Testimony before the New York City Campaign Finance Board
Testimony by: Marco Conner, Legislative & Legal Director, Transportation Alternatives
For more than four decades Transportation Alternatives has fought to create safe, inclusive and livable streets in New York City by promoting walking, biking and public transit and the use of public street space to build local community free of automobiles.
In 2017 Transportation Alternatives was proud to arrange the first election Debate Watch Parties at public plazas under the auspices of the New York City Campaign Finance Board (NYCCFB). The debates were screened live outdoors, projected onto large projection screens, and featured music by local DJs, food from local vendors, voter registration and other civic services. Partnering with the Neighborhood Plaza Program ℅ The Horticultural Society of New York (NPP) and other partners, one event was held in Brooklyn and one in Queens for the first and second General Election Mayoral Debates.
Our vision was to highlight New York City’s plazas and public spaces as vital civic space, help generate interest in the electoral process and politics among more New Yorkers, increase voter turnout, and to encourage first amendment activity and public debate - by making the context for engaging in the debates more engaging and relevant to New Yorkers in a local community setting.
At both events Dominicanos USA provided voter registration services, IDNYC made it possible for attendees to sign up for the IDNYC card, and New Yorkers for Parks shared information about public space in New York City.
The Debate Watch Parties
BROOKLYN: The first Debate Watch Party was held on October 10th, 2017 at Restoration Plaza in Brooklyn, generously hosted by Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. Approximately 250 people stayed for some amount of time. Of those 250 people, approximately 85 people watched the debate for a significant portion of time, sitting on chairs outdoors at Restoration Plaza. Many more people passed by to briefly observe. One food vendor was on site, and in addition the event sponsors provided free pizza, bagels, water and coffee to participants. NY1/Spectrum News covered the event and interviewed attendees.
QUEENS: The second Debate Watch Party was held on November 1st, 2017 at 78th Street Playstreet Plaza in Jackson Heights, Queens and was primarily arranged by NPP, with generous support from the Lily Auchincloss Foundation, Jackson Heights Green Alliance, Sukhi New York and Friends of Diversity Plaza. Approximately 90 people stayed for some amount of time, sitting on chairs outdoors. Of those 90 people, approximately 40 people watched the debate for a significant portion of time. Many more people passed by to briefly observe. The New York City Department of Transportation provided live language translation services from English into Spanish, Hindi and Bangla, with headsets for participants at designated tables. Food was sold by local vendors and the Queens Night Market.
Promotion for both the Brooklyn and Queens events occurred through flyering in the neighborhoods of the events in both English and Spanish, online via Facebook and Twitter, email via the email distribution lists of Transportation Alternatives and its partners, local blogs with posted event notices and press statements by the NYCCFB.
While we were excited to bring these public plaza events into life and to see how many participants enjoyed the experience, turnout was not as high as we hoped at either event, particularly at the second Debate Watch Party in Queens. We believe that this was influenced in part by a mayoral election that was not competitively contested, by Halloween celebrations and a tragic and fatal vehicular attack on the Hudson River Greenway in Manhattan the evening before the second debate. Overall, promotion of the events could also have been stronger.
Suggestions for Future Debate Watch Parties
We believe that a number of steps will help make any future Debate Watch Parties a great success, including:
Starting promotion several months in advance. This will require that the sponsor agreement with the NYCCFB is completed several months in advance.
Promote the events more broadly throughout each borough where the events are held.
Far stronger promotion by television broadcasters and other election debate media sponsors.
Possibly host debate watch parties in all five boroughs with local partners. This could allow for combined promotional efforts with city-wide media outlets and create a city-wide branding of the events.
Early and clear promotion of voter registration and other civic services provided, to make it clear that these important services are available.
Transportation Alternatives believes that the two Debate Watch Parties proved a concept for the vision we had to highlight New York City’s plazas and public spaces as vital civic space to make community and to both increase and deepen participation in the electoral process. We were encouraged by our partners who share this vision and were indispensable in taking these first steps in bringing it into life.