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At 25, Jonathan Herzog Is Trying to Unseat a Congressional Icon

Jonathan Herzog

Activist Adam Eli speaks with gay congressional candidate Jonathan Herzog, who hopes to defeat Jerrold Nadler.

Jonathan Herzog is a 25-year-old Democratic candidate for New York's 10th Congressional District. A former staff member of Andrew Yang's 2020 presidential campaign, the political newcomer is set to take on one of the House's most powerful Democrats, Jerrold Nadler. Though Nadler has an excellent track record on LGBTQ+ issues, Herzog himself is queer and running in one of the gayest districts in the country, notably home to Manhattan's Greenwich Village and the Stonewall Inn.

Queer Jewish activist Adam Eli, who lives in the 10th Congressional District, spoke with Herzog ahead of Tuesday's election.

Eli: I want to talk specifically about trans women and trans people of color. What is your plan to ensure not just that they are safe, but that they also have the opportunities they deserve to thrive in our district and the country?

I've been in the streets a lot lately, and as you know, we are out here demanding police and criminal justice reforms. What concrete actions would you take to stop the violence and injustice communities of color, especially trans women, face at the hands of police?
Herzog: Dominique Fells. Riah Milton. No more lip service. No more inaction. It's time for justice Now. Black lives matter. Trans lives matter. Black trans lives matter. We need real structural change -- economic, racial, and social justice.

That includes requiring a federal standard limiting use of force to only as a last resort, mandating de-escalation techniques, prohibiting neck holds, chokeholds, and other excessive force, enforcing robust data collection on police-community encounters and law enforcement, de-militarizing law enforcement, prohibiting no-knock warrants, developing a national public database of police agencies covering violations and license revocation, and ending qualified immunity which has been interpreted by courts as unqualified impunity.

But none of this is enough. The average net worth of a Black household is one-tenth that of a white household. Black mothers are three times more likely to die from complications of childbirth. Households of color will reach a majority by 2043, but median net worth of the Black community is projected to be 0 by 2053. This was before COVID, before nearly half of Black households said they wouldn't be able to make rent.

"When America catches a cold, Black people get the flu." Well, in 2020, when America catches COVID-19, Black people are nearly 2.5 times more likely to die from it. From universal healthcare, to affordable housing development, to investments in education, we need to build and invest in our communities to thrive.

We should also heed the wisdom of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose dying fight was a guaranteed minimum income not for some Americans but for all. The George Floyd murder was downstream of a counterfeit $20 bill. King said: "The evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism are all tied together... you can't really get rid of one without getting rid of the others."

The police serve as traffic patrollers, tax collectors, social workers, and a paramilitary force.

Traffic stops are the most common reason for contact with the police. The police handle over 20 million medical and mental health calls, traffic accidents, and speeding tickets every year. Up to 1 in 5 police encounters relate to mental illness. We should decriminalize non-violent offenses. Part of the challenge is how we finance city budgets. We need to make local governments less dependent on traffic citations and create a new unarmed position for traffic patrollers.

We should also pass the Equality Act, the Do No Harm Act, and any legislation extending protected status to people based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We should restore the Voting Rights Act to protect against voter ID laws that can deny trans people access to the ballot box. We should reverse the Trump administration's ban on transgender people serving in the military. We should provide federal funding to school districts that implement LGBTQ+ inclusive programs including: school curricula that includes sex education, acceptance, and inclusivity, training for educators and administrators on how to discuss LBGTQ+ issues in age-appropriate ways, training for school healthcare providers in how to recognize, support, and provide medically accurate information for students who are coming out, gender-neutral bathrooms, and "safe school" policies that allow students to anonymously report incidents of harassment and assault. We should improve the treatment of transgender inmates by providing adequate gender-affirming healthcare and ensuring gender-appropriate housing for inmates. Decriminalize sex work. Ensure access to non-discriminatory gender-affirming healthcare and services.

Nelson Mandela said "no one is born hating another person because of the color of their skin. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."

The Bronx DA just announced that there will be no criminal charges in the case of the wrongful death of Layleen Polanco, despite full knowledge of this video. I understand Rikers [prison] is not in your jurisdiction but this case and the very real issues it brings up are deeply important to me and many New Yorkers. Many of the systemic problems communities of color face are rooted in economic inequality, among other things. How would you address the systemic issues contributing to today's racial injustice?
This is deeply disturbing. Thankfully, New York City lawmakers finally voted to close Rikers by 2026. Now comes the hard part. We need substantive, structural change. We should ban private prisons, end mass incarceration, decrease the use of pre-trial cash bail, decriminalize sex work, repeal New York's "walking while trans" ban, reform mandatory minimum laws, transition federal drug policy away from punishment and towards treatment, fund programs to reduce recidivism and increase reintegration, and transition to a restorative and rehabilitiave justice model.

This death was again tragically downstream of $500 bail. Poverty is an absence of cash, not character. Universal basic income would be the most transformative policy for the LGBTQ community.

We, the LGBTQ community, are tragically over-represented among foster children, the homeless, the poor, and the food-insecure. One in 5 LGBTQ Americans lives in poverty. LGBTQ youth are kicked out by our parents at a higher rate than the general population. 1 in 3 trans people of color live in severe poverty. The Freedom Dividend (a Universal Basic Income of $1,000/month for every adult and $500/month for every child) would disproportionately benefit LGBTQ youth, especially LGBTQ kids of color, and give us all the freedom to live full, authentic lives.

The single most transformative way for the government to improve the lives of the LGBTQ community is to send us a check for $1,000 every month and let us spend it in whatever manner will benefit us the most.

We need to build a new kind of economy -- one that puts people first. Universal basic income does not solve every problem, but it makes every problem easier to solve.

I would of course also fight to extend legal non-discrimination protections for our community. Sexual orientation and gender identity should be protected classes under the law, receiving all the federal protections afforded under the Constitution and civil rights law. We must also publicly fund our elections, pass federal ranked-choice voting, restore voting rights protections, and fight for fundamental democracy reform so that the LGBTQ community and our needs will be reflected in the halls of Congress.

Healthcare should be a basic right for all Americans. I am for Universal Healthcare and expanding Medicare to cover all Americans. Too many Americans, especially in the LGBTQ community, are making terrible, impossible choices between paying for healthcare and other needs. We need to provide high-quality healthcare to all Americans and moving towards a single-payer system is the most efficient way to accomplish that. It will be a massive boost to our economy as people will be able to start businesses and change jobs without fear of losing their health insurance.

A big but underserved part of healthcare is mental health. New Yorkers, especially LGBTQ New Yorkers, are not doing well and we need to change that. A recent survey of thousands of LGBTQ youth showed what we know all too well -- heartbreaking levels of stress, anxiety, rejection, and feeling unsafe in school. Integrating mental health with our greater health care system is a top priority -- if someone comes to the hospital suffering from diabetes, obesity, or substance abuse, there is often a link to their holistic mental health.

Too many New Yorkers don't seek treatment, don't have the resources, or resort to self-medication. A healthy population is a productive one. So, from universal healthcare to investing in mental health and passing inclusive paid family and medical leave, in addition to dozens of other policies, I am proud to be fighting for the most robust and empowering LGBTQ agenda to secure a healthier and happier future for our community.

We're both gay and Jewish. How do your faith and your identity play into your politics? Who is your queer Jewish hero?
As Yuval Harari, the queer Jewish historian, said, today, "whoever controls the algorithms [is] the real government." He wrote this critical piece on the new threats to LGBT rights now 50 years after Stonewall.

Congressman Nadler is a heavily respected member of Congress with a great record of fighting for the queer community. How will you be more impactful than him in making our world a safer a kind place for queer folks?
We need a representative who understands the structural crises we're facing and has a clear vision to tackle them. We need to wake up. Hate crimes in New York doubled last year alone. It's not about Trump. It's about what comes next. I did not set out to run for Congress. If you need any evidence -- follow me on Instagram. I reached out to our politicians and leaders to sound the alarm about the urgency of a universal basic income, but eventually realized that for anything to change we had to "build a wave and bring it crashing down on their heads."

Before COVID, in New York's 10th District, the world's financial capital, 1 in 6 lived in poverty. Before COVID, in New York's 10th District, 20 percent of storefronts were closing. Before COVID, in New York City, there were more than 4,600 homeless youth, almost entirely people of color and nearly half LGBTQ.

More than 120,000 Americans, double the number that died in the Vietnam War, are dead. 1 in 5 of the dead are New Yorkers. More than 40 million Americans are unemployed; 40 percent of these jobs are permanently lost. If New York had shut down just 10 days sooner, up to 80 percent of all deaths could have been avoided. Congressman Nadler has been on recess. He failed to fund or implement testing and contact tracing at scale. New York got $12,000 per virus case; Nebraska got $379,000. He failed to implement suppression at scale, and settled for incremental mitigation at the edges. In part because our elected officials denied basic science and common intuition that masks work. As late as mid-March, our politicians were saying ride the subway, ride the bus, all is well.

Not only did Nalder fail to manage this pandemic, he played pandemic politics. The first COVID case in New York came online just as the ballot access petitioning began for congressional campaigns. Not only were we the only campaign to sign on to a petition to terminate ballot access, but because we are an all-volunteer team with skin-in-the-game, I fell sick from COVID, as did my campaign manager. Pandemic politics is deadly. Nadler, the New York governor, and attorney general spent weeks trying to cancel your constitutional right to vote by canceling the primary -- we fought for weeks and won in federal court to defend it.

We're facing the worst of all worlds -- stagnation combined with rampant inequality, which has led to blood and soil politics.

Theodor Wolff in 1933 remarked: "It's a hopeless misjudgement to think that one could force a dictatorial regime upon the German nation. [Our] diversity calls for democracy." Little did Wolff know that democracy itself would soon bring dictatorship. Nazi seats in the Reichstag had an almost one-to-one correlation with the level of German unemployment amidst The Great Depression. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis projected 32 percent unemployment. Here. In the United States. In 2020.

The last time we entered a Great Depression, we saw a 1 to 1 correlation between the rise in unemployment and Nazi seats in the Reichstag. Hate crimes in New York doubled last year alone. Two-thirds were anti-Semitic. The economic consensus Nadler embodies has failed us.

Our institutions face a crisis of legitimacy. Our social fabric is fraying. Why have up to 40 percent of parts of our district fled the city? Because our district is in crisis. It doesn't have to be this way.

Here's the bad news: Liberal democracy is being torn to shreds. We're in the midst of crises on top of crises. Congress has been on recess.

Here's the good news: for the first time in a generation, we have a choice.

We need a representative with 21st-century solutions to 21st-century crises. I'm the son of immigrants born and raised on the west side in New York's 10th District. I'm a civil rights organizer and legal advocate with nearly a decade of experience endorsed by Andrew Yang. Our vision begins with a universal basic income, a data bill of rights, publicly financed elections, and quadratic funding that will end an era of stagnation and Ponzi scheme inequality and usher in an era for the common good.

There is nothing inevitable. There is no teleology. There are people, ideas, and people acting upon those ideas. We don't have to let our society continue to slide toward madness. I won't sit back as we watch the ship burn. We can rewrite the rules of our economy to work for us. If not now, when? If not us, who? Queer people anywhere are indeed responsible for queer people everywhere.

Let's say you've just been elected. What is your first act as a member of Congress?
Universal Basic Income.

Best play / musical of all time?
Noises Off and The Color Purple.

Who is your favorite women in the media? Mine are Princess Diana and Lady Gaga.
Cynthia Erivo and Nikki Glaser.

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