Update: As originally written, this article incorrectly described Daniel Squadron's views on Brooklyn Bridge Park. Squadron has said he supports construction of a park but opposes any private housing development in it. The article below has been corrected.
In 2006, developer Ken Diamondstone came within 2,000 votes of defeating State Sen. Martin Connor in the Democratic primary, delivering one of the biggest scares of the 30-year incumbent's political career. The result seemed to signify that reform-minded voters held senior Democrats partly responsible for Albany's lamented political gridlock.
This year, Daniel Squadron, a 28-year-old political consultant and former aide to Sen. Charles Schumer, is trying to build on Diamondstone's near-success by unseating this elder of the New York Senate in a district that spans a swath of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. In his effort to topple an incumbent -- always a long shot in New York -- Squadron has lined up support from his former boss, as well as some labor unions, and raised significant amounts of money.
Connor, though, has no plans to leave and talks about what he would do next year in Albany when, he hopes, Democrats will take control of the State Senate. "The overriding issue is that the Dems are going to win the State Senate," says Connor. "The kind of progressive changes I've been pushing for are finally going to get to the floor of the Senate."
Running Against Albany
Squadron's campaign needs to convince Democratic activists that the system in Albany is broken enough to justify the removal of a Connor, the former Senate minority leader. The challenger's quest has taken on the narrative of a young progressive taking on an older entrenched leader.
"I look at the way business is done in Albany and the effect it has on our neighborhoods, and it is broken," said Squadron. His plan for fixing the system involves striving for "increased accountability." He has offered such specifics as changing arcane Senate rules that prevent bills from getting out of committee. Squadron supports term limits because he feels the Senate has turned into an "ossified body" without them.
In Connor's view, Albany is "broken" only because a Republican Senate has blocked crucial Democratic legislative measures, and he dismisses implications he is part of the problem in the Capitol. He said he has sponsored measures on such issues as environmental regulation and tenants' rights, only to see them stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. "It amuses me that people think anyone over 40 is not a progressive" he said. "I've been fighting those battles for years."
The Key Issues
Both candidates cite the need for affordable housing and legalizing same-sex marriage as top priorities.
The 25th District includes parts of the Lower East Side, Alphabet City, the Financial District, Tribeca, Williamsburg and Downtown Brooklyn. It is home to two of the largest and most controversial development projects in the city: the World Trade Center site and Atlantic Yards. These and other developments, along with gentrification in the district's Brooklyn neighborhoods, have spurred concern about the diminishing supply of reasonably priced housing.
Under state housing law, if a landlord spends over $2,000 upgrading an empty apartment it can be considered a "luxury" unit and so become exempt from rent regulation. Squadron and Connor believe this rule plays a key role in the housing crunch.
"If we don't repeal [luxury decontrol]," Squadron said, "we are going to wake up in a city that doesn't have living, breathing neighborhoods."
Connor is currently co-sponsoring a bill that would repeal the decontrol loophole. It faces little chance of success in the Republican-controlled Senate, but housing advocates hope their prospects will improve if Democrats take the Senate.
Looking at the Records
Other development issues, along with transportation, also have figured in the campaign. Squadron was the communications director in the successful effort to win voter approval for a bond issue to fund transportation improvements, including the Second Avenue Subway. He sees a need for longer-term changes to transportation infrastructure and supports the development of bus rapid transit lines in Manhattan. "All you need are cameras on the front of buses [to catch people who enter bus lanes] and more sequestered bus lanes," he said.
The two men endorse congestion pricing. Squadron has faulted Connor for not being enthusiastic enough about charging drivers to enter parts of Manhattan during peak hours. Connor said he endorses the concept, but was not enthusiastic about the mayor's proposed plan, which, he said, would have included exemptions on corporate limousines driving within the congestion pricing zone.
Squadron agrees that the original plan was flawed, but says that the mayor's push for congestion pricing represented a "historic opportunity." Both believe that it should be a priority if the Democrats retake the Senate.
Many downtown and Brooklyn Democrats believe that the Democratic conference in the Senate has not stuck to its commitments. Squadron, though, also must convince power brokers and ordinary voters that his politics signal a real departure from Albany's status quo and that he can deliver on his reform agenda.
He has hailed some successes on the campaign trail. The Working Families Party views Squadron as part of a potential wave of young, reform-minded State Senate candidates, according to party spokesperson Dan Levitan. The Communication Workers of America, Hotel and Motel Trades Council and the Metropolitan Area Joint Board, Local 23-25, a garment workers union, have also backed him, while some large unions have yet to weigh in.
The influential Downtown Independent Democrats -- a reform-minded club with a membership of several hundred-endorsed Squadron on May 29. "Squadron came to us very early," club president Sean Sweeney said. "He had the free time to call people, ring doorbells, meet people, and come to club meetings." According to Sweeney, Squadron, who has been campaigning full-time since February, knocked on almost every door in the massive Independence Plaza apartment complex, at a time when Connor said his legislative obligations kept him off the campaign trail.
Every Democratic club in the district, though, has endorsed Connor, including the Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn, of which Diamondstone is a member.
Progressive or Not?
Neither candidate reached the 60 percent threshold needed for an endorsement from the progressive advocacy group Democracy for New York City. Club financial director Louis Cohen cited Connor's handling of congestion pricing as one reason. "Some thought Connor hadn't been outspoken enough on congestion pricing," he said. Cohen added that the group would "rather not endorse if there isn't someone who's an 8 or a 9 on the progressive end of the agenda."
Progressives have criticized Connor on other issues as well. They cite his 1999 vote to kill the city's commuter tax. Connor said that the tax was going to expire within four months of the vote anyway and that suburban constituencies resented the tax, which had been in effect for almost 30 years.
Connor's support of the construction of condos and a hotel in Brooklyn Bridge Park has also been an issue. Advocates of the project say the private property in the park would provide needed funds for recreational facilities and open space. But Squadron claims that it represents a veiled attempt to hand parkland over to developers and said he opposes any housing development in the park. He charges that Connor "has failed to muster the funds and focused political will to get a real park built."
Progressive allied with Democracy for America have qualms about Squadron as well -- notably his ties to Schumer. Citing the senator's support for the Iraq war and the death penalty and his opposition to same-sex marriage, Cohen said, "Schumer wouldn't necessarily be voted progressive poster boy of the year." Squadron co-authored a book with Schumer and received his endorsement this past April.