Gotham Gazette Wed, 21 Mar 2018 20:43:30 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Now Overseeing Closure, Council Member Makes First Visit to Rikers Keith Powers Rikers Island

City Council Member Keith Powers (photo: John McCarten)

Last week, members of the New York City Council’s Committee on Criminal Justice toured Rikers Island to see for themselves the conditions at the problem-plagued jail complex, which is slated for closure within the next ten years. It was the first visit for the new chair of the committee, Council Member Keith Powers, who spoke with Gotham Gazette about what he and his colleagues saw, their conversations with detainees and corrections officers, and the issues it moved him to pursue.

The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Gotham Gazette (GG): How was Rikers?

Council Member Keith Powers (KP): “It was my first time going. It was quite educational and you know, I wouldn’t use the word ‘surprising’ because I’m not surprised but it certainly reconfirmed my belief that we should be doing what we are doing, which is to move in a hopefully expedited time manner to move into communities and create new borough-based facilities. It was super informative.

“We were surprisingly joined by the head of the correction officers’ union [Elias Husamudeen], who came along. We also had Stanley Richards, who’s the Board of Correction member from The Fortune Society, who also came. So with those two joining it was even better than I think we expected and had more conversation than just sort of what was going to be normally presented to us by the agency.”

GG: What was the tour like? How many buildings did you see? Did you meet with any inmates, any officers?

KP: “Yeah we did, we did a bunch. We saw the visitor’s center. We saw what they call ‘advanced supervision housing,’ which replaced solitary confinement for young inmates. We went there, we saw two parts of that. The one for the most restrictive and the one that’s least restrictive. But they’re all the most violent young, or the ones that have had a violent incident amongst the young folks. In one of them, they’re actually restrained, they can’t even get up from their desks even when they’re in the open area and in the second one there’s more freedom...We stood there and we talked to inmates in both of those facilities.

“These are young inmates who have had an incident, whether it’s a slashing or a fight or something else that led them to get in there, and so we talked to them there. We saw the academy, the school for the young inmates, we saw a sort-of medium facility...we saw the welcoming and visiting center where you actually come and show up if you’re a family member, you drop packages off -- we looked at all the protocols there. And we looked at one unit where there’s a pilot program around bringing dogs actually into one of the units, which is kind of like a reward for good behavior, I think.”

GG: This sounds like a long tour. How long were you there?

KP: “We got there around 10 o’clock and we were there till about 5 o’clock. It was really a long day. We left at 9 a.m. and we got home around 6 so basically 9 to 6, and we sort of spent an hour each way but the [DOC] actually set up the bus so we had a bus to get both ways.”

GG: What was your first impression?

KP: “Certain facilities are almost like a century old and they are, even if they’re not unsafe, even if they maybe were, they were perceived to be safe in the past, they’re certainly not, they’re not really set up to succeed, I think, on a lot of safety measures. You have, and the Department of Correction would say that, there’s some facilities that are old and the materials they used could be used, they don’t have modern materials in some of the cells, in some of the facilities that are, that would make it easier to protect the inmates, not being able to be transformed into weapons, things like that.

“And the second is that, a new facility would seem to lend itself to set up so that you could actually have less direct contact between staff and inmates, especially the very violent ones. And the other thing is that you go into a cell and you see how ridiculously small and lacking a cell is, especially particular cells we saw. It’s incredible to think that you have to spend your entire life for some period of time in one of these cells because they’re tiny and they’re not depends on where you are but there are jails that go back to the 1930s, so you’re in something that was built before World War II. It’s incredible.

“So it’s shocking, it’s really shocking. When you talk to the inmates directly, some of them are really candid, they didn’t really hide why they were there. They speak openly about what they did to end up in Rikers but also end up in a unit where, what the situation was that caused them to go into a unit with additional security.

“You know getting there and getting into the facility, the time it would take to do a whole trip there and see a loved one, that takes an entire day out of your life. And second, once you’re in there, you can see how these are really not, these are really meant to be upgraded, modernized and put closer to home.”

GG: At any point did you lock yourself in a cell to see how it feels

KP: “We went into one cell...I actually asked them to open one up…[O]ne of the most fascinating points was when Elias [Husamudeen] from the correction officers union and Stanley Richards had a kind of impromptu back and forth about solitary confinement. The argument is that corrections officers want to see solitary, punitive segregation as they call it, restored for inmates that are under the age of 21, believing that they’re still a risk...not having them in solitary, a policy the city took a few years ago to end it.

“So his argument is that it’s basically just the same thing as being in a regular cell, and so all you’re doing is having less hours outside of your cell, it’s not a dungeon or anything. So I actually asked them to open one up so I can walk in and see what it would feel like to be inside of a cell for like a minute, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for someone to be in there for 23 hours a day. We can always talk about ways to keep it more secure but I don’t think, an average stay on Rikers is 60 days and solitary is less than that but any period of time to be in a cell for 23 hours, that seems beyond reason, I think anybody would agree with that.”

GG: How did it feel? Claustrophobic?

KP: “The one I was in was small, I saw other ones that would be claustrophobic and almost impossible to believe that you could stay within your own senses. They were tiny and they were old and they, you know, they’re meant to be jail cells, I mean they’re meant to be restrictive. They’re feel your lack of freedom while you’re in there.”

GG: You said you spoke with inmates. What did they feel about the jail? Did anyone talk about what they wanted? About what they felt the jail was like?

KP: “We talked to a few. We went to the high school and we saw some that are getting ready to take the TASC [Test Assessing Secondary Completion] test, which is the new GRE, and were taking actually a sample test, so we talked to them a little about what they were doing. I gotta say, the teacher that was in that classroom won, I think, an award last year for being one of the best teachers in New York City. She seemed fantastic.

“I think they were just reading ‘The Alienist’ and she seemed to really challenge them, but the challenge in that setting is that they can be only there for 100 days or a year and so it’s only a moment in time where they’re getting a particular education. We talked to them a bit..Then we went to the unit where we really talked about what got them in and, you know, look there was a sense of frustration. We had certainly some complaints about process-related stuff, about them believing that they were supposed to get a hearing and that the hearings weren’t getting recorded...wasn’t being recorded correctly. Two of them told us that they received notice that they had refused a hearing and they hadn’t. So there were a lot of process related complaints.

“One of them talked about an altercation that he had with a corrections officer where he admitted that he got in a fight with a corrections officer and instigated it, well, was part of the instigation of it. A lot of it was about the relationship between the staff and the inmates...But I think we all understood that I think almost anybody in a restrictive climate would feel restricted and then thereby would have complaints about those who they have to deal with on a daily basis. You know a lot of it was talking about why they got in, particularly what got them in a specific unit, and then a lot of it was about process of getting a hearing, but acknowledging they had an audience and they knew we were City Council members and that this was an opportunity to raise any points that they wanted to.”

GG: Did you talk to any of the guards?

KP: “We talked to a lot of them. I will certainly tell you two things. One is, we met with a lot of guards, we met with wardens, deputy wardens, we met with corrections officers, we met with people working in the mental health unit. We met with one of them in the mental health unit who I would say demonstrated to me a real compassion and care, he was deputy warden, I think, in that unit, been there for like 30 years. Elias told me he retired and then unretired and really seemed to care.

“I thought the staff was, I thought they were really impressive. They were smart, they had a real care for the job, the ones we met at least. They really had a deep knowledge, not beyond just the job they do but more like the whole ecosystem around Rikers Island. We were there briefly for a security incident where they actually put the vests on and there was light that was going off, and we talked a lot about security and safety in there.

“Look, they have a really, really, really tough job and I was impressed by a lot of the staff that we met and their commitment to the job but recognizing that they would all tell you how difficult it can be and how safety and security is the top priority for them, not just themselves but for the inmates as well, the inmate-on-inmate violence and keeping people safe.

“I’m recognizing that there are people on that island who are not even guilty, who potentially could not be found guilty... so there’s a lot of different any building on the whole island. So we talked to a lot of staff and they were knowledgeable and they were smart and had a care for the job. But none of them would tell you it’s an easy job or that they feel safe at all moments.”

GG: Has it pushed you on wanting to move on one specific thing first? Has it changed your priorities at all?

KP: “Yeah it did. Number one is, it reaffirmed to me that we can build safer facilities and put people close to home and the proximity to your family and loved ones, the ability to have safer facilities and more modernized facilities and the ability for people to come and get there much easier is all worth it. It’s all worth what we’ve been talking about all along. The Close Rikers campaign was grounded in people’s real experiences, it was not just an ideological goal. People had come to this with real concerns.

“The second part of it is, I think we want to look at safety and security protocols in two ways. This opened my eyes. One is the procedures ongoing about keeping the people that work there safe in light of the incident a few weeks ago [where a guard was attacked] and in light of the things that we talked about. I think I would like to have a hearing at some point on the safety and security of everybody who works there and ways we can improve it. And second is, we were already planning on talking about contraband, but my visit to the visitors center, or the welcome center where you first walk in, did highlight for myself and some members the idea that it seems to me we could be doing more around preventing people from getting contraband into the prison.

“We asked a number of questions about packages and people that are entering into the jail and I think we still have a lot unanswered questions about safety of the inmates and security based on who and what is coming onto the island. So I think a hearing on two safety items - you know the people that work in the facility and people who work in the jails and two is the contraband.

“And the third one I think is grounded in conversations I with [Board of Corrections] members but also based on being there, which is health services on the island and ensuring that we’re providing appropriate medical services to people on that island who really need it. And we didn’t get to go to the women’s facility but I think in that facility particularly there’s probably a lot of services that are required. So I think we should dive into health care on the island and connected to the island as well.”

GG: What do you think about what’s happening with the Bronx jail site proposal?

KP: “I think that, when the announcement was made and that was obviously the newest jail, while the other ones had been discussed and previewed in the past, and they’re based on existing sites, this is a totally new one. So it’s not totally surprising to me that there are a lot of questions that are coming from the community and that we end up talking about concerns.

“I think that there is a way that we can work with the community and the elected officials there to find something or find some compromise, or some way to work to site it there. I think that everybody understands the need and the importance of having the borough-based facilities and the fact that the Bronx would be one of them. But the elected officials that represent that area or nearby...found out about it from a press conference and were concerned about it. I think every community, every elected official wants to find out well in advance, at least have an opportunity to talk to the community about it.

“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised that it’s caused a conversation about location and the siting of it but I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to get to a place where all communities that are receiving new sites will be comfortable with them and will find the appropriate balance between their needs and the needs of the city.”

GG: Do you think Rikers will be shut down in less than 10 years?

KP: “Yes, I do. I do and I think that there’s two points that matter here. One is, we’re now on the land use, siting, and design process part of it -- which is, we’ve actually put us on a timeline on the process...if they certify the ULURP in November or December, which is what I think they’re expecting to do, and then they go through the ULURP. Then that’s a year or so by which they’re sited. That’s the good news. That was the importance of doing this now, to actually get that year of process out...I think we’re ahead of the ten-year schedule and we’re gonna be moving faster. And if we can get some reforms in Albany like speedy trials and bail reform and design-build...I think we move even faster than expected.”

[Related: Bronx Electeds, Residents Cry Foul as Mayor and Council Announce Jail Site]

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Now Overseeing Closure, Council Member Makes First Visit to Rikers Tue, 06 Mar 2018 05:00:00 +0000
New City Council Committee Chairs Have Plenty on Their Plates City Council Speaker Corey Johnson members

Members of th new City Council with Speaker Johnson (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

The new class of the New York City Council took greater shape on Thursday with the appointment of chairs and members to the 40-plus committees and subcommittees that oversee the broad legislative, land use, and oversight roles of the 51-member body. Most returning Council members were reassigned to lead different committees while some remained in the positions they’ve served the past four years. New Speaker Corey Johnson also chose to create a few new committees to boost staff levels in certain areas and to better address specific issues that were subsumed under broader committee purviews.

In their new roles, many of the committee chairs will have to navigate a slate of issues, which in many cases will likely lead them into direct confrontation with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. This holds particularly true for the powerful land use and finance committees, both of which have new Council members at the helm. Speaker Johnson has also pledged broader independence from the mayor than his predecessor, indicating that members will be allowed, and even encouraged, to take the administration to task. He has pledged an enhanced oversight and investigations committee to lead the way in that regard.

Council Member Rafael Salamanca Jr. of the Bronx was appointed chair of the land use committee, which is tasked with overseeing and reviewing land use applications, zoning amendment,s and landmark preservation in the city. Since the committee has the final say on any development projects that require city government approval, it plays a prominent role in determining the success of the mayor’s affordable housing program, in particular thus far by approving comprehensive, and controversial, neighborhood rezonings in communities such as East New York and East Harlem.

The city is exploring similar rezonings -- to create more affordable housing while also injecting economic energy and other benefits into neighborhoods -- in the Bay Street corridor on Staten Island, Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, and Flushing, Queens, among other communities. “Our city is at a crossroads, including my community in the South Bronx,” Salamanca said in a statement Thursday. The City Council, he said, “should be on the front lines on shaping the planning, development and all other land use actions in a way that listens to and addresses the concerns of all New Yorkers.” Freshman Council Member Francisco Moya is heading up the subcommittee on zoning and franchises which falls under Salamanca’s purview.

The finance committee, led by its new chair Council Member Daniel Dromm of Queens, also has a tough task ahead as it heads into budget season. Dromm will lead the Council’s negotiations with the administration over the $86 billion-plus city budget. The mayor is expected to release his fiscal year 2019 preliminary budget proposal later this month and the administration has been bracing for cuts in federal funding, threatened by the Trump administration, and a widely expected economic slowdown after years of continuous growth.

Last year, the Council advocated for increased savings and reduced agency inefficiencies even as they called for new funding for Council priorities. “I intend to use this position to move a progressive budget forward working closely with Speaker Corey Johnson who I thank for giving me this opportunity to serve,” Dromm said in a statement.

The Council’s budget hearings will no doubt also touch on the city’s $96 billion capital budget. Numerous Council members called last year for increased transparency in how capital projects are funded and managed, insisting that the city needs to reduce financial waste and cut down on project delays.
Johnson has now gone so far as to create an entirely new subcommittee to oversee the capital budget, chaired by Council Member Vanessa Gibson. “Many members, including myself, have been frustrated by the capital process itself,” Gibson told Gotham Gazette outside the Council chambers on Thursday. She said the new committee will allow expanded oversight of capital spending, particularly by individual city agencies. “At the end of the day, we just wanna say to the public, to New Yorkers and to all of my colleagues that we are spending your money wisely,” she said.

The transportation committee continues to be led by Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who has been a vocal supporter of the Move New York congestion pricing plan, which would impose tolls on the East River bridges to raise funds for mass transit infrastructure and reduced fare MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers, while also lowering tolls on other bridges.

De Blasio has opposed both congestion pricing and the “Fair Fares” campaign, insisting that fair fares should be funded by the state and that congestion pricing is a “regressive tax” that hurts outer borough commuters. He has instead proposed a so-called millionaires tax, which Rodriguez also supports, that would accomplish both goals - subsidized MetroCards and new transit revenue. However, like congestion pricing, the tax would have to be approved by the state Legislature where it has already been rejected by Governor Cuomo and the state Senate, portending perhaps that the fair fares fight will be fought locally yet again. Cuomo appears on the verge of pursuing some version of congestion pricing.

In keeping with Johnson’s promise to stand up to the de Blasio administration, the Council now has an expanded Oversight and Investigations committee, led by Council Member Ritchie Torres of the Bronx. The committee is expected to have a full-time investigation staff made up of professional investigators, former prosecutors, and journalists. In an interview with the New York Times, Torres indicated a number of different issue areas he would approach for added oversight. “The abuse of placards. The use of eminent domain. The disposition of public land. Deed restriction. The disbursement of city subsidies. All of it is on the table,” he said.

On Thursday, Torres told Gotham Gazette that the New York City Housing Authority’s lead contamination issue, which has been a black eye for the de Blasio administration, was a “continuing concern” for him. “I have not set the investigative priorities of the committee just yet, but given my former position as chairman of the public housing committee, given my interest in the subject, NYCHA is going to be figuring prominently in my oversight priorities,” he said.

Torres’ role will crossover with the work of other committees, such as the Committee on Public Housing, which he led last term and will this term be led by Brooklyn Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel. The public housing authority needs $25 billion for infrastructure improvements, with few forthcoming state and federal funds this year. The authority’s numerous public failures continue to haunt the administration and invite criticism from the Council and community activists. And although the city has put a NYCHA overhaul plan into motion and seen some successes and promising developments, problems are not likely to abate any time soon.

“As chair, I will ensure that critical issues are addressed, from heat, to lead, to security issues,” Ampry-Samuel said in a statement. “I look forward to visiting every housing development in the city and the opportunity to hear from the residents and the resident leaders.”

Johnson also chose to expand the role the Council plays in scrutinizing the city’s criminal justice system. Council Member Rory Lancman of Queens was chosen to lead the newly formed Committee on the Justice System, which has oversight of city courts, district attorneys, legal service providers and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

Manhattan Council Member Keith Powers will be heading the Committee on Criminal Justice, which has oversight of the Department of Correction and Department of Probation. Both committees will play a prominent part in the plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex, which is contingent on reducing the city’s jail population to less than 5,000 -- it is currently just under 9,000 detainees -- while also creating borough-based jail facilities. Lancman told Gotham Gazette he expects to “aggressively oversee and try to reform” the city’s justice system. “You’ll see a very robust agenda coming out of my committee,” he said.

Lancman and Powers’ committees were carved out of the earlier Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services and the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, which Lancman led last term. Powers, who is new to the Council like Ampry-Samuel and others, said that move “recognizes that Rikers Island and the corrections system is really its own issue that needs to be tackled in the next coming years.”

“There are a lot of thorny issues,” Powers said of the closure of Rikers, “and I think a big part of it is really making sure that we put on the right timeline and that we make sure we manage all the different constituencies that are involved here.”

New York City Health + Hospitals, the cash-strapped municipal hospital system, continues to be a big area of concern for the Council and in particular Johnson, who led the health committee for the last four years. Johnson created a separate Committee on Hospitals to oversee the system, appointing new Manhattan Council Member Carlina Rivera as chair.

Council Member Mark Levine, chosen to be the new health committee chair, noted a number of issues he will address, including the opioid crisis, racial disparities in health outcomes, animal rights and the threat of bioterrorism. He has promised to push for a single payer healthcare system in the city -- a priority for the speaker -- and told Gotham Gazette he expects “there will be times when the Council and the administration are on different sides of an issue,” and that its incumbent on members to advocate for the Council’s priorities. “That’s the job of a good committee chair,” he said.

See the full list of new Council leadership, committee chairs, and committee members.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

New City Council Committee Chairs Have Plenty on Their Plates Thu, 11 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
A Rarity: City Council Candidate Releases Detailed Reform Agenda powers petitioning stuytown keithpowersnyc

City Council candidate Keith Powers (photo: @KeithPowersNYC)

Candidates across the city this year are running for City Council on all sorts of issues, but only one has released a detailed list of government, campaign finance, and voting reform proposals. That agenda, called “Sunlight in the City,” has been put forward by Keith Powers, a Democrat competing in the crowded field to replace term-limited City Council Member Dan Garodnick on Manhattan’s East Side.

At a time of widespread distrust in government, continued problems with public corruption and unethical conduct, and low voter turnout, especially here in New York, Powers’ agenda is especially noteworthy. The 22-point platform on government and electoral reform in New York City is something of an amalgamation of longtime goals for voting reform advocates and good government groups. Some of the measures have actually already been passed or implemented; some have to be approved at the state level.

Powers’ reform agenda also comes as he is has been attacked by opponents for his work as a lobbyist -- he was until May a vice president at the firm Constantinople and Vallone. Sunlight in the City includes several planks directly related to lobbying, including more disclosure of lobbying meetings held by City Council members and more detailed lobbyist reporting to indicate, among other things, “who got lobbied, who did the lobbying, and the specific bill or subject matter.”

Some of the mainstay priorities of electoral and government reform advocates that appear in Powers’ platform include a move to instant runoff voting for all city elections and lowering the number of City Council issue committees to diminish patronage and redundancy in the legislative body. These planks have been proposed in the Council and, in the case of instant runoff voting, at the state level, but have gone nowhere.

Powers also calls for lowering the individual contribution limit to Council candidates campaigns from $2,750 to $1,225, “to make small donors and large donors equal in their donation capacity.” Ideally, his agenda says, he wants to see 100% publicly financed elections in the city to replace the city’s current matching funds mechanism, starting with a pilot program for special elections. Kallos introduced a bill to increase the matching funds payout for Council races “to a full match with the expenditure limit,” which is currently in committee.

A few planks in the platform are already in place, such as the closure of the “doing business loophole” that allows those doing business with the city to circumvent donation limits by giving to political nonprofits. The loophole was closed in a bill passed by the Council and signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2016, after the mayor himself was investigated for issues related to his own political nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York, which was shuttered amid controversy.

“I think it’s important we’re always sort of constantly evaluating our process by which we do government or help get people elected or otherwise,” Powers said in an interview, “we can always do better.” He indicated he believes the City Council is, in most cases, a model for transparent government, but that there’s still more that can be done.

In part because of his reform agenda, Powers has received the endorsement of City Council Member Ben Kallos, himself an advocate of open and ethical government and the representative of a neighboring Council district to the one Powers hopes to represent. Kallos also chairs the Council’s government operations committee, which often hears bills related to government and campaign finance reform.

“In terms of his Sunlight in the City report, it is a list of the 22 items that the City Council is currently working on or should be working on to really clean up government,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette. Kallos said that he hasn’t seen anything like it from anyone running this year.

While few City Council candidates are talking about government and campaign finance reform, Democratic mayoral hopeful Sal Albanese has made the topic central to his attempt to unseat de Blasio. Albanese has proposed a significant campaign finance reform to completely eliminate private money from the system, something de Blasio has said he favors in theory, but has not advanced legislation on.

Powers acknowledges the difficulties in getting some things on his list passed, but said that shouldn’t be a reason to not try.

“I think the City Council reform, I think that is the one where I look at as there being a lot of really achievable ideas in there,” said Powers, citing the creation of an independent bill drafting unit as something that many legislators are clamoring for, despite the existence of such a unit. The unit was part of a package of Council reforms passed in 2014, but Powers believes that these reforms can go further; regarding the drafting unit, Powers believes the current iteration is an improvement, but that it should be even more autonomous in instances such as the number of bills that can be introduced at a given time.

Another Council reform Powers sees as achievable deals with bill aging. Currently, a bill ages seven days after introduction for public input, but Powers claims that it just sits in City Hall and is essentially unavailable to the public. He believes it should publicly age online.

Powers said that the challenge of moving some of the reforms through the state government shouldn’t be a deterrent, that the city shouldn’t be “abdicating our authority to Albany.” Kallos said that the voting reform planks, other than ending patronage at the Board of Elections, don’t have to go through the state Legislature. Many of the other planks need city passage, some can be done through City Council rules.

On closing doing business loophole, which already became law, Powers conceded to have not known the full extent of the legislative package that was passed. He also was largely nonspecific on his proposed additions to the 2014 member item reform, stating that there’s a lot to look at where the Council can “do better.”

The Powers agenda received an enthusiastic response from democratic reform group Citizens Union, which interviews candidates and releases preferences in some city elections based on good government bona fides.

“Keith Powers has put forward an ambitious and wide-ranging plan to increase transparency and accountability, and bring some needed sunlight to the New York City Council. While we do not support all of his proposed reforms, Citizens Union has long been advocating for several of them and will continue to do so in the upcoming session,” said Rachel Bloom, Citizens Union’s Public Policy director.

For example, Citizens Union is not in support of the full public financing of city elections plank of Powers’ platform -- the organization “feel[s] that candidates should have to raise money in the districts they seek to represent,” Bloom said. However, it is supportive of Powers’ proposed pilot program in special elections. The organization has not yet made its preference in the Council District 4 race or any other.

In the Democratic primary to be voted on September 12, Powers is competing against Marti Speranza, Jeff Mailman, Bessie Schachter, Maria Castro, Vanessa Aronson, Barry Shapiro, Rachel Honig, and Alec Hartman, none of whom have released government reform platforms, though Shapiro called for transparency in lobbying in a campaign video.

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.


The Citizens Union candidate interview and preference process is wholly separate from Gotham Gazette operations. Gotham Gazette does not endorse or support candidates for office.

A Rarity: City Council Candidate Releases Detailed Reform Agenda Mon, 14 Aug 2017 20:28:30 +0000
The Early Money Race in ‘Open’ City Council Seats City Council chambers

City Council chambers (photo: Sofie Hecht/Gotham Gazette)

With seven sitting New York City Council members facing term limits and one having left the Council to join the state Assembly, this year’s municipal elections will feature a number of competitive open races and will bring fresh blood into the city’s legislative body.

While the vast majority of those in the Council’s 51 seats can run for another term this year, and most are, the open seats will see the bulk of the electoral competition for the City Council.

Come January, the Council will have at least eight new members. Through the September primaries and November general election, seven term-limited members will be replaced: Rosie Mendez (District 2), Dan Garodnick (District 4), Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (District 8), James Vacca (District 13), Annabel Palma (District 18), Darlene Mealy (District 41) and Vincent Gentile (District 43).

Another Council seat is currently vacant following Council Member Inez Dickens’ election to the Assembly. A nonpartisan special election is scheduled for February 14 for her seat in District 9 in Harlem. There are 11 candidates vying for the seat and the winner will serve through the rest of Dickens’ term, meaning its final year, and will have to run for reelection later this year. Two candidates, Todd Stevens and Larry Blackmon, are leading the race in fundraising, having qualified for public funds under the campaign finance system's matching funds program. Stevens has $46,871 in his account and Blackmon has $44,954. The closest other candidate is Marvin Holland with $26,325. Holland raised the most private contributions but, along with most other candidates in the race, did not meet the thresholds for public matching funds by a January 17 deadline for campaign finance disclosure. The rest of the candidates' accounts range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, with the most being Athena Moore's $5,005 and the least being Caprice Alves' $86. The next disclosures are due by Friday, February 3, based on which additional candidates may qualify for public funds.

Open seats invite numerous candidates for each race and the campaign finance system’s public matching funds program tends to help level the playing field for participants. Across all eight “open seat” races, candidates have been furiously reaching out to constituents and community groups, and, in the case of many first-timers, building their profiles and name recognition.

In some races, community activists are hoping to defeat political veterans from Albany -- state lawmakers representing New York City often look to switch to the City Council, where the pay is better and the trips to Albany fewer. Several state legislators are still exploring whether to pursue Council seats, with decisions imminent as the September primary is just over six months away.

In multiple races, female candidates are striving to strengthen the gender balance on the Council, a male-dominated body.

All of the eight “open seats” were most recently or are currently held by Democrats, and are likely to stay in Democratic hands. The Council currently has 47 Democrats and three Republicans, with the one empty seat (Dickens’). The Democratic primary is often determinative of the final outcome in City Council races.

In most of the “open seat” contests this year, there are candidates who have already posted significant fundraising numbers according to the latest campaign finance disclosures filed before a key January deadline with the New York City Campaign Finance Board. Fundraising can make or break a campaign, and early numbers are often predictive of what kind of campaign a candidate can run and how a candidate will do. Thanks to the city's public matching system, City Council candidates can often raise relatively modest amounts of money, qualify for matching funds, and run serious campaigns.

In Manhattan’s District 2, which stretches from Murray Hill down to the Lower East Side, Carlina Rivera leads the race, having raised $77,125 and spent $19,408, leaving her a balance of $57,717 in her campaign account as of mid-January. Rivera is a district leader and currently serves as legislative director for Council Member Rosie Mendez, a position she’s held since August 2015. Mendez has endorsed Rivera to be her successor in the seat. According to a campaign spokesperson, Rivera is a participant in the public matching funds program.

Running against Rivera is Mary Silver, a local attorney, education advocate and member of Community Board 6. Silver has a campaign balance of $30,523, having raised $38,725 and spent $8,202. A third candidate, Jasmin Sanchez, has posted no campaign contributions or expenditures.

District 4, which covers much of the east side of Manhattan, has six contenders for Council Member Garodnick’s seat. Two of them, Maria Castro and Diane Grayson, have empty campaign accounts. The early fundraising leader is Marti Speranza, a Democratic State Committeewoman and member of Community Board 5. Speranza is the former director of Women Entrepreneurs NYC, a city initiative, and has served as director of strategic initiatives for the Department of Consumer Affairs. She has just over $126,000 in her campaign account, having raised nearly $176,000 and spent about $50,000.

One of the benefits of running for an open seat, Speranza said in an interview, is that the city’s public matching funds program “has really levelled the playing field” and ensured that voters will have multiple choices. “It means we’re competing on our ideas and our platforms,” she said.

Keith Powers is also expected to run a strong campaign to replace Garodnick, and has raised $81,485 and spent $24,771, leaving him $56,714 as of mid-January. Powers, currently at Constantinople & Vallone LLC, a consulting firm, worked as chief of staff for former state Assembly Member Jonathan Bing for four years.

Powers pointed out that most of his campaign contributions are in small dollar amounts and came from district residents. “At the end of the day, fundraising matters, but the most important thing is having a motivated base of supporters in the district and having a record of accomplishment,” he told Gotham Gazette.

Also in the race are Jeffrey Mailman, who has a campaign balance of $32,916; Bessie Schachter with $19,732; and Melissa Jane Kronfeld with $4,138.

In East Harlem’s District 8, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has endorsed her deputy chief of staff Diana Ayala for her seat. Ayala has campaign contributions of $26,173, of which she has spent $1,733. Other candidates in the race have barely scratched the fundraising surface as of mid-January. Edward Gibbs has a balance of $5,884 while Edward Santos has $1,803. A fourth candidate, Tamika Mapp, has $25.

That race appears to be Ayala’s to lose, but it is still somewhat early.

Bronx Council Member James Vacca’s District 13 will likely be home to a competitive race, with six candidates running relatively close in fundraising. State Assembly Member Mark Gjonaj is in front, having raised $103,730. With expenditures of $19,276, he has a balance of $84,454. He also has the name recognition and political relationships that come with already being an elected official.

Second in the money race is Marjorie Velazquez, a Democratic district leader who Vacca has endorsed for the seat. Velazquez raised $64,715 and has spent $9,055, leaving her $55,660 as of mid-January. She sees this election as an important milestone to push for women’s representation in the Council, she said. “For a newcomer like myself, it’s been really empowering,” Velazquez said, adding that her initial fundraising haul “really solidified things for me.”

Local Bronx organizer John Doyle, who served for five years as community affairs director for state Senator Jeff Klein, is third in money with $42,987 left after raising $59,135 and spending $16,148.

District 18 in the South Bronx, currently represented by Council Member Annabel Palma, has only two candidates officially running, and neither has shown significant fundraising. Elvin Garcia, former Bronx borough director for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s community affairs unit, has $29,279 in his account. Amanda Farias has about half that, with $15,102. Farias has years of experience with the City Council, having managed the Council’s Women’s Caucus and served as the director for participatory budgeting for Council District 30.

Many, including Garcia and Farias, are eager to see if State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. jumps into the race to succeed Palma, which is he rumored to be considering.

The race for Darlene Mealy’s seat in District 41 in Brooklyn seems low-key at the moment. Five candidates have declared their intentions to run but none have raised funds for a formidable campaign. The biggest haul belongs to Deidre Olivera, who brought in $4,902 and spent $3,776, leaving her $1,126. Moreen King raised $2,000and spent $380, for a balance of $1,620.

In Bay Ridge, the District 43 race may be one of the few City Council elections with a competitive Republican versus Democrat general election. The only two candidates who have raised money in the race are Justin Brannan, a Democrat who used to work for current and term-limited Council Member Gentile, and Robert Capano, a Republican who has served under top elected officials from both parties. Brannan has received $57,385 in contributions and has $2,306 in expenditures, through mid-January. His $55,079 balance far outpaces Capano, who has $5,688 remaining after spending $5,679 from his $11,367 in campaign funds.

This is another race where the possible entrance of a state legislator could shift dynamics greatly: Democratic Assembly Member Peter Abbate is said to be considering a run. Even if he was to enter the race, he would face tough competition in Brannan, who is president of a local Democratic club and a long-time community activist in the area, as well as a former Gentile aide.

For his part, Capano said that he has been raising seed money thus far and that his fundraising operation will officially launch soon. “I think this is going to be one of the most competitive races in this election,” he said. “This is one seat that Republicans can win.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: This article has been updated to include fundraising numbers from the Council District 9 special election and to clarify that Marti Speranza is a Democratic State Committeewoman, not a district leader. 

The Early Money Race in ‘Open’ City Council Seats Wed, 01 Feb 2017 05:00:00 +0000