The Queens Memory Project brings you the seventh episode of season two of the Queens Memory Podcast. This season we have collected the documented experiences of Queens residents during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
On this episode Queens leaders talk about campaigning during a quarantine and ways they have found to continue to support their communities.
Unemployment filings skyrocketed as COVID-19 settled upon New York City and the world as businesses closed and workers were laid off. By early May, the New York Department of Labor announced they had paid $6.8 billion in unemployment since the start of the pandemic. This number is nearly three times greater than the total unemployment payments made in 2019. While food pantries and other nonprofits scrambled to answer the call for help, their resources were strained by the sharp spike in need.
On August 1st, Queens residents gathered outside the New York Hall of Science to receive food distributions. Senator Jessica Ramos hosted the event, which also offered free COVID-19 testing. Senator Ramos hosted regular fresh food distribution events in the months after the pandemic upended life and income for many Queens residents. The event on August 1st was the 14th distribution. Michael Pereira, who was born and raised in Queens, was in attendance and talked about how this time away from work has enabled him to take better care of himself physically and mentally. He also talks about the systemic dietary oppression Latinx families face, as well as, the negative health impacts of low-income, predominantly minority neighborhoods due to low housing quality.
Meanwhile, politicians and aspiring leaders try to adapt to campaigning and staying in touch with communities while social distancing.
Queens resident Mary Jobaida was forced to derail her campaign for the New York State Assembly District 37 when the shutdown began. Jobaida immigrated to Queens from Bangladesh in 2001 and has lived in the area ever since. She talks about watching the gentrification of neighborhoods, pricing herself and her neighbors out of options. A 2019 report by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development found that, in Queens, the neighborhoods of Jamaica and Hollis were most at risk. This map shows gentrification throughout all of New York City. Jobaida decided to run for State Assembly in District 37 to help those who have been affected, against incumbent Catherine Nolan who was first elected in 1984.
Jobaida says she originally thought about running for State Assembly in 2018. She filed the paperwork to do so in spring of 2019, using her professional name “Mary.” In April 2020, the board of elections removed her from the ballot upon learning her full name is Meherunnisa. Their stated reason being that the name in the application filing must match the candidate’s legal name. Jobaida, along with Moumita Ahmed, who was also removed for the same reason, sued the BOE, claiming xenophobia was behind the decision. In May, a judge ruled the two women will appear on the ballot.
Continuing her campaign while social distancing, Jobaida was severely limited. A number of her organizers and campaigners contracted COVID-19, four of whom died.
One month before the election, unable to afford mailers, Jobaida utilized volunteers to operate phone banks. The Democratic Primary Election took place on June 23, 2020. Jobaida lost to incumbent Catherine Nolan by 1,153 votes. Jobaida won 5,041 votes, while Nolan won 6,554. Jobaida suspects if she had been able to campaign in person, she would have won, and vows to continue the fight.
Brent O’Leary of Long Island City is running for City Council, District 26, which includes Long Island City, Sunnyside, Woodside, and part of Astoria. O’Leary announced his campaign in the summer of 2018 - three years before the 2021 election. Now, he’s glad his campaign launched so early, as they were able to build momentum. However, the pandemic has slowed fundraising, he said, as most funds are normally raised during in-person events. He is also reluctant to ask people for money in the midst of the pandemic.
Instead, O’Leary co-founded two emergency food pantries, in Sunnyside and Woodside. Ultimately, official campaign events ceased, but remaining active in his community helped keep O’Leary in the public eye, and demonstrated his priorities, he said. The campaign is now getting back on its feet.
O’Leary talks about his support of the current Senate bill to cancel rent for small businesses who are struggling due to COVID-19. On last week’s episode of Queens Memory Podcast, we heard from local small business owners about the impact the pandemic has had on their businesses. According to a Hospitality Alliance survey, only 19% of New York City businesses paid rent in June, and only 26% of landlords waived any rent.
With the primary election less than a year away, O’Leary wonders what campaigning will look like in the coming months. Across the country, candidates have had to transition their campaigns to socially distanced tactics. Read about what State Congressional and Senate candidates are doing differently to campaign in the New Yorker and NY1.
With an uncertain future, O’Leary commits to heed professional advice regarding COVID-19, praises New York City for its effective response to the virus, and voices support for the effective use of masks in preventing the spread of the disease.
This episode of Queens Memory was produced by Jordan Gass-Poore’ in conjunction with Anna Williams, Giulia Hjort, Roshni Khatri, Jo-Ann Wong, and Natalie Milbrodt.
Mixing and editing by Briana Stodden with music composed by Elias Ravin and the Blue Dot Sessions.
Special thanks for funding support from the New York Community Trust. Queens Memory is an ongoing community archiving program by the Queens Public Library and Queens College, CUNY.