Soniya Gokhale (00:05):
Welcome back to another episode of A Desi Woman podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale. And the voices I am seeking may have never been heard before, but their stories deserve to be told. What is A Desi Woman? She is a dynamic, fearless and strong woman. She is your mother, your grandmother, your daughter, your sister. She is every one of us who is on an endless pursuit of self-empowerment and fulfillment. I am Soniya Gokhale and I am a Desi woman. Hello, and welcome to another edition of A Desi Woman podcast. I am your host Soniya Gokhale. And today we are so excited to welcome Reshma Patel who was a democratic candidate for the office of New York city controller. Reshma has built her career in public finance, working on over $40 billion of financing for New York City. And she spent eight years at a firm that served as a financial advisor to the New York City controller’s office.
Soniya Gokhale (01:14):
Reshma is deeply immersed in her public service and volunteerism in our community. And she’s the precedent of the Eleanor Roosevelt democratic club in Midtown East. She serves on Manhattan’s community board six as the vice chair of the budget and government affairs committee. And she served as a board co-chair of Chhaya Community Development Corporation, which serves immigrant communities in Queens that were disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Reshma also serves on the board of dance, New York City, an organization, which notably jumped into action to provide COVID-19 relief to artists who contribute greatly to the city’s economy, but were largely overlooked by assistance programs. Reshma also volunteers for the League of Women Voters, New York City, and teach us financial literacy as a volunteer for the High Water Women Foundation. Reshma is a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of technology. Reshma, welcome to the show.
Reshma Patel (02:24):
Thank you, Soniya. It’s great to be here.
Soniya Gokhale (02:26):
I always like to ask candidates what motivated them to run. And I know from reading past interviews with you, that you have witnessed firsthand both prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and most certainly since the pandemic that not all New Yorkers have the same opportunities and access to resources. And I think what sets you distinctly apart from other candidates is that you are seeking to bring your immense technical skills and finance background and combine it with your desire to create equity for all. And to quote you directly, you state quote, “As a daughter of immigrants, I was taught to always share, to stretch a penny far and that when we ride, we should bring others up with us.” And quote. So if you can tell me more about this and your decision to put your hat in the ring for this critical role in New York City.
Reshma Patel (03:23):
Sure. So thank you, Soniya. It really was a cumulation of all the events that happened in the past year, as well as my prior experiences even before that, that got me to this point. I serve on two boards and one of them is Chhaya Community Development Corporation, which is organization focused on helping immigrants from South Asia and Indo Caribbean immigrants in the neighborhoods of Jackson Heights, Elmhurst Richmond Hill in New York City. And those areas were the most significantly impacted by COVID-19 and one of the things I think a lot of people didn’t realize is federal benefits are given out whether it’s the additional unemployment or any other aid that was given, the stimulus aid. If you are an immigrant and you have a partner or another family member who is not a documented immigrant here or is on some other type of visa, like not a green card holder or a citizen, then you didn’t qualify for any of this aid.
Reshma Patel (04:16):
And in this city, so many of our workers and not just the city, right? In so many other places in this country, so many of our workers therefore did not qualify for aid and they’ve really suffered. And so one of the things that Chhaya stepped in is we basically were giving out $500 grants to people who didn’t get any other aid. And it is such little money, but luckily through foundation grants we got that for people and it was talking to people, hearing the stories was just really moving and impactful and just really sad. And then the other board I serve on is Dance NYC, which is an arts’ organization supporting dance artists in New York City.
Reshma Patel (04:51):
And similarly artists did not qualify for a lot of aid and unemployment benefits because they are basically the gig workers and there was some relief for gig workers, but it’s just different. They’re working show to show and all the performance venues shut down and they’re still not open and there was no plan to help them. And so I saw that there was so much need and suffering there and it wasn’t being addressed at all levels. And I felt that we needed people who had experiences in these communities to step up and speak up because otherwise their needs were not going to be met.
Soniya Gokhale (05:22):
Well, no, I think that’s amazing. And I think sometimes what’s associated with our communities or from South Asia or those that are Indian American is perhaps this model minority myth. And what’s interesting about your background is you indicate notably that you’re a product of public schools in a blue collar town, and you then attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but your familiarity with poverty, both in travels to India and your early upbringing certainly influenced you it sounds like. And I’d like to hear more of that because again, it correlates to your community and what you’re seeing and what you have indicated has motivated you to this point.
Reshma Patel (06:02):
Sure. And I think that is we actually sometimes suffer from this model minority myth because in New York City, South Asians and Asian Americans actually have been unemployed at higher rates this past year and had actually lower per capita income than the average in the city. And that’s not something we see. We don’t see the side of poverty in our communities. And I think a lot of us who are Indian Americans, I think there’s a great sense of service that we have because of the fact that we went to India as children. And we saw not only the poverty, but basically the discrepancies in wealth. And when I look at the nonprofit sector here in New York City, so many people who are leaders are people who are South Asian in public health. There are so many South Asians who are leaders. And I think that comes from all of our experiences of growing up and seeing how unequal things were when we traveled back home and wanting to make an impact and have a commitment to service as a result.
Soniya Gokhale (06:58):
Absolutely. So I thought what was interesting is that in some ways you’re currently involved in doing some of the work behind the scenes in the city, which the controller’s office should be doing. And I just wanted to hear more about that because essentially you’re extremely grounded in the community but are involved in a variety of different parts of the city. So we’d love to hear more about that.
Reshma Patel (07:23):
Sure. So I serve on community boards. I live in the East side of Manhattan in Midtown, East near the United nations. And I serve as vice chair of the budget committee on community board six. And in New York City, that’s almost like your lowest level of government. Each community board represents over a hundred thousand people. So in a smaller city, that would be a city council role. So I’ve seen district needs having served in my community board. But as I mentioned before, I’ve also seen the needs in places like Queens because of my role involved in Chhaya. And I’ve seen other parts of the city, I’ve been a long-time volunteer with The League of Women Voters and an organization called the High Water Women’s foundation.
Reshma Patel (08:05):
And I’ve been teaching financial literacy classes, as well as civics classes and really teaching people the importance of voting. And that’s brought me to a lot of places in and around New York City, especially, what I like to see is the last subway stop in so many places, which is very different than the community I live in, which is much more privileged. And I’ve seen the discrepancies that you have in the city, but it’s also been an incredible experience just to see the diversity of this city too.
Soniya Gokhale (08:30):
Wow. Okay. So you’re very immersed. And just such a variety of things that you described. The next New York City control will face and expected $5.25 billion budget gap for the next fiscal year alone and most democratic candidates in the race, agree with mayor Bill de Blasio, that the city really cannot make up for that type of deficit without additional assistance through federal funds. And so I wanted to ask, do you agree with that? Or are there caveats around that? And I had a few follow-up questions.
Reshma Patel (09:09):
Sure. So with the passage of the stimulus bill this past week New York City is in a much better shape than it would have been last week before that happened. And I have to actually thank the people of Georgia, because they made Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader. And obviously he, as the Senator from New York is going to push for aid to New York. And so we are going to get assistance. And I think that helps us a lot. What I would like though, is that for us to not to lose the fact that we need to change the way we operate and make things better, because had we had a situation where we didn’t have the federal aid circumstances would have been a lot worse for New York City, but perhaps we would have been rethinking how we run our city government. And I don’t want to lose track of that.
Reshma Patel (09:52):
And New York City is actually required to have a balanced budget, that’s a law. So what would happen, there’s just cuts that would have been made. And so in mayor de Blasio’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2022, he had covered much of that gap or his proposal in January was to renegotiating contracts with the unions and also significant cuts to education, which I would say was really not the best thing for our city’s children. So luckily we won’t have to make those cuts, but there could be a situation in a year when we can no longer get this aid that perhaps we still have a budget deficit, and we need to really be thinking ahead and seeing how we can get savings in other areas. I think that there’s a lot of overlap in services and we could become more efficient. As a city, there’s ways to look at refinancing of our debt to create savings. And there’s lots of other things that I think we could be doing to cut costs so that we don’t have a situation where we have to cut important services.
Soniya Gokhale (10:50):
Yeah, that’s phenomenal. And I know in researching for this podcast, you’ve described this role as a CFO of New York City. And I work for one of the largest companies in the world, in the private sector full time so your approach is so fascinating. It really is that of a CFO. And like you stated, refinancing the city’s outstanding bonds and the current low interest rate environment would you estimate can save the city around a hundred million dollars, but it’s so great to see things that are applied in the private sector and that companies now being applied in the government. And you sort of referenced it, but wasn’t sure if you had any more, you could add on that.
Reshma Patel (11:32):
Sure. So my professional experience is I’ve worked for over 18 years in public finance and New York City’s debt is very complicated and anyone who does corporate debt, when they look at New York city’s debt, they’re like, “Oh my gosh.” Because it’s about $125 billion of debt outstanding. And New York city started issuing debt in the mid 1800s. So their bonds still outstanding, they have these hundred year bonds. So it is a very complex, outstanding portfolio of debt, but also the restrictions that are put on how you refinance that debt because you have tax law restrictions, and you have a lot of state law restrictions that were put in place for New York City to manage its debt better because they had this crisis in 1975.
Reshma Patel (12:14):
So as a result of that, I became one of the few experts who knows how to do the restructuring. And it’s a part of the city’s functioning and its controls office handles it. It’s something that the city has done. They did it after 9/11, they did it after 2008. And we continuously managed to get savings through restructuring of the debt portfolio, but it’s something that people don’t talk about. And it is a big line item. Like in next year’s budget, there’s almost seven billion of debt service being paid by New York City. And the average debt per person in New York City is $11,000. And so it’s an important thing that I feel gets overlooked. And that’s another reason why I’m running for controller, because I feel like it’s an important part of the functioning of the controls’ office that people have overload.
Soniya Gokhale (12:56):
And another issue that’s being debated is the city’s plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex and replace it with four new borough based jail facilities. It would cost about $8.2 billion. And I think that your position on it is compelling as you support closing it, but then indicate that you really think it will help keep families together undetermined for their crime, but they need to do a better job of liaising with the community as you roll this out, potentially. So I want to understand more from you on that.
Reshma Patel (13:34):
Yes. And this plan to close Rikers is happening because we have luckily a new discussion on criminal justice happening in our city and this country, frankly, and Rikers was a really inhumane place for a lot of people. And a lot of people were there for petty crimes and they were living in these very horrible situations. And the worst part about Rikers though, was that it’s very hard to get to. So family members could not visit people. Where people who are awaiting their trial, who could not afford bail or people who were there for say marijuana possession. And we need to think about what that does to families. When I was growing up, I had a neighbor whose father had been in and out of jail for drug possession.
Reshma Patel (14:16):
And obviously it’s not something, you want to be like, “Oh, it’s okay to do that.” But at the same time, I thought that impact that it had on his children, him not having access to them and not being able to see him was much worse because we’re creating this longer term cycle of poverty and crime in our communities, and we should try to make it easier for families to be supportive of people and to be able to rehabilitate people. And one of the issues that’s happened though with this Riker’s plan is the city didn’t engage enough with the communities and the plan is to open up what they call borough jails.
Reshma Patel (14:56):
And in each of the boroughs, you will have a jail, but there’s been a lot of community protests. And obviously a lot of people are going to be upset when they think there’s a prison in their neighborhood, right? So that’s something perhaps we’re not going to be able to avoid, but there should be some community discussions and trying to find a place where we can put these borough prisons because unfortunately the plan is going to be delayed and we’re going to have to spend a lot of money on lawsuits if we don’t have these discussions in advance.
Soniya Gokhale (15:22):
That makes sense. Absolutely. And one of the city controller’s most important, significant function pertains to the allocation of $240 billion across pension funds and the cities, public pension funds. And so under the current controllers oversight, three of the five pension funds have begun divesting from fossil fuels so that’s a pretty big step towards sustainability. And it sounds like you support that divestment, but yeah, wanted to hear more about that from you.
Reshma Patel (15:58):
Sure. Yes. I think it is very important that we address this issue of climate change. And I think it was great that the current comptroller Scott Stringer decided to divest from fossil fuels. And it’s unfortunate that two of the pension funds have not signed on. I think that it’s something that we need to work further fo and perhaps we go back. What New York did was say a hundred percent divestment, but what the state of Illinois has done is said, “Okay, we’re going to do like a 30% divestment and then gradually move up.”
Reshma Patel (16:26):
So perhaps that’s something that we go back to the table with the two pension funds, which is the fire and police union pension funds that have not agreed to this. And the city’s pension fund is the fourth largest in the country. And I think you can really move the needle on things when you have that much money to invest. Most recently we’ve seen in Europe where their national pension funds decided to stop investing in tobacco, and that really pushed for more policies and it helped for people to stop smoking. Because you need governments to take the lead on these types of things.
Soniya Gokhale (16:59):
The size and scope of this job is just absolutely incredible. The more that I hear about it, it makes sense. But the fourth largest in the country, that is just incredible, and you mentioned that you had always worked in government and on campaigns as a volunteer, but you certainly never really thought you would run and you still can’t believe you’re doing it. And that classic quote, when you’ve asked a woman seven times to run before she will, and men will run the first time and women typically don’t, that was true for you, you indicate. And I want to hear what your thoughts are. Are you happy you did it? Obviously you’re enthusiastic about it, but any advice for anyone that maybe thinking about it, or just getting involved in the civic dialogue and public service?
Reshma Patel (17:48):
So I think it’s important for everybody to be involved. And I think democracy only works if everyone participates. And so I mentioned earlier how I’ve been a volunteer with The League of Women Voters and trying to encourage people, not only to get out to vote, because one of the things I was doing is registering people to vote, but I was also telling them why it’s important to vote and why it’s important to be a citizen advocate. And I think one of the things that people forget too, because not only do you need to vote, but you need to also advocate for yourself, because one of the things I realized in 2016, when this national dialogue happened, so many people are disillusioned with the government. They don’t think it works for them.
Reshma Patel (18:20):
And I didn’t understand why I never felt that way. And the reason why I never felt that way, because I had voted in every single election. And when I had a problem, I called up my elected official. And often that’s the local elected official, because what happens at the national level is much more detached from your day-to-day life than what happens at the local level. So I think it’s also really important to be involved in local government. And I think everybody needs to be going to as I mentioned, I serve on a community board. It is a volunteer position and anyone can apply to join it, but anyone can also show up for the meetings. And I think it really is important for people to be engaged. I was asked seven times at the end of 2020, a group of friends decided that they wanted to ask me to run for office. And it took a while for me to get to the point where I would do it.
Reshma Patel (19:08):
It’s something I had thought about before, but it just seems so daunting of a task to do. And it’s super exciting in that I’ve learned so much, it’s about 45 days now, since I’ve announced. At the same time, the unfortunate part of running for office is you have to fundraise. And that has been a struggle. I mean, I think like most people, it’s hard for me to ask for money. A lot of people don’t like to do that, and that’s going beyond my comfort zone and really pushing and trying to fundraise in a very short timeframe because the election is June 22nd.
Soniya Gokhale (19:39):
I think it is absolutely incredible. I mean, in addition to all the aspects of running this, the fundraising, amiss the pandemic. I mean, we haven’t even talked about that, but I would imagine that certainly changes campaigning to some degree.
Reshma Patel (19:59):
Yes. Everything until this week has been on Zoom. Weather has become much nicer. We had a few 70 degrees days here in New York City, but until this week, I was basically doing all outreach over Zoom. And this week, the other thing in New York City is we have to collect signatures. I think everywhere in the country, you have to do that. You have to collect signatures to get on the ballot. And that process started last Tuesday. So now those are in-person signatures. So now I am outside getting signatures from people and having my first kind of in-person interaction with people who are going to be voting in the primary in June.
Soniya Gokhale (20:32):
Reshma I have a lot of listeners in South Asia and especially India. And so I do want to hear more about your background and journey to the United States as an immigrant from India, as I think it’s deeply inspiring to witness women from our diaspora, making the bold decision to run for office.
Reshma Patel (20:56):
Sure. So I came to the U.S. when I was one years old. My father came here for graduate school and settled in Lowell, Massachusetts. We are from Gujarat originally. And I was born in a village in Gujarat, but my father had grown up in Nagpur in Maharashtra and my grandfather had a business there. So we kind of have ties to both places.
Soniya Gokhale (21:17):
That’s wonderful. Well, I always am so just deeply inspired by interviewing women like yourself that happened to be Indian American from South Asia, because just look at that journey and anything is possible. You came here one year of age and just absolutely incredible. So we really cannot thank you enough for joining us today. And I will have links to your campaign site. It’s reshma2021.com as well as links to other sites that we’ve discussed today and pertaining to some of the issues that we discussed. And anything else you want to add?
Reshma Patel (21:53):
No, I mean, thank you for your time. I appreciate your interest in my campaign and thank you to everyone who’s listening and I hope everybody decides to become more civically engaged.
Soniya Gokhale (22:06):
Absolutely. Well, you’re certainly one that would inspire us to do so. Thank you so much, Reshma Patel.
Reshma Patel (22:13):
Thank you, Soniya.