NEW YORK – New York State Senator Michael Gianaris expressed – through The National Herald – the absolute certainty that his attitude and actions regarding the Amazon issue, which some consider key to the evolution of the outcome of Amazon’s non-arrival in Queens, were leading discussions in the right direction for the well-being of the Community.
Gianaris maintains that he supported the interests of the “non-privileged” portion of the population, challenged the figures of the official plan of Amazon which listed about 25,000 new jobs to be created, and said he fully respected the Greek American Homeowners Association, even as they voiced their displeasure with the Senator’s stance.
Gianaris responded to his critics while clarifying that he would not change his mind about the deal if Amazon returned to negotiations, since the internet giant did not move to address concerns regarding the impact on local residents and their quality of life. For alternate views on this issue, please see our article “Greek-American Businessmen Express Disappointment Over Amazon” in this issue.
The National Herald: Mr. Gianaris, the first question is a simple one. Do you truly feel like “the Greek who drove Amazon from New York”?
Michael Gianaris: I do not understand why people say that. However, what I do know is that my priority is to achieve the best possible result for my area. Undoubtedly, what was going to happen with Amazon would have been a massive mistake for New York. It would ruin our neighborhood. If someone rents a home here, with Amazon in the area they would quickly be priced out of that home. Anyone who uses the subway to go to work or go to public schools, would also have a big problem.”
“I did not hear, even once, from Amazon’s representatives, that they would be interested in helping tackle the general consequences of the deal for our area and where the company and the City could work together to improve the situation. On the contrary, this agreement with the State and the City had been literally hidden. Instead of asking for our opinion, they brought us in at the end. So what did I do? I raised my hand and I asked the following questions, “What does this mean for us? What will happen to the tenants? How about parents with children in school? The students themselves? What about people who take the train? When I raised my hand, Amazon got up and left. That is why I answer you clearly, the mistake is entirely theirs. If they wanted to come here without the slightest interest in the citizens, it is their own fault. I have a responsibility here. There is no chance that I will let something like the Amazon situation happen without the community having a say. After all, it’s the community that will deal with the consequences from the deal. Besides, you know something? I am the owner of a property in this area, personally, Amazon’s arrival is to my benefit. But that’s not my job, I am not here for personal gain. My job is to take care of the citizens.
TNH: Did you expect Amazon to withdraw its interest in the way that it did?
MG: Unfortunately, that’s how Amazon plays the game. The company believes that it is above the will of the people and government authorities of the United States. I will simply tell you that in Seattle, where Amazon Headquarters is located, the company has played the same exact “game”. The percentage of homeless people there has risen by 160% in five years. Rents have skyrocketed 300%, more than any other location in the country. When the City Council of Seattle tried to impose a form of tax on Amazon to pay for its services to the homeless and other citizens who were suffering, Amazon, once again threatened to leave. Therefore, even though the measure passed the City Council, they rescinded it. Amazon is trying to do the same thing here. However, New York is huge city and state. We should not let companies like Amazon tell us what to do for the people that we have been elected to represent. When companies become more powerful than the government and the tools used to maintain public order, it is dangerous. We have to raise our hand and make it abundantly clear to them that we have to look over the proposal, so that we can be sure that if they come here, our citizens will be safe. After all, the Mayor of New York maintained the correct position that the party responsible for this mess is Amazon.
TNH: Amazon accuses you of refusing to meet them …
MG: In 2017, they opened up offers from all over the country. From that point, for one year, I tried to talk to them. I called the head of the financial staff for New York. He did not even pick up the phone. They did not want to talk to us. On the contrary, when in late 2018 the deal was formed they told us, “that’s it, take it or leave it.” Following that, Amazon executives had many meetings with my colleagues. I was not there, but I was represented. Therefore, Amazon cannot come out and say that they did not know my positions and concerns about this project. From there and beyond – and the Mayor even said it – they never said “okay, you right – what can we do prevent the people there from suffering? “Never! Now that they’ve left, they are trying to assign the blame to others. The Mayor was with them, but today, as I told you, he says that Amazon is the party responsible for deal falling through.
TNH: We have heard New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, declare that he wanted to be called Amazon Cuomo. Mayor de Blasio was also excited about this deal. Both of these people are from the Democratic Party. And you, like Congresswoman Cortez, Assemblywoman Simotas, City Councilman Constantinides, your other colleagues, have all expressed negative feelings about the deal. How is it that inside of the same party there doesn’t appear to be a single political agenda?
MG: Sometimes we disagree. I respect people who disagree with me on this subject.
I understand that their intentions may be good. They may feel the same way since I disagree with them. In a family there are always differing opinions. In the end, if everyone wants to do the right thing, common ground will be found. I do not think that it’s strange that we have differences in opinion on the matter. However, it is always best to move forward, with mutual respect.
TNH: The supporters of the investment, as we have seen with some well-known Greeks expressing their views in TNH a few days ago, counter with numerical figures: 25,000 new highly paid jobs, thousands of other lower earning places of work would open in the area, greater real estate market movement, greater disposal of real estate. They essentially say that you and your colleagues who opposed the investment, said “no” to all these benefits. How do you respond to that?
MG: These are the numbers the Amazon gives. If you want, believe it. I will present another example: We learned that in Buffalo, the State of New York gave a company financial benefits that totaled $700 million in a bid to create thousands of jobs. You know how many it has created? 700! So, it cost New York $1 million for each job. Just as Amazon gave you figures, I just did same thing. Also, go ask someone who lives in Seattle or San Francisco and does not work in these companies. They will tell you that they are not happy because they find it difficult to maintain a roof over their heads, and to find a space with affordable rent. In order to find tolerable rent and generally good housing conditions, they have to journey nearly two hours from their cities. If you think we have a problem with the homeless, go to Seattle to see what’s going on, where housing became unattainable because of Amazon. If they can come with the precondition that they will make guarantees and protect our citizens, no problem at all. But they never showed interest in them. Mr. Bezos is more interested in finding himself a nice place for a helipad than the needs of the people of the area.
TNH: I’d like to bring this back to the Greek-American community. With your stance, you’ve upset a lot of your supporters. The Greek American Homeowners Association, for example, with whom you have always had positive relations, complains that you did not even go there to talk to them.
MG: First of all, in October when I was there, no one asked me about Amazon. The conversation between Amazon and New York had already started a year prior. I received exactly zero questions about it. Nor in November, when I went there for Thanksgiving. Beyond that, let’s just clear up the timing of the whole situation:
The committee for which I was nominated – and had not yet been appointed to because its recommendation was not finalized – announced that they would make a decision in one year! No one expected Amazon to leave abruptly. It was their own decision, not mine. In theory there was going to be enough time for us to speak with them. Don’t take it from me, though. Listen to Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, and Paul Krugman, who all said that Amazon’s approach was wrong. Those people know the markets and economics better than any of us. I of course agree with them. I just want to clarify that I have an enormous amount of respect for the Greek American Homeowners Association. I have been friends with their members for many years. George Alexiou and George Kitsios are friends of mine. I respect them, but on this issue we have our differences. There are some people who have [long] been against me politically and now they are trying to take advantage of the current situation purely for their own gain. I will continue to speak to people and give answers as to why I acted the way I did in this deal. I think they will understand that I did what I did for the good of the area. I will tell you that even just here in my office, everyday members of the Greek community who are renters come by to express their real fear that they might have to leave Astoria because they can no longer afford the rent. Those are the people that we are helping with our stance. As for the owners, they won’t have a problem. The real estate market in Astoria and Long Island City will continue to trend upwards. But the people that rent here are struggling.
TNH: How do you react to the statements such as the ones made by Mr. George Delis to TNH, or to posts on the internet from members of the Greek community, that they will bankroll a potential candidate to run against you in the next elections? Do you feel that there has been negative fallout in the Greek community considering that many Greeks have property in the area and they were counting on Amazon’s investment?
MG: Those who say those things have never supported me. For the last 20 years those people are against, not only me, but other elected representatives of this area. Let the people ask if those individuals have ever supported us. Maybe they have their own issues, like wanting to be nominated for public office in the past but people did not support them then, and now they’ve found a perfect opportunity to cause trouble.
TNH: If we assume that the suspicions or hopes of some players in the market are correct, those who believe that Amazon is “bluffing” with their exit from the deal and will ultimately come back to the negotiation table, what will your move or stance be then?
MG: I have not changed my mind. If they want to come, there needs to be a dialogue on how we will guarantee the interests of the area’s residents, that they will be able to continue living here, working here, having their kids at our schools and for them to be able to move around by train. Throughout this whole process they’ve failed to mention their plan for this. Microsoft offered $500 million for affordable housing, because they understood the consequences for society. Amazon is not even interested in trying to solve such issues.
TNH: What message would you like to send to Greek-Americans?
MG: I’m the same person that they’ve known for so many years. I love our neighborhood. I live here, I was born here and anything that I do, I do it because of my love for the Greek community and our area. Whatever I promised years ago, I promise today as well. With our stance, we reassured thousands of residents, and among them thousands in the Greek community who, if Amazon came, would’ve had to change neighborhoods. A future with Amazon would have more homeless people, there would be more people here who would be forced to leave our neighborhood without wanting to do so. If someone loves Astoria and Long Island City the way it is now, they should be happy that they may continue to live here now and in the future.