By Maria Rocha-Buschel
East Village resident Ronnie Cho knew that he wanted to be in public service when he saw how hard his parents worked as struggling small business owners while he was growing up.
“That experience made me want to help my community,” he said. “I didn’t know about politics then but I had the seed of public service planted early. I wanted to be a part of the process that elected good people.”
Cho is running to replace term-limited City Councilmember Rosie Mendez in District 2, which covers the East Village as well as Union Square, Alphabet City, Kips Bay, Murray Hill and parts of the Lower East Side, and is a former staffer from the Obama administration in addition to previous roles with MTV in social engagement and public affairs.
Cho’s parents immigrated to the United States from South Korea and ultimately settled in Phoenix, where Cho and his siblings grew up and where they opened a restaurant in which he spent his childhood years. Cho ultimately studied political science in college with the goal of connecting with people in the community.
“People need a relationship with government,” he said. “I believe government should be a force of good. It should have a role in creating opportunities and protecting people. You need to stand on street corners and be ready to be yelled at, disagreed with. It’s part of the process.”
In the Obama administration, Cho served as the associate director of public engagement and his goal in that position was to get people involved with government as well.
“Any group that wanted to be part of the process could talk to us,” Cho said. “In the same way that (President Obama) wanted to bring hope and change to the rest of the country, he wanted an open process to the people who were getting shut out.”
As one of the motivators that initially got him into politics, small businesses are a priority for Cho, who supports the Small Business Jobs Survival Act.
“These shuttered storefronts are unacceptable,” he said. “The neighborhood was built on small businesses. It’s what makes the East Village so special. We don’t need a Starbucks on every corner. We need people to stay in their homes and businesses.”
He added that he isn’t sure why the bill hasn’t passed when there are so many Democrats in the City Council that he feels should be supporting it.
“There’s not a Paul Ryan throwing a wrench in the process,” he said. “What’s the problem? It could help so many people. It’s the small-mindedness of not being open to new ways of implementing new policy.”
Cho said that another area in which elected officials need to be more creative and proactive is affordable housing, and that elected officials should also be focused on helping vulnerable populations in the community, especially when programs like the Senior Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) and Disability Rent Increase Exemption (DRIE) already exist.
“These programs are under-enrolled,” he said. “(My campaign) got 5,000 signatures when petitioning when we only needed 450. This is the same approach we’ll take to make sure people know these programs are available.”
He added that in addition to protecting existing affordable housing, there should be new ways of working with developers who are creating more housing.
“We should be demanding more of developers. Is the 80/20 rule really the key?” he said, referring to the policy that gives developers tax breaks if they make 20 percent of units in new buildings “affordable” while the remaining 80 percent are market-rate. “We should be asking them for more. Can they fund social programs and educational programs?”
On education in general, Cho said that he is a strong supporter of public schools, having attended them through college, but also said that he supports charter schools.
“There is a populist impulse to only trust all public education but I don’t believe in the one-size-fits-all approach for public education,” he said. “We shouldn’t be villainizing charter schools. Kids deserve the best education afforded to them.”
He explained that one of the issues with public schools as they exist now is the extreme segregation and because of these existing issues, he wants to be open to different ideas.
“One of the worst schools in the district is a few blocks away from one of the best,” he said. “Teachers are under-resourced and teachers are the lynchpin and need our support, but they’re not getting it. We owe it to kids to pursue these new ideas. I have a new perspective and I want to open it up for debate.”
Regarding the plan to downsize Mount Sinai Beth Israel, Cho said that he understands the hospital’s motivation to make adjustments considering that outpatient services have changed and a hospital stay isn’t always necessary anymore.
“But a 400 to 70 bed decrease seems a little egregious,” he said. “There has been a lack of transparency on whether or not the hospital can deliver the same level of care. There haven’t been many public conversations about what the needs of the community actually are. That falls into the hands of the people who represent the neighborhood.”
A major issue affecting District 2 is homelessness, and Cho said that he feels the city needs a more holistic approach.
“Homelessness is treated as just needing more beds but just putting people in shelters won’t help,” he said. “Women especially are victims of domestic violence and become homeless as a result. People who don’t have access to healthcare, they don’t have the resources to stay where they are, in their homes. (Mayor de Blasio’s plan to house homeless people in hotels) doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. We’re just using innovative approaches as a stopgap measure. If we all believe we should be fighting for these populations we need to actually do it.”
He added that some of the programs are good ideas and even well-intentioned but often miss the point. “We have the smartest people in the country and we aren’t tapping into that resource enough to shape public policy,” he said. “It’s easier to deal with the immediate problems and we can figure out solutions to short-term homelessness but long-term homelessness is clearly a different problem.”
Although the opioid crisis hasn’t hit New York as hard as other parts of the country, Cho said that it’s still important to pay attention to it as an issue, particularly to prevent it from becoming a crisis here as well.
“We should be making sure that precincts have Narcan (for heroin overdoses) to treat people earlier,” he said. “We need to work with community health centers so it’s not a reactionary process. We don’t want opioids to ravage the district and only then have people start to care.”
Speaking the week after the rally in Charlottesville, Cho said that he isn’t worried so much about overt racism in the neighborhood or the city overall, but acknowledged that the prejudices still exist here, as he’s spoken to Trump supporters in the district and heard about the Confederate flags in the window on East Eighth Street. He noted that he has even experienced some insidious racism from members of his own party.
“I’ve had (Democratic activists) say to me, ‘Wouldn’t you feel more comfortable running in Chinatown or Flushing?’” he said. “One, I’m not Chinese so that doesn’t really make any sense and two, this is my neighborhood. I don’t live in Chinatown or Queens.”
He said that he knows white progressives don’t believe in white supremacy, but felt that activists should take a harder stand against the groups like the ones that participated in the rally in Charlottesville.
“They need to actively reject what’s happening in our country in 2017,” he said. “We definitely still have our own prejudices that we’re wrestling with but I’m proud of our accomplishments so far. Nothing can depress me or make me cynical. I reject that it’s impossible to get through the machinations.”
The primary election is on Tuesday, September 12.