NEW YORK – We last featured Nomiki Konst on the front page of our March 19, 2016 edition (“Nomiki Konst: the Face of 2016 Politics on TV”) when in the heat of that year’s presidential campaign, the Arizona-born New Yorker with roots in Northern Epiros, Kefalonia, and Kalymnos (the family name was originally Konstantakis), a staunch Bernie Sanders supporter, was working to help her candidate capture the Democratic presidential nomination (he ultimately fell short after a very strong challenge), and she was featured on numerous national television networks throughout the race.
Two years later, the 34-year-old committed corruption fighter is running for a seat that exemplifies her professional passion: New York City Public Advocate. To that end, she recently spoke with The National Herald about that campaign, as well as her thoughts on the Democratic Party, political reform, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and 2020. The interview follows:
TNH: Please tell us about the position for which you are running, NYC Public Advocate. Give us a job description and please explain: why are you interested in this position and why do you think you are a good choice to serve in that capacity?
NK: The office of the NYC Public Advocate was created to be the independent voice for all New Yorkers; an important check on the lawmakers of New York. We know that effective city government is accountable city government; it is not a matter of intentions, but a matter of results. This is not a job for machine-owned politicians or a stepping stone to Gracie Mansion. This is a watchdog position tailor-made for a communicator who knows how the levers of power work, but doesn’t stand to benefit from pulling them. It’s vital – given the history of corruption in this city – that the office of public advocate be removed from political machines and special interests. Through my career as an advocate against corruption, investigative reporter, and activist, I have proven my ability to pursue truth, accountability, and justice in face of influence peddling and machine politics. I have the courage and the ability to exercise the unique office and powers of the Public Advocate’s office to its fullest abilities and to create meaningful positive change. I hope to make my campaign a model for how I would develop the position of Public Advocate and show, not tell, the changes we need to make life better for all New Yorkers.
TNH: You have been referred to as a “democratic socialist” by some, and even though it is becoming more of a mainstream term among Democrats, many still associate it with unfavorable past historical events. How do you define “democratic socialist” and do you consider yourself one?
NK: Terms like “Democrat,” “Republican,” “liberal,” “conservative,” “capitalist,” “socialist” and others mean different things to different people. To me, democratic socialism is the idea that more democracy in our economy will lead to better outcomes and move us towards a more moral, efficient and prosperous society. Giving Americans power and protection in the workplace and giving working families a voice in government has time and time again produced more effective businesses and more effective government. As Greeks know too well, the American left/center-left/center-right/right is not the same as the worldwide left-to-right spectrum. The recent normalization of the term democratic socialism in the United States is eclipsing the cold war hangover – in that language and political labels have blocked everyday people from asking for, let alone receiving, vital services for their families. But I am also cognizant that some extremists will use this moment to paint reasonable policy with provocative Soviet illustrations. But as a Democrat who feels that we have lost our way as a party, I think it’s important for us to recognize that working people have either been on the sidelines or left the party for other choices because we became too focused on national stars and big dollar fundraising, then the crises facing communities, like ours in NYC. When I think of what Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the group, represents and can do: it’s the values that bring working people back into our party, which was once the working person’s party. To quote the late Senator Paul Wellstone, someone who would have proudly called himself a democratic socialist today, “we all do better when we all do better.” It is simple in principle but in practice requires discipline and determination. Additionally, I would say that with more democracy comes more transparency. It is the idea that transparency is not only as quoted by Justice Louis Brandeis “the greatest disinfectant” but also the greatest incubator. New York City is a world-class forward-thinking city that needs an equally forward-thinking government to keep it the indispensable city of the 21st century.
TNH: Tell us about the initiatives you have taken to help reform the Democratic Party. Why do you think it is in need of reform, what reforms have been made, and what are some of the most pressing challenges the Party still needs to reform?
NK: I spent the last two years on the DNC’s Unity Reform Commission. I was one of 21 members appointed by Secretary Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Chairman Tom Perez to travel the country, investigate our party structures, problems, mistakes and seek solutions. It’s no secret that since 2008 the Democratic party raised more money than ever but somehow lost 1,000 seats, taking it to its weakest point since 1929. As Van Jones said, “the Democrats lit a billion dollars on fire in 2016.” The Commission dealt with reforming the presidential primaries and caucuses, the superdelegate system and the internal structure of the DNC. We ended up passing the most sweeping set of reforms the party has ever seen: eliminating superdelegates on the first ballot, opening up primaries and making caucuses more democratic and inclusive and adding more fiscal transparency. Do I think we need to reform more? Absolutely. Especially around transparency and accountability. But this two-year process toward reform was historic and I am very proud to have been on this commission which will transform the party at this historic moment.
TNH: You were a national surrogate for Bernie Sanders in 2016 during the primaries and later for Hillary Clinton, whom you supported in the general election. Please elaborate on those two candidates.
NK: I am a Democrat. I am a millennial. And I am and activist. While I initially supported Secretary Clinton’s and even VP Joe Biden’s potential run, I was moved by the solutions being presented by Sen. Sanders on income inequality, when no one was talking about bold solutions. As a member of the generation that will likely do worse financially than their parents, I witnessed young people turn out in thousands responding to Sen. Sanders’ platform. And when Secretary Clinton won the primary, I moved on to endorse and campaign for her across the country and on television. We have much to learn from 2016, and our party needed to remember that it was built off the backs of working immigrants, like our Greek community. Somewhere along the way the party became about big business, trying to compete with Koch Brothers, I suppose. But we lost our base. I’m eager to see how we grow. Because we need more New Deal values and less Big Business values.
TNH: You are also a strong critic of Donald Trump’s presidency. To the extent, however, that you favor political reform as opposed to politics as usual, and to the extent that Trump, like Sanders, is to a considerable extent outside his party’s establishment, and since you so strongly support one but oppose the other, at what point do you draw the line where you are not willing to support an anti-establishment candidate, and for what reasons (political, character, etc.)?
NK: I worry about the state of our republic and the role foreign oligarchs are playing in cities across the world. We have a housing crisis in New York that started as Donald Trump made a name for himself. My mentor, the acclaimed late investigative reporter Wayne Barrett, was the first to expose the real estate corruption of Donald Trump. He went on to write an award-winning book on him (Trump: The Deals and the Downfall, 1992), a clear warning of what was to come. Let’s be totally clear: Trump’s use of populist messaging, especially on manufacturing and trade, was coached by folks like extremist Steve Bannon, and cultivated as early as the late 70s by former Roy Cohn aide Roger Stone. Anti-establishment was his gimmick, and it was being offered at a time when our Democratic Party invested fully with the emblem of establishment politics and stopped funding local parties and its own base. When the Democratic “workers’” party stopped investing across the country, there were vacuums left where a messenger who speaks to voters had appeal. This is why Democrats need to be inclusive of working people’s values, understand their pains, have solutions and invest in every part of the country. When they don’t, someone who speaks the right words capitalizes. Donald Trump spoke the language, but clearly was in bed with the worst of the .001%. Sen. Sanders, by contrast, has a long track record of accomplishing things for working people, from his time as Mayor of Burlington to his current tenure as one of the leaders of the Democratic Party. His “outsider” strategy is based on adherence to principles rather than blind application of power. I believe profound reform is needed in our city and in our nation but the genius of our system is that it provides the opportunity for change however messy it may be at times. There are many role models for how to be a leader in these times, I don’t believe Donald Trump is one of them.
Nomiki Konst ran for NYC Public Advocate. (Photo by Cassandra Hanks. Courtesy of Nomiki Konst)
TNH: What type of strategy should the Democrats use to try to defeat Donald Trump in 2020? Which should they go after harder, his personality or his policies? Do you have any ideal candidates in mind?
NK: I am looking forward to supporting any candidate in 2020 who isn’t afraid to run a message based campaign steeped in the concerns of actual people and movement organizing. If healthcare, infrastructure investment, and education aren’t at the top of any candidate’s list, I will likely move on. But to more directly answer the question, they need to go hard after the oligarchs capitalizing off of a broken and manipulated political system. It is vital to remember that what we are seeing across the country is the natural conclusion of 40 years of policy, not the aberration of one misinformed nihilist in love with the sound of his own name and little else. I think Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are both potential candidates with a strong level of consistency that the electorate deserves, but am also excited to see a vigorous primary take shape that maybe highlights some less known, outside the box and younger candidates, and just as importantly brings the ideas of younger, more diverse working class candidates to the fore. The lack of a developed “bench” on the Democratic side is about to become crippling as the Democratic leadership becomes elderly. And this is a result of a generation of Democratic leaders overly invested in the institution of the party and not the results of the party. We must always be reaching for the stars, but holding a hand out to bring those up below us. That’s what responsible and wise elders do, if anything, to protect their legacies.
More information about Nomiki Konst’s candidacy for NYC Public Advocate is available at nomikikonst.com.