green New Deal approach to policy so that locally, we can end our dependency on fossil fuels for the next 10 years. And what that does, is mitigate extreme weather events that continue to plague Westchester County and invest in infrastructure in a way where, you know, when we have severe storms, communities are not destroyed in the way that they would become destroyed by a hurricane. So those are a few areas we’re focused on for the first quarter of the year and throughout the year.
“I think connecting with communities that have been historically underserved and marginalized but not really engaged in both the political but also the social process of their own development has been really humbling and exciting to do.”
What was the process like, getting 12 families out of Afghanistan?
JB: You know, again, persistence, right? So constant communication with people with on the ground in Afghanistan and constant communication with your ministration of the communication with the State Department. finding places here for the evacuees to come and live safely in my district, districts have handled this. So it’s crazy because you know, when I ran for Congress because I just wanted to help people, right? Thinking about what you don’t know that, you know, you might have to help evacuate families from you. You don’t realize that that might be part of your job, too. So when, when it came time to do it, I’m like, Really, we do this as well. And my team, got it done.
NY-17, Central and Northwestern Westchester
(White Plains, Port Chester, Ossining, and Peekskill)
Is there anything that surprised you this past year?
Mondaire Jones: I am pleasantly surprised with the magnitude of the impact that I have been able to have as a freshman member of Congress. You may recall that my opponents in the Democratic primary in 2020 said that I would not be able to hit the ground running based on not having served in elected office and being at the time 32 years old. I have more than exceeded the expectations set for me. I’m the youngest member of the House Democratic leadership team. I have played a leading role as a legislator and crafting revisions of the Freedom to Vote John Lewis Act. I was instrumental in bridging the divide between progressives and our more conservative Democratic colleagues to get passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which is now law. And I played a leading role in getting the universal childcare provisions and the House version of Build Back Better, which I helped pass last November as well.
What would you say are the biggest challenges businesses in Westchester face as they recover from the pandemic?
MJ: I think there are two big issues. The first issue, obviously, is COVID, which has ravaged the economy and made it tough for small businesses and working families to stay afloat. We’ve made tremendous strides in addressing that through the American rescue plan. And more recently, through the millions of jobs that will be created annually under the bipartisan infrastructure law, including thousands of jobs right here in Westchester County. The second big challenge for Westchester and for Rockland is the rise of fascism within the Republican Party, which threatens to remake the federal government such that it is no longer responsive to the needs of the business community, and working-class and middle-class consumers.
“I was instrumental in bridging the divide between progressives and our more conservative Democratic colleagues to get passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which is now law.”
What are your main focuses for this year, both on a national and local level?
MJ: I continue to be laser-focused on saving American democracy through protecting the fundamental rights of voting and preventing the Republican Party from replacing nonpartisan election officials with partisan actors who will not certify free and fair elections, whose outcomes they disagree with ideologically. Because that behavior, if left unchecked, will have ripple effects in Westchester and Rockland when it comes to the responsive representative government that we deserve in the United States. I am also deeply committed to continuing to provide the best constituent services that I think any congressional office in America provides. I’ve got an incredible district office, in fact, one right in White Plains, and the other in New City. We have resolved over 5,000 cases already. Many of which relate to immigration, passport troubles, IRS difficulties, and the list goes on.
You have a pretty harrowing story about your experience on January 6, 2021. What was that like for you?
MJ: I was on the House floor seated alongside the rest of the Democratic leadership when abruptly an announcement was made by security that we would have to lock down the chamber from the inside to prevent the people who had breached the Capitol from reaching us and doing harm to us. We were told to look under our seats to find gas masks and prepare to lie down on the floor in the event of gunfire. And for much of that time, I did not believe that we would make it out of the chamber that day, given the limited security available in that locked-down room to protect us from the large mob of domestic terrorists who were armed and dangerous. Thankfully, in the nick of time, we were able after barricading what’s called the Speaker’s Hallway to slip out of the chamber and through the tunnels underground to a more secure location.