Gotham Gazette

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GOP Mayoral Candidates Debate Paid Sick Leave, Income Inequality


NEW YORK — Five mayor hopefuls contending for the Republican nomination debated critical issues facing the city including paid sick leave and income inequality — as well as the legacy of Rudy Giuliani — at a forum yesterday.

Each of the candidates labored to distinguish themselves while also promoting their appeal to party stalwarts as well as the overwhelmingly Democratic electorate of the city.

The participants in what was billed as the first Republican-only debate included Joe Lhota, the former Metropolitan Transportation Authority chief; Tom Allon, owner of Manhattan Media; former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion; supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis; and George McDonald, founder of the Doe Fund.

The event was hosted by Crain’s New York Business, and moderated by Greg David, a columnist for the publication.

At one point, David referred to Giuliani as a “jerk.” Lhota, who served as a deputy mayor under Giuliani, took umbrage with the comment, pointing out that Giuliani had elected at a time when the city was called “ungovernable” and “unmanageable.”

After the event, he told reporters: "Using a pejorative to describe Rudy Giuliani in a forum like this is unfortunate.”

Much of the debate, though, focused on economic issues including raising the minimum wage, the paid-sick leave bill that has been stalled in the Council and income inequality.

Lhota said he didn’t think it’s the job of city government to legislate a living wage or paid sick leave at a debate yesterday.

“Our children need to be properly trained so they can work in a global economy and pull themselves up the way we have done,” he said. “It’s not the role of the city government to determine that all private business should have an HR policy and that it should be determined by the City Council.”

And he didn’t think inequality in New York was noteworthy. “New York is not any different or any worse in inequality than what’s happening in the United States of America,” he said.

Carrion, who is technically unaffiliated with the Republican Party but has been promoting himself to their leadership as an independent-minded alternative to the current crop of contenders, said inequality was the result of “a failed education system.”

Allon and Catsimatidis both proposed a tiered minimum wage, with workers 23 and under earning the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, and a higher wage for workers 24 and up.

For Carrion, a minimum wage requirement is not a solution.

“The living wage bill became a killer for the Kingsbridge Armory,” he said, referring to the plan to turn the long-empty Bronx armory into a mall, which failed after developers refused to agree to a minimum wage requirement of $10 an hour.

He seemingly reversed himself later in the debate when talking about renegotiating contracts for city workers, which expired in 2010.

“We have to index raises and benefits packages to the cost of living,” he said. “You can’t have a city workforce that can’t afford to live here.”

McDonald drew on his experience as founder of the Doe Fund, which provides job training for the formerly homeless and incarcerated, to argue against raising the minimum wage and mandating a paid sick leave policy.

“If the minimum wage were $50 an hour it wouldn’t make a bit of difference to a man or woman who doesn’t have a job,” he said. “At the Doe Fund, we’ve always paid above minimum wage, and our graduates get jobs that pay over $11 an hour. Why do we need government to create an artificial wage?”

All the candidates agreed that the next mayor will need to fix the city’s education system.

Lhota, who left his job running the MTA to run for mayor, noted that the city’s education budget doubled in 10 years with little improvement in test scores.

Allon called for better teacher training and retention. “Fifty percent of teachers leave within five years,” he said. “We are committing educational malpractice by allowing our teachers to leave so quickly.”

Catsimatidis proposed vocational training for high-school students.

New York City property taxes drew universal condemnation.

Lhota said the biggest problem with the current tax system is lack of transparency.

“No one has any idea as to how the assessments are being done,” he said. “The Department of Finance is told how much they have to generate by the Office of Management and Budget, and then they back into the number.”

Allon and Carrion suggested that tax assessments were unfair to outer-borough property owners, but stopped short of calling for higher taxes.

“It’s not fair that people living in buildings on Park Avenue pay less than people in outer boroughs,” said Allon.

Carrion, who has a home on City Island in the Bronx, said his parents’ property taxes on their Rockland County home are six times his.

In closing, the moderator asked each candidate to explain his Republican credentials, but referred to former Mayor Giuliani as a “jerk.” In response, the candidates took turns praising Giuliani’s legacy.

Lhota said his experience in the private and public sector gave him an ideal background to build on “the transformation of New York City that started with Rudy Giuliani.”

“We need to be fiscally conservative, we need to try new ideas, we need to be socially progressive,” said Lhota. “It’s out of sync with the national Republican Party, but after all, we are New York City. We are always leading the charge forward.”

Allon, who changed his affiliation from Democrat to Republican in October 2012, touted his appeal as a “fusion candidate.” Allon, who has been endorsed by the Liberal Party, said Giuliani’s 1993 victory margin came from Liberal Party voters.

But he was not the only candidate promoting crossover appeal.

Catsimatidis also said he could appeal to constituencies from both parties, saying “a pure Republican cannot win in this city.”

“I’m probably one of the only candidates running for mayor that can sit down, put my arm around both sides and make a deal, he said.”

Carrion, who is running with the backing of the Independence Party which helped Michael Bloomberg to victory in the last election, said he was frustrated by the partisan gridlock on the federal and state level, and that his ideas square with the Republican platform.

“I am a social progressive, which makes a northeastern Republican. And I’m a fiscal conservative, which makes me a northeastern Republican,” Carrion said.

In an audience poll, 63 percent said Lhota would be most likely to win a general election. Catsimatidis came in second with 20 percent, and McDonald with 10.


Photos by Irina Ivanova. 

What A Court Ruling Against The Voting Rights Act Could Mean For NYC


NEW YORK — A case brought before the U.S. Supreme Court by a small Alabama county could reshape future election law in New York City, and strip minority groups of federal protections against voter discrimination.

The case, Shelby County v. Holder, involves the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 — in particular Section 5, which was created to reverse systemic discrimination against blacks by requiring that all changes to voting laws be reviewed by the Department of Justice. The country’s highest court heard oral arguments in the case last week, and some observers believe Section 5 could be struck down by a majority of the justices in the months ahead.

In addition to a number of Southern states including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas, the law also applies to three New York City counties: Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. As a result, most of the city’s election-related legislation is more or less guided by the Voting Rights Act.

Some of the law's defenders argue that the city's diversity — where its 8.2 million residents speak a myriad of languages and have varying levels of education — makes the statute all the more necessary and relevant.

“If the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn it, the residents of these communities could be subject to discriminatory voting practices, such as race-based gerrymandering, without the protection of Department of Justice or federal court preclearance,” wrote Democratic U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who represents a congressional district protected under the Voting Rights Act, in an e-mail Tuesday. “That outcome is unacceptable.”

While this year's local races are unlikely to be affected by where the Supreme Court lands on the case, the striking of Section 5 would dramatically alter how city officials handle elections in future years. Whereas the provision in question attempts to guarantee fair redistricting and ballot access for minorities, voters would have to rely on lawsuits and lawmakers to ensure the same without federal guidelines.

New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn aren't ready to get rid of those federal guidelines.

On this year’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, Bloomberg and Quinn filed an amicus brief filed in support of Section 5. They wrote that the city has obtained preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice more than 2,000 times over the last 41 years since the three New York City counties became subject to Voting Rights Act.

"This King Day, we are reminded that all too often there are a handful of those who would rather ignore these rights by re-installing barriers, often on the basis of race, economics or political affiliation,” they wrote in the amicus brief. “We can’t allow the voting rights of our citizens to be eroded by such ignorance.”

The brief cites approved changes to voting practices including both the changing of polling sites for certain communities and the inclusion of new languages on election materials. For instance, the city plans to debut long-delayed Bengali ballots in 2013 in order to comply with the Act's language assistance requirement. The Act guarantees that minority groups that have more than 10,000 potential voters with less-than-average literacy levels must be guaranteed ballot access.

It's a far cry from the very case that pushed Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx under Section 5 in the first place. New York was one of many jurisdictions to use literacy tests in the 1960s. It wasn't until the U.S. Congress passed a provision in the Voting Rights Act to protect English-illiterate voters their right to a ballot.

It had a direct effect on the voting power of New York’s Puerto Ricans, who were previously limited by the literacy test. The lack of a test, however, angered a group of registered voters in New York City, who mobilized against the new law by arguing that it violated the Tenth Amendment. In 1966's Katzenbach v. Morgan, the Supreme Court overrode the states' right argument. Instead, the court under Chief Justice Earl Warren defended Congress' ability to protect voting rights beyond what the Court itself may have already recognized.

The Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts faces a similar argument this year — that the federal government's requirement for preclearance is too onerous of a burden for local and state government. Shelby County's arguments have previously failed in the district courts and yet have made it to the country’s highest court, which heard arguments that left some local leaders worried about last week’s hearing of arguments.

While asking questions of the Solicitor General Donald Verrilli last week, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia posited that continued Congressional support for the Voting Rights Act may be a “perpetuation of racial entitlement,” arguing that the federal government may have fallen complacent to such entitlements through the political process.

Voices from around the country immediately decried Scalia’s presumed argument.

“It was insensitive,” said City Councilwoman Letitia James of Brooklyn, in an interview with the Gotham Gazette on Tuesday. “It belies the facts.”

James said that the Voting Rights Act, especially Section 5, is responsible for ensuring fair and easy access to voting as recent as November’s general election. It was the Act, she said, that prevented maneuvering towards what some courts found to be excessive requirements for voter identification and protected language minorities’ right to vote.

Besides ensuring minorities’ access to the polls, James argued that the Act also helps to ensure that minorities are fairly represented in different levels of government by way of redistricting rules.

“It’s critically important that districts be apportioned to ensure minority representation in government,” she said. “Period.”

Minority groups around the city have made the case over the years for better representation in government, including during last year’s Congressional primaries. Residents and political advocates tried to secure a new Latino-majority Congressional district that would have included parts of Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens.

More recently, advocates in Queens argued for the creation of an Asian-majority city council district. The Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund was one of many organizations that joined with a coalition of groups to debate the merits of an empowered Asian voting bloc in Queens.

Jerry Vattamala, a staff attorney with AALDEF, said that the Voting Rights Act has been extremely beneficial to people of color — even to those who don’t live in the counties protected by Section 5. Its protection of minority voting rights, he said, were integral to the city electoral venture.

“At every stage of redistricting,” Vattamala said, referring to the process of redrawing district lines after every decennial census. “Section 5 was relevant.”

It even goes beyond maps. The statue was equally relevant in 1994, he added, when a proposed local law was nixed by the federal government after the city failed to provide candidate names in Chinese. And, in 2001, the DOJ found that the city’s Board of Elections didn’t give enough prior notice to the Chinese-speaking community about a poll site’s closure in Manhattan’s Chinatown, forcing it to open doors to voters.

Guidelines, as well as precedent, were formed as a result of incidents like those, Vattamala said, and aren’t limited to Manhattan, Brooklyn or the Bronx. The city has tried to use Section 5, he said, as a preventative measure to discriminatory policy that all five boroughs can benefit from.

Opponents of the Voting Rights Act’s provision against racial discrimination argue that the law is outdated and no longer appropriate in a diverse, modern-day America.

“For the federal government to intervene in state and local elections, there had better be a mighty good reason,” wrote Ben Boychuck of the Manhattan Institute in a column on Feb. 28. “In 1965 the reason was clear: the nine states of the Old Confederacy and parts of seven others had raised unconstitutional legal obstacles against black Americans registering and voting.”

Shelby County’s attorneys argue that certain provisions in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are not only unnecessary but unconstitutional.

Not everyone agrees.

“Mr. Speaker, in America, certainly we have come a long way, but we still have a long, long way to go,” Rep. Jeffries said on the House floor on Feb. 25, invoking one of the most racially controversial episodes in America’s race relations. “Jim Crow may be dead, but he has still got some nieces and nephews who are alive and well.”

It’s too early to predict how the Supreme Court will decide the case. That hasn’t, however, put a stop to speculation. After Scalia’s comment on racial entitlements, pundits were quick to assume that the Voting Rights Act would soon be on its way out.

President and General Counsel of LatinoJustice Juan Cartagena said that there are a variety of options before the court. The justices could find middle ground or even send the case back down to a lower court, Cartagena said. Still, as a jurisdiction tied to Section 5, New York City will have to adapt if the anti-discrimination measures are stricken down — including through lawsuits involving other parts of the Voting Rights Act.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy alluded to as much during his questions to Shelby County counsel Bert Rein. The justice asked Rein if lawsuits brought about through Section 2 of the law are cost-effective and timely as opposed to Section 5’s preventative measures. Rein argued that Section 2 lawsuits don’t have the stigma for states that preclearance and prior restraint have.

Cartagena disagreed. “It would place the onus on organizations like ours to bring about expensive lawsuits,” he said, referring to the ability to bring about lawsuits based on Section 2 of the law. “The cost of preclearance is a lot less than lawsuits.”

While the public debate continues, and while the Supreme Court ponders its decision, jurisdictions haven’t stopped working on election law.

Cartagena said that this year’s shifting of the 51 city council districts could very well be the last time that the city requires preclearance from the federal government, given that the Supreme Court usually comes out with before the end of the term in late summer.

While New York waits for the DOJ to review the new district maps, a district court has already weighed in on a request from a New England state to review its compliance with the Voting Rights Act.

AALDEF’s Vattamala said the outcome of that case supports the law’s relevancy. “The statute itself has a mechanism to make sure it’s never outdated,” he said in reference to “bail-outs,” by which jurisdictions subject to the law can opt out if they can prove that they haven’t implemented any voting discrimination practices in the previous 10 years.

New Hampshire did just that on March 1 after a district court’s three-judge panel ruled that 10 of the state’s communities no longer have to request preclearance of its election laws.

Vattamala said New York City could do the same, if not for its record over the years. “New York has a long way to go,” he said.


Image courtesy flickr, used under Creative Commons license. 

Districting Commission Still Draws Criticism With Latest Proposed Council Lines


Randall's Island

This version includes important updates to clarify the differing views of a neighborhood in Queens with a growing Asian population — Editor. 

NEW YORK — For the many civic groups observing the decennial redrawing of City Council district lines, it has been an imperfect and sometimes frustrating endeavor.

Alleged back-room political deals. Incumbents who seem to have an oversized voice in the process. Murky decision-making by a supposedly independent commission.

Now, after three rounds of sometimes raucous public hearings, the redistricting process is near its bitter end.

The 15-member District Commission, tasked with redrawing the lines to reflect demographic changes in the city, released what is likely to be the final version of the district lines on Monday. They are expected to vote on them today.

If the Council approves the lines — and it is unlikely that they will reject them given the election calendar — they will become finalized for the next decade, angering minority and neighborhood advocacy organizations who realized that a bevy of their proposals would not be incorporated into the commission’s map.

For James Hong, a spokesman for the Asian American Community Coalition on Redistricting and Democracy, it was an expected yet agonizing outcome.

“Overall, the changes made to the map neither reflect the current population size nor the growth of the Asian-American community in the past 10 years,” Hong said.

ACCORD, a coalition of 14 Asian civic groups, grew increasingly agitated at each public hearing as it became clear the commission was going to divide a neighborhood with a growing Asian population from Councilman Dan Halloran's district. That neighborhood, referred to as being a larger part of Bayside by ACCORD and by others as Oakland Gardens, has its own separate zip code. 

The coalition argued, ultimately fruitlessly, that the southern portion of Bayside/Oakland Gardens should be naturally added to Halloran’s district. The councilman alleged that ACCORD was merely seeking to create an “Asian district” at the expense of everyone else. The southern boundary from the December plan was largely maintained in the new plan, satisfying Halloran. 

“We do not have proposals to create an Irish district, an Italian district, a Greek district, a district of green eyed people or a district of left handed people,” Halloran said at the Queens public hearing.

ACCORD sharply disagreed, penning a letter to the commission that contended their proposal would still make Halloran’s district less than 30 percent Asian. Tension between Halloran and Asian civic groups remains high over a tough, racially-charged 2009 general election that Halloran won against an Asian-American, Kevin Kim. That race cast a long shadow over the last Queens public hearing.

Jerry Vattamala, an attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said that AALDEF — which advanced their own redistricting proposal known as the Unity Map — was “evaluating all of our options," including  a possible lawsuit against the commission for an alleged violation of the City Charter over how the Asian population across New York City fared in the redistricting process.

“It really is a violation of the charter,” Vattamala said. “Asian-Americans are a protected group. According to the prioritized list, these groups, including Asian-Americans, must be ensured fair and effective representation.”

Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a sprawling neighborhood with a burgeoning Asian population, is divided among four council districts, a perpetual concern for Asian civic groups. The commission’s latest map did little to create the sort of districts those groups desired.

In a Feb. 4 memorandum from Carl Hum, the commission’s executive director, to members of the commission, the reasoning behind how all districts were drawn in the city was made public.

The memorandum emphasizes that the commission followed closely the criteria laid out in the City Charter. Population size — ensuring no district is 10 percent larger or smaller than the average district size — and ensuring that racial and voting minority groups are fairly represented are two of the most important criteria in the charter. Not mentioned, but emphasized by Hum in public comments, is incumbency protection, which Hum argued was a legitimate factor to consider when redrawing district lines.

Praised by good government group Citizens Union (a sister organization of the Gotham Gazette), Hum's memorandum helped to deflect charges that the bipartisan commission, which includes former elected officials Tom Ognibene and Frank Padavan, lacked transparency.

But other civic leaders continued to be unimpressed by the proposed new lines.

Former Brooklyn District Leader Lincoln Restler accused the commission of “packing” Hasidic Jews in northern Bedford-Stuyvesant, a current part of Councilwoman Letitia James’ district, into southern Williamsburg, thus benefitting Councilman Stephen Levin, an ally of the Hasidic Jewish community and the former chief of staff to one of their fiercest allies in Albany, Assemblyman Vito Lopez.

“More than a year ago, individuals in consultation with Councilman Levin and Vito Lopez shared with me their plans to remake this district and cut out as much of brownstone Brooklyn as possible while packing in the Hasidic community,” Restler said. “This has been precisely the outcome more than 12 months later of a sham redistricting process designed to strengthen the incumbent council member at all costs.”

Restler, mulling a run against Levin, will see his election prospects plummet under the current proposal, though advocates of the alteration argued at the Brooklyn public hearing that the commission was rightfully uniting a community of common interest, which is another key criteria outlined in the City Charter. Levin himself argued this at the hearing, though James said that Jewish leaders in her district expressed concerns about losing a legislative representative.

The aforementioned Lopez factored into the redistricting process when it was reported last year that an ally in the Council requested his residence be drawn into term-limited Councilwoman Diana Reyna’s district to better facilitate a rumored run for that Council seat. Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who political insiders have said plays a large but unseen role in the redistricting process, was angered when the alteration was brought to her attention — and made public — and asked the commission to withdraw the council lines many believed were final, setting off a third round of public hearings in January.

One vocal critic of the districting process, Manhattan and Bronx Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, had criticized the commission for removing a section of East Harlem and Randall’s Island from her district. Both were restored in the latest proposed map, though Mark-Viverito found more of her district, currently Manhattan-based, drawn north into the Bronx. The district added enough Bronx residents to make the district slightly more of a Bronx district than a Manhattan one.

One of the Districting Commission's most detailed discussions of its decision-making, in the memorandum released on Monday, was reserved for Mark-Viverito's district.

While the commission said adding Bronx residents was done to reflect the “extreme” population growth in that county, Common Cause New York Executive Director Susan Lerner said she believed “political purposes” were behind the redrawing of Mark-Viverito’s district.

“We don’t see the justification of this district with 200,000 more people in Manhattan,” Lerner said. “It’s a pure gerrymander so the Bronx picks up an additional seat. It’s pure power politics.”

Mark-Viverito did not respond to requests for comment.


Image of Randall's Island by InSapphoWeTrust, used under Creative Commons license.

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