Council District 23 Election: Why Everyone Has it Wrong

The Council race to replace Mark Weprin in the easternmost reaches of Queens has attracted sparse, puzzled coverage in the mainstream, non-local media. With six candidates running for the Democratic nomination it is not surprising that Manhattan has sought a familiar, comprehensible narrative to explain the race in the distant 23rd District.

Thus the race has been boiled down by a naïve press to a proxy battle between the two competing wings of the city Democratic Party. On one side, Barry Grodenchik, former one-term assemblyman, long-term habitué of Queens Borough Hall, purse-carrier for yentas from Claire Shulman to Helen Marshall to Nettie Mayersohn to current avatar Melinda Katz, represents the traditional Queens County Dems, who have all lined up behind him. Grodenchik is the archetypal time-server, ready for his long-awaited reward.

On the other side, according to this narrative, representing the self-described Progressive wing of the Democratic Party, stands Rebecca Lynch, princess of labor steeped in union politics from the cradle, a labor lobbyist from the age of 22, and recent de Blasio staffer. Backed by the Progressive Caucus and an impressive roster of trade unions, Lynch has raised copious cash and hopes to join the ranks of the Council as a WFP-approved regular.

One could make the mistake of assuming that the battle lines are indeed so drawn. Of course, the press has also taken notice of upstart Ali Najmi, a lawyer and former Mark Weprin staffer who appears to have had a falling out with his old boss. Najmi, of Pakistani descent, seeks to be the first South Asian elected to the Council. The 23rd CD has a substantial number of Asians, though the percentage of Asian voters is substantially lower than their share of the overall population. Najmi won the endorsement of the New York Times and of left darling Zephyr Teachout, though some wags have noted that those two endorsements and fifty cents will still leave Najmi fifty cents short of getting a cup of coffee in the 23rd CD.

The problem with looking at this election as a calculus of endorsements and backers is that the voters of eastern Queens aren’t particularly attached either to Joe Crowley’s machine, or to the de Blasio/WFP left, and both Grodenchik and Lynch are perceived as outsiders. The blog Queens Crap has done a fantastic job detailing the candidates’ campaign contributions, and demonstrated that neither of them has raised a significant amount of money from inside the district. Grodenchik has received more than ten thousand dollars from other politicians’ campaign committees, for example, and Lynch has taken close to $50,000—more than half of her contributions—from labor unions.

The dark horse in the race, and the one that City Council Watch believes to have the inside track to victory, is Bob Friedrich. Friedrich, who has run previously in the district, is the only candidate currently running for whom voters in the 23rd District have pulled the lever, and in fairly large numbers at that. For instance, in 2009 Friedrich ran against Mark Weprin for the Democratic nomination for the council seat that David Weprin was vacating. Friedrich polled about 2,300 votes versus Weprin’s 4,400. But then, running as a Republican in the general election, Friedrich got 7,300 votes out of a total of almost 25,000, in a district where Democratic registration runs 5-to-1 against the GOP. In a race with no Weprins, Friedrich’s odds only improve.

Why does Bob Friedrich have a base in the district, where Grodenchik and Lynch have none? The key to comprehending the 23rd CD is to understand that about 50% of the district’s voters live in garden apartment co-ops, which are middle-income housing units mostly owned by the occupants. The people who live in these co-ops are fiercely committed to preserving the middle-class, suburban lifestyle they have worked to achieve. The area has more in common with Nassau County than it does with Sunnyside. The co-op denizens are unimpressed with the county political machine, and distrust the de Blasio administration.

The largest of these co-ops is Glen Oaks Village, which has almost 3,000 units and about 10,000 people. Bob Friedrich has been the president of Glen Oaks Village since 1991, and is well-known throughout the district as a civic leader, particularly on co-op related matters. His fundraising consists largely of smaller-sized donations from individuals inside the district, with no union or campaign war chest grants. Friedrich received a surprise endorsement yesterday from the Queens Tribune, which has typically been known as a mouthpiece for the Democratic machine. Also, Mark Weprin, who is officially supporting Grodenchik, has apparently let it be known that he thinks Friedrich is likely to win.

The election will be very close. It will be held on a Thursday, which is rather unusual, and the council vote will be the top of the ballot. Turnout is expected to be about 10%, with perhaps 6000 people casting ballots. Friedrich, according to a councilmember who has been following the race, is estimated to be starting with 1500 votes, which is a solid leg up. Obviously it will be tight, and probably decided by a margin of hundreds at most, but remember that you heard it here first: Bob Friedrich, who has never been a staffer or a lobbyist, and is thus unknown to the City Hall cognoscenti, will win.

NB: An interesting twist in the race concerning Ali Najmi is his relationship with Mark Weprin. Apparently annoyed by his former staffer, Weprin supposedly leaned on Satnam Panhar (a Sikh), and Celia Dosamentes (a Hindu) to enter the race in an effort to split the Asian vote and wreck the Muslim Najmi’s chance to get a lock on it. Both Panhar and Dosamentes have long-established ties to the Weprin family, so whether this is just conspiracy bluster or not, it does have the ring of truth.

Vanessa Gibson Demands Bratton Clean House; Ignores Own Backyard

Councilmember Vanessa Gibson, chair of the Public Safety Committee, has announced her plans to probe the finances and activities of the New York City Police Foundation.  This foundation, which is funded by private donations, hires consultants to study the operations of the NYPD and make recommendations; in some cases, these consultants have been hired by the police department. 

Longtime associates of NYPD Commissioner Bratton have apparently been among the people who have received consulting awards from the NYCPF, and several of these individuals were later hired as NYPD staff.

Councilmember Gibson told the Post that she is launching an investigation into Bratton’s relationship with the non-profit foundation, because she has “concerns about the levels of the consultants, the contracts and who’s coming in.”  She explains, “You don’t want there to be any relationships that can prevent or disrupt your relationship in terms of the work you’re doing as a member or as a city agency.”

The councilmember’s concern about favoritism and perceived conflicts of interests is rather rich.  Though she has been in the Council for only 18 months, she has already managed to blur the lines between her election donors and the organizations she personally allocates hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to through her discretionary “member items.”

For example, in her 2013 campaign for office, Gibson (who was at that time a member of the state Assembly) accepted contributions from 26 individual donors employed by SCAN New York.  SCAN is a service provider in the South Bronx that targets at-risk youth and helps through mentoring and various programs.  The 26 donors collectively gave Gibson $2,125, which doesn’t sound like much until you consider that her entire campaign raised only $110,000, most of which came from unions or other political committees.  Small donations from individuals are subject to city matching funds, which multiply their effect by a factor of six.

In the FY 2015 budget Councilmember Gibson allocated $20,000 to SCAN as part of the Council’s Anti-Poverty Initiative.

Eleven employees of the 1332 Fulton Avenue Day Care Corporation contributed to the 2013 Gibson Council campaign.  Gibson later awarded the non-profit organization $50,000 to provide social services to children in the district.

Four directors of the Garifuna Coalition contributed to the Gibson campaign: the organization was later given $10,000 as part of the Anti-Poverty Initiative.

The executive director of Southeast Bronx Neighborhood Centers wrote the Gibson campaign contribution checks on three separate occasions.  Gibson later allocated $10,000 to Southeast Bronx Neighborhood Centers out of her pot of discretionary funds.

Are any of these organizations corrupt?  Not to my knowledge. Is there anything  untoward about politicians creating the perception of a quid pro quo by accepting donations from individuals associated with organizations that they later help fund?  Not by the standards of the New York City Council, where that kind of thing is considered normal, even laudatory.  Give the woman some credit: at least she doesn’t appear to have established a non-profit that she gives money to and then proceeds to loot, unlike some of her former and current colleagues.

The council’s discretionary funding system is premised as a way for elected officials to funnel money to local political allies who provide services to the community.  This system allows the local councilmember to take credit for whatever projects or programs the city funds within the district, and thus expand his or her political base and stave off challenges.

In the case of Vanessa Gibson, the number of players in any given district is limited, and it makes sense that she would be acquainted or even friends with the same people whose groups she funds.  By the same token, is it so surprising that William Bratton would have long relationships with like-minded associates in the field of criminology, whom he would recommend for grants, and perhaps hire to serve on his staff?

Cronyism is never appealing to anyone with reformist tendencies.  But if Councilmember Gibson is really eager to root out favoritism in the awarding of contracts, she has ample opportunities to find it at City Hall, even in her own offices.   

Bertha Lewis Sees Reflection; Shrieks

Bertha Lewis, the last CEO and “Chief Organizer” of ACORN before that group’s descent into ignominy, wrote last week that while New York State political corruption is unfortunate, the real problem in New York is MWBE fraud.  Companies seeking preferential government contracts put minorities or women forward in order to get bids or tax credits, says Lewis, but these “fronts” deprive real minority businesses of opportunities.

The case Lewis cites involves Skanska, which in 2011 was fined because the construction giant gave $5.6 million to a minority-run business to pretend it was a subcontractor on the Dey Street entrance to the Fulton subway station.  The business, which was run by an Indian-American gentleman named Balu Kamat, was not capable of doing the work, though it did in fact get the money.  Skanska wound up doing the work itself.  In other countries they have different names for this sort of arrangement.  Balu Kamat pled guilty to fraud and served two years of probation, including six months under home confinement.

Bertha Lewis, the founder and president of The Black Institute, which operates out of the offices of well-known political consultancy The Advance Group, insists that this sort of fraud is “not a victimless crime,” and that minority “fronts,” or “men-in-skirts” as she calls them, have “blocked the creation of new jobs in communities of color.”

May I remind my readers of a speech that Bertha Lewis gave in 2004, when she stood in front of Brooklyn Community Board 2, and praised Bruce Ratner and his Atlantic Yards development, saying

we have negotiated what we believe is the real jewel in this crown: not an arena, but a 50/50 housing program, the only program of its type in this country.  No other developer has ever committed to 50% of their housing, as of right, which they could do, they could do all market housing.

As Norman Oder of Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report has pointed out, this claim was entirely false.  A large portion of the site was zoned for manufacturing, and required extensive rezoning to allow for any housing, much less the massive towers that Ratner wanted.  Bertha Lewis’ job was to provide Forest City Ratner with political cover so he could push ahead with the development, which in any case has scantily delivered on its promises.  In fact, by some counts, the current wave of development in downtown Brooklyn has had the effect of destroying far more affordable units than it will ever create.

Bertha Lewis’ whole career has consisted of serving as a front of one sort or another.  In her article she demands the creation of an official New York City "Chief Diversity Officer." Surely she has someone close at hand in mind for the job...maybe, Bertha Lewis herself? Certainly, given her PR work for Forest City Ratner, nobody can say she is not well-qualified for the position. 

NYCHA to End Parking Subsidies?

According to The New York Times, the de Blasio administration and NYCHA chief Shola Olatoye are planning to stare down the city's estimated 400,000 public housing residents over one of their chief perks: $10 reserved parking spots.

As I wrote in City & State last November: 

Public housing parking lots occupy some of the city’s most valuable real estate, but when it comes to addressing the city’s housing crisis, preserving $5 monthly parking spots for NYCHA residents is considered sacred....

After all, while parking spaces for NYCHA tenants are a great amenity for the residents, it is hard to argue that these parking lots are the most efficient use of space for cash-poor NYCHA. Renting the spots certainly doesn’t bring a lot of revenue: NYCHA residents pay as little as $60 for unreserved parking spots—per year....

Public housing denizens are highly protective of their subsidized apartments, which are often handed down through the generations. Even attempts to reallocate underutilized apartments, where a senior citizen may live alone in a three-bedroom unit, are met with suspicion and hostility from the tenants and the elected officials who depend on the votes of these well organized blocs....

Check out the transcripts of the April 2013 Public Housing Committee hearings if you are interested in the highly paranoid contemporary discourse around urban housing and displacement.

Council members, including the present Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and the current public advocate, Letitia James, filed suit to prevent the Infill plan from going forward. Then Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, calling the plan “counterproductive,” indicated he would put the brakes on any NYCHA land leasing, and the project was basically killed.

At the hearing last week the role of NYCHA in the expansion of affordable housing was addressed obliquely and wistfully. Council members clearly understand that some form of infill would be a wise use of the “asset management matrix,” as Speaker Mark-Viverito referred to it, but politically it is a third rail. Too bad, because at the rate it is going,  the administration is a long way from attaining 200,000 affordable units.

The Mayor took heat last week for his plan to let DYCD and DFTA take over the management of some five dozen NYCHA-based community centers.  Public Housing Committee Chair Ritchie Torres was joined by several colleagues and union officials in complaining about the supposed "privatization" of services that the mayor's plan would entail.

As Will Bredderman reported in The Observer

“There’s uncertainty about what the state of those centers is going to be,” said Mr. Torres, a native of public housing, claiming many public housing residents have complained of their dealings with private contractors. “When you privatize services, you’re undercutting the municipal labor force, and then something is lost and you can’t measure it in dollars and cents.”

Whenever elected officials complain about "privatization" their words bear close scrutiny.  The implication is that "private" means "for-profit," whereas it is nearly certain that any group that assumes direct management of the community centers will be a not-for-profit social services organization, most likely with existing roots in the community.

As far as the intangibles that Torres refers to, surely he isn't suggesting that the existing municipal workers provide such astounding services in the community centers that they are truly irreplaceable.  Every time a municipal union worker is threatened with replacement, we are warned of imminent disaster.  It is Reagan firing PATCO all over again, only this time, instead of a spike in air disasters, the senior center lunches will no longer offer a choice of dessert, and the new managers will provide cost-cutting pingpong balls for the Foosball table.

If de Blasio and Olatoye are serious about facing down NYCHA's enormous bloc of rent-seeking residents, then more power to them.  But they better be expecting significant blowback, because it will surely be fierce.  

Mark Weprin Moves on -- Reshma Saujani to the Rescue!

The resignation of Mark Weprin has created an unexpected opportunity for aspiring elected officials in eastern Queens.  Weprin, an assemblyman who swapped seats with his brother David in 2009, was entitled to a third term if he wanted it.  But having lost his campaign for the Speakership, and given the dim prospects of a white man ever again attaining that post, Weprin has decided to pack it in. 

The county organization has unsurprisingly gelled around ex-assemblyman Barry Grodenchik as the anointed successor to Weprin.  A longtime party regular and former Parkside executive, Grodenchik is tight with Boss Crowley and the insiders, dating back to the days when he carried around Clare Shulman’s pocketbook.  He also knows how to go along and when to take one for the team, as when he backed out of the 2013 race for Queens Borough President, letting Melinda Katz firm up the county’s substantial Jewish vote. 

The most amusing news to come out of the current shuffle comes from an odd source not typically associated with Utopia Parkway.  Reshma Saujani, 2013 third-place finisher for Public Advocate and longtime resident of Chelsea, has reportedly been making calls to Joe Crowley advancing herself as the person to replace Weprin!

Reshma Saujani (who did not respond to phone messages) is notoriously tone-deaf when it comes to retail politics.  Her 2010 vanity run for Congress against Carolyn Maloney was a total disaster.  She outspent Tish James by about 30% in 2013 and got 15% of the primary vote.  Her “Girls Who Code” organization is a massive marketing campaign that gained media accolades and support from prominent corporations before any girl had so much as turned on a computer.  “Girls Who Code” is nakedly a platform for the future political career of its founder, who does not know how to code in the first place, and which tapped into the STEM-gender gap obsession of Times readers and steel-jawed Hillary Clinton supporters everywhere.

There is a class of entitled do-gooder types who are convinced that they should be elected to something, and are driven crazy by the failure of the electorate to recognize what all their venture capital friends and marketing guru dinner-party companions have already agreed upon.  Reshma Saujani is apparently so certain that she needs to hold elected office that she is pushing herself ahead of the many qualified candidates in eastern Queens—including, one may add, several South Asians—to attain her goal.  Not by moving there—just by making some well-placed phone calls.  How presumptuous, and what disrespect she shows to the people of CD 23.  As though they could do no better than to usher Reshma Saujani into office, in time for her to prepare to be the first Indian-American woman President by 2028.  Come on Douglaston, we are counting on you!

 

The other interesting question surrounding Mark Weprin’s departure is the matter of his chairmanship of the Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee.  This key Land Use subcommittee is one of a handful of non-frivolous Council committees that require a certain amount of actual knowledge of the rules and the capacity to be judicious.  In other words, it can’t go to just anybody. 

One could wonder if Rosie Mendez has served out her time in the Speaker’s outer darkness for her crime of supporting Christine Quinn for mayor and Dan Garodnick for speaker.  As an attorney and former chair of the Public Housing Committee she could manage Zoning capably.  Or perhaps, assuming the Speaker cares to mend fences with her neighbors to the west, she could slot Inez Dickens to the post—though given her apparent reluctance to run for Congress in 2016, there may not be enough reason for her to bother currying favor with Harlem’s fading black political elite.

We are willing to venture a bold guess: Vincent Gentile, having volunteered to subject himself to a pummeling in Staten Island during the special congressional election, will get a consolation prize in being elevated to the chair of Zoning.              

A Simple Solution: Break All the Windows

Everyone in New York now understands that “Broken Windows” policing is a blight on our city.  All kinds of normal behavior have been criminalized, to the point that average citizens are constantly being harassed by the police for engaging in harmless behavior.  Even the Mayor's son walks in terror of being victimized by his father's security detail.

A striking example occurred earlier this week when Councilman Corey Johnson was stopped by three plainclothesmen when he was walking between subway cars.  Apparently it is a “violation of the law” to walk from car to car, because the police gave Johnson a $75 ticket.  The hapless cops, it seems, were unaware that they were harassing an elected official, not just a nobody, and that their reckless abuse of authority was going to make the pages of the city’s dailies. 

New Yorkers throughout the five boroughs were rocked by the news that Councilman Johnson himself was swept up in a “broken windows” sweep, but were relieved by news that he has initiated a formal complaint against his persecutors.

Councilman Rafael Espinal came out on Twitter in support of his colleague, announcing that he is “with Corey all the way.”  Espinal added, “as a NY'er I've walked through doors many times in my lifetime. 1. For convenience 2. Most importantly for safety reasons.”

Indeed, who could argue with the councilman’s logic?  “Convenience,” as everyone knows, is always its own justification.  Nothing else need be said—except that the wise and prudent Councilman Espinal points out that “safety” is an even more compelling reason to walk between the cars on a moving train.

We are reminded of a bill, Resolution 91, that Councilman Jumaane Williams proposed last year that would have asked the NYPD and the MTA to stop arresting people who commit "minor" crimes, because arrests can cause “significant stress” and “financial hardship” to the arrestees.  It is sobering to think that, if people of conscience had responded to Williams’ call, then Corey Johnson might never have been dragged into the fine procedural net that the NYPD has cast in pursuit of “Broken Windows” policing.

Rafael Espinal and Jumaane Williams have their hearts in the right place, encouraging people to act out of a sense of their own convenience or safety, and asking the police to stop arresting people “committing” “crimes,” whatever that means.  But the time has come for a bolder step: one that will not just end unjust arrests, but will cut the crime rate by 90% or more.

We need to eliminate laws.

Think about it: without laws, there would be no lawbreakers.  It’s so simple, that I don’t know why no one has thought of this before.  Without laws, a free people could go about their business without constant fear of arrest by police looking for broken windows in order to meet their quotas.

Corey Johnson would never again be molested for walking between subway cars, because the absurd rule against doing so would not exist.

“Showtime” dancers would be free to express themselves through dance.  Hardworking men and women on their way home would be allowed to relax and kick back with a beer or a smoke on the subway.  A youth encumbered with a candy wrapper would be entitled to drop it wherever he stands. 

Squeegeemen would be once again allowed to ply their trade at busy intersections, ensuring that we have clean windshields, and helping to realize the Mayor’s vision of zero traffic accidents.

Vendors of loose cigarettes such as Eric Garner would no longer be constantly harassed by policemen doing the bidding of local shopkeepers angry about his competition.  The abolition of petty legislation would mean that crime would plummet.  No one would fear arrest, and therefore, no one would fear, period.

As Riker’s Island became empty of criminals, we could repurpose it as a sanctuary for homeless families or undocumented immigrant children.  Where turnstile jumpers and sidewalk spitters were once incarcerated for cruel terms of solitary confinement, literacy classes could flourish.

The arrest of Corey Johnson will mark a revolution in human understanding.  The problem isn’t crime: the problem, my friends, is the law.  Once all the windows are broken, there will no longer be any windows to break.  And then, with the fresh air of freedom blowing freely through the empty sashes, we will have achieved true liberty.

Fiscal Follies at the Budget Hearings

Budget hearings began yesterday in Chambers, and really dedicated Council watchers got to catch some truly fantastic moments of irrelevance and idiocy.

Commissioner of Finance Jacques Jiha did a nimble job of answering questions and concerns about the city’s tax structure, revenue collection, deeds, etc.  Then Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez launched into his now-familiar prologue to virtually any public comment he makes:

We know that you and many other commissioners…we know that you inherit some mess from previous leaders, and that it is now our responsibility to continue working, cleaning whatever could be done better, and at the same time to continue with the vision of this administration, which is to close the gap that divides our city between the 1% and the 99%.

Few councilmembers appear to have accepted so completely, and are as willing to cough up so frequently, this founding myth of the de Blasio administration as Ydanis Rodriguez.  He cherishes it as death row inmates may cherish a vision of the Gates of Heaven. 

Rodriguez asked a few questions about the money that the city keeps on deposit in various banks, insinuating that the funds, which the city uses to pay for ongoing expenses, should be rightfully “reinvested” in local communities.  The councilmember, among others, appears to believe that the bulk of New York’s tax revenue is ripped from the piggy banks and mattresses of the city’s poorest communities.  “Our big brothers and big sisters on Wall Street have done very well from us,” Rodriguez said knowingly.

Saving his best question for last, Councilmember Rodriguez opened his arms and declaimed,

We need you, we need the Department of Finance, to collect the money…that we are able to save the firehouses, invest in afterschool programs.  But, it breaks my heart sometimes when I see a single mother, who parked the car in a non-parking area on 93rd Street and Riverside Drive, and somebody is waiting to tow the car for the purpose that we will be able to collect the money.  So there is now a ticket given to that individual because she parked the car during the time she was able to go and pick up her daughter or son from school.  Is someone waiting to tow the car and collect the money?  How can we change that approach?

Commissioner Jiha pointed out that parking regulations are out of his scope, and that the question might be better directed to the NYPD or Department of Transportation.

Then Councilmember Laurie Cumbo had her turn.  Property taxes are a constant concern for local elected officials, but Cumbo had a unique twist on the old question of rising rates:

I have a question about property taxes and not-for-profit organizations.  [My district] is gentrifying rapidly, and property values are going up very quickly.  So I am finding situations in my district where not-for-profit organizations and their landlords, the way they structured their leases was that the landlords would pass off the property taxes to the not-for-profit organizations, and as taxes are going up…many of these not-for-profit organizations are finding that they can’t keep pace, and some are seeing increases of ten, fifteen, twenty thousand dollars a year.  Have you seen cases like this, where property taxes of private landlords were passed off to not-for-profit organizations?

Commissioner Jiha said he would look into the question, and Councilmember Cumbo followed up by asking,

Is there some type of tax forgiveness program, or some way where some not-for-profit organizations can become exempt, who cannot afford to pay taxes? …. They are exempt from paying property taxes, but if they signed into their lease that they would assume the responsibility for it at a time when the community was very different, now they are held liable for paying those expenses.

Laurie Cumbo founded and ran a not-for-profit museum in Fort Greene, and has close ties with members of the Brooklyn arts community.  It is pretty clear that some of her associates probably signed weird leases that require them to cover their landlord’s property taxes, and are annoyed that increasing property values, which they as renters are not even seeing the upside of, are making their effective rent go up.  So Councilmember Cumbo is, basically, trying to figure out if there is way to make the city pay their rent.

Single mothers who got towed on the Upper West Side, or not-for-profit administrators with dodgy leases—do not fear!  Your advocates are hard at work in City Hall. 

Playing at Protest: Lander and Menchaca Smile at the Nice Policeman

Councilmembers Brad Lander and Carlos Menchaca got themselves arrested yesterday as part of a demonstration against a car wash in Park Slope.  Marching in support of a lawsuit that eight employees of the Vegas Auto Spa have filed against the owner of the car wash, the elected officials blocked traffic and were removed by the NYPD in what Lander called an act of “civil disobedience.”  Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito participated in the protest but did not subject herself to arrest.

Civil disobedience is how people respond to repressive authority when politics has failed them.  It is an act against the state.  But Brad Lander and Carlos Menchaca are elected representatives and agents of the state, and furthermore are part of the ruling clique.  In what sense are these powerful elected officials in a position to perform “civil disobedience” regarding a labor dispute between the employees and owner of a decrepit car wash?

Yesterday’s action brings to mind the farcical protest of a few months ago, when two dozen councilmembers blocked traffic on lower Broadway to protest the Eric Garner decision, held a die-in on the steps of City Hall, then went inside to participate in the scheduled Stated Meeting.  The point of civil disobedience is that there is some risk to the participants--30 days in jail, getting beaten up, at the very least a fine—in order to demonstrate their dedication to the cause.  Watching a bunch of legislators enact a zero-cost charade of civil disobedience, when they are actually the ones in charge of the city, is the ultimate sign that politics in our one-party city is totally empty. 

Even Mayor de Blasio praised the councilmembers’ feckless manifestation, citing proudly his own “civil disobedience” arrest in 2013 when he protested the closing of Long Island College Hospital—which wound up closing anyway, after he was Mayor. 

The problem with the Progressives is that they can’t admit they are in charge, because their whole mission is an endless uphill battle against the forces of reaction.  So Brad Lander and Carlos Menchaca smilingly pantomime the gestures of revolution, while the police whom they control go along with the charade of arresting them for the cameras.

De Blasio's Immigrant Grandmother: Sweatshop Boss

Mayor de Blasio tugged at the heartstrings of all New Yorkers during his State of the City address when he spoke of his immigrant grandmother, Anna Briganti, who well over a century ago forsook the beauties of Italy “for an apartment at 205 East 17th Street in Manhattan, just a short walk from here…a place lacking the tranquil comforts of her childhood.”

The mayor explained that, in search of “a better life,” his grandmother and her two sisters started an embroidery company in 1910.

“My grandmother’s story – like most New York success stories – was not a fairy tale,” explained the Mayor.  “She did not stumble upon success through luck or charm; she forged it with hard work and raw grit.”

An inspiration, to be sure.

However, the Mayor omitted the part of the story where his grandmother and her sisters turned their house at 205 East 17th Street into a factory where no fewer than 34 people were working by 1915. 

Moreover, he neglected to mention that his grandmother’s sister Imperior was arrested, according to The New York Times (12/4/1915) on charges of “violating regulations relating to smoking and safety appliances.”  The arrest came “as a result of an extensive campaign against fire hazards in the factories of the city.”

Mayor de Blasio’s great-aunt pled guilty to “having an inadequate fire alarm apparatus,” four years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 garment workers less than a mile ("just a short walk") south of the “Misses Briganti” home/"factory at 205 East Seventeenth Street.”

Bill de Blasio certainly isn't at fault for how his grandmother made money running a dangerous sweatshop.  But he is at fault for prominently foregrounding his insipid version of a story of immigrant striving, when the truth is much more complex and interesting.  Even if it doesn't fit his simplistic "two cities" narrative.

Chirlane McCray Exploits Her Daughter's Woes

The shamelessness of Mayor De Blasio and his wife in foregrounding their children to score points is stunning.  There appears to be no limit to how far this scheming couple is willing to push their kids into the spotlight in order to gain political leverage.

This week Chirlane McCray announced a broad initiative to “create a roadmap” in order to “outline a plan” to provide better mental health resources to New Yorkers.  The initial roadmap will be rolled out this summer, and then the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City will work with city agencies to “pursue its findings.”

Then, just as her husband used their son Dante as a prop when he spoke in December about the dangers that the police pose to young black males, McCray trotted out their daughter Chiara to be the city's poster child for recovery from depression and substance abuse.

“I’m proud to say that Chiara is kicking butt at recovery—and she’s working really hard to help other young people dealing with similar challenges,” pronounced McCray.  All well and good for Chiara, though one wonders how eager this teenager actually is to have updates on her nascent recovery from alcohol and drug addiction used as part of her parents’ ceaseless public relations campaigns. 

It was one thing for the de Blasio machine to release news of Chiara’s addiction in late 2013 to get ahead of media reports, but creating a professionally filmed commercial of the announcement was in bad taste.  Then with (presumably) ghostwritten articles on xoJane.com, and now being used as an element of her mother’s speech, one wonders at what point the de Blasios will let up.  When she relapses, God forbid?

The most repulsive part of McCray’s speech, however, was when she insinuated that it was a financial struggle for her and then-Public Advocate de Blasio to pay for their daughter’s treatment:  “It was quite a task for us to find affordable mental health professionals and a program to meet Chiara’s needs. The needs of our daughter, who is no longer a child and not quite an adult. A young woman who has become an edgy biracial activist.”

Chiara being biracial is irrelevant to anything outside of a de Blasio campaign mailer, though at this point it is no surprise that the family would interject their demographic status anywhere.  But it is outrageous that McCray would pretend that it was a financial struggle for them to get help for their daughter.  Leaving aside the fact that the family income was likely close to $300,000 at the time of Chiara’s crisis, Public Advocate de Blasio, as a city employee, had access to excellent health insurance that covers unlimited inpatient rehab at nominal cost...and that’s with the HMO option.  Even in the unlikely case that the de Blasios chose one of the cheapest plans offered by the city, Chiara was still eligible for at least 30 days of rehab, and seven days of detox.

One supposes that, at their income and debt maintenance level, it could have been a stretch for the de Blasio family cash flow to pay for 90 days of luxe care at Promises Malibu, or some other spa facility catering to the elite.  But the recovery industry is mature enough now that it offers price points for everyone, and insurance companies know that it is cheaper to pay for a few months in rehab than it is to cover the aftermath of drunken car crashes.  In her effort to appear conversant with middle-class financial woes, Chirlane McCray comes off as clueless as Hillary Clinton did when she claimed that she and President Clinton were "flat broke" on leaving the White House. 

None of this is too shocking, of course.  Bill de Blasio has been using his wife and children as political props for years.  Aside from perhaps Sarah Palin, has any American politician since Nixon’s Checkers speech been as unctuous and ingratiating, so stupidly self-righteous in regard to his family, as Bill de Blasio?  Seriously: if you can think of someone, let me know.

Anti-Zionist Holocaust Protest: Evil, Stupid, or Both?

Anti-Israel activists disrupted the Council’s stated meeting yesterday, at precisely the moment that a vote was called on a resolution commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz.

Protestors, angry that a number of councilmembers, including Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, are taking a trip to Israel next month, booed and heckled the Council from the gallery, from which they draped banners and Palestinian flags.  The protestors were expelled from Chambers, and eventually the entire gallery was cleared after the protests continued.

One might be sympathetic to the argument that trips abroad by councilmembers, paid for by the propaganda arms of Israel, Taiwan, the Dominican Republic, etc., are questionable and should be disallowed.  After all, the Council doesn't even have control of the city's schools or most of the budget, so its influence on foreign affairs is likely to be fairly limited as well.

But clean government without junkets was not on the protestors' agenda yesterday.  No, the problem was Israel and Israel alone.  A coalition of anti-Zionist groups has been trying to gin up controversy over the planned trip, sarcastically calling it "Apartheid Tours," and targeting individual councilmembers, especially the Progressives among them, insisting that they cancel the trip.

The anti-Zionists undercut their usual claim--that opposition to Israeli policies is not equivalent to anti-Semitism--by patiently sitting through 58 minutes of the meeting until the words “Auschwitz/Birkenau” were pronounced by the Public Advocate as she was calling for a voice vote.

Four resolutions were voted on before the activists disrupted the proceedings: a resolution designating the week following the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. as “Peace Week;” a resolution making January cervical health awareness month; a call for the state legislature to pass laws that would facilitate treatment of HPV among young people; and a resolution asking the US Congress to pass legislation expanding the protection of a woman’s right to safe abortions.

At that point PA James read aloud the title of Resolution 548, “commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps on January 27th, 2015,” but was interrupted by boos from the gallery, as protestors raised a Palestinian flag and a banner reading “Don’t Tour Apartheid Israel.”

Ten minutes later, after the first protestors were expelled, several more individuals began screaming about “genocide,” and directly addressed the Speaker, “Melissa! You are a hypocrite! How can you say you are a progressive and support Israeli atrocities against children! Palestinian lives matter! Etc., etc.”  At this point the gallery was emptied and the stated meeting continued without any members of the general public present.

One of the organizations behind the action, Jewish Voice for Peace, distanced itself from the timing of the disruption with the vote on the Auschwitz resolution, calling it “a mistake and extremely unfortunate.”

Other groups involved in the protest took a familiar approach to spinning the ugly scene: first denying it, then justifying it.  Nastaran Mohit, an expert heckler of messianic self-regard, who made news in 2012 by repeatedly screaming “Fuck you” at a Mitt Romney appearance, insisted that her disruption began during the "Peace Week" resolution vote, though Council video proves otherwise.

The most egregious twisting of events came from the “Occupy Wall Street” Twitter feed, which angelically claimed, “Standing against apartheid is a stand in solidarity w/an anti-genocide reso.”  Yes, to disrupt a commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz to scream about Palestine in fact shows the deepest possible respect for the Holocaust: certainly more earnestly felt than that of the disrupted original ceremony.  Sophistry and doublethink at this level indicate either cynical brilliance or schizophrenia.

Anyway, the whole fiasco was a fantastic and depressing demonstration, if you care to make it, of the emptiness of the argument that anti-Zionism is not the same as anti-Semitism. Correlation may not imply causation, but it sure does indicate correlation!

Mark-Viverito Hails Departed Terrorist as Hero; "National Patriot."

Council Speaker Mark-Viverito eulogized yesterday a convicted terrorist and sponsor of political violence against the United States, calling her “our icon and national patriot.”

Isabel Rosado Morales died in Puerto Rico Tuesday at the age of 107.  Morales was imprisoned three times for seditious acts, the final time in 1954, following a little-remembered gun attack on the floor of the House of Representatives, when four Puerto Rican nationalists, firing from the gallery, shot and wounded five US Congressmen.

Morales was apprehended the next day in San Juan, following a two-hour gun battle in which she took vigorous part, at the home of Pedro Albizu Campos, the “Maestro” of the Puerto Rican independence movement.  Her indictment linked Morales to the assassination attempt; she was found guilty and sentenced to 17 years in prison.

Melissa Mark-Viverito, who likely knew Morales from their mutual involvement in the 2000 Navy-Vieques protests, tweeted yesterday from her personal account, “Nuestro ícono y patriota nacional”; “Our icon and national patriot.”

It is curious that the Speaker called Isabel Morales, who even at the age of 105 spoke affirmatively about the use of militant tactics, including gun violence, to achieve liberation, “our” national patriot.  Who exactly is the “we” in this construction?  Puerto Ricans have had US citizenship since 1917, and the independentistas have received no more than 5% of the vote in any of the four referenda Puerto Rico has held since 1967 regarding the status of the territory.

Certainly it is normal for Melissa Mark-Viverito to see herself as culturally bi-national, as do many mainland Puerto Ricans.  But in the context of eulogizing a militant separatist, it is very odd for an elected official in the United States to identify herself politically with a “national patriot” who fomented revolution and categorically rejected association with the United States.

It almost sounds as though the Speaker of the New York City Council isn’t sure which country she wants to be part of.

The question of Mark-Viverito’s loyalties has come up before, as has her support for convicted Puerto Rican terrorists.  For most of her first two terms the councilmember stood for, but did not recite, the Pledge of Allegiance, and when asked about it, a staffer said that she was “unfamiliar” with the tradition and its 31 words.

Councilmember Karen Koslowitz disputed this claim, and says that Mark-Viverito told her specifically that she was opposed to saying the Pledge on ideological grounds.  "She wanted Puerto Rico to be independent," Koslowitz said. "She was looking for Puerto Rico to take its independence."

Mark-Viverito has long carried a torch for another convicted Puerto Rican terrorist,  Oscar Lopez Rivera, who is serving a 70 year sentence for seditious conspiracy.  As one of the leaders of the FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional/Armed Forces for National Liberation), Rivera is suspected of participation in the bombing of Fraunces Tavern, which killed four people, among other violent acts. 

In 1999 Rivera was offered executive clemency, along with 15 of his FALN colleagues, by President Clinton in preparation for Hillary Clinton’s US Senate run, but he refused the offer because it was conditioned on renouncing the use of terror.  Speaker Mark-Viverito has since agitated for Rivera’s release, having circulated a letter in support of his parole in 2010, and speaking up for him again in 2014.

It is unsettling to think that less than a week after the terrorist attacks in Paris, Melissa Mark-Viverito would be so tone deaf as to openly lionize and mourn the passing of a woman who was convicted of violent sedition, and who affirmatively praised the use of violence to achieve political ends for sixty years after her involvement in an assassination attempt in the US Capitol. 

Progs Froth over Rose/WFP; Corey Johnson Loses Plot/Mind

The Council’s WFP cadre turned out for a press conference this week to denounce the “political hatchet job” on one of its beloved members, Councilmember Debi Rose of Staten Island.  Rose was named as an unindicted co-conspirator along with two of the staff of her 2009 Council campaigns: shady dealings by Data and Field Services, the WFP’s old for-profit arm, had caught up to Richmond County’s sole Democrat.

Progressive rhetoric was let off its leash at the press conference, as councilmembers one-upped each other in foot-stamping outrage, expressing shock and dismay that someone as lowly as a Staten Island special prosecutor could deign to question the probity and rectitude of the Working Families Party electoral operations.  Indeed, may a cat look at a king? 

Brad Lander took the lead, explaining patiently that he used Data and Field Services in 2009, and that their services were strictly aboveboard.  “There is nothing here that merits criminal prosecution…it’s appalling,” said Lander.

Now it has been common knowledge since 2009, among anyone who was paying attention to city politics and the WFP, that there were irregularities in Debi Rose’s first Council campaigns.  Local North Shore ACORN operatives got involved in a way that didn’t happen in other WFP races, and eyebrows were raised. Maybe it all falls into a gray area, but for Brad Lander and the rest of his crew to pretend that investigation of Debi Rose has come out of nowhere and is purely malevolent or a politicized fishing expedition, is absurd.  

If the case is so vaporous, then why did top Bill de Blasio aide Emma Wolfe refuse to talk to the special prosecutor about her role managing the WFP’s campaign machine?  She was given immunity from prosecution, so she isn’t protecting herself.

Furthermore, how do Brad Lander and the rest of the WFP know that there is nothing to see here?  Isn’t that what investigations and prosecutions are for?  Note that whenever a Democratic politician is arrested and indicted (cf. Ruben Wills), his or her colleagues withhold judgment and say that they want to let the process play out.  So why don’t they trust the process in the case of Debi Rose?

Well to listen to Donovan Richards and Laurie Cumbo, we can’t trust the process because it is corroded with racism.  Cumbo, just one year on from her impassioned justification of anti-Jewish violence in Crown Heights, now claims that the investigations into Debi Rose’s campaign treasurer “have racial motivations.”  Earlier that same day, Cumbo held a press conference to expound her thesis that Rachel Noerdlinger, Chirlane McCray, Melissa Mark-Viverito and Letitia James have all been victims of a conspiracy, a “growing, growing attack particularly on women of color.”  Who is behind this conspiracy?  Unnamed forces of reaction, one presumes.

Donovan Richards linked the indictments to the Eric Garner case, perhaps not understanding that the current investigation has been going on for almost two years, and that the matters under investigation happened almost six years ago.  Richards noted cryptically, “we just have to watch with a keen eye, with a keen sense on what is happening and when it is happening and why it is happening.”  Indeed.

The most bizarre, even demented, comments came from Corey Johnson, who let loose against Roger Adler, the special prosecutor.  Johnson ranted, “Roger Adler is a failed civil court judge who has never been a prosecutor and is trying to make a name for himself. It is disgusting he is doing this to one of the finest elected officials we have in this body. Shame on you Roger Adler, go do something else with your life. Go after real criminals, not Debi Rose.”

Roger Adler is not a “failed civil court judge”; he ran for civil court judge in a 2008 election and lost.  He has, however, been practicing law since 1971, was president of the Brooklyn Bar Association, worked in the Brooklyn D.A.’s office, and was three times appointed a special prosecutor, by Elizabeth Holtzman and Charles Hynes.  He was counsel to the NY Senate Investigations Committee, and was praised by Democratic Senator Craig Johnson as “a brilliant attorney and extremely fair minded.”

Given that Roger Adler is almost 70 years old, it seems weird that Corey Johnson would accuse him of “trying to make a name for himself.”  After all, Adler has argued cases in front of the US Supreme Court, and appears to have had a full career.  Certainly he is at least as accomplished as Corey Johnson, the part-time hotel lobbyist and former “political editor for Towleroad,” whose signature professional accomplishment was advocating for a higher percentage of affordable housing at a parking lot.  That and lettering in three varsity sports in high school…well done, Sir!

Does Corey Johnson understand that Roger Adler was given the job of Special District Attorney to investigate the Debi Rose case by Fern Fisher, the Chief Administrative Judge of the City Courts?  That Roger Adler is not running a Star Chamber where he can pick and choose whom to investigate?  Perhaps an attorney in the Council’s central staff can sit Corey Johnson down and explain to him some of the basics of the legal system. 

Corey Johnson, like Bill de Blasio, who cannot stop talking about the heroism of his historic victory, thinks that getting elected to office was his grand achievement.  Let’s hope the novelty wears off soon…the Progressives’ self-congratulation is really starting to cloy.

 

Espaillat Angry at Airbnb; Gives Herbalife a Pass

State Senator Adriano Espaillat wrote a letter criticizing City & State magazine for co-sponsoring a SOMOS cocktail party with Airbnb, but he failed to point out that Herbalife, which he has specifically targeted in the past, is a major SOMOS sponsor.

In a letter to Tom Allon, the president of City & State, Sen. Espaillat, joined by a number of other Latino elected officials, demanded that Airbnb be dropped as a SOMOS co-sponsor, claiming that the internet home-share middleman "exacerbates the housing crisis plaguing our communities...particularly the communities we represent."

Last year Espaillat wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission claiming that Herbalife is "an illegal pyramid scheme, using false income claims" to lure Latinos into "losing business deals."  

City Council Watch has previously covered the nexus of Latino politicians, including Espaillat, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Julissa Ferreras, all of whom in apparent conjunction with their political consultant MirRam Group, wrote letters demanding federal action on Herbalife.  The MirRam Group was hired by William Ackman of Pershing Square Capital to organize Latino opposition to Herbalife, which Ackman has bet against in major stock shorts.

Herbalife is a major sponsor of SOMOS El Futuro, and SOMOS conference name tags even have the name "Herbalife" prominently printed on them.

A spokeman for Senator Espaillat said, "I don't see this as hypocrisy.  Nothing we have done could suggest that the Senator supports Herbalife.  We asked for an investigation, and there is one."

Alerted to the SOMOS/Herbalife connection, the press office of Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said she found the sponsorship "disappointing."

 

 

Melissa Mark-Viverito Surveys the National Mall

The Speaker seems to be preoccupied with the Smithsonian Institution this month.  First, Councilmembers Laurie Cumbo and Ben Kallos introduced a resolution urging Congress to commission a National Women's Museum.  The resolution has momentum, and an initial hearing has already been held on the topic, indicating that it will likely be voted on (and passed) at one of the next few stated meetings.  The resolution, like virtually all such statements, will go straight from Chambers into the circular file, but clearly someone in the Speaker's office is interested in pushing it.

Next, the Speaker herself introduced a resolution yesterday, asking Congress to authorize the construction of an American Latino Museum.  In order to spare planners the trouble of figuring out where to put it, the proposed legislation offers to house the Latino Museum in the venerable Arts and Industries Building, one of the oldest buildings on the Mall.

Does all this concern with the Smithsonian betray the Speaker's ambitions for a move to Washington as the next step in her political career?  It makes sense: the two Congressmen who overlap her district have a combined age north of 150 years, and the Speaker will be out of a job on the first day of 2018.  It seems unlikely that she is planning an early retirement.

Fractures in the Monolith?

Isn’t it funny how the number of Council committees and subcommittees is always equal to the number of council members, minus whoever is being punished by the Speaker?

The Council resumes its 2014 session with a brand new committee on Courts and Legal Services, to be chaired by Rory Lancman. Somehow the city’s courts and legal system functioned for decades without a council committee to oversee them, but now it has been found necessary to establish council oversight. And fortuitously, it happened just at the same moment that CM Lancman had demonstrated his readiness to play ball on the Speaker’s team.

How Lancman gained the Speaker’s favor is not clear—perhaps his vow to introduce a bill outlawing police chokeholds was enough to bring him out of the outer darkness. What is really piquant however is the list of remaining (Democratic) council members who are still in the cold.

Ruben Wills needs little explanation—his indictment for fraud makes it hard to countenance giving him much in the way of oversight. Andy King might suffer from being from the Bronx, whose delegation opposed the Speaker’s candidacy until the bitter end. Councilmember King is making the best of things anyway, flaunting his bow ties and sherbet-colored outfits in tabloid features and at Bronx Fashion Week. At King’s Times Square presser this week to announce his proposal to regulate the beggars who dress like cartoon characters, one passerby shouted out, “Which character are you?”

The fate of Councilmembers Annabel Palma and Rosie Mendez is puzzling as well. One might assume that Latina unity would suffice to get these veteran legislators a committee chair, although maybe it works the other way, and the Speaker wants to demonstrate that she does not play ethnic favorites. Palma contested the Speaker for the job, but unlike some of the other candidates, she doesn’t have the political weight behind her to ensure that she picks up some spoils. Again, being from the Bronx doesn’t help. It is widely known that the Speaker had wanted the last redistricting to remove her Bronx constituency entirely, and put her squarely and solely in the Manhattan delegation.

Rosie Mendez may have annoyed the Speaker by going after de Blasio in the mayoral primary race last year, when she supported Christine Quinn. Councilmember Mendez filed a COIB complaint two weeks before the election, questioning whether Public Advocate de Blasio was using his “worst landlords” list as extortion for campaign donations, a move that the de Blasio camp saw as going too far.

Does it look good that the Dems without committee chairs are all people of color? I doubt that the Speaker is losing sleep over it.

The primary election Tuesday didn’t do a lot for the reputation of the Mayor or Speaker as powerbrokers. Mark-Viverito looked absurd praising the upstate conservative LG candidate Kathy Hochul’s “progressive values,” and de Blasio’s grotesque performance at the Labor Day parade, shielding Governor Cuomo from having to acknowledge Zephyr Teachout, was embarrassing.

De Blasio acting as Cuomo’s wingman is the emblem of the Progressive sellout to the mainstream Dems—or rather, it demonstrates that the WFP Progs were never that “progressive” to begin with. They were always just another faction of transactional politicians who were on a run, bludgeoning their opponents as the enemies of progress. Well, now that Governor Cuomo has the WFP line, where does that leave the WFP? Does anyone imagine that Cuomo’s presumed victory in November will be a blank check for the Progressives? Not bloody likely, especially after so many of them defected to the left, giving him barely 60% of the primary vote.

So Cuomo extracted a vague promise from Senator Jeff Klein to return to the Democratic fold…big deal. The IDC came out ahead Tuesday night, and with Cuomo and de Blasio bruised, there is little leverage on Klein to lift his hand from the seesaw. The Senate remains in his control, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. You count the Bronx out at your own hazard.

We may see some stirrings of revolt in the Council, which has marched almost monolithically behind the Mayor. But now that de Blasio is preparing to bring the horse carriage issue to a head, splits are forming that could potentially derail the Progressives’ momentum.

Councilmember Rafael Espinal, Chair of Consumer Affairs, has publically come out for the carriage industry and against the ban. Legislation on the carriage horses would normally have to go through his committee, so the Speaker is shopping around to find somewhere else to introduce it.

Espinal is showing some fortitude here, and is likely playing a long game. The Progressive leadership has been getting a pass on a lot of its early foolishness, but de Blasio’s honeymoon will only last so long. If in the next 18 months the city begins to sour on its new executive, the pols who stuck their necks out early will look like heroes with foresight. Rafael Espinal could be jockeying to look like one of the sensible ones if and when the Progressives take a serious fall.

Are Petition Challenges Voter Suppression?

Petition challenges are, in their current form at least, a mode of candidate suppression that favors establishment candidates over insurgents, and wealthier candidates over their poorer opponents.  The Queens political machine is exercising its muscle in Jamaica to keep a woman Navy veteran off the ballot and ensure that its party stalwart has a clear shot at Malcolm Smith’s senate seat.

The petitioning season is 37 days long and requires candidates for office to develop at least the semblance of a campaign organization--arguably a positive means of filtering out clowns and non-starters.  Acquiring the 1000 signatures necessary for a state senate campaign necessitates getting out a troop of either volunteers or paid canvassers.  The rule of thumb in petitioning is to aim for three times the minimum, in order to account for “bad” signatures: those of non-registrants, non-residents, or duplicates.  So getting on the ballot isn’t something that a non-serious candidate with few resources can consider doing.

The acts of challenging an opponent’s petitions adds an abusive layer to the process, because it costs a huge amount of money to mount a challenge.  Challenges are thus almost always brought against insurgent candidates, and are most often brought by party organizations that want to clear the field for their selected candidate.  Non-establishment candidates rarely have the resources to hire an elections lawyer to pore over hundreds of pages of signatures and cross-reference them with a voter file.

Governor Cuomo’s challenge to Zephyr Teachout’s candidacy is an obvious example.  By challenging her petitions he can force her lean campaign to spend tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend her access to the ballot.  If the challenge works and he gets her thrown off the ballot, so much the better for him, but if the challenge fails, there is no comeback for the Cuomo campaign, and Teachout has to divert campaign money to cover the cost.  The nature of the political system is that the public pays no attention to these squabbles, and accepts the ballot as it reaches the voter as democracy’s fresh slate.  Kicking someone off the ballot is just seen as fair application of the rules.

In Malcolm Smith’s District 14, covering Southeast Queens, a petition challenge is on against candidate Bernadette Semple that illustrates the twisted nature of the challenge process.  Senator Smith, involved in a major corruption trial, is ostensibly running for re-election, but hasn’t raised any money.  Also running are attorney Munir Avery and former councilmember and Queens County Democratic Party choice Leroy Comrie.

Comrie served in the Council as the chair of Land Use and as the head of the Queens delegation.  He ran briefly for Queens Borough President but his tepid campaign was called off early: the rumor was that Queens Dem boss Joe Crowley wanted Comrie to step aside so Melinda Katz could have a clear shot at the post, without having to worry about the large Queens black vote.  Comrie’s reward at this point appears to be total “County” support for his Senate run.

Bernadette Semple threatens Comrie’s campaign because, as the only woman in a three or four-way race, she could make the election seriously competitive.  Semple is also a retired Navy Lieutenant Commander, and unlike Comrie, has no ties to the rats’ nest of corruption that characterizes SE Queens politics.  Comrie probably figures he can easily outgun Munir Avery, whose financing seems largely tapped out and whose support is mostly among the area’s substantial but limited Muslim community.  Running against a woman could pose other challenges.

Semple submitted approximately 2,900 petition signatures, most of which are considered solid, according to people in the know.  But in a startling parallel to what is going on in Brooklyn, where boss Frank Seddio is supporting a petition challenge against Dell Smitherman, who is opposing Senator Sampson’s re-election, the Queens County Dems are apparently organizing a petition challenge in order to secure Comrie a clear ballot.

Petition challenges get very granular, and often hinge on eliminating the signatures of people who live on the border of the district.  This technicality is a powerful yet understated effect of partisan districting.  Elected officials and the party apparatus get to draw the borders of their districts at redistricting time, and as a result many urban districts are totally jackstraw and segmented.  The borders may zig and zag back and forth from block to block, in order to capture or exclude certain segments of voters.  Good government groups have long pointed to partisan districting as a significant way that incumbent electeds protect themselves from challenges.

A side effect of this unfortunate wrinkle in local politics is that people often do not know precisely which district they live in.  If political borders do not fall on natural lines of division (e.g. “south of Union Turnpike”) then it is very hard for a campaign worker, even one who is knowledgeable and informed, to be able to tell a potential signatory who lives near a boundary exactly which district they should vote in.  District maps of sufficient detail are too unwieldy for petitioners to lug around. 

In the end, it seems that candidate suppression through petition challenges is another way for well-funded political machines to amass and retain power.  And in a one-party system, isn't candidate suppression ultimately the same thing as voter suppression?  

Espaillat and Rangel Still Wrong on Dominico-Haitian Crisis

Asked about their support for the Dominican Republic’s policy of denationalization of its native-born population of Haitian descent, Charles Rangel and Adriano Espaillat each spoke in defense last night of what is arguably the worst offense against human rights in the Americas today.

As City Council Watch reported, Espaillat travelled to DR last week in order to pose with President Danilo Medina and praise the Dominican government for restoring citizenship to some 25,000 people out of roughly 200,000 who had been retroactively declared non-citizens.  The government of DR had passed a 2013 law declaring that anyone born since 1929 to non-citizen parents was no longer a citizen, effectively reversing a longterm policy of jus solis, or “birthright citizenship” as we know it in the United States.

Adriano Espaillat had, to his credit, spoken out against the 2013 law, calling it inhumane, but then gave wholehearted support to the 2014 law, citing it as an exemplar of immigration reform.  The supposed rectification of the human rights disaster of last year, however, was only partial.  Twenty-four thousand people who had been registered according to a certain standard of correctness had their citizenship restored. 

The remaining 180,000, however, are now considered undocumented residents, and a pathway to legal residency is being designed to, supposedly, normalize their status.  In the meantime, however, these DR-born descendants of Haitians are in a highly vulnerable position, without the right to work, go to school, register births, or obtain travel documents.

Asked about his stance on the matter during the NY1 debate last night, Espaillat insisted that he had advocated for restitution of the rights of those affected by the 2013 ruling, and spoke of the 24,000 whose citizenship had been restored.  But then he made a most telling and damning statement, praising the Dominican government for “putting in place a road to citizenship for the rest of those immigrants.”  Even the staunchest worshipper of Trujillo would have to concede that Dominican-born Haitians, if not citizens, are nevertheless certainly not “immigrants.”  Espaillat’s Orwellian turn of phrase essentially rewrites the birth history of some 180,000 people, making them foreigners at home.

Charles Rangel wasn’t much better.  He also shook hands with President Medina and praised his humanity for having restored citizenship to those 24,000 Dominico-Haitians whose parents had registered them appropriately decades ago.  Regarding the others, Rangel spoke generally about how great it would be if all countries had such expansive citizenship opportunities as the United States, but unfortunately “a sovereign country determines its own citizenship laws.”

Rangel thus echoes the rhetoric of the most perfervid Dominican comment boards, where anti-Haitian Dominican exponents rave about the inviolability of their state sovereignty.  The question of the Dominico-Haitians, however, is not about violating Dominican sovereignty: it is just about not countenancing racial denationalization on a massive scale.    

City Council Watch doesn’t make endorsements, but the other candidate, Michael Walrond, at least spoke sensibly on the issue.

Espaillat Visits DR, Praises Ethnic Cleansing Law

Adriano Espaillat visited the Dominican Republic this week, where he met with the President and praised Dominican policies that have stripped hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship.

The Dominican Republic raised the ire and eyebrows of the world last September when it instituted a new law that retroactively denationalized approximately 210,000 people born in the country since 1929, on the grounds that their parents were not properly registered with the government.  The law primarily affects people of Haitian descent, and is the most recent manifestation of antihaitianismo, the racist ideology of Dominican supremacy that has a long, bloody history of murder and dispossession of the Haitian minority.

International tribunals and human rights organizations were aghast at the humanitarian implications of the new law, which would deprive children of the right to attend school, and deny civil rights to many thousands of people who had been born and raised in the Dominican Republic.  Kerry Kennedy, of the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights, called the Dominican high court’s affirmation of the law’s constitutionality “one of the most discriminatory rulings ever made by a superior tribunal.”  And the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights labeled the ruling “disastrous.”

Bowing to international pressure, the Dominican Republic this May passed a new Naturalization Law which restores citizenship to some 25,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent who had in fact been enrolled in the National Registry.  But the law still leaves many tens of thousands of people who were born in the Dominican Republic effectively stateless.  International observers universally regard the new Dominican law as a cynical ploy to regain standing in the eyes of the world.

Senator Espaillat is a willing puppet in the Dominican Republic’s PR charade.  Meeting on Monday, June 2 with President Danilo Medina, Espaillat praised the new law, saying that it had put a “human face” (una cara humana) on the original legislation.  Furthermore, Espaillat is reported to have said that official Dominican policy regarding denationalized Dominicans of Haitian descent “should serve as an example for many countries today discussing immigration reform (debería servir de ejemplo para muchos países que hoy discuten reformas migratorias.)"  Espaillat posted this article to his Twitter account, and appears not to have any problems with its accuracy.

The Dominican Republic dedicated this week to propounding its humanity.  Ambassador to the US Anibal de Castro penned an editorial praising the DR’s commitment to justice, and the Dominican representative to the Organization of American States staged a photo-op where he presented the OAS Secretary-General with a copy of the new law.  Senator Espaillat appears to have been part of the road show: his trip to Santo Domingo does not seem to have had any other purpose other than to give cover to the Dominican government’s legislative mockery of the rights of man.

Imagine if the United States decided to retroactively withdraw birthright citizenship from anyone whose parents were undocumented, back to 1929, and then regard such people as ineligible to attend school, obtain work authorization, get travel documents, or register the births of their children.  That is precisely the situation for as many as 180,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic today.  

It is grotesque that Adriano Espaillat, who has made a great deal of noise as a defender of the rights of undocumented immigrants to the United States, was happy to take time out of his run for Congress in order to heap praise on an egregious, racist law with untold human cost.

UPDATE: It is has been brought to my attention that Rep. Charles Rangel also supports DR Law 169-14, and took a picture with President Danilo Medina, smiling and congratulating him.  It has never been the position of City Council Watch that Congressman Rangel was a better choice than Adriano Espaillat...the two of them seem pretty odious.

Laurie Cumbo Stands up for Motorcycle Crews

Last time Councilmember Laurie Cumbo made the news, she was defending the hurt feelings of people of who beat up strangers on the street, on the grounds that they suffer justified “resentment” against “Jewish landlords.”

Now, CM Cumbo has found a new constituency to represent: motorcycle crews that stage drag races, rev their engines loudly and pointlessly, and otherwise perform dangerous stunts.

Yesterday the Council voted on a package of legislation in support of Mayor de Blasio’s “Vision Zero” plan, which is meant to eliminate traffic-related deaths in New York City.  Most of the bills passed with either near or total unanimity, and their scope, despite the revolutionary rhetoric of Council leadership, is fairly noncontroversial: establishing work zones on bridges, fifty dollar fines for failure to yield right-of-way to pedestrians, etc.

Intro 167, a law “in relation to prohibiting certain stunt behavior with vehicles,” expands existing rules forbidding drag racing to include obnoxious driving tricks such as pulling “donuts,” “burning out” after spinning the back wheels, and popping “wheelies”…all the stuff that fans of the “Fast and Furious” franchise think makes for a great weekend, but which doesn’t fit the “Vision Zero” image of the city as a place where no one gets hurt, ever.  The law prescribes a maximum punishment of sixty days in jail and a $600 fine for a first offense.

Laurie Cumbo nonplussed her colleagues when she voted against Intro 167 on the grounds that motorcycle “club culture” is popular in her Fort Greene neighborhood, and that the law would (unfairly?) criminalize an enjoyable activity.  

We may recall that the last time New York heard about motorcycle club culture, it was when a crew of several dozen bikers chased a SUV up the West Side Drive last September, beating up the driver near the GW Bridge bus terminal following his unsuccessful attempt to escape the gang after a minor fender-bender.  The biker club culture was held in such contempt after this incident that Councilmember Julissa Ferreras fired a member of her staff who commented, on her personal Facebook page, in support of one of the riders.

Well, maybe Laurie Cumbo likes bikers, or is a closet libertarian and hates helmet laws, etc.  But that doesn’t explain her bizarre reasoning that Intro 167 is racist.   “I would hate,” said CM Cumbo, “to see so many young people of color in prison for activities that are happening over the summer.”  Cumbo has thus taken the principle of disparate impact to a level of absurdity that possibly no one has ever imagined—or twisted it so much that it isn’t even a question of “disparate impact," just “any impact.”  Her argument appears to be, This law may be broken by people of color, therefore I cannot vote for it.  

Cumbo then noted that many of these bikers like to go to Jones Beach.  This may be true, but it is not clear how it pertains to the law in question, as Jones Beach is not in New York City.  Perhaps CM Cumbo is not aware of the geographical limits of the five boroughs, or perhaps she does not comprehend the jurisdictional reach of the Council, but Intro 167 will not cover any vehicular behavior in Nassau County.  It is worth noting, however, that there is a long history of illegal drag racing out by Jones Beach, and it remains a popular weekend destination for motorcyclists, if a general search of message boards is roughly accurate.

Knockout game aficionados, biker crews who can’t resist burning rubber preparatory to a fierce midnight drag race on a hot summer night…who knew that Laurie Cumbo, the founder of an art museum, would fight so vigorously on behalf of the demimonde?   I guess everyone needs an advocate!