How The Promise Of Campaign 2001 Played Out
By Mark Berkey-Gerard
Long before it actually occurred, September 11, 2001 was a date that some New
Yorkers looked to with hope, dread and excitement, anticipating an
unprecedented change in New York City.
It was going to be primary day, the culmination of months, sometimes years,
of effort by the largest and most diverse group of candidates in the city's
history. Thanks to term limits, which kicked out most incumbents, there was
going to be a nearly total turnover in government. Thanks to a campaign
finance program, there was going to be a whole new batch of first-time
citizen candidates, New Yorkers without money and without connections, but
with civic pride and new ideas and the hope that they could make a
difference. Those inspired to enter the fray were said to range from 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 was just in one city council district, Fort Greene!
But coming as it did as the next election after the presidential election
debacle, many also feared that -- because there would be so many close
contests and because the track record of the New York City Board of Elections
was so poor -- what happened on primary day and its aftermath would be as
much of a disaster as Florida.
"What total chaos," columnist Arthur Nitzburg wrote in the Queens Courier in
the beginning of the year. "What a mess we are all in. How delightful."
New York changed on September 11, for sure.
After the terrorist attacks delayed the primary for two weeks, New Yorkers
were urged to go back to the polls and vote again, not as mere participants
in democracy, but as its defenders "We cannot allow these terrorist acts to
stop the basic, fundamental principle of democracy, which is the right of
people to vote," said State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Florida has long been forgotten, and even talking about it as "chaos" and "a
disaster" seems now in bad taste. But not everything was thrown off track.
Because the overwhelmingly majority of people in New York vote Democratic,
all but a handful of races in the city were in effect decided on the
rescheduled primary day of September 25. A new City Council will indeed be
elected on November 6, and take office two months later. They will now be
public officials expected to do something for a city in crisis, while the
promises they made on the campaign trail for new schools, more affordable
housing, and better police-community relations will be more difficult to
achieve after the events of September 11.
What became of the promise, and the problems, that were expected as we come
to the end of Campaign 2001?
FIRSTS IN NEW YORK CITY POLITICS
Many predicted that campaign 2001 would produce a number of "firsts" in terms
of the diversity of the council, and the promise remains.
If successful in November, the borough of Queens will elect its first black
borough president with Helen Marshall and the first Asian-American
Councilmember with Flushing's
John Liu. Hiram
Monserrate, who won the primary in Corona
and faces no
opposition in the general election, will be the borough's first Hispanic
But several other races that had the potential to produce more racial
diversity in the council did not.
In district 1 in lower
Manhattan, three Asian American candidates -- Rocky Chin, Margaret Chin, and
Kwong Hui -- gathered over 6,000 votes between them, but Alan Gerson won with
In district 23 in
Queens, Jairam Thakral, chief financial officer at SUNY Stony Brook, had
hoped to become the first South Asian to sit on the council, but he lost to
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE CITIZEN CANDIDATE
The campaign did indeed start out with many citizen candidates. An amazing
420 New Yorkers, many enticed by the promise of a "level playing field,"
became candidates for public office this year, by far the largest number
ever. The manager of a recreation center, several directors of nonprofit
organizations, the founder of a neighborhood credit union, a TV journalist,
and a lawyer for taxi cab drivers all entered the political fray.
But many saw their aspirations halted abruptly, unable even to get on the
ballot, when the
Democratic clubs brought out teams of lawyers to challenge the petitions of
the new candidates. Long before primary day, 61 of them got kicked off the
ballot and another 18 were kicked off the Democratic ticket.
And because of strict rules to qualify for matching finds from the Campaign
Finance Board, many candidates found themselves in a strange predicament.
They could not get on the ballot without a team of lawyers, but they could
not afford to pay for lawyers until they made it on the ballot.
Many were knocked off for technicalities -- misspellings, forgetting to attach
cover letters, signatures from voters who used their nicknames instead of
their legal names -- Gus instead of Gustav.
One of the campaign workers who gathered signatures for Stanley Kinard, the
director of a nonprofit agency and a candidate in district 36, was not a
registered Democrat. Kinard lost the 195 signatures the worker had gathered
when they were challenged by his opponent State Assemblymember Al Vann. As a
result, Kinard was knocked off the primary ballot.
"I think everybody should have the right to participate in the democratic
process," said Kinard. "He's trying to deprive the people of the right to
have a real election.
In the end, the citizen candidate may have had a better chance to launch a
campaign, but not to win a race.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Donald Wooten must
feel left out. He is the son of Councilmember Priscilla Wooten, and he was
running to replace her. He lost, finishing third out of seven candidates. If
anything distinguishes him as a candidate, now it is that he was the only
child of a current council member who did not win the primary for his
Peter Vallone Jr., an attorney and son of the City Council Speaker, won in
Clarke will replace her mother Una Clarke in Flatbush. Helen Foster, a
hospital administrator and daughter of Councilmember Wendell Foster, was
victorious in the Southwest Bronx. Erik Dilan, son of
Councilman Martin Malave-Dilan, took his dad's district in East New York. Joel Rivera, who in
a special election in February had taken over his father's seat in district
15 the Bronx , also
won the primary against the same opponent.
Even Elizabeth Crowley, the 23-year-old candidate who is best known for her
last name and her relatives -- Crowleys have served in Congress, City Council,
and on community and school boards -- won in Middle Village, Queens. But she
still faces a tough challenge in Republican Dennis Gallagher, who is
Councilmember Tom Ognibene's chief-of-staff.
Similarly, Assemblyman Dov Hikind's sister-in-law, Libby Hikind, won her
Democratic primary in Staten Island, but must overcome
incumbent Republican James Oddo in the General Election on November 6.
The only other family member who did not win was Susan Lasher, the wife of
Councilmember Howard Lasher, who lost to Dominic Recchia.
THE VETERANS OF ALBANY
If some of the candidates could be successful by citing their years living in
the same house as experienced public officials, others point to their years
AS experience public officials, mostly in the New York State Assembly.
Three former state assembly members all won their council primaries easily.
Al Vann, who has served in the assembly since 1975 (three years before
Elizabeth Crowley and Joel Rivera were born), won his race in central
Koppell, a former State Attorney General and assembly member, was victorious
Melissa Katz, a former assembly member and aide to Queens Borough President
Claire Shulman, came out on top in Forest Hills, Queens.
Vann is also one of half a dozen people vying to be the next Speaker of City
Council. He recently has sent a letter entitled "A New City
Council: Rebuilding New York City" to all the incumbent council members and
others who won their primary races.
Former State Senator Larry Seabrook had a more difficult time in his Co-op City council race
against Shirley Saunders, a former aide for Congressman Eliot Engel. Seabrook
won by just 103 votes out of over 18,000 cast but may also join the council
as someone who is familiar with New York politics.
THE POWER OF THE PARTIES
While it was not a pretty picture for many beginning candidates, neither was
it a complete triumph for the party bosses.
Clarence Norman, the chairman of the Brooklyn Democratic organization, had a
particularly disappointing primary day. Although Bill Thompson, Norman's
candidate for comptroller, was victorious, his other main candidates -- Alan
Hevesi and Jeannette Gadson who ran for Brooklyn Borough President -- were
Norman's anointed candidates also lost two crucial council races. In
district 35, Letitia James
lost to James Davis, a police officer and minister. David Yassky, a professor
at Brooklyn Law School, defeated Steven Cohn, an Assembly District leader, in
Brooklyn's district 33.
"The era of the machine anointing candidates is over," Yassky told the
Village Voice. "Because of
campaign finance reform, it's possible to run an aggressive, issues-based
campaign and win."
The two rival Democratic bosses, Roberto Ramirez and Pedro Espada, Jr., who
endorse opposing candidates in almost every race, often divide Bronx
politics. This year, Ramirez came out ahead.
Pedro Espada, Jr. lost his own bid for Bronx Borough President against Ramirez
backed Adolfo Carrion. And Councilmember Pedro G. Espada from district 14 was the only
incumbent to lose the primary.
Queens Democratic party leader Thomas Manton also endured several upsets. In
Democratic District Leader Allan Jennings beat former council staffer Anthony
Andrews. In Laurelton
, Charlotte Jefferson who placed a distant fourth to former school board
president James Sanders. Overall, Manton backed the winner in nine of 14
Now it is expected the political bosses, even if they did not back the
winning candidate, will reach out to support the winner in an effort to
maintain their power in the future.
GETTING OUT THE VOTE
With much of the city still in shock from the terrorist attacks and most
campaigning suspended, many candidates wondered if voters would be too
distracted to go to the polls.
While a turnout of 800,000 out of 3 million voters does not mark a rebirth of
democracy, people did vote, especially in some competitive council districts.
Brooklyn where a primary usually draws around 8,000 people, the seven
candidates brought out nearly 15,000 voters.
East Harlem saw a
strong challenge by Felipe Luciano, a television journalist and former leader
of the Young Lords, who lost to incumbent Councilmember Phil Reed by just
over 600 votes. "Four years ago, an average of 10,000 people came out to vote
in this district, whereas this year the number jumped to 17,000," said
Charles Stopper, a spokesman for Luciano.
Several races were also extremely close. The race for the North Shore
of Staten Island was
one of the narrowest margins of victory, as Mike McMahon defeated Deborah
Rose by 170 votes.
Because of the overwhelmingly majority of people in New York vote Democrat,
all but a handful of races in the city, were in reality decided on the
September 25 primary day. There are six City Council districts that currently
have Republican representation that will provide the most interesting races
on November 6.
Some Democratic candidates who lost on primary day will still appear on the
general election ballot as smaller party candidates, but do not have a great
chance of winning.
Some candidates, like Rocky Chin, from lower Manhattan
will be listed as a
Working Families candidate, but will not be actively campaigning to win.
"Rocky will be running for Working Families issues and helping get out the
vote for [mayoral candidate] Mark Green," said a Chin spokesperson.
Other candidates, like Letitia James, an assistant attorney general in
Brooklyn, who finished second to police officer James Davis in the primary in
Brooklyn, said she is still running to win. This time, she will be a Working
"Many tough decisions will need to be made in the immediate future," James
writes on her web site,
there is a lot of change taking place in city government that could create
difficulties for local communities. Addressing these challenges requires
someone with real experience in government."
On January 1, at least 38 of the 51 City Council candidates will take office
for the first time.
New Yorkers will get the first real chance to see who among these newly
elected -- the new and energized members, the ones who relied on their
experience as legislators in Albany, the unproven ones with familiar names,
and the returning incumbents -- will be up to the tasks that have suddenly
turned that much more urgent.