Gotham Gazette Fri, 20 Oct 2017 21:52:51 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Don’t Forget: Cumbo Won with Promise of 100% Affordability at Armory ahome3

Bedford Union Armory rendering

For months, thousands of Crown Heights residents have petitioned, testified, marched, and protested against a proposed redevelopment at the Bedford Union Armory, where the plan backed by the de Blasio administration would take a massive parcel of public land and give it to a private developer to build high-end housing and a recreation facility.

The local City Council member, Laurie Cumbo, recently won her Democratic primary for reelection after opposing the deal, promising that she would insist on no luxury condominiums, while her backers promised she’d push for 100% affordable housing at the site. But Cumbo is now moving the goalposts in a dangerous direction.

Crown Heights is one of New York City’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. In 2015, over 20,000 families faced eviction in the three zip codes surrounding the armory, many of whom lived in the community long before it became a “place to be” for those moving into the area.  Nearly 30% of shelter entrants in the city are from Brooklyn and if this project proceeds as currently designed, even more longtime community members (many whom are people of color and of West Indian descent), will be displaced from their homes and have to move to a shelter that probably won’t be across the street like the mayor’s plan suggests.

From the beginning, the community’s demand has been simple to understand. Kill this deal. Go back to the drawing board to create the truly affordable housing that’s desperately needed.

We need a community land trust with local control over the land, and real low-income housing. The only housing to be built should be to protect the victims of gentrification -- displaced homeless families and those at risk of displacement -- not to facilitate more of the same problem. It appeared that Council Member Cumbo had finally listened to her constituents when she opposed the plan currently on the table.

But in a recent New York Times article on the mayor’s housing plan, Cumbo declared that “the community put the line in the sand: no luxury condominiums.”

This “line in the sand” signifies a bait-and-switch. In fact, it’s simply where Cumbo has moved the goalposts after winning a competitive election, and the Council member should know that the community sees what’s happening.

Redevelopment of the Bedford Armory was the central issue in the recent primary. During the campaign, Cumbo supporters spent $135,846.64 on more than 10 mailers and robocalls in an effort to convince Crown Heights voters to support her. These mailers were clear on Cumbo’s position: shut the deal down without 100% affordability at the armory site.

Cumbo won promising a much better deal, and now she just wants to scrap the condos.

Let’s be crystal clear: a project that moves forward with any luxury housing – rentals or condos – is still not a project for us. A community land trust with real low-income housing would be a practical solution that could contribute to solving the homelessness crisis in Brooklyn and in New York City overall, especially since this is public land. But a housing plan that moves forward with only 18 units affordable to the average resident of Crown Heights is not just unacceptable, it’s an insult.

If Cumbo doesn’t kill the deal, she will have allowed her supporters to openly lie to the electorate during her primary campaign.

And to add injury to insult, Mayor de Blasio is busy explaining away his failing housing policies by blaming the constraints of the free market and capitalism. But those restraints don’t exist on public land like they do on private land. The Bedford Union Armory is a wholly socialist enterprise — like the mayor claims he would want.

What is the mayor doing with these “socialist” powers? Making a conscious decision to privatize land and “harness” gentrification, rather than fight it.

Public land is a vanishing resource in New York City. At a time when we continue to struggle with a record homelessness crisis and massive displacement of low- and moderate-income people, many people of color, it should also be priceless.

This is particularly egregious when more and more human beings are being warehoused in shelters, just like the one recently opened a few blocks from the armory, with a number of residents not being from the area, as the mayor claims is his goal. Despite what the mayor and Council Member Cumbo say in their press clippings and campaign advertisements, their policies show exactly where their priorities lie: luxury housing to make developers rich and house people who have no fear of being homeless, and shelters for far too many others.

It really is still a tale of two cities out here.

But Cumbo still has a chance to live up to the promises she made during her primary campaign, cutting out greedy developers and giving us a community land trust with 100% affordable housing on this precious public land.

Or she can get rid of a few luxury condos and tell us that this is some kind of victory, despite the fact that half the units would still be luxury rentals and a pitiful 5 percent would be affordable to the average Crown Heights resident, the same residents who have supported her.

We look forward to working with Council Member Cumbo on developing the community land trust this neighborhood needs, especially on public land, as we know she wants to do the right thing. There’s still a chance.

But make no mistake, we won’t let the wool be pulled over our eyes.

Monique “Mo” George is the Executive Director of Picture the Homeless. On Twitter @pthny.

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Don’t Forget: Cumbo Won with Promise of 100% Affordability at Armory Tue, 17 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Can Redevelopment of the Bedford Union Armory Be Saved? bedford armory rendering

Rendering of the Bedford Union Armory via BFC Partners

A land use proposal to redevelop the 138,000-square-foot, publicly-owned Bedford Union Armory in Crown Heights to create a mix of different types of housing and a state-of-the-art recreation center has seen successive setbacks in recent months. As proposed, the project has been rejected by community advocates, the local community board, the local City Council member, Laurie Cumbo, and the borough president, Eric Adams, all of whom believe the project should include more affordable housing.

The de Blasio administration, in response, has vowed to work with local elected officials and the city-selected developer behind the project to make it acceptable, especially to Cumbo, who will have the final say in a few short weeks.

But, with any land use redevelopment, the administration must balance the resources at its disposal to achieve maximum effect, and in this case, making the project more palatable to community members calling it a harbinger of gentrification would likely mean making it less profitable for the developer and more costly for the city. As the clock ticks on negotiations and a series of essential decisions dictated by the city’s land use review process, it is unclear what steps the de Blasio administration might take to make a deal happen, advance a key project, and avoid a potentially significant political defeat.

BFC Partners is the developer selected through a competitive bidding process run by the New York City Economic Development Corporation. The initial request for proposals (RFP) was put out in October 2013, prior to Mayor Bill de Blasio taking office, and the project was awarded to BFC in December 2015. Over the next year, the project became a source of significant controversy and become a burning issue in this year’s District 35 City Council race, where Cumbo was running for reelection. It has also become a symbol of the de Blasio administration’s strategy for creating affordable housing across the city and a sore spot and political vulnerability for the mayor, a fellow Democrat who did not endorse Cumbo but sent behind-the-scenes support for her campaign.

The redevelopment proposal envisions converting the armory -- which spans an entire city block and sits defunct -- into an affordable recreation center, 330 rental housing units at various levels of affordability, and 56 condominiums to be sold.

Of the 330 rental units, 164 would be market rate while the rest would be “affordable” for low-income and middle-income families, whereby rents are capped so that tenants pay no more than 30 percent of their income to the landlord. Affordability is calculated according to the 2016 Area Median Income (AMI) of $81,600 for a family of three. The rental units would include 18 units at 40 percent AMI; 49 units at 50 percent AMI; and 99 units at 110 percent AMI, providing rent regulated apartments to households of various income levels.

AMI apartments Bedford Union Armory

Of the condos, 44 would be sold at market rate and 12 at 120 percent AMI. BFC Partners would receive a 99-year ground lease on a majority of the site, recouping its costs through sales of the condos, rents on the apartments, fees from the recreation center, and a developer fee from the city.

De Blasio has pitched the project as a much-needed community facility, similar to the Park Slope Armory recreation center, which can be kept affordable in the long-term under the current structure of the plan, with the benefit of creating affordable housing. As it stands, the project does not include any housing subsidies that the administration has used in the past to create more affordability in land use redevelopments. At a September 14 news conference, de Blasio indicated openness to adding more subsidies, though he was noncommittal as to what the city might do to sweeten the deal.

“[W]e want that to be the best possible project for the community, we're going to look at every way to improve it,” he told reporters, noting that the current plan allows for the recreation center to be affordable on an ongoing basis. “That's what we need to come out of this in the end. But we’re going to work with the Council member to see if there is a way to improve the project that would win her support and be more comfortable for the community.”

Cumbo, the Council member de Blasio referred to, recently won the primary for her reelection effort against an opponent who put the Bedford Union Armory at the core of the campaign, accusing Cumbo of being too close to real estate developers and ineffective at stemming the gentrification and displacement sweeping the changing district. Cumbo faced criticism for dithering about the project for months only to oppose it earlier this year, but came to draw a line in the sand on the project. Without her approval, the project is dead on arrival at the City Council, which traditionally votes with the local member on land use applications and will have 50 days to evaluate the deal once it is referred by the City Planning Commission, perhaps with adjustments, unless it is taken completely off the table by then.

Cumbo was not made available to comment for this article. Her spokesperson, Kristia Beaubrun, referred Gotham Gazette to the Council member’s statement in May when she came out against the proposal.

"Since the very beginning our message has been clear: We will not allow public land to be used for the purpose of luxury condominiums,” she said, calling on the mayor to “go back to the drawing board and produce a plan that meets the needs of my Brooklyn neighbors.”

Last month, Borough President Adams, as part of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) required of all such proposals, rejected the project and recommended that the city increase the number of deeply affordable units and also provide more upper-tier affordable housing units to offset the costs of running the recreation center.

Adams also called for more permanent affordability -- currently, 30 percent of the units are permanently affordable -- and for 20 percent of the rental apartments to be allotted to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s “Our Space Initiative” for housing homeless families. “This is our opportunity to get this right,” he said. “This process has gone through years of debate, emotions, and public scrutiny, both for and against the development. We must ultimately come together and find the right balance that is the ideal solution for the future of Crown Heights, and for the optimal reuse of the Bedford Union Armory as a public resource.”

The proposal is currently before the City Planning Commission, which will hold a public review session on Wednesday before voting on the project later this month. The CPC can either approve the project, with or without changes, and send it to the City Council for further review, or it can reject it, although that would be shocking and especially rare.

“It’s hard for me to imagine tweaks at this stage that would address the concerns being raised,” said Emily Goldstein, senior campaign organizer at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. Goldstein, who is not involved in the community efforts around the armory, said the administration isn’t taking full advantage of the city’s ownership of the land, which allows it to demand more benefits than it could if the project were on a privately-owned site. “There are broader concerns about wanting lasting community control,” she said.

Goldstein hits at the heart of the opposition to the project by community activists. The Our Armory Coalition, a group that includes the Crown Heights Tenant Union, New York Communities for Change, Picture the Homeless, The Black Institute, The Legal Aid Society, and others, have called for a community land trust to develop the project, rather than a private firm. That would allow community voices to drive decisions on the property in the community interest, rather than effectively giving a for-profit developer a century-long hold over public property.

“The RFP process for the Bedford Armory has been flawed and corrupt from the very start,” said the coalition, in a statement last month, calling for the project to be scrapped entirely and for the city to issue a new request for proposals. “Elected officials including Cumbo are [sic] failed to address the fact that BFC is a for profit developer, making money off our public land while not providing real affordability to the community. And that’s unacceptable.”

“I don’t see any reason it shouldn’t be explored,” said ANHD’s Goldstein of a community land trust, also insisting that it isn’t the only option available. “There are other ways to build in the idea that public land is a public resource that should remain public. I think there’s a flaw in the calculus the city is using.”

She acknowledged that deeper affordability would require more city subsidies and that BFC’s application may have been the most attractive proposal. But, she said, “It’s shortsighted to do what’s cheaper in the short term. What you lose in the long term is permanent affordability. It’s hard to start from where they are and make it more affordable.”

One housing expert said the city is trying to save as much money as possible, and any subsidies applied to the Bedford Union Armory would mean not being able to use them in other neighborhoods. “The city likes to think of itself as a negotiator on the community side but they’re really not, they’re really just a broker,” said the expert said, who requested anonymity to speak more freely and pointed out that the hurdles to the Bedford Armory project stem from the city’s “deal-by-deal approach” to development, which allows community advocates to pressure the administration with an all-or-nothing opposition rather than pushing for compromise.

That’s the case with the Our Armory coalition. Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change and a strident critic of the administration on its housing policies, is adamant that the only way the project could be acceptable to his group is if there are no luxury condos or market-rate rental units. “They could force the developer off the project and make it 100 percent affordable since it’s on public land,” he said. “Using public land to build luxury housing is a travesty.”

Although issuing a new RFP for the project, and triggering another round of ULURP, could potentially take years, Westin said it would be worth it. “It’s better than a gentrification project that would displace the community.”

Westin also pushed back against the argument that the condos are being used to cross-subsidize the recreation center. A BFC spokesperson earlier told Gotham Gazette that the firm will make a net profit of less than $800,000 from the sale of the condos and that those funds would be put back into the recreation center. The spokesperson also said that the annual cash-flow from all the rental units, which are expensive to operate and maintain, would be around $800,000. Citing Borough President Adams’ recommendations, the spokesperson pointed out that removing the revenue-generating component of the project would require other funds to fill the gap, while noting that the original RFP for the project specified that the developer should not request any housing subsidies from the city.

“This cross-subsidization frame is what luxury developers use to justify luxury development,” Westin said. Instead, he said the city could designate the armory as a land bank and set restrictions on the land, which could then be developed by a nonprofit developer. “It’s completely feasible to do this project 100 percent affordable,” he said.

The project does have its supporters. Geoffrey Davis, a Democratic district leader from Crown Heights, emphasized that the recreation center was a necessity for the community. “Our seniors, our young people, our community will have a place to go to,” he said in a phone interview. “I say, continue to negotiate, work it out. Do not leave the table. If you say kill the deal and walk away, we’re talking about another 30 years.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Can Redevelopment of the Bedford Union Armory Be Saved? Tue, 03 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
At the City Council, Better Gender Balance Among Chiefs of Staff aya keefe and cm mark levine crop

Council Member Mark Levine & his Chief of Staff, Aya Keefe (photo: Levine's office)

The New York City Council, a 51-member body, currently includes only 13 women, down from 18 in 2009, and that number is likely to soon fall to 12 when the next Council is seated in January, if this year’s elections continue as expected. There has been widespread recent attention given to the City Council gender imbalance, in part because the Council’s Women’s Caucus released a report on the subject, and there are efforts underway to improve female representation in the Council through future elections.

But, at one level at least, the Council is faring much better in gender balance. Of the 50 sitting Council members, 24 have women serving as their chiefs of staff, the highest ranking aide, buoying hopes among members, aides, and advocates that these positions can serve to further the political careers of numerous qualified and experienced women in city government. For men and women alike, being a top aide to a City Council member is often a path to elected office, as evidence by the victory in last Tuesday’s primary election by Diana Ayala, the former deputy chief of staff to outgoing City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who is term-limited.

Ayala, seen as an underdog against sitting Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez, secured a narrow victory in the primary, with Mark-Viverito’s help, and is expected to easily win the general election in November.

Chiefs of staff play vital roles in Council members’ offices, overseeing their legislative headquarters near City Hall and their local district offices where staffers provide constituent services. It’a role that involves liaising with other Council members’ staff, advocates, and others, and can require a working knowledge of priorities and policy proposals of nearly the entire Council. Most significantly, it can serve as a foundation for political careers. Many Council staffers, particularly chiefs of staff, go on to run for elected office, often to fill seats left vacant when their bosses are either term-limited or leave office for other reasons.

“As the saying goes, ‘If you wanna get something done, ask a woman to do it,’” said Council Member Laurie Cumbo, who is co-chair of the Council’s Women’s Caucus and whose chief of staff is a woman, in a phone interview from a restaurant. “Women are awesome, dynamic multitaskers,” Cumbo said, chuckling that she was talking to a reporter, ordering food and breastfeeding at the same time. Cumbo was pregnant on the campaign trail as she ran for reelection, and recently gave birth to her son. She won a tough primary battle on September 12 and is expected to easily beat two opponents on November 7.

Cumbo stressed that the role of a chief of staff involves “really wearing multiple hats at the same time,” being able to understand the issues a Council member is focused on and being able to troubleshoot problems before they arise. And, as much as she said she hates stereotypes, “Women are able to do that well,” Cumbo said.

In a city government so heavily dominated by men -- the mayor, the comptroller and most of the City Council are men, while the public advocate is Letitia James, the first woman of color to hold citywide office -- having women serve in top positions helps inform policy and the legislative process, Cumbo said. And chiefs of staff bring that valuable perspective to the table. “I think it’s something that happens by nature, because of staffers eating, breathing, and sleeping this work,” she said.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the second woman and first Latina to hold that powerful seat, has made it a future priority to increase the number of women elected to the City Council. She is spearheading the “21 in ’21” movement, which aims to elect 21 women in 2021, when more than 30 Council seats will be up for grabs along with incumbents seeking reelection. The speaker also launched the Young Women’s Initiative to provide enhanced services to girls and women, particularly those of color, between the ages of 12 and 24.

Monica Abend, Cumbo’s chief of staff, said her position gives her the opportunity to “participate in contributing ideas to legislation, to policy and contributing to progressive legislation for a progressive city that is a frontrunner in many of those policy areas.”

“To be able to wear that chief of staff role positions you in a wonderful arena to understand local government,” she said. It’s on-the-job training in the legislative process and in understanding how the city changes at the local level, she said. “While our communities change on a constant basis, a lot of the work stays the same,” she added.

Abend doesn’t envision running for office any time soon but she did agree that working for a Council member provides the skills to do so. “Maybe one day in the future,” she said.

Under the de Blasio administration and the largely progressive City Council, led by Mark-Viverito, the city has increased its focus on issues of gender equity. The mayor established the Commission on Gender Equity in 2015 through an executive order, and also banned city agencies from inquiring about salary history, a step towards ensuring pay equity for women.

The Council has passed and the mayor has signed numerous bills related to empowering and aiding women across all walks of life. These include legislation to enhance support for caregivers, who are largely immigrant women of color; establishing public lactation stations; increasing access to feminine hygiene products in shelters, jails and schools; improving contracting opportunities for women- and minority-owned businesses; enhancing protections for victims of domestic violence; among other measures. A bill from Public Advocate James to ban inquiries about salary history in the private sector was passed and signed earlier this year.

The Women’s Caucus also released its report last month that examines the cultural and institutional barriers to women’s representation in New York politics.

“I think that the City Council is really a great place for women to work and take on leadership positions and express themselves, and advocate for policies that benefit all New Yorkers,” said Aya Keefe, chief of staff to Council Member Mark Levine. She noted that Levine’s director of constituent services and budget and legislative director are also women. “It’s a powerful statement for our office,” she said. “We’re very much a partnership-driven office. There’s a strong female style of management, not necessarily being hierarchical but collaborative. And that works really well on legislation. Ultimately, you have to bring a lot of interests to the table and women are uniquely positioned to do that.”

Keefe personally has no intention of running for office, she said. “But I definitely think that chief of staff gives you great insight into the ins and outs of working in government,” she said. She also noted, as did others, that there should be a push to translate the gender balance at the staff level into elected positions.

Alexis Grenell, a Democratic political consultant and writer on gender issues, cautioned against being overly celebratory about the number of women chiefs of staff, saying it meets the “baseline expectation” since women represent half the population. “Women make up more than 50 percent of many graduate degree programs, making them arguably more qualified than their male counterparts,” she said.

She argued that it’s more important for women to receive support in their aspirations for elected office, pointing to the “crisis in women’s leadership” in the City Council, where the next speaker is likely to be a man for the first time in 12 years. “Empirical data shows that gender balance directly results in better outcomes,” she said. “This is true for corporate boards, and for legislation. That is undeniably the case.”

She did agree that chief of staff is a pipeline to the Council, with outgoing Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland being a prominent example. She also pointed to two Council staffers -- Ayala and Carlina Rivera -- who ran for City Council this year to replace the term-limited Council members who they worked for. Ayala was deputy chief of staff to Mark-Viverito before leaving to run for the speaker’s seat in District 8. Rivera, who served as legislative director to outgoing Council Member Rosie Mendez, handily won the primary for Mendez’s District 2 seat on the Lower East Side. “These are women who served in the Council for two terms and backed their staffers to replace them,” Grenell said, in the hope that other Council members do the same for their own staff.

While Ferreras-Copeland, who decided not to seek another term due to family considerations and a move to another state, is being replaced by a man, term-limited Council Member Darlene Mealy will be replaced by a woman, Alicka Samuel, who won a crowded primary in District 41. And while term-limited Annabel Palma is being replaced by a man, Adrienne Adams won the competitive primary to replace Ruben Wills, who had recently vacated the seat due to a corruption charge.

Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women of New York, also hoped that the Council’s “abysmal” record of women’s representation would improve. “The good news is that while there are less than 25 percent of women in the City Council, a 50 percent rate of women chiefs of staff says to me that there’s a lot of potential,” she said. “They know the community well, they know the job.”

She agreed that women add a diversity of opinion that is necessary for good policy. “But we need a representation of leaders that reflects our community,” she said.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal, co-chair of the Women’s Caucus, whose chief of staff is also a woman, said the numbers were “heartening” but was cautious of drawing any conclusions. “I think that sounds normal to me,” she said of the nearly 50 percent representation. “It doesn’t necessarily reflect in what people are submitting legislation about or doing in their districts.”

“To the extent that there aren’t barriers to having chiefs of staff, it is an equalizer,” she acknowledged. But she wondered about the larger questions it raises about the entire city government. She also recognized that the Council as a body should perhaps do more to support women. “Should we have a daycare?” she said, for instance. “I think that’s something we should talk about.”

Council staffers also don’t have set pay ranges with titles, so it’s hard to gauge whether there is pay parity across the Council. “It’s not something I’ve explored,” Rosenthal said. “It’s a great question. Every Council member has their own fiefdom. Council members can choose to pay staff whatever they want. We’re not given a range and perhaps we should.”

“I’m lucky to have strong women leadership in the office and I benefit from it every day,” said Council Member Levine. “I think we certainly strive to be accommodating to women,” he said of the City Council, adding that he would support extending maternity leave. “We can do more,” he said, “there’s no doubt about it.”

Keefe, Levine’s chief of staff, also said the Council should do more to accommodate women. “I think we should have a better maternity leave policy, that sets the example for businesses and nonprofits across the city,” she said. She did note that when she gave birth last year, she received three months leave, but that that isn’t the standard policy across the Council.

Abend, from Cumbo’s office, said, “There’s always room for improvement,” but insisted that “this has been an incredible time to be a woman in local city government.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

At the City Council, Better Gender Balance Among Chiefs of Staff Tue, 19 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Ede Fox Unsuccessful in Second Attempt at Election to City Council ede1

Ede Fox, in white, with campaign help (photo via Facebook)

At 7 a.m. on primary day, September 12, Ede Fox had already been campaigning for an hour, since polls opened, at P.S. 20 in Fort Greene. The neighborhood is part of the 35th City Council District, where Fox was trying to unseat incumbent Democrat Laurie Cumbo, who had bested Fox four years ago when the seat was open.

That year, Fox finished third in a five-way primary, 1,825 votes behind Cumbo. This year, she decided to take Cumbo on again, motivated by community concerns around affordability and gentrification, and encouraged by the head-to-head nature of the primary. Cumbo, however, now had advantages of incumbency: name recognition, more institutional support, easier access to donors.

Fox had worked in the City Council as an aide and was particularly moved by one major land use project in the district: the potential redevelopment of the vacant Bedford Union Armory, which sits on a large piece of public land in Crown Heights, and is the center of controversy as the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio seeks to move ahead with a proposal to turn it into a mixed-use facility that includes condominiums, market-rate rental apartments, rent-capped apartments at different levels of affordability, and recreational space. Fox believes the proposal would usher in more displacement to a community already feeling squeezed, and wants to see the land put into a public trust, not turned over to a private developer who won a city request for proposals.

While the issue, and Fox’s attacks against Cumbo about her stance on the project, which Cumbo eventually came out against, has gotten most of the attention, the race was not only about one topic. The district is diverse, including Clinton Hill and Fort Greene, where Fox started her day, feeling optimistic.

Early on this primary day, Fox told Gotham Gazette that 2013 was “much more difficult to capture attention, partly because there were so many candidates for mayor, and so much going on up-ballot that that’s where a lot of people had their attention focused. So this time around, there’s been a lot more focus on this race, and that’s been great. It’s helped us really capture the attention of the 35th district residents.”

Fox was confident that she would win the day, despite the fact that incumbents are almost impossible to unseat in New York City Council races. Media reports regularly listed the race as a close one, and one of the few where an incumbent was vulnerable. There has been a very organized and vocal community advocacy effort to defeat the Bedford Armory proposal, with much antipathy aimed at Cumbo and de Blasio.

“I think that voters all over the district are really struggling around the issue of housing,” Fox said. “That’s the number one issue people to raise to me when I’m at their doors and talking to them.”

Although the armory issue has dominated headlines, the issue is not as salient in the more gentrified, more white parts of the district, Fort Greene and Clinton Hill.

In Fort Greene, numerous voters approached Fox and inquired about laws surrounding bicycling.

“A lot of people prioritize biking here,” she said.

Fox, who used to live in Amsterdam, the biking capital of the world, was sympathetic to the plight of cyclists, vowing to ensure that streets remain safe for them. Fox said that Brooklyn could learn a few things from Amsterdam.

“The Netherlands has a very different take on human rights. All the apartments have balconies. Everyone has a right to fresh air and sunshine,” Fox said, adding that the Dutch do not spend 100% of their incomes on rent. “I want to see a country like that.”

Many voters in Fort Greene were completely unfamiliar with the armory issue; one father of two on his way to vote exclaimed “holy smokes” when Fox described the situation to him. Fox said that partnerships with big real estate developers to create affordable housing are not working, and that a change in direction was warranted.

According to Fox, the media had focused in on the armory, but the district prioritized a range of issues, including criminal justice reform and transportation.

As the candidate moved further east into the district, into Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, and Crown Heights, the issue of affordability, and the armory in particular, became evidently on voters’ minds. Those who spoke with Fox and with Gotham Gazette proclaimed the armory as the most prominent issue informing their vote. Kris, from Clinton Hill, accused Cumbo of being “in the back pocket of developers,” a common accusation by her critics.

Kris stated that, in the district, she would vote for anyone who went against real estate developers. She also said she was voting for de Blasio in the mayoral primary, though, since there were no other good choices. De Blasio has regularly been criticized from the left for being too close to big real estate and given that his housing policies, while demanding new extractions from developers, rely on the private market to help create affordable housing by building a lot of new market-rate housing as well.

“This partnership with real estate to create affordable housing is not working,” Fox said.

The primary between Fox and Cumbo was personal and nasty. At a candidate forum in July, Fox accused Cumbo of being in the pocket of big developers, which led Cumbo to accuse Fox of running a negative, insult-based campaign.

There was history to the attacks on Cumbo as tied to big real estate, given that in 2013, Cumbo was the beneficiary of a large independent expenditure by the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), seeking to boost her candidacy in the hopes of a more friendly face in the Council.

In 2013, REBNY’s PAC, Jobs for New York, spent $229,616 in independent expenditures on behalf of Cumbo, and $27,098 in expenditures against Fox and Alabi. This year, Jobs for New York did not make any independent expenditures. The Hotel Trades Council’s PAC, Hotel Workers for Stronger Communities, spent $113,588 on behalf of Cumbo in independent expenditures, as of the September 1 filing with the city’s Campaign Finance Board.

Cumbo notably did not take a position on the Bedford Union Armory until May, which many activists and neighborhood residents took as tacit approval of the proposal. Facing mounting pressure, she came out against it, and regularly explained that she had listened to the community, which wants no part of the armory sold off, which condominiums would do, and wants more affordability in the rental housing. She said she had been supportive of a general redevelopment, but had to study the specifics proposed, and that when she did, she heard her constituents and said it would need to be renegotiated.

The fate of the project is now unclear, as there remains time to change some of the specifics, though not in grand fashion, or to kill the proposal altogether. Many, including Fox, expressed skepticism that Cumbo would retain her opposition to the proposal if she were to win the primary election.

Fox and Green Party candidate Jabari Brisport saw an opening to potentially defeat a weak incumbent. Fox told Gotham Gazette that the community does not have a strong advocate in the City Council with regards to the armory, and that she was someone who would be “firm” and would “stand with the community.” Both candidates took the position of developing the armory into 100% affordable housing, rather than the de Blasio-approved plan of 50% of rental units and 20% of condo units being designated affordable at the site.

Endorsements for the primary were split between Cumbo and Fox. Cumbo received more union support and support from elected officials and news publications, while Fox received ample support from advocacy organizations and political clubs. Among Fox’s endorsements were the Transport Workers Union, the United Automobile Workers, Citizens Union, Tenants PAC, Streets PAC, and New Kings Democrats.

Despite the flaring tensions, a number of residents walked into their polling stations without having made up their mind, especially in Fort Greene, where the armory issue isn’t as dominant. Becca Delmonte, of Fort Greene, told Gotham Gazette as she walked into her polling station at P.S. 20 that she was undecided and hadn’t been closely following the race.

“[They] both seem like great candidates,” she said. “Both support issues I do,” she added, highlighting women’s issues in particular. Cumbo is co-chair of the Council’s Women’s Caucus and chair of the Women’s Issues Committee. The incumbent also recently gave birth to her first child, a son, just a few weeks before the primary. It was not long before she was back on the campaign trail, necessitated by the tight race, or before she and her son appeared on campaign mailers and handouts, explaining to voters that key issues were now even more important to Cumbo because she had become a parent.

Fox called last-minute voter indecision normal, saying that in local races, voters often make up their mind in the last three days of the race, making the last day of campaigning especially critical. A lot of times, she said, “people only pay attention in the last two days.”

Throughout the day, Cumbo and Fox worked to sway those voters throughout the district. At times, Cumbo was joined by several or her many allies among her City Council colleagues.

Late in the day, Fox told Gotham Gazette that Cumbo’s campaign had sunk to low blows to win votes. According to Fox, Cumbo’s campaign was chasing down voters and heckling Fox and her volunteers, which she called an “indication of desperation.” Fox also stated that Cumbo’s chief of staff, Monica Abend, was yelling incessantly, apparently not learning a lesson from a recent New York Post article that alleged Abend had said voters should choose Cumbo because Fox doesn’t have a good relationship with de Blasio.

Indeed, de Blasio has been supportive of Cumbo, though he did not make a formal endorsement, in part because it may not help Cumbo given the armory controversy. Reports indicated that de Blasio’s allies and supporters were quietly helping Cumbo, which none of the parties denied or confirmed when Gotham Gazette asked earlier this campaign season.

When Gotham Gazette asked Fox on primary day whether she had voted for de Blasio in the mayoral primary, she said it was a private matter.

Council Member Jumaane Williams, not facing a heated primary, stopped by to assist Cumbo, leafleting the neighborhood and parking a bus with his own campaign literature covering the windows in front of the school.

When the polls finally closed, Fox returned to her campaign office in Crown Heights to watch returns. She said she was feeling good about the campaign, that most of the people she spoke to were supportive of her campaign, and that she felt confident of a win.

“Every place I was, there was a high level of support,” she said.

It didn’t work out that way, however; Cumbo won 58% of the vote to Fox’s 42%. Cumbo will now face Brisport and Republican Christine Parker in the general, but is expected to win handily given the Democratic Party’s dominance in the district.

For Fox, the second attempt to win the seat did not turn out as planned. Cumbo is likely to win a second term, after which she would be term-limited from running again.

“We did a fabulous, fabulous job,” Fox told her volunteers and campaign staff. “It took a quarter of a million dollars to beat us this time.” After her speech ended, the room erupted in a chant of “Ede!”

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Ede Fox Unsuccessful in Second Attempt at Election to City Council Fri, 15 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Forecasting the Upcoming City Council Gender Imbalance rose rosenthal chin

CMs Chin, left; Rose, center; & Rosenthal, center right (photo: Gotham Gazette)

There are currently only 13 women in the 51-seat New York City Council, a troubling 25 percent. The number is down from 18 women in the Council a few years ago. With the city’s quadrennial elections upon us, a new Council class will be inaugurated in January, with the September 12 primaries largely determining who will fill the city’s legislative body for the next four years in this very Democratic city.

Most would agree that gender balance in the City Council improves the legislative, oversight, and constituent services provided to the public. The dynamics of this year’s elections are not promising for improving the Council gender balance: five of the Council’s 13 women are not running for reelection, four of them due to term limits. Notably, all five are women of color: Rosie Mendez, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Annabel Palma, and Darlene Mealy are all term-limited and Julissa Ferreras-Copeland has decided not to seek reelection.

Ferreras-Copeland is certain to be replaced by a man, as the race to replace her is between two men; while the other four could be as well, though there are women running competitively for each seat.

There are five other “open” seats this cycle where the incumbent male Council member is not running for reelection, in three cases -- Dan Garodnick, James Vacca and Vincent Gentile -- due to term limits. While Gentile is almost certain to be replaced by a man, for Garodnick’s seat and Vacca’s seat there are competitive races that include female candidates with a solid shot at victory. The fourth case is David Greenfield, who will be replaced by one of the two men seeking his seat. And the fifth case is Ruben Wills, removed from office after a recent corruption conviction, who is likely to be replaced by a woman, Adrienne Adams, the favorite in the race.

Additionally, there are a handful of incumbent female Council members being challenged by men in their reelection bids and two incumbent male Council members facing significant challenges by female candidates.

All told, the number of women in the Council could realistically dip as low as six. It could realistically increase to as many as 16. Both extremes are unlikely, but plausible.

The City Council’s Women’s Caucus, which is chaired by Council Members Helen Rosenthal and Laurie Cumbo, each of whom is facing a tough primary challenge this year (Rosenthal from a transgender man, Cumbo from a woman), recently released a report on the gender imbalance in the Council. It notes barriers to office-seeking for women, especially “structural barriers and issues of perception” that “create a “political ambition gap.””

“Traditional gender roles force women to choose between careers and family, limiting the potential pool of female candidates,” the report states. “Electoral gatekeepers then fail to reach out to and support women. Women also underestimate their own qualifications and overestimate the challenges they will face in electoral politics.”

The report recommends “more aggressive recruitment of female candidates and stronger mentoring efforts.” (It notes that the number of women in the Council “is projected to decrease even further, to as low as 9 for the upcoming term ending in 2021.” The problem is even more potentially dire than the report indicates. It appears its authors did not consider Ferreras-Copeland’s departure or that incumbent female members could be ousted by male challengers.)

The current City Council Speaker, the aforementioned Melissa Mark-Viverito, previously helped launch a nonprofit, 21 in 21, which seeks the election of 21 women to the City Council through the 2021 city election cycle. Due to the tinkering done to term limits by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council, there will be more than 30 “open” seats in the 2021 cycle, making for a lot of opportunity to address the Council gender balance.

But there are also opportunities this year, and little seems to be in motion in terms of major collective efforts by the Democratic establishment to see more women elected through the 2017 voting cycle (48 of the 51 Council members elected in 2013 are Democrats).

Mark-Viverito is doing a great deal to see her preferred successor, Diana Ayala, defeat Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez in one of the races to replace a female Council member that could go either way. Given his status as an elected official, Rodriguez is at least a slight favorite in this race to represent East Harlem and parts of the South Bronx.

For Mendez’s seat, which represents parts of the Lower East Side, her preferred successor is Carlina Rivera, who has received a good deal of establishment support and is considered the favorite, though she has tough competition from Mary Silver and Ronnie Cho.

Alicka Ampry-Samuel has a lot of establishment support to keep Mealy’s central Brooklyn seat represented by a woman. But, she is in a tough race with several male candidates, most notably Henry Butler and Cory Provost.

For Garodnick’s East Side seat, a very crowded primary includes several strong female candidates. The favorite in the race, however, is Keith Powers. Still, Marti Speranza could quite plausibly prevail, which would flip this seat from male to female. Bessie Schachter, Vanessa Aronson, Rachel Honig, and Maria Castro are also running, with varying less likely paths to victory. Garodnick has not endorsed in the race. Of the unions, elected officials, political clubs, newspaper editorial boards, and others that have, Powers and Speranza have each received a lot of support.

For Vacca’s seat in the Bronx, he is backing Marjorie Velazquez, but she is facing a significantly uphill race against sitting Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj. There’s been no groundswell behind Velazquez.

There’s a similar situation for Palma’s Bronx seat: Amanda Farias is a strong candidate, but she is likely to lose to State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. and little seems to be happening to rally behind her candidacy.

The Queens establishment and other members of the Democratic political elite are behind Adrienne Adams for Ruben Wills’ empty seat. But, Rich David is also running and could pull off an upset.

As previously stated, Ferreras-Copeland will be replaced by a man, either Assemblymember Francisco Moya or former State Senator Hiram Monserrate, who has been convicted for both assaulting his girlfriend and illegal use of city money. Greenfield will be replaced by either his preferred successor, Kalman Yeger, or by Yoni Hikind, both men. And the crowded competition for Gentile’s seat is almost all men, including the most likely winners, led by Justin Brannan (this Southern Brooklyn race is actually one where a Republican could win the seat, though Brannan, a Democrat, is generally seen as having the upper hand, both in a tough primary and the eventual competitive general).

There are also competitive incumbent primaries where the Council gender balance is at play. As mentioned, Rosenthal is facing a tough primary, from Mel Wymore, on the Upper West Side, though Rosenthal is likely to prevail. Wymore is seeking to become the first transgender member of the City Council, and has not lived what we may think of as a typical male life. Council Members Margaret Chin in downtown Manhattan and Elizabeth Crowley in Queens are also facing competitive challenges from male candidates, though both are favored to be reelected.

The female incumbents either certain or nearly sure to win reelection are Vanessa Gibson, Inez Barron, and Karen Koslowitz. As mentioned, Laurie Cumbo could lose to another woman, Ede Fox, though Cumbo has significant advantages of incumbency. And, Council Member Debi Rose, of Staten Island, is facing a tough challenge from another woman, Kamillah Hanks.

In the other direction, Council Member Peter Koo is facing a tough challenge from Alison Tan, and Council Member Mathieu Eugene is facing formidable opposition from Pia Raymond, a woman, as well as from Brian Cunningham.

We’ll know a lot more on Tuesday night when the primary results come in.

In its report, the Women’s Caucus explains why it is important to elect more women and have gender balance in government. It says, in part:

“Women legislators bring with them lived experiences and crucial viewpoints that allow them to identify and take on the unique challenges that women face. As a result, women legislators have been shown to introduce more legislation directly affecting women, children, and families. Additionally, women have been shown to introduce more legislation overall, and are also more likely to work across party lines.”

One of the “strategies for the future” that the report identifies is: “Party leaders, advocacy organizations, and other political groups also need to make an active effort to reach out to individual women about running for seats. The women in City Council should make an effort to encourage politically active women in their circles to run for of×ce, as current or former Council Members have a unique ability to address many of the factors that discourage women from running.”

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Forecasting the Upcoming City Council Gender Imbalance Wed, 06 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Heated Rematch in Central Brooklyn, Where Incumbent Seeks to Hold City Council Seat cumbo campaign office 35 crop

Council Member Laurie Cumbo (@cmlauriecumbo)

Hundreds of Crown Heights residents and community activists laughed and jeered at a recent community forum as a lanky man wearing a paper mask of Mayor Bill de Blasio joked about bringing affordable housing to their neighborhood.

The event was punctuated by moments of levity but mostly dominated by anger from residents who feel their elected representatives have sold out their interests to the real estate industry, with a focus on the proposed redevelopment of the vacant Bedford Union Armory. The de Blasio administration, with a developer, is proposing a combination of affordable and market rate rental apartments, condominium units, and recreation space for the massive site. City Council Member Laurie Cumbo, who represents the district, did not attend the August 2 forum focused on the project -- she was just days from giving birth to a son -- and when representatives of her office tried to speak, they were shouted down.

The event was the latest outpouring of resentment over the Bedford Union Armory project, which has taken center stage in the City Council race for District 35, where Cumbo, a first term Democrat, is facing a formidable primary challenge.

Candidates include Democrats Cumbo, who hopes to continue the work she has done over the last three-plus years if given another term by the voters, and Ede Fox, who lost to Cumbo in 2013 but is running again, seizing on community anger over the future of the armory and related issues of affordable housing and gentrification.

Cumbo won in the 2013 primary with 7,561 votes. Olanike Alabi came in second with 5,369 votes and Fox was just behind with 5,340. Cumbo then ran uncontested in the general election, which will not be the case again this year as she is slated to have a Republican opponent and a Green Party opponent.

Aside from the hotly contested Democratic primary -- which is very likely to determine the eventual winner in the heavily Democratic district -- there is also a Green Party primary between Jabari Brisport and Scott Hutchins, and Republican Christine Parker is also running, though neither Hutchins nor Parker appears to be running much of a campaign (both were absent from two recent candidate forums attended by Gotham Gazette).

District 35 incompasses central Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, parts of Crown Heights and Bed Stuy. Before Cumbo, it was represented by current Public Advocate Letitia James.

Cumbo, Fox, and Brisport met at a forum on Saturday, July 15 hosted by the Flatbush Tenant Coalition as well as at a forum hosted by the Washington Avenue Botanic Block Association on July 25 to discuss focal issues of this city election cycle and the 35th District race, such as affordable housing, education, afterschool programs, and criminal justice reform. They answered moderator and attendee questions that helped further illuminate key issues of the race and their stances on them.

As with many instances where an incumbent seeking reelection is challenged, much of the election will come down to a referendum on Cumbo’s tenure. One unique factor in the race: Cumbo gave birth to a son on August 4. She was back on the campaign trail two weeks later.

In an interview with Gotham Gazette prior to the birth of her son, Cumbo stated that she “talks to the baby” about all of the things she’s worked on while pregnant with him, and that it is a motivating factor for her as she seeks a second term.

Fox has been on the attack against Cumbo, connecting her to big real estate, accusing her of being a weak leader for the community, especially with regard to the proposed redevelopment of the armory. Cumbo touts her commitment to the district, including using her discretionary funding to bolster social service and arts organizations. She also points to her leadership of the Council’s women’s issues committee as it pertains to women and families in the district and elsewhere.

As Brisport eyes the general election against the winner of Cumbo versus Fox, he is running on a typical Green Party platform of social, economic, and environmental justice that overlaps a good deal with and is bolstered by the type of politics popularized by Senator Bernie Sanders, himself a democratic socialist, in the 2016 presidential campaign. Brisport must win what is a rare Green Party primary.

Neither Hutchins, the other Green candidate, nor Parker, the Republican in the race, could be reached for comment for this article, nor has either been present at the two late July candidate forums.

Ede Fox
“I’m running because, in watching the current Council member, she’s not putting [in] the work that is necessary,” Fox told Gotham Gazette. “You know, funding some programs and stuff is great, but it doesn’t help a senior get a SCRIE application filled out so they can make sure that they can afford their rent, and it doesn’t make sure that we’re preventing landlords from illegally harassing and evicting tenants because they want to get the apartment out of rent stabilization. There’s just a tremendous amount of pressure on people in this community in terms of displacement, and that stuff is just not getting addressed, and that’s a problem.”

“We have seen over the last 10 years a dramatic change in the development and displacement from downtown Brooklyn,” Fox continued, “and that wave is moving east, and we need someone who is really committed to focusing on that, and focusing on helping individual people.”

ede fox via her campaignFox (pictured, middle) has worked for the City Council off and on for 11 years, most recently for the Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, where until January she helped work on a variety of programs she hopes to bring into the 35th district.

“One of [those projects] was to create a preservation task force, which was designed to understand the housing stock in specific districts, and to work in partnership with HPD to build out a short- and long-term preservation plan to preserve existing affordable housing as well as to find ways to create new affordable housing,” said Fox. “That’s a thing that can be implemented in the 35th if you have the will.”

Additionally, Fox hopes to allocate funds to local tenant organizations to help preemptively identify struggling tenants and prevent evictions, along with helping to create community land trusts similar to the projects she worked on for Mark-Viverito’s home district of East Harlem, she said.

“Community land trusts can then ensure that we’re creating permanent affordable housing, not stuff that’s going to expire in 25-35 years, but that’s permanent, and that’s the kind of housing that we need in this community,” said Fox. “Affordable housing that’s created needs to be created to match the incomes of the populations that’s there, otherwise it’s not affordable and it’s not helpful.”

In focusing on affordable housing, community change, and gentrification, Fox is honing in on perhaps the most pressing issue for the central Brooklyn district she hopes to represent, and quite possibly the key issue across the city -- one which Mayor Bill de Blasio has dedicated much of his own focus. However, Fox’s candidacy is in part based on the belief that de Blasio is not doing enough to protect and create affordable housing or ward off gentrification. The mayor’s housing plan is largely predicated on leveraging the private market to help fund affordable housing units.

“The Real Estate Board of New York, REBNY, raised about $12 million in 2013 to elect developer-friendly Council members,” Fox said, “...this was a super PAC, and they put money into various races around the city where they endorsed candidates, and my point is that these guys aren’t stupid - they’re putting their money where they think they’ll have a candidate who will work with them and carry their water. So they spent $260,000 doing [mailers] for Laurie Cumbo and sent out door-knockers to do the same and get her elected.”

The support for Cumbo and other candidates from REBNY, through its Jobs for New York super PAC, became a point of controversy in 2013, with Cumbo eventually asking the PAC to stop its independent expenditure efforts on her behalf. But, Jobs for New York did spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of Cumbo and against Fox and Alabi.

“Over the last four years, she’s shown her willingness to carry the concerns of the developers and put those first, and that’s most evident in the Bedford Union Armory project,” said Fox. “This is a project that she supported until about three weeks ago, because it was no longer politically feasible for her to.”

The Bedford Union Armory project proposal was designed to transform the facility into 56 condos and 330 rental apartments. The project proposal also includes plans for a substantial recreation center planned to include an indoor soccer field, basketball courts, and an indoor pool. The developer selected by the city’s Economic Development Corporation to complete the project is BFC Partners, which agreed to keep one-fifth of the condos and half of the rental units as affordable units, pegged for certain income-level earners, but was met with significant pushback from nearby residents who maintain that because it’s being built on city land, the project should be 100 percent affordable.

With Cumbo now against the plan, its future is unclear -- the de Blasio administration, Cumbo, and BFC are in ongoing negotiations around tweaks that might placate community concerns and get Cumbo’s support. Some, like Fox, believe Cumbo will back the current project plan as soon as the election is over. Cumbo insists she has heard the community and will hold out for certain affordability demands and will continue to oppose condo sales.

When it comes to education, community and parental involvement is at the core of Fox’s plans, she explained. Concerned that the Department of Education often leaves parents in the dark, Fox said she will work to increase parental involvement in the school system, as well as leveling the playing field for lower income schools by securing more funding.

“They don’t feel like they’re a part of the decisions that [the Department of Education] is making, and so they get informed late about things, and I think generally what the schools need is a representative who is going to push DOE, and DOE has to be responsive to the Council member, but they don’t always have to be responsive to parents [unless] there is a massive outcry.”

Fox’s platform lists other positions on critical issues. On transportation, Fox calls for an increase in funding for the MTA, though it’s not specified whether this entails a greater city contribution to the capital plan, as well as expanded bus service and bike lanes. Fox also calls for an end to cash bail and solitary confinement, and working on finding and implementing alternatives to incarceration.

Laurie Cumbo
Cumbo, the incumbent, was moved to run for office in 2013 after criticizing the state ending allocation of member items, or funds that state Senate senators and Assembly members got to dole out to nonprofit organizations, like the one she founded.

“I began to spend so much time rallying and participating, and so many other issues came across…that I decided that I wanted to enter into the political world,” Cumbo told Gotham Gazette. “I had been asked by many people over the course of years to consider running, and when Public Advocate Letitia James decided that she was going to run for Public Advocate, she encouraged me to do it.”

Born and raised in a nearby Brooklyn area, after attending Brooklyn Technical High School, Cumbo attended Spelman College before earning her graduate degree in Arts Administration from NYU. She used that degree to found MoCADA, the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, in Brooklyn.

“What it allowed me the opportunity to be was a director of a not-for-profit organization, to establish leadership in the community, to create local jobs in the community, it gave me an opportunity to provide arts and educational programing in our NYCHA developments, and it provided me an opportunity to create after-school programs,” said Cumbo. “I created 10 after-school programs in different schools throughout the 35th Council District.”

Cumbo said she wants to continue to expand on the initiatives she’s started since joining the City Council in January, 2014 after her victory in the contentious 2013 Democratic primary.

“When looking to run for public office, I feel that it’s important to have a track record of real, tangible leadership in the community,” said Cumbo. “People should be able to point to your accomplishments, people should have an understanding of your leadership style, and they should have an understanding of what you’re able to get done by having participated or seen or experienced it.”

She continued, referencing accusations made by Fox. “To say that I sold out the community is really flagrantly false. It’s easy to just come along and just look at the record of the incumbent and begin to attack, without really being able to talk about what you’re about, or what you've accomplished, or what you’ve done.”

Issues important to Cumbo during her reelection campaign include further expanding after-school programs, continuing to strengthen not-for-profit organizations (City Council members receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in “member items” to divvy up), and the ever important affordable housing struggle in the district.

“Affordable housing continues to be a huge issue in our community,” said Cumbo. “One that, through a lot of collaboration with all of the elected officials, we’ve been trying to do all that we can to stop the hemorrhaging [of funds] that’s happening in our communities.”

Cumbo has also been recorded as saying that upzoning can happen “with or without the community board,” according to a video posted by the Movement To Protect The People roughly a year ago.

“You can boo, you can boo all you want,” said Cumbo.

Aside from promising to continue the work from her previous term, Cumbo’s current campaign platform includes working towards “Investing in Economic Development,” “Strengthening and Stabilizing Not-For-Profit Organizations and Service Employees,” and “Reforming our Educational System.”

And, Cumbo may be getting a boost from Mayor de Blasio’s team, though no one seems to want to talk about it.

Jabari Brisport
“This campaign started out of a deep frustration with our current society, and our current economy, and the level of participation that I was doing with the government,” said Brisport, who has spent the past 10 years as a political activist. “I felt like I was not doing enough - there’s only so many times you can stand outside a politician’s office and yell and scream before you decide that you want to take yourself into City Hall.”

Brisport’s activism has centered around his participation in political theater, such as the group Political Subversities, which he works with to draw attention to major issues in the community, as well as organizing rallies for groups like Black Lives Matter.

“My biggest challenge would be running as an independent third party candidate on the Green ticket. I would say that if we can’t get enough visibility that will be a huge hindrance to the campaign, people will just vote down the Democratic line,” said Brisport. “But I believe if people know about the campaign, they’ll be interested in the campaign, and that’s been my biggest triumph. People hear ‘Green Party’ [and] they think that’s this impossible thing, and they start to get disinterested, but when they start to hear more about what I’m pushing for in this campaign, they start to get excited about it…It’s a great snowball effect.”

Brisport listed affordable housing as the biggest issue of his campaign, saying that it’s the district’s biggest issue “and really, the city’s biggest issue.”

“And it’s not just the Bedford Union Armory,” said Brisport. “It’s the evictions at Ebbets Field Houses…it’s the encroachment of landlords and special interests on some public land or onto the property of the little guy - the working class - and that’s something we really need to take a bigger stance against.”

Police reform is also at the forefront of Brisport’s campaign, and giving communities and citizens more control over the NYPD and “turning the power structure of the NYPD on its head” are essential to his vision for the district, he said. Ultimately, Brisport said he would like to see an end to the police system as we know it, and instead wants to utilize active community members to ensure citizens feel like they are being policed fairly.

Brisport is a member of the DSA, or Democratic Socialists of America, which he feels helps him approach community issues from a new and innovative perspective and gives him a clearer end goal.

“For example, a progressive Democrat might say they want to fight for affordable housing, which [seems] more like a reactionary thing; my goal would be more like community control of the land. I believe all land should be de-commodified,” said Brisport. “I don’t have policies that can do that at the moment, but we can take the next step towards that.”

According to Brisport that next step would be making the Bedford Union Armory part of a community land trust.

He continued: “The same thing for policing. A progressive Democrat may be arguing for [body cameras], I’m pushing for a restructuring of the police so that it is run by communities, and not run alongside or against communities.”

by Jynn Schubert for Gotham Gazette
@JynnWasHere  @GothamGazette

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Heated Rematch in Central Brooklyn, Where Incumbent Seeks to Hold City Council Seat Thu, 24 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio, Cumbo Teams Mum on Campaign Aid 13291399165 906bc2fcac z

Mayor de Blasio & Council Member Cumbo (arm raised) (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayor's Office)

As she seeks re-election, City Council Member Laurie Cumbo has key advantages that come with incumbency -- name recognition, access to donors, and a degree of institutional support. Included in that support is the backing of Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democrat also running for a second term this fall, though the mayor and his team appear to be helping Cumbo quietly, in part because of the complicated politics surrounding a key issue in her district, the redevelopment of the vacant Bedford Union Armory.

Politico New York recently reported that the mayor’s team has thrown its weight behind Cumbo’s campaign, aiming to ensure that the key rezoning effort in her district is successful. As reported, the effort raises questions about potential violations of the city’s Conflicts of Interest law and rules governing campaign activities by city officials, but both the de Blasio and Cumbo camps have been tight-lipped about the mutually beneficial arrangement.

In the August 10 report, Politico New York’s Sally Goldenberg, citing more than a dozen sources, detailed efforts by de Blasio’s close associates to bolster Cumbo, who is facing a tough primary challenge from Ede Fox. Goldenberg noted that the city's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, which is run by former de Blasio campaign operative Emma Wolfe, has organized volunteers for Cumbo’s campaign and arranged for them to hire an aide from the office of Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland. They also urged unions to back Cumbo and expressed the importance of the race to the Working Families Party, which has decided not to make an endorsement. “High-ranking de Blasio staffers have offered the Cumbo campaign operational advice,” Goldenberg wrote, “and are prepared to provide more assistance as the primary nears, the sources said.”

As Gotham Gazette sought to clarify what campaign help was being provided to Cumbo by City Hall, perhaps blurring or crossing lines meant to separate government and political work, the response was silence. Mayoral spokesperson Eric Phillips refused to comment, as did a spokesperson for Cumbo’s campaign. De Blasio’s own reelection campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Over the years, the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board has issued numerous advisory opinions on the restrictions on political activity by public servants. Perhaps one of the most pertinent, from 2012, prohibits city employees from working on political campaigns on city time or with city resources.

In the most recent advisory, issued August 17, the Board noted the general intent of the law as it pertains to political campaigns. “Certain principles run consistently through each of these Advisory Opinions: while public servants may engage in many political activities, they must keep those activities separate from their official City duties,” the advisory reads. “This means, most significantly, that public servants may not use their City positions to benefit a political campaign, and they may not use any City time or resources for campaign-related activities.”

The COIB does not comment on potential violations, each of which can carry a civil penalty of $25,000 for an erring public servant. Officials can also be fired, suspended, or lose vacation days if their employing agency deems it appropriate.

The Office of Intergovernmental Affairs interceding in a City Council election could violate that basic principle. “The real issue is, are they accounting for their time properly?” wondered Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a government reform organization. “Are they using their powers responsibly?”

Horner said it wasn’t unusual or inappropriate for the mayor to wield his political clout in another elected official’s favor. “It’s not unheard of for an executive to use their political muscle to help legislative candidates,” he said. Indeed, the mayor has attempted to use his influence in the past to try to sway state Senate elections towards Democrats in 2014. “What would be inappropriate is using the public office for partisan advantage,” Horner said.

At the core of de Blasio’s support for Cumbo is the Bedford Union Armory project, a proposal to turn the 138,000-square-foot facility in Crown Heights into a mixed-use development with affordable and market-rate housing, condos, and a state-of-the-art recreation center. The project has become the burning issue of the District 35 race, creating space for Fox to challenge Cumbo in the primary and bringing increased attention to the de Blasio administration’s rezoning efforts that have been unpopular with communities fearing displacement and gentrification. Cumbo only came out against the project after months of delay, during which Fox painted her as a real-estate-friendly elected official who had betrayed her community. (De Blasio’s City Hall and Cumbo have also been largely aligned on other matters over the course of the term.)

Fox said she wasn’t perturbed by de Blasio’s unseen support for Cumbo. “I think that Laurie Cumbo is aware she’s in a very competitive race and is looking for all the support she can get,” Fox said in a phone interview.

Although Fox recognizes that she’s at a disadvantage running against an incumbent, she said she isn’t deterred. “I knew going in that I was not going to get much institutional support so this is no surprise,” she said. “I knew the power of incumbency. I was expecting and preparing for it.”

She has been particularly skeptical about Cumbo’s opposition to the Bedford Armory project, and worries that Cumbo may give in to the administration’s preferences if she wins the primary election on September 12. “I think that is a very real question,” she said, “and I think voters are weighing whether they can trust their representative given her long-standing support for the project. The language I’ve heard from her has not made it very clear that she’s standing against the project as a whole.”

Come primary election day, in a district where some residents are up in arms about the de Blasio administration’s housing and economic development policies, Cumbo’s ties to the mayor and his team may be her undoing. “Ultimately, the voters will decide if it’s a good or bad idea,” said NYPIRG’s Horner.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio, Cumbo Teams Mum on Campaign Aid Mon, 21 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Rep. Jeffries Endorses Council Member Cumbo for Reelection 15064019050 ec023beaf0 z

Council Member Laurie Cumbo (photo: William Alatriste/New York City Council)

New York Congressional Representative Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens, has endorsed City Council Member Laurie Cumbo for reelection. Cumbo, a first-term Democrat from District 35, which covers Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights in Brooklyn, is in the midst of a tough primary battle against Ede Fox, a Democrat who lost to Cumbo in 2013 and is running again this year.

Jeffries, whose congressional district includes large parts of Cumbo’s Council district, explained the endorsement to Gotham Gazette in a phone interview on Monday. “These are challenging times in our country, and Democratic members of our Congress are fighting hard each and every day to stop the onslaught of regressive policies coming from the Trump administration,” he said. “In this atmosphere, having a strong ally in the City Council to defend the interests of the neighborhoods we both represent is critically important. There is no better ally that I could have at the local or state level than Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo.”

The Congressman said he plans to actively campaign for Cumbo in local churches, block parties, senior centers, subway stations, and “whatever else it takes to make sure she wins decisively” in the September 12 primary and the November 7 general. Jeffries is extremely popular among his constituents and was reelected last year with 93.3 percent of the vote in the general election after being unopposed in the primary.

The Congressman, who was rumored to be a potential challenger to Mayor Bill de Blasio for much of last year, has taken on a notable role among national Democrats since the election of President Donald Trump. Jeffries was elected as co-chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee in December and has since emerged as a vocal critic of the Republican president. Jeffries and Cumbo share many views on major issues, including handling the district’s housing crisis and improving education.

“Laurie Cumbo has been a tremendous champion both in creating and preserving affordable housing throughout Central Brooklyn,” said Jeffries. “On issue after issue, she’s been phenomenal when it comes to pushing back against the intense gentrification that we confront in Crown Heights, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and Prospect Heights.”

Jeffries is the latest high-profile fellow Democrat to endorse Cumbo. Last week, U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke declared her support for Cumbo’s reelection. Cumbo has also been endorsed by Public Advocate Letitia James, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Council Member Vanessa Gibson and the Council’s LGBT Caucus.

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(photo: Rep. Hakeem Jeffries/Flickr)

 Jeffries praised Cumbo’s accomplishments in her first term, and spoke highly of her efforts to preserve affordable housing in Brooklyn, getting at a core issue motivating Fox’s challenge. “She’s been responsible for helping to prevent the privatization of certain housing cooperatives in the Clinton Hill section of the district. She’s fought hard to affirmatively create affordable housing opportunities on NYCHA developments throughout the district, particularly in Fort Greene,” said Jeffries. “Cumbo single handedly shut down the [Bedford Union] Armory deal because it did not meet the aspirations of the community that she effectively represents.”


The Bedford Union Armory rezoning proposal has been a particularly hot issue in the District 35 race, and represents the core of any vulnerability for Cumbo in the September 12 primary. The project -- which would convert the Armory into 330 units of rental housing and 60 condos, and includes plans for a state-of-the-art recreation center -- faces heavy opposition from some residents who believe it is a sweetheart deal for real estate developers, would spur gentrification, and doesn’t include enough affordable housing. Although Cumbo came out against the proposal in May, some constituents and community activists criticized her for her delayed opposition. Critics point to the project’s affordability levels -- about 50 percent will be set aside for affordable units in the current proposal -- will not match the incomes of the district, and say that the facility should be 100 percent affordable. Jeffries, however, felt comfortable that Cumbo has handled the development effectively.

“At this point, the City Council has a long standing policy of not moving forward with a development deal absent the support the local City Council member,” he said. “There is no scenario that I can envision where the Armory deal moves forward and sees a vote for the City Council as long as Laurie Cumbo is opposed to it. [Up] to this point, she has managed to negotiate improvements to the deal with the developer and the [de Blasio] administration, and I have every reason to expect that her opposition will only strengthen the leverage that she has to improve the outcome.”

Though there are several other Council districts that fall in the areas that Jeffries represents, the Congressman said he did not have plans to make any other endorsements. “Laurie Cumbo is the only endorsement that I have made this summer in the City Council races, and it’s not clear that I will go beyond this particular contest,” he said. “She is an on-hand, ever-present, active representative of the community, and a tremendous partner to me.”

Council Member Cumbo, who was pregnant throughout the campaign and gave birth on Friday, was with her newborn son and not available to comment. A spokesperson said she was thankful for Jeffries’ endorsement and was excited to work with him on affordable housing and improving schools in their shared communities.

Although Cumbo has a slew of prominent endorsements, her primary opponent Ede Fox has also picked up support. Fox has been endorsed by a number of local Democratic organizations, the Transit Workers Union and New York Communities for Change, among others.

The winner of the primary will be a heavy favorite in the general, where she will face Republican Christine Parker, as well as the winner of the Green Party primary between Scott Hutchins and Jabari Brisport.

[Related: Rare Green Party Primary in Brooklyn City Council Race]

by Jynn Schubert for Gotham Gazette
@JynnWasHere  @GothamGazette

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Rep. Jeffries Endorses Council Member Cumbo for Reelection Tue, 08 Aug 2017 00:57:08 +0000
Rare Green Party Primary in Brooklyn City Council Race Brisport

(Credit via @Jabari2017)

Despite laying claim to less than one percent of party affiliated registered voters within New York City, the Green Party has two candidates competing in a rare primary this year.

Candidates Jabari Brisport and Scott Hutchins are facing each other for the chance to run against the winner of the Democratic primary between incumbent Laurie Cumbo and Ede Fox, as well as Republican candidate Christine Parker, in the 35th City Council District, which includes central Brooklyn neighborhoods like Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, and parts of Crown Heights.

"It's very rare that there are two Greens in a race, that is true," said Gloria Mattera, the secretary of the Green Party of Brooklyn, in a brief interview with Gotham Gazette. "All candidates are encouraged to run."

Mattera said that the Green Party wasn’t backing Brisport or Hutchins, but that there might be an endorsement meeting soon.

In a subsequent interview, Mattera said the party saw an “uptick in people, either back or joining the Green Party” who had been active in Bernie Sanders’ campaign during the 2016 presidential election that were disappointed with the Democratic Party.

“Both, of course, with how the DNC process went, and for many, Sanders himself in terms of the decisions he made around his campaign,” said Mattera. “So I think our party has been, I would say, growing in the last year and a half.”

Of just under 5 million registered voters in New York City (4,996,975) as of April 1, there were 8,621 registered with the Green Party, according to the state Board of Elections. In Brooklyn, those numbers are 1,544,238 registered voters, with 3,172 in the Green Party. It’s not clear how many Greens live in Council District 35, and there is still time to register to vote for the September 12 primary -- according to the city’s website, new voters must submit their voter registration a minimum of 25 days prior to the election date. (The deadline to switch one’s party registration in order to vote in a particular primary has passed, though.)

The Green Party is fielding candidates in a handful of other City Council races, as well as a full slate in the three citywide races for Mayor, Comptroller, and Public Advocate.

It’s not clear yet whether both Brisport and Hutchins will be on the September primary ballot, as petition signatures are being vetted by the Board of Elections. Brisport appears to be running a much more active campaign. He has reported raising about $15,000 for his campaign, and spending about $5,000 of it, while Hutchins has not yet filed any financial disclosures with the Campaign Finance Board. Cumbo, meanwhile, has raised about $108,000 and Fox about $74,000, all as of mid-July. Parker has reported raising just under $4,500 -- like Hutchins, she does not appear to be running a particularly active campaign.

Hutchins was not present at either of two recent candidate forums for the race, those put on by the Flatbush Tenants or the Washington Avenue Botanic Block Association. Brisport showed up to debate the two candidates of the more popular Democratic Party, Cumbo and Fox, and raise awareness of his campaign.

“If anybody here is in the Green Party, I do have a primary challenger…he didn’t show up, so don’t vote for him, vote for me,” said Brisport at the WABBA forum on July 25. “I do plan to win the primary soundly, for those of you who are not [Green Party Members],” Brisport added, in referencing to the subsequent general election.

Brisport, like both Democratic candidates, is running a housing-centric campaign, stressing that affordable housing is the most important issue in the district. He is also running on police reform, economic justice, climate justice, and an end to high stakes testing in schools.

Hutchins did not make himself available for comment for this story -- he said via Facebook that his phone was not working, but promised to call Gotham Gazette and did not do so by publication time.

Though, according to Mattera, District 35 is the only City Council race with two Green Party candidates, the mayoral race in Albany will be holding a Green Party primary in September between 22-year-old Bryan Jimenez,and Sheridan Hollow, 28. According to The Albany Times Union, there hasn’t been such a primary in Albany for mayor since in the last 16 years.

by Jynn Schubert for Gotham Gazette
@JynnWasHere  @GothamGazette

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Rare Green Party Primary in Brooklyn City Council Race Sun, 30 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Women's Caucus Rallies for Equity Legislation womens equality rally pic via cumbo

Equality rally at City Hall (photo via Council Member Cumbo)

The Women’s Caucus of the New York City Council announced a legislative package Tuesday aimed at equal rights and opportunities for women. With an “equality rally” outside City Hall before the full Council held a meeting at which some of the bills were introduced, legislators, advocates, and service providers expressed support for the legislation and argued for its necessity in light of Donald Trump’s election as President.

The co-chairs of the Women’s Caucus, Council Members Laurie Cumbo and Helen Rosenthal, spearheaded this first-of-its-kind legislative effort by the caucus. The 11 bills and resolutions range widely, while some have already been passed into law and others are completely new. The entire package should be enacted at the city level in conjunction with other state and federal policies, those who rallied said. The concern, though, is that the federal government will not be advancing gender equity under President Trump. Council Member Cumbo, who represents District 35 in central Brooklyn, said she’s worried about Trump’s treatment of women and his misogynistic language

The legislative package seeks to address issues like the needs of unpaid caregivers, access to feminine hygiene products, services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, the gender pay gap, and more.

“We have seen all across this nation the challenges that women face when attempting to become leaders,” Cumbo said. “All across this country we have seen the level of disrespect. We have seen women who want to have families, who want to have babies, and a president-elect saying that pregnancy in the workplace is a problem.”

While Council Member Rosenthal praised the City Council and the de Blasio administration for their efforts to help women achieve equal opportunities through legislation and by creating the Committee on Gender Equity, she said advocacy groups and public officials should still push for progress.

“With the challenges that we now face, it is critical that we redouble our efforts towards the promise of equality and we refocus our outreach and organization as a caucus to ensure there’s a success in that effort,” said Rosenthal, who represents District 6 on the Upper West Side. “This legislative package will make a difference in the lives of not just women, but all of New York.” 

Council Member Margaret Chin, who represents District 1 in Lower Manhattan, said this presidential election served as a reminder of the long fight ahead for equal rights under a Trump presidency: “When a President-elect with a record of belittling, harassing and abusing women is about to take office, we have the responsibility to act now — to demand equal rights in our city and across the nation.”

Last July, Governor Cuomo signed legislation to eliminate sales tax on feminine hygiene products in New York. One of the bills in the package, sponsored by Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, would provide feminine hygiene products at no cost for students on Department of Education premises. Ferreras-Copeland has been at the forefront of other city legislation to improve access to feminine hygiene products at city schools, shelters, and jails.

Additional components of the legislative package include a new resolution, sponsored by Rosenthal, pushing the state to give domestic violence survivors greater ability to break leases with landlords; legislation, sponsored by Chin and already passed into law, that helps address needs of unpaid caregivers; and a resolution, sponsored by Council Member Annabel Palma that calls for passage of a state law to prohibit employers from asking salary history. (Public Advocate Letitia James, a former Council member, has such legislation at the city level.)

According to a report released by James, women in New York City earn annually approximately $5.8 billion less in wages than men. Women of color face the greatest wage gap, with Hispanic, black, and Asian women experiencing a gap of 55, 54 and 37 percent, respectively, relative to white men. New York City ranks higher for racial disparities in salary than most cities in the country, according to James’ report.

Council Member Rosenthal said she was especially impressed by the show of support on Tuesday from so many advocacy and nonprofit groups. “In the city, nonprofits are hungry to do what they can to support anyone who might suffer consequences of a Trump administration....based on outcomes of his misogynistic view of the world,” Rosenthal said in an interview.

The Women’s Caucus, which includes 14 members in the 51-seat Council, said the package serves not only women of New York, but all of its residents by providing improved transparency into city programs, support for families, and efforts to reduce sexual assault and domestic violence against all genders.

“As a national model, we must maintain our upward momentum to end gender and racial inequality through public policy that celebrates our diversity,” Council Member Cumbo said at the rally, pointing to other city and state efforts like the municipal identification card program and a higher minimum wage.

The Women’s Caucus includes the Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, who is one of several women term-limited out of the Council at the end of 2017. Mark-Viverito, Rosenthal, James, Ferreras-Copeland, and other city elected officials have been involved with efforts to encourage more women to run for elected office.

by Devin Gannon and Milka Nissinen

City Council Women's Caucus Rallies for Equity Legislation Wed, 30 Nov 2016 05:00:00 +0000