Gotham Gazette Thu, 04 Mar 2021 21:10:58 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) City Council Examines De Blasio Administration’s Efforts to Combat Unemployment 1 city council examines admin efforts

Council Member Paul Vallone (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

The City Council’s committees on economic development and small business met last week for an oversight hearing to assess how the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC), the city Department of Small Business Services (SBS), and the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development have adjusted their programming because of COVID-19 and discuss what they’re doing to promote equity across the five boroughs.

According to the New York State Department of Labor, unemployment rates have been especially high in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. The Bronx had the highest unemployment rate of all boroughs as of October, the most recent month for which the data is available. At 17.5%, the Bronx unemployment rate was higher than the citywide rate of 13.1% and the statewide rate of 9.2%. Council Member Mark Gjonaj, who represents parts of the Bronx and chairs the Council’s small business committee, said the borough needs more career development resources. 

“We’ve been at the top of what’s bad and the bottom of what’s good,” Gjonaj said at the hearing. “I don’t know how much more evidence we need that the borough of the Bronx needs and deserves more resources.”

Gjonaj, as well as people who offered testimony in the latter part of the hearing, expressed concern about the digital divide, but Small Business Services Commissioner Jonnel Doris insisted that his agency is reaching everyone who needs help. “We did a survey,” he said. “96% [of respondents] have reliable internet access.” He also pointed out that one does not need internet access to reach the SBS; the agency is also accessible by phone. Even so, Gjonaj expressed concern that even if people without internet access could access SBS resources, they might not be aware that those resources exist.

Gjonaj also asked Doris how SBS would prevent unemployment rates from going back up now that cases of COVID-19 are rising. “We have the infrastructure,” Doris explained, “because we’ve been through it, and we have those systems in place.” Doris said in his opening statement that SBS was able to shift all 18 of its Workforce1 Career Centers to an online format by March 23, and that it’s assisted more than 63,000 people since then.

“To date [since March] we have connected more than 7,500 New Yorkers with jobs with an average wage of $17.36,” he said. In June, SBS also launched a free, virtual home health aide training program in response to an increased demand for these services during the pandemic, Doris said. 

City Council Member Paul Vallone of Queens, chair of the Council’s economic development committee, asked Justin Kreamer, Senior Vice President at EDC, how the agency is making sure opportunities reach people in outer boroughs who need them most.

“Broadly speaking, we do have a five-borough strategy, so we always have an eye out for equity,” he said. “All projects that come in, we evaluate those on a case-by-case basis to make sure that they align with our values. If a project is based in one borough, our hopes is that the project itself would be something that would be accessible to residents in other boroughs as well.” His answer was not detailed, but he offered to “follow up” with the chair with more information, an offer he made several times throughout the hearing.

Kreamer also said EDC, which is a nonprofit local development corporation essentially run by the mayoral administration, supports job creation in all five boroughs by investing in fast-growing industries, like technology, cybersecurity, and the life sciences. EDC runs the LifeSci NYC paid internship program, which began in 2016 and employs local college students from low-income backgrounds, he noted. “Roughly 41% of all participants in the program have been CUNY students, over two-thirds have been nonwhite, 54% have been TAP or Pell Grant-eligible students, and 33% of the participants have been first-generation college students,” said Kreamer. 

He also mentioned a cybersecurity bootcamp, run between the city and the private organization Fullstack Academy, that began about a year ago. He said that there have been about 105 students in that program so far and about 90% of them have gotten jobs. He did not mention that it costs between $15,980 and $17,910 to participate in the 17-to-26-week-long program unless a student receives scholarships, according to the program’s website.

Amy Peterson, the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development, expressed enthusiasm about state legislation, recently proposed by the de Blasio administration, to change the Citywide Renovation Project Labor Agreement so that city contractors are required to hire workers from zip codes where at least 15% of the population lives below the federal poverty level or in NYCHA housing, with the goal of making similar modifications to other PLAs in other industries. Under the proposal, 30% of hours worked under PLA projects must be logged by people from high-poverty communities, and city contractors must also hire apprentices and pre-apprentices, especially who live in disadvantaged communities and public housing.

“When you look at neighborhoods that have poverty over 15%, you look at the Bronx,” Peterson said. “We’re clearly focused on the communities with the highest level of poverty.” If the city gets federal stimulus money for infrastructure, she said, then new projects can occur under the new PLA.

While city officials who testified spoke to the desperate need for federal and state funding, the co-chairs of the hearing told them not to wait for it and to move ahead with projects even if the results are imperfect. “It’s not waiting, but it’s also being ready,” Peterson said. “The place we don’t want to be in is stimulus funding or state legislation and not being ready to use it immediately.”

But by launching a new, albeit incomplete, workforce data portal, Peterson’s agency and the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity have done what the co-chairs suggested and gone forward with the project. The goal of is to bring workforce development programs at different city agencies to one place. Currently, the website shows career development opportunities like skills training for NYCHA residents and high school equivalency exam preparation. Posting career development opportunities is just one function of the portal.

Another purpose of the workforce data portal will be to offer data visualizations about outcomes of workforce development programs offered by different city agencies. This data will include, but not be limited to, where people who participated in workforce development programs live, how much money they make, and how many of them have been able to find full-time and part-time jobs. This information will make it easier for people to assess the success of the programs. 

Peterson said that the mayor’s office has about half of the data it needs for this portal, but is still uploading data from the city’s Human Resources Administration, as well as from some small agencies. “The idea is that this will be made available to the public in 2021,” Peterson said, adding that the project was delayed because of the pandemic. 

Vallone encouraged Peterson to make the data public as soon as possible even though it’s incomplete so that it can be used to help navigate the current crisis. “I don’t think anyone would be upset even if it’s not completely 100% of the data at this point,” he said. (He then moved on and she did not respond.)

Other than Vallone and Gjonaj several City Council members from the two committees were present on the digital hearing, but few spoke at all or asked any questions of those testifying.

In the latter part of the hearing, leaders from smaller career development agencies and nonprofits in the city each spoke briefly, explaining what their organizations, which often get city funding, do and their shifts to online programming during the pandemic. They also expressed their need for government funding and explained the challenges faced by the communities their agencies serve, especially people of color, immigrants, women, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities.

Jose Ortiz, Jr., CEO of NYC Employment and Training Coalition, was among leaders briefly offering recommendations at the hearing. “We need to provide more resources for workforce development programming” in order to retrain people in the retail, hospitality, building maintenance, and transportation industries whose jobs are threatened by automation, he said. Ortiz also recommended improving broadband access and more support for small businesses.

“The human resources sector is in danger of budget cuts at all government levels,” he stressed, “and they won’t be able to do the increased work of aiding the economic recovery without resources.”

by Lauren Hakimi, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Examines De Blasio Administration’s Efforts to Combat Unemployment Fri, 18 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
City's 'Open Storefronts' Program Critiqued as Too Late and Too Limited But with Room to Grow 1 nycsbs

SBS Commissioner Doris at a small business (photo: @NYC_SBS)

Frustrated City Council members and hopeful––yet weary––small business advocates took to a hearing Tuesday to express their concerns about the Open Storefronts program launched recently by Mayor de Blasio after outcry from the business community, particularly smaller retailers. Small businesses, many of which are struggling to hold on if they haven’t already closed due to the pandemic and a lack of government help, can enroll in the program that, as of now, will give them through December 31 to sell their merchandise right outside their establishments.

After months of city government action mostly focused on the restaurant industry, the city’s Business Improvement District Association wrote a letter in early October to the mayor and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson calling for such an initiative, proposed to mirror the success of the Open Restaurants program, increase foot traffic, and drive up sales for retailers. The BID Association pushed for the inception of the program for months before its launch on October 28, weeks after its open letter.

Tuesday’s City Council hearing was led by the Council Member Andrew Cohen, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the Council Committee on Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing, and Council Member Mark Gjonaj, also a Bronx Democrat, who chairs the Council Committee on Small Businesses.

Cohen began by acknowledging the effect online shopping has had on local communities, citing a lack of storefronts in “typical high-traffic areas.” He acknowledged the impact of COVID-19, calling the pandemic a “final nail in the coffin” for some small businesses and large retailers alike. He attributed the survival of small retailers to either resilience or “pure New York-style hustle,” but also pointed out that as of November, small business’ retail revenue was down 35% compared to January. Whether it’s due to the lack of the tourist market, the number of people working from home or avoiding shopping, or the capacity restrictions for stores, even small businesses that are weathering the storm are still suffering, he said.

Open Storefronts is intended to combat some of these trends, and help small businesses in the city survive.

“Today, the committees are eager to hear directly from retailers on their experience with the program,” Cohen said. “We are also grateful that the administration has made time to be here today, as we would like to hear the reasoning for some of the elements of the program. For instance, I’m curious as to why the program was not started earlier, perhaps in the summer when people could take advantage of the good weather. I’d also like to know why the program doesn’t fully extend the same permissions as the outdoor dining initiative…We’re also keen to hear how widespread the program is. Outdoor dining has been well-received so much so that we have passed legislation to make it permanent, but the success of outdoor retail is less clear.”

Gjonaj opened with a handful of daunting statistics regarding unemployment rates, revenue loss, and business closures. “According to a city comptroller report,” he said, “over 800 retail establishments have closed permanently between March 1 and July 10, causing a permanent loss of jobs and wages in the city, as well as tax base.” He acknowledged gratitude small business owners feel for the city Department of Small Business Services’ funding assistance programs and thanked SBS Commissioner Jonnell Doris for his work to get the initiatives up and running.

But Gjonaj also made clear his worries of whether or not it's enough to sustain struggling businesses. “I fear that small retail stores will soon be a relic of the past,” he said. “They need more than we’ve given them, and they need it today.”

According to Commissioner Doris, roughly 40,000 businesses across the city are eligible to participate in the Open Storefront program, but just 563 businesses are signed up so far — a rate Cohen called “modest.”

When asked, Doris did not have data for how many retailers do not qualify for the program due to issues like a lack of sidewalk depth (participating stores must have 8 feet clearance for foot traffic as well as space for merchandise).

The commissioner cited a couple of reasons for limited participation thus far. “One, we know that some of the stores are already participating in the program,” he said. “We also know that many of the stores put their wares out front [without applying], so we have to go around––which we have been doing––to just tell them to sign up for the program. That’s just that information gap there. The reality, the harsh reality, is that...we’ve heard from some of our BID partners, we’ve heard from businesses, as well, that the pandemic has caused somewhat of a slowdown, [with the] uptick in COVID transmission in hot zones, et cetera.”

In response to Cohen’s question on why the urgency to create this program wasn’t parallel to that of the urgency for Open Restaurants, Doris responded, “We do know that this is the time that our small businesses need it––particularly our storefront businesses. This is the time that they actually get 70% of their sales. We want to make sure that we highlight this time and give them the opportunity to do it during the holiday season. The last several months of the year [are] when they make the majority of their sales.”

While “no one is turned away” from the application according to Doris, there was a general acknowledgement at the hearing that there is a lack of awareness about the program. Council Member Karen Koslowitz, a Queens Democrat, said that while walking down Austin Street, the “5th Ave of Queens,” she noticed only one store had their merchandise displayed outside. The commissioner explained that outreach is “extensive,” noting they are partnered with 76 BIDs, have conducted 233 webinars and done trainings, have taken to the grounds to speak with businesses, connected with the chambers of commerce in the boroughs, utilized media, and sent out materials.

The hearing, however, demonstrated that there are multiple concerns––the narrow timeline being one of them. Responding to Gjonaj’s question on whether or not the program will be extended after the end of the year, Doris said he did not have an announcement to make but that the administration is open to, and reviewing, the idea. Gjonaj urged Doris and the administration to give small businesses a “fighting chance” and to make the decision sooner rather than later, adding, “They’ve got four more weeks, hopefully, to the end of the year. They’re second-guessing whether or not they should make any investment, and the creativity of how to market their products, enclosures, so on and so forth…There’s no reason to wait for the last moment.”

Gjonaj continued to bring up the $37 million Lower and Moderate Income Storefront Loan spearheaded by de Blasio and Doris, clarifying with the commissioner that $35 million of that investment is for loans, not grants. He raised the clause within participation in the loan program that requires storeowners to make personal guarantees, calling this requirement “odd” in light of New York’s recent ban on similar clauses presented to renters by landlords. He suggested that these types of clauses are potentially deterring small businesses from participating.

“We’re partnered with a lender…and those are regular loan procedures that occur when we have small business loans,” Doris said. “We certainly hear that as a concern. We don’t believe that that would be an issue based upon our research with the businesses that are potentially able to utilize this program. We will monitor it to see if it is, but don’t think it will be and we don't think it's something that is prohibited…It’s generally how business loans are operated now.”

There is a “backstop” to handle these challenges, he clarified, citing a loan loss reserve and noting the program is interest-free. He claimed confidence in the product, that it is a “targeted” fund to lower- and moderate-income communities who were not assisted by the federal government.

In response to Gjonaj asking if the commissioner believed $35 million in the loan program to be “enough,” Doris said no and called for another federal stimulus package, saying the only entity that can make a true difference is the federal government. To this, Gjonaj recalled the recent de Blasio proposal for a $900 million school bus program.

“The money that we’ve thrown into this so far is laughable…We’ve abused small businesses as the piggy banks in the well that we constantly go to to draw water from, and in their time of need, we weren’t there for them,” Gjonaj said. “The facts are in the dollar amount. I know, commissioner, that if you had it your way, if we had a magic wand, we’d be giving billions of dollars out in grants…To replace the word ‘targeted,’ I would use the word ‘discouraging.’” 

Issues regarding the physical execution of storefront operations like utilizing sidewalks while following guidelines, sharing space with restaurants, obtaining access to roadways, and dealing with competing street vendors were also detailed as problems during the hearing.

Council Member Peter Koo of Queens referred to downtown Flushing, in his district, asking how businesses are supposed to compete with large amounts of unlicensed vendors selling “everything under the sun” and taking up sidewalk space without any authoritative enforcement. He also mentioned security concerns with putting merchandise outside (they are required to be pulled back inside at the end of each day) and inquired about the possibility of a tax moratorium for small businesses during the holiday season. Doris said the Department of Small Business Services is not an enforcement agency and that he doesn’t have any information about a tax moratorium. He acknowledged the concerns and pledged to continue to work with downtown Flushing businesses and Koo.

Koslowitz, Gjonaj, and Cohen expressed similar concerns regarding street vendors, alleging that rules are not enforced by the city. Gjonaj said it’s a potentially dangerous race to see who can get on the sidewalk first. “We need to make a plan before we have to be reactive to a tragedy,” he said. Expressing frustration, Cohen said that there were no answers given on the matter during the hearing because there are no policy answers in general.

Mark Caserta, the executive director of the Park Slope 5th Avenue BID representing the BID Association, outlined reasons for hesitation to join the program and presented numerous suggested improvements. He noted that concerns include budget and staffing restrictions, lack of experience with outdoor setups, busyness and stress, and weariness to be “early adopters” of such a program. He recommended that the program be extended at least until capacity limitations inside stores are lifted, an education program for businesses who do not benefit from BID Associations, and a publication of data in a similar vein to that of the Open Restaurant program.

The president of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce, Lisa Sorin, agreed and addressed concerns similar to Caserta’s. She attributed the short timeline to use the program as well as the late notice of its existence, weather issues, worries about enforcement problems resembling what restaurants experienced, and oversaturation of sidewalks with merchandise, restaurants, and homeless individuals. She also brought up the storefront loan program, telling an anecdote about a minority-owned business facing eviction and in “desperate need” of the money, but unable to apply until after December 13 because they are in the second phase of the loan distribution. The store will only be eligible if there is money left in the loan program and if the store meets all criteria, she said.

Camelia Tepelus of the Morris Park BID in the Bronx continued the conversation on vendors, calling for more enforcement. She also said there is no visual distinction between vendors and small businesses once they’re operating outside and suggested some kind of demarcation for participating businesses. CEO and president of the New York Women’s Chamber of Commerce Quenia Abreu called for more promotion, and more direct involvement of small businesses in decision-making roundtables, as well as the inclusion of the organizations that work closely with small businesses and assist with loans and grants.

In final remarks, Cohen acknowledged the work SBS has done facing a daunting task. Gjonaj closed saying, “Nothing is perfect, but as long as we keep trying and improving on what we have, we continue to make a difference.”

by Angelica Crisostomo, Gotham Gazette

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City's 'Open Storefronts' Program Critiqued as Too Late and Too Limited But with Room to Grow Tue, 01 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Mark Gjonaj, Bronx City Council Member and Real Estate Player, Blamed ‘Progressives’ for Not Evicting Tenant Now in Prison for Federal Drug Crimes cm gjonaj town hall district

City Council Member Mark Gjonaj (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)

At an April 2018 constituent forum, City Council Member Mark Gjonaj found himself taking a particularly tough question from a community member.  

It was a unique problem for the Council member of the tight-knit City Island community of the Bronx, where he is popular. A constituent asked Gjonaj why a notorious heroin dealer was allowed to live and sell drugs in an apartment building previously managed by Gjonaj and owned by Gjonaj’s family for years.

Gjonaj, a Democrat, called the question the “dirtiest thing” he had ever been asked and said laws exist that “protect criminals” by preventing eviction.

“I know the law when it comes to real estate. And it’s the progressives who don’t allow me to evict a criminal,” said Gjonaj, to cheers.

He later said “no law would allow me to evict” the dealer and that he threatened him.

“I promised him that if I saw him dealing, that I would be his problem. I took matters into my own hands when I was a civilian,” Gjonaj recounted at the April 2018 meeting (which has not been reported on before), a statement his office is now contradicting, claiming Gjonaj had no knowledge of the serious drug-dealing going on at the property.

The drug dealer in question was Frankie Beqiraj, who was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison in December 2018 for distributing heroin, cocaine, oxycodone, and Xanax throughout City Island. He caused the direct overdose deaths of at least four residents in the area, according to a federal sentencing memo.

Federal prosecutors said “that Beqiraj used his home as the center of his drug operation...confirmed by the evidence recovered from his home by law enforcement.”

This evidence included heroin, oxycodone, cocaine, marijuana, scales for drug measurement, plastic bags for packaging the narcotics, and a safe designed for keeping a handgun. Prosecutors said Beqiraj not only sold heroin to customers in his home but also sold to employees who would later deal on his behalf.

Beqiraj lived at 30 Pilot Street, otherwise known as Pickwick Terrace, a property that Mark Gjonaj managed for years until 2016. Gjonaj was a member of the New York State Assembly from 2012 through 2017, the year he won a seat in the City Council, where he has served since January 2018. The property is currently owned by Gjonaj family members, namely Kramluap Realty LLC (Kramluap is Mark and Paul, the name of Gjonaj’s brother and previous business partner, spelled backwards).

It shares the business address of a number of companies that Council Member Gjonaj currently receives passive income from (the City Council banned members from earning most types of active income in 2016, which, upon his joining the Council, impacted Gjonaj more than most, if not all, members).

Contradicting what Mark Gjonaj said to City Island constituents in April 2018, earlier this month and nearly a year later, a spokesperson for Gjonaj denied that the Council member ever knew there was drug dealing going on at 30 Pilot Street when he managed the building. He also said Gjonaj never tried to evict Beqiraj because there was no means to do so.

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, the spokesperson for Council Member Gjonaj defended his role:

“Mr. Beqiraj, who originally moved into the building as a child with his family, live [sic] in one of the buildings owned by the councilman’s family. Mr. Beqiraj was convicted in part due to the video evidence provided by the managing company and the councilman was happy to see that justice was served. This was a tragedy that impacted not only the victims but the families that were forced to mourn their loss. It’s a shame that these families now have to relive these painful memories because someone has chosen to politicize their tragedy in an effort to score a political point. We understand that politics can be a rough arena but there are some issues that no decent person should attempt to capitalize on. This is one of those times,” said Reginald Johnson, chief of staff for Council Member Gjonaj.

Beqiraj had been arrested several times prior to his 2018 conviction and served three years in prison before returning to 30 Pilot Street in 2013. Federal prosecutors allege that in July 2016, Beqiraj assumed “his role as the leader of a drug enterprise that provided one-stop shopping for addicts throughout the small Bronx community of City Island.” He was arrested in early 2017.

Gjonaj’s management company provided video evidence of Beqiraj to federal prosecutors, aiding in his conviction. A spokesperson for Gjonaj said Beqiraj was not convicted of anything and, therefore, there was no recourse to evict him. The spokesperson also said tenant laws would have protected Beqiraj. This runs counter to Beqiraj’s arrest record prior to his federal sentencing and New York state realty law’s threshold for evicting a tenant engaging in “illegal business.”

It is not the first time Gjonaj’s relationships with his past and current businesses have come up as questions during his career as a legislator.

While Gjonaj served in the Assembly, he spent a large sum of campaign funds at his brother’s restaurant and helped host an ethically-mired Albanian Flag Day party also involving his brother’s business. Gjonaj is the first Albanian-American elected to the City Council.

After entering the City Council, Gjonaj ran into trouble for his past business relationship with a major Bronx trash hauler responsible for worker deaths and his legislative and public relations efforts to help them. The company, Sanitation Salvage, whose owners have donated heavily to Gjonaj's campaigns, has been put out of business by the city.

And, early this year, Gjonaj was reportedly under examination from the City Council for his use of taxpayer funds to pay for services from companies whose owners are campaign donors and a company sharing a business address with his own businesses.

by Jake Shore for Gotham Gazette

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Mark Gjonaj, Bronx City Council Member and Real Estate Player, Blamed ‘Progressives’ for Not Evicting Tenant Now in Prison for Federal Drug Crimes Thu, 04 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Council Member Uses Campaign Funds to Sue City, Raising Questions city cm mark gjonal 5 emil cohen

City Council Member Mark Gjonaj (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

Bronx City Council Member Mark Gjonaj is using two campaign accounts to fund a lawsuit against New York City, raising questions about how candidates can spend their campaign money.

Over $17,000 from Gjonaj’s 2017 and 2021 City Council campaign accounts have gone to pay Dunnington, Bartholow, & Miller, a law firm representing then candidate Gjonaj in a suit where he is listed as the lead plaintiff against the City of New York, according to campaign finance records through July 2018.

Then a state Assembly member, Gjonaj initiated the suit during his campaign for City Council two weeks before the Democratic primary, alleging that the Bronx was overburdened with more homeless shelter and mental health patient beds, more so than any other borough. Specifically, the complaint argued that the Bronx pays more than its “fair share,” which is a provision in the city Charter providing for shared responsibility across the five boroughs for some of the most burdensome facilities.

The case has lasted for more than a year, and state court records show that Gjonaj switched attorneys in February to the firm of Edmond Pryor, his senior government advisor, according to LinkedIn. Gjonaj’s 2021 campaign account closed Dunnington, Bartholow, & Miller’s tab with a $9,372 payment in the latest filing over the summer.

City and state election law holds that campaign expenditures should be campaign-related. City elections are overseen by the Campaign Finance Board (CFB), where most of its regulations exist for candidates who opt-in to the board’s highly-praised matching funds program. Candidates who opt in get subjected to higher scrutiny and tighter rules as part of the deal for accepting public money.

It is unclear if the lawsuit constitutes campaign activity, with Gjonaj apparently pushing the boundaries by using campaign funds for a lawsuit that does not appear directly related to the act of running for office.

“I can’t see any way that funding a lawsuit with no relevance to a campaign can be a legal use of campaign funds, whether the candidate is participating in the matching funds program or not,” said election attorney Sarah Steiner. “The NYC Campaign Finance law is clear that campaign funds may be used only to defend matters related to campaign activity, and not at all to bring lawsuits.”

The CFB offers little guidance on these specific circumstances. For candidates who do not opt in to the matching funds program, there are fewer restrictions because they are not using public funds.

Council Member Gjonaj, a Democrat, did not opt in to the matching funds program, self-funding much of his past campaign, during which his campaign spent roughly $1.3 million, a record sum for a City Council campaign. The CFB rules document a wide variety of legal and illegal expenditures, but only if the candidate is using public funds. Nonparticipants are still subject to CFB jurisdiction and certain rules, and campaigns are audited by the CFB.

Two-thirds of all citywide candidates opted into the program in 2017, with 89 candidates, including Gjonaj, not participating. Many nonparticipants were incumbents facing limited or no competition who preferred to spend campaign funds by looser rules, at times to support government activity like participatory budgeting, though one Council member paid to air his own weekly radio show.

In 2016, the CFB changes were made, loosening some spending rules and adding one specific measure of oversight to police expenditures beyond those relating to matching funds. The rule states that the board monitors a non-exhaustive list of factors to check if campaigns are acting in bad faith, including “whether the campaign has demonstrated a pattern of making other expenditures not in furtherance of the campaign or impermissible post-election expenditures.”

A representative from the CFB told Gotham Gazette that it has not completed its cycle of audits of city campaigns where specific incidents can be investigated.

“Per CFB policy, we will not provide comment on issues associated with any candidate’s regular post-election campaign audit until after it has been completed,” said Eric Friedman, Assistant Executive Director for Public Affairs for the CFB, in a statement.

Gjonaj’s suit itself had a lot to do with the planks of his campaign, and he was glad to use those raised funds to pursue his agenda, according to his office.

“From public safety to recreational funding, Councilman Gjonaj made the case throughout the 2017 campaign that the Bronx wasn’t getting its fair share. It was a message that Bronxites inherently understood and rallied behind on Election Day. He’s a fierce advocate for the Bronx, and if he has to go to court to protect our community from City Hall’s unfair policies, he will, as he did,” said Reginald Johnson, Chief of Staff to Gjonaj, in a statement.

The Bronx Council member’s lawsuit, where several other Bronx community and business leaders are also listed as plaintiffs, calls for the city to halt further construction of homeless shelters in the Bronx and to release indexes to measure “beds to population.”

“The disproportionate number of Residential Facilities sited in the Bronx interferes with and causes damage to Bronx community residents; interferes with the community's use of public resources; and has subjected and will continue to subject the community, including plaintiffs, to significant hazards and risks to health, safety and property,” reads the complaint.

The city has sought to dismiss the suit, arguing that the plaintiffs do not cite a specific enough harm beyond the community at large.

Because Gjonaj filed his suit as a candidate and as a private individual, he is not subject to regulations handed down by a State Supreme Court judge in February. That ruling found that City Council members cannot sue the city in their official capacities because members are supposed to be represented by the city’s Law Department, which is already representing the city.

The CFB allows for suits from candidates to be paid for with public funds when the campaign’s eligibility for public funds is challenged in court. While Gjonaj’s suit relates to policies of his campaign, he is not subject to the same rules as those using matching funds and there are no specific city rules pertaining to his situation.

“It sounds like the lawsuit relates to governmental policy but was not brought in connection with his holding of office or campaigning for office,” said Jerry Goldfeder, a special counsel with Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, specializing in campaign finance law. “As such, it is not proper to use campaign funds for such legal representation.”

by Jake Shore for Gotham Gazette

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Council Member Uses Campaign Funds to Sue City, Raising Questions Thu, 25 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Close Ties Among Bronx Electeds, Campaign Consultants, Lobbyists and Donors klein gjonaj office share shot

Klein-Gjonaj offices (photo via Google Maps)

Bronx City Council Member Mark Gjonaj already has a 2021 campaign office, and an officemate. The “Gjonaj 2021” re-election campaign account pays rent for a headquarters in Morris Park that is shared with State Senator Jeff Klein, a longtime Gjonaj ally and founder of the now-defunct Independent Democratic Conference who recently lost in the Democratic primary to challenger Alessandra Biaggi. The two have shared the office space since Gjonaj’s days as a member of the state Assembly.

The two Bronx politicians share a lot. Gjonaj’s City Council district and Klein’s State Senate district overlap significantly. In 2017, Klein endorsed Gjonaj for City Council, and Gjonaj then campaigned for Klein’s re-election this year, going viral in August for yelling “Shame!” through a megaphone at Biaggi as she entered a campaign event.

The two also share connections to a campaign consultancy, lobbyist, and the Squitieri family, large donors to both officials. ProPublica recently exposed Sanitation Salvage, the Squitieri family-run business, for its problematic and deadly business practices in the private waste carting industry. The reporting caused its license to be suspended by the Business Integrity Commission (BIC), punishment both Klein and Gjonaj have fought against.

Klein made major headlines losing his re-election bid last month. He is the largest figure from the IDC, which he started and led, and that previously had a power-sharing agreement with Senate Republicans. Six of the eight former IDC members lost in their Democratic primaries, though some, including Klein, may continue into the general election on other ballot lines. Klein also made news for dropping an unheard-of $3 million in the race as a whole, spending around eleven times more per vote than his opponent.

The Hamilton Campaign Network received about a third of Klein’s spending, though it in turn paid other vendors for campaign work. The political consultancy received $1,014,197 from Klein’s committee in 2018 for mailers and TV and online ads, among other services, according to state campaign finance records. Gjonaj’s 2017 campaign for City Council, which itself set records for spending, paid $212,034 to the group, according to city records.

The head of the Hamilton Campaign Network is John Emrick, former chief of staff to Jeff Klein. Emrick left the IDC fold in 2016 to work in campaigns, returning to work for Klein in a different way this year.

Emrick also lobbies government on behalf of the company that owns the Hamilton Campaign Network, MirRam LLC. During the recent primary election, MirRam’s campaign consultancy company has been a client to most of the former members of the IDC, including Marisol Alcantara, Tony Avella, and David Carlucci along with Attorney General hopeful Letitia James, who has paid MirRam for consultancy since she successfully ran for Public Advocate in 2013.

After Emrick left Klein’s office to campaign and lobby at MirRam, state law places a two-year wait period for former public officials to lobby where they once worked. However, Emrick was still allowed to lobby New York City officials, which would include Gjonaj, and city records show he lobbied on behalf of prominent donors to both Klein and Gjonaj.

Emrick worked as a lobbyist on behalf of the Squitieri brothers in the Bronx since 2016, according to city lobbying records. Sanitation Salvage, run by the Squitieri family, is one of the largest private trash companies in New York City. ProPublica reported that Sanitation Salvage skirted regulation for years, even after worker deaths, through lobbying and a strong foothold in the Bronx political machine.

Since 2016, Steven Squitieri has paid MirRam Group LLC, where Emrick is listed as an employee and as involved in these lobbying efforts, $122,500 to lobby the City Council for Sanitation Salvage.

A spokesman for MirRam said Emrick was not available for comment on this story.

"Hamilton Campaign Network appreciates the trust so many candidates have placed with the firm since its creation in 2016,” said a spokesperson for the Hamilton Campaign Network in a statement. “All required disclosures for Hamilton Campaign Network and its employees are filed regularly and are in order.”

Gjonaj’s connections to the Squitieris go beyond Emrick. Gjonaj’s political club, the North Bronx Democratic Club, has had little activity in the last few years, but Gjonaj has said it was formed to seek out “disenfranchised voters.” More notable is the club’s president, John Squitieri, one of the owners of Sanitation Salvage. The location of the political clubhouse is 2018 Williamsbridge Road, or the campaign headquarters of Gjonaj 2021 and Klein 2018.

Through a number of LLCs and corporations, the Squitieri family has given $120,000 to Klein and $40,000 to Gjonaj since 2007, according to ProPublica.

After criticism that the BIC had softened its oversight of the private trash industry, in August the regulatory agency suspended Sanitation Salvage’s license for unsafe business practices. Salvage quickly filed a lawsuit in Manhattan Supreme Court to fight the suspension.

Klein and Gjonaj then joined in to submit a letter of support for Sanitation Salvage to restore the company’s license. They called the suspension “troubling.”

“Sanitation Salvage has been an exemplary example of a good corporate citizen. Each of our offices have worked directly with Sanitation Salvage in different capacities and have had very positive experiences,” reads the letter.

Gjonaj’s office did not respond to several requests for comment for this story. Sen. Klein could not be reached for comment and has not appeared in public since primary day a month ago.

Good government groups argue that the problem is much larger than Gjonaj and Klein’s close relationship with donors. Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor for Reinvent Albany, contends that problems arise when campaign consultants with established relationships to candidates can also lobby on behalf of other parties, including donors.

"There ought to be a cooling off period before political consultants can lobby the very elected officials whose campaigns they ran," said Camarda. "There is a great deal of public cynicism about government these days, and arrangements like these undermine people's confidence that government officials are making decisions in the public interest."

MirRam Group, run by one of its founders, Luis Manuel Miranda, is not the only group that dabbles in both campaign management and lobbying. The Parkside Group is one of the largest similar groups. This year, it worked on the campaigns of Rep. Joe Crowley and State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins along with lobbying for state interest groups like developers and unions.

State Senator Avella, another former member of the IDC, actually proposed legislation in January of last year to prohibit “certain lobbyists and political consultants from being affiliated with each other, or engaging in the other's profession.” The other two sponsors were then-IDC member Senators Diane Savino and David Carlucci (Savino and Carlucci were the only two of the eight IDC members to win their Democratic primaries in September).

A similar version of Avella’s bill was introduced in 2013 by Senator David Valesky, then of the IDC, but the legislation went nowhere. Avella also sponsored a bill in 2015 as a response to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s close relationship with Jonathan Rosen, co-founder of BerlinRosen, who was a very involved outside advisor to the mayor but also lobbied for a number of special interest groups. BerlinRosen helped de Blasio get elected and re-elected as mayor, and Rosen has remained a close confidante throughout, often attending government-related meetings hosted by the mayor.

Avella’s legislation this year, which has not gone to the floor for a vote, details some of the issues that arise when campaign consultants are able to lobby their former employers:

“The relationship forged between a candidate and his or her political consultant during a campaign is tight, often unassailable. Political consultants who also lobby have a unique opportunity to trade on this personal capital when pushing the interests of their other clients for new laws, government approvals or funding,” it reads.

Emrick has not directly lobbied the State Senate since leaving his former office, according to filings with the New York Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE). He has lobbied the State Assembly, the City Council, and Council Member Gjonaj after working to help him win his election.

by Jake Shore for Gotham Gazette

Close Ties Among Bronx Electeds, Campaign Consultants, Lobbyists and Donors Mon, 15 Oct 2018 01:14:02 +0000
City Council Members Still Navigating Outside Income Divestment Ahead of Deadline paul vallone by john mccarten

Council Member Paul Vallone (photo: John McCarten)

Legislation barring City Council members from making outside income will go into effect on January 1, forcing several sitting and incoming Council members to make tough decisions about their side jobs.

The regulations, which were linked to a significant pay increase for all city elected officials, including a salary bump from $112,500 to $148,000 for City Council members, were approved by Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council last year. Only three current City Council members, two of whom voted against the new restrictions, continue to be involved in their private sector businesses, and each is still in the process of figuring out divestment as mandated by the new law.

Council Members Peter Koo, Chaim Deutsch, and Paul Vallone -- all still in the process of being reelected to another term -- were required to submit letters to City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito by March 1, 2016 indicating whether or not they intended to continue earning outside income and stating an intention to comply with the rules by the January deadline -- in time for the 2018-2021 Council session.

When reached by Gotham Gazette, each of the three Council members or a representative described legal and logistical complexities in divesting from or dissolving a limited liability company (LLC), resigning from a job, or recusing oneself from duties in anticipation of the deadline.

Meanwhile, some still question whether the Council should have gone to a near-complete ban on outside income (small allowances are provided for members who teach a college course, for example), or if the model should have been akin to the cap on what members of Congress are allowed to make outside of their governmental duty -- a small percentage of their salaries.

Vallone, a Democrat who represents District 19 in Eastern Queens, reported earning between $5,000 and $47,999 from his family’s law practice on his 2016 financial disclosure forms. In opposing the new outside income restrictions on Council members, he introduced a last-ditch amendment -- citing a statement made by good government group Citizens Union -- that Council members’ outside income should be capped at 15 percent of their Council salaries rather than eliminated. The amendment did not pass, and a spokesperson for Vallone said he is working with his lawyers to figure out how the rules apply to the family’s legal firm, which was founded by his grandfather Judge Charles J. Vallone in 1932, and where three generations of Vallones have since practiced.

As managing Partner of Vallone & Vallone, the Council member oversees the company’s day-to-day operations and serves as general counsel for corporate clients, according to the firm’s website. The firm also handles estate law, real estate transactions, civil and personal injury litigation, and criminal law.

Also a Democrat, Deutsch represents the 48th Council District, in Southern Brooklyn, and currently makes between $100,000 and $250,000 a year through a real estate management company he owns. He said he intends to shut down the business by January, but has not yet determined the process for doing so.

“It’s going to take some time to shut down the corporation. I don’t know exactly what the process is,” said Deutsch, who voted against the bills. “What I do know, is that I’m not accepting any more managing fees. I could keep the corporation open for the next five years, and maybe reopen it after term limits. But I will not be receiving the outside income.”

Deutsch, like Vallone and Koo, will be term-limited out of office at the end of 2021 if successful on Election Day this year, which each is expected to be.

Koo is a Democrat who owns a chain of pharmacies and represents the 20th Council District in Queens. He reported making between $60,000 and $99,999 as the president of a pharmacy, and another $5,000 to $47,999 at another pharmacy. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but he was the only one of the three who voted in favor of the legislation.

Other newly elected Democratic nominees for the City Council said that they had already quit their jobs to focus on their campaigns and that they have no intentions to returning to work before January.

“I quit in 2017 in April to be a full-time candidate,” said Keith Powers, who won a crowded District 4 Democratic primary and is the favorite to win the seat in November. “No matter what job I had at the time, I would have given it up; you want to make sure you have all the time to talk to voters.”

Like Powers, most candidates for City Council either leave their jobs entirely or take a leave of absence for the key months of the campaign.

Powers, a former government aide and, more recently, lobbyist who ran partly on a reform and transparency platform, said he hopes that the City Council rules can be a model for the state Legislature, where the salaries are far lower but the outside income restrictions are minimal and the job is considered part-time.

“You should be fully committed to the job that you’ve been elected to for the district. In the district that I am in, I don’t know how you would even have time to do both,” Powers said.

State government appeared to be moving toward pay raises for state legislators and others in government last year, but the process was stalled amid disagreements among Governor Andrew Cuomo, members of the Legislature, and appointees to a special panel tasked with determining pay raises and, potentially, other reforms to the relevant jobs. Legislators haven’t had a salary increase in nearly 20 years, with base pay stuck at $79,000, though many legislators receive additional bonuses as well as per diem payouts for trips to Albany.

There were and continue to be criticisms about the requirement that City Council members relinquish virtually all outside income. Some stemmed from concerns that an outright ban on outside income could discourage small business owners from running for office, according to Council Member Ben Kallos, who co-sponsored the legislation and chairs the governmental operations committee. The bill was tweaked to make allowances for passive income and would not force electeds to dissolve their business entities completely.

“It’s just what we could reasonably expect from people. So, if somebody has spent their career as a small business person, and brought that small business experience to the City Council,  which can be invaluable…,” said Kallos. “After four years or eight years, [that person] could return to their community, and continue doing what they did to begin with.”

Rather than stripping a small number of elected officials of their non-governmental livelihoods, the goal was to ensure that Council members focus on their districts full-time, and to avoid any real or apparent conflicts of interest.

“It is a concern for me that someone with business before the city could hire a member of the City Council in the hopes of gaining influence,” said Kallos, who represents Manhattan’s 5th Council District.

Kallos said that before taking office in 2014, he personally retired from the practice of law in three states and dissolved LLCs for companies he had started. He said he is still in the process of dissolving several non-profits he created.

“All of them have had, literally had no business since I got elected. But, it can be a complicated and weird, long process,” he said.

While dissolving these entities is not required by the bill, Kallos said, “I felt that as the author of the law in question, I have to set a good example and go one step further than the law requires.”

Certain passive income, such as interest, dividends, rent, annuities, capital gains, copyright royalties, or retirement payouts are acceptable under the new rules. Council members may also accept compensation for speaking engagements or artistic performances, with advance approval by the Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB), and income for teaching an accredited college course, “so long as such compensation does not exceed that normally received by others at the institution for a comparable type and amount of instruction.”

The language also leaves room for jobs drawing “minimal income, involving a limited time commitment,” with advance approval by the Office of General Counsel, as long as the role does not interfere with the member’s official duties.

The pay raise at the City Council may have helped attract a number of candidates from state government, where legislative salaries have been frozen since 1999. But, the new city guidelines can also create complications for an Assembly member and state senator earning outside income on the verge of election to the City Council. Three state lawmakers won Democratic City Council primaries in September and are either heavily favored or guaranteed to win the seat in November.

State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., who won the primary for Council District 18 in the Bronx, earns between $5,000 and $20,000 for his role as pastor at the Christian Community Neighborhood Church, which he founded, according to his most recent financial disclosure forms. Diaz Sr. could not be reached for comment.

Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj, who won the primary for Council District 13 in the Bronx, has earned between $75,000  and $100,000 from a real estate brokerage firm he owns with a family member. A spokesperson for Gjonai said he has started the process with his lawyers and accountants to take the necessary steps to comply with city law.

“It's difficult for him to comment, because he's learning himself about that process,” said Jennifer Blatus, a spokesperson for Gjonaj. “I can say that it’s something the Assemblyman is happy to do in order to better serve his constituents.”

Assemblymember Francisco Moya, who won the primary in Queen’s 21st Council District, receives between $5,000 and $20,000 in rental income, according to his state disclosure filings, and will not be obligated to give up the income.

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Council Members Still Navigating Outside Income Divestment Ahead of Deadline Wed, 04 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Meet The Three State Legislators Likely Heading To The City Council gjonaj election night crop 

Mark Gjonaj & Bronx Democratic leadership (photo: @MarkGjonajNY)

With the New York City primary election behind us, it appears that at least three state legislators are likely to be leaving behind the trips to Albany for plush City Council seats.

Following the path of former State Senator Bill Perkins, who was elected to the City Council in a special election earlier this year, two Assembly members and one state senator are likely to be making the same jump come January: State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr, Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj, and Assemblymember Francisco Moya were all victorious in determinative Democratic primaries Tuesday night.

Assemblymembers Felix Ortiz and Robert Rodriguez also ran in Democratic City Council primaries, but appear to have lost their respective bids. Ortiz came in a distant second attempting to unseat incumbent Council Member Carlos Menchaca and Rodriguez is narrowly behind Diana Ayala in a race he has not conceded, though Ayala did declare victory. Gjonaj will have to defeat Republican candidate John Cerini in the general election, who is expected to be tougher competition than Diaz Sr.'s Republican opponent, Eisley Constantine. Moya does not have any general election competition.

The three state legislators who won on Tuesday would join the City Council as part of the full new class of 51 members for a four-year term starting in January. For Diaz Sr., it would be a return to a Council district he once represented before being elected to the state Senate.

Gjonaj, Moya, and Diaz Sr. will likely be part of a Democratic supermajority in the Council that will elect a new Speaker and work with Mayor Bill de Blasio -- if he prevails in November’s general election as expected. They will be asked to help deal with problems like a lack of housing affordability, a deteriorating transportation system, substandard schools, and more.

The state lawmakers would bring to the City Council significant legislative experience as they fill three of the 10 seats set to change hands.

"The powers of the Legislature are infinitely broader, as a result these candidates bring a functional experience which is invaluable and would help City Council immensely,” says former Assemblymember Richard Brodsky.

Last year, Mayor de Blasio and the City Council approved a large pay boost for all city elected officials, including Council members -- to $148,000, up from $112,500 -- in exchange for a ban on most outside income, which may continue to draw a steady stream of candidates from state government, where legislative salaries have been frozen at $79,000 since 1999. In addition to the pay bump, state lawmakers from New York City may be attracted to the proximity of City Hall as opposed to the state capital, as well as the influence and visibility that come with a City Council position.

Leaving the Legislature, the three would join a number of other rank-and-file state lawmakers who have abandoned Albany for other offices where they believe they can be more effective. Additionally, this year, Republican Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, who was largely unnoticed outside of her district while serving in the Assembly minority, is now posing a fierce challenge to de Blasio in the mayoral race.

In August, State Senator Daniel Squadron, penning a letter in The Daily News about his own disillusionment with the Albany process, announced that he would leave the Senate to pursue a national initiative. During his eight years in Albany, his legislation to close the infamous “LLC loophole” had never made it to the Senate floor.

The moves from the state Legislature to the City Council often come down to opportunity. Diaz Sr., Rodriguez, Gjonaj and Moya all sought to replace City Council members who are term-limited or not seeking re-election. As soon as an elected official enters a City Council race, they typically become the favorite, given their higher profile, ability to fund-raise, and ties to important entities like labor unions. They almost always win.

Lawmakers say they find it easier to have an impact legislatively from the City Council than in the State Assembly, where Democrats have an overwhelming majority, or in the State Senate where the Democratic conference is fractured and in the minority, according to those who have made the switch. The Albany budget and legislative processes are also known to be closed off to many rank-and-file legislators, given the “three men in a room” decision-making that often dominates.

“In order to be effective in Albany you have to be there a long time, to accumulate seniority, to get a committee chairmanship. It’s very hard to get legislation passed without clout,” said Brooklyn Council Member Alan Maisel, who was elected to the body in 2013 after seven years in the Assembly.

Some leave Albany in part because they have young children at home and being Upstate for portions of six months out of the year is grueling for their families, while others are motivated to move to the City Council as they near retirement, because the state’s pension system determines disbursements based on a lawmaker’s most recent salary. Maisel said he enjoyed his time Albany, but the turning point for him was the months after Hurricane Sandy, when he felt helpless to support his constituents from Albany. When the seat became available, he ran.

“Here I am in Albany, from January till June, and I didn’t like that,” he said. “I wanted to be involved in local community things.”

In 2021, when 37 Council members will be term-limited out of office, there is expected to be a marked influx of state legislators to the City Council. Other City Council members who have came from the State Legislature in recent years include Council Members Vanessa Gibson, Rafael Espinal, Joe Borelli, Inez Barron, and Rory Lancman.

The departure of Squadron, Moya and, likely, Diaz Sr. and Gjonaj, will set off a series of special elections, which will be called at the discretion of Governor Andrew Cuomo. Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY, has called for Cuomo to consolidate all the special elections into one, on November 7, Election Day.

"We need to remove barriers to voting with early voting, instant runoff voting, and automatic voter registration -- an advance the Governor could accomplish administratively without legislative action," said Lerner.

To enable this, Lerner called on the Diaz Sr., Gjonaj, and Moya to "put the public's interest ahead of their own self-interest and resign from the Legislature immediately." If the lawmakers remain in office for the remainder of the term, their seats will remain unfilled during the start of the 2018 legislative session.

This year’s likely migrants have already been thrust into the next big fight in City Hall, that for the coveted role of City Council speaker, held by term-limited Melissa Mark-Viverito until the end of the year. It is for Mark-Viverito’s Council seat in District 8 (East Harlem and the South Bronx) where Assemblymember Rodriguez could still possibly join the wave, if his attempt to see affidavit and absentee ballots counted puts him ahead of Ayala, Mark-Viverito’s preferred successor and former aide.

As their votes are being sought by their soon-to-be-colleagues seeking the speakership, there is more to know about the three legislators likely moving to the City Council.

Ruben Diaz Sr.: Council District 18
Famous for his signature cowboy hat, his unvarnished “What You Should Know” newsletter, and his passionate speeches on behalf of immigrants and the working class on the Senate floor, Reverend Ruben Diaz Sr. will soon be bringing his distinctive sartorial style to the Bronx’s 18th City Council District, a position he briefly held in 2001.

An ordained minister who was born in Puerto Rico, Diaz leads the Christian Community Neighborhood Church on Longfellow Avenue and the New York Hispanic Clergy Organization, an organization of 150 local evangelical ministers. He is known as a conservative Democrat who may be out of step with many more socially progressive Council members.

Diaz, who replaces the term-limited Annabel Palma, enjoys widespread support in the district. Legislatively, during his 13 years in the Senate, 18 of his bills have made it to the governor’s desk, 16 signed into law. His record ranges from targeting the topless panhandlers in Times Square, to pushing Cuomo to implement an identification card program similar to IDNYC across the state, which is available to all immigrants regardless of documentation.

Diaz Sr. also has much to gain from returning to his former district, which he left in 2002 to replace the scandal-scarred Senator Pedro Espada. Moving back to New York City and joining the City Council will allow Diaz, who is 74, to collect a higher pension when he eventually retires and cementing the Diaz brand could be beneficial for his son, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who may have broader, citywide political aspirations in the future.

Diaz Sr. has drawn criticism for his socially conservative views, particularly his vote against New York’s Marriage Equality Act in 2011 and his anti-abortion stance. The reverend’s views have made for tricky politics for allies such as City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who is seeking the Council speakership and was criticized by gay activists for endorsing Diaz Sr. in his Council bid. A prominent LGBT political club, the Stonewall Democrats, rescinded its support for Rodriguez as a result.

“While we obviously do not agree on every issue–particularly his stances on abortion and the rights of the LGBTQ community–I know Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. has been a strong advocate for Latino representation and his working class constituents in the Bronx,” Rodriguez told the New York Post. “As an experienced legislator, he will continue to serve them well in the Council.”

Another speaker hopeful, Council Member Corey Johnson, who is gay, also caught flack for friendliness toward Diaz Sr., but much earlier in the election cycle.

In 2011, Diaz’s grandaughter, Erica, who is a lesbian, famously organized a counter protest to her grandfather’s anti-gay marriage rally.

Regarding his views on homosexuality, Diaz Sr. told City Limits, “You don’t believe in this, you don’t believe in that, but you respect the people. And you provide the service you are supposed to provide and you make sure they get the same service as everyone else.”

Many are surely hoping that his “What you Need to Know” columns, which are published in the Bronx Chronicle continue. In his blunt columns, he’s taken to task his colleagues in the Senate, Governor Cuomo’s ethics reform attempts, actor/director Sean Penn’s comment at the Oscars, and most recently, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito was caught in his crosshairs.

On Tuesday, Diaz Sr. defeated Elvin Garcia, a former Bronx aide in Mayor de Blasio’s community assistance unit who is gay; activist Amanda Farias, who was backed by the National Organization of Women; and others.

“I disagree with Diaz [Sr.] on just about everything, but I find him to be active and engaged and a serious member of the Legislature,” said Brodsky of his former colleague. “The tendency for these candidates to be colorful and independent is a virtue," he added.

Mark Gjonaj: Council District 13
Gjonaj joined the state Assembly in 2012, after defeating incumbent Assemblymember Naomi Rivera, the daughter of Assemblymember Jose Rivera and sister Councilman Joel Rivera, in the 2012 Democratic primary. A real estate broker without political background aside from a stint as the Bronx representative on the Taxi and Limousine Commission, his victory caught the political establishment by surprise.

The son of Albanian immigrant union workers, Gjonaj is seen as something of a trailblazer for the Bronx’s Albanian-American community, which includes a population of more than 12,500, according to 2011 figures, and he continues to have widespread support in the district.

The 48-year-old Gjonaj, who is known for his extravagant fundraising tactics, recently drew criticism for spending campaign dollars on his own family businesses as well accepting donations from questionable sources. He is credited with energizing a somewhat conservative constituency in the Bronx. His centrist Democratic politics is evidenced by the endorsement of state Senator Jeff Klein, leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, which forms a ruling majority with the Senate GOP. Both politicians represent suburban areas of the Bronx.

Gjonaj served as chairperson of the subcommittee on micro business and has signaled support for charter schools. He has been criticized for taking credit for the Women’s Equality Act, which he voted against, and he has promoted drug-fighting legislation, including a bill criminalizing and increasing penalties for the sale of synthetic marijuana.

During his bid for City Council, Gjonaj scooped up all the major endorsements from the Bronx Democratic party machine and power players, as well as major labor unions. He spent a record amount -- more than $716,469 -- on his campaign, defeating Marjorie Velazquez, a Democratic district leader and community board member who was endorsed by progressive and women’s groups, and John Doyle, a hospital official who once worked for Klein.

“I am honored that the people of the 13th District have chosen me to fight for The Bronx and help lead the way in protecting the common-sense Democratic values that are vital in safeguarding our working and middle-class families, keeping our streets safe, ensuring every child receives a quality education and securing affordable housing options for the most vulnerable,” Gjonaj said in a statement following his primary win. “From City Hall, I will be in a better position to bring attention to those issues and take action.”

But, Gjonaj does have an active general election competition ahead, even if he is a heavy favorite. Following the primary, Bronx County Republican Party Chair Michael Rendino said in a statement that Gjonaj's primary win showed a lack of popular support. "In a stunning rebuke to politics as usual, Mark Gjonaj couldn't even break 40% in his Democratic primary election after spending more money than any council candidate in the history of the City’s campaign finance system," Rendino said. "Developer Mark Gjonaj is now going to have to defend his record against John Cerini in the general election. John is a longtime community leader and small business owner in Throgg's Neck and has been fighting for us his whole life. I like our chances."

Francisco Moya: Council District 21
Good governance won out on primary day when Francisco Moya successfully beat out disgraced ex-Senator Hiram Monserrate, who was coming off of a two-year stint in jail for misappropriating $100,000 of taxpayer funds after previously having been expelled from the Senate for a domestic violence incident involving his then girlfriend.

Monserrate has been seeking a return to elected office and has shown he can still turn out votes. After a particularly ugly battle, the margin was close, with Moya pulling in 56 percent of the vote, compared to Monserrate’s 44 percent.

"Honesty and integrity won tonight,” Moya, 43, told the crowd at a victory party in Corona Tuesday night, according to The Daily News.

That sentiment was echoed by the National Organization for Women (NOW) which released a statement of congratulations to the incoming Council member. “We are proud to congratulate Francisco Moya for his victory today, because we know that he is going to fight for women, fight for immigrants, and fight for his community, and he can stand up as a role model for them as well,” said Sonia Ossorio, president of the NOW, which had come out strongly against Monserrate’s candidacy in recent weeks.

Beyond Monserrate’s criminal record and ethics, a key point of contention during the race was the fate of Willets Point, a large plot of land that is in limbo after a proposed development there was blocked by a Court of Appeals ruling. The initial deal had been struck by Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who announced earlier this year that she would not seek reelection for the seat and will leave it at the end of the year. She endorsed Moya as her successor and campaigned with him in the days before the primary.

Moya’s progressive legislative record during his seven years in Albany -- not to mention universal disdain for Monserrate from the Democratic establishment -- allowed the Assembly member to sweep up endorsements from the Working Families Party, unions, and numerous politicians, including Mayor de Blasio, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Public Advocate Tish James.

Elected to the Assembly in 2010 over Monserrate, Moya has been known for his efforts to fight for the passage of the NY DREAM Act, which would enable undocumented immigrant college students to be eligible for state financial aid. But year after year, the legislation died in the Republican controlled Senate.

As a Council member, Moya won’t have to worry about his bills being blocked by Republicans, who control only three seats in the 51-seat body.

Moya, who has said that he is the first state legislator of Ecuadorian descent and represents Jackson Heights, Queens, this year introduced an extensive legislative package aimed at protecting immigrants from police and enforcement agencies amidst a federal immigration crackdown, which would provide undocumented individuals with access to public defenders.

He has introduced legislation to stop employment agencies from committing fraud against job seekers, and went to bat for New York’s Scaffold Law, which places all liability for injured construction workers on employers. An avid soccer enthusiast, he's also championed bringing a Major League Soccer stadium to Queens -- an idea that may come to fruition soon.

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Update: this article has been updated with a revised statement from Common Cause NY.

Update: this article and its headline have been corrected to reflect that Diaz Sr. and Gjonaj have general election opponents.

Meet The Three State Legislators Likely Heading To The City Council Wed, 13 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Mass Mailer Loophole Gives State Legislators Advantage in City Council Races ortiz mailer crop

The top of Assemblymember Felix Ortiz's recent constituent mailer

Members of the New York State Legislature have a key resource at their disposal to communicate with their constituents: mass mailers. Both the Senate and Assembly allow lawmakers to send public communications through different media -- chiefly employed in the form of direct printed newsletters and mailers -- to inform residents of their districts about recent legislation or special events, or to alert them of emergencies, and more. While these mailers are subject to certain restrictions in the run up to an election, differences between state rules and city regulations mean that state legislators running for City Council have a distinct advantage over their opponents at the local level.

In at least three City Council races where sitting state Assemblymembers are candidates, separate complaints have been filed with the city Campaign Finance Board alleging that each of them has violated prohibitions against using government-funded mass mailers within a mandated 90-day communication blackout period before the September 12 primary. Copies of the complaints were provided to Gotham Gazette.

The rules governing mass mailers are adopted by each legislative chamber, but they differ from the rules and guidelines established by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, which oversees expenditure by campaigns in the city. Each set of rules establishes ‘blackout’ periods ahead of an election, during which communications funded through government resources are prohibited unless they meet certain exceptions.

The New York City Charter states that “public servants” may not use government funds or resources for mass mailers within 90 days of a primary or general election. (The law also prohibits officials from appearing in government-funded advertisements in an election year.)

There are certain exceptions, for instance allowing one mailer to be sent out within 21 days of the passage of the city’s budget, and permitting communications required by law or those necessary for public safety or health emergencies, among others.

For City Council candidates currently working for New York City -- including incumbent Council members and even community board members -- the CFB blackout period began June 15, roughly three months before the September 12 primary.

But since the City Charter only applies to “all officials, officers and employees of the city,” state officials and legislators are out of reach of those provisions and prohibitions. The state Assembly’s blackout period, in comparison, is only 30 days before a local, special or primary election and 60 days before the general. This effectively allows state legislators to use their offices to promote their image and build greater name recognition, enhancing the already-significant power of incumbency and giving them an additional leg up over their opponents who would have to rely on campaign funds to communicate with voters.

“It’s a clear loophole,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a government reform organization. “The problem is that city law is always subordinate to state law. So the CFB cannot tell a state legislator what they can or cannot do.”

ortiz mailer cropIn District 38, incumbent Democratic City Council Member Carlos Menchaca is facing a slew of challengers, including sitting Assemblymember Felix Ortiz. A complaint filed with the CFB earlier this month alleged that Ortiz had violated the CFB’s blackout provisions by sending out four mailers from his government office over the summer. But these mailers, a regular function of state legislative offices, are exempt from the CFB’s purview.

“Part of Felix’s job as an Assemblyman is to inform his constituents, whether he’s running for office or not,” said Robinson Iglesias, Ortiz’s campaign treasurer. “He has been in full compliance with the CFB and he will continue to do so.”

“For sure, it’s unfair. For sure, it’s an advantage,” said Kaehny of the loophole. “It hasn’t been effectively exploited until now. The reality is, an incumbent already has an advantage in name identity. Using their mail privileges helps reinforce that name identity...This is a real unfairness under the law.”

Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj, the frontrunner for the District 13 seat being vacated by Council Member James Vacca, similarly sent out a legislative update to his constituents at the end of June.

Of Gjonaj’s four opponents in the Democratic primary, John Doyle has been his most vociferous critic and lodged objections with the CFB over potential violations regarding mass mailers and government-sponsored communications. When informed that the communications were largely permitted under the Assembly’s rules, Doyle directed his ire at both the state Legislature and Gjonaj. “We have a culture of corruption in Albany that allows this,” Doyle said in a phone interview. “This is the state Legislature that can’t seem to pass comprehensive campaign finance reform.”

gjonaj mailer cropDoyle also insisted that Gjonaj has ample campaign resources at his disposal to get his message out and should have eschewed the Legislature’s mass mailing resources. “He’s against public funds to augment the voice of ordinary citizens,” Doyle said, referring to Gjonaj’s decision to not participate in the CFB’s public matching funds program, “but he has no problem using public funds when it supports his interests.”

Gjonaj’s campaign spokesperson Jennifer Blatus pushed back against Doyle’s complaint. “Let's be clear, there was no unfair advantage in the District 13 council race,” Blatus said in an email. “This is another ridiculous attempt by John Doyle to distract voters and continue his negative and divisive campaign.” Insisting that the CFB allows elected officials to conduct ordinary communications with constituents, she added, “In the final days of this election, while Mr. Doyle continues to complain over the experience Mark Gjonaj brings to this race, our campaign remains focused on the issues at hand, which is quality of life, public safety, education and transportation.”

In District 21, where Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland is stepping down at the end of her current term, two Democrats are facing off in the primary: Assemblymember Francisco Moya and Hiram Monserrate, a disgraced former state Senator and Council member who is attempting a comeback after a checkered recent past that includes separate criminal convictions on fraud and assault charges.

Monserrate claims that Moya misused government resources to send mass email blasts within the 90-day period, including references to events Moya attended outside his district. Moya’s Assembly district overlaps with parts of Council District 21 but excludes large sections. “Moya is a liar and a fraud,” Monserrate said in a statement. “He lies about where he lives. And now we know he's committing fraud by using tax-dollars illegally to campaign.”

moya mailer cropIn a written response to the CFB on Monserrate’s complaint, Moya noted, correctly, that “as an Assemblymember my mail cut off deadline is different than sitting City electeds.” In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Moya had harsher words for his opponent. “My opponent is a convicted felon who has zero credibility on this or any other issue in the campaign,” he said. “He is using these baseless claims to attack my record of public service, and direct attention away from his corrupt, violent history. These charges have been easily refuted by my campaign, and simply bear no resemblance to the facts.”

Moya went on to criticize Monserrate for his own misuse of taxpayer funds. “The questions voters are asking are, ‘Hiram, where is our money that you stole and how can we ever trust you again?’”

The CFB and the City are mostly powerless to bridge the gap in the law. “Obviously we provide extensive guidance on how candidates should handle constituent communications in the days leading up to an election, It’s certainly something we monitor,” said Matt Sollars, a CFB spokesperson.

Reinvent Albany’s Kaehny says closing the loophole would require the state Legislature to take action, “which it seems very unlikely to do.” In the absence of legislation, he said, “The best thing CFB could do is keep track and include as much information in their post-election report to note how much of a problem it is and bring attention to that.”

The CFB issues a comprehensive report after each city election that includes numerous recommendations on improving the campaign finance and election system. Many of the recommendations from their 2013 report were passed into law by the City Council.

Two other state Legislators are also running for “open” City Council seats, though no apparent complaints have been lodged against either. Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez, who has also sent out mass mailers from his office, is running for the District 8 seat currently held by term-limited Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito; and in District 18, state Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., famous for his constituent e-blasts, which have continued apace, is vying for the seat being vacated by term-limited Council Member Annabel Palma.

Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, another good government group, conceded that the CFB has no authority over the state and insisted that the Legislature should increase its own communication blackout periods to undo the advantage that accrues to lawmakers.

“Legislators wouldn’t send [mailers] out if they didn’t think it will bolster public good will,” Horner said, adding that perhaps it will fall to voters to ensure a level standard. “I think it’s fair for the public to urge state elected officials running for City Council to follow the same rules,” he said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Mass Mailer Loophole Gives State Legislators Advantage in City Council Races Tue, 29 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Three More State Legislators Seek City Council Seats diaz sr and gjonaj crop

Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., left, & AM Mark Gjonaj (photo: @RevRubenDiaz)

There are only a handful of City Council seats opening up this year due to term limits. Of the seven “open” races in the 51-seat Council, all of which are up for election this fall, several feature state legislators seeking to make the jump to the city’s legislative body.

Seeking to stay closer to home for work, legislators who now have to commute to Albany several days a week for half the year have declared their candidacies. Entering City Council races to succeed a term-limited officeholder, the state legislators immediately became favorites to win, first in the September Democratic primaries, then the November general election. State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj, and Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez, all Democrats, are seeking “open” seats in the City Council. (One former Democratic legislator, Hiram Monserrate, is even attempting a comeback after having been expelled from the state Senate in 2010 following his conviction on misdemeanor assault charges.)

Current and former state legislators vying for seats in the City Council is nothing new. A number of sitting Council members themselves were state representatives, many of them just prior to joining the Council. For instance, Council Members Vanessa Gibson, Joe Borelli, Rafael Espinal, Inez Barron, and Alan Maisel have all served in the state Assembly. Council Member Vincent Gentile was formerly a state Senator, as was Bill Perkins, who just recently won a special election in Council District 9 in February.

The advantages to being in the Council are plain to see: Council members receive a much higher pay than state legislators and, after receiving recommendations from a special commission, just recently voted to give themselves a pay raise from $112,500 to $148,500. State lawmakers’ salaries are $79,500 annually, plus stipends for chairing issue committees or house leadership posts (a pay commission convened to explore pay hikes ended its work late last year without any recommendations). There is also the obvious ease of commuting to City Hall and offices in the five boroughs rather than constant trips to Albany. And, for some legislators, being in the Council offers a chance to have a greater say over local policy and the ability to more directly address community concerns. This was true for Perkins, who said when he ran in February that, as a Democrat in the minority in the state Senate, he was less able to affect legislation than he could in the overwhelmingly Democratic City Council.

Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez only recently announced that he is running for the Council District 8 seat that will be vacated by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at the end of the year. The district covers East Harlem and parts of the South Bronx. Mark-Viverito has endorsed her deputy chief of staff, Diana Ayala, for the seat, and the Bronx Democratic machinery has split its support for the two candidates. Rodriguez received endorsements last week from Bronx Democratic Party Chair Marcos Crespo, Manhattan Democratic Party Chair Keith Wright, former U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, and Council Member Bill Perkins. Ayala on the other hand has the support of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

“There’s work to be done and I think there’s ways to translate priorities from the Legislature into the district,” Rodriguez said in a phone interview. He said the open seat was a unique opportunity that “literally comes along every eight years, sometimes 12.” “An opportunity too good to turn down,” he said. Rodriguez has already raised $78,647 for his run and spent $22,620, leaving him a balance of $56,017. (He is still currently listed as “undeclared” with the Campaign Finance Board in terms of which office he’ll seek.)

Rodriguez acknowledged the potential advantages of working in the City Council with like-minded lawmakers, unlike Albany where any single piece of legislation must navigate two chambers. “It’s a smaller body and decisions are made differently,” he said of the unicameral and heavily Democratic Council, “there’s less institutional interplay.” And he’s confident that he’ll bring a “sense of experience and confidence” into the race that will sway voters.

As a member of the Assembly for six years, Rodriguez said he’s also seen a lot of turnover and brushes aside any criticism that could be levelled against him for running for the Council just six months after being reelected to the Assembly. “ He also expects that in 2021, when more City Council seats are up for grabs, that many colleagues will make similar moves.

Diana Ayala finds the timing of Rodriguez’s entry into the race puzzling. “Why certain members chose this year to run, I find it questionable,” she told Gotham Gazette. “Public service should be about people, not personal gain. So that concerns me.”

For Ayala, facing off against a sitting state legislator presents an uphill battle, but she said she’s not worried. “Our campaign is picking up steam,” she said. “I’m not gonna dispute that [Rodriguez] has name recognition and establishment support. But I have a lot of community support. I’m pretty confident I can stand on my feet.” Ayala is also participating in the Campaign Finance Board’s public matching funds program, which she says will be instrumental to running a competitive race. She has $52,089 in campaign cash, as of May 11, before factoring in any matching funds.

City Council Member Ben Kallos, who won his seat in 2013 after beating then-Assemblymember Micah Kellner in the Democratic primary, expressed apprehension last month in an interview with Gotham Gazette about the trend of Albany insiders running for local office. “I am growing concerned with the specter of Senate and Assembly members coming from a broken Albany down to the City Council and bringing back dysfunction with them,” he said outside the Council chambers. “I think it is imperative for democracy for there to be candidates who will run against members of the Assembly or Senate...and I hope that voters evaluate candidates regardless of whether or not they’ve served in Albany.”

“I would actually hope,” he added, “that if somebody is coming down from Albany as a career politician, folks might hold that against them and support a citizen legislator.”

In District 13, Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj is running to replace outgoing Council Member James Vacca. Gjonaj has a massive fundraising lead over his opponents already, with $212,684 on hand for his campaign. He was also endorsed by the Bronx Democratic County Committee last week. “I’m looking to continue the work that I began in the Assembly and delivering for my constituents, being more accessible to them and being in the district,” Gjonaj said in a brief phone interview. He was confident that he brings the most experience to the race, insisting that he was proud to be in the state Legislature although it’s a “complicated institution.”

John Doyle, a former staffer for State Senator Jeff Klein is one of seven other candidates in the race with Gjonaj. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with someone looking to change their position,” Doyle said of Gjonaj’s campaign, “but I think there’s something disingenuous when somebody’s running for reelection saying they’ll be a voice for two years and after their reelection, they announced for a new position.” Gjonaj was reelected to the Assembly last year.

Doyle criticized Gjonaj’s campaign fundraising, much of which comes from outside the city, and also broadly stressed that many of the systemic corruption issues in Albany stemmed from the way lawmakers raise funds. He noted that Gjonaj had voted for campaign finance reform in 2014, but has chosen not to participate in the public matching funds system.

In response to Doyle's comments, a spokesperson for Gjonaj said, "Mr. Doyle's platform seems to be 'I'm not the other guy.' As for Assemblyman Gjonaj he is committed, above all, to representing the best interests of his constituency. He is at work passing progressive legislation and meeting voters." Spokesperson Jennifer Blatus went on to say that Gjonaj has widespread support and that "Doyle is desperate for attention. He doesn't have a clue on how to pass legislation or attract capital projects." She also indicated that Gjonaj is not participating in the city's campaign finance program because he "prefers tax payers dollars be used for after school programs for youth, senior programs, and libraries - not political campaigns."

State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr.’s run in Council District 18 may be the most controversial of the state legislators’ this cycle. Diaz Sr., although a Democrat, is conservative on social issues, such as LGBT rights, and running for a seat on a body that is heavily progressive. (There are only three Republicans in the Council, one of whom is pro-choice.) But Diaz Sr. has been able to raise significant funds in a short period, and has $93,901 in his campaign account, surpassing candidates who have been in the race for months.

All of the state legislators running start the race with community ties and significant advantage in name recognition, especially among those who vote.

Council Member Gibson, a former Assembly member, admits that moving from Albany to the city is not an easy move but it comes with advantages, both for the member and the legislative body. “Although it was a transition,” she said, “I think being a state elected official gave me a lot of understanding of how Albany works and navigating the state Legislature, and really about the City Council relying so heavily on state funds.”

But she also said that elected experience is far from necessary to run for the Council. “There is no manual on how to do this well,” she said. “You have to be a team player, you have to be someone that can build a coalition around you. You have to be someone who has leadership and management skills...and you really have to have an ability to work with all people.”

Gibson also pushed back against the idea that state legislators would bring Albany dysfunction with them. “I think when you talk about dysfunction and a culture, I don’t think you can define it to one individual legislator or even a few legislators. I think it’s almost the system that’s been in place. And it’s really the entire body of government.”

[Related: The May Money Race in 'Open' City Council Seats]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Three More State Legislators Seek City Council Seats Mon, 22 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
The Early Money Race in ‘Open’ City Council Seats City Council chambers

City Council chambers (photo: Sofie Hecht/Gotham Gazette)

With seven sitting New York City Council members facing term limits and one having left the Council to join the state Assembly, this year’s municipal elections will feature a number of competitive open races and will bring fresh blood into the city’s legislative body.

While the vast majority of those in the Council’s 51 seats can run for another term this year, and most are, the open seats will see the bulk of the electoral competition for the City Council.

Come January, the Council will have at least eight new members. Through the September primaries and November general election, seven term-limited members will be replaced: Rosie Mendez (District 2), Dan Garodnick (District 4), Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (District 8), James Vacca (District 13), Annabel Palma (District 18), Darlene Mealy (District 41) and Vincent Gentile (District 43).

Another Council seat is currently vacant following Council Member Inez Dickens’ election to the Assembly. A nonpartisan special election is scheduled for February 14 for her seat in District 9 in Harlem. There are 11 candidates vying for the seat and the winner will serve through the rest of Dickens’ term, meaning its final year, and will have to run for reelection later this year. Two candidates, Todd Stevens and Larry Blackmon, are leading the race in fundraising, having qualified for public funds under the campaign finance system's matching funds program. Stevens has $46,871 in his account and Blackmon has $44,954. The closest other candidate is Marvin Holland with $26,325. Holland raised the most private contributions but, along with most other candidates in the race, did not meet the thresholds for public matching funds by a January 17 deadline for campaign finance disclosure. The rest of the candidates' accounts range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, with the most being Athena Moore's $5,005 and the least being Caprice Alves' $86. The next disclosures are due by Friday, February 3, based on which additional candidates may qualify for public funds.

Open seats invite numerous candidates for each race and the campaign finance system’s public matching funds program tends to help level the playing field for participants. Across all eight “open seat” races, candidates have been furiously reaching out to constituents and community groups, and, in the case of many first-timers, building their profiles and name recognition.

In some races, community activists are hoping to defeat political veterans from Albany -- state lawmakers representing New York City often look to switch to the City Council, where the pay is better and the trips to Albany fewer. Several state legislators are still exploring whether to pursue Council seats, with decisions imminent as the September primary is just over six months away.

In multiple races, female candidates are striving to strengthen the gender balance on the Council, a male-dominated body.

All of the eight “open seats” were most recently or are currently held by Democrats, and are likely to stay in Democratic hands. The Council currently has 47 Democrats and three Republicans, with the one empty seat (Dickens’). The Democratic primary is often determinative of the final outcome in City Council races.

In most of the “open seat” contests this year, there are candidates who have already posted significant fundraising numbers according to the latest campaign finance disclosures filed before a key January deadline with the New York City Campaign Finance Board. Fundraising can make or break a campaign, and early numbers are often predictive of what kind of campaign a candidate can run and how a candidate will do. Thanks to the city's public matching system, City Council candidates can often raise relatively modest amounts of money, qualify for matching funds, and run serious campaigns.

In Manhattan’s District 2, which stretches from Murray Hill down to the Lower East Side, Carlina Rivera leads the race, having raised $77,125 and spent $19,408, leaving her a balance of $57,717 in her campaign account as of mid-January. Rivera is a district leader and currently serves as legislative director for Council Member Rosie Mendez, a position she’s held since August 2015. Mendez has endorsed Rivera to be her successor in the seat. According to a campaign spokesperson, Rivera is a participant in the public matching funds program.

Running against Rivera is Mary Silver, a local attorney, education advocate and member of Community Board 6. Silver has a campaign balance of $30,523, having raised $38,725 and spent $8,202. A third candidate, Jasmin Sanchez, has posted no campaign contributions or expenditures.

District 4, which covers much of the east side of Manhattan, has six contenders for Council Member Garodnick’s seat. Two of them, Maria Castro and Diane Grayson, have empty campaign accounts. The early fundraising leader is Marti Speranza, a Democratic State Committeewoman and member of Community Board 5. Speranza is the former director of Women Entrepreneurs NYC, a city initiative, and has served as director of strategic initiatives for the Department of Consumer Affairs. She has just over $126,000 in her campaign account, having raised nearly $176,000 and spent about $50,000.

One of the benefits of running for an open seat, Speranza said in an interview, is that the city’s public matching funds program “has really levelled the playing field” and ensured that voters will have multiple choices. “It means we’re competing on our ideas and our platforms,” she said.

Keith Powers is also expected to run a strong campaign to replace Garodnick, and has raised $81,485 and spent $24,771, leaving him $56,714 as of mid-January. Powers, currently at Constantinople & Vallone LLC, a consulting firm, worked as chief of staff for former state Assembly Member Jonathan Bing for four years.

Powers pointed out that most of his campaign contributions are in small dollar amounts and came from district residents. “At the end of the day, fundraising matters, but the most important thing is having a motivated base of supporters in the district and having a record of accomplishment,” he told Gotham Gazette.

Also in the race are Jeffrey Mailman, who has a campaign balance of $32,916; Bessie Schachter with $19,732; and Melissa Jane Kronfeld with $4,138.

In East Harlem’s District 8, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has endorsed her deputy chief of staff Diana Ayala for her seat. Ayala has campaign contributions of $26,173, of which she has spent $1,733. Other candidates in the race have barely scratched the fundraising surface as of mid-January. Edward Gibbs has a balance of $5,884 while Edward Santos has $1,803. A fourth candidate, Tamika Mapp, has $25.

That race appears to be Ayala’s to lose, but it is still somewhat early.

Bronx Council Member James Vacca’s District 13 will likely be home to a competitive race, with six candidates running relatively close in fundraising. State Assembly Member Mark Gjonaj is in front, having raised $103,730. With expenditures of $19,276, he has a balance of $84,454. He also has the name recognition and political relationships that come with already being an elected official.

Second in the money race is Marjorie Velazquez, a Democratic district leader who Vacca has endorsed for the seat. Velazquez raised $64,715 and has spent $9,055, leaving her $55,660 as of mid-January. She sees this election as an important milestone to push for women’s representation in the Council, she said. “For a newcomer like myself, it’s been really empowering,” Velazquez said, adding that her initial fundraising haul “really solidified things for me.”

Local Bronx organizer John Doyle, who served for five years as community affairs director for state Senator Jeff Klein, is third in money with $42,987 left after raising $59,135 and spending $16,148.

District 18 in the South Bronx, currently represented by Council Member Annabel Palma, has only two candidates officially running, and neither has shown significant fundraising. Elvin Garcia, former Bronx borough director for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s community affairs unit, has $29,279 in his account. Amanda Farias has about half that, with $15,102. Farias has years of experience with the City Council, having managed the Council’s Women’s Caucus and served as the director for participatory budgeting for Council District 30.

Many, including Garcia and Farias, are eager to see if State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. jumps into the race to succeed Palma, which is he rumored to be considering.

The race for Darlene Mealy’s seat in District 41 in Brooklyn seems low-key at the moment. Five candidates have declared their intentions to run but none have raised funds for a formidable campaign. The biggest haul belongs to Deidre Olivera, who brought in $4,902 and spent $3,776, leaving her $1,126. Moreen King raised $2,000and spent $380, for a balance of $1,620.

In Bay Ridge, the District 43 race may be one of the few City Council elections with a competitive Republican versus Democrat general election. The only two candidates who have raised money in the race are Justin Brannan, a Democrat who used to work for current and term-limited Council Member Gentile, and Robert Capano, a Republican who has served under top elected officials from both parties. Brannan has received $57,385 in contributions and has $2,306 in expenditures, through mid-January. His $55,079 balance far outpaces Capano, who has $5,688 remaining after spending $5,679 from his $11,367 in campaign funds.

This is another race where the possible entrance of a state legislator could shift dynamics greatly: Democratic Assembly Member Peter Abbate is said to be considering a run. Even if he was to enter the race, he would face tough competition in Brannan, who is president of a local Democratic club and a long-time community activist in the area, as well as a former Gentile aide.

For his part, Capano said that he has been raising seed money thus far and that his fundraising operation will officially launch soon. “I think this is going to be one of the most competitive races in this election,” he said. “This is one seat that Republicans can win.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: This article has been updated to include fundraising numbers from the Council District 9 special election and to clarify that Marti Speranza is a Democratic State Committeewoman, not a district leader. 

The Early Money Race in ‘Open’ City Council Seats Wed, 01 Feb 2017 05:00:00 +0000