A Passion for Politics

The UES has never elected a person of color to city, state or federal office. Tricia Shimamura aims to change that.

09 Dec 2019 | 02:28

Tricia Shimamura came to New York City to be the next Jane Addams and ended up the Second Vice Chair of Community Board 8 (CB8). Now, she’s running to represent the 5th City Council District. Shimamura has earned a reputation for defending the vulnerable, from working with marginalized youth to defending trees at risk of being cut down for construction. A new mother, Shimamura brings her core team, husband Dov Gibor and five-month-old son Teddy, to campaign events. Shimamura sat down with us over breakfast, team in tow, to talk about what motivates her and what drew her to public service.

How did your upbringing and family background inform your desire to work in public service?

I grew up in a very low-income household, the oldest of three siblings. My mom moved to Reno, Nevada when she became a single parent. There was a small Christian school she wanted to send us to. From fourth to eighth grade, I would help my mom vacuum the classrooms and clean the bathrooms at night to afford tuition. No one in my family had graduated from college, and my mom was determined we would. Throughout my childhood we relied on public benefits, on pools, parks, libraries and on the SNAP program for food stamps. My Japanese grandparents were both interned in Wyoming at Heart Mountain. They still live in the same house they bought with reparation money.

On my Puerto Rican side, my mother grew up in Brooklyn working at a T-shirt factory with her mother. They lived in NYCHA housing until my cousin was shot by the police. Neither side of my family ever understood my desire to be in government. Government was something that they feared. I saw the how communities of color, vulnerable communities, and low-income communities can feel so disconnected from the people who make decisions for them. I know what it means to feel secure in your citizenship and fear the police and the justice system. I know exactly what a quality education and safe housing can do to change your life. I can verify that public services are life-changing and how important it is to keep those services here.

How did your interest in public policy develop?

My plan was never to run to office. The plan was always to become a social worker. When I got to New York I was placed in a school in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. I had some truly troubled kids who were involved in gangs or had parents who were incarcerated, kids who themselves had been involved in the juvenile justice system for years. I was amazed they were surviving and able to go to school even 30 percent of the time. I saw the Bloomberg Administration shut that school down.

I saw a lot of kids suffering. I thought that as much as you can get done in a clinical, therapeutic setting, something needed to be done at the policy level. These kids were never going to be able to break the cycle of disenfranchisement when they faced a broken juvenile justice system, broken foster care system, and when SNAP benefits were being taken away. We talk about pipeline all the time. I saw the broken pipeline. That’s how I ended up becoming a social worker in Carolyn Maloney’s office. I wanted to work on policy, and she was looking for social worker to deal with all the constituent casework that was coming in from 9/11 first responders needing services and not getting them. It wasn’t legislation, but it was handling people who fall through the cracks. A social worker advocates for their constituents, so that’s where I got my start.

How did you get involved with CB8?

At Carolyn’s office, I was the liaison to community boards 4, 5, 6, and 8 at one point. By far Community Board 8 was my favorite, because they never agreed on anything. Nobody would ever let an issue go by. I loved that. I thought it was so great to see these community neighbors who felt so strongly about the potholes, development, small businesses and liquor licenses.

In 2015, I became Director of Government Affairs at Columbia University. I knew that I would never be able to work in my own voice if I continued to work for Carolyn. At that point, I loved this community, and I had a lot to say. I joined the community board pretty much the day I resigned, first as a public member and then was appointed in the next cycle by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

Why did you join the Parks and Waterfront and Transportation Committees?

Open space as always been important to me as someone who grew up all over the country. It renews a sense of humanity, it is essential for building strong families, is a benefit everyone can enjoy, and it’s unfortunately something at risk of going away due to overdevelopment. Parks was easy to believe in. Bike lanes, vendors, construction. All of that falls under transportation and are critical to quality of life and accessibility.

How has running the campaign been?

I am the only woman of color in the race, which is not surprising, considering the Upper East Side has never elected a person of color on the city, state, or federal level. I am the only mom in the race. I spent the majority of my pregnancy building my website myself. I really believe we need more moms in office, particularly in this neighborhood where we have so many educational concerns. Because I have a small, young family, they’re with me everywhere I go. It’s the only way that I can spend time with Teddy and Dov and be responsive to the community. And also, childcare is wildly expensive. I’ve had fundraisers in small businesses to highlight them, and because they know me. It’s very personal. I have committed to not taking any money from real estate or developers. I don’t think that this community deserves a voice that is tainted or pushed by anyone other than the families that live here.

Have there been any roadblocks to your campaign? How do you respond to the naysayers?

Oh so many. We are more than a year and a half away from the election and I have been told by at least ten people to change my last name, that the Upper East Side will never elect a “Shimamura.” I’ve been told to adopt Dov’s last name instead or move out of the district, to East New York, if I want to run for office. Democrats have demanded to know my family planning and said I can’t show up with Teddy to events, because it will look bad for the campaign. I’ve been told to lose weight. It’s constant, but a friend told me early on to grow thick skin. Our community deserves strong leadership that can withstand the naysaying. Although I’ve been told that the Upper East Side won’t elect a Japanese-American, I’ve never been told that my passion, that the ideas I’ve been producing, or that my qualifications and experience are not enough. Regardless of whether someone supports me, I’m going to fight for them and bring them to the table. And I love my last name. I’m very proud of my background.

This interview has been edited and excerpted.