Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Government

Where and How to Vote


The election will be Tuesday, Nov. 3, with polls open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Only residents who have already registered can vote. This election is open to voters of all parties and those with no party affiliation.

You must vote at your designated polling place. You should have received a notice in the mail telling you where to vote, but if you do not have it, you can go to the Board of Election's online poll site locator or call 1 866 VOTE-NYC. This number can provide you with other information as well, including registration deadlines.

On its website, the Board of Elections also has instructions on how to work the voting machine.

If you are disabled and cannot vote independently or privately using New York's Shoup lever machines, or if you are interested in new voting technology, you can vote at your borough's Super Poll Site. These sites are equipped with ballot marking devices (BMDs) that function as an electronic pen to mark a voter's choices on a paper ballot. The machines feature a screen that displays the ballot to the voter and are equipped with audio recordings of the ballot, compatibility with sip and puff devices, rocker paddles with foot controls, large font displays and voice activated, voice output technology. They are designed to allow disabled voters to cast their own votes without assistance.

You can also find detailed directions and information about the Super Poll Sites, poll site accessibility and disability voting rights issues at the Center for Independence of the Disabled, 212 674-2300.

The Board of Elections says that it has increased efforts to make polling places accessible for senior citizens and handicapped voters, but they admit there are still problems at some sites. Voters who feel that their polling site is inaccessible should call the Voter Registration Unit of their local borough office for information.

First-Time Voters

New Yorkers who registered to vote for the first time via mail may be asked to provide identification, such as a driver's license, when they arrive at the polls.

Voters without a driver's license can also offer a copy of one of the following:

- valid photo ID

- current utility bill

- bank statement

- government check or other government document that shows the voter's name and address.

Those who do not have any form of identification or decline to supply one will be allowed to vote by paper ballot instead of by machine, according to the Board of Elections. Those votes will be counted only if they are verified to match registration forms.

If a poll worker says you are not on the list, ask an inspector to verify that you are at the correct Election and Assembly District for your address. If you believe that you are eligible to vote, you can ask for a paper or affidavit ballot. After the election, the Board of Elections will check its records and your vote will be counted if you are deemed eligible to vote and were at the correct polling site.

The Other Races


It's not just the mayor's race on the ballot tomorrow. There are competitive contests in two other citywide posts and for the borough presidents.

Public Advocate

In what most say is a contest already decided, frontrunner and Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio will face off against 26-year-old Republican Alex Zablocki, and three other third party candidates, in a race for public advocate.

De Blasio has already bested former advocated Mark Green in a runoff in September and in an overwhelmingly Democratic city is expected to win tomorrow handily.

De Blasio, who has served on the City Council since 2002 and headed up its general welfare committee, has made parental input at the Department of Education his major issue. If elected, he also says he would overhaul the Civilian Complaint Review Board, giving them independent prosecutorial power.

"The public advocate has to be deeply involved in making things better and the way to do that is working with a broad range of people, figure out a strategy and relentlessly pursue it," de Blasio told Gotham Gazette during the primary. "Through good times and bad that's the approach I'll be taking."

Zablocki, currently the district director for State Sen. Andrew Lanza, says he is the youngest candidate to ever run for public advocate. If elected, he said he would decentralize the office and set up a public advocate center in every borough. He wants to also increase parental involvement at city schools and would focus on transportation and traffic issues.

Zablocki, a native of Staten Island, said he would immediately call for a charter revision commission to put the comptroller as second in line to succeed the mayor instead of the public advocate.

"I want to use the tools of the office to do something a little bit diff, which is actually make the office work," Zablocki said.

The candidates have not debated publicly, because no on but de Blasio met the city Campaign Finance Board requirements. Zablocki has raised $17,072, while de Blasio has $1,877,259.

William J Lee, on the Conservative line, Maura Deluca on the Socialist Workers line, and Jim Lesczynski, a Libertarian, will also be on the ballot. None have raised any money for the race.

Comptroller

The third citywide race, for comptroller, also seems to have been largely decided on the day of the Democratic runoff when Queens Councilmember John Liu defeated Brooklyn Councilmember David Yassky. If he wins Tuesday, Liu, who was born in Taiwan, would become the first Asian elected to citywide office in New York,

In his campaign for to become the city's chief financial officer with responsibility for its employee pension funds, Liu has highlighted his experience in finance and on the City Council. He has called for the city's pension funds to rely more on conventional investment and less on what he has called "esoteric instruments."

"Let's get back to the basics and we can also reduce some of our fees, " he said in a recent debate.

Backed by many unions and the Working Families Party, Liu has said spending deductions alone cannot fill the city's multi-billion budget gap. "There is no way to simply cut ourselves out of this," he said at debate in October. "I would tax the highest paid residents of this city."

In that debate, Liu faced off against Salim Ejaz, the candidate of the Rent is Too Damn High Party. Ejaz was the only candidate other than Liu to raise enough money for the debate -- even though the leader of his party Jimmy McMillan has reportedly endorsed Liu.

During the debate, Ejaz argued forcefully again cutting pensions for city workers. "Do not play with the pension fund of the people," he said. "It's their sweat and blood." H has decried the special interests and what he sees as the incompetence of government and pledged not to raise taxes on working people.

Liu's Republican opponent, Joseph Mendola, did not raise enough money to qualify for the debate but said he continues to campaign, making appearances across the city. He has focused on management of city pension funds, saying the funds have underperformed, forcing the city to pay in more money.

Mendola has been philosophical about his lack of support from his party and from the person at the top of its ticket, Michael Bloomberg. Earlier in the campaign, Bloomberg said he did not even know who the GOP candidates for comptroller or public advocate were. (Mendola said the mayor does know him.)

"He has not helped my cause," Mendola said, adding "there is a lot about him I admire."

The Conservative Party standard-bearer Stuart Avrick sees his candidacy for comptroller as a kind of penance. "When you're a member of the party for 40 years you have to do it," he said. The Conservatives decided to run their own candidate, Avrick said, because they thought none of the other parties' candidate was qualified.

Libertarian John Clifton also will appear on the ballot.

Liu has raised $3.7 million in private funds and almost $1.4 million in private matching funds, allowing him to spend almost $5 million on his campaign. In contract, Ejaz has raised less than $60,000 -- though spent almost $648,000. He in turn dwarfs the other three. Mendola has raised almost $21,000 and neither Avrick or Clifton are listed as having raised anything.

Borough Contests

All five borough presidents face re-election this year. None of the races have generated a lot of coverage, but the one that seem to have attracted the most attention is on Staten Island where two-term incumbent, Republican Conservative James Molinaro, faces a challenger from John Luisi, running on the Democratic and Working Families Party lines. Luisi ran unsuccessfully against Molinaro four years ago.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani have campaigned on Molinaro's behalf.

Molinaro has raised almost $242,000 in private funds, compared to almost $97,000 for Luisi.

In Manhattan, one-term incumbent Scott Stringer will face Republican David Casavis and Socialist Worker Party candidate Tom Bauman. In the Bronx, Ruben Diaz Jr., who became borough president after winning a special election earlier this year, faces Republican Allison Oldak. Brooklyn's Marty Markowitz, a two-term incumbent who was exploring a run for mayor before the extension of term limits, is opposed by Republican/Conservative Marc D'Ottavio and Libertarian Michael Sanchez, while over in Queens, Republican Robert Hornak and Democrat Richard Latin are seeking to unseat two-term incumbent Helen Marshall.

All the incumbents are viewed as heavy favorites but that has not stopped them from raising money. Stringer, for example, collected almost $1.7 million in private contributions, even though Bauman has not raised any money and Casavis has raised only $3,348, Markowitz took in more than $1.7 million in donation, while his GOP opponent had $5,168 and the Libertarian had apparently not raised anything.

Diaz and Marshall were more modest in their fundraising, both collecting under $200,000.

In the Manhattan district attorney race, Richard Aborn will appear on the Working Families Party line but gave up his race after losing to Cyrus Vance Jr. in the Democratic primary. No other candidate is running.

The other district attorney up for election this year, Brooklyn's Charles Hynes, is unopposed.

Virtually every City Council member has at least nominal -- ad often only nominal -- opposition. To check on the race in your district, see Who's Running for What.

Ballot Questions

New Yorkers will be confronted with two ballot questions at the polls tomorrow. One allows National Grid and the state to swap 43 acres of land to make way for a 23-mile power line in St. Lawrence County.

The other would allow the State Legislature to approvelegislation that would allow individuals incarcerated at state prisons or city jails to volunteer at nonprofits. Currently the state Constitution prohibits work done by inmates to be farmed out to any private entity. If approved and the legislature subsequently approved legislation, inmates could volunteer at local nonprofits.

Judgeships

A number of judicial races also will be on the ballot. In several, candidates are unopposed.

In the contested races, Democrat Lucy Billings faces Republican Sherilyn Dandridge for a Supreme Court seat in Manhattan's first judicial district in Manhattan. Billings has served as an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services, while Dandridge has had her own law practice. The Bar Association of the City of New York approved Billing but did not approve Dandridge. The association does not provide reasons for or details on its ratings.

Five candidates are vying for three Supreme Court judgeships in the Bronx's 12th judicial district. They are: Democrat Lucindo Suarez and Democrat/Conservative Kenneth Thompson, who both are already on the court; John H. Wilson, who has served as a civil court judge; Democrat Sharon A.M. Aarons, also a Civil Court judge; and Conservative Loraine Corsa. In this race, Suarez, Thompson and Wilson were approved by the bar association; Aarons and Corsa were not.

Four candidates are running for two Civil Court seats in the Bronx. They are: Democrat Ruben Franco, a practicing lawyer for 25 years; Republican/Conservative Marcos Pagan III; Democrat Stanley Green, who is already on the court; and Republican/Conservative Charles Taibi. The Bar Association gave an "approved" to Franco and Green but not to Pagan and Taibi.

The boroughwide Brooklyn contest for Civil Court pits Democrat Reginald Boddie, a lawyer who has worked for Legal Aid and been in private practice, against Republican/Conservative Vincent Martusciello. Boddie was approved by the bar association; Martusciello was not approved.

Democrat Rachel Amy Adams, who has served on the Civil Court and at one time worked for Justice Gerald Garson, who was convicted of taking bribes, is running against Republican/Conservative Phillip Smallman for Civil Court judge from Brooklyn's fifth district. The bar association rated both "approved."

In Queens, voters will have to select to select three judges from a field of six running for the Supreme Court from the 11th judicial district. On the ballot are: Democrat Thomas Raffaele, a Civil Court judge; Republican/ Conservative Robert Beltrani; Democrat Dicci Pineda-Kirwan, a Civil Court judge who says she is the first female, Dominican-born judge in the state; Republican/Conservative John Casey, a former parole officer who now serves as an administrative law judge; Democrat Daniel Lewis, who currently sits on the Supreme Court; and Republican Joseph Kasper, a South Ozone Park attorney. Of the six, only Lewis and Raffaele were approved by the bar association.

Making the Rules on Running and Ruling


Photo from jameswagner.com
Oct. 17, 2009 protest by the Radical Homosexual Agenda
against Bloomberg's revision of term limits

Much has changed in the eight years since Michael Bloomberg made his first run for mayor of New York City as a successful businessman lacking a political resume. He has changed from the Republican Party to a registered independent. He has flirted with a presidential run. His estimated net worth has tripled, making him in not only the man who runs the city, but also the man in it with the most money. In the process, he has given himself a shot at a third term, by extending term limits from two terms to three.

Bloomberg's wealth has ensured a number of truths. He has almost unlimited resources—for advertising, philanthropy and campaign expenses. This helped him gain the widest margin of victory ever for a Republican mayor in New York City in 2005, despite not participating in one of the mayoral debates and, in some people's eyes, circumventing the rules. Yet, these same financial resources eliminate any need for Bloomberg to seek campaign contributions, making him less subject to the system of favors that can influence politics. This then raises the question: Is Bloomberg above politics, or just another player who happens to carry a bit more weight?

Beyond term limits, the mayor has confronted a number of issues involving how government operates that venture into the gray area between policy and politics. His administration has tackled some full force, while others have seen less progress. Most observers thinks transparency, for instance, has greatly increased. At the same time, the record on reform of the election system and a variety of ethics issues has been mixed.

The Election Process

Last month, Bloomberg announced plans to bring changes to an election system that many say is in dire need of change. His "Easy to Vote & Easy to Run" initiative, released on September 10, puts forth an array of reforms to improve a system that Bloomberg himself has called "antiquated."

The plan proposes an assortment of ideas to improve the system. It includes the creation of a "Democracy Index" that will assess the overall effectiveness of the voting process by measuring factors such as how long voters wait in line. The city's non-emergency 311 line would become the voting hotline as well, allowing residents to get information on polling locations, absentee ballots and more. In the plan, Bloomberg also supports certain federal initiatives, such as an automatic registration of eligible voters.

The voting plan leaves some unimpressed.

This is all very nice stuff," said Susan Lerner, director of good government group Common Cause/New York, "but it doesn't get to the heart of the matter," which she views as an outdated and substandard voting system.

Some issues surrounding election reform remain relatively untouched due, in large part, Lerner said, to what she calls a "spitting match" between the mayor and the Board of Elections.

Although the Board of Elections is funded by the city, it is not required to disclose its financial records like other city agencies and, until this year, was not included in the Mayor's Management Report, an annual compendium of data on city agencies. Even with its recent inclusion, something that Common Cause and similar groups had long advocated, the Board of Elections only included select information.

The board has in the past claimed it is under-funded, but without full disclosure of how it allocates its funds, Bloomberg is unwilling to make any increase in the amount that they are given.

"We have a check sitting ready for the Board of Elections for $20 million," Bloomberg said in late 2008. "But they are not getting the money until they tell us what they are going to do with it. This has been preposterous."

During his 2008 State of the City Address, Bloomberg called the Board of Elections "perhaps the only agency that still has the party bosses directly calling the shots" and vowed to combat the problem by teaming with Citizen's Union to create a "nonpartisan coalition." According to Citizens Union, the mayor has yet to fulfill that commitment. (Citizen Union is the sister organization of Gotham Gazette's publisher, Citizens Union Foundation.)

"The city has done some good things to try and bring the Board of Elections into the 21st century, but there is even more that can be done," said Lerner. "Even though it's a bad situation, even though [Bloomberg] doesn't get to have his way, even though he doesn't have influence, simply being in a spitting match with them is not a good management response."

The Term Limits Issue

No single issue involving conduct of elections has attracted as much attention as last year's extension on term limits.

The City Council last October by a vote of 29 to 22 extended term limits to three terms, instead of two, for city officials. This allowed Bloomberg, who proposed the change, to seek another four years in office. He had previously said he was against extending term limits.

"Term limits is probably the single worst ethical lapse in the administration," says Gene Russianoff, a staff lawyer for the New York Public Interest Research Group or NYPIRG. New Yorkers twice voted against term limits in referendums.

"There have been some [other] examples of the Bloomberg administration, in my view, pushing the envelope of the ethics laws," he continued, detailing an instance when Bloomberg placed an ad for interns in a school electronic newsletter. NYPIRG believed it was a violation; the Conflicts of Interest Board disagreed. Russianoff's criticisms allude to some of the larger issues that have been raised about the Conflicts of Interests Board and the mayor.

As stated on its website, "The Conflicts of Interest Board is the independent, non-mayoral city agency charged with interpreting and enforcing the Conflicts of Interest Law." However, "non-mayoral" is a somewhat curious description since the mayor appoints all five members of the board.

"The Conflicts of Interest Board is a very disappointing body," Lerner said, charging that the board is more concerned with smaller, "technical violations" than with larger questions presented by this administration.

"The board basically has looked at it, studied it, and said, 'Eh, whatever the mayor does is really OK.' But a high school librarian who puts his daughter's book on display, that person is fined $500."

Lerner was referring to a case involving a librarian at Brooklyn Technical High School who was penalized after including his daughter's recently published book in a newsletter and displaying it on a table next to a sign which facetiously read, "Best Book Ever Written."

Lerner and Russianoff both see problems with the mayor appointing all the members of the conflicts board.

"I don't always agree with their rulings," Russianoff said, but he added, "I think they have integrity and they are very smart. I have specific disagreements with them, but I have confidence in the board staff."

Citizens Union has expressed certain disappointments with the actions of the administration surrounding ethics, as well. Rachael Fauss, research and policy associate, Rachael Fauss feels the city has "dragged their feet" enforcing the Public Authorities Accountability Act. The state law, which requires lengthy financial disclosure forms for those on the boards and staff of city affiliated non-profits, drew attention last year when some volunteer members of these boards were hesitant to disclose all of their earnings.

Citizens Union supports shorter forms for these volunteers. The administration's proposed bill changing the forms, however, also would reduce the reporting requirements for compensated city employees who are on the boards, including elected officials and public officers.

A More Transparent Government

Disclosing data has been a hallmark of the Bloomberg administration. Behind the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, the mayor has sought to improve government efficiency and communication with the public through technological advances.

Between the Geographic Information Systems, NYC Big Apps, the Mayor's Management Report and the 311 hotline, the city has increased resources for the public to communicate with and keep track of government. 311, in addition to a phone line, has Skype and Twitter accounts.

NYC Big Apps has reached out to get citizens of New York involved. Through a recently introduced contest, programmers have access to what Bloomberg has called a "huge volume of data" to create applications for websites and mobile phones.

"Yes, there is more data and yes, it is much easier to use. That should be applauded," Lerner said. "But they should be willing to put more raw data up -- and, yes, that means sometimes they may have to answer some tough questions."

"But should they just release everything?" said DeNora Getachew, director of public policy and legislative counsel at Citizens Union.

Improving transparency has been one of the stronger points in the Bloomberg administration's record, according to Russianoff. "I think they get good points on that," he said Russianoff. "In large measure, the administration has been transparent."

Playing by Whose Rules?

In 2007, the mayor signed a new campaign finance law reducing the amount of money that those doing business with the city could contribute and requiring more information to be disclosed about campaign donors who also do business with the city. In August, Bloomberg then proposed new campaign finance reforms in August to increase disclosure of campaign contributions.

"I think those were steps that the mayor took that will go down to his credit, that will make the city campaign finance program better over the years," said Russianoff.

But Bloomberg, the financial titan that he is, need not concern himself with these reforms. With no private donations, there's nothing for him to disclose. The result, then, is twofold: It would seem he does not have to please special interests as a "thank you" for their support, and he also doesn't have to worry about how much he spends. So far he has spent more than $65 million for re-election, compared to Thompson's less than $10 million.

"I don't buy that spending his own money like a drunken sailor frees him from many of the political concerns that affect Bill Thompson or other opponents," said Russianoff. "He still has to do things that favor what he thinks is his political base." According to Russianoff, that can include spending city money in return for favors, something which Russianoff said he saw firsthand during the term-limits debate as individuals who had benefits from city contracts read testimony supporting the extension "off their Blackberries."

In the end, though, Russianoff has a mixed view of the mayor's record, an attitude that is reflected among many others government watchdogs.

"Spending $65 million of his own money on the campaign -- I think that it really distorts the city's democracy," said Russianoff. "But, having said that, he's overseen some of the most beneficial changes in the campaign finance law."

Comptroller Candidates Count on Voters Taking Notice


Comptroller candidates

What citywide race remains too close to call, involves a post with important powers and features four candidates who have some substantive disagreements?

Many New Yorkers see the mayoral race as all but decided and the office of public advocate, which also is up for grabs, as having few clearly defined responsibilities. The election for city comptroller, though features a closely fought race for a post the Times has called "one of the most important jobs" in the city. The four City Council members running -- Melinda Katz, John Liu and David Weprin of Queens and David Yassky of Brooklyn -- all cite experience that qualifies them for the post and have amassed endorsement and raised moneuy. In debates and other appearances, they have offered differing opinions on the city's budget.

Yet so far the race to replace incumbent William Thompson Jr., who is running for mayor, has not attracted much attention. The issues dividing the candidates do not to concern hot button issues, tending toward discussions of investment strategies, claw-back clauses, restrictions on discretionary spending, on-line data and audit powers.

Overseeing Billions

The relative obscurity of the comptroller's position can veil the office's considerable clout. As the city's chief financial officer, the comptroller oversees the city's $60 billion budget and $83 billion in pension funds for city workers. Whoever wins will inherit an office with an annual budget of about $70 million and a staff of about 700. The winner will have to approve every government contract -- and the contracting process itself -- will conduct audits of government activities and report on the city's expenditures and revenues. The new comptroller also will have freshly granted authority to review Department of Education spending.

In addition, as one of only three citywide elected officials, the comptroller's audits, reports and pronouncements command attention. Given all this, it's hardly surprising that the current comptroller, Thompson, and his predecessor, Alan Hevesi, both ran for mayor.

The four Democrats seeking the post this year all are two-term members of the City Council who, after the term limits extension, could have opted for another term there.

Katz, who represents Forest Hills, chairs the council's Land Use Committee and is the only woman running for citywide office this year. Liu of Flushing heads up the Transportation Committee and is seeking to be the first Asian elected to citywide office in New York. Weprin from eastern Queens has chaired the Finance Committee for the past eight years and been an investment banker working on public finance, while Yassky, a former aide to Sen. Charles Schumer who represents Brooklyn Heights and Greenpoint, is the only Brooklyn resident in the race.

All the candidates have now launched television advertising campaigns in the hopes of emerging from the pack on Sept. 15. If no one captures at least 40 percent of the vote in that election, a runoff between the top two vote getters will take place on Sept. 29 to choose the Democratic nominee. That person will then face Republican Joe Mendola, Conservative Stuart Avrick and Libertarian John Clifton in November.

Similarities and Differences

The Democratic candidates agree on a lot. The four refrain from criticizing the current comptroller, who likely will head the Democratic ticket in November. They all pledge to be transparent and a fierce watchdog. By and large, the candidates would seek to avoid investing in companies that do business in Sudan or Iran and try to put money into companies that invest in New York City. The all say they will look to eliminate waste.

Their public exchanges provide a kind of lesson in campaign courtesy. Liu, however, has been the target of the most damaging charges of the campaign so far -- that he fabricated or exaggerated his accounts of working alongside his mother in a sweatshop when he was a boy. In an interview with the Daily News, Liu's mother, Jamy Liu, cast doubt on his account leading to further stories about whether Liu presents his childhood as far more hardscrabble than it was.

Liu has stuck to his version, though, and, at a rally in Chinatown last month, his mother, Jamy Liu, appeared to back him up. "I was ashamed to talk about this but not anymore," she said. Whatever the real story, the other three contenders have not discussed the controversy, holding back even when Liu, at a Sept. 2 debate at Baruch College, repeated his accounts of working in the garment factory.

The most vigorous disagreements among the candidates have surfaced on an issue beyond their control -- extension of term limits. At the debate, Weprin challenged Yassky about how, as someone who portrays himself as a "progressive," he could have voted to extend term limits. Katz also voted in favor of the extension; Liu and Weprin opposed it.

"What do you do," a woman complained in the elevator following the debate, "when the differences between them are" and then she held up her thumb and forefinger, a quarter of an inch apart.

"Then you have to go with your gut," a man responded.

Staking Out Their Turf

The candidates do differ in how they portray themselves, how others see them and on some issues.

On the City Council, Liu has acquired a reputation for speaking out aggressively, to the point where some have accused him of grandstanding. He seizes on this image a bit, promising to be a "bulldog" in looking out for then public's money.

Although he cites his experience working for Price Waterhouse before being elected to City Council in 2001, his slogan says the comptroller's job is "not just about numbers." Expanding on that at a debate, he said, "I will use the office of comptroller to insure that people get delivery of services."

Although ideological differences can be slight in the city's Democratic politics, Liu has carved out a position on the left and has the backing of the Working Families Party. He, for example, has called for an increase in the city income tax on wealthy residents.

In his campaign Liu harks back to his boyhood in what he portrays as a working class immigrant family eager for the American dream. That message seems to be finding support in the Asia community. A number of Asian America groups have backed Liu and, according to a calculation by the New York Times, Liu has received more than $2 million in contributions from Asian Americans.

With experience in the State Assembly and City Council, Katz portrays herself as someone who knows how to get things done. She repeatedly mentions her experience as chair of the Land Use Committee, saying in that capacity she fought successfully to get "great social value" from development projects, such as affordable housing and jobs for city residents.

Her references to that work, along with campaign contributions from developers, have prompted critics to question whether she is too close to real estate interests. "Melinda Katz sounds like she's running for chair of the City Planning Commission," Weprin has said.

Katz counters that during her tenure on the committee, some 9,000 blocks in the city were zoned for less, rather than more development.

"The percentage of what was protected versus what we've developed came down clearly on the side of protecting communities … and shows I have a balanced approach," she said in an interview.

She added that, while she has taken money from developers, her opponents have as well. While that is true, the Times' accounting found her getting more money -- some $700,000 out of a total of $2.5 million in private contributions -- from real estate interest.

Katz clearly hopes her status as the only woman in the race -- and the mother of a baby son -- will work to her advantage. She highlights endorsements from women politicians and has a television ad in which she recounts how she told a male lobbyist to "stick it" when he told her women could not decide on their own whether they needed to see a gynecologist.

"I'm distressed as a woman that I'm the only one running" for citywide office, she said.

For his part, Yassky seeks to present himself as a bit of a wonk, a candidate with detailed ideas for using the comptroller's office to curtail government waste, close the budget gap and fuel economic development. He has flatly opposed increasing taxes and, unlike his opponents, leaves open the possibility of supporting reduced pension benefits for newly hired city employees, the so-called Tier 5. He also has less union support than his opponents.

Yassky generally is more muted in his criticism of the Bloomberg administration than the others -- particularly when it comes to education. In a similar vein, he alone among the candidate's expressed support for a Bloomberg administration program that gives homeless families a one-way ticket out of town.

Overall, Crain's said in backing Yassky, "his view of city government is closer to that of the New York business community than the other candidates' positions are."

He does, though, criticize the administration on spending and government productivity. "It's not a pretty picture," he said at the Baruch debate, suggesting that, while spending increased during the Bloomberg years, city workers' productivity did not.

While Yassky, stresses the importance of the comptroller job at a time when the city faces huge economic challenges, some question his commitment to the office. Weprin and Liu, who began this year running for public advocate, have pointed out that Yassky mulled a run for Brooklyn district attorney four years ago and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2006.

As chair of the finance committee for eight years and a former state deputy secretary for banking, Weprin stresses his background in finance. A cornerstone of his campaign is his plan to create satellite comptroller's offices in upper Manhattan and the other four boroughs, partly to make the comptroller more transparent and to increase financial literacy.

"People don't really know what the comptroller's office does," he said at a debate sponsored by Community Newspaper Group. "I want to bring the comptroller's service to the people [and] make the office of comptroller more relevant to them."

His opponents all reject the plan. "The comptroller's office is not the public advocate's office, " Katz said at another debate.

Weprin tends to paint the city's fiscal outlook in less apocalyptic terms than the other three, saying, for example that current predictions of a $5 billion gap for fiscal year 2010 are probably too high. (Yassky think those estimates are too low.) He praises the administration and City Council for using some of the surplus of recent years to pay off debt and public employee health benefits.

"We're obviously in so much better shape than the state," he said.

Balancing the Budget

While all four cast themselves as prudent guardians of the public purse, they offer different approaches on how they would to it. Although comptrollers do not actually craft the budget -- that job goes to the mayor and City Council -- they do weigh in on budget matters and conduct analyses of city finances.

To start with, all four would root out waste, homing in on the Department of Education. Now that the comptroller will have authority to review the department's spending and performance, Katz says she "would make sure the money is going into classrooms." She also would reduce no-bid contracts.

Weprin would look at agencies' use of outside contractors instead of city employees to deliver services, while Liu sees fat in "some of the agencies that are little understood by the general public," such as the Industrial Development Agency.

Yassky envisions the comptroller's office as the city's "in house management consultant" that would go through the city budget line by line seeking ways to cut costs and improve efficiency, such as police overtime and departments' overhead costs. In an interview, Yassky suggested eliminating "spending that is useful but not essential," citing overseas offices promoting New York City tourism and health department anti-smoking ads. "There are a lot of things I like but can't afford," he said.

On the revenue side, Weprin advocates restoring the commuter tax, which requires approval by the legislature and governor. Referring to the city's successful lobbying effort to maintain mayoral control of schools, Weprin said, "If as much effort as was put into school governance was put into brining back the commuter tax, we might get it."

Despite the city's fiscal plight, none of the candidates call for sharp cutbacks in capital spending.

"We should be investing where we can in capital projects to keep people working" Katz said.

Weprin said that the current low interest rates make this a good time to borrow money for needed construction and maintenance work.

Council Matters

Some of the sharpest disagreements of the campaign have arisen over issues the candidates dealt with as members of the City Council: term limits and discretionary spending, also known as member items or pork -- money that council awards directly to a nonprofit group without going through the usual proposal process.

Yassky has called for eliminating all discretionary funding. "Government money should be spent through a competitive process," he has said. Letting council members allocate funds, he said, is "inefficient and distracts the council from the work it should be doing."

His opponents all disagree. "A lot of good things come out of" discretionary, funding, said Weprin, who in fiscal 2008 led the City Council in the amount of money handed out.

Eliminating the member funds, Liu said, would hurt smaller organizations, particularly those based outside of Manhattan that cannot compete with large organizations with sophisticated fundraising operations.

The Final Days

Despite the mailings, television ads and many appearances, many voters at the city still find it hard to distinguish between the candidates.

A Survey USA poll released Friday found, that with 20 percent of likely voters in the primary still undecided, the race remained close. Liu led at 25 percent, followed by Katz at 24 percent and Yassky at 25 percent while Weprin remained behind at 10 percent. Compared to a poll taken a week earlier, Katz and Liu has picked up some support, while Katz saw her percentage decline.

A Quinnipiac University poll taken in late August found 45 percent of registered Democratic still undecided. Liu, Katz and Yassky were virtually tied at 17 percent for Liu and 16 percent each for Katz and Yassky, while Weprin trailed with 5 percent.

In fundraising, Liu leads the race for private contributions with $3.2 million but, because much of that money comes from outside the city, lags in public matching funds with slightly more than a million. While Yassky has raised the least in private contributions of the four -- about $2.3 million or about $10,000 less than Weprin -- he has received the most in matching funds, so comes in second overall in the money competition with a total of about $3.7 million. Katz is next with $3.2 million -- almost $2.5 million of which was raised privately. Weprin has raised the least money overall, but still managed to take in almost $2.3 million in private contributions and more about $800,000 in public matching funds.

According to their Sept.4 filings, Yassky had spent the most -- $2.7 million -- with the others having spent between $2,5 and $2.6 million.

All have some labor union endorsements, although Yassky has backing only from the Freelancers Union and the American Federation of Musicians, Local 802. Yassky does have the endorsements of the New York Times.

The United Federation of Teachers, after weighing Katz and Liu, decided to come out for Liu, who also has support from the Service Employees, Transport Workers, and firefighters, among other. Weprin picked up the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association and some DC 37 locals, while the Building and Construction Trade council, teamsters and retail workers have endorsed Katz.

Public officials have split among the four as well. Former Mayor David Dinkins and former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer back Weprin. U.S. Rep. Michael McMahon, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger are among those supporting Yassky. Former Mayor Ed. Koch and former Rep. -- and Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferrarro and current Reps. Yvette Clarke and Eliot Engle have come out for Katz. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and former U.S. Rep. Major Owens are in Liu's camp as is the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Serving Up the Public Advocate


What you eat for breakfast can say a lot about you. Just look at the Democrats running for public advocate.

Former public advocate Mark Green at home goes for a bagel and matzoh with cream cheese and a coffee with two Splendas. When out, he's opts for a "wet omelet."

Councilmember Bill de Blasio's morning meal is a bowl of Grape Nut Flakes (with raisins) and 1 percent milk.

Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel is more of a Raisin Bran man.

For Councilmember Eric Gioia, breakfast is yogurt and granola.

You know what they say: You are what you eat.

So, who are these candidates for public advocate, and what are their visions for an office that City Hall observers say is on the short-list for extinction?

Green, like a bagel, is a New York icon. Having already served two terms in the public advocate seat, he claims he will bring fresh ideas to his old job.

De Blasio is a staple in New York politics. He helped make Hillary Clinton New York's junior senator and has been in City Hall as a councilmember from Park Slope ever since.

Siegel, who is making a run for public advocate for the third time, is predictable (very Raisin Bran). The former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union is known as a Brooklyn-born fighter, unafraid of taking on anyone in City Hall.

And Gioia rounds out the pack as the youngest of the Democratic contenders (hence, the granola affinity). Some say he has been chasing this office even before he ran for his seat in the City Council in 2001. Gioia says he understands the city's middle class and will fight for them.

Whoever wins the public advocate race could be the last person to ever hold the office. With some city officials arguing the public advocate is pointless and a waste of taxpayer dollars, whichever one of these four men wins will ultimately have to try to prove that the office is necessary.

These candidates say the public advocate is often ignored but important -- somewhat like breakfast. They say it provides the needed checks and balances on an all-too-powerful executive branch. Which one of them, though, can make it relevant?

The Independent Office

Three of the four candidates perched on an elevated stage at St. Francis College in downtown Brooklyn last month. A half-filled auditorium brought to them courtesy of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce glared back.

Just four days before, Councilmember Simcha Felder of Brooklyn had introduced legislation that would move toward abolishing the position they all wanted. That followed a 40 percent budget cut to the office earlier this year -- a decrease far greater than what most agencies saw.

Under the dim lighting, each of the candidates -- with the exception of Green, who did not attend the debate -- explained why he was the right person to keep the public advocate's office afloat.

"A lot of the calls for the abolishment of the office are coming from folks who think they're doing the mayor a favor by limiting the amount of dissent and debate," said de Blasio. "When the people understand that, they will not in any way accept the abolishment of the office." De Blasio has introduced legislation that would allow the office to be independently budgeted, rather than rely on allocations from the mayor and City Council.

His competitors echoed that call. "I think when New Yorkers see real results in their life they'll understand the value of public advocate," said Gioia.

Siegel took a more aggressive approach. "Betsy Gotbaum is the poster child for the elimination of this office," he said, chiding the current public advocate. "I believe that this office has not reached its potential." Siegel says he'll turn to foundations and grants to fill the financial hole, and create an office of advocacy to increase the position's visibility.

The candidates, who range from 36 years old (Gioia) to 65 years old (Siegel), say the most recent call for the public advocate's extinction would never survive a public referendum.

"It's pretty obvious that the city needs an ombudsman over City Hall to help fix city services," said Green last week while campaigning on the Upper East Side. His first priority would be to restore the advocate's budget.

According to a Quinnipiac University poll released last week, 45 percent of voters think the office of the public advocate is "very important" and 34 percent said it's "somewhat important."

First created in 1993 as a recasting of the City Council president, the public advocate is charged with being the watchdog over City Hall. Only two people have ever held the post: Gotbaum and Green, who served from 1994 through 2001.

The advocate presides over City Council meetings and can investigate city agencies, issue reports and take constituent complaints. Perhaps most importantly, the advocate also is the successor to the mayor should he or she step down or become incapacitated.

Beyond those limited responsibilities, the advocate has little to no real power or influence.

These candidates want to change that.

The Frontrunner Runs Off

Green canvassing outside the entrance to the No. 6 train

Rush hour straphangers climbed the stairs from the 86th Street station on the Upper East Side and were greeted by a familiar face.

"Mark Green, Democrat for public advocate. Mark Green, Democrat for public advocate," the candidate, dressed in khakis and a blue sport coat, repeated.

"Good to see you back," one passerby responded.

To Green, it's probably good to be back. Though he is behind in fundraising (Gioia has raised more than four times what he has), Green is far ahead in the polls. That same Quinnipiac University poll put Green ahead with 38 percent -- just two percentage points shy of avoiding a runoff post primary. De Blasio followed with 14 percent, and Siegel and Gioia each had 8 percent.

To his competitors, Green is riding out that lead. Having shown up for just two thirds of the debates and forums, Green gets slammed by the lesser-known candidates for his so-called "rose garden strategy." At the debates where Green does show up, like the first televised debate that aired on ABC yesterday, he is the target of attacks -- a testament of his commanding lead, Green argues.

Green says he would rather be on the corner getting to know voters.

"The rock of Gibraltar of my candidacy is voters know I did this job before and know I have a new vision," Green said in between calls to take his hand cards. "It's years of being a constituent and public advocate. It's a deeper rooted candidacy than 'my husband's terrific,'" he added, referring to de Blasio's first round of TV ads featuring his wife.

Though some say he owes his gaping lead to name recognition, Green is trying to convince voters he can bring a new spin to the office. Every chance he gets, he mentions his "Change for New York: 100 Ideas for a Better City" -- a digest of citywide proposals from getting government to go paperless to allowing transgender people to change the sex on their birth certificate.

His biggest priority, he says, will be to take on the city's health care industry, making sure New Yorkers are not taken advantage of.

A Plan for Publicity

Across the island and about 30 blocks north, another public advocate candidate was telling straphangers a different story -- one of trips down to Mississippi during the civil rights movement, marches for equal opportunity and repeatedly bringing the city to court.

Siegel is the only candidate who is not a career politician. And he says he doesn't want to be.

Siegel campaigning in Harlem.

"You take these issues and you connect with the public," said Siegel outside the 125th Street subway station late last month. "Gotbaum's people never connected with the public."

Siegel wants to build a constituency for the public advocate -- a move he says will save it from its demise. He will host "Friday Nights" at City Hall and send volunteers into the streets to put a face on the office. He wants to decentralize and set up public advocate bureaus in every borough.

"You can excite people through this office," said Siegel, who sported white Cuba pants. "Especially in poorer neighborhoods."

Siegel sees the office as a vehicle to help the city's most vulnerable. His first priority would be to set up a public advocate commission on the economy to examine what the city could do to invigorate local businesses and the self employed. Siegel promises to cut the city's homeless population in half. He plans on challenging the administration -- often invoking Clint Eastwood when threatening a lawsuit. "Make my day," he says.

At debates, Siegel has typically received the most applause (when he recently suggested bringing back the Dodgers to Brooklyn's Coney Island the response was rousing). But he also is the only candidate to go down in the polls (from 13 percent earlier in the summer to 8 percent now). He also is trailing far behind in fundraising, with only $293,983 raised privately. He has received $764,992 in matching funds.

"It's not always about money. It's not always about endorsements," said Siegel.

Gioia Means Joy

Maybe money isn't everything, but for Gioia it's one contest he's winning.

He has far outraised his competitors with $2.3 million and more than $1.4 million in matching public funds. He has the Queens Democratic party behind him and a handful of the city's most powerful unions. But he trails in the polls with 8 percent.

"There is only one poll that counts and that's Election Day," said Gioia under the dim lights of the Havana Room in the Upper East Side the same day the latest numbers came out. He was hosting another fundraiser -- one of the events he calls "Tons of $10s."

Gioia at the Havana Room

"Get ready for an upset," said Gioia.

From the get go, many expected Gioia to be the most prepared for a public advocate run. His political ambition has been a running joke at City Hall, spurring his council colleagues to call his vote against the city budget politically motivated. He says he voted against the budget because council members and the public were not given the required 24 hours to review the council's discretionary funds -- the subject of a scandal last year. Despite this criticism, Gioia says he will be able to work amicably with City Hall colleagues as public advocate.

Born and raised in Queens, Gioia trumpets his background as a hard-working middle-class kid, who swept his way through New York University as a janitor. His background will make him a good public advocate, he says -- someone who can identify with middle-class families struggling now.

He touts his success at getting Costco to accept food stamps as well as his ability to cull the city's food stamp application from 24 pages down to two. That experience, Gioia says, will translate to one of his first priorities as public advocate: ensuring that all New Yorkers who are eligible for government funded health insurance get it.

"We started doing things that people thought their local government couldn't do," said Gioia to a crowd of nearly three dozen. "If you don't believe we should change, than I'm not your candidate."

The Runner Up

Former Gov. Mario Cuomo endorsing de Blasio at an August rally

While other candidates attempt to establish themselves as an outsider, de Blasio tries to strike an inclusive tone.

On a recent afternoon at a senior center in East Harlem, de Blasio weaved through tables of seniors, towering at 6 feet 5 inches over their lunch trays of Salisbury steak and rice. He shook their hands, flashed a smile and left them a Bill de Blasio flyer in Spanish.

He was there to convince them that he would be able to challenge the administration when it's led astray -- no better example of that, he says, was his fight against the extension of term limits.

"You need a strong public advocate who will fight for you at City Hall and is not afraid to stand up against the mayor for you," de Blasio told the crowd.

As the candidate with the greatest amount of institutional support, including from the Working Families Party, former Gov. Mario Cuomo and the New York Times, de Blasio is attempting to position himself as the logical alternative to Green. He says he is the one who has fought for social services in his position as chair of the General Welfare Committee, while Green was absent from the public arena.

De Blasio is running as a public school parent ready to organize the populous. His first priority, he says, will be to ensure that parents get a bigger role in the city's Department of Education. A supporter of mayoral control, de Blasio wants to beef up local parent teacher associations, ensure the education department is transparent and foster a public debate on education. Also on his list are overhauling the city's Civilian Complaint Review Board and the city Board of Elections.

"The public advocate has to be deeply involved in making things better and the way to do that is working with a broad range of people, figure out a strategy and relentlessly pursue it," said de Blasio at a recent debate. "Through good times and bad that's the approach I'll be taking."

Two Weeks To Go

Last weekend, for the first time this campaign season, all four candidates stood together on stage beneath the glare of television cameras.

Rarely did they disagree on the issues, except on whether to do away with the council's discretionary funds and whether they supported the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn. (Both Gioia and Siegel want to do away with the discretionary funding and did not support Atlantic Yards.) But the candidates certainly differed on their approach.

De Blasio spent much of his time sparring with Green, accusing him of not standing up to the Giuliani administration after the former mayor's attempt to extend his own term following the Sept. 11 attacks. Green fired back, accusing de Blasio of flip-flopping on his position of whether the city should extend term limits legislatively.

"Let Bill attack me," said Green. "He needs it emotionally."

Meanwhile, Siegel argued, while punching his open palm with his fist, that he would be the one to prevent another slush fund and was willing to step on "someone's toes" to get things done.

Gioia, in between touting his record of standing up to corporate giants like Con Edison and Exxon Mobil, said he was the one that understands New Yorkers' everyday problems.

All four said they were the man for the job. Who gets it and what he does while there could determine whether he will be the last one to have it.

Campaign Coverage


Scores of new faces are vying for a place at City Hall

It's officially campaign season.

In just a few days, many of the races throughout the city will be decided (thanks to a practically impenetrable Democratic majority). So Gotham Gazette has geared up to get you the most comprehensive and incisive coverage of election '09.

We have traveled to new heights, that is both Washington and Jackson, and analyzed the campaigns of the city's most viable Democratic mayoral contenders. We've looked into Manhattan's district attorney race and dived into the debate over the Gowanus Canal.

And we're going to bring you more.

Over the next three weeks, check back with Gotham Gazette as we go out to cover the most competitive races.

You can get to our stories through Who's Running for What (our 2009 election database) by searching for the district you are interested in. We're also compiling an archive of related coverage from other news sources to give you a comprehensive look at every race in the city. That's available in Who's Running for What too.

Check back often for the latest on who is in and out in election '09. And for a quick look at what we've done so far, see our stories below.

City Council


District 1: In Lower Manhattan, an Incumbent Fights for His Seat

The extension of term limits has proved a double-edged sword for City Councilmember Alan Gerson. On one hand, it has given him a chance at four more years; on the other, it has provided his opponents with a political weapon to use against him.



District 2: Mendez Vows to Keep Fighting

If Councilmember Rosie Mendez wins a second term -- as seems likely -- she says she will continue to focus on preserving neighborhoods facing development.



District 3: Two Challengers Take on the Speaker

With her power and prominence, Christine Quinn should have an easy path to re-election. But her opponents say some voters may balk at the speaker's close ties to the mayor and some of her stands on the issues.


District 7: Three Remain on Ballot to Challenge Jackson

Some well-known politicians decided against challenging Robert Jackson, but the incumbent will still face three opponents who hope to gain traction in this primarily Hispanic district.



District 10: Drumming Up Support in the Heights

The resignation of disgraced Councilmember Miguel Martinez creates an opportunity for a political newcomer in upper Manhattan.



District 11: Koppell Fights for a Third Term

The northwest Bronx’s political stalwart and a pro bono attorney disagree over whether the district really is changing and whether it needs a change.



District 12: Seabrook Aims For Another Term

Two challengers question incumbent Larry Seabrook's ethics and commitment, but he counters that he has accomplished a lot for his Bronx district.



District 14: The Maria Baez Revolt

Resident of District 14 say they rarely see their council member, but Maria Baez remains confident she can beat her two challengers and win a third term.



District 16: Booing the Yankees in the Bronx

Incumbent Councilmember Helen Foster and her challenger agree the new baseball stadium has not been good for the 16th district. They're on opposing teams, though, when it comes to whether Foster deserves a third term.



District 19: Debating Who Can Best Preserve Northeast Queens

In rapidly changing District 19, candidates vying to replace Tony Avella all base their platforms on methods of curbing and regulating what many see as overdevelopment.



District 20: A Diverse Group of Candidates Competes in a Diverse District

Five candidates -- four of them immigrants -- hope to replace John Liu as Flushing's representative on the City Council.



District 23: In Eastern Queens, A Weprin Wants to Change Jobs

A state legislator from a prominent political family wants to leave Albany and represent the 23rd district at City Hall, but his two opponents say they could better serve this area of Queens.



District 25: Closed Hospital Plays Key Role in Jackson Heights Race

Incumbent Helen Sears faces two challengers who question whether she has done enough to provide adequate health care in the 25th district.



District 27: It's Down to One Opponent for Comrie

The head of the Queens delegation faces a political newcomer.



District 28: Words (and Punches) Traded in District 28

Drama and controversy tend to overshadow the issues in this Jamaica district.



District 29: Racing to Represent Long Island City

The three candidates seeking to replace Eric Gioia grapple with how to deal with the changes in what was once an industrial area.



District 31: Rockaway Incumbent Faces Five Challengers

Incumbent James Sanders' record is one issue in a district concerned about housing foreclosures, jobs and crime.



District 33: Eight Candidates Run in a District Marked by Change

Sweeping along the Brooklyn waterfront, District 33 has seen dramatic development and massive rezoning. A slew of candidates offer different prescriptions for what to do next.



District 34: Housing Project Splits Bushwick District

Politics and a controversial plan to build affordable apartments are inextricably linked as Diane Reyna fights to hold on to her council seat.



District 35: Atlantic Yards Dominates Debate in District 35

The race between Councilmember Letitia James and her leading opponent may shape up as a referendum on the controversial development plan for downtown Brooklyn.



District 39: Gowanus Canal Looms over District 39 Race

This Brooklyn district includes some of the city's most gentrified blocks -- but a key issue in the City Council campaign harkens back to the area's far grittier past.



District 40: In Flatbush, the Campaign Turns Negative

Incumbent Mathieu Eugene, a blogger and a neighborhood activist, are locked in a nasty fight over who can best serve this Brooklyn district.



District 41: Brownsville's Dynasty Looks for a Comeback

One-term Councilmember Darlene Mealy faces a stiff challenge from a local business owner and activist, and from a member of the area's politically powerful Boyland family.



District 42: In East New York, an Outspoken Incumbent Faces Challengers

Councilmember Charles Baron has won attention for controversial comments but his challengers argue that someone a bit less confrontational might better serve the district.



District 45: In East Flatbush, the Incumbent is the Issue

Five candidates are vying to replace Kendall Stewart in the 45th district -- and some think such a crowded field could propel the beleaguered council member to victory.


Comptroller


Adding Up the Comptroller's Race

Four City Council members are locked in a tight -- and expensive -- race for the important but often obscure citywide office.


Public Advocate


The Last Public Advocate?

Four Democrats are vying in a spirited contest for an office that some officials hope to abolish.


District Attorney


The Race to Fill Morgenthau's Shoes

Three Democrats vie to replace the legendary district attorney and consider how to bring change to an iconic office.


The Mayor's Race


Tony the Stowaway

Despite a minuscule budget and little name recognition, Tony Avella thinks he can parlay his maverick reputation into victory in the Democratic primary for mayor. Most experts think that’s laughable.


Bill Thompson Hopes for an Upset

Can an affable but quiet career politician topple a popular mayor with billions of dollars at his disposal? Bill Thompson thinks he can. But how?

Endangered Community Boards


Gotham Gazette image by YH Huang

More than 30 residents whispered under their breath with agitation, glaring at the Police Athletic League representative at the front of the room. No butter knife could have cut through the annoyance whirling around St. Paul Apostle Church in Corona last week. A machete might have been more appropriate.

"Why do you have to close the street?" one resident shouted from the back of the room. A number of "yeahs" and "yays" followed. The chair of Community Board 4 hushed the crowd.

Most of the nearly three dozen residents were there to make sure 98th Place, a dead-end street with 28 parking spaces, would not be closed on weekdays this summer. The closure would make way for a free camp run by the Police Athletic League and funded with $50,000 from the City Council.

Here in Corona, where 40 percent of the population is on public assistance, parking is a priority.

"It's impossible to have one street closed," retorted Priscilla Carrow, the president of the Sherwood Village Tenants Association. "If you come to this neighborhood, you'll see people driving around for two hours looking for parking." The crowd cheered and applauded.

Minutes later, the community board defeated the street closure by a vote of 24 to 8 with three abstentions.

No one may be able to take the pulse of New York City's diverse communities better than the approximately 3,000 community board members, who put every street closure, pothole, sidewalk café application and alternate side parking sign under a microscope. Some call them "little City Halls," bridging the divide between elected officials and the residents they represent.

But that might not be for long.

According to numerous elected officials and community leaders, the Bloomberg administration would have considered restructuring community boards if the charter revision commission the mayor announced in January 2008 had actually been formed. Some, such as mayoral candidate and Councilmember Tony Avella, allege the administration was considering eliminating the boards altogether. A spokesperson for the administration denied both of these claims.

It now seems unlikely that any charter revision commission will be kicked off before this fall's mayoral election. But officials and community board members say the threat to their existence still looms -- in the present form of proposed budget cuts -- and their days (at least as they know them now) could very well be numbered.

What's In A Community Board?

Founded in 1975 as an evolution of Manhattan's planning councils, the city's 59 community boards are required by the city charter to serve as advisors to city agencies, City Council members and the administration and participate in the city's budget and land use processes. Each board can have as many as 50 members, all volunteers, who are appointed by the borough presidents.

In a nutshell, their job is to relay to city leaders what needs to be done in every community. Sometimes those leaders listen. Sometimes they do not.

Just outside of a Community Board 1 meeting in an industrial art space in Lower Manhattan earlier this month, Bob Townley, a member of the board for 20 years, explained. "Community boards are tremendously long-winded at times," Townley said. "They take on issues in not the most effective ways. They have petty self interest, but that's democracy."

Crucial to their role is the land use process. Every development or rezoning application will make its way through the community board, allowing residents of the community to engage with stakeholders. The boards' recommendations are not binding, but can influence the planning commission and the City Council.

The boards also act as hubs for service delivery. Every board has a staff, which includes a district manager. The community board staff is there to take complaints (similar to 311 and councilmember district offices) and make sure they are taken care of, from a pothole on Broadway to graffiti in Astoria.

Though they serve as advisors, the city charter makes it clear that a community board cannot direct or order any city agency to do anything -- a lot of bark with little bite.

"I think all community boards get input from the community," said Lou Walker, chair of Community Board 4 in Queens. "In all situations, even when (city officials) go against us, they do listen to what we have to say."

But are they necessary or just another instance of government redundancy at its best?

In January 2008, at his state of the city Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced he would appoint a charter revision commission to take a "top-to-bottom" look at the functioning of city government -- 20 years since the last charter revision commission that eliminated the Board of Estimate.

"We've come to see redundancies, antiquated regulations and areas for cost-savings. It's time to apply those lessons in order to make government more open, accountable, and efficient -- not just this year, but permanently," the mayor said.

More than a year later, a commission has not been formed (many think because of the term limits battle). But the thought of this commission and what could happen if the mayor is re-elected lingers in the minds of community activists and city officials.

When asked whether restructuring community boards was part of the administration's plans, mayoral spokesperson Marc LaVorgna said in an e-mailed statement: "The mayor has committed to another commission. There have been no discussions about the community boards and the commission. Any discussions of that nature that would bias the review process and defeat the entire purpose of a comprehensive review."

But in a community report from January, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer stated: "The mayor has promised to appoint a charter commission to look at a variety of issues around the city’s constitution. I have a particular concern that in the process we retain -- and increase -- the critical role played by community boards in the land use process."

Community officials and City Council members confirmed that community boards could be on the table if a charter revision commission is ever called.

"It's no secret that this administration would like to undermine community boards, " said Councilmember Alan Gerson of Manhattan. "At the very least, there are folks within the administration that would love to do away with community boards. … Just the fact that they would have that kind of (budget) cut, it's politically and financially motivated."

All Advising or Not?

Community Board 1 in the Bronx is inundated with what members say are the worst neighbors. Waste transfer stations, homeless shelters and halfway houses migrate to the board's streets. They are inundated with "transitional facilities," they say.

The latest was on St. Anne's Avenue. Without notification, a five-story apartment building was illegally converted into a halfway house, serving 52 men. Fights, said the board's District Manager Cedric Loftin, spilled onto the streets.

The house, he told about 30 community board members in the South Bronx earlier this month, was located across the street from a school.

With the local precinct's help, said Loftin, the facility would soon leave the premises.

"If the community board didn't have a relationship with the property owners and the home owners and the school," said board chair George Rodriguez, "we wouldn't have known (it was there)."

"We took the bull by the horns," Rodriguez adds, throwing his fists into the air.

To those like Rodriguez, community boards, though strictly advisory, can have an impact.

Take land use, for instance. Private developers start at the community level, say city officials, wheeling and dealing in the back rooms of community board offices with district leaders and interested residents on bulk, height and zoning.

"The teeth is that they have to come to us first," said Michael Levine, Manhattan Community Board 1's director of land use and planning. "We are the testing ground."

This consensus may be seen in the number of rezoning plans community boards have actually opposed at the end of the land use review process. Out of the 96 rezoning plans the Bloomberg administration has done, just five were voted down by community boards. About one in five were approved with recommendations, which were later considered by the planning commission and the City Council.

For example, rezonings for Homecrest and Midwood in Brooklyn, Corona in Queens, the East Village and Lower East Side in Manhattan all were modified by the city's planning commission to reflect the community board's recommendations.

Council members, like Land Use Committee Chair Melinda Katz, contend that they always look at the opinion of the community board. They may not always agree with it, but they do factor it into their decision on a project.

"We always look at their conditions," said Katz. "Since their responsibility is advisory, there is no reason to cut them from the process, unless you don't want to know," she added.

A Good Use of Resources?

Not everyone agrees that community boards are the best use of city resources. Some charge they are outdated, anti-development and stall the planning process.

According to a report by Stringer from 2005 while he ran for borough president, the community board selection process was riddled by politics, funding was distributed unevenly, and membership accountability was sporadic. Stringer has taken measures to deal with this in Manhattan, but, officials say, board efficiency and liability elsewhere still lag.

In East New York, about a dozen residents, some board members, stood on the sidewalk after their monthly community board meeting had been canceled for lack of a quorum. Those members of Brooklyn's Community Board 5 said their group left a lot to be desired.

"The appointments are very political," said Joy Simmons, who was at the meeting to represent Councilmember Charles Barron. "It's political machinery."

To others, those who are appointed don't have the best interest of the community in mind. Alice Lowman, who has been on the board for four years, says their meetings can be about "who's who."

"I honestly believe community board members should be elected," said Lowman. "You might get people who show commitment to the community."

These characteristics or frustrations vary from one board to another, from Manhattan to Queens to Staten Island. Even if the boards are ineffective, though, many members fear losing a venue for civic participation.

"It's not about efficiency," said Hope Cohen, a community board member who is deputy director of the Center for Rethinking Development at the Manhattan Institute. "It's about participation."

When the Going Gets Tough

In the 1990s, community boards lost their youth program coordinators. They never got them back.

This year boards across the city are bracing themselves for more staff cuts. For most city agencies, $1.1 million, while not irrelevant, might be less damaging. For community boards, with a total budget of $13.8 million, it means one person in all of the 59 boards will likely lose his or her job. Most community boards have a staff of three.

When the mayor first came to office, the community board budgets totaled $11.4 million. The cut this year, members and officials allege, is disproportionate to what other agencies have been handed.

"I think there is a feeling if we cut the community boards any more we're cutting our own nose," said Councilmember Jimmy Vacca, who was elected in 2005 after serving as a district manager for nearly 30 years. "These boards are 30 to 50 people that have a district manager and maybe two to three people in their office."

The proposed community board cut accounts for a nearly 8 percent of their budget. For comparison's sake, the city's Planning Department is getting a 9.3 percent decrease, while libraries are getting a 22 percent cut.

"The economic downturn has left the city with $5 billion less in revenue so we have to reduce expenses," said LaVorgna, the mayoral spokesperson, in an e-mailed statement. "From police and fire departments to education and social services, every entity receiving city tax dollars has had to cut expenses and find ways to be more efficient. The same holds true for the community boards."

Council members, community board members and district managers contend, however, that these cuts would cripple the boards. They argue that this is how the administration plans on doing away with their influence, sans charter revision commission. He will cut them to death, they cry.

"You never have to say we don't need community boards," said Stringer. "You just cut the budget... That's a way around getting rid of them."

Late last year, the City Council was able to successfully fight to prevent a cut to community boards. Now that the fiscal situation looks even more dire, it is questionable whether they will make community boards a priority.

Budget negotiations are ongoing at City Hall, and a rally is scheduled for this week to draw attention to the cut. The budget must be approved by the council by July 1.

Who Will Save the Boards?

In 1977, a 16-year-old resident of Washington Heights attended his first community board meeting as a member -- the youngest ever.

About 32 years later, he leaned back in his chair, thumbed through his Blackberry with his feet crossed on top of his desk and said he is ready to stand up for community board survival.

That teenager was Scott Stringer. His tenure as borough president has, in part, hinged on community board reform. Stringer started an application process for board members, who would then be reviewed by a coalition of nonprofit and planning groups.

He started giving graduate urban planning students the opportunity to work as planning consultants in Manhattan community board offices. He eliminated community board vacancies, which were rampant when he first took office. Instead of slashing boards, Stringer says, he would like to see the city adopt some of these policies citywide. While it is redundant to have boards participate in direct service, Stringer says, he hopes community boards' planning responsibilities can be strengthened.

Other city officials have their own proposals to strengthen boards. Councilmember David Yassky plans on introducing legislation in July that would require city agencies to assess what services could be impacted by major development projects. Agencies would have to report to the council member and the community board on how they would address those impacts.

Avella plans on introducing legislation that would strengthen the boards' master plans (otherwise known as 197-a plans), which are proposals on how to approach development in the district. Currently those master plans have no force of law.

A Neighborhood Meeting

At one meeting in the Bronx, an 80-year old resident and board member delivers a recipe for a special health tonic as the final remarks to Board 1's monthly meeting.

At another in Manhattan, members act as if their community board meeting is a social engagement, milling about the back of the room, circulating from one small group to the other, digesting the neighborhood's news.

In Brooklyn, members say they are ready to get more responsibility, maybe even veto power over the types of projects they can get in their community.

Community boards are different vehicles for different people. Politicians, like Stringer or Vacca, can get their start there. In other areas, they can't even get a quorum.

"I do worry that the community boards have a softer shell and are more vulnerable for extinction," said Stringer.

For now, we'll just call them endangered.

Queens Senate District 11: A GOP Incumbent Seeks to Turn Back a Democratic Tide


Defeating an incumbent in New York's State Senate is always something of a long shot, particularly when the incumbent has held the seat for decades. Many of the city's state senators and Assembly members will not even face challengers this year. But in the 11th district in Queens, City Councilmember James Gennaro, a Democrat has mounted a vigorous campaign for the seat long occupied by Republican Frank Padavan.

Until the latest machinations over term limits, Gennaro faced being out of a job in January 2010. As a two-term City Council member the law seemed to bar him from seeking a third council term. Now, Now, with the council having extended term limits, Gennaro presses on with his State Senate campaign, buoyed by new voter registrations and big-name endorsements.

There is more at stake here than the right to represent northeast Queens in Albany. Republicans have held the majority in the State Senate for 40 years, but Democrats have whittled away at their margin over the past few elections, and Senate Republicans outnumber Democrats by only 31 to 29. If the Democratic Party holds on to the seats it already has and picks up two additional districts, it will control the Senate -- along with the Assembly and the governor's office.

The Contenders

Now 73, Bellerose Republican Frank Padavan has represented the 11th district for 36 years and remains a vital and popular presence in the area, which is largely blue-collar, ethnically diverse and overwhelmingly Democratic. Padavan had no challengers in the last two general elections; in the three before that he dispatched his opponents by solid margins.

He is a member of the Senate majority leadership and sits on the finance, transportation and cities committees. He has served as co-chair of the Senate Majority Task Force for Government Reform, and previously chaired the Senate Committee on Cities, advancing measures to secure major capitol improvements for New York City schools and to support the police force.

Gennaro, 51, of Jamaica Estates, is a former geologist and adjunct professor of political science at Queens College. Before becoming elected in his own right, he served as a senior policy advisor to then-Council Speaker Peter Vallone Sr. He currently chairs the City Council's Environmental Protection Committee and bills himself as the state's leading "green" legislator.

Gennaro has authored many of the council's environmental bills, including those targeting pollution emissions, protecting Jamaica Bay and safeguarding other natural areas around the city. In 2008 he led the unsuccessful fight against Mayor Michael Bloomberg's 14.5 percent water rate hike.

The Issues

District 11 is a cluster of mostly working-class neighborhoods split by six-lane expressways. According to census data, more than half of the district's 318,000 residents are white, about a quarter are Asian and around eight percent are black.

Schools in neighborhoods like Whitestone, College Point and Flushing are overcrowded, according to a 2006 report by the city comptroller, and recent program cuts have sparked new fears about what might the Department of Education might eliminate next. Rosa Yordan, a middle school teacher in Floral Park, attended a candidates' forum in late September.

"I just found out today at my job there are no more school trips - that was a major shock," she said. "It's going to be a rough haul. The children are not going to be having that additional learning that goes on outside of the class. And that's too bad, that broadens their horizons."

Padavan has said he wants voters to send him back to Albany so he can continue to fight for Queens' schools. This year, the Bloomberg administration named a campus in Glen Oaks for the senator, who had arranged for the state to donate the unused land to the education department.

Gennaro says the city's public schools were under funded for years, and the funding formula didn't change until the courts ruled that it violated students' rights under the state constitution - a decision the Republicans in the state challenged.

"When Jim Gennaro goes to the State Senate," the Democrat said, "it's not going to take the highest court in the state to tell me that we have to properly fund our schools in New York City."

Lawmakers in Albany will likely face tough decisions about taxes, particularly with the national economy in turmoil. Gennaro warned that, particularly if Republicans have their way, Albany would likely look to the state's largest city to make up shortfalls stemming from the fiscal crisis.

"The Senate Republican majority, they've got 32 members, and 29 of those members represent districts outside of New York City," Gennaro said. "So how we get through this economic tough time is to squeeze the golden goose of New York City taxpayers even harder." Gennaro said that putting Democrats in control of the Senate would help protect the city's interests.

Padavan says the Republican majority has actually cut taxes. "We've eliminated the state tax on home heating fuel," he said. "We eliminated the tax on clothing completely - that's city and state. We've done things to help families make ends meet. But we cannot obviously solve the world-wide economy on our own."

Gennaro wants to use incentives to lure "green'' businesses to New York and make it what he calls "the environmental business capital of the country." Padavan favors incentives for solar energy and alternative fuels companies as well, and points to Queens' growing film and television industry as an example of how incentives for businesses can attract companies and jobs.

The candidates diverge sharply on immigration. Padavan introduced a bill last year that would have barred public hospitals from treating undocumented immigrants and opposed then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer's plan to issue driver's licenses to all drivers, regardless of immigration status. Gennaro favors medical care and driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Despite such differences, the race will not likely be won on the issues, according to Bruce Berg, chair of the political science department at Fordham University. "It is much more fundraising and party mobilization that's going to make the difference here," he said.

Big Stakes

District 11 is one of three downstate districts - along with District 15 in southeast Queens and District 3 on Long Island - that have emerged as battlegrounds in the Democrats' fight to control the Senate. In terms of sheer numbers, Democrats have the edge in 11.

According to the latest figures from the State Board of Elections, 54 percent of registered voters in District 11 are Democrat, 20 percent are Republican, and 22 percent are unaffiliated. Grassroots attempts to sign up new voters in the last six months have resulted in 2,400 additional Democrats and 1,200 unaffiliated. In contrast, only 72 of the new registrants are Republican.

Many pundits predict a strong showing this November for Democrats, at least in New York. Robert Pecorella, who teaches political science at St. John's University in Queens, said he has never seen this level of student interest in an election. "Every Democrat in the country is going to be helped by the registration boost that Obama's candidacy has caused," he said.

The money advantage goes to the Democrats, as well. As of the last required campaign finance filing, Gennaro had out-raised and outspent Padavan by a wide margin.

"He's got me outgunned in everything, but I don't rely on that," Padavan said. "The people out here tend to vote for the person, rather than the party, and I don't think they want to see an oligarchy in New York."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York State Independence Party have endorsed Padavan. In Gennaro's corner are Gov. David Paterson and U. S. Senators Charles Schumer and Hilary Clinton. Gennaro was also the beneficiary of a recent fundraiser on Manhattan's Upper East Side hosted by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

All of this can pale, though, against the advantages of long-term incumbency. Over the years, Padavan has brought the district money for schools, museums, little league ball fields and senior housing. Many of the improvements that the senator brought to the district with "member item" money bear his name, like the new Padavan Campus in Glen Oaks.

Berg says such largesse helps to some extent, particularly among those who turn out for campaign event, but does not have much of an impact on the average voter.

"Most people are not aware," he said. "And Gennaro, as a City Council person, has probably done well by the district as well."

 

Brooklyn Senate District 18: Looking for a Landslide?


Democratic State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery faces Republican Sandra Palacios-Serrano in northern and central Brooklyn.

In 2006, Montgomery trounced another challenger by a margin of 20-to-1. She was the major sponsor of a law that makes it illegal to deny a barber or cosmetology license based on a criminal record. Little information could be found on her challenger.

According to the 32-Day Pre-General filing, Montgomery's raised $1,100 for the reporting period. A month before the election, she had about $38,700 on hand. Records for Palacios-Serrano could not be found.

District 18 stretches from Sunset Park to Ocean Hill.

 

Brooklyn Senate District 19: Sampson Seeks Another Term


John Sampson, who was elected to the State Senate in 1996, faces Godfrey Jelks, a former candidate for state Assembly in 2006.

Sampson was born and raised in Brooklyn and is a former lawyer for Legal Aid. Jelks challenged now-disgraced former Assemblymember Diane Gordon in 2006 and lost.

In his the 32-Day Pre General filing, Sampson reported raising no money in the recent reporting period and had almost$19,000 in total campaign funds. Jelks' fundraising report was not available.

District 19 includes Canarsie, East Flatbush, parts of Brownsville, Crown Heights, East New York, parts of Old Mill Basin, Spring Creek Towers and parts of Midwood and Kensington.

 



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