Outgoing Council Member Robert Cornegy (photo: John McCarten/City Council)
With City Council Member Robert Cornegy, Jr. among the three dozen members of the 51-seat Council facing term limits this year, there is a competitive Democratic primary unfolding to replace him in Brooklyn’s 36th District, which includes northern Crown Heights and parts of Bedford Stuyvesant. Cornegy, a Democrat, has held the seat for two terms, nearing eight years. Given the district’s overwhelming Democratic voter enrollment, the winner of the fast-approaching June primary is all but certain to take office come January as part of the new Council and new city government being elected this year.
City Council members write, sponsor, debate, and vote on legislation that affects city life in any number of ways; negotiate and vote on the city budget in conjunction with the mayoral administration; perform oversight of city agencies and the mayoral administration; allocate discretionary funding to local groups and causes; weigh in on land use decisions — with particular sway, by Council tradition, over proposed projects within the member’s district — and more. Constituent services and local problem-solving are also essential parts of the job.
As the Council member for the 36th District, Cornegy has focused on issues including small business, community development, housing, and arts and culture.
Cornegy made a goal of increasing the presence of the arts in District 36, partnering with the Department of Parks and Recreation, local art galleries, small businesses, and corporate sponsors to create curated art walks and bus tours and plays in the public parks, within the district. He sponsored the Chamber on the Go program, which provides support services to small businesses in a mobile format, and got commitment from New York City developer SMJ Development to offer affordable rates for small businesses on its properties. He has also helped to pass commercial tenant anti-harassment and neglect legislation that provided funding to cover tenants’ legal costs when fighting against corrupt landlords, according to his website. On community development, Cornegy helped pass the Age Friendly Neighborhood Initiative, which is meant to improve “the quality of life of older adults through advocacy, programming, and access to essential resources,” his site states.
As Cornegy’s second and last term in office comes to an end, he is running for Brooklyn Borough President and nine Democratic candidates are running to replace him in a crowded and competitive primary set to be decided through early voting June 12-20 and primary day, June 22, as well as absentee voting.
According to 2010 Census data, the 36th City Council District had a population of 148,936 people. Of these residents, 70.2% were Black, 18.4% Hispanic, 6.8% white, and 2.2% Asian-American or Pacific-Islander. Out of the 59,176 occupied housing units in the district as of 2010, 49,719 of them, or 84%, were occupied by renters. While the district is mostly home to renters, it is also home to many homeowners who have had to grapple with the impacts of gentrification, including rising rents and cost of living overall, as well as deed theft, when someone creates a fake deed to a home or when a homeowner is in some way tricked into signing their property over to someone else.
Running to succeed Cornegy is a Council budget assistant and constituent services director in Cornegy's office, the district manager for Community Board 3, the co-founder of an activist coalition, and a reverend, along with five other lesser-known candidates, most of whom do not appear to be running serious campaigns. Below is a brief overview of each candidate, including excerpts of interviews with three of the leading candidates as judged by fundraising, endorsements, and campaign activity.
Ossé, who lives in Crown Heights, is a Black Lives Matter activist and the co-founder of the activist coalition Warriors in the Garden. As of May 5, he had raised $215,821 in public and private funds, according to the campaign finance board. Running a fairly far left progressive campaign, the 22-year-old Osséhas been endorsed by Queens City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, the Working Families Party, Run for Something, Voters for Animal Rights, Roadmap for Progress, the Black Lives Caucus, the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, NYC Kids PAC, Lambda Independent Democrats, the Victory Fund, The Jewish Vote, Citizen Action, and the Freelancers Union.
“I always thought that the real work, or the only work that mattered, was work in the activist field, but after seeing how disenfranchised or how poorly dealt of a hand that we’ve been given here in the 36th with leadership, I knew that electoral politics here in the 36th needed to change with this mindset of activism and organizing,” Ossétold Gotham Gazette in a phone interview.
Ossé said that he sees the top three most pressing issues for the district as affordable housing, public safety, and sanitation. He said that the “Democratic establishment,” including some of the candidates in this particular race, have taken money from real estate developers — something he’s committed to not doing — and at the same time, rents and property taxes have risen, resulting in displacement.
“I think some people see the color of gentrification to be white, but the color of gentrification is green,” Ossé said, referring to money. “The people that we have been electing have been bestowed to outside interests, displacing people in the process.”
To solve housing issues, Osee wants to create legislation to “reimagine” the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) that determines how rezonings, changes with development, and city map alterations are made; to emphasize the necessity of a racial impact study whenever there’s going to be new development in the district that requires a zoning change; and to put forward legislation that alters the way Area Median Income (AMI) is calculated for the city so that the price of affordable housing is more reflective of the neighborhood, such as by using actual incomes in more local areas.
Another goal of his is to work to make community boards more representative of the areas they serve, such as by advocating for fewer real estate brokers on the boards. He’s also announcing a plan to make an easier path to homeownership for young tenants, as well as putting forward legislation to make it harder for deed theft to occur.
Ossé also wants to create a liaison between community boards and developers to make sure that all new developments in the city are 100% sustainable. He supports the idea of a Green New Deal for New York City, especially for the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which would increase green infrastructure and development in the city and public housing specifically. On the subject of NYCHA, he’d like to see more tenant management and control of buildings and to cancel or adjust rents for low-income, vulnerable, working class, or middle-class people, according to his website. Additionally, he’d like to see more retrofitting of vacant hotels into homeless shelters.
Ossé said that sanitation is one of the most important issues for the district that many people — including other candidates — often forget. He pointed to cuts made in the adoption of this year’s city budget to the Department of Sanitation that he said took a serious toll on the cleanliness of city streets, particularly within the 36th District, causing trash to build up on the streets and attract rats. Some of those cuts have been reinstated by the mayor given federal aid and higher than expected revenue. On his first day in office if elected, Ossé said he will put forth legislation to refund the DSNY and to provide union sanitation jobs for residents of the district and to keep the area as clean as more affluent city neighborhoods.
Public safety is an issue for both the district and the city overall, according toOssé. The answer to gun violence in the district every year has been more police, which he said isn’t working and may be a result of police unions funding the campaigns of elected officials. Ossé wants to defund the police (by $1 billion in the first year he is in the Council, if elected) and reinvest that money into public education, affordable housing, infrastructure, or health care.
“I believe that if we invest resources into some of our underfunded agencies and give people the resources that they deserve, then I don’t believe that they will resort to crime in order to gain the resources that they need in order to survive,” he said.
While he does support moving money from the New York City Police Department’s (NYPD) budget to other things, he does not support taking all police officers off the streets. The Save our Streets (SOS) Bedford Stuyvesant chapter offers better violence and crime intervention than the NYPD, Ossé said, and it needs to receive appropriate funding. The police force also should not be the agency that responds to mental health distress calls and issues with homeless people, he said, arguing that those are jobs best for social workers.
“I believe that the NYPD has too much on their hands and, that being said, I think they also do have a bloated budget,” he said.
When asked what he thought about Cornegy’s two terms in office, Ossé said that he liked the Council member’s Kalief Browder legislation, which mandates that any person detained or incarcerated at Rikers for more than 10 days should receive the necessary vocational, educational, and health care services they need. On the other hand, Ossé said he wouldn’t be as tied to real estate interests as he believes Cornegy has been.
Robert Waterman is a reverend at the Antioch Baptist Church, chair of the Interfaith Medical Center Trustee Board, and the vice-chair of the Trustee Board of One Brooklyn Health, a nonprofit cooperation connecting Interfaith, Brookdale University, and Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Centers. He is also the career manager officer and director of the CUNY Service Corps for Medgar Evers College’s Career Management Services.
Waterman had raised $202,694 in public and private funds as of May 5, according to the campaign finance board website. He has been endorsed by City Council Members Laurie Cumbo and Alicka Ampry-Samuel, Assemblymember Latrice Walker, U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke, former Council Member Una Clarke -- all of Brooklyn -- and the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators Local 1.
When asked in a phone interview what he sees as the top three issues for the district, Waterman said housing, education, and police reform. He said that 48% of District 36 residents live in “transitional housing,” meaning shelters, and argued that the city puts more money into shelters than into getting people actual housing. According to his website, his fair housing plan includes increasing access to the housing lottery; allowing first-time homeowners to get fair loans; reshaping rent-to-own programs in the district; creating long-term shelter options for those with mental health issues; investing more in NYCHA; and creating more affordable housing in the district.
School District 16, which is in Council District 36, is at the lowest educational level, Waterman said, because of a lack of necessary resources. While some schools in the district have changed teachers and administrators, he said it’s not enough and that schools need more resources to take care of and educate their students. According to the candidate’s website, he wants to increase funding to Title 1 schools; create Academic Intervention and Enrichment Program Vouchers for low-income families; hire more nurses and guidance counselors; make school-necessary broadband and technology accessible to the district; and fund science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, programs.
On the subject of the NYPD, Waterman would like to redirect funds from — not ‘defund’ — the department’s budget toward crime prevention programs and mental health services, to put increased effort into protecting whistleblowers, to mandate implicit bias training for officers, and to demilitarize the police. Most importantly, Waterman wants to see police officers upholding the oaths that they took to the city when they first became cops — CPR: courtesy, professionalism, and respect.
“If they uphold the oath, then we can actually now begin to put funding or do the reform from the root down,” he told Gotham Gazette. “You cannot reform a tree by just cutting the branches — you make it look pretty, but in order for you to do actual reform, you have to dig out the root. What’s going on in the training process of all the NYPD [officers] and all these quotas that they’ve got to live up to to be considered a legit police academy?”
For small businesses, Waterman said he wants to provide businesses with more personal protective equipment for their workers, to continue outdoor dining, and to create liaison positions to bridge the gap between restaurant owners and the Department of Transportation (DOT), which monitors outdoor dining because it often expanded beyond the sidewalks and into the streets. He said there were times when the department would change outdoor dining regulations and business owners weren’t aware of it, resulting in places getting fined or even shut down, creating the need for such liaisons.
“I look at every small business as a dream,” he said. “It’s somebody’s dream who decides to open up a restaurant, somebody’s dream to open up a hardware store, somebody’s dream to be their own boss, and when COVID came, people’s dreams were lost because the city was not prepared to help small businesses.”
When asked what he thought about Cornegy’s terms in office, Waterman said that he didn’t want to focus on shortcomings, but he liked Cornegy’s work on food deserts, his legislation on small business, wellness, and seniors, and his lactation legislation that ensured lactation spaces in public buildings for use by mothers.
“As someone who’s running for Council, I want to take what he has done and use the positive things that he’s done to move our community forward,” Waterman said.
Tahirah Moore is a New York City Council legislative/budget assistant and constituent services director for Cornegy, and a self-proclaimed “daughter of district 36.” She was born and raised in NYCHA’s Marcy Houses in Bedford Stuyvesant and still lives in the neighborhood today. Previously, she worked as a senior advisor in the Mayor’s Intergovernmental Affairs Unit. Moore had raised $189,623 in public and private funds as of May 6, according to the campaign finance board. She has been endorsed by the Working Families Party, Unite Here!, The Jewish Vote, the New York Progressive Action Network, and Citizen Action! Of New York.
“Being able to shift the paradigm, being able to get the legislation written — those experiences, I have, as well as the pains and ills that I’ve experienced growing up in my community — those things motivate me to want to make the change, those things motivate me to want to be a paradigm shifter,” she told Gotham Gazette in a phone interview. “So me being the only candidate that’s worked in the City Council, that’s worked in the mayor’s office, I bring that inside-outside experience.”
For Moore, the top three issues in the district are housing, gun violence, and education. Education-wise, the candidate wants to turn all schools in the 36th District into “community schools,” like what was done with P.S. 297, which now includes a food pantry, laundromat, and family services to support low-income, homeless, and sheltered students. Additionally, her campaign website states that she opposes the closing of public schools, especially in communities of color; is against co-locations of schools that disregard the ages of students; wants to get iPads for students who still need them for remote learning; and wants to upgrade technology and repair school buildings in the district.
On housing, Moore wants to make sure that all new proposed projects in need of approval in the district are not just affordable but affordable for specifically the people who live in the area, while still being welcoming to newcomers. The goal, she said, is to not push out the people who already live in the community in favor of new people moving in.
Moore wants to make sure that the Area Median Income is “conducive to the district that housing projects are being proposed in.” Additionally, she wants to see the city, state, and federal governments work together to provide more funding for NYCHA. According to her website, Moore plans to stand against any privatization of NYCHA; to extend short-term protections against eviction; to reduce or eliminate property taxes and/or mortgages for good landlords who offer their tenants stability during the pandemic; and to bring CCTV security and free wifi to every NYCHA development. To combat deed theft, Moore said as a Council member she would help promote already-existing services, such as the New York City Sheriff’s Office and translating online resources into different languages.
Her gun safety platform includes properly funding community-based gun violence organizations in the district, specifically Man Up Bed Stuy and the Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights chapters of Save Our Streets.
“As an advocate, a person that’s closest to the problem is closest to the solution,” she said on the subject.
On the related issue of the NYPD, Moore said that she supports defunding the police and noted that she does not believe all police officers are bad. According to her website, she wants to reallocate the pensions of police officers convicted of murder to the families of the deceased; to expand the authority to fire police officers to the mayor and to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB); and to make Cure Violence/the Crisis Management System its own independent agency.
When asked what she thought of Cornegy’s time in office, Moore said that she wanted to focus on her race for the district and what she can bring to the community.
“This community is my home and my heart, and I give it my all because I love them and I know they love me because they’ve raised me through every test and trial and I will work for them,” she said. “I am very, very proud to say that I’m from the 36th Council District and to say that I’m born and raised here...If I die tomorrow, I can say that I helped to make the community that raised me better, and that means everything to me.”
Henry Butler is the district manager for Community Board 3, the president of the Vanguard Independent Democratic Association Club, and a former assistant director of the Lafayette Gardens Community Center under NYCHA. His campaign website says he is running to be the state committee person and district leader for the 56th state committee district, but he is filed with the campaign finance board as running to be the City Council member for District 36.
As of May 10, his campaign for the City Council had raised $203,575 in public and private funds, according to the campaign finance board website. He’s been endorsed by SEIU 32BJ, Communications Workers of America district 1, the New York City Central Labor Council, and the United Federation of Teachers.
Gotham Gazette was unable to set up an interview with the Bedford Stuyvesant-based candidate despite several attempts, but he has posted a brief platform on his website, however outdated it may be. It says Butler would fight for repairs to NYCHA buildings and to ensure that the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) and the Elderly Pharmaceutical Insurance Coverage (EPIC) don’t lose funding.
“Our seniors have spent their whole lives providing for their families and building our community, isn’t it time someone has their back?” his website reads in part.
For labor and jobs, Butler plans to push for tax credits to start-ups and small businesses during their first three years in order to facilitate growth and competitiveness, to work with businesses and labor organizations to bring job opportunities to the district, and to create comprehensive apprenticeship programs. On education, he believes in the community schools model and wants to get schools high-quality teachers and upgrade classroom technology.
Butler’s platform includes reforms to New York elections, including automatic voter registration upon turning 18, no-excuse absentee voting, and greater transparency and accountability at the Board of Elections. His environmental justice goals include making New York State 100% reliant upon renewable energy by 2030, continuing the statewide ban on fracking, and investing in wind and solar energy sources. Finally, for police and criminal justice reform, Butler would like to re-prioritize the NYPD budget to focus on fostering police-community relations, to demilitarize the NYPD, and to require police officers to take “ongoing continued education classes throughout their careers.”
Regina Edwards had raised $23,262 in private funds as of April 26, according to the campaign finance board website. She does not have a working campaign website that Gotham Gazette could find.
Gregory Green had raised $11,470 in private donations as of April 26, according to the campaign finance board website. He does not have a working campaign website that Gotham Gazette could find.
John Joyner, Jr.
John Joyner, Jr. had raised $645 in private funds as of April 26, according to the campaign finance board website. He does not have a working campaign website that Gotham Gazette could find.
Reginald Swiney had raised $1,200 in private donations as of April 26, according to the campaign finance board website. He does not have a campaign website that Gotham Gazette could find.
Shadoe Tarver had raised $12,907 in private donations as of April 26, according to the campaign finance board website. He does not have a campaign website that Gotham Gazette could find.