Gotham Gazette Tue, 20 Feb 2018 21:24:24 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Progressive Activist Registers Campaign Committee for Latimer’s Senate Seat brezler 2

Katherine Brezler (photo via Facebook)

A teacher and grassroots organizer is scoping out the Westchester Democratic Party nod in a potential special election for state Senator George Latimer’s seat, which would be triggered if the Democratic senator wins the race for Westchester county executive this fall.

On July 24, Katherine Brezler, a 35-year-old from White Plains who campaigned for Senator Bernie Sanders' presidential bid, became the first to register a campaign committee for the 37th Senate District seat currently held by Latimer, according to the New York State Board of Elections.

Latimer is challenging Republican incumbent Rob Astorino for the county executive position with the blessing of his fellow Democrats in the Senate minority conference. At least four mainline Democrats contributed to Latimer’s county executive campaign. The largest donation, of $2,500, came from Senator Michael Gianaris, deputy leader of the mainline Democratic conference and head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC). Latimer has received endorsements from the Independence, Working Families, and Women’s Equality parties and will first face county legislator Ken Jenkins, from Yonkers, in the September 12 primary. 

Brezler is also rooting for Latimer, whom she describes as “a mentor,” and has been making phone calls on his behalf. “I have good feelings about the future of Westchester and the voters making [Senator] George Latimer county executive,” she said. “I wouldn’t be out here this early if I didn’t believe that. But there is still a lot of work to do. We have a lot of doors to knock on.”

If Latimer does unseat Astorino, the Senate seat he would vacate is likely to be highly contested. Since 2012, the last time the seat was empty, both the Republican and Democratic campaign committees have collectively poured nearly $2 million into district races. Governor Andrew Cuomo also threw his support behind Latimer last year to ensure that the seat remained Democratic.

By all accounts, Latimer has been an exceptional Democratic candidate. Despite a 2012 redistricting of the 37th Senate District, which the League of Women Voters of Westchester criticized for cutting out minority voters and favoring Republicans, Latimer won the seat that year, and retained his popularity in the district for three consecutive terms. In 2014, Latimer kept the seat with 49.9 percent of the vote, barely beating out Republican Joe Dillon, who drew 45.8 percent of the vote. Latimer’s office did not respond to a message seeking comment for this article.

Brezler, who previously was a Sanders delegate and founding member of the People For Bernie, a national network that rallied support for the former presidential candidate, boasts a slew of progressive accomplishments. She was part of a national organizing campaign for the movement to “opt-out” of state school testing, is an advocate for affordable housing and, citing her background as the daughter of a doctor and nurse, she has made the passage of universal, single-payer health care a central part of her platform. She noted that there is a 2-1 ratio of registered Democrats over Republicans in the district, and that Democratic engagement in Westchester is on the rise since the 2016 election of President Donald Trump.

Brezler, who has also worked as a delegate for the Westchester/Putnam chapter of the AFL-CIO union, said she was inspired to run, in part, because of the stagnant state of progressive legislation in the New York State Senate, despite Democrats holding a narrow majority in the body. The Senate GOP maintains the legislative majority with the help of Senator Simcha Felder, of Brooklyn, who caucuses with the conference, and through an alliance with eight rogue Democrats who make up the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC).

“Two-thirds of this country supports universal healthcare and it’s unconscionable that it’s popped three years in a row, and the state Senate thinks it’s acceptable not to bring it to the floor,” Brezler said in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

Brezler said she spoke to a number of local elected officials who told her they were not interested in the seat, although she did not specify whom, and saw an opportunity to ensure that the district remained in Democratic hands.

Assemblyman Steven Otis, a Democrat whose district encompasses much of Latimer’s and who previously worked as chief of staff to Latimer’s predecessor, is one name likely to be floated for the post, according to people familiar with the district. Otis told Gotham Gazette he intends to remain in the Assembly where he is “excelling” and “can deliver the best results” for the communities he represents.

If Latimer wins the county executive primary election and then the general this fall, he will vacate his current seat by January, and it will be up to Governor Cuomo’s discretion to call a special election. In a special election, a competitive primary is bypassed, and the Democratic and Republican nominees are picked by the party boss and county executive committee, which comprised of district leaders. In Westchester, the nominee may also be selected by party chair persons of city, towns and villages, Brezler said.

A former Yonkers district leader herself, Brezler says she has had productive conversations with Westchester County Democratic Party chairman Reginald LaFayette and believes she has the name recognition required to drum up county committee support.

"I've been working in local politics for a very long time,” Brezler said. “They know me by name, face, and work; it’s not a surprise to anyone that I’m running.” 

Brezler has also voiced opposition to Cuomo on a number of issues in the past, but noted the second-term governor’s evolution since his re-election in 2014. “The governor is trying his best to put his progressive foot forward and I’m interested in seeing what this year looks like," she said.

Brezler said the supposed fissure between the progressive, grassroots Sanders faction of the Democratic Party and the Democratic establishment has been overstated in the media and is not as pronounced on the state level, where she believes Democrats are coming together to resist the policies of the Trump administration.

Veteran Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said Brezler’s past criticisms of Cuomo could be a liability for her candidacy. “It’s unlikely that someone who has attacked the governor will be picked as the nominee,” he said, noting that, “Cuomo got the 2 percent property tax cap for the people of Westchester,” which is plagued by some of the highest rates in the nation.

However, getting a headstart on fundraising and the potential to tap into support from a national Sanders coalition could help Brezler, because it may “scare off other candidates,” he said.

As an educator, Brezler has been a proponent of the state meeting its school aid obligations under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court decision -- the results of a lawsuit seeking to ensure “the constitutional right to a sound basic education” for all public school students -- which she says would infuse struggling schools in Yonkers and elsewhere with millions of dollars needed to ease the county’s notorious property tax burden.

Brezler said her next objective is to win over the DSCC, chaired by Senator Gianaris of Queens, who she said will likely have a conversation with LaFayette about what is best for the party.

“If the DSCC isn’t super excited about me then I think they will find that the network behind me is able to raise a considerable amount, and that I have more name recognition than they think,” said Brezler.

Brezler, who is a first-generation Argentine immigrant on her father’s side, noted that she would be a diverse choice for the Senate Democrats as the first openly queer woman in the legislative body.

A spokesperson for the Senate Democratic conference declined to weigh in on “hypothetical” candidates and Gianaris’ office did not return a request for comment.

It may still be too early for Democrats to vet potential replacements for Latimer not knowing the outcome of the election, said Sheinkopf. “She’s just out front faster than anyone else,” he said of Brezler. “First order of business, is to know whether Latimer will beat Astorino. For that you would have to hire a magician and get the divine inspiration. Is it possible? Yes. Is it highly likely? 50-50.”

Julie Killian, a Council member from the city of Rye in Westchester who challenged Latimer for the Senate seat in 2016 and received 44.3 percent of the vote, is rumored to be running again on the Republican party line, but she has not announced an interest in the race and her Senate fundraising account has been cleared out, according to her most recent BOE filings.

Regardless of whether Latimer wins the county executive race, Brezler said she intends to continue to shake things up on the state and local level.

“I'm not going anywhere,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Latimer's 2014 Republican challenger.

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Progressive Activist Registers Campaign Committee for Latimer’s Senate Seat Wed, 09 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Citing Cronyism, Tenant Members Resign from Westchester Rent Board 7310147688 435940da74 z

The Westchester Rent Guidelines Board is undergoing a shakeup as the two tenant representatives on the nine-member board have tendered their resignations over an appointment they say inappropriately benefits landlords and reeks of cronyism.

Like its counterparts in New York City and other jurisdictions, the Westchester RGB sets increases in rents for affordable housing in the region just north of the Bronx. Board members are nominated by the Westchester Board of Legislators and appointed by the New York Department of Homes and Community Renewal (DHCR), a state agency. The board consists of two tenant-friendly members, two landlord-friendly members, and five public members including the chair.

On Friday, the two tenant members of the Westchester RGB resigned their positions in letters to DHCR Chair James Rubin and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Both cited DHCR’s appointment of Michael Rosenblatt to a public seat on the RGB as the impetus for their resignations. Rosenblatt is a former DHCR counsel and currently works for one of the city's largest real estate focused law firms, Rosenberg & Estis.

Tenant member Genevieve Roche resigned effective Friday, May 13, writing, “I cannot in good conscience continue to serve on a Board to which the DHCR has appointed as a public member its former deputy counsel who currently works as counsel to the largest landlord real estate law firm in New York.”

Rev. Emma Jean Loftin-Woods’ resignation is effective December 31,2016, after the board concludes its work for the year. “Unfortunately the composition of the current Board and the disregard for providing an open and fair forum for consideration of the issues hasrendered our advocacy for tenants voiceless,” she wrote in her resignation letter.

Roche and other tenant advocates say that Rosenblatt’s appointment was not only inappropriate because he is employed by Rosenberg & Estis, a firm that bills itself as “Comprehensive Real Estate Representation,” but because his name was put forward by current DHCR counsel Charles Lesnick and appears to them to be a case of cronyism.

Rosenblatt was approved by the Board of Legislators last May over one other candidate in the running. He was then certified and appointed by DHCR despite protests from some legislators and tenant advocates.

“I love them both,” Rosenblatt told Gotham Gazette of Roche and Loften-Woods. “They’re great advocates for the cause. I will miss them both.” Rosenblatt added that he worked prosecuting landlords for DHCR and his current firm also represents tenants.

“I want to stress again, regardless of what Genevieve thinks about the propriety of DHCR appointing me to the position, I don’t feel I’m another landlord member of the board,” Rosenblatt said. “I’ll vote my conscience and my work doesn’t come into it.”

The Westchester RGB functions much like New York City’s: both are made up of nine members and the two-two-five breakdown. The RGB debates and decides rent increases for regulated units subject to the Emergency Tenant Protection Act of 1974 each June - more than 25,000 units of affordable housing across Westchester County in cities including Yonkers and White Plains.

Westchester is known for its wealth, but affordable housing has been a major point of contention there for decades. Gov. Andrew Cuomo resides in the county where his former gubernatorial rival Rob Astorino is county executive. Tenant advocates say they feel the influence of both men in their struggle to keep rents affordable. A spokesman for Astorino declined to comment on the RGB resignations citing the fact that the board is not overseen by the county executive.

Ken Jenkins, a Democrat representing Yonkers on the 17-member Board of Legislators, and his colleagues voted down a motion to move Rosenblatt’s name to consideration by the entire chamber during a committee meeting last year, but the nomination advanced after Joe Montalto, another candidate, removed his name from consideration. Jenkins said he suspects landlord interests and Republican legislators were motivated to put Rosenblatt’s name into contention. The Board of Legislators is ruled by a bipartisan coalition.

“For too many years the public members [of the Westchester RGB] have tended to be mortgage banker types who do not appreciate the fact that the rent laws are there to protect tenants and keep housing affordable,” said Michael McKee of Tenants PAC. “Joe Montalto is exactly the kind of thoughtful, fair-minded person needed for the five public member positions. For the Cuomo administration to appoint a landlord lawyer as a public member is outrageous.

Roche attempted to explain her opposition to Rosenblatt’s appointment last year at a board meeting but was shouted down by a number of representatives. She eventually submitted her concerns as a written statement. “My main problem is that DHCR recommended its own former deputy counsel who otherwise spent his entire career working for law firms that work in the interest of landlords,” Roche told Gotham Gazette. “DHCR reviewed its own conduct in making the recommendation and appointment and found that it had acted appropriately.”

Jenkins wrote then-DHCR Commissioner Darryl Towns on May 12, 2015, asking him not to approve Rosenblatt’s appointment. Jenkins wrote that Lesnick, of DHCR, had confirmed “interference with the county board’s recommendation.” He continued, “any candidate suggested by Mr. Lesnick should be rejected at this time.” Jenkins went on to say that Rosenblatt testified during an interview that he had never suggested names of potential candidates for the board when he served in the same position.

Roche and other tenant advocates say it is unprecedented for DHCR to put forward candidates while Lesnick indicated to Gotham Gazette that it was fairly standard procedure. Lesnick declined to comment on the record, as did a spokesperson for DHCR.

Gotham Gazette obtained an email from Lesnick to an employee of the Westchester Board of Legislators from March 17, 2015, that appears to show when Lesnick put Rosenblatt’s name forward. In the exchange, subject: “re: WRGB Members expiration date,” Lesnick writes: “With respect to the additional public member position I have spoken to two people who would be qualified.” He first puts forward Rosenblatt, noting that he “needs no training” because he “served the board for 14 years.” He then puts forward another name, Diana Browne-Temple, and says he has asked both candidates to contact their local legislators. Browne-Temple is president of the Yonkers NAACP.

Rosenblatt said he was relatively uninvolved in the appointment process. “I got a phone call from someone on the Board of Legislators about my interest in the position,” he said. “I saw it as an extension of my public service. I ran it by people at my firm and they said ‘go ahead, keep us up to date.’ Next thing I know I’m appointed. I don’t know what was said behind my back or during the process.”

Roche, who has resigned from the RGB, has been seen as an especially effective tenant advocate, putting together sophisticated presentations opposing rent increases using economic arguments and accounting practices. In 2011 the board approved a rent freeze. In January of this year the board decided to limit the amount of time both tenant and landlord members have to make presentations and instead of giving a chance for rebuttals at later meetings, decided to have an immediate vote on agreed upon rent increases unless members want more time.

These changes concern both Roche and Loftin-Woods. Roche, an accountant and attorney, said she thinks they were designed to lessen the impact of her presentations and to expedite compromise so that rent freezes can be avoided all together. “I can't contribute to a board that does not allow for discussion. I can’t lend my credibility to a board that is not open,” she said.

Jenkins said he is frustrated by the resignations. He notes that the board will go ahead in June short one tenant representative. “I heard about the concerns they had and I suggested we would find mechanisms to raise concerns about the appointment,” Jenkins said. “I’m not quite sure how resigning helps tenants rights to protection. I feel Genevieve [Roche] is trying to bring attention to the issue, but I’m not sure it is the mechanism to make a change. We won’t be able to replace her before the new guidelines come out. This is a challenging situation.”

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Citing Cronyism, Tenant Members Resign from Westchester Rent Board Wed, 18 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000