Gotham Gazette

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Five-Candidate Field Emerges for Expected Bronx Special Election to Replace Council Member Cohen


Council Member Cohen (left) passing out masks in his Bronx district (photo: @AndrewCohenNYC)

Bronx City Council Member Andrew Cohen’s recent nomination for a Supreme Court judgeship at the Bronx Democratic Party’s judicial convention in August means that the already-underway contest to replace him in the Council will likely move up from a June 2021 primary to a February or March 2021 special election, assuming Cohen assumes his judgeship in January. The special election in Council District 11, along with contests for soon-to-be-vacant seats in Council Districts 15 (Ritchie Torres) and 31 (Donovan Richards), appear likely to be crowded, competitive affairs and are likely to be the first uses of ranked-choice voting in New York City.

City Council District 11, which Cohen has represented since 2014, covers the northwest corner of the Bronx, including the neighborhoods of Bedford Park, Kingsbridge, Riverdale, Norwood, Van Cortlandt Village, Wakefield, and Woodlawn. Riverdale, the traditional political power center of the district, is largely white while the neighborhoods of Kingsbridge and Woodlawn, are home to a majority of people of color.

According to NYU’s Furman Center, in Community Board 8, which overlaps with much of the district, about half of the population is Hispanic, while 29% is white and 15% are black. The poverty rate in the area covered by the Community Board was 18.8% in 2018, slightly higher than the citywide rate of 17.3% but significantly lower than the borough’s poverty rate of 27.4%. Average rents in Riverdale are about $1,410, while the average rent in the Bronx is $1,210.

Even before Council Member Cohen received his judicial nomination, candidates were already lining up to replace him given term limits, including district leader and teacher Eric Dinowitz (whose father is State Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz), tech entrepreneur Jessica Haller, former Community Board 8 chair Daniel Padernacht, social worker Abigail Martin, and Marcos Sierra, a district leader and former community board member. The recent nomination kicked the budding race into a new gear, likely shortening the timeline, and Gotham Gazette spoke with the five candidates, all Democrats like Cohen, about their campaigns and the top issues in the race including housing, public safety, education, transportation, and more.

“This is a very interesting race during a very interesting time politically in the Bronx,” said Gary Axelbank, host of Bronx Buzz on BronxNet TV. “There’s no question there’s an upheaval in Bronx politics, but there’s a real opportunity for the Bronx to remake itself.”

Eric Dinowitz appears to hold an advantage in name recognition given his father is a Bronx county stalwart who has held his Assembly seat for over two decades. Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz’s 81st District is almost coterminous with the 11th Council District, with the latter extending more into Norwood than the former.

The younger Dinowitz had raised $73,550 for the race, as of a July 11 campaign finance disclosure that covered the previous six months, and had $53,966 in cash-on-hand. Haller came in second in the cash race having raised $55,827, and with a balance of $38,371 in her account. Padernacht has raised $30,961, but has only $3,099 in his account as of July. Martin has not yet filed any financial disclosures.

Eric Dinowitz had 311 individual donors to Haller’s 386 and Padernacht’s 246. Their average donations were $236, $145, and $126, respectively.

“I have hundreds and hundreds of individual donations. The vast majority of those are from the Bronx and small-dollar donations,” Dinowitz said of his fundraising lead. “What that tells me is that I’ve built a broad, deep coalition of support throughout the district.”

The other candidates have criticized the timing of Cohen’s elevation to a judgeship, which they say gives an advantage to Dinowitz since a special election will likely have lower turnout than the June primary and give the candidates less time to establish their campaigns. Eric Dinowitz has pushed back against that critique. “I am a public school teacher and have been a community activist for years,” he said, when asked about the questions surrounding the influence of his father in the race. “The voters are smart. They’re going to make a choice. It’s up to me to tell my story and share my vision of what we need to recover from this crisis and revitalize this community and this city.”

Haller, however, was critical of how the Democratic county party handled the process. “Not only is it a backroom deal where papa gets to anoint his son,” she said. “We’re going to trigger a special election that’s going to cost millions, we’re not going to get full turnout, and the community is going to be unrepresented for months.” The cost of the special election was a particular sticking point for Haller, who noted, “We have budget cuts everywhere.”

Martin echoed Haller. “This is an example of machine politics at play and Jeffrey Dinowitz has orchestrated it. It’s evidence that he doesn’t want the constituents of this district to hear from all the candidates,” she said, citing the difficulties of running as a first-time candidate, particularly during the pandemic. “Special elections are expensive and we should be using that money to keep roofs over heads and food on tables.”

Special elections in New York City are also non-partisan, meaning candidates run on ballot lines they create, and can’t be nominated by the traditional parties. Therefore, none of the candidates will appear on the Democratic Party ballot line. Assuming all goes accordingly for Cohen, the election will take place (using the ranked-choice voting system) and the winner will win the seat outright, and be sworn in soon after to serve the final months of Cohen’s second term. Like with all 51 City Council seats and many other city government positions, there will still be an election for the seat next year via the June primaries and fall general election, to see who holds the position for 2022 and 2023, but the special election will mean there’s an incumbent in that second 2021 race.

Why They’re Running
“Every single day, I see deep inequities in my classroom,” said Eric Dinowitz, who teaches at the Walton Campus, a public school in the Jerome Park neighborhood, “and there’s only so much I can do as a teacher to solve this problem. As a Council Member, I’m going to fight for the structural changes needed for all students, for working families, and for seniors.” Dinowitz, a member of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), has been endorsed by his union. He did not specify what he meant by “structural changes.”

Haller touts the environment as her signature issue and believes that the Bronx has suffered from harmful policies that can be fixed at the local level. “The Earth is on fire quite simply and we feel it quite acutely in the Bronx...We see it in lack of opportunity for kids and we see it disproportionately in all sorts of terrible things from covid to heat. So much of it is completely preventable if you think about the world and the city in a systemic way,” she said, referring specifically to asthma-related and heat deaths caused by pollution.

She describes herself as “a mom and a climate activist and I’ve been an entrepreneur for many years,” pointing to her work on the $3 billion Willets Point development, helping to make the project environmentally sustainable, through her startup at the time. “For me, the next frontier of addressing the most global issues at the most local level is moving into City Council, where I think I can pick up the reins of the really great work that has been started by the Council,” she said.

“I love government service and I think being a City Council Member would allow me to expand the amount of work I do in the community,” said Padernacht, citing his “experience, knowledge, commitment, determination, and willingness to work with everyone.”

Padernacht pointed to his twelve-year Community Board experience, which he believes gives him a “grasp on community efforts” and “really good experience working with the community in the framework of advocating for the community,” as well as a background on the issues that matter most and an understanding of city agencies. In addition to working as chair, Padernacht has served as charity of the board’s transportation committee and vice-chair of its land use committee. He says Community Board members turned Council Members “hit the ground running” because of that “wealth of knowledge.”

“We need a strong economic framework in the city of New York and in order to do that we need to create opportunity for business, support for business, and make sound financial decisions,” said Padernacht, who opposes any city tax increases and supports eliminating waste in city agencies to close the budget gap. “We need that to be able to support our most vulnerable populations.”

Martin was spurred into the race by witnessing the city’s worsening affordability crisis. “After watching families get squeezed out of this city year after year, I’ve grown increasingly concerned that New York is becoming more and more expensive, and then covid hit, leaving us in an enormous fiscal crisis,” she said. “I saw services being cut for those who need it most all while politicians are refusing to ask those who can to help out.”

“We have to do better to save this city and the Bronx from complete collapse,” she added, pointing to affordable housing and childcare as top concerns. She opposes any increases to MTA fares, if possible.

“I’m running because I want to have equitable representation,” said Sierra, a Norwood resident, “that leads to an inequitable distribution of resources. The 11th Councilmanic District is larger than Riverdale.” Sierra serves as a district leader in the 80th Assembly District, only about a fifth of which overlaps with Council District 11.

Sierra continued, “In the uncertain and turbulent times ahead, the people of the 11th CD deserve a representative with real life qualifications. Someone who has lived their struggle, experienced their grief, and can relate to walking in their footsteps.”

Housing & Land Use
Affordable housing is a preeminent issue for voters in the district, as it is across the city. Council Members play a prominent role in the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) and the entire Council traditionally defers to the judgement of the local member when choosing to approve or reject a particular land use application, which at times become controversial when large projects or increased density are involved. The area is home to few public housing units: in Community Board 8, only 3.4% of rental units are NYCHA housing, compared to a borough-wide average of 9.7%, according to the Furman Center.

“It’s vital that we keep people in their homes, especially our seniors,” Eric Dinowitz said, stressing the importance of ensuring access to the city’s Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) Program and the Disability Rent Increase Exemption (DRIE) programs. He wants to expand the city’s affordable housing supply, “so people can afford to live in their own city,” but did not specify how the housing supply should be grown.

“The lens that I am viewing my vision of the city is equity, resilience, and sustainability,” Haller said, clarifying that “sustainable also means financially sustainable.” “Affordable housing has to be built well and built safely,” she said. “Everything that we build in this city needs to be able to withstand what’s coming and to be operating into the future.”

“We need to focus on affordable housing, but the business model needs to work so developers come and do it,” Haller stated, decrying some “false business models” that use too-high Area Median Income (AMI) numbers, often set by city and federal formulas, that make included affordable housing unaffordable to local residents.

“One of the biggest things we can do to create stable housing is affordable housing through homeownership,” Padernact told Gotham Gazette. He praised the state’s Mitchell-Lama program, which provides rental and cooperative housing to moderate- and middle-income families through private development, and said that the opportunity exists for the city to establish similar programs.

On land use, Padernact said he would take a “holistic view” and “look at the benefit to the community of any potential new development. I’m going to look to see how that development fits within the immediate community. I’m certainly going to seek feedback from neighbors and stakeholders. And, I’m going to look at its impact on the district’s infrastructure,” specifically its effect on public transit, schools, and emergency services.

“I would suggest a more aggressive approach,” Martin said, on affordable housing, saying there was “room for improvement” with Mayor de Blasio’s housing strategy, which relies on subsidizing the development of rent-restricted housing and rezoning large swathes of neighborhoods to create more density. “We need to talk about [land use]. We have areas that don’t have the infrastructure to handle more people and we have areas that can,” she said, emphasizing the importance of impact studies that can gauge the long-term effects a rezoning would have.

Sierra said his top priority is “real affordable housing, not that band-aid stuff,” specifically referring to Area Median Income determinations. “The AMI for the City of New York is artificially inflated because it includes affluent suburbs,” he said, and pointing out that the AMI assesses the median income for a family of four at around $113,700, when the Bronx’s median income is closer to $36,530. “Because of this AMI, people in the Bronx pay 50% of our income to rent, when the national average is 30%. It blows my mind that the borough that has the lowest pay per capita in the country pays the most rent in the entire nation.”

Sierra suggested that the City Council create an AMI specifically for the Bronx, so that affordable housing guidelines reflect the actual incomes of the residents of the borough, though it is not clear if that is something the Council can do and have the city still be eligible for federal housing funds.

Police Accountability & Public Safety
Amid recent Black Lives Matter protests and the “Defund the NYPD” movement, police accountability and reform are once again major issues in city elections. The candidates in the District 11 race all voiced support for the movement for greater police accountability, but some stopped short of advocating for significantly shifting funds from the police department to social services.

“We obviously have deep problems with policing in New York City,” said Eric Dinowitz, who supported recently enacted reforms such as the repeal of Section 50-A of the state civil rights law, which shielded police officers’ disciplinary records from public view, and a state law criminalizing the use of chokeholds by officers during arrests. “Maybe we don’t need to criminalize certain behaviors,” he added, particularly in reference to people experiencing homelessness. “Something I’ve been advocating for years has been more social and emotional health training.”

“I struggle to see what a simple statement like getting rid of a billion dollars does,” Dinowitz said, when asked about the ‘defund the NYPD’ movement, which had called for cutting $1 billion from the police department’s roughly $6 billion annual operating budget. “Cutting the budget in and of itself does nothing to change the culture or legislation of what police do.”

Haller initially supported defunding the police budget by $1 billion over four years in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, and now supports calls for a $1 billion reduction in the police budget. However, she said, “I will not legislate by hashtag. You can’t take an organization and say ‘I’m going to give you less money and fewer resources and you have to do better.’”

“The slogan ‘defund the police’ is a bad slogan,” Padernacht said. “I would be supportive of diverting money to other services that add to the public safety of the city.” Citing recent cash bail reforms and a purported NYPD work slowdown, he said, “I think the increase in crime is due to a perception that there aren’t many consequences for those committing the crimes in New York at this moment and I think perception is the key word there.” Notably, while overall the major index felony crimes are slightly lower than last year, murders and gun violence have increased significantly.

Martin said she’s still “in the fact-finding phase,” but added, “In general, we are watching crime go up and I think that that is becoming a big concern for people. When you talk about tightening the budget, every single city agency has to do their fair share to get us through this crisis.”

Similar to other candidates, Sierra expressed skepticism over “Defund the NYPD” as a slogan, saying, “I believe that you can support the police and still be against police brutality. We need law enforcement in our neighborhoods. Anyone who says otherwise is not paying attention, for practical safety purposes.”

“I agree with the reallocation,” Sierra said, referring to recent budge shifts by the City Council and mayor, adding, “I feel that we should not have police officers in school.”

The reopening of city schools is an issue raised by many of the candidates, who almost uniformly expressed skepticism about the city’s plan, which involves partial in-person instruction mixed with virtual learning. New York City is currently the only major school system in the country with plans for in-person learning to begin when the school year starts (for New York City students on September 10).

“I’m a parent myself. I think all of us want our children back in the classroom, but I think we all want our children to be safe,” Eric Dinowitz said.

Haller, a mother of four school-aged children, said, “There’s an absolute lack of common sense and common goals, so that the teachers don’t trust that they’re going to be safe and the parents don’t trust that their kids are going to be taken care of.”

“I believe that housing, education, and public safety are inextricably combined with one another and when it comes to education we need to move to skills-based education and away from teaching to a test,” Padernacht said. On the school reopening plan, he said “We’re not prepared for blended learning” and “we should target in-person teaching to the students who need it most.”

Martin, who has children in public school, has decided to keep her young children in remote learning this year. She explained, “Parents who are able to make that choice should make that choice so that parents who are unable to, who have to go to work, can. I’m very concerned with how things are going to go. I’m going to be watching it very closely and we’ll see what happens. I wish the Department of Education had been able to get more creative, but here we are.”

On the city's school reopening plans, Sierra said, “It could be better.” He specifically cited air filtration systems in school facilities as a major concern. “If there is no comprehensive testing done on the ventilation systems in every school, we are potentially putting children and faculty in extreme danger for exposure to covid and that’s not acceptable.”

Communities like in Council District 11, at the very edges of the city proper, are in constant need of mass transit access and reliability.

Eric Dinowitz pointed to his activism on transit, campaigning for accessibility at an MTA station in the district, which was ultimately successful. He tied the city’s recovery efforts inextricably to this issue. “As we’re looking to revitalize this city, especially our businesses, we have to ensure that our transit system works and that it works for everybody,” he said. Dinowitz points to his advocacy against the MTA’s plans during the Bronx bus route redesign to cut express bus service in the district, which ultimately did not happen.

“Covid really makes this very hard,” Haller noted, citing the fall-off in the MTA’s revenue. “We need to make public transportation such that people find it convenient enough not to need a car.” She proposes installing CitiBikes in the northern Bronx, which currently does not have any, and focus on other “micro-transit” solutions to make public transportation more accessible. Despite the recent redesign of bus routes in the Bronx, which Haller called “a great attempt,” she said that “it’s going to be really hard to satisfy everyone.”

Sierra opposed the recent Bronx bus redesign, saying, “I thought it was a bad idea from the beginning” and decrying what he called a lack of community engagement. ADA compliance is also a top concern when it comes to transportation for Sierra. “If we’re going to have a conservation about improving transportation, that should be number one if not number two on the list," he said.

“There are still a lot of residents [of the district] who rely on cars,” Padernacht said. He supports the expansion of bike routes in the district, saying “it’s a safety issue for pedestrians, bikers, and drivers.”

Additionally Haller discussed at length her signature issue of the environment, noting that heat deaths and childhood asthma hospitalization rates are on the rise in the city, and saying “The heat island that is the Bronx and all of New York City is even hotter” than the world as a whole. She wants to see congestion pricing, low-emission zones, and other policies that would reduce the cars on the city’s roads.

“We’re terrible,” Haller said of the city’s resiliency efforts. She opposes a massive proposed sea wall and instead believes the city should be pursuing “living shorelines” and “other small, diverse” resiliency projects. “We have to learn to live with the water,” she said. “We’re not going to hold it back.”

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to remove Dionel Then, who dropped from the race just as this story went to publication. It has also been corrected to remove mention of Martin's fundraising numbers, she has not yet filed any and updated to add that Marcos Sierra is running and comments from an interview with him.

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