“You go where you are needed,” That personal motto been the driving force behind native New Yorker Zach Iscol’s entire career. After graduating from college, Iscol signed up for the Marines and fought in the Iraq War. When he returned, he saw the mental health and addiction struggles former veterans were facing, and he sprung into action to found the Headstrong Project. The non-profit organization provides free mental healthcare to former veterans and their families.
A native New Yorker, Iscol has always felt strongly about supporting the city, leading clean up crews after Hurricane Sandy, and more recently, becoming the Deputy Director of the Javits Medical Center treating over a thousand sick New Yorkers during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring. Seeing his city in crisis with small businesses closing, an increase in crime, mental health struggles, and the long recovery ahead— Iscol was inspired to run for Mayor. Here, the democratic candidate explains how his military, mental health, and entrepreneurial experience make him the right candidate to lead the city during a time of crisis.
Sara Bliss: Politics is one area where an outsider status is often seen as, and marketed as, a plus. How do you think being an outsider enhances your candidacy?
Zach Iscol: I think most people would agree that things are not working in New York City, and that we really do need a different type of leadership. If you’ve been in politics for decades, you owe people favors, you are tied to special interests, and you are a part of this machine. I think a big reason that New York City doesn’t function, is because of those special interests, and because people are catering to specific groups instead of catering to what is in the best interests of all New Yorkers. When you look at the problems that the city is facing, we need fresh thinking. We need new ideas. We know the issues facing our city are completely interconnected, and yet, we have a city government that is completely bureaucratic, with agencies and departments not working together. We know that the only way that you can solve that is through deep cooperation and synchronization of effort. I’ve been doing that my entire career and that model is what’s needed to solve these problems we have today. We need a mayor who cares deeply about fixing these problems, and who cares more about the real outcome than the political outcome. And that fundamental shift is how you really start to solve seemingly intractable problems. That can only occur with an outsider.
Bliss: It is a very crowded race with over 22 candidates so far. Why do you think you would make a great mayor of NYC?
Iscol: In terms of ‘why me?’ I think experience really, really matters here. In the middle of a healthcare pandemic, I think it’s really important that we have a mayor who has healthcare experience. And I do. I was the Deputy Director of Javits Center medical center during the height of COVID. I also have experience tackling mental health founding Headstrong to provide access to free mental health care for veterans. The biggest issue facing the city going forward, is going to be the mental health crisis from the pandemic which we are already in, and it touches everything. We’re also in the middle of an economic crisis. We’ve lost a third of our small businesses. We might lose half to two thirds of our restaurants. I think it’s really important that we have a mayor who has actually built a business, who knows what it means to make payroll, to manage a budget.
Bliss: You also have military experience as a former marine. How do you think your military experience might inform your perspective as mayor?
Iscol: I think in the middle of a crisis—and the city is in crisis—it’s important to have a mayor who has not only led through a crisis, but led in the aftermath of a crisis, who has made life and death decisions. I’ve led troops through some of the heaviest combat of the Iraq War. I know how to create a culture of accountability, which is critically important in everything whether we’re talking about police reforms or ensuring that the department of homeless services is doing its job. I have a level of experience that I don’t think other candidates do when it comes to real leadership decision-making, and taking on some of the issues facing the city.
Bliss: Your career after the military, with the mental health site you founded for veterans and other projects, has been very informed by your time there. What made you want to start these projects and businesses related to military life?
Iscol: I didn’t want to, it wasn’t my plan. But there was a very pressing need within my community. I began losing more and more friends to suicide. I saw people struggling with drug addiction and alcohol. I saw marriages falling apart. I took more and more phone calls with friends late at night who were struggling. And you go where you’re needed. I come from this lineage of military leaders who really believe you have an obligation to take care of your people. Just because you take off the uniform, just because you relinquish command, that responsibility doesn’t end. When my battalion commander and I grabbed drinks in New York City and we just had a really bad suicide in the battalion, he said, “We need to do something.” That gave birth to Headstrong. I went where I was needed.
Bliss: Was that motivation to go where you are needed that led you to a leadership role in the city’s response to COVID last spring?
Iscol: I was working with a group of some business leaders in the city, and we were helping source medical supplies, protective equipment, and ventilators for local hospitals. It was all volunteer, all pro bono, all donations. We got a contribution of, I think it was maybe 3,000 or 5,000 N95 masks for Brooklyn Hospital. But I kept hearing these harrowing stories. I called a friend of mine named Pete Kiernan, who was helping run some of the operations and logistics for New York State. I said, ‘I’m losing my mind, not being able to be helpful, in one of New York’s greatest times of need. What can I do?’ And he connected me to this executive volunteer program that they had at the governor’s office. They sent me to Javits Medical Center as a volunteer. They had put together four federal medical shelters, which essentially is something that is designed for providing low-acuity medical care to people during an earthquake or a hurricane. But there were no medical capabilities. We finally got permission from the Governor and the President to start treating COVID patients. Then we had to build a COVID hospital in that five days. About four days after I was there, I was asked to step in as the Deputy Director. And I’m very proud of what we did there. We ended up building one of the most successful COVID field hospitals in the country. I think that story hasn’t really been told. We treated 1100 New Yorkers, and we built a hospital in five days, and it was remarkable what the team there did.
Bliss: Did that experience lead you to think about making this huge leap and running for mayor?
Iscol: It was a big part of it. I’ve been interested in public service my entire life. What I saw there was that we had 28 federal/ state agencies working at Javits and initially, they weren’t communicating, they weren’t working together. There was a lot of political tensions outside the building between Cuomo, de Blasio, and Trump. And we were able to keep that outside the building. We were able to focus those 28 agencies to work together to help New Yorkers in one of their greatest times of need. Seeing that potential for what government can do when it works together, it really led me to see that there is a real opportunity to do this across the city. My career has been defined in a lot of ways, by finding myself in the midst of really big problems, bringing people together, and finding solutions.