You don’t have to work in the public sector to serve the public good, and you don’t have to run for office to work in the public sector. But elected officials occupy prominent platforms in the public eye, and pride of place in the SIPA alumni community. Indeed, the list of SIPA’s highest profile graduates have included the mayors of America’s two largest cities — Bill de Blasio MIA ’87 of New York, and Eric Garcetti MIA ’95 of Los Angeles—since they were each elected in 2013.
Both Garcetti and De Blasio were first elected as city councilors and eventually rose to become mayors. (Along the way Garcetti served as council president in LA, while de Blasio won office as NYC public advocate.) In an unusual confluence of events, five alumni are currently running for city council in SIPA’s hometown of New York City.
Each SIPA alum is running as a Democrat in districts where the Democratic primary winners are expected to prevail in the general election this fall. Despite a shared party identity, they bring diverse backgrounds and experiences to the field. SIPA News spoke with each candidate with an eye toward the June 22 primary.
Catherina (Cat) Gioino MPA ’20 is running in District 22 in Astoria, Queens, where she grew up. Her number-one issue is public space and green space, which she says her district sorely lacks. Gioino told SIPA News that public space and the lack thereof are quality-of-life issues, with implications for public health that became impossible to ignore during the pandemic. She’s also passionate about significantly expanding renewable energy and resilient infrastructure in the city, especially as her river-adjacent district faces a growing flood risk.
Before running for council, Gioino worked as a journalist for four years (including during her time at Columbia). She says her on-the-ground reporting in New York helped her connect with everyday New Yorkers, learn about their concerns, and realize how their government is failing them. But it was at SIPA that Gioino “fell in love with policymaking,” inspiring her to move from reporting on other people’s work to pursuing a more active role as a changemaker.
Leonardo Bullaro MPA ’08, who is also running in Queens District 22, brings to the field a diverse background in education work. Bullaro was the cofounder of a nonprofit high school focused on media literacy, and has also spent time handling innovation grants for the NYC Department of Education. But he’s also passionate about transit, housing, and small businesses: “I’m like a parent,” Bullaro says. “I love all my policy issues.”
Bullaro was inspired to devote his career to public service after he felt himself pulling away from politics—especially at the national level, where he believed divisiveness stalled progress. “I had to shake myself,” he said. Instead of feeling disengaged, he decided he needed to become part of the solution, which led him to SIPA.
At SIPA, Bullaro said, Professor William Eimicke was an advisor and inspiration; the school’s course on campaign management helped prepare him for his current endeavor. His choice to pursue local office now, Bullaro explained, was partially because the local level forces people to get stuff done. If elected, he said, no issue that his constituents care about will be too small for him to pay attention to.April Somboun MPA ’14, whose number-one priority is to make sure community members can recover from COVID-19. This, she says, means ensuring educational equity, opportunities for economic empowerment, and a commitment to affordable housing.
Somboun is the daughter of a Lao refugee who came to the United States, she says, in search of the American dream. “Brooklyn is a big part of that American dream,” she said, “and I want my children, neighbors, and our community to have access to that dream as well.”
“I’m an outsider, a mom, a woman of color, a number cruncher and socially liberal,” Somboun said. She emphasized that change requires new leadership, and said she wants to help provide the fresh start Brooklyn needs. She sees a link between SIPA and her campaign, observing that her time at the School helped her develop the ability “to think beyond traditional ideas and to challenge the status quo.”
Sara Lind MIA ’17is a candidate in Manhattan’s District 6, which covers the Upper West Side below 96th Street. She became passionate about urban design and street safety after she and her two young children were almost hit by a taxicab making an ill-advised left turn.
Lind went on to participate in her local community board, advocating passionately for bike lanes and other street-safety measures. Lind told SIPA News that, as a candidate, she looks at everything through the lens of what needs to be done to ensure all children in New York City have a livable future. While some problems are difficult to solve, Lind observed that sometimes simple changes—like implementing pedestrian-friendly urban design—can save lives.
Another influence on Lind’s journey to public service was her work as an attorney. She took on pro bono cases for asylum seekers and learned firsthand the shortcomings of immigrant and social services. She went on to study at SIPA, where she was also inspired by the Campaign Management course. Lind has now worked for political campaigns, advocated for ranked choice voting, and worked to elect women to city council.Billy Freeland MIA ’10 followed a similar path as Lind, working on pro bono cases that opened his eyes to injustice around the city and was heavily involved in his local community board.
As an attorney, he worked on cases spanning a variety of issues, including housing justice, voting rights, and criminal justice and the rights of incarcerated people. As a community board member in his neighborhood on the Upper East Side, Freeland “quickly got an education in how city politics actually works.” Freeland is passionate about climate justice, and transit issues are a big part of that, he says. He was an eager advocate for bike lanes during his time on the Community Board.
At SIPA, it was the late professor and former NYC mayor David Dinkins who inspired Freeland to run for office. He recalled a time where Dinkins said, “if you ever run for office, ask yourself, why? If it’s just to see your name in lights, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. But if it’s to change lives and affect policy, do it.”Jessica Haller MPA ’08, finished third in a special election to represent District 11 in the northwest Bronx.
Haller’s campaign reflected her passion about the environment—a passion that drew on her experience working with a faith-based environmental organization, and in transit and climate activism. Indeed, Haller sought the council seat in part to carry on the bold progress that past council members had made on climate issues.
Haller said SIPA was where she learned how market forces alone cannot solve policy problems. She told SIPA News she sees climate change as a policy issue that underlies and is connected to every other policy issue. Indeed, she said, “It’s a matter of life or death,” especially for low-income, people of color, and other marginalized communities in the Bronx.
Haller had filed to run in the June 22 primary, hoping to do so as the incumbent. She decided against continuing her campaign soon after the special election results were announced on April 13.
The other candidates remain on the ballots in their respective districts. Candidates who win their primary elections will compete in the general election on November 2.
—Aastha Uprety MPA ’21
SIPA doesn’t endorse candidates at any level, but we love to hear about it when our graduates run for office! Please share your alumni news with Susan Storms, our director of alumni affairs.