Cristina Gonzalez has been working in New York City politics since she started door-knocking for Bill de Blasio’s mayoral campaign in 2013. She left the Mayor’s Office four years later disillusioned by de Blasio’s failure to live up to his promise of building a more equitable city. Now, Gonzalez is working for two new progressive candidates: Jessica González-Rojas, running for New York State Assembly in District 34 in Western Queens, and Janos Marton, running for New York City District Attorney on a decarceration platform. Gonzalez talked with The Forge about running a campaign during COVID, organizing against her former boss, and why she still believes that the government can be a powerful force for change. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

 

Tell me about the letter to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio that you helped to organize.

I worked in the Mayor's Office from 2013 to 2017. I was there when Eric Garner was killed. I was there when the cops turned their backs on [de Blasio]. He just became a bootlicker since then. It was really hard to see his response specifically to the protesters being run over by the police car. The way that he just justified that. Where's the line for him? What is it going to take for him to denounce behavior that is very clearly brutalizing? We wrote this letter to say that we [had] hoped better from him. I think we started sending it out to folks at 1:30 on a Tuesday. Our goal was to have 50 signatories by 5:00 PM. I think by the end of that first night we had almost 200. Right now, just a couple of days later, we have almost 1000. A lot of those signatures are people from agencies that are signing in solidarity. The letter also spawned the same version, but from the City Council [staff] calling on Corey [Johnson] and [other] City Council members to cut the NYPD budget. We're going to be doing a rally to get him to listen to these demands. The letter and the demands are a first step. [We] are taking it easy because the next step is a bit more drastic, calling for his resignation. We're obviously giving him some leeway to come to his senses, to do what's right, not just by us as his staffers and ex-staffers, but by the people of New York. 

How did you end up working on campaigns?

My political history actually started with de Blasio. I started door-knocking on his mayoral campaign in 2013 and I stayed with the administration for four years. After the 2016 elections, it was very clear that the issues that we were facing as a nation, as a city, were never going to be fixed within that administration. That, if I wanted to seriously tackle this stuff, it was never going to be done from the Mayor's Office. I started working on campaigns with Amanda Farias, who ran for City Council against Ruben Diaz, Sr., up in the Bronx. I've been doing campaigns ever since. 

What is your role in Jessica González-Rojas’s and Janos Marton’s campaigns? 

With Janos, I technically serve the role of campaign manager because our election isn't until next year. The team is really, really small. It's me as a paid person and then our interns running the show. With Jessica, I'm her political advisor, but also field director and just everything, I suppose. The stuff that no one else does, I do the rest.

How have you been thinking tactically and organizationally through the changing political moments this spring and summer? 

I've never done anything like this. Just as COVID started to really spread in New York, I was actually working in one of the Queens borough president races where the special [election] was happening in March. That was then canceled a week before the election. That was something I'd never experienced.

It was really figuring out: How do I pivot an entire field strategy to just be remote, to be digital? How do we reach people? How do we engage people? How do we maximize this moment? Part of it was, one, taking a beat from the campaign ... and switching it to a mutual aid type of campaign. Because, especially for Jessica, she lives in the epicenter of this pandemic. It was so important to make sure that the people in her district were getting the resources that they needed. That they were getting food. That they knew information that was valuable in this moment. Because even though we were putting a moratorium on evictions, there were a lot of people that didn't know that.

There were people who were concerned about their mortgages. They didn't know that they had canceled mortgages. They didn't know because the banks aren't going to tell you how to advocate for yourself to push off loans. They just want their money. Calling people and making sure that they knew what their rights were in this moment and how to advocate for themselves. How to connect them to those resources that they needed was really important.

We pivoted to call people that we felt were at highest risk. That's who we prioritized. Part of it was also just thinking, "What are the tools available to us beyond the traditional remote stuff like text banking and phone banking that could supplement and expand on that?" Because, obviously, there are a lot of people [who] you never get a hold of [by phone]. The phone number is the wrong number or they just don't pick up. That's why you do the door-knocking so you [can] have that face-to-face.

How do we find ways to reach as many people as possible when we know that we can't do that through just phone banking and text banking alone? We are doing relational organizing, which is when people reach out to people within their relationship circles — friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, everybody from within the district — to find out if they're okay. Then the other [strategy] that we developed is digital door-knocking. In the same way that we would be out in the community talking to people where they congregate, [we’re asking], what are those same spaces digitally? Where are people congregating digitally? 

Where are people congregating online?

Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are obvious go-tos. With Facebook, it's neighborhood groups. Every neighborhood has their little neighborhood group. It's also knowing what other groups people from the community are following, and following those conversations there. Because someone's mentions — that's a digital space where [we can] organize. The likes, that's a virtual organizing space too. I would just go through tweets that resonated with people and then message everybody that liked it. For some of them, it's getting them to sign up for a webinar. Sometimes it's as simple as getting their email so that we can add them to our mailing list. For people in the district, it's obviously asking them whether or not we can count on their support for Jessica. For some of them, where they really seem passionate about an issue, I have Jessica slide into those DMs so that she can set up a coffee with them.

What have your volunteers been doing?

Volunteers are doing mostly phone calls and then some relational [organizing]. Whichever ones feel comfortable doing the digital door-knocking, we have them do that [too]. Mostly phone calls because phone calls take a long time to make, getting through them takes a lot of people. Phone banking is really important, especially because there are a lot of people who are engaged politically, who do not text. The problem is that most people hate phone banking.

The other piece is like, how do we make this moment engaging? Because with volunteer work, there's an office. They all show up to the office. There's a community. There's a camaraderie in phone banking and in door knocking. With phone banking digitally, we just say like, "Here's your list. Call them." We were finding people who were making like five calls and then [dropping off]. Finding ways to keep people engaged and making a digital camaraderie was really important. We all sign on to Zoom calls when we do phone banking. We have phone banking Bingo. We keep the chat open so if people have any questions or if they want to gripe about a ridiculous call that they had, [they can]. We're trying our best to replicate the social nature of organizing and to engage as many people as possible in the conversation because our goal before any of this was always to talk to people who don't usually vote. That has remained our goal. It's a lot harder knowing that, if they've not been engaged before, the likelihood that the data that we have on them is bad is very high. 

How are you thinking about GOTV with mail-in voting?

It's GOTV from the moment they get the absentee ballots. The part that's making me really nervous is that they're getting absentee ballots right now, which is good for them, but hard for us because if I haven't convinced them. Usually you have from now until Election Date to convince them.

Let’s talk about Janos Marton’s campaign for District Attorney. How does he see the role of the D.A. in pushing for decarceration?  

We're using this moment to reimagine what criminality looks like, who we criminalize, how we hold people accountable, when we use prison, when we use punishment. It's been really exciting, the reception that we've gotten to that because, when we first started these conversations, they felt really radical. They feel less radical by the day. The first policy paper we came out with was a commitment to reduce the Manhattan jail population by 80% in the four years that he is D.A. The math that we did for that [was to] reduce the daily jail population to a little over 700 people. No cash bail; if you are sentenced for less than a year, [you] don't do time in jail; any parole violations should not end up back in jail; anybody who is in jail for drug offenses or for mental health issues or homelessness should not be in jail. Between those things, you reduce [the jail population] real quick. I mean, it's all possible. It's all there and it's not complicated. It just takes political will.

Do you have anything else you want to add? 

That’s why I got into politics because even in the beginning, as a baby organizer, as just a simple volunteer doing door-knocking, it was very clear that government, as it's functioning, is working to segregate, to drive inequality, to take away resources. If government is powerful enough to do that, then government is powerful enough to do the opposite. If it can be used for those things, it could be used to create equality. It could be used to integrate rather than segregate. It can be used to provide resources rather than impoverish. It was just a matter of finding those people and working for them and giving them platforms. Doing everything that I can to make those changes. I will be damned if they don't happen in my lifetime. I know that we've been saying, "I'm fighting now for changes that aren't going to happen in my lifetime." Even my ancestors said that. Their ancestors, their people before. It's like, no. It's happening. It's happening now. That's it. We're done. We're tired.

 

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