BY DASHIELL ALLEN | Ashmi Sheth, a 28-year-old, first-generation American, has big plans for 2022.
In June, she plans to take on incumbent Congressmember Jerry Nadler in New York’s 10th Congressional District, which runs along Manhattan’s West Side from Columbia University to the north, to Borough Park in Brooklyn to the south.
Sheth is running as a progressive alternative to the 15-term incumbent, in a race she’s been planning out for the past decade. She wants to build a 21st-century economy and combat climate change, and asks people to expect more from their representatives.
Previously an associate at the Federal Reverse Bank of New York, Sheth holds a master’s of public administration from Columbia University.
Originally from Maryland, where she grew up in low-income housing, she currently resides in Hell’s Kitchen, and has lived in District 10 for eight years.
Sheth understands the immense challenges in trying to defeat a formidable opponent like Nadler, who recently launched his reelection campaign surrounded by political insiders — despite rumors floated by The New York Post that he might be retiring.
As of Sept. 30, Sheth had raised more than $200,000. She told The Village Sun that she’s working with former staffers for progressive congressmembers, including Cori Bush’s former campaign manager, AOC’s former field director and Jamaal Bowman’s former endorsements director and finance director.
Another Democrat, Lower Manhattan parent Brian Robinson, has also filed to challenge Nadler, and appears to be running a more moderate campaign focused on public safety. There’s also one Republican, Benine Hamdan, who plans to run in the November general election.
A Nadler aide told The Village Sun that they aren’t commenting on opponents, adding, “Everyone has a right to run and Mr. Nadler will run on his record.”
According to the Federal Election Commission, as of Sept. 30, Nadler had $690,000 in campaign contributions on hand.
A founding member of the Progressive Caucus, Congressmember Nadler is widely regarded as a progressive leader in the House of Representatives. His campaign Web site describes him as the “Liberal Lion” of the New York congressional delegation, emphasizing his support for “LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, racial justice and the First Amendment rights guaranteeing freedom of expression and religion.”
Sheth spoke to The Village Sun about her campaign and how she would tackle some of the issues facing the Downtown Manhattan part of the district.
What led you to decide to run for Congress?
I’ve been planning it out for about 10 years. A lot of people ask was it Trump, was it AOC — these figures that motivate people to run? Yes, of course, people like AOC are motivating factors to allow others to believe that this is possible, but that belief has been inside me for many years.
I’m running because our district — through COVID and pre-COVID — is in a state of disarray. Our lives have been materially worsened, I think we all feel it. New York City is not an affordable place to live. People have been priced out, especially communities of color, people with disabilities, millennials, Gen Z, and we’re not really talking about those stories in terms of our quality of life here.
Why did you decide to run for Congress rather than a local seat in the City Council or the state Legislature?
I’ve worked on the Hill, at a think tank and at the Federal Reserve. These are large institutions that work adjacent to the federal government, and I feel that people like me are even further removed from those seats. So from a local level we’ve seen in the last election cycle many more people who are from diverse backgrounds. But from a federal level there are so many barriers — even more so — to do this work, but it’s even more needed.
What happened 10 years ago that made you want to run? Did you have an “Aha!” moment?
There wasn’t one aha! moment. There’s several moments that just start making you angry — whether that’s growing up poor, whether that’s not having health insurance to pay for your medical bills, whether it’s being the only woman in rooms full of men, being the only minority and not having a say.
I’ve experienced really bad poverty and I know for a fact that my parents worked extremely hard and did not get the wages that they deserved. A lot of people have this narrative of if you work hard then you will get the outcome that you worked hard for. And that’s just not true because, like it or not, every person rich or poor relies on government services, whether it’s the WiFi, whether it’s your roads.
What are the most important issues to your campaign?
I’m running on three core pieces. The first is building a 21st-century government that’s resilient, and within that, investing in climate resiliency, small business growth, mental healthcare for all.
The second area that I’m running on is diversity, equity, inclusion and access: Who are companies hiring and how do we make sure that they’re hiring in an equitable way to make sure that we can build generational wealth and grow no matter what demographic we come from? And so it’s really instituting and enforcing equal opportunity. And that’s a concern that I’ve heard a lot of people have, especially in our district — “Where are the jobs? How can I feel like there’s an equal chance for me to succeed?”
Our district has the highest amount of income inequality in the country, and so it’s a really important topic for us to address.
The third part is real economic justice to address that income inequality and ensure that people can live that quality of life.
Nadler has been funded by large monopolies…and so it’s really important to start changing the narrative. Because he labels himself as a progressive, but in reality has been profiting off of the backs of people like Trump supporters on his campaign.
[In the 2020 election cycle the real estate industry was Nadler’s third-highest top donor group, including high-profile developers Stephen Ross and Larry Silverstein; in 2019 Ross held a high-end fundraiser for Trump’s reelection campaign.]
Do you have any specific policy ideas that could achieve those goals of decreasing income inequality and creating diversity, equity and inclusion?
Absolutely, when we’re talking about building a 21st-century government, it’s about disrupting politics as usual. It’s saying enough is enough, the system isn’t working for so many of us and our generations have been suppressed by these systems of power.
What we’ve done is we’ve really crowdsourced thousands of ideas. I’ve spoken with over 1,500 constituents, and they co-authored the platform with us.
You ask a person with a disability what do we need, and then they start talking about the individualized education plan, and then they start talking about different resources that they need, and they write our policy platform for us.
I used to work at the Federal Reserve. I know for a fact that policy writing is not in the people’s hands and that’s something that we really need to change.
For corporate responsibility: Corporations need to report their total carbon emissions and then reduce, not just keep carbon neutral, because that’s just not going to be sustainable.
The second area is retrofitting our buildings in New York, and really not putting the onus on the tenant to pay an exorbitant amount for energy costs, but on the landlord and especially corporate landlords, who have the capacity to pivot what the buildings look like.
The third area is creating a circular economy. Especially with COVID, we’ve seen the uptick in using single-use plastic and it’s really important for us to reverse that trend. What we use should not just be recycled but repurposed and it’s creating a whole economy around our usage and consumption of material products. And so we’ve worked with scientists to figure out what we do with our landfills.
Could you walk me through how you came up with this participatory policy platform?
When I say 1,500 voices, I really mean like they’ve looked at our Google Docs, and they’ve co-edited and authored ideas. This started way beyond the campaign. This is something that I’ve been thinking about for years and we started implementing about two years ago. And really turning it into these context pieces is difficult, because we wanted it to be essentially a progressive think tank of ideas that are written by the people — so having a compendium of sorts. Other campaigns can also use these ideas.
We’ve worked with Bernie Sanders’s Senate Budget Advisory Committee. We’ve worked with the U.N. Secretariat. We’ve worked with major climate leaders throughout the city and around the country.
Congressmembers are required to be at least 25 years old. Why didn’t you run two years ago? And what are you planning to do differently in your compaign as opposed to Nadler’s previous challengers?
The timing makes sense. We have redistricting. We have people who are struggling through financial hardship. I think that with redistricting it reduces the risk of others running.
I’ve spoken with a majority of the people that have run in the past against Nadler to understand what happened. And so through those case studies we’ve learned we should not be focusing on money in politics — we should be focusing on getting out the vote.
We started nine months early because that’s what it takes for us to door-knock. We have 760,000 constituents and we need to make sure that they all know who I am.
What would you say are the most pressing issues facing this district, especially in Downtown and Lower Manhattan?
The largest things are COVID and jobs recovery: People are really concerned about small business, about the cost of living here — and so creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem for people to actually thrive and bring business back.
I remember when I was walking through the streets across New York City. I walked all throughout the district on my own, and just seeing how many businesses had been shut down and how many people’s lives have just been left without care because of leadership. So it’s really important for us to bring care back into the picture.
Also around safety, and I think this ties into COVID, but also just a general sense of safety, a sense of self. Addressing mental health and mental healthcare for all, making sure that our streets are clean. We have rats everywhere, I’m sure you’ve seen it no matter what part of the city you live in and no matter how much you pay for rent. We all see it, and the city has gotten much dirtier. So how do we use our climate lens to address our waste management?
What are your positions on real estate development in the district?
We don’t want to make way for luxury housing and big-box retail.
There’s a new plan going into effect with fixing up the west side of the Port Authority Bus Terminal and the project with the Javits Center. And while we do need to revamp the bus terminal, the amount of money that’s going into redevelopment there is going to turn into a nightmare, in terms of real estate prices and how it’s going to continue to go up. And so I know that constituents here are really concerned.
We should not be focused on development. We need to be focused on the quality of life of people here, and not increasing the amount of luxury buildings we see and the amount of foreign investors, and even ghost investors, people that are holding onto property without actually living there.
What do you think is the right approach to building more affordable housing, and also for fully funding New York City Housing Authority public housing?
NYCHA is my base. There’s a lot of people there that know me. I grew up in affordable housing myself, so that’s just one part of my base. And the quality of life in NYCHA is terrible. People have asbestos and mold [in their apartments].
When I think about what investment even looks like for public housing, it’s not just focusing on the existing NYCHA buildings. It’s expanding what [area median income] is. It’s right now too high — affordable median income is too high and actually doesn’t represent what people make in New York, especially in our district. So it’s reducing that to make it more affordable for more people to be able to be qualified for affordable housing.
Another thing on the federal level is really rethinking what does a family unit really mean? Especially with the new Census information and as people are looking for different types of social services and public service delivery — what does a family unit mean? Can your parents or immigrant parents be on your health insurance? Can your partner who’s not married to you legally be on your health insurance? These are real questions that we still don’t have. We have a very 1960s version of what a family meant back then.
Do you have any big ideas for physical infrastructure investments?
Having public bathrooms that every New Yorker can use. That’s a really big problem for taxi drivers — even as a candidate, I can’t even find one.
From a digital infrastructure lens, I have a background in coding as well and technology, and modernizing the federal government would be a huge change to how our money is being spent. And right now we have a lot of food that’s being wasted and a lot of people that are hungry; we can optimize to make sure that’s not happening.
What committees would you want to sit on in Congress?
I’d want to sit on small businesses, education, infrastructure. But I would also want to introduce a Committee of the Future. We had a constituent bring this up and I thought it was a really great idea: Who is actually thinking about the future of our country, and where does that sit? Where does entrepreneurship sit in the equation and how do we continue to build that ecosystem more equitably?
You wouldn’t want to sit on the Judicial Committee?
I would want to hold big corporations accountable, but I would want to do it through a climate lens.
At a time when there’s so much at stake nationally, why would New Yorkers want to rock the boat and lose a top-ranking Democrat like Nalder, who chairs the Judicial Committee?
A lot of people are concerned about how Nadler handled the impeachment trials for Trump. They thought he was too soft, and a lot of people are worried that nothing really came out of it. There weren’t any real consequences for so many bad apples.
When you talk about accountability it could happen from a Financial Services Committee as well as the Judiciary [Commitee], and I think that’s more what I think I could be a part of — because we have Wall Street, because we have all these large corporations. I do think that that’s where we can start holding people accountable is through that committee.
What’s your favorite restaurant in the district?
I love Don Giovanni’s.
I love Riverside Park.
New York’s congressional Democratic primary elections will be held on June 28, 2022.