By Sabina Mollot
With Council Member Dan Garodnick getting term-limited out, a Stuyvesant Town resident, Joshua Thompson, is hoping to succeed him, and has already gotten serious about amassing his war chest.
During an interview over coffee at the Coopertown Diner, which Thompson has come to think of as his second office, the Democratic candidate said his campaign has so far received $20,000. There’s also another $30,000 in pledged support.
Thompson, who’s 30 and from Newark, began his political career there under then-Mayor Cory Booker. Currently, he serves as executive director of external relations for the nonprofit New Leaders, which promotes leadership in education.
He moved to Stuy Town with his wife Julia, who founded the Bushwick location of charter school Achievement First, and the couple’s shih tzu-poodle mix pooch, Cody, in July of 2014. They’d also lived for a while on 85th Street in Manhattan and in Bridgeport, Connecticut when Thompson served as director of education for that city from 2012-2014.
As for his decision to run for office in New York, Thompson’s platform appears to be a work in progress as he speaks with voters about their concerns. His elevator pitch has become: “How can you use me to help the five boroughs?”
The responses are naturally varied, but Thompson said he’s been hearing about education a lot.
“I don’t know if it’s because they know my background,” he said, but issues run from infrastructure issues like broken windows to administrative issues with constant comparisons between Mayors de Blasio and Bloomberg.
While Thompson said he is still in the “listening” phase on many of those issues, one thing he is certain of that he would like to see principals have more autonomy over their own school budgets, but first make sure the principals are trained to do so.
“You (the principal) know your building better than anyone, but I don’t believe in giving autonomy without training,” he said.
Another big issue is neighborhood identity due to businesses being priced out and for community members, “affordable living, all day, especially in Stuyvesant Town.”
He noted that from both rent-stabilized and market rate tenants, the concern from every person he speaks with is whether they will be able to stick around past their next rent hike. “Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village is Eden. It’s unbelievable,” said Thompson. “But everyone’s white-knuckling.”
So far, in his view, the only policies aimed at creating and preserving affordable housing have been “band aids.
“Which is better than the alternative, nothing.” But, he added, “A lot needs to change. When you have rallies and a feud between the governor and the mayor about who’s doing more for affordable housing and then you just have a four-year solve or a seven-year solve. I see everyone’s faces, and it’s going to be the same face in six years of, ‘Can I still stay here?’ We need long-term thinking and long-term solutions.”
Thompson said he got interested in politics as a teen growing up in Newark. When he was 15, he moved into a residence and school for boys called Saint Benedict’s Prep. As Thompson explained it, “The situation was I needed to be put into a home with structure.”
There, Thompson stood out for being one of the few white kids and also, despite the fact that it was a Catholic school, for being Catholic. “Kids were Baptist and Jewish and Muslim,” he recalled.
He said he didn’t have trouble fitting in at his school though where he spent much of his time playing basketball. He and friends would also occasionally travel to Manhattan to shoot hoops at the basketball court in Stuy Town. “So I have a history of getting kicked out of Stuyvesant Town,” he joked.
Soon after he arrived at the school, Thompson was told by the headmaster that he needed to serve the community in some way in keeping with Benedictine tradition. So he chose politics. This was after meeting then mayoral candidate Booker.
“He created a movement,” Thompson said of Booker. “I was inspired because he was reaching out to communities that had never been engaged before. I was witnessing him bringing in people’s voices who had never voted before, were legally not allowed to vote, or were too young like me. It was not about running for a seat but it was about running for a purpose. I saw firsthand what I wanted to dedicate my life to — increasing democracy.”
Thompson soon began interning for Booker’s office, helping with community engagement in the Central Ward.
Later, Thompson went on to the University of Miami on a scholarship for basketball. Unfortunately, an injury derailed that plan and his scholarship was pulled. While devastating at the time, Thompson now said it was “the best thing that ever happened to me,” since he then went on to to Piedmont College, studying liberal science, and studied law at Vermont Law School, where he graduated in 2010.
Thompson also interned during summers through that year for the Jackie Robinson Foundation, as well as an additional semester in a program that was sponsored by his law school.
It was also in 2010 when Thompson returned to Booker’s office, this time with a job as a research analyst. A particularly important project he was involved with was helping with the dispersal of funds when Newark received a $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
The gift wound up stirring up controversy when it was announced on Oprah before there was any community announcement or even a set plan about how the money would be spent. Thompson was there when residents were at a town hall meeting blasting Booker as a sellout. But ultimately the money wound up getting distributed locally to different organizations after what Thompson called an “aggressive outreach” effort that included interviews with individual community members and suggestions at public meetings.
He worked for Booker’s office for a year, but remained on for another year in an advisory role while also teaching and being a “house parent” with his wife at St. Benedict’s. He also was special projects manager in the mayor’s office in Washington, DC, before working in Bridgeport.
Now, as he attempts to win an election for himself, announcing his run so early is something Thompson has been asked about a lot.
“When people say, ‘Why are you starting so early, I said, ‘It’s the most fun part,’” said Thompson. “To be open (to people).”
Thompson knows the race will soon be flooded with competitors but if he’s concerned, he isn’t showing it, and he’s been busy speaking to voters at their homes, usually in groups of about 10. One recent campaign event was held in his own apartment though when 50 people showed up (he’d invited 10), they had to take the party outdoors.
“It was freezing,” although, he insisted, still fun.
Increasing voter turnout is also a goal of Thompson’s.
Pointing out that at the last democratic primary, only three percent of registered voters bothered to show up at the polls, he said, “That’s something I’m not okay with. The way Uber disrupted transportation, we have to disrupt election policy.”
Noting the cynicism he’s already gotten in response to this, Thompson said, “Cynicism is a refuge for cowards. It needs to be busted down. (This is about) increasing democracy.”
Correction: This article originally stated Thompson is originally from Newark. However, he lived in other places prior to that. Additionally, the article had stated he went to Piedmont College prior to University of Miami. It was actually the other way around.