By Mark Berkey-Gerard and Melissa St. Pierre
Flatbush, there are twelve candidates representing
seven different Caribbean Islands who say they want to
run for the open City Council seat. In Astoria, Peter
Vallone Jr., son of Council Speaker Peter Vallone, is
aiming for Pop's seat, one of a long, long list of second-generation
baby politicos looking to occupy the positions their parents
are barred from running for again this year.
"Maybe other people are running on a name, but not me--I'm
actually qualified," said Vallone, Jr.
Manhattan, three candidates are competing for various
firsts on the council - the first Asian woman, the first
Asian man, the first gay Rhodes Scholar.
And so it goes. The number and diversity of candidates
running this year for a seat on the City Council (a part-time
job that pays $90,000 a year) is astonishing. Candidates
include an AIDS lobbyist to a police officer to an activist
born in Sierra Leone to a staff member in the state attorney
general's office to the founder of a credit union-- and
that's just in Fort
Why the scramble? Thanks to term-limits,
35 of the 51 current City Councilmembers will be ousted
from their seats next January. This already has encouraged
hundreds of new candidates, including one of Hillary Clinton's
campaign managers, a locker room attendant, a nutritionist,
a TV journalist and a 23-year-old junior from Fordham
University. It promises to be an entertaining and utterly
confusing election year.
"What total chaos," wrote columnist Arthur Nitzburg in
"What a mess we are all in. How delightful."
INTO THE GREAT WIDE OPEN
The only thing that is clear about the 2001 elections
in New York City is that they will not be politics as
This year's municipal elections will mark an unprecedented
turnover in city government as not just the majority of
city council, but the contest for mayor, public advocate,
comptroller and four of the five borough presidents will
be without incumbents as well.
"Ultimately, no one knows what will work in these campaigns,"
said Gene Russianoff of the
New York Public Interest Group. "We know what works
in the old system. You get elected and stay elected. Now
Another factor that gives this campaign season an extra
boost of energy is the city's matching funds. Under the
program of the city's campaign
finance program, which monitors fundraising and encourages
small donations, candidates can be eligible for four dollars
for each dollar they raise. The Campaign Finance Board
already has four times as many candidates participating
as it has in the past.
"The four-to-one match will create an arms race," said
John Mollenkopf of the Graduate Center for Urban Research
at the City University of New York. "More people will
have the money to hire a campaign manager, to put up posters,
and to mount a real campaign."
Money may be the least of the candidate's worries as
they struggle to get enough signatures to get on the ballot.
While the law requires 900 signatures by the July deadline,
most consultants feel three times that amount are needed
in case some are contested or fraudulent. In districts
with 10 to 12 candidates in one race, there may not be
enough registered voters for all the candidates to fill
their petitions. Many of the now potential candidates
will likely drop out by summer.
"This free-for-all begs for organization," continued
Mollenkopf. "The margin of victory will be so narrow,
the people who have the advantage will be the ones who
can pull together a group of voters."
TRADING EXPERIENCE FOR NEW BLOOD
Liu from northeast
Queens, who is of Taiwanese decent and currently the
top fundraiser among City Council candidates with over
$100,000 in his campaign chest, is among the candidates
aiming to be the first Asian American Councilmember. Liu
is facing candidates Ethel Chen, a retired librarian who
was born in China and raised in Taiwan, and Terence Park,
a Korean-born employee of the New York City Housing Authority.
Although Liu is opposed to the concept of term-limits
that will force Councilwoman Julia Harrison to give up
her seat, he believes a new cast of candidates will benefit
"There are some who are worried about the loss of experience,"
said Liu. "But you trade experience for new blood and
fresh ideas. And I think that's good. Certainly I don't
have the 40 years of experience that the present Councilmember
has. I'm not even 40 years old."
Elsewhere in the city, Sidique Wai, a Sierra Leon native
from Crown Heights, Jairo Casas, a doctor born in Colombia,
and Morshed Alam, a Bangladeshi activist who ran for State
Senate in 1998 are also making their runs for office.
But how race and ethnic politics will influence the election
remains to be seen.
"None of the minority candidates are majorities in those
districts," said Douglas Muzzio, a professor at the Baruch
School of Public Affairs. "So the races could turn either
on multi-ethnic coalitions or racial division. Certainly
both can happen simultaneously, and it will play out differently
in each district."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR IN THE CAMPAIGNS:
1. A FAMILY AFFAIR
While term-limits is opening the doors for candidates
who would have had a tough time running against incumbents
in the past, it is also sending current Councilmembers
scurrying to keep their seats in the family circle.
Among those running for their parents' City Council seats
are Peter Vallone, Jr., son of Speaker Vallone, Yvette
Clarke, daughter of Una Clarke, Eric Malave-Dilan, son
of Martin Malave-Dilan, and 23-year-old Joel Rivera, son
of Jose Rivera. Noach Dear has also hinted that his wife,
Rickly Dear, may run for his seat.
Many of these candidates , as well as David Weprin, son
of former Assemblyman Saul Weprin and brother to Assemblyman
Mark Weprin, say they learned about politics by taking
phone calls for their parents at home.
"I remember fielding some of those calls when I was a
kid," said Weprin.
2. THE RISE OF THE STAFF
A dizzying group of staff members in city and state government
also hope their years of working behind the scenes will
give them a shot at public office.
The race to succeed Councilman Morton Povman, who with
his 30 years in City Council has served the longest of
any current member, is almost completely dominated by
staffers. Povman's Chief of Staff Jeff Gottlieb, Speaker
Vallone's Environmental Policy Advisor Jim Gennaro, Borough
President Claire Shulman's former Administrative Assistant
Barry Grodenchik, and State Senator Seymour Lachman's
counsel David Reich are all in the running for his District
Even the most attentive voter will have trouble weighing
the qualifications of all these staff candidates.
3. SEAT SWAPPING
While some City Council seats may go to family or staffers,
some politicians may try to swap seats with each other.
In Brooklyn's District
36 State Assemblyman Alan Vann is expected to seek
Councilwoman Annette Robinson's seat, which would leave
room for her upstate. Other state representatives may
be looking at City Council as a way to stay in politics
without having to commute to Albany.
4. ACTIVIST POLITICIANS
Many community activists are also aiming to be part of
the system after years of working hands-on in their communities,
outside electoral politics.
Steve Banks, a lawyer who has spent much of the last
seven years suing Mayor Giuliani on behalf of homeless
and disenfranchised people, would now like to be on the
other side of the government-citizen divide as he makes
a run for City Council.
Other prominent activists seeking office include Michael
Benjamin, a housing activist in the Bronx, Errol Louis,
a community development consultant in Fort Greene, Hosea
Givan, a children's rights advocate and Majora Carter,
a Hunts Point community activist.
With the Working Families and Green parties candidates
appearing more often on the ballot, activists have a real
opportunity to move past the protests on the steps, to
inside City Hall
IT IS JUST THE BEGINNING
If voters are utterly confused by the 2001 election,
they will not experience relief anytime soon.
The Board of Elections will not release a list of official
candidates until mid summer and with the city's overwhelmingly
Democratic population, many races will be decided in just
a few months between July and the September primary. Many
of the new Councilmembers may be chosen before the general
election voter even knows what has happened.
Another complication on the horizon is the fact that
the present City Council districts will be redrawn by
new Census data in 2001. This will create a shortened
term of two years instead of the regular four years. So
after November, the next election for City Council will
happen in 2003, when the now exiled incumbents will be
free to run again. The winners of the 2003 election will
serve another two-year term and have to run again in 2005.
The normal four-year election cycle will not resume until
In other words, the voters are in for confusing election
races and almost non-stop campaigning for the next six
years. For all the chaos, there are some that at least
hope this slew of elections and candidates will awake
the slumbering City Council and make them more accountable
"I think it's a very healthy and exciting situation,"
said Russianoff. "Hopefully it will be good for the political
process and produce capable Councilmembers."
How the campaigns and elections play out in the next
year may set the tone for the City Council when it actually
gets to work passing legislation, balancing the budget
and sorting out land-use issues.
"We're walking into the big unknown," said Muzzio. "Clearly
the bottom line is that it will be a historic city election
and we will see things we've never seen before."