The Oppy is reconnecting with some prominent NYU Stern alumni with our ‘Graduate’ series. Each month, we’ll interview notable alumni that have made an impact on their community and industry.
It’s generally considered poor form for a journalist to eat lunch during an interview. I’m not proud of violating that principle, but fortunately for me, the subject of this sitdown was 2021 New York Mayoral candidate Art Chang.
“Oh, you can go ahead and take ten minutes to eat if you want,” he said before noting that he, too, had his lunch waiting on the side.
For a man with years of experience in city development, tech startups, and New York’s municipal government, Chang (Stern MBA, 1998) is almost disarmingly lax in conversation. He is more than happy to talk to you about the policy issues that are driving his candidacy in the upcoming Democratic Primary on June 22, but he’s just as likely to talk to you about you. Within five minutes we had discussed my wife’s job, whether or not I had actually met my classmates due to remote learning, and the gallows humor of Stern’s price tag. “You’ll be able to pay that back in a matter of months,” he assured me.
What we hadn’t yet talked about was affordable housing or universal childcare. He seems to genuinely want to know about you, and he asks you enough questions that you start to forget who is the subject of the interview. But maybe those ideas aren’t mutually exclusive. When asking about my wife, a one-time New York public school teacher in the Bronx who ultimately left for a job in Passaic, N.J., he manages to tie it together with the issues he wants to tackle from City Hall.
“She might get paid a bit less in New Jersey, but she’s going to have a much better quality of professional life,” he told me. I can tell you from first-hand experience that he’s not wrong. In both situations, my wife was teaching in economically-depressed areas, but the differences from one location to the other have been stark.
“Life is really brutal in the city if you don’t have money,” he continued, “and I think people who live in places like Passaic, who have the same socioeconomic background, are just materially better off than someone who lives in the Bronx.”
Chang is not alone in thinking New York City doesn’t currently work for most regular people, but he does think he might be the person to change that. The interesting thing about his candidacy is that it seems he embarked on it less out of egotism than a lack of satisfaction with the alternatives. In fact, Chang doesn’t display much ego at all when you talk, which is surprising as he pursues a job that seemingly begs for it.
But a lack of ego doesn’t mean he’s naive. Chang has no illusions about the size and scope of the post he’s after.
“To do this, you need a unique set of skills,” he says. “You’re actually running for an office that is the chief executive office of one of the largest entities in the United States. The budget is larger than all but four states. If the city were a corporation it would be in the top 35 largest by revenue. If the city were a corporation, it would be in the top 15 by number of employees. And the city budget is almost $100 billion. This is a massive organization that is super super complicated.
“I asked myself this question, ‘Do any of the people who are running or are rumored to run, fit the qualifications that I just set out?’ And I said, ‘No. There’s nobody. In fact I think I could do better than any of the people whose names had come out.’ So I threw my hat in the ring.”
If there’s anything a conversation with him makes clear, it’s that he’s approaching the campaign with a seriousness and breadth of knowledge regarding the issues confronting New York that is tough to match.
“When you look at my policies, I get a lot of recognition, and I’ve written almost every word of that policy myself,” Chang said. “I’ve done my own research, I’ve done my own analysis, and I’ve done my own writing. So as a result I know those policies. I believe in them. They’re my vision of what New York City could be like.”
Chang, whom students can meet at a free NYU-exclusive Q&A on June 3, recently sat down for a lengthy Q&A with The Oppy to discuss why he thinks he could do a better job than the field, how his experience planning out what is now the Long Island City shoreline influenced his career, and how his experience at Stern continues to impact him today.
Some answers have been edited for clarity.
The first place I lived in New York City, and I was there for nine years, was Long Island City, so I guess the first thing I should say is ‘Thank you’?
So, I assume you enjoyed living there.
I did stay there for nine years. I’m sure you’ve been back, but it was a very fun place to live for the first decade or so of my post-college life.
That’s great. Which building did you live in?
4705 Center Blvd. It’s the corner of 47th ave and 5th street next to that astroturf field that’s there.
You were the project manager on the Queens West project in the 1990s. I know that I’m not the only current or former Stern student who lives or has lived in that neighborhood. Can you tell me a little about that experience?
Well, I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff in this story for Stern students, so let me start with how I got the job. Back in 1990 when I was 27, I declared bankruptcy. My first startup was going great guns until it fell into a pile of flaming poo. I lost everything. And I started thinking, ‘Gosh, that was a really painful, but interesting experience. I never want to repeat that ever again. And I never want to repeat the mistakes I made again. So what can I learn and how do I think about my career?’
So I asked myself what I was really good at, what interests me and what motivates me, and setting aside any qualifications or lack thereof — and mostly lack of qualifications — I said ‘What would I want to do in an ideal world?’ So I did an inventory of my skills and experiences and compared it against the things that I liked and a few things came out. I really liked projects much more than operations. I really enjoyed using the skills I already had. I had worked in architecture and planning even though I never really was educated in it. I really liked technology and had actually been successful at that. I was very interested in climate change, and I was really an entrepreneur. I liked creating things. So I thought to myself at the age of 27, not having worked in finance before, or having done a tech startup or knowing anything about engineering, that I was going to become a venture capitalist. I gave myself a 10-year plan to do that.
My previous job, which was at the city corporation counsel’s office, was the first step in that. It allowed me to work in a field that was not architecture, not design, and gave me some real cred doing something really hard. And I used that platform as a way to look around, and I thought, I want to work on something that has a very, very large budget, that would be highly visible, that would be very complex to do. I looked around and I read about this new project, the Queens West Development, and I got to all the people I had met in the city government, and I asked them what they knew about it. It so happened that I knew a handful of people who knew the people starting this project. They all referred me to the new project’s CEO, an amazing woman named Rosina Abramson. She interviewed me and offered me the job because even though I wasn’t trained in architecture, my last architecture job was at the firm of I.M. Pei.
So here’s this project, completely brown fields everywhere, industrial properties, mostly abandoned. We had environmental issues. But you know, [Former New York Gov. Mario] Cuomo really wanted to get this project in the ground in time for the 1996 gubernatorial election. So we came up with a strategy, and we came up with an approach. I was part of that first team, and it was also complicated because the Port Authority owned most of the property, and this was a joint project of the city, the state and the Port Authority. It’s like, being in this mix of all these players who are typically so dysfunctional, when you have this bare ground where nothing exists, you have environmental issues, you have community resistance, you have all these problems and challenges, and you look at this thing and most people would probably go, ‘This is crazy. I shouldn’t do this.’ Because there’s nothing safe about it. You’re more likely to fail than to succeed. And I was like, ‘Wow, this is really fun. I’m more likely to fail than to succeed. I’ve done that before.’ And it was really big, so I decided to go do this thing.
Back in 1994 when we broke ground it was the first planned real estate development project in the United States with universal broadband.
That’s pretty ahead of the curve.
1994. The internet was opened to the public in 1992. So it was only a couple of years later. Rosina had this vision, which was so spot on, that people would need to or want to work from home and the internet was the way you’d connect them. And that in some future students might actually learn from the internet. Can you imagine?
Nope! I cannot!
And so we did that and we also said, ‘The seas are rising, the climate is changing, and the storms are going to get worse.’ So we planned this project for coastal flooding. During Superstorm Sandy it was one of two projects on the waterfront that didn’t lose power in New York City. Kind of an amazing thing. There are all of these things that we did in that project that should have been lessons learned by future developments and future mayors and governors, but no one really paid attention to it. After Mario Cuomo we went to [George] Pataki, and the Bushes came into power. It was a very conservative era. And so a lot of those things got lost, but those lessons are still super applicable today.
One of the lessons for MBA students, sometimes it’s really important to recognize a really good idea, because what I’ve found in my career is I’ve generally been 10 years ahead of things and by being so far ahead it’s really set me up too far ahead and I fail. But sometimes it’s the right place to be. If you don’t give up, those trends come back and become important in the rest of your career.
I know that experience gave you a lot of interaction with the milieu of city government, but this race has a number of established candidates who are well-known municipal figures. You’re different. This is the first time you’re running for public office. What made you decide to jump in the race?
I may look like a political outsider, but I consider myself very much a political insider. I was the first and only Asian appointed to the city’s campaign finance board, which oversees the city’s public funding program for candidates for office. I was the first chair of voter assistance, and I co-created NYC Votes. That sticker you get when you vote? My program created that. So I was very familiar with the inner-workings of campaign finance for the city.
In 2017, there was a referendum to pass a constitutional convention for the state, which I worked on, though it was a failed effort. But that exposed a group called the IDC, which were Democrats that were caucusing with the Republicans, and we ended up helping to flip the state senate in 2018. When the Black Lives Matter protests broke up last summer after George Floyd’s death, I didn’t actually think I was going to run for office. I didn’t intend to. I was working for J.P. Morgan. I thought I was going to do what I did in 2018, which was support another candidate. So I thought really hard about what would be important to me in looking for another candidate.
What [current mayor] Bill DiBlasio shows is anyone who is a career politician is not equipped to run this city. We’ve seen that game before. The other thing we don’t need is someone who has never worked in the city government, who has never built anything. And we also don’t need someone who has only a single experience in one vertical and doesn’t have a breadth of experience. So I looked at the candidates because I believe we don’t want to sustain what DiBlasio did and how he managed. We don’t want to go back to just before Covid and make it slightly better. We actually need to improve the city for everybody, because it wasn’t working before Covid. We need to have a transformation of the city for post-Covid.
To do this, you need a unique set of skills. You’re actually running for an office that is the chief executive office of one of the largest entities in the United States. The budget is larger than all but four states. If the city were a corporation it would be in the top 35 largest by revenue. If the city were a corporation, it would be in the top 15 by number of employees. And the city budget is almost $100 billion. This is a massive organization that is super super complicated. And then you have the unions. You have the different constituencies. You have embedded and structural problems, like housing and education. And underlying all this, the city’s own technology infrastructure is really crap. I mean, there are some great people who work there, so I don’t want to step all over them. And there are some great initiatives that the city undertook like Open Data, but fundamentally, the city does not operate with 21st century technology to support a flexible, modern, efficient administration. So that has to change.
If that’s what you’re looking for in a Mayor, and I asked myself this question, ‘Do any of the people who are running or are rumored to run, fit the qualifications that I just set out?’ And I said, ‘No. There’s nobody. In fact I think I could do better than any of the people whose names had come out.’ So I threw my hat in the ring. I consulted with friends who know a lot about local politics, and they said, ‘You should totally do it. It’s going to be a wide open race.’ There was a poll that came out today [Monday, May 10] that said 41% of New Yorkers are undecided about mayor.
So there’s a lot of wiggle room there for you.
There’s a huge amount of wiggle room, but what it says primarily is that the well-funded candidates, the top eight by funding, are not capturing the confidence or imagination of the people. I have this upstream swim to make against this tide, and I have very low name recognition, but we’re beginning to turn that. We’re being written up more, the city included me in their mayoral lineup, I’m getting my first endorsement today from The League of Independent Theaters, so I’m excited about that, and we’re getting more and more followers. When you look at my policies, I get a lot of recognition, and I’ve written almost every word of that policy myself. I’ve done my own research, I’ve done my own analysis, and I’ve done my own writing. So as a result I know those policies. I believe in them. They’re my vision of what New York City could be like.
You cited funding for the arts on your website as a major priority. That seems like an unusual policy point for a candidate to bring attention to. Why do you consider that such a significant issue?
My first job was teaching music when I was 18 at a summer music camp. I grew up in the arts. I grew up with music and design and painting, stuff you do if you’re lucky and you grow up in an area that has arts education. I’ve worked professionally in the arts. I’ve worked in museum exhibit design and construction, I worked in architecture for I.M. Pei, I’m an amateur photographer, I’m teaching myself guitar. I’m an avid music fan. Not so much with a campaign ongoing, but in a normal week I’ll listen to like 200 tracks of new music I haven’t heard before. I’m a huge dance fan. I support all the local arts organizations. I’ve started 12 companies in New York City and half of them have been arts-based.
What people forget is the arts aren’t just a “nice to have.” They’re who we are as humans. When civilizations come and go, for what are they remembered? You remember the buildings, you remember the art, the literature. You don’t necessarily remember who the wealthiest people were unless they supported the arts. We remember the Medicis not because of what they did but because they funded the arts. We also forget that the arts are an intrinsic part of our economy. The arts, depending upon whose estimate you believe, are 8-15% of the city’s economy. Not just in direct revenue, but also in the ancillary things that come with it: tourism, restaurants, hotels, airline flights. And all these people are employed in the arts. There are about 100,000 people employed in the arts in New York City. And nonprofits are small businesses. A lot of arts organizations organize as nonprofits. And those that are for-profit like independent film companies and music labels are important businesses. But it’s also who New York is. New York is the cultural capital of the world. Its luster has really been dimmed a lot because of the increasing lack of affordability, but it’s still the place artists want to come. There’s this intrinsic cycle of New York as this magnet for creative people, the ability to grow and prosper in a career in the arts, and how that all returns back to the economic benefit for the city and how it can re-enrich the city in terms of new life and new inspiration. The startups want to come here because we are the city of creativity. We’re the number one place employees of Google want to live.
You also talk about affordable housing as a major issue for you. How does your professional experience play into how you want to make it easier for middle and lower-class people to live in this city?
Well, it’s not going to happen overnight. The problem has kind of happened over 30 years. Over the past 30 years the city grew by about a million people, but we didn’t keep pace with housing. There was certainly some development in the middle-income segment, with so-called affordable housing, but even affordable housing is not affordable to poor New Yorkers. During that same 30 years we built almost no low-income housing even though the wealth gap was growing, so you end up with a supply/demand problem.
Universal childcare is another top priority. In this city in particular, why is that so crucial, and what are ideas you have for trying to expand access to that?
Right now childcare is only affordable to the top 10 percent of earners in the city. I don’t even want to say it’s affordable. It’s not really affordable to almost anybody, but it is within the income ranges for the top 10 percent. For high quality childcare, it’s really accessible only to the top five percent of earners in the city. As a result, you look at how much childcare we have. There are six zip codes in New York that have zero childcare seats, and the top five zip codes only have enough seats for 25 percent of the kids. There’s a childcare shortage, too.
What Covid has done is create a regression of women’s participation in the workforce. About 3 million women have left the workforce in the past year. Women’s participation in the workforce is about the same as it was in 1989. We’ve lost three decades of advancement for women in the course of a year. When you have this kind of a gap, it is really a major interruption to your career growth. You’re off track now. The first beneficiaries of this are women, to allow them to get back into the workforce, to allow them to complete degrees, to take care of ill or elderly relatives, or just to take care of themselves. The second beneficiaries are children. We know so much about early childhood, and that the most important years of physical and brain development are basically prenatal through age four. Universal childcare is the most effective way to level the playing field among all children. There is abundant data about how that has long-term positive effects all the way through adulthood. And the third area is employment. Having universal childcare will create unionized jobs with benefits for thousands more people. Those centers actually become community centers. They can be places to distribute relief like diapers and feminine hygiene products.
In a single program, you can have major effects across three huge areas for the city. And the data to me is really the lynchpin of this. It’s estimated that this would create more than 18% ROI. Annual ROI. We can’t afford not to do this.
You talk about police relations on your website and you specifically phrase it as “reimagining public policing and public safety.” I think it’s interesting that you specifically don’t say “defund the police.” My question is not whether you support or don’t support “Defund the Police” because I think that phrase is kind of misleading. I’m more wondering, considering the fact that you’re looking at a reallocation of resources to better train people for certain problems, what kind of impact you think the specific phrasing has on how we understand police reform and how that affects your ability to implement changes that would improve public safety.
It was written that way on purpose. Policing is often incorrectly used as a synonym for safety, as if you increase the number of police and you become safer. We know that’s not true. Just this weekend there were two brothers who got into a gun battle in Times Square and injured three people. One of the most visible and highly-staffed police stations is right in Times Square. So police come after the fact. They don’t necessarily prevent these things. If you’re trying to increase safety without prevention, what’s the point.
This notion of what we’re supposed to do to get safety is a tough one because society has trained us to think about safety as policing and not other things. We know from data that 94% of 911 calls do not require armed intervention. So why do we send people who carry guns and are wearing bulletproof vests to these situations where they’re trained to confront a violent perpetrator instead of being trained to confront someone who is simply having a problem or a dispute? We need to think of alternate forms of crisis response, that really demilitarize that response, like rapid response teams that are composed of mental health workers, violence interrupters, and a social worker operating 24/7/365 who can go to a place and investigate a situation and bring resources to bear to help. We need to think about what all the inputs are of the situations like this one where you get two teenage brothers fighting with guns. What happens with that? How does that come about? How do they get their guns? What happens to society where they feel like that’s the way they’re going to resolve their problem? There are some fundamental issues we really need to grapple with, and you see that with anti-Asian hate. Could you get a police officer to walk every single Asian person in New York City down the street? Maybe that would create more safety for us, but you could never do that. We’re now in a position of clearly seeing laid out right in front of us the shortcomings of police as the sole method of dealing with safety issues. We don’t know exactly what all the answers are going to be and what the solution is going to be, but we have to try really damn hard to make sure we’re going to move there.
We also have a situation with the police where they go to protests with non-violent protests and they inflict violence on them. And then we have situations where there’s violence happening and the police aren’t there. The community wants the police there, but they don’t show up. I know in my neighborhood in Prospect Heights the police have been a missing presence. The question is, who are the police accountable to? I think the primary thing I have in my proposal is a change in governance for the police. The fundamental premise of the police is that an armed force should obey the instructions from an elected civilian leadership. They don’t in this city. We need to change that.
I don’t want to blame the police chief or the officers, but I want to change the culture, and we do that by having a change in governance. What that means is the mayor can propose to nominate a police chief, but the city council should ratify that. Right now the police chief has sole power over disciplinary matters for the police department. Why should anybody have that? That’s crazy! There are no checks and balances. The civilian complaint review board does some investigation and they make a recommendation, but to whom? The Police Chief. That’s a built-in conflict of interest. So we’re proposing that we separate out into an independent agency the civilian complaint intake and investigation function, but also we should make the adjudication of those complaints independent. So the mayor and police chief can’t control them, but they’d be bound by those decisions. That’s the first one. The second is that we have to think differently about armed police response, and the third and final one is we do have to think differently about safety. There’s this tool called CompStat that’s used to track potential inputs for crime in different neighborhoods. The only agency that uses that is the NYPD. Why isn’t every agency using it and coordinating their response to these communities? Outbursts of crime are a symptom of communities in crisis, so we should be directing more help and resources there so we can figure out what the situation is and deal with it. We shouldn’t do these top-down pronouncements that DiBlasio does where he has the solution to everything. We should actually talk to the community and ask, “What do you want? What’s something you need?” Because I can tell you communities in southeast Queens, they’ll say they want more officers. I may or may not believe that, but let’s give them more officers and see if that can actually make any progress.
The other thing is we need to have a way to actually increase the conversation with the communities. One of the things I would do as mayor is I would take myself and my deputy mayors, and we would be a city hall in residence in different communities around the city for a week every month, so we can experience first hand what’s going on. We would start with the communities that are more afflicted by violence, based on this theory that this violence is evidence of a societal problem.
That sounds maybe a little logistically complex. Would you have to source out office space in different neighborhoods or something like that?
We can work out of trailers. I’m an entrepreneur. For the past year I’ve been working out of my study. Do you want your mayor riding the subway? Yes, because every New Yorker experiences that. How’s your mayor going to know what the subway is like if they don’t ride the subway? Or take the buses? Or walk down the street or ride a bicycle down the street? How does a mayor know what stuff feels like if the mayor isn’t experiencing it firsthand?
You offer open office hours to speak with any constituent that books time with you.
How has that experience been in terms of how it may illuminate different problems or issues people are concerned with?
I love it. It’s funny, I have some people who show up just because they didn’t believe that I would do this. They’d say, ‘Oh, you’re actually real. You’re here! We thought we’d see somebody on your staff.’ Nope. I’ve had a surprising number of teenagers, high school students, who have been very interested in learning more about politics and decided to go straight to the mayoral candidate. That’s been thrilling. I’ve had people from all walks of life. NYCHA activists, tenant activists, small landlords who are really struggling from the eviction moratorium. I’ve had small business owners. I’ve had a lot of people in the arts come see me. And there was a conversation I had just last week with a woman who has lived in NYCHA her entire life and has been a city employee for 40 years. We talked about the challenges of living in public housing, specific policies and what had to get done, and conversations like that really blow my mind because she could have written half of my policies.
Do you find after these conversations that your policy positions are, I don’t want to say changed, but molded and influenced by what you’ve learned?
Definitely. And we’ve updated our policies as time has gone on and it’s not just all through these open office hours. We take a lot of feedback from folks. I was struggling with this idea of how do you really reform the police department, and we issued an update to our policies on this adjudicatory body and this complaint board. There’s a disability activist who was ferociously interacting with us, but he was right and we created a very strong disability policy as a result. A lot of groups have stepped up, so I have a very robust streets policy, food policy in response to activists talking about the hunger crisis. It’s great to be in a dialogue with the public, because it forces you to respond and collect your thoughts and figure out how you would actually address some of these problems given what you know and your beliefs.
If you win, would you try to continue holding office hours?
Oh, absolutely. 100%. In fact, you think about today in the modern era, over half the population are millennials or younger, but we still communicate in government as if people are 60 or 70. People don’t get their news from the news, they get their news from Facebook or Twitter or some sort of social media if you’re young. Or from fliers or friends if you’re older. I think in today’s day and age, the mayor has an obligation to communicate with every person on their preferred channel in their preferred language. Technology is the only way you’re going to get there, so you’re going to have to get some kind of different technology capability inside of government, but it also means you have to have a much flatter government. You can’t go from the mayor to the deputy mayor to the agency head to the deputy head to this and that and the other thing and go down 20 layers to get to the person who’s going to write your post out to the world. You need to be a lot closer. I’m calling for a sort of reorganization of City Hall so it is much much flatter, much closer to people and where I, as mayor, could have a much more direct sense of what people are thinking about and how they’re feeling about life.
On your website you describe yourself as a “pro-business progressive.” I think for a lot of people in the public discourse, those two ideas seem sort of at odds with each other. How do you feel you thread that needle?
I helped start the tech startup industry in New York back in 1998. I’ve created and run two incubators. I’ve started a dozen companies here. I’ve worked on building a talent pipeline from CUNY into the tech industry. What I can tell you is that the priorities of business, of human resources, or talent development, helping people find their potential, those are all things that are progressive. We know that when you have a more diverse workforce you actually have a better connection to your customers and your employees. You have more creative ideas if you have a balance of people who are male and female or gender-different. You have a much nicer, better workforce and a much better culture. And we know from — and you’re studying this at school — that great culture creates great companies. Those are all progressive ideas. I also think the idea of being able to prosper and make money and distribute that money to your whole team is also aligned with progressive values. I think the opposite can also be true, but I think increasingly, especially with what the tech industry has shown us, is that there’s greater alignment between being efficient and effective with progressive outcomes than the opposite.
What made you decide to go to Stern and pursue an MBA?
I had the privilege of going to Yale, which is a great thing on my resume, but I was a women’s studies major, which was an unconventional major at the time in that it was not perceived by employers with the most understanding. As a guy not interested in academia, it wasn’t going to lead to anything. And it got to be a point in my career where I felt people would always ask questions about it. I just seemed like an odd person and not part of any mold that they had ever seen. So I decided to go back and get my MBA so I could demonstrate that I had this capability and potential that wasn’t documented anywhere. Working on Queens West was actually when I started. I started going part time and then I quit my job and finished full time. It was about trying to get new capabilities and new tools and prove that I actually knew certain things. It was really useful and really terrific. WIthout it I wouldn’t have been able to work in investment banking, which was my first job after I graduated. That led to a bunch of other great things like quitting banking to go and start my first dotcom business in 1998, and then selling that in 2000 and getting to work in venture capital — my ten-year plan. I got to work in venture capital.
You were at Stern a little over 20 years ago at this point. How do those lessons impact you now as you plan and execute this campaign?
There are a few lessons I really learned. I made a lot of great friends, lifelong friends from that experience. We don’t work together, but they’re great friends and super smart. It’s great to bounce ideas off of them as trusted advisors. The professors, I thought, were pretty extraordinary. I learned a tremendous amount from a handful of professors I will always remember. If you look at my bookshelf, there are still like a half dozen books from business school on my shelf that I refer to once in a while because they were that important. There were also certain classes I took that gave me a lot of confidence. I’d never taken a class on marketing. I took competitive marketing strategy with John Czepiel. If he’s still teaching and you ever have a chance, take that course. He’s an astonishingly great professor. [Ed: Czepiel is currently a Professor Emeritus of Marketing at Stern] So there are a lot of things I’ve learned there that are with me for the rest of my life.