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Three Remain on Ballot to Challenge Jackson

by David King, Sep 14, 2009
Photo (cc) sjmcdonough
Inwood Hill park

Councilmember Robert Jackson's decision to run for a third term scared some possible candidates away but three have stuck to their campaigns in the hopes of unseating Jackson in this upper Manhattan district on Tuesday.

One, Victor Bernace, a Harvard-educated lawyer, is accustomed to running against Jackson. He challenged Jackson in the last two elections and lost. This year, Bernace is joined by Manuel Lantigua, a police officer for more than 20 years and president of the New York Dominican Officers Organization, and Fred Masson, who has worked in data management.

"Robert Jackson helped change the law to extend term limits and to circumvent the voters’ will, but I decided to run anyway," said Lantigua. Masson said that "term limits initiated" his run for the 7th district council race.

Incumbent Robert Jackson

Running against an incumbent isn't easy. "I was just honored to get on the ballot," said Masson who touts his position as a political outsider. "This has been a learning experience for me. Hopefully, it will help get my name out there for next time." .

In this district, which is almost half Hispanic, Lantigua and Bernace are making a bid for those voters. Lantigua has a bilingual web site and pledges to increase translation services.

"Voters need to elect someone who can serve everyone," Lantigua said. He added that constituents who don't speak English have to travel to other areas for assistance, something he would like to change.

Bernace's approach is a bit more unusual. Every time he's run, Bernace, who is a bit of a policy wonk, has tried something a little off beat to get attention -- things like a fundraiser featuring exotic dancers. This year he has purchased airtime for a commercial -- airing in both English and Spanish that features him dressed in a mariachi outfit, surrounded by supporters. The supporters and Bernace himself peel off pieces of the outfit to reveal Bernace dressed in a suit. Bernace said the commercial is designed to both challenge stereotypes about Hispanics and get across his main message.

Victor Bernace

While being stripped, Bernace holds up cards touting his "big idea": "Car Free NYC. Free Mass Transit." "A hundred years ago, New York didn't have cars, and it was just as big. People just get used to the noise and the danger. I'm trying to push that one idea hard," he said.

Despite his stand, Bernace, along with the other candidates in the district, did not respond to a survey from Transportation Alternatives, some of whose members might be receptive to the idea. .

Lantigua said that he finds Bernace's plan to rid the city of cars, "unrealistic," but said that he, too, is concerned with the environment.

Focus on Education

Even before he came to City Council, Jackson made education one of his core issues, bringing the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit on school funding against the state when his children were in public school. (They are now grown up.) He heads of the City Council education committee and has been an outspoken critic of mayoral control of schools.

Lantigua said Jackson has taken a lot of credit for his involvement in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. "He was just a parent at the time. New York City hasn't been paid a penny, so what is he taking credit for? What has he done for education as an incumbent?" Lantigua said.

Jackson's office did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Manuel Lantigua

Lantigua said he thinks education is the biggest issue for the district, and his main priority is "the youth, and making sure they get the opportunity to finish high school and go to a vocational school or college." He said that although "Bloomberg brought some stability to the system," he thinks that his community still lacks solid schools.

Masson shares Lantigua's focus on education. "I feel good about mayoral control," he said. "It makes sure someone is responsible. I remember the old board, and no one was in charge."

Masson said his concern about education stems from being the father of a young daughter. "I don't think the incumbent has to worry about where his daughter is going, or making a mortgage payment." Masson said that he wants to see programs created to keep "parents more involved with their children." He would also like to create fundraisers and volunteer programs so the community can help the schools.

The biggest challenge facing the city, according to Bernace, is the financial crisis. A self-described "fiscal conservative, said he expected "things are going to have to be cut and taxes raised to balance things."

Lantigua said he is concerned about the expansion of the Columbia University campus and how it might disrupt the community. "It will be displacing a lot of people who don't have a place to go," he said. He is concerned that the project will end up like other big construction projects that promise to benefit the community but never deliver. "I've asked them how many kids from the neighborhood are going to be able to go to Columbia University?" said Lantigua.

The rezoning of 125th Street also is an issue for Lantigua. He wants to be certain that the “affordable housing” in the area will actually be affordable and questions Jackson's vote in support of the zoning change.

Getting Provocative

While Jackson seems to be all but ignoring his opponents and Masson said he only wanted to wish them good luck, Bernace has been a bit more provocative. He questioned Lantigua's loyalty to the Democratic Party, saying that Lantigua had carried petitions for mayoral candidate William Thompson Jr., only to turn around and endorse Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Lantigua responded that he endorsed Bloomberg is his capacity as president of the New York Dominican Officers Organization, but not as an individual.

"As the head of the organization, I didn't support the endorsement personally, but I had to make the endorsement," he said adding, "I have not endorsed Bloomberg as a candidate."

Bernace also attacked the council for its use of member items and has called for doing away with them all together. "I was telling people I want to get rid of line items for the council years ago, and people thought I was crazy. But then Martinez gets indicted for three felonies," said Bernace, referring to the council slush fund scandal and the indictment of former Councilmember Miguel Martinez, who represented a neighboring district.

Bernace said a woman who had been a loyal support of his recently decided she was going to vote for Jackson, "because he gave $5,000 for a dog run." Bernace said "I told her it didn't come from him, it came from the city."

In Bernace's view Jackson has proposed certain measures largely to win votes. For example, the incumbent supported a resolution that recommended that schools close for Muslim holidays. Bernace said that move would be a mistake. "Kids shouldn't have more days off. We need to increase the school year," Bernace said, saying that, in backing the move, Jackson was catering to Muslims.

Bernace also opposes a measure Jackson introduced last year that would require arbitration between small businesses and landlords if both parties can't agree on a fair rent. "I don't think we should create a board to prevent rent increases," said Bernace, adding that he thought the initiative was a way to "pander to Dominican businessmen."

Unlike some incumbents facing challengers this year, Jackson appears to have held on to most of his institutional support -- from the Working Families Party and Citizens Union, to name two. He leads in fundraising with $77,563 from private sources, followed by Lantigua with $60,767 and Bernace with $19,623. All three men received $88,500 in matching funds. Masson, who raised only $9,400 has not yet gotten any public money.

According to the latest Campaign Finance Board Summary, Bernace had spent the most -- $111,743 -- but that did not appear to reflect Bernace's payment for the mariachi suit ad.

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