By Sabina Mollot
The race for the City Council seat currently held by Dan Garodnick has its newest candidate in Vanessa Aronson, a former teacher who previously held a federal government job.
Aronson, an Upper East Sider, officially joined the race a little over a month ago as a Democrat.
Recently, over coffee at Juan Valdez on Lexington Avenue, she discussed her platform, which focuses on education, better access around the city for the disabled and helping immigrants.
Aronson, who taught six and seventh grade science at a public school in Washington Heights until becoming a candidate, said her students and the problems they faced were among the reasons that inspired her to run for office.
“When I became a teacher I wanted to make a difference, because education opened up a lot of opportunities for me,” she said. “But what I learned was that the biggest challenge facing my students wasn’t homework but the instability of urban life.”
Aronson recalled how one of her students who was in a wheelchair commuted every day to the school on 168th Street from Brooklyn only because the school had an elevator and so did the subway station near it.
“In New York City only 20 percent of stations have elevators,” Aronson said.
The student’s difficulty getting around (an impossibility when an elevator was out of service) struck a nerve with Aronson, who was physically challenged herself as an infant. Though doctors didn’t think Aronson, who was born very early, would ever be able to walk, through physical therapy and after wearing braces on her legs throughout her elementary school years, she is now able to get around normally.
“I’ll never be the most athletic person in the room, but I’m very lucky,” said Aronson. She said in addition to making the city more accessible to the disabled and people with special needs, the city should put more emphasis on becoming more accessible overall.
“We’re an aging city,” she said. “Statistics show that.”
She also recalled how another one of her students had gone from being an outgoing, class clown type who did well in school one year to becoming a completely different person the second year she taught him. The reason, she eventually learned, was the stress of not knowing which shelter his family was going to end up in on any given night.
Other more general education issues Aronson brought up include the complications of sharing a school building with other schools. She gave an example of how her former place of employment shared a building with three other schools, including a charter. Because of the way things were coordinated, her students didn’t get to eat lunch until ninth period, which was at 1:30 p.m. This left them distracted by hunger in class. “And these are kids in the peak of growth spurts,” she said, adding, “As a teacher, you become a snack provider.”
If elected, Aronson said she would like to see more thought put into the organization of schools that share buildings and resources. She also said she wants to see extra-curricular activities stop being the first programs to end up on the budget chopping block.
“They’re not extra, they’re essential,” she said, referring specifically to arts programs. “Things like music and theater, they’re not only what I do for fun on the side; they were what brought me to school. They got me motivated,” she said. She also believes it was music class that got her interested in science and math. “Learning music at an early age gives you the ability to think numerically and in patterns,” she said. “It sounds crazy, but it’s true.”
Aronson also said New York is behind other municipalities in terms of modernizing the curriculum to make lessons more individualized for kids with special needs and in special education as well as gifted and talented students. Along with changing this, another goal is to prioritize technology in education to meet the growing demand for tech related jobs.
“There are thousands of (tech) jobs that are unfilled right now and it’s only going to grow in the future,” she said.
Prior to getting into public education, Aronson worked for 10 years for the U.S. Department of State, five of those years as a foreign service officer. The job mainly involved determining the effectiveness of government programs and through it Aronson said she was able to learn a lot about environmental issues and other global concerns, occasionally at the United Nations.
Aronson said she is relatively new to the city’s fourth Council district, having previously lived on the West Side and she’s originally from Chicago.
However, she’s been involved in community life on the East Side of Manhattan for years now because of her in-laws, with whom she and her husband, a family attorney, are currently living with while they look for an apartment nearby on the Upper East Side. Aronson also has a membership at an Upper East Side synagogue and does volunteer work delivering meals to the elderly in Stuyvesant Town.
Since declaring her run however, she’s spoken with voters in the district about their concerns, only to learn that many of them had more to do with nationwide issues than being specifically local.
“Our way of life in New York, if this administration gets its way, will take funding away for housing, deny women access to reproductive care and take away Meals on Wheels for seniors,” said Aronson. “A lot of people are also concerned about immigration. Almost 40 percent of New Yorkers are foreign-born.”
Aronson said she would push for immigrants facing deportation to be provided with counsel, saying that she’s seen the difference in how the immigration process can go for those who do have legal representation vs. for those who don’t.
“You’re navigating your way through a complex system and the U.S. government works differently than a lot of governments work,” she said.
This particular issue is also one of the reasons Aronson decided to run. “I think people are realizing we can no longer be complacent,” she said. “Our values that our city holds dear are at risk.”
On another frequent local concern, the plight of disappearing small businesses, Aronson said she wants to support the Small Business Jobs and Survival Act, but first wants to examine the legislation, noting the criticism by the real estate industry that it is unconstitutional. The bill is aimed at giving business owners more negotiating power when their leases up, ideally with an automatic lease renewal for 10 years.
“I’m concerned about the possibility that the legislation as drafted is unconstitutional and that needs to be vetted,” said Aronson. “I fully support the sentiment, but it needs to be fully vetted. This is not something you want to get wrong. If it’s unconstitutional than that needs to be addressed, but if it can give some stability to our businesses, that would be great.”
Aronson, who’s the race’s eighth candidate, began fundraising when she applied for matching funds at the end of March, with $1,665 in campaign cash. She didn’t hold a formal fundraiser to get it though; the money came as a result of Aronson taking to social media.
“Three hours before deadline, I was asking friends on Facebook to support me,” she admitted, though she does plan on raising more the usual way. She also said a campaign website is in the works.
Additionally, despite having entered the race somewhat late in the process, becoming an elected official is actually a lifelong dream for Aronson. In school, she would eagerly participate in student government, a subject that interested her since kindergarten. That’s when a teacher told the class that “politicians are people who listen to people’s stories,” she recalled. “That really resonated with me.”
She went on to study politics, earning a bachelor’s in political science at the University of Chicago and a master’s in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government as well as a master’s in education from Relay Graduate School of Education.
Asked about how heated the race has become for the fourth district, which stretches crookedly from Stuyvesant Town to the East 90s, Aronson didn’t seem daunted.
“I’m proud that so many people have been called to action,” she said.
Other candidates are Keith Powers, Marti Speranza, Jeff Mailman and Maria Castro, who are running as Democrats, as well as Diane Grayson, an Independent; Rebecca Harary, a Republican; and self-described “progressive Conservative” MJ Kronfeld.
Note: An earlier version of this article said Aronson currently has $1,665 in campaign cash. That is the amount she had when filing as a candidate. She now has about $10,000.