Steven Raga joins crowded field; will it lead to a seat in District 26?

Raga wants to see an end to unlawful evictions and better access to transportation for residents.

By Cristina DC Pastor

Steven Raga is one of nearly 20 candidates aspiring to become council member of New York City Council District 26 — encompassing the neighborhoods of Long Island City, Dutch Kills, Astoria, Sunnyside, Woodside, and Maspeth in Queens — with a population of almost 210.000.

The seat is currently held by Jimmy Van Bramer, who has served three terms, and is term-limited.

Field too crowded?

Steve has the confidence of an NFL quarterback who has faith his team will win. He is counting on the presence of many Filipinos in CD26, hoping to see many of them show up at the polls. The surging anti-Asian sentiment is an issue he is burning to bring to the council. In fact, it was the turning point that crystallized his decision to run in the June 22 primary.

The New York-born Steve grew up in District 26 and went to local schools here in the 1970s. It was here where he founded the Pilipino American Unity for Progress, or UniPro, that would become a vehicle for him to continue organizing FilAm youth and young professionals. “We’ve had our organizing meetings in living rooms across Woodside,” he said in an interview with The FilAm. 

His entry to city politics did not surprise friends and fellow advocates. He was biding his time, said one friend who knew him from UniPro.  He became chief of staff forAssembly Member Brian Barnwell, at the same time that he sat on the Queens Community Board 2 serving on both the Transportation and Environmental committees. His involvement with the National Federation of Filipino American Associations and grassroots organizations like Woodside on the Move and Queens Pride did not end when he joined Barnwell’s office.

It could help that he speaks Arabic and the Ethiopian language, Amharic, as he campaigns across his diverse district. “But I’ve rarely used them unless I’m ordering chicken and rice in New York,” he quipped.

The FilAm: Give us a profile of District 26.

Steven Raga: City Council District 26 is located in Western Queens. The total population of CD26 is 209,657. Our district is mostly made up of Latino, Black, and AAPI residents.This can also be seen in some of the most widely spoken languages across the district, which include Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Korean, Greek, Hindi, and Arabic. The income levels of the district vary greatly depending on the area; for example, the Area Median Income (AMI) of Long Island City is close to $75K while the AMI for Woodside is around $58K.

TF: What are the issues in this district? How do you plan to address them?

SR: Some of the most pressing issues in CD26 include housing and overdevelopment. Long Island City has been one of the fastest developed neighborhoods in NYC, which also brought along negative consequences for neighborhood residents. Tenants are often unlawfully evicted or harassed by their landlords and those who do stay have to battle the rising cost of rents. With a looming eviction crisis set to begin, the reality of many tenants is grim unless we enact immediate tenant relief to prevent New Yorkers from being displaced. We need to pair relief with a series of tenant protection laws that keep tenants from being displaced. Furthermore, we need to invest in public and social housing to help our low-income New Yorkers have access to high-quality permanent housing.

In addition to that, there are ongoing issues with transportation, especially considering the deteriorating condition of the 7 train and the lack of adequate access to public transportation in other parts of the district. We can meet these needs by investing in transit infrastructure, expanding the City’s Fair Fares program, and making sure that everyone has safe access to transit.

Lastly, I believe that adequate access to healthcare will be a remaining issue for the foreseeable future. Until everyone has access to healthcare, regardless of income level and immigration status, we cannot stop working towards Healthcare for All.

TF: Of the population, how many or what percentage are Filipino? How would you like FilAms to support you?

SR: We’ll never really know because most don’t fill out the census! But obviously, Woodside is the home of a thriving Filipino population. They can volunteer to canvass the community to meet voters, donate at least $10 to the campaign, register to vote as a Democrat, then come out and vote in the June primary!

TF: Anti-Asian attacks are a growing problem. What are your plans to make this go away?

SR: First and foremost, we have to counteract the damaging remarks of our former president and elected officials that have placed the blame of COVID-19 on our Asian communities. It’s a disgusting sentiment that has emboldened individuals to participate in this rhetoric and motivated them to act.

In addition to this, we need to lessen the burden of proof on hate crimes and make sure that the NYPD and the FBI are properly investigating these incidents and reporting the data.

‘We need to lessen the burden of proof on hate crimes.’

TF: What is a typical budget for this kind of campaign? Do you have that kind of money?

SR: Budgets for City Council elections really do vary depending on the competitiveness of the race, the number of candidates running, and whether the race is challenging an incumbent or if there is an open seat like it is for our race. Races where the incumbent isn’t challenged will have significantly lower budgets than the budgets for our race. The overall expenditure limit is around $180,000, and while we don’t expect to spend that much, I can definitely see some candidates spend that money on consultants, advertisements, campaign literature, and paid canvassers.

Our team was able to raise over $11k in two weeks, which was a major feat.

TF: Who are your opponents? How many are they?

SR: There are close to 20 other candidates running for this seat, but I wouldn’t consider them as opponents. I believe our community’s issues transcend individual campaigns, so I look to partner with candidates who have similar goals and intentions for the district. Last week, I co-organized an event with Julie Won to host a Rise Up Against Anti-Asian Hate rally in Sunnyside. At the event, a number of other candidates attended and shared their thoughts as well. Collaborations like this can change the way we approach campaigns.

TF: Is there a N.Y. politician that you hold up as a role model?

SR: John Liu. In 2007, when the Filipino American community held a rally outside of ABC Studios to demand an apology for a racist comment directed at Filipino healthcare workers during a Desperate Housewives episode, he joined us in the frontlines when we needed supporters the most. To this day, John Liu is the only elected official I’ve ever seen speak at an NYC rally for a Filipino-specific cause. It highlights the importance of those who are in the seats of influence to use that influence for the marginalized among us, whether they ask for it or not.

Forever Business Owner: Nieva Quezon Burdick

© The FilAm 2021

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