Kathryn Garcia is done being behind the scenes
The New York mayoral candidate on the hardest sanitation problem she ever faced, how growing up in mixed-race family shaped her, and whether the city is prepared to incarcerate a former president
The race to be New York’s mayor is heating up. And in the final weeks of the election, an underdog candidate has been on the rise.
Kathryn Garcia is a former commissioner of the city’s Department of Sanitation, and in recent weeks she has racked up endorsements from The New York Times and The New York Daily News, as well as from a raft of local officials.
I talked to her early this morning about her career as a problem-solver, her unusual family background and what it taught her about race, whether the city needs the super-wealthy who keep threatening to flee, and what she thinks about the possibility of having to incarcerate, right here in New York, a former American president.
A condensed and edited transcript of our conversation is below. If you want to enjoy the unabridged audio of our conversation, it’s available to Ink subscribers right here.
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“You may not know my name, but you know my work”: a conversation with Kathryn Garcia
ANAND: One of your lines that I love is “You may not know my name, but you know my work.” For people reading this who don't know you, tell us three pieces of your work that they would know.
And I wonder how you’re thinking about that identity transition from being someone behind the scenes to being one of the most in front-of-the-scene people on earth.
KATHRYN: Yes, it is a transition, but the three pieces that I would talk about — and I'll sort of go backwards in time — is the food program and what we did during Covid to make sure that people stay fed, literally delivering a million meals a day and distributing another 500,000. The second would be the day-to-day of being in sanitation, which is, yes, we got your garbage every day and we plowed — under my tenure, I would say that they calculated just shy of 15 feet of snow.
But also being at the Department of Environmental Protection and having to take on putting back together our wastewater treatment infrastructure that had been flooded [in Hurricane Sandy]. And lots of other things, like banning styrofoam. You know you're doing something right when the chemical industry is saying you're arbitrary and capricious.
ANAND: And what about the identity transition for you? You're someone who has done a lot of these invisible jobs that make so many visible things possible. How do you think about, as a matter of personal transition, becoming the front-of-stage person?
KATHRYN: The personal transition was actually before deciding to run. I'm a relatively private person. I like to just get the work done, but when you are in this type of job, part of it is being very comfortable about being the advocate for the policies that improve people's lives and being able to stand up there and really make the case so that everyone understands where you're going and why you're doing it. I think that's incredibly important.
In some ways, as important as getting the details right. And so the transition was, Was I personally OK with having everybody know my name? And I felt really strongly that it was a critical moment in this city that I really do deeply love and we need someone in that chair who understands how it works and can get the job done and really get things accomplished.
ANAND: I love that, in the age of the Instagram influencer, for you it's like a grudging, reluctant thing to accept possibly becoming famous in order to solve some problems.
KATHRYN: Yes. Being not-famous was perfectly fine. I mean, in some ways my personality is much shyer if I didn't do what I do now. Being in the limelight is not something I crave. It's something I understand is required, but it is definitely not something I crave.
ANAND: Watching the debate the other day, I was struck by something that often strikes me in Democratic debates or policy discussions, which is this profusion of plans. Everybody's got plans. And the word “plan” was used every six seconds in this debate, but I didn't hear as much of a vivid vision of what the city would look like if any of you wins and succeeds.
So can you give me an energizing, galvanizing picture of what we're building toward? Paint the post-Garcia New York for us as vividly as you can. What would it look and feel and smell and taste like? And what would people's lives be like in a way that they're not now?
KATHRYN: The vision that I have for this city is one where we have a real shared common cause about tackling our fundamental problems. And what that looks like is you actually feel the opportunity no matter where you're growing up in this city, and that we are investing in a greener New York, where, when you're walking down the street, you are under a canopy of trees and our air quality is better.
And we are protected from the impacts, or we have mitigated the impacts, of climate change. But that your day-to-day experience is a more livable city where you get to experience all the fabulous things that make New York special.
I liked that question “What would it taste like?” I was like, "Pizza, empanadas, and French cuisine” — anything that you wanted under the sun.
ANAND: I want to go back to your beginnings, which are so fascinating. You were raised in an adoptive family, with Black siblings. And if elected mayor, you'd obviously preside over one of the most diverse cities in the country at this moment, over the last year, year and a half, where, thanks to Black Lives Matter and other forces, there is a real awakening happening for a lot of white people in this country, learning about race, learning about the experiences of other people, reading books, decentering their perspectives. Really a remarkable cultural moment that we're in, in the city and beyond.
I wonder how you think your early home life trained you to see the racial experiences of others in ways that were maybe ahead of their time?
KATHRYN: My lived experience as a member of a diverse family was the real feeling of: This is normal. I thought that was a normal experience. The same things: You get along with your siblings; you don't get along with your siblings. Who took all the Oreos? Did they hide the Oreos? And then also really understanding how we were viewed differently by the outside world.
ANAND: How did you see that? Do you remember when you first realized that?
KATHRYN: It was probably when we were in late childhood, early teens. And it's not that there's one searing memory. It's more or less knowing that you can feel how you, when you walk into a room, are perceived by people, and how your siblings are perceived, and whether or not the body language changes. And understanding that there is a real difference.
When people look at me, they never see a threat. Whereas when they look at my brother, you can tell that they feel in some way, Is this a threat? And he is — oh my god, he's such a freaking mush. But he's a big Black man.
ANAND: Do you regard the NYPD as a structurally racist organization, as some charge?
KATHRYN: The NYPD, it's racially charged, but in a way about how they are trained to do their job — to be looking at communities as things that have to be controlled, rather than people who have to be protected. And reform is possible and absolutely required for us to have a thriving, safe city because you will not be able to solve crime if you don't create a better relationship with all of the communities in the city.
ANAND: I want to talk about one of the things that gets in the way of that kind of trust relationship. Under normal circumstances, whom police officers vote for, or whom police unions endorse, is a private matter. It's not, in normal times, relevant to their conduct and their job.
But given who Donald Trump was, given what I and many others would call the fascist tendencies that he had and authoritarian tendencies and views of using the police in ways that go well beyond any kind of American norm, given how many NYPD folks supported him and given the way the institutional NYPD unions were so gung-ho for Trump, is it a problem for the city that fascism was not a deal breaker for such a large number of the people in charge of keeping the city safe?
KATHRYN: There are many things I could say about the Trump administration in terms of the union endorsement. What I didn't understand is usually unions are incredibly bread-and-butter organizations. It’s like, these are the guys who are not giving us any money to pay your salaries. Why are you for them?
Looking at what came out of the Trump administration and the challenges of rebuilding institutional norms is absolutely critical.
ANAND: But what I'm saying is, if you are an undocumented person in New York, or, frankly, you're a woman in New York, or you're an African-American in New York, in what way would you trust the police if you know that, institutionally, they were in favor of a political movement that was of a fascistic, white nationalist nature?
KATHRYN: That is why we need real reform of the police department. That's why we need police officers to live in the city to be reflective of our communities. And we do have, at this point in time, a majority-minority force in the city of New York, and that has to be reflected through all of their ranks. And I believe it's totally possible. The culture change that's required is completely possible.
ANAND: Yesterday, the state and the city made it clear that the Trump organization is under criminal investigation, not just civil. Given the problems we've seen with Rikers Island, with Covid spreading in prisons in New York, with the failure around Jeffrey Epstein's suicide watch, is New York's penal system up to the task of incarcerating a former president of the United States if it comes down to that?
KATHRYN: I am going to say that if we end up in that place, we will be able to manage that. I assume that he wouldn't actually stay on Rikers very long if he's convicted but end up in state prison, but that we would be able to successfully incarcerate him, because that would be the requirement.
ANAND: The state recently raised taxes on the wealthy, and there are the inevitable threats, which you're familiar with, of billionaires vowing to leave the city. They're going to go to Singapore, they're going to go to Connecticut. They're going to go to Mars, whatever.
KATHRYN: I think there are some of them who are looking at Mars. Who’s the one who’s really rich who has all the flying stuff?
ANAND: Elon Musk — yeah, I think he's on a flight to Mars right now. Do you say good riddance? Or do you worry about taxing billionaires too much, driving people away? Does New York need billionaires to live here?
KATHRYN: We do need to be a city that is open to everyone. I look at the numbers, and I know who pays the bills, and that allows us to do a ton of stuff for people. So you’ve got to be able to have enough money to do the basics. You’ve got to be able to pay for your teachers. You’ve got to be able to pay for your fire department, your social services.
But increased taxes should be the last tool in the tool belt. And it's not only their income tax; it's also property tax, which is the biggest part of our revenue. And having that jeopardized would jeopardize a lot of programs that support people.
I'm not going to be out there saying “please,” begging people to come back. I think we make it so that we're such an attractive place to be that everyone wants to be here, regardless of their income.
ANAND: I want to ask you about your time running the Sanitation Department. What is the strangest sanitation problem your agency ever presided over on your watch?
KATHRYN: The strangest problem? There's a religious requirement in the Orthodox community that you kill a chicken to take your sins away. And we would have to deal with the cleanup from that, which was multiple tons of chickens. That was a strange thing.
ANAND: And were the chickens in bags, or where were the chickens?
KATHRYN: They often ended up in black garbage bags or even in dumpsters. There were a lot of chickens.
ANAND: Why couldn't they just be treated as normal garbage? What did you have to do specially for the chickens?
KATHRYN: Oh, because they do it outside on the street. It's like a ceremony.
KATHRYN: Yeah. I didn't even know this was something we did.
ANAND: But it sounds like it's part of the burden of a cosmopolitan city — that you don't have one-size-fits-all rules. I wonder how you thought about the embracing of different communities, different traditions, and having sanitation, like other city agencies, meet people where they are.
KATHRYN: Oh, yeah, you have to. You’re always sort of responsible for everyone. And that means there’s going to be some particular group doing a ceremony on the street. A lot of people use the streets for their ceremonies or for their parades. And at the end of the day, we always have a job. And you have to be able to pivot and know and be prepared and be ready to take care, to keep all of those communities clean. And we would do that all the time.
ANAND: NPR and Frontline did a big investigation of recycling last year, raising the question that many others have raised of whether recycling — in many parts of this country, at least — has been a lie pushed by the oil companies to sell more plastic. And there's obviously a lot of debate on this, as you know. What is your view? Is recycling for real, or has it been something the oil companies have tricked us into believing in?
KATHRYN: Well, first and foremost, we should be using reusables. Single-use shouldn't be our go-to. I would much rather have everyone using their reusable water bottle and using their reusable bag. It does make a difference. But in New York City, our recycling is real, in part because we built the infrastructure to make it so. We have a paper-recycling plant and mill on Staten Island. The material that's going off of the West Side of Manhattan and barged over to Staten Island is becoming a pizza box.
ANAND: It's a beautiful New York story.
KATHRYN: It's a beautiful New York story.
ANAND: As Andrew Yang discovered recently, the politics of Israel and Palestine is local politics here in New York. Given what's happening right now, do you believe Israel is an apartheid state, and how would you, as mayor, speak truth on issues like that while navigating the extraordinarily complicated coalition politics of the city?
KATHRYN: I am truly horrified by the level of violence that we are seeing in the Middle East. Goodness, we could all be so much stronger if we could work more together. I have supported the state of Israel, but we need to see an end to the violence and get people back to the table because it's impacting families in New York City, on both sides, and we're seeing children dying. Again, that's completely unacceptable.
Really, I continue to hope for a two-state solution. We have not put our energy behind that to get to a real permanent peace. And by we, I mean really the federal government. We need the Biden administration to really step up and push both sides to the table because this level of violence is pretty horrifying.
ANAND: There seem to be a growing number of American Jews who are very, very angry with Israel, and Israel’s invocation of their name to justify its behavior. Do you regard it as an apartheid state now, the way it operates?
KATHRYN: This is really where I think that we need to be critical of policies that are hurting people. You have to be able to say to your friends, “We need to stop this level of violence and just be humane.” And so that is where I am on this. It is absolutely just devastating to open up the paper every day and see more people dying.
ANAND: One of the jobs of the next mayor is going to be to get young New Yorkers safely back to school. It's often treated as a massive operational challenge, which it is. But I think there's a missing question of the psychological toll that Covid has taken on kids, particularly adolescents who are in that critical moment of individuation and self-definition and not trying to spend every waking hour with their parents as they try to become their own people.
A lot of them lost a year of human contact. And at least from what I see, what I read, there's real trauma there, potentially long-term damage to many of our kids.
Besides reopening schools, do you think there's anything New York can and needs to do for young people to deal with the damage of the past year and a bit?
KATHRYN: I completely agree with you. I think there's been real trauma for our kids. And how it's going to manifest itself is not predictable. Is this meaning we have kids who are more depressed? Is this coming out as aggression and anger? Many kids lost a parent or guardian during Covid, or a beloved grandparent.
And we have to have the mental-health resources in every school, but we also have to have other support for families, like really knowing what's happening with the family. Like why is a kid not coming to school with their homework? Oh, they lost a parent or they lost their house or they lost their job. So being really sensitive to that.
But it's also about putting in art and music and theater and sports so that kids have not just reading and writing and making up the learning loss, which are obviously important, but also developing their opportunity to use creative outlets for healing.
ANAND: Andrew Yang said he would hire you if he were elected, a comment you criticized as sexist. So let's turn the tables as a thought experiment only. If you were elected, what job do you think Yang would be most qualified for in your administration?
KATHRYN: Oh, no. I am not stacking the cabinet just yet, until we win this thing.
ANAND: He could be in charge of giving people money on the streets.
KATHRYN: Well, that certainly would make him more popular.
ANAND: On the sexism point, you've worked in very male-dominated areas as a leader of thousands and thousands of people.
KATHRYN: Leader of thousands and thousands of men.
ANAND: Yeah, exactly. And I imagine having to figure out authority in that kind of environment was probably very challenging at different moments. I wonder how the sexism you faced has shaped your leadership approach.
KATHRYN: The only time I actually really faced it was with sanitation workers when I went and talked to them when they were at their graduation service. Like, you've been on the job five minutes. And they're like, "What do you know about garbage?"
And I was like, "Well, you know, I used to move waste in pipes and now we're going to move it in trucks." But the structure of sanitation is such that you are the boss and you have to own that you are the boss. You can't be shy about that piece of it. You have to be willing to take the reins, and that gets you respect.
But, also, I lead from a place where I listen to people and I'm respectful of them, and it generates a really positive two-way street.
ANAND: What is the best food item sold in New York City? You can only pick one.
ANAND: What's the most underrated neighborhood in New York? And you can't say the one where you live.
ANAND: Best New York team?
ANAND: Best mayor in New York history?
KATHRYN: Well, I’ll do in my lifetime, because I don't think I can do all the other ones for the last 400 years. As I've said, Bloomberg. I really appreciate his approach to using the data.
ANAND: Favorite living New Yorker, private citizen? And favorite dead New Yorker, private citizen?
KATHRYN: Dead is Eleanor Roosevelt. Living — I can't choose, like, my mom?
ANAND: Absolutely not.
KATHRYN: I want to choose my mom.
ANAND: OK. You can choose your mom. You're going to get the mom vote now. Favorite building in New York?
KATHRYN: Oh, Grand Central Station.
ANAND: Bodega sandwich order?
KATHRYN: Bacon, egg, and cheese, on a roll.
ANAND: And, lastly, let's say you serve two terms as mayor. Signing off, what would you want to overhear New Yorkers on the streets saying about what you did?
KATHRYN: I would love to overhear that people felt they could raise their families here. That we had really scored some points on the affordability and people felt like their kids were going to thrive.
Kathryn Garcia is the former commissioner of the Department of Sanitation of New York City.
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty