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Recent Feature Stories:
The Nod of the Bosses... Scramble for the City Council...
Basic Training for Council Recruits... How They Stack up
on Term Limit... Dynasties... The Speech that Saved Term
What is Searchlight on Campaign 2001?
on Campaign 2001 is a guide to the political races in what
many are calling New York City's most significant campaign
season in modern history.
What is so significant about it?
the first time in memory, most political offices in the city
will be wide open to people who have neither money nor connections.
Why will the races be so open?
are two reasons. This year, a new law goes into effect that
limits the terms of New York City elected officials, forcing
the mass retirement of most incumbents in the city - including
the mayor, the comptroller, the public advocate, four of the
five borough presidents, and 36 of the 51 members of the City
Council. At the same time, a new campaign finance law kicks
in, which allows any candidate who agrees to certain restrictions
to collect four dollars of matching funds for every dollar
What does this have to do with this site?
a public service, Searchlight on Campaign 2001 has a separate
page for each race, including all the races for City Council,
that not only sorts out the candidates -- many of them new
and unfamiliar -- but also offers an opportunity to learn
about the issues, and the districts themselves.
Who is behind Searchlight on Campaign 2001?
on Campaign 2001 is a project of Gotham Gazette, a non-profit,
non-partisan, non-ideological (but non-boring) web site about
New York City news, policy and politics published by Citizens
Union Foundation, part of the oldest and largest good-government
group in the city (founded in 1897).
What's wrong with the way the regular press
covers the races?
is for you to decide. And one of our regular features, Campaign
Trail, helps you to decide. Campaign Trail provides succinct
summaries and links to campaign articles in the commercial
Who are we?
and the Power of Incumbency
By Lenore Chester
Once an incumbent, always an incumbent. Betting on the
re-election of a sitting elected official is like putting
money in the bank. That is simply a fact of life in American
politics. The only question is why that happens and what,
if anything, can or should be done about it
In New York City this year, incumbency remains a powerful
force, though term limits have been imposed for the first
time, requiring most incumbent city public officials not
to run for re-election this year. Most of the incumbents
who remain, while none at the moment are running literally
unopposed, are thought to have little chance of being
defeated. But what the new term limits law mostly means
is that some of the candidates benefiting from the power
of incumbency this campaign season are not technically
incumbents. For various reasons, though, certain candidates
have taken on the mantle of incumbents.
The power of incumbency is related in no small way to
political parties. Political parties protect incumbents
in many ways, from the redistricting following the census
every ten years - a major goal of which for both parties
is to make sure the new districts are reconfigured so
as to re-elect the incumbent - through the ballot access
process each and every election year. While it may be
true that parties are not as powerful in 2001 as they
were decades ago, any candidate trying to get on the ballot
today without the backing of his or her county and district
leader is at a major disadvantage. Without political organization
support, a candidate may never be able to file enough
signatures to gain access to the ballot or to withstand
legal challenges to the signatures that they have managed
This is actually more complicated in the 2001 New York
City election than previously; thanks to term limits,
there are a large number of candidates - more than 300
-- vying for 35 newly vacated City Council seats. The
more candidates, the more difficult it is to collect the
required number of valid signatures. The more difficult
it is to collect valid signatures, the easier it is to
knock opponents off the ballot - a time-honored (albeit
ethically-impaired) practice and well-honed skill in New
York State. The ballot access process itself keeps challengers
at bay. It is no surprise then that incumbents often run
for re-election unopposed.
But as important as political party support to the power
of incumbency, is that sitting legislators bring home
the bacon. Legislative budgets, on all levels of government,
provide for "member items" - dollar allocations for favored
local projects. These may be as diverse as books for the
local public library, money for a boy or girl scout troop
project, a community band or renovated park or grandstand,
or new benches along a promenade. And let us not forget
projects for senior citizens - one group of voters on
whom incumbents can count to vote in election after election.
Legislators with seniority generally get more dollars
for their community than others; ditto for those who cooperate
with the leadership. Challenging the leadership could
and does result in a radical cut in the dollars available
for a recalcitrant legislator's district. There are only
a few brave souls who go that route.
In addition, incumbents, often bit-part players in the
legislative process, spend most of their time in their
district offices dispensing favors, answering complaints,
attending community events both large and small, sending
out newsletters chock full of themselves, and taking photo
opportunities wherever and whenever they present themselves.
They are ubiquitous in their districts. It is no surprise
then that when voters are polled about term limits they
often say they support term limits but not for their own
representative. He or she is "doing a good job for the
Name recognition is also a factor in being re-elected
over and over again. And that alone explains some of the
pseudo-incumbents this year. Much has been made of the
fact that relatives of at least 11 current members are
seeking their vacated Council seats in the 2001 election.
Being a bearer of a recognizable and (they hope) well-respected
family name is definitely no handicap to being elected
to public office.
So what else is new? Nepotism has always been alive and
well in politics.
When Jose Rivera decided to move up to the State Assembly
in 2000, he bequested his seat to his college age son,
Joel. Councilmember Pedro
G. Espada is the scion of a Bronx political family;
Tracy Boyland's family's political
roots are in Brooklyn - her father is a member of the
New York State Assembly. Currently sitting in the State
legislature are Daniel Hevesi, son of Alan, Toby Stavisky,
widow of former State Senator Leonard Stavisky, and Mark
Weprin, son of Queens political icon Saul Weprin and brother
Weprin, a candidate for the City Council this year.
Steven Cymbrowitz moved easily into his deceased wife's
seat in the Assembly.
Why shouldn't Eric Dilan want his father
Martin's seat in the City Council? Or Donald Wooten,
Councilmember Howard Lasher's wife Susan is running for
spot on the Council, she says, to preserve his "legacy"
- for whatever that's worth. Helen Foster is hoping to
replace her term-limited father, Wendell
Foster, and Peter Vallone's son is seeking his
father's seat. And why not? An annual salary of $90,000
for a part time job on the New York City Council is not
bad. Once elected the power of incumbency becomes theirs
and, with a little bit of luck, they can serve as long
as eight years* - longer if they manage to repeal term
limits before the 2009 election. That is a lot more money
and fun than most of these candidates have seen in years.
When Al Vann decided to move from the Assembly where
he has served over 26 years to the Council to fill Annette
Robinson's seat (same salary - less of a commute)
his name recognition and incumbency status travels with
him. Playing the game of musical chairs, Ms. Robinson,
forced by term limits to give up her Council seat, will
run for Mr. Vann's seat - once again, using the incumbency
card and discouraging newcomers to the political landscape.
Is that all bad? Not necessarily. Just because a candidate
sports a well-known name or is a son or daughter of a
current incumbent doesn't make him or her incompetent.
They could, in fact, be naturals on the political scene.
But it is certainly not what term limit advocates had
in mind when they hoped for a "new" City Council.
What does that tell us about the state of grass roots
politics in New York City? Are there no up-and-coming
qualified candidates in the districts? What about community
and school board members? Aren't local civic organizations
developing new leadership? Where are the former legislative
aides with the expertise and talent to compete for public
The answer is that they are out there. But the party's
backing of second generation and politically connected
candidates is a distinct put-down for newcomers without
easy name recognition. Their struggle for ballot access
and for enough dollars to fund a viable campaign is hampered
once again by the power of incumbency - this time carried
over into the second generation.
* Council members elected in 2001 for
the first time in districts based on the 1990 census,
may run again in 2003 for another two-year term using
2000 census-based district lines. Since New York City's
term limit law requires that the "two consecutive term"
limit for members of the Council must include one four-year
term, they would be eligible to run again in 2005 when
the normal four-year election cycle resumes, for a total
of eight years of service.
What is this?
Gotham Gazette's Searchlight on Campaign 2001 offers a comprehensive
look at what is being called New York City's most significant
campaign season in modern history. (See the left-hand column
for an explanation).
Districts of the Week
1 -- Lower Manhattan
Whoever wins the election in district 1 will represent immigrant
Chinese garment workers, as well as Wall Street traders living
in Battery Park City. There are several candidates hoping
to be the council's firsts -- the first Asian-American man,
the first Asian-American woman, the first gay Rhodes Scholar,
the first dot-com guru -- running against some politically
well connected opponents. Endorsements and fundraising will
play a big role in this race. But voter turnout could be the
main determinant of who will next represent district 1 on
the council. The key question is how many voters from each
community will come out on Election Day.
7 -- Washington Heights, Manhattan
The northern tip of Manhattan has become one of the most popular
places for new immigrants to call home. The northern tip of
Manhattan is a place that today's new immigrants call home.
The majority have come from the Dominican Republic, but also
from countries in South America, Eastern Europe, and Asia.
But it is not just new immigrants that are moving in. Students,
artists, and other Manhattanites looking for less expensive
rents and larger apartments have also moved north. Ten Democratic
candidates are competing for the 15,000 voters expected on
primary day. The winner who emerges from a crowded field of
candidates will have to balance the needs of the newcomers
with those who have lived there for years.
16 -- Highbridge, Bronx
The neighborhoods of district 16 are the city's poorest, with
the highest rate of unemployment and the lowest median household
income. But those who live there also point out that much
is positive and stable about the area, thanks in large part
to local organizations, not-for-profit agencies, and houses
of worship that help hold the neighborhoods together. Each
candidate for City Council believes that through his or her
connections to churches and local organizations, they can
help empower the community toward a better life. Helen Foster,
the current council member daughter, will face Michael Benjamin,
who has worked as an aide to several government officials
and Anthony Curry, a Bronx neighborhood activist.
20 -- Northeast Flushing, Queens
This year district 20 may elect the first Asian-American ever
to the City Council to an area which now has the second highest
number of immigrants from Korea and Taiwan in the city. There
are three Asian candidates in the Democratic race who have
each drawn big endorsements. Council Speaker Peter Vallone
endorsed Terence Park, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi endorsed
John Liu, and the New York Times recently endorsed Ethel Chen
The campaign has also drawn national and international press
25 -- Jackson Heights, Queens
Thirty-seventh Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens is one of
the most diverse streets in the world. Little India quickly
blends into Little Colombia, with vendors selling Latin American
food to Colombians, Peruvians, Ecuadorians, Mexicans, and
Uruguayans. And each summer, the Queens Pride Parade fills
the same street with rainbow banners. So it is no surprise
that this election year the district produced a diverse field
of candidates. A number of them, however, found out that getting
on the ballot is not an easy task, especially when the Queens
Democratic organization sends teams of lawyers to challenge
petitions. But five Democratic candidates survived and will
face off on September 11.
31 -- South East Queens
When a heavy rain hits southeast Queens, many residents in
neighborhoods like Springfield Gardens, Laurelton and Rosedale
head to the basement with a bucket in hand. And it has been
that way for the last 50 years. In the rush to build housing
in the area after World War II, developers overlooked the
need for storm drains in hopes that the city would eventually
build a city-wide sewer system. The plan never materialized
and the area has experienced "100-year rains" three times
in the last decade. The eight Democrats -- all with little
experience overseeing massive infrastructure projects--will
try to convince voters that they can finally solve the flooding
35 -- Central Brooklyn
The residents in council district 35 have some of the highest
incomes in Brooklyn and some of the lowest. They can play
in a famous park and a beautiful botanical garden, and live
in the city's most crumbling public housing. They can attend
one of the four institutions of higher learning in the district,
and the worst-scoring high schools in the city. Such juxtapositions
are a way of life for a district that includes the Brooklyn
Academy of Music, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Brooklyn Botanical
Gardens; mid dle-class African-American communities near Prospect
Park; immigrant communities from Haiti, Sierra Leon, Nigeria,
and Trinidad, and in Crown Heights, a mix of Hasidic Jews
and African-Americans. Seven Democratic candidates are campaigning
in hopes that they can bring some kind of unity, and attention,
to the area. Their backgrounds are as diverse as the neighborhoods
39 -- Park Slope/Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn
The candidates in district 39 include a chief of staff for
an Assemblywoman, the husband of a member of U.S. Congress,
a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society, an attorney and president
of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, Senator Hillary
Clinton's campaign manager, the district manager of Community
Board 6, and a labor organizer. This is the race to watch
this year. The group of high-profile Democrats have raised
a lot of money, almost $1.4 million combined.
45 -- East Flatbush
In no place in the city are the effects of campaign finance
reform and term limits being felt more than in East Flatbush.
The seven Democratic candidates seeking to represent this
largely West Indian district come from a number of Caribbean
nations. Many have been working on politicians' staffs and
serving with community groups, clearly hoping someday to win
their own elected office. Term limits has presented them with
that opportunity, and they want to make the most of it. But
this race that usually draws only about 8,000 voters could
be decided by just a few votes. The candidates are attempting
to come up with anything that will separate them from the
49 -- North Shore, Staten Island
Staten Island has always been somewhat of a suburban stepchild
to New York City. When a 1998 survey asked New Yorkers why
they go to Staten Island, the top two responses were ''visiting
friends and relatives" and ''passing through.'' But in many
ways, the north shore has more in common with areas of Manhattan
and Brooklyn than with the rest of the Staten Island. The
top priority for all the candidates -- Jon Del Giorno, an
administrative manager for the Board of Elections, Mike McMahon,
an attorney and counsel to current Councilmember Jerome O'Donovan,
and Debi Rose, an administrator at the College of Staten Island
and the first African-American candidate in Staten Island
politics -- is to make sure that the island becomes more than
just a turn-around-point for the over one million tourists
who ride the free ferry from Manhattan each year.
for Party Affiliation
Dream Party (AMD)
Better Schools Party (BES)
Friends United Party (FUN)
Fusion Party (FUS)
Harmony Party (HAR)
Marijuana Reform Party (POT)
Natural Law Party (NLP)
Party of Ethics and Traditions (PET)
Reform Party (Ref)
Right to Life (RTL)
School Choice Party (Sch)
Socialist Workers Party (SWP)
Working Families (Wor)
1 -- Deadline for candidates to join the Campaign Finance
program, qualifying for the four-to-one match of contributions.
5 - First day for candidates from the eight major parties
(Democratic, Republican, Indpendence, Conservative, Liberal,
Green, Working Families, and Right to Life) to circulate
petitions. Candidates running for City Council must collect
the signatures of at least 900 people living in the district
for which they are running in order to appear on the Primary
ballot. Candidates not running under these eight major parties
do not appear on the Primary ballot and have a separate
set of deadlines.
July 12 - Deadline for major party candidates to
July 10 - First day for unaffiliated candidates to
circulate petitions, in order to appear on the ballot in
the General Election. They must collect the number of signatures
equal to five percent of the total enrolled in that party.
August 7 - Board of Elections announces candidates
appearing on the Primary ballot.
August 17 - Last day for non-absentee voters to register
to vote in the Primary Election.
August 21 - Deadline for non-major party candidates
to file petitions to be included on the General Election
September 4 - Last day to postmark application for
absentee voting in the Primary
September 10 - Last day to personally deliver application
for absentee voting in the Primary Last day to postmark
absentee ballot for Primary
September 11 - Primary election; Polls open at 6:00a.m.
and close at 9:00p.m.; Absentee ballots must be hand-delivered
by 9:00 p.m.
September 25 - Runoff Primary election for Mayor,
Comptroller and Public Advocate, if needed
October 12 - Last day to for non-absentee voters
to register to vote in the General Election
October 30 - Last day to postmark application for
absentee voting in the General Election
November 5 - Last day to hand-deliver an application
for absentee voting, or to postmark an absentee ballot for
the General Election.
November 6 - General Election; polls open at 6:00a.m.
and close at 9:00p.m. in NYC; Absentee ballots must be hand-delivered
by 9:00 p.m.