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Vann Gets a Challenger

Photos by Courtney Gross
Albert Vann (left), Democratic incumbent in City Council District 36, is being challenged by Mark Winston Griffith (right), running on the Working Families Party ticket

At the corner of Malcolm X Boulevard and Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Councilmember Al Vann had amassed a small troop of volunteers and staffers, all handing out palm cards with a truncated version of the Brooklyn legend's accomplishments.

Sporting his signature wardrobe piece (a hat -- today, a tan fedora with a small feather), the 74-year-old council member shook hands and conversed with students leaving nearby Boys and Girls High School. He told most passengers climbing up from the Utica Avenue station, "Democrats, all the way" -- a phrase that quickly became his call to the polls.

"I am one of the most effective legislators around," boasted Vann, clad in a baby blue suit.

But hundreds of residents of Brooklyn's 36th district think otherwise. Vann, who has represented central Brooklyn for 35 years, won the September Democratic primary, but only with 30 percent of the vote. Because of that, Vann's closest rival, former Drum Major Institute executive director Mark Winston Griffith, decided to continue his candidacy for tomorrow's general election on the Working Families Party line. In September, just 735 votes divided the two in of a field of eight candidates.

Republican candidate Robert Hunter also will be on tomorrow's ballot -- the first G.O.P candidate in Bedford Stuyvesant in at least two terms.

A Legend's Rival

It's tough to take on an incumbent. Griffith is doing it twice in the span of two months. And, this time around, he has some impressive names behind him.

Standing on the steps of City Hall last week, Griffith accepted the endorsements of the Rev. Al Sharpton and Councilmember Charles Barron -- two names that resonate with some of the city's black community. The 36th district is almost three quarters African American.

Photo by Courtney Gross
Griffith has the support of Reverend Al Sharpton and Charles Barron

Citing Griffith's energy and youth, both Sharpton and Barron were quick not to criticize Vann when announcing their support for Griffith. “This is all about Mark,” said Sharpton. “This is not about Vann, about term limits. I’m not anti-Vann. I’m pro-Mark.”

Griffith had been on Vann's radar for months. Before the extension of term limits, which Vann supported, the councilmember set up a committee to look for his replacement. Griffith was at the top of the list.

Now, the two will face off tomorrow in a race that has received little attention and nary a debate or forum. Griffith hopes now that the field has narrowed, he will be able to snag some of the more than 6,400 voters who pulled the lever against the incumbent in the primary.

"When you're running against an incumbent, you're radioactive to some level," said Griffith as rain dripped along City Hall's columns. "When there are eight people in the race it obviously makes it difficult to distinguish yourself, but I believe that the results of the primary in fact help distinguish us."

Those differences between the two include age and experience, for one. Griffith, 46, is running for office for the first time. Vann has been running since the 1970s. Griffith has said he would focus on getting healthy food in the district, halting rampant foreclosures (Bedford-Stuyvesant has one of the highest numbers of foreclosures in the city with 740 last year, according to the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy) and revitalizing commercial streets. Vann said in a third term, he wants to pass legislation giving senior citizens and those with disabilities a break on their water bills and focus on improving public housing.

Vann thinks he has the advantage.

"I'd rather have experience any day than quote 'newness,'" said Vann.

According to the most recent campaign finance filing, the councilmember has raised $66,471, received $168,505 in public funding and spent $132,313. Griffith has raised $92,876 in private money, $173,894 in public and has spent $160,146.

A Brooklyn Staple

By most accounts, Vann is an institution in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Having served for more than 25 years in the state Assembly, the councilmember was known as the political powerhouse of central Brooklyn for decades. So, his showing in the primary was a disappointment to many of his supporters -- but not necessarily a surprise.

Vann has the second worst attendance record in the City Council, missing almost 30 percent of all meetings. He has been charged with being noticeably absent in the community and been the subject of several damaging stories in the Daily News. Even some of his supporters say he was in "retirement mode" at City Hall.

Vann reasons that he skips meetings in favor of events going on in the community. He argues he has started so many programs and coalitions in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which has one of the lowest median household incomes in the city at just more than $30,000, he has lost count.

He said he spearheaded a $20 million initiative at the City Council to spur job creation -- more than half has been budgeted so far, according to council documents. He says he was instrumental in landing funding for the new Bedford-Stuyvesant Family Health Center, and was successful in bringing technology into the classroom.

And in his 35 years in public office, Vann has acquired some fans.

"People who say this man has been absent, this guy has been out there and I say turning lights on for the people," said Ulysses Kilgore III, the president and chief executive officer of the family health center.

Others argue for fresh blood, like Griffith.

Griffith, a community activist who lives in Crown Heights, was at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, a nonpartisan think tank, focusing on social justice issues since 2008. Before that he was the co-director at the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project. For full disclosure, Griffith also founded Gotham Gazette's community development section.

He says at the council he wants to bring a conversation about sustainable development and also hold developers accountable.

"I think people want someone who is going to show up, who is going to be invigorated, who is going to be passionately on their side," said Griffith. "I think that Al Vann has served his neighborhood well and people recognize that. But they also recognize that over the last few years he just hasn’t been as present. He hasn’t been as engaged."

The insurgent candidate knows he has an uphill battle. The district, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, has not in its history elected a third party candidate. Griffith says he is a Democrat for life, but his name remains on the Working Families Party line.

For Vann, he is playing up his primary win, portraying his candidacy as part of a Democratic ticket with mayoral candidate Comptroller Bill Thompson, and council members Bill de Blasio and John Liu, who are running for public advocate and comptroller. A third term, Vann says, will be a fitting end to a long tenure in New York politics.

"I'm going to end my career as I started it," Vann said. "Aggressive."

Stated Meeting: Hines Midtown Tower Approved

Giving the go-ahead to the Museum of Modern Art to add three more floors to its gallery space, the City Council approved an approximately 1,000-foot skyscraper adjacent to the museum in Midtown Wednesday, which will be designed by renowned architect, Jean Nouvel.

The tower, which will be as tall as the iconic Chrysler Building, has its fair share of detractors, including community residents who argue the building is too large and would bring too much traffic to the area.

The council also approved legislation requiring foreclosure consultants to print state regulations on their advertisements and drastically increased fines for those who leave their vehicles unattended and idling.

A Midtown, Mid-Block Museum

The tower, otherwise known as 53 West 53rd Street, will include a seven-star hotel of less than 100,000 square feet, an additional 75,000 square feet for the MoMA, including gallery and "support space," and approximately 120 luxury condominiums.

The tower's midblock location and its size, which was initially proposed at 1,250 feet tall, was the primary reason for community opposition, said RitaSue Siegel, the vice president of the West 54th-55th Street Block Association and the vice president of the Coalition for Responsible Midtown Development. Both groups oppose the plan, and the local community board voted to reject the proposal.

"We have to live with a Chrysler-size building in the middle of a block," said Siegel following the City Council's vote.

The site, which is in Council Speaker Christine Quinn's district, abuts the landmarked St. Thomas Church and the University Club, both of which have agreed to sell their air rights to make way for the tower.

"It’s going to be an iconic addition to the New York City skyline," said Quinn of the tower.

Opponents of the project argue the tower is three times the size currently allowed under the area's zoning.

The tower, which needed a special permit from the City Council, was approved by a vote of 44 to 3. Council members Charles Barron and Tony Avella voted against the proposal -- both members tend to be anti-development. Councilmember Daniel Garodnick, whose district is a block away from the building, also voted against the plan, citing community opposition.

Following the council's approval, the MoMA released the following statement: "Today’s approval of Hines' 53 West 53rd Street proposal represents an important milestone. The Museum of Modern Art appreciates the support of Manhattan Borough President Stringer, the City Planning Commission and the City Council for a project that will contribute significantly to the city’s architectural heritage and economy while enabling the museum to show even more of its collection to the public."

In this economy, the financing for such a large project could be in limbo. When Gotham Gazette asked Houston-based Hines, the developer, if financing was secured, a spokesperson said via e-mail, "Because the special permit was just approved today, it is too early to answer your additional questions on financing and construction start."

Advertising Mortgage Consultants

They are plastered to telephone poles and street signs across the five boroughs, urging homeowners to "Call Now!" They promise to help residents with foreclosure and the personal mortgage crisis spreading across the city.

The City Council, though, says it’s a scam.

As a result of the subprime mortgage crisis, consultants have created a market and made a living off of residents in or threatened with foreclosure. With signs promising help with mortgages and foreclosure proceedings, these consultants often require homeowners to pay in advance for their services, say city officials. Those consultants, they add, then disappear with the already cash-strapped homeowner's money without providing the promised advice.

Last year, the State Legislature approved legislation regulating these consultants for the first time. The state law requires a contract before these consultants can give services and bans consultants from receiving pre-payment.

Although city officials said they would like to ban these consultants in the five boroughs, a decision ultimately left up to the state or Congress, the council unanimously approved legislation (Intro 1070-A) that requires consultants put these new state regulations on their advertisements so homeowners know their rights.

If consultants do not comply, they could face fines of between $2,500 and $5,000 for each violation.

Ultimately, said council members, the city urges residents in foreclosure to call the city's constituent hotline, 311, so they can be put in touch with a city-chartered nonprofit that provides foreclosure consulting services gratis.

"When you make this call, most of your problems just get worse," said Councilmember Lewis Fidler of Brooklyn, pointing to a photo of a typical mortgage poster seen on the city's streets. "When you make that call, to 311, your problems can be solved."

The city's nonprofit, the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, was founded in July 2008 and has 70 counselors and attorneys to answer residents' concerns and questions. According to the center, its staff has already counseled 5,700 distressed homeowners.

Unattended Idling

In February, Middle Village residents Robert Ogle and Alex Paul were fatally struck down by a drunken driver after he stole a car left idling outside a local deli.

In January, an unattended idling van left in reverse ran down two children in Chinatown.

Now the City Council passed legislation drastically increasing fines for leaving a vehicle idling and unattended. Currently, the fine is $5 if you leave a vehicle unattended and idling for more than three minutes. Under the new legislation (Intro 947-A) fines will increase to $250 and the time limit will be removed.

The bill was approved by a vote of 46 to 1, with Councilmember Erik Martin Dilan of Brooklyn dissenting.

A Passenger Bill of Rights

The council also unanimously approved legislation (Intro 1023) that requires passenger vans post a bill of rights in the backseat. The council has passed similar legislation pertaining to yellow and livery cabs.

The bill of rights will let passengers know they have a right to a properly licensed driver, a working seat belt and a smoke-free environment, among others.

Campaign 09: Fact or Fiction

Left photo (cc) asterix611, Right Photo (cc) Azi Paybarah

They trade barbs and sling mud.

And believe it or not, sometimes they exaggerate.

We went through some of the accusations thrown by the city's mayoral candidates, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Comptroller Bill Thompson, to find out the fact -- and fiction -- behind the rhetoric.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. more accusations you hear on the campaign trail, and Gotham Gazette will look into them between now and Election Day.


Claim: The Bloomberg campaign says, as school board president, Thompson presided over low performance and waste. Meanwhile under the mayor's tenure, test scores are up, school violence is down and $350 million has been cut from bureaucracy and put in the classroom.

FACTS: The mayor is definitely right about one thing: Test scores are climbing, according to the Department of Education, and fast. Between 2002 and 2009, the number of fourth grade students who met or exceeded state standards in math went from about 52 percent to 84.9 percent, according to statistics provided by the city's education department. In 2002, less than 30 percent of eighth graders met state standards in reading. In 2009, 57 percent made the grade. Whether the rise is because of easier tests, the mayor's changes to the school system or something else entirely remains unclear.

The statistics also improved under Thompson's tenure as president of the Board of Education -- granted far more slowly. From 1999 to 2001, the years the city used the state exam while Thompson was president of the Board of Education, the percentage of fourth graders who met state math standards went from 49.6 to 51.8 percent. For reading, fourth graders who met state standards increased from 32.7 percent to 43.9 percent. According to the city's Department of Education, the percentage of eighth graders who met reading standards dropped from 1999 to 2001 -- from 35.2 percent to 33 percent.

Keep in mind: Thompson did not control the schools as school board chief -- he shared that with the mayor, the chancellor and the other board members -- making it difficult to attribute student success or failure to his actions. From 1996 to 2001, the years Thompson was president, high school graduation rates went from 48 percent to 51 percent.

During Bloomberg's tenure, graduation rates have climbed from 51 percent to 66 percent, according to the Department of Education.

Left photo (c) BillThompson2009


Claim: Thompson says his record as president of the Board of Education led to mayoral control.

FACTS: According to at least one colleague at the Board of Education under Thompson's reign, his actions did help move the city's school system toward mayoral control. "His efforts were precursors to mayoral control. He played a leading role in governance changes," Sandra Lerner, a former board member from the Bronx, told Gotham Gazette earlier this year. While in the post, Thompson advocated for mandatory school uniforms and a chancellor's district for low performing schools. He was thought of as a conciliator. At the same time, in 1996, just before he took over the board presidency, Thompson told the New York Times he opposed giving then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani control over the school system. He has since said he supports mayoral control.


Left photo (c) socram718

Claim: Bloomberg says in a third term, he will bring New Yorkers the subway and bus service they deserve.

FACTS: Bloomberg says now that he wants to crack down on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. But if his record is any indication of his commitment to the authority, voters might have reason for skepticism. During his eight years in office, according to a report by the Independent Budget Office, the city's financial contribution to the transportation authority has remained relatively stagnant -- even while the city had serious surpluses.

In addition, every transit proposal the mayor released in August -- a plan that calls for free crosstown buses and an express F line -- would need approval from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's board where the mayor has only four of 14 votes. Some of these ideas, like countdown clocks in stations, are already being implemented by the authority. Others would be next to impossible to implement in the next four years. For one, the F line express train Bloomberg has called for cannot even be considered until rehabilitation of that line is completed. According to an authority spokesperson, that rehab is scheduled for completion in 2014 -- after the end of a potential third term for Bloomberg.

The authority, according to a spokesman, has not done any cost estimates on the mayor's proposals. But earlier this year, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority got a state bailout because of its dire fiscal straits. The mayor's campaign office says his transportation plan identifies $247 million in savings for the authority.


Claim: Thompson says under the Bloomberg administration the city has seen record high numbers of homeless individuals.

FACTS: Though the mayor said in the city's first general election mayoral debate that the city's homeless situation is "better" than when he first came to office, the numbers say otherwise. According to a new report from the Coalition for the Homeless, a citywide advocacy group, 39,000 individuals and 10,000 families are in city shelters every night -- a 45 percent increase from when the mayor first took office.


Claim: Mike Bloomberg has brought crime to record lows in NYC.

FACTS: The Giuliani administration gets a major part of the credit for reducing the city's rampant crime rate of the 1980s. For instance, the largest drop in crime, according to annual statistics from the police department, was between 1990 and 1995, when the number of major crimes dropped from 527,257 to 312,332. Nonetheless, the Bloomberg administration has continued that trend even during the recession. Under the mayor's watch, major crime, including rapes, homicides and burglaries, have declined from 162,064 in 2001 to 117,840 in 2008, according to the police department, making New York City the country's safest large city.


Claim: New Yorkers are crippled by fees under Bloomberg, according to the Thompson campaign.

FACTS: Between fiscal year 2005 and fiscal year 2009, the number of parking summonses issued went up by 12.4 percent (more than 10.6 million were handed out in fiscal year 2009). The number of violations issued by the city's Department of Environmental Protection, covering loud music past 11 p.m., went up by about 70 percent, according to the mayor's management report. Some say these increases represent the administration's policy to ticket to create revenue.

Elsewhere, water rates have skyrocketed by a little more than 93 percent -- attributed mostly to unpaid bills and years of lax enforcement by the city. And to close a budget gap, parking meter rates went to 75 cents for an hour from 50 cents this year (most meter rates have been unchanged since 1992).

Thompson, not surprisingly, blames Bloomberg. But during the city's last fiscal crisis in 2002, Thompson too encouraged the city ramp up its fee collections. According to testimony before the City Council in January of 2003, Thompson said, "I have instructed my staff to work aggressively to identify uncollected revenue that will help the city in these difficult fiscal times. It is particularly important that the Department of Finance, as the primary agent responsible for collecting fines and penalties due to the City, maximize its efforts."


Claim: Bloomberg's campaign says the city's pension funds underperform others, because Thompson has engaged in pay to play politics by accepting political contributions from those that do business with the city's pension funds.

FACTS: At a Crain's breakfast forum last week, Bloomberg said again there was no reason for pension managers in California to give to Thompson's campaign unless they expected something in return. According to the New York Times, Thompson has received more than $500,000 since 2001 from money managers associated with the city's pension system. At the same time, according to the Times, the city's pension funds have underperformed -- below the median of 4.5 percent in returns for four of the five public pension funds (under Thompson's predecessor, returns were more than 12 percent). The Daily News reported the comptroller received $158,000 in campaign contributions from those who do business with the pension funds.

The Bloomberg campaign has consistently alleged this amounts to pay to play politics. But none of these reports have made the direct connection that Thompson has received a quid pro quo -- campaign donations for pension contracts. At the same time, Bloomberg is obviously exempt from this particular type of criticism because he is self-financed. Thompson, though, has alleged Bloomberg silences critics through his philanthropic donations -- an allegation that also has not been proved.

No formal complaint has been filed by the Bloomberg campaign against Thompson alleging conflicts of interest.


Claim: Thompson says the Bloomberg years have been rife with "giving to developers and Wall Street" and the middle class is being squeezed out.

FACTS: In 2002, the city gave out $1.7 billion in tax benefits to the real estate industry. In 2009, according the city's Department of Finance, that number grew to $3.7 billion. Over the Bloomberg years, the controversial 421-a tax benefit alone grew from $130 million to $607 million. Sure, more people were building -- but certainly developers are benefiting.

These stats lead Thompson to charge massive development has battered the city's middle class, and a report from the Center for an Urban Future backs him up. Between 2004 and 2005, 12,955 New Yorkers with bachelor's degrees left the city. Between 2005 and 2006, 29,370 left. The report also notes that in 2006, the city lost 151,441 people to other U.S. cities.

On the other hand, according to the city's housing vacancy survey, the median income for renter households in 2007 was $36,200, a very slight increase from $36,000 in 2004.

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