Gotham Gazette Sun, 27 Sep 2020 16:21:29 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Lower East Side City Council Candidates Make Their Case in Debate City Council District 2 candidates

The CD2 Democratic candidates at Manhattan Neighborhood Network

There are five candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in the race to replace term-limited Rosie Mendez as the City Council representative for District 2, which includes the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The candidates -- Carlina Rivera, Ronnie Cho, Mary Silver, Jasmin Sanchez, and Jorge Vasquez -- gathered recently at the Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) for a debate to be televised by the station.

The debate, moderated by Gotham Gazette’s Ben Max, focused on issues such as affordable housing, small businesses, education, and development within the district, as well as the performance of Mendez, a Democrat, and of Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democrat seeking a second term this fall.

Along with discussing those topics, and more, the candidates also attempted to explain to viewers and District 2 voters why they are the right person to represent the district moving forward. Each candidate discussed his or her background and qualifications in public service.

Rivera is a former legislative director for Mendez and has the outgoing Council member’s support; Cho worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and became his administration's millennial outreach director before moving to New York and working at MTV; Vasquez is a housing attorney; Sanchez is a nonprofit director and former community liaison for State Senator Daniel Squadron; and Silver is a community board member and attorney with a background in education.

The winner of the Democratic primary among the five is all but certain to win in November’s general election, when he or she will face Jimmy McMillan, of the Rent is Too Damn High party, who is also running as a Republican, and Libertarian nominee Donald Garrity.

In their opening and closing statements, the candidates made the case for their candidacies and indicated how they are framing their qualifications for the job. Rivera presented herself as having ample government experience given her time as Mendez’s legislative director, allowing her to swiftly enter the Council without a learning window and immediately start working for her constituents. She also namechecked Donald Trump more than the other candidates, stating that she would be best prepared to resist the president’s agenda on the local level.

Cho presented himself as someone who has seen how government works at its highest levels, and therefore wants to take the lessons he’s learned and apply them in the city. He also presented himself as an outsider to city politics, and repeatedly called for a “new generation of leadership.”

Silver distinguished herself by her education background, having been a PTA president and a community board member, and stating that working in politics on the “other side of the Council” allows her to know what it’s like being a constituent who’s been ignored by her elected official.

Vasquez called for unifying the district and ensuring representation of everyone at the table in the Council, and also described himself as uniquely qualified to represent the district due to having worked as a litigator and for a judge on issues relevant to his potential constituents.

Sanchez discussed her roots in the district, at the Baruch Houses, and also stated that her background in the nonprofit sector has given her important experience in constituent services. Sanchez also singled out two important projects for her as a Council member: redeveloping the Baruch Bath Houses, and CHARAS.

Rivera has received the lion’s share of endorsements from elected officials, including Congressional Rep. Nydia Velazquez, who represents the Lower East Side, as well as unions and advocacy groups. Because of this and her work for Mendez, which came up several times at the debate, Rivera is seen by many as the “status quo” or establishment choice. This led her opponents, especially Cho, to tie her to the alleged shortcomings of Mendez’s tenure and to advocate themselves as a change in leadership style.

Cho has raised the second largest amount of money in the race, behind Rivera, and was particularly critical of the perceived frontrunner. When asked about particular community issues the district needs solved, Cho repeatedly took the opportunity to bring up what he considers Mendez’s lack of attention to the community, and at times referenced Rivera in doing so.

For example, Mendez failed to vote for a bill to end on-call scheduling for workers, which was passed through the Council and signed by the mayor. Cho wondered why members of Mendez’s staff, particularly her legislative director (Rivera) didn’t stress the importance of voting for the bill, and called absenteeism in leadership “the biggest problem we have.” When asked by the moderator, Rivera stated that she would have voted for the bill if she was in the Council.

“I think that it’s a very important bill,” Rivera said. “I think on-call scheduling is a big problem in retail, amongst other industries. And I will say that, you know, Council Member Mendez is her own person, and that I was actually endorsed by the labor organizations that championed that bill, including RWDSU,” referencing the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.

Cho was not convinced, questioning Rivera’s faculties as a “legislative director who can’t get her member to vote for a piece of legislation.”

It was the most pointed moment of a mostly calm, collegial, and forward-looking debate. The candidates mostly answered the moderator’s questions and spoke to the audience watching the televised debate, which will also be available online through MNN’s website.

Like in most Council districts, the issue that is dominating the race is affordability, particularly in regards to housing, but also regarding local businesses.

All five candidates on the debate dais indicated support for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA), which aims to level the playing field in commercial rent renewals between landlords and small business owners, but has been stalled in the Council for decades, despite majority support and the support of Mayor de Blasio and Public Advocate Tish James during their election campaigns in 2013 and of Speaker Mark-Viverito when she was a rank-and-file Council member.

Cho questioned the continuing inaction on the legislation.

“I’m just tired of hearing people say how much they, ra ra, about small businesses and these community pillars,” he said. “But at the end of the day, where’s the actual action? Where are we delivering for people?” When asked what he would do as a Council member to ensure the passage of the act, he said “I think we need to hold the mayor accountable, I think we need coalitions of Democrats across the city, and actually ask the mayor, ‘why aren’t you in support of this? Why won’t you sign this bill? And let him explain himself.” It was pointed out to Cho that he would have to help get the bill through the Council whether the mayor was supportive or not.

Silver suggested that the reason the act has stalled is because of politicians putting the interests of developers before those of their constituents.

“This has been investigated, researched by attorneys. There was a commission set up for this. There’s no legality issues, let’s get on with it,” Silver said, referring to one of the oft-offered reasons that electeds have balked on the SBJSA, the question of whether a version of commercial rent control is legal. “The truth is, this has to do with real estate developers and this has to do with greedy landlords, and it has to do with the fact that they’re the ones who fund campaign committees and elections across the board.” Silver further stated that excessive city fees are also hampering small businesses in the district, though these fees have drastically receded under de Blasio.

The candidates were also in agreement on reforming the commercial rent tax, which has widespread support in the Council, but where no action has taken place to move the bill through committee and beyond. The reform would raise the threshold at which the tax, which affects businesses below 96th Street in Manhattan, is levied. The bill, sponsored by Council Member Dan Garodnick, who is also term-limited this year, would raise the amount of rent paid in a year required for the tax to be levied from $250,000 to $500,000. The bill has 41 sponsors in the 51-seat Council.

Rivera, Sanchez, and Vasquez called for small business owners and families affected by the commercial rent tax to testify at the City Council as to the effect of the tax. Sanchez also called for the creation of a Business Improvement District, or BID, on the Lower East Side bound by Avenue A, Avenue D, 14th Street, and Houston Street.

On housing, a plank in the NextGen NYCHA initiative to allow development of market-rate apartments on vacant NYCHA land was sharply rebuked by most of the prospective Council members. Rivera stated that NYCHA must begin to be looked at as a part of the city’s infrastructure, akin to the MTA, and called for a reform of the authority’s repair system.

The subject of housing was where the most disagreement came to the fore during the debate. Cho signaled a more pro-development stance than his colleagues, saying that to be pro-affordable housing but anti-development doesn’t “square up.”

Sanchez, meanwhile, staked her position less on new development and rather on preserving the existing housing stock. “In regards to affordable housing, the preservation of it is really important,” Sanchez said. “And I think one way of doing so is declaring certain areas historical districts. Therefore, there’s no way of building NYCHA towers if it’s a historical district, because I am completely against the privatization of public lands.” She also discussed the sorry state of affairs regarding repairs in NYCHA, and discussed a lack of accountability regarding people being added to leases in NYCHA, echoing a point made by Vasquez.

“The first thing we need to do is transparency,” Vasquez said, regarding his course of action on NYCHA as a Council member. He believes it should be easier for young adult children of NYCHA residents to be added to apartment leases. “There’s no documentation of who asks to be put on the lease. How many people who asked to be added onto something, right? We know how many people applied to NYCHA, but we don’t know how many people applied to be added onto an existing account. And that’s important, because we’re throwing away resources, we’re throwing away money. We’re throwing away the affordability and the fabric of our city, especially within District 2.”

Specific new developments or neighborhood rezonings, and related community opposition, can often serve as a cudgel for a local legislative race. This is being seen in Council races this year in District 8, with the East Harlem rezoning; and District 35, with the Bedford Union Armory redevelopment, among others.

The only specific new development that served as a discussion point during the District 2 debate for MNN was the development of a new tech hub in Union Square, slated to be built on city-owned land. The candidates were largely in agreement that the development would be a net positive for the community, bringing in new jobs, particularly in STEM, but that the community must get something in return, such as the ability to use the space rather than it serving as simply a tech hub for what Cho described as white, wealthy men from or in the mold of Silicon Valley.

The five were hesitant to praise Mayor de Blasio. Asked to give a letter grade to his mayoralty and whether they would vote for him in November, Rivera and Vasquez gave him a “B” while Cho and Sanchez each gave a “C”; Silver, a former educator, gave an “incomplete.”

Cho and Silver said they would vote for de Blasio this fall over his Republican opponent, Staten Island Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis; Sanchez said she wouldn’t, and Vasquez and Rivera said they are undecided. Universal pre-K was praised as an ameliorative effort to address the “tale of two cities” that de Blasio campaigned on; however, the continuing rise in the cost of living led the candidates to lower their marks for the mayor, some said. Vasquez also criticized the mayor for claiming support of SBJSA but then backtracking upon entering the mayoralty.

Watch the full CD2 MNN debate:

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Lower East Side City Council Candidates Make Their Case in Debate Thu, 24 Aug 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