Outgoing City Council Member Margaret Chin (photo: John McCarten/City Council)
Although it’s a race to replace her, in some ways the Democratic primary in Manhattan’s City Council District 1 will be a test of term-limited Council Member Margaret Chin’s performance in office and political clout, as her current chief of staff will run to continue her legacy against multiple insurgent candidates who argue it’s time for a change, including one who narrowly lost a bid to unseat Chin in her 2017 reelection campaign.
Many of the most controversial issues Chin dealt with in recent years are already front-and-center in the 2021 City Council race, with most of them revolving around development in Lower Manhattan and how (or if) it should take place, as well as the future of a planned jail that Chin approved. The coronavirus outbreak and its fallout, including socioeconomic devastation, has hit the district -- which includes a diverse set of neighborhoods like Chinatown and Tribeca -- very hard. As with all of the 2021 elections, when the entirety of city government is on the ballot, the Council District 1 race will heavily focus on recovery.
Also like most other races in the heavily Democratic city, the Democratic primary will likely decide the next Council member. Those running in the Council District 1 primary include Gigi Li, Chin’s chief of staff; Chris Marte, who helps run a political training academy called Arena and lost to Chin by just 222 votes in 2017; Jenny Lam-Low, the Director of the Community Engagement Division at the New York City Council Speaker’s Office; Denny Salas, a former stockbroker turned Democratic Party staff member; and Maud Maron, a public defender and president of Community Education Council 2.
As for the development issues that continue to dominate much of the public discourse in the district, there’s the debate over whether or not Elizabeth Street Garden in Nolita, a source of local community greenspace on city-owned land, should be replaced by Haven Green, an affordable housing building for seniors which would include some greenspace of its own. On the Lower East Side, the Two-Bridges development would construct skyscrapers for luxury residential units, but it has garnered heated resistance from local community members,though it would also provide some affordable housing and, as part of the plan, provide repairs to a nearby NYCHA complex and the East Broadway subway station. Planned construction of the new jail in Chinatown, replacing one already there with a larger modern structure, as part of the city’s plan to close Rikers Island has resulted in backlash by residents who do not want to see it built in their community.
“When you look at development, Lower Manhattan has historically been ground zero for development within Manhattan,” said Democratic strategist Trip Yang, who served as Chin’s campaign manager for her first reelection effort in 2013 and has since worked on several campaigns in the area. “Whoever’s the next Council member has a large say in land use through the ULURP process, is going to take positions on and negotiate future land use decisions, is going to be critically important. So, I know that voters will be very attuned to what candidates are saying when it comes to development.”
City Council District 1 is an economically diverse district that includes low-income neighborhoods with swaths of public housing on the east side, as well as some of the richest zip codes in the city in the Financial District and Tribeca to the west. Home to Chinatown, the district is also racially diverse: 45% white, 36% Asian and Pacific Islander, 12% Hispanic, and 4% Black. While that diversity makes it important for candidates to have wide-reaching appeal to compete for the seat, the initial implementation of ranked-choice voting will make that even more essential as the system rewards being voters’ second or even third choice, particularly in a crowded field.
“As we look forward to 2021, there’s going to be a slew of different candidates with different backgrounds and viewpoints,” Yang said of the developing race. “And the challenge here, like in any district that is very diverse both demographically and economically, the challenge is how do you build a coalition, how do you tie together one unifying message across the entire district but also being nimble enough to communicate in a nuanced way to a specific neighborhood or constituency on their specific issues.”
“Every candidate is going to have to look at the inaugural edition of ranked-choice voting and they’re going to have to recalibrate their campaign strategies,” Yang continued, “…it inherently incentivizes you to build a broader coalition, forces you to go wide. You’re going to be penalized with ranked-choice voting if all you do is vote deep, meaning all you do is target one neighborhood, one constituency.”
During Chin’s time in office, Yang said she was able to build such a coalition. And he said Li is in a good position in the race as she should be able to work off of the strong coalition Chin has built and, “Being chief of staff of the current member certainly gives you a leg up in terms of experience and knowledge of city government and experience and knowledge of that district.”.
It’s not unusual for a term-limited Council member’s chief of staff (or other top current or former aide) to run to replace the outgoing elected official. But the association with said official can work both ways, especially when there are lingering controversies that form centerpieces of the race. In Chin’s case, her narrow 2017 primary victory also showed a significant number of voters in the district who wanted a change and may again choose Marte or lean toward another candidate who is not backed by Chin.
Marte, a former financial analyst, put forth a surprising-to-some showing in 2017, in large part due to substantial support from those organizing against Haven Green. He has also co-founded two community gardens in NYCHA complexes. With all three aforementioned development projects moving ahead and likely to come to the district despite protests from some constituents, they remain a point of criticism for Chin and likely Li by association.
“I decided to run again because a lot of the issues we ran on in 2017 haven’t really been addressed,” said Marte, who was born and raised on the Lower East Side, in an interview. “When you look at land use issues across this district, no one’s really being proactive about it and no one’s really allowing community members to have a say in what a neighborhood they live in, helped build, should look like.”
Marte recently touted his first endorsement of the cycle, from the Chinatown Working Group (CWG), a community-based initiative that has for years pushed its rezoning plan for the district, a downzoning that would preserve existing affordable housing and develop new permanent affordable housing, protect culturally-significant buildings and aspects of the district (especially in Chinatown), and potentially prevent the development of larger buildings and skyscrapers such as those included in the Two-Bridges development plan, among other things.
Marte and others have criticized Chin for not actively supporting the CWG rezoning plan, although she did say in 2017 she would oppose skyscrapers being built in the district, according to DNAinfo. When challenging Chin in 2017 and now, Marte has presented himself as the candidate who listens to the community, in contrast with Chin, who has been criticized for not listening to some vocal residents in situations like that with Elizabeth Street Garden.
Chin expressed support for the Haven Green proposal due to the housing it would provide for seniors, a population she has fought for as the chair of the Council’s Committee on Aging, while noting that the new plan keeps some green space. She argued the project is better for the district as a whole despite the organized and insistent opposition from those seeking to preserve the Elizabeth Street Garden.
Chin also approved the plan to close the Rikers Island jails and build four new borough-based detention facilities, including one in her district to replace the existing jail there. While Chin argues that the plan is for the good of the city overall, including those who are detained and their family members, local criticism of both the planned construction and existence of the new jail has spurred criticism.
Li herself has acknowledged that certain residents, particularly in Chinatown, are frustrated when it comes to not feeling their voices are heard, though she attributed this fault to the mayor rather than Chin. Li said the “frustration from the Chinatown community is that they feel like they’ve been consistently overlooked in policies and decisions,” and that there hasn’t been enough outreach to them, something she would work to change.
Still, Li, like her boss, supports the Haven Green and jail plans.
“Every community should be contributing to affordable and subsidized housing throughout the City of New York,” said Li, who previously served as chair of Community Board 3 and as an organizer at the Neighborhood Family Services Coalition, an advocacy group for children and families, in an interview. “I go back to the principle of everyone doing their part when it comes to a citywide challenge like the ability to have a place to live.”
Li said especially since the Haven Green plan included green space, she felt the need for affordable housing outweighed the potential value of keeping the garden.
Also similar to Chin, Li said she specifically opposes the megatowers that are part of the Two Bridges plan. She also worked on a lawsuit by the City Council and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer against the city’s Department of City Planning (DCP) over whether or not the building of multiple skyscrapers is classified as a “minor” modification, which DCP called it and which would allow the development to move forward without going through the Unified Land Use Review Process (ULURP) that necessitates public input and a City Council vote. That lawsuit went to the State Supreme Court where, in February, Judge Arthur Engoron upheld a ruling from August 2019 in favor of the plaintiffs and ordering the development plan to go through ULURP.
Lam-Low also mentioned her role in that lawsuit.
Previously the chair of the Board of Directors for the Chinese-American Planning Council and an executive in community relations and strategic philanthropy for JPMorgan Chase, Lam-Low said she gave her input to her current boss, Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and assisted him in his decision-making process on the suit.
“They said it was a minor modification, how would anyone in their right mind believe that?” Lam-Low said in an interview. “As a senior member of [Johnson’s] team, I provide input and being a resident of this community that’s impacted by this crazy thing, I help keep him informed and give him feedback directly as a resident of the community.”
Lam-Low, like Li and Marte, has strong community ties. She immigrated to New York when she was 12 and has lived in the district since. She’s also done extensive work with nonprofits and local businesses in the area in her various roles and has made helping those business key to her platform.
“It was the community that raised me and made me who I am…I am running because I have seen how our community has suffered in many different ways but most recently from covid. Our community was neglected and sidelined and I’m very sick and tired of that,” Lam-Low said. “Having seen this community thrive in the days when I first arrived, to what I see today and seeing the decline and what the work ahead of us to recover from this horrible, unprecedented, crazy pandemic. We need someone in City Council who is not only capable of bringing all the resources to help collaborate and rebuild our city and our district. I am that person.”
Lam-Low mentioned her work as a volunteer and community activist in the district, as well as her experience lending to small business and funneling charitable funds to nonprofits at JPMorgan Chase, where she managed a $5 million charitable giving portfolio for Manhattan. She said as a Council member she would put more resources into job training programs and encourage more lending to small businesses to help them recover.
Marte and Li have also emphasized small business aid in their campaigns, as parts of the district, like SoHo and Chinatown especially, are areas with large amounts of small businesses. And in part due to the spike in racism toward Asians as a result of misconceptions concerning COVID-19, businesses in Chinatown have been hit especially hard over the last many months.
“Asian-American businesses were suffering, the reports of Asian American and Chinese American businesses suffering as early as January before the pandemic was widespread in the United States,” Yang said. “The amount of anti-Asian incidents and hate crimes has exploded based on what the city has been tracking and this is Chinatown, Manhattan, this is home to one of the largest communities of Asian-Americans in the whole city and that’s a real issue. I want to see every candidate talk about what you’re doing to address hate crimes as well.”
Li said that she and her friends and family have experienced the increase in racism firsthand, even mentioning how Chin’s office received calls requesting certain restaurants be reported simply because they employed Asian people.
“Education campaigns are great, but I don’t think that it’s enough,” Li said. “These incidents that are happening, we need to do a better job at encouraging people to report to and really follow through on all of the different avenues and all of the different agencies that have a role and a responsibility to step in and to intervene.”
There have also been the recent protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, which led to a resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement. All candidates in the Council race have voiced support for police and criminal justice reforms, and Salas highlighted it as one of the things that motivated him to run for office.
“I know the structural inequities that exist within, obviously, some of the old relics of structural racism that was implemented by Robert Moses that still exist today. But, essentially, you can look at how you can make this community better, and what you can do, that is something that compelled me to run,” said Salas, who is originally from New Hampshire but also lived in Massachusetts for part of his childhood and most recently lived in Florida before coming to New York City in 2015. “The George Floyd thing, that was another thing where, I’m a person of color and obviously I’ve been discriminated against even as I’ve been successful in my personal career…you look at some of the inequities in the system and you know that you can make this better and you want to fight for it.”
Of the candidates, Salas has spent the least amount of time living in the district. Though his Dominican-born parents immigrated to the Bronx before having him, he has only lived in the city for the last five years. He is running on a platform with some unique ideas, like building more co-ops that provide middle-class New Yorkers the opportunity to own their homes, creating superblocks (streets where car traffic is closed off during the day to allow pedestrians to walk freely), and requiring individual police officers to pay for half of a liability insurance policy in the case that there is a winning lawsuit against them.
He’s also been critical of some of his opponents’ positions, such as Marte’s support of No New Jails, an abolitionist movement that calls for Rikers jails to close but without any new jails being built. The movement calls for an investment in community-based resources to address issues that contribute to crime, such as housing insecurity and mental health treatment, but has been criticized as impractical due to the number of people currently incarcerated, particularly related to violent crime.
“The goal is to close Rikers Island, that is 100% the goal, that is exactly what we should be doing. And we do need to build new jails in order to make that happen,” Salas said. “There’s a lot of validity to the criticisms and the community feedback when it comes to building new jails, what has happened and with all the proposals and what does occur is that every single time there needs to be a social responsibility to do the right thing like close Rikers Island, that responsibility falls upon usually the lowest socioeconomic populations within the city.”
On the jails plan, Li said she is “willing to reassess, if the conversation becomes open again, what is best for Chinatown,” and that she would want to see a more significant investment in alternatives to incarceration programs. Lam-Low similarly said that the community should have been consulted more and mentioned how the proposed jail is larger than what was anticipated at 29 stories, creating another issue.
Salas also disagreed with Marte’s stance on Elizabeth Street Garden and said his near-successful run in 2017 seemed to be mostly supported by NIMBYs (those who support things like affordable housing or homeless shelters generally but oppose them when they are to be built in their neighborhood). Salas supports Haven Green due to the affordable housing it would bring and similarly — although he is not fully behind it — Salas said he would be in favor of the Two Bridges development if it brought more affordable housing (currently, 700 of the estimated 3,000 units planned to be built would be affordable).
Salas has been working at the Bronx Charter School For Better Learning, where 80% of the student population lives below the poverty line and between 2-5% experience homelessness annually, he said. He added that he has created different youth afterschool programs on topics ranging from computer science to music, something he’d like to see done across the city in partnership with local businesses to teach students skills relevant to their interests.
Education is a key issue in the district as well, according to Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, who represents Lower Manhattan at the state level.
“The schools in the Lower East Side are literally on the cover of The New York Times for segregation,” Niou said in an interview. “Our district is very much for making sure that we have equitable schools.”
Niou was referring to recent reporting detailing how District 1 has some of the most segregated schools in the city, despite a program that allows families to choose where their children go to elementary school. Efforts to reform the system have been unsuccessful.
“This is one of the most segregated school systems in the country, where there’s invisible lines that doesn’t allow someone who lives in Smith Houses to go to a school in the Seaport,” Marte said. “Even though the Council office has very little to do with education policy, it’s mostly mayoral control, a state issue, I think we have to start focusing on how to change that. And I think one of the biggest things we have to do is fix district lines, and we can do that with the census.”
Lam-Low’s idea to address segregation specifically in specialized high schools is to increase gifted programs in public schools, as she said increasing accessibility to gifted programs will better prepare students from all backgrounds to test into specialized high schools.
But Maron has faced backlash over comments she made about integrating public schools, such as when she defended parents who may be concerned integration would result in their children receiving a worse education, said New York City Department of Education anti-bias training does “nothing to actually improve our broken schools,” and, in 2019, criticized DOE guidelines to address bias and diversify the curriculum.
“I am passionate about public education,” said Maron, who declined to be interviewed for this story, in an emailed statement addressing her past remarks. “I’ve been serving on the district CEC for the last three years and my four children attend public schools. New York families need and deserve excellent, integrated schools that deliver high-quality education especially for marginalized children who rely on public schools as a life-line for economic mobility. Get the money into the classrooms and out of the unnecessary administrators’ offices. Politics must stop. I have spent years working toward those goals. We must be bold and tackle the hard issues, and still be kind to people with whom we differ.”
Maron cited affordable housing as a key issue for her campaign, in addition to helping small businesses affected by the pandemic through loans and more outdoor seating, stopping evictions, cutting “job losses by telling the big corporations to take a break,” creating more parks, and preparing for the next superstorm.
With a crowded field already, Niou was unable to point to any particular candidate she feels will have an edge, saying she doesn’t “know what the field will look like, I haven’t really thrown my hat in the ring.” Niou herself had been talked about as a potential candidate, but said she feels her expertise lies in state politics and government, and that it wouldn’t be fair to her current constituents to move toward the Council, anyway. Still, her endorsement would be a big one as a well-liked politician representing much of the same area, and having just won her Assembly primary by over 20 points against a well-funded challenger.
“I think it's really obvious what I care about resonates with the district,” said Niou, who has made public housing a priority issue. The district has 10 developments operated by the New York City Housing Authority, according to NYCHA.
“Lower Manhattan’s the largest concentration of NYCHA, certainly for Manhattan,” Yang said. “NYCHA is tens of billions of dollars behind in basic repairs. This all exacerbates because of the pandemic, it’s a collection of factors that make day-to-day living more difficult.”
Similar to how all candidates say they will support small business recovery efforts, all candidates have said they would advocate for better conditions in public housing, but distinctions in their positions on how to do so will develop further as the race unfolds.
“The upcoming City Council race is the litmus test for what voters want,” Yang said. “Do they want someone who’s served in the community for a long time, do they want someone who has a lot of government experience, or do they want someone who’s relatively newer?” He mentioned that Brooklyn voters had just elected a wave of new, younger politicians. “There’s so many different candidates and the district is so different neighborhood to neighborhood that you’re going to automatically get a diverse set of candidates with a diverse set of viewpoints. So, it’s a very good flashpoint for what communities in Manhattan want to see in their local representative in 2021.”