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Crowded Field Competes to Represent Manhattan City Council District

garodnick east midtown model

City Council Member Dan Garodnick (photo: @DanGarodnick)

Due to term limits, popular City Council Member Dan Garodnick is not allowed to run for reelection this year, leading to a crowded field of competitors vying to replace him representing the politically active Manhattan district that includes East Midtown, Gramercy Park, Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village.

Ten candidates, mostly Democrats like Garodnick, competed in a debate at Waterside Plaza on June 22. The event, hosted by news publication Town & Village and Waterside Plaza Tenants Association, featured nine Democrats and two Republicans who made their pitches to over 150 attendees sitting outside along the East River. After delivering their opening statements, during which they gave biographical information and a sense of why they are running for elected office, the 11 candidates spoke predominantly on the topic of housing affordability, and touched upon senior citizen and small business related policies. While it did not come up during the candidate forum, the rezoning of East Midtown, a major focus for Garodnick in recent years, is likely to pass this year, with implementation one of the most pressing issues facing the next Council member.

The crowded field includes both seasoned New York political operatives and political neophytes, all seeking to replace Garodnick, who has represented the district for nearly 12 years and whose constituents regularly push him to seek city- or state-wide office, which he may eventually do.

The seat is one of eight “open” City Council races this year. While all 51 Council seats are on the ballot, there are 43 incumbents eligible and seeking reelection, partially a function of the one-time extension of term limits passed ahead of the 2009 elections, which is allowing some to seek a third and final term this year, while others, like Garodnick are now completing their third terms, and those elected in 2013 (and beyond) are only eligible for two terms.

Several of the open seats are attracting deep fields of candidates, but the District 4 race is among the most crowded.

Vanessa Aronson, a public school teacher on the Upper East Side, started the June 22 event by describing a student in her class who uses a wheelchair and is only able to attend class because the adjacent subway stop to the school and school itself are both handicap accessible. This situation, she contended, is unfortunately the exception, not the norm, throughout the city.

“I'm running for City Council because I know New York can do better,” she said in her opening remarks. Aronson made education and her care for New York’s downtrodden central components of her message. The teacher, a Democrat, later referenced another student who lost a parent and subsequently became homeless due to a lack of immediate affordable housing, a topic at the forefront of the race, if the debate is any indication. In order to prevent such situations from occurring, “we need to make all the noise possible to put pressure on Albany,” she said, pointing to the fact that state law controls key city housing regulations.

Fellow electoral politics novice Barry Shapiro presented a declinist view of the southern part of the district. Shapiro, a retired former American Express employee, said he entered the race as a response to these developments. “The reason I’m running is that for the past 10 years I’ve been pretty disappointed in what’s been happening in Stuyvesant Town, Peter Cooper Village, the way our community has been treated, the way in which apartments have been partitioned, the way in which many aspect of quality of life has gone down,” he said.

In addition to the political outsiders, Marti Speranza, who has served as director of Women Entrepreneurs NYC, and Democratic State Committeewoman for the overlapping 74th Assembly District, is also vying for the seat. Speranza is branding herself a staunch protector of low-income New Yorkers and progressive values in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. “Our city is a sanctuary for immigrants, for women, for the LGBT community, for working families, and we must spare no effort in keeping it that way,” she says on her campaign website.

As of the most recent filing period, which ended May 11, Speranza was atop the field in funds after raising over $176,000, with over $111,000 cash on hand, giving her a financial advantage as the race heads into full swing leading to the September 12 primary. In a heavily Democratic district, the primary winner is highly likely to win the general election.

Keith Powers, second to Speranza in total contributions as of late May, has also emerged as a leading Democratic candidate in the race, fusing a message of local activism and political savvy. “I believe that City Council candidates need to be vocal and be local,” he said at the candidate forum, adding that an effective City Council member is active and “walks the walk every single day.” Powers is well-connected in city and state politics, having been employed by former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone as a lobbyist and chief of staff for former Assemblymember Jonathan Bing, and endorsed by Bing and neighboring Upper East Side City Council Member Ben Kallos.

“I think it's the right type of experience to bring to the job,“ Powers said of his political background. “I was proud to grow up in a rent stabilized apartment and to continue to fight for the tenants association,” Powers said, referring to his early residence in Stuyvesant Town.

Jeff Mailman, a lifelong New Yorker and graduate of nearby Cardozo Law School, has spent most of his career in public service. The Democrat has worked in the Attorney General's office under Andrew Cuomo and served as attorney and legislative director for Queens-based City Council Member Elizabeth Crowley. “Over these past six year I’ve gained extensive knowledge in a lot of issues,” Mailman said at the candidate forum.

He suggested his experience, relationships, and political knowhow make him uniquely suited for the job of Council member. “I’m running to use my City Council experience to represent you best from the very first day on the job,” he said. ”I know most of the Council members and their staff members. I know how to get things done.”

Mailman drew attention to his commitment to the city transit system, touting his endorsement from the Transport Workers Union, and voiced support for investing in mass transit. Once elected to office, he said one of his priorities would be to protect the safety of transit workers. “I really believe in supporting hardworking New Yorkers,” he said.

Coming off a stint in state Senator Liz Krueger's office, activist and Democratic State Committeewoman Bessie Schacter articulated the anxieties she understands many in the area have been feeling. “Our communities are in transition,” the candidate said. “A lot of people are finding it difficult to live here.” She referenced rising costs of living and problems with education and transportation.

“It's important to recognize that we reinvest in our housing, in our services, and education and transportation,” said Schachter. “I know exactly how to fix those problems. I know how to change the laws.” Schacter also plugged her endorsements from Upper West Side City Council Member Helen Rosenthal and East Side Assemblymember Dan Quart.

Business consultant and Democratic hopeful Maria Castro, a late entry into the race, proudly proclaimed she was not a government operative nor a politician. “I have been a businesswoman for the past three decades,” she said. Given her outsider status, business acumen, and commitment to the community, Castro said she would take on the big-money interests and advocate only for her constituents. “The developers can no longer be allowed to be given all the tax credits,” she said of one problem she would seek to fix if elected. Instead of developers being given special favors to build luxury buildings, Castro said, Manhattan needs “affordable housing for the regular people, the working people that are not making Manhattan their playground and are going to live here like us full-time.”

Similarly, Democrat Alec Hartman, CEO of five-year-old technology startup Tech Day, called affordable housing “the glue of our community” and floated the idea of having a uniform database New Yorkers would use to find affordable housing options. It was this type of tech-world outside-the-box thinking he says would make him an effective legislator. More conventionally, Hartman proposed repealing the Urstadt Law, a state law signed in 1971 barring city officials from enacting more stringent rent control laws.

Aronson echoed calls for Urstadt Law repeal (a popular stance among many city Democrats) and vowed to crack down on illegal hotels she alleged have been driving up housing prices in the area. (Airbnb has been a frequent target of District 4 residents.)

Sounding like Mayor Bill de Blasio, Speranza called affordable housing the “number one challenge” in New York City. “Communities that were havens for middle-class families are now at risk,” she said, referencing Stuyvesant Town. “We see seniors that are not longer being able to age in place.”

“I think we need to think more boldly,” Speranza said. As a fix, she proposes to use city-owned vacant land to build additional affordable housing. “The Comptroller did a report and in his audit he found that there are over a thousand empty lots,” she said, referring to a report from Comptroller Scott Stringer that has been disputed by the de Blasio administration, which claims that the city-owned lots suited for housing are almost all in the development pipeline.

In a similar vein, Schacter suggested picking through housing budget with a fine-tooth comb would unearth squandered funds that could be put to use elsewhere. “I’m talking first about an audit of our housing,” she said. “We’re actually spending $1.4 billion every year on affordable housing projects and we’re not checking to make sure those units are there.”

Democrat and small business consultant Rachel Honig though she spoke favorably about her opponents’ housing plans, she had a different priorities on the issue. For Honig, pressuring city government to conduct enforcement of laws already on the books should be the top priority. “The first thing we have to do is hold City Hall accountable to the protections that are in place,” she said. “After which, then we can start, or on a parallel path, frankly, we can start building affordable housing,” she said.

Honig also raised the issue of local, “mom-and-pop” stores being priced out of the expensive real estate in the heart of Manhattan. “We not only have a small business problem,” she said. “We have a small business crisis.” While she was complimentary of Garodnick’s work, Honig emphasized the need for the district’s next representative to push for change on issues such as small businesses, senior care and affordable housing. “We need quality leadership to carry the baton,” she said. (None of the candidates brought up Garodnick’s push to reform the commercial rent tax, a Manhattan-only tax that has been blamed for hurting many small businesses in the borough, especially below 96th Street where it applies.)

In such a crowded Democratic primary with several candidates that have political experience, connections, and endorsements, the margin of victory could be quite small, with getting out the vote essential to winning.

The pair of Republican hopefuls touched upon similar themes at the forum, putting their own spin on the topics at hand, though without the conservative orthodoxy one might hear from many GOP politicians.

Rebecca Harary detailed her experience opening up schools for special needs students and her role in the Propel Network, an organization that helps women without formal job skills find employment. Harary, coming off an unsuccessful bid for State Assembly in the fall, told the audience about her large family including eight grandchildren. “You can say that I’ve been a mother my whole life which means that I’ve really become accustomed to putting other people before myself,” she said. “When I see problems, I like to solve them.”

Harary’s opponent for the Republican nomination, Melissa Jane Kronfeld, a self-styled “progressive Republican” who promotes what she calls a “post-partisan agenda,” also described the importance of helping others. “Service is an obligation, it's simply not a choice,” she said. Kronfeld, who reported for the New York Post’s city desk while studying at New York University, according to her website, recently ran a social impact consultancy called Party For a Purpose that “empowers individuals, governments, and organizations to make the biggest impact that they can have on their communities,” she explained.

Due to her recent work outside of politics, Kronfeld felt she would bring a necessary perspective and mentality to the City Council and City Hall. Kronfeld promised a take-no-prisoners approach to the issue of housing affordability, the most common topic discussed at the debate. "I have no problem shaking every tree to overhaul this system once I get into office,” she said.

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