City Council to Be Slightly Less Progressive

The City Council is likely to be slightly less progressive over the next four years, after the Sept. 12 Democratic primaries produced nominees for nine open seats. Tenants should still be able to count on the Council to pursue pro-tenant policies, but there will almost certainly be a few more conservative members after the Nov. 7 elections.

In District 2 on the Lower East Side, Carlina Rivera beat five other candidates to replace her term-limited former boss, Rosie Mendez. A former tenant organizer at Good Old Lower East Side, Rivera grew up in a project-based Section 8 building. In District 4 on the Upper East Side/Midtown East, Keith Powers won a nine-way race to replace Daniel Garodnick. He has been closely involved in the fight to keep Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, where he lives, affordable.

Democratic primaries for two open seats in the Bronx were won by state legislators looking for a shorter commute and the much higher pay on the Council ($148,000 vs. $79,500 per year). Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj, a landlord who has repeatedly voted against repealing vacancy deregulation, spent more than $700,000—more than $200 for each vote he got—in the race to replace James Vacca in District 13 in the northeast Bronx. He beat pro-tenant Marjorie Velazquez by only 368 votes. John Doyle, who vigorously attacked Gjonaj during the campaign, came in third with 1,600 votes, clearly denying Velazquez a win.

In District 18 in Soundview/ Parkchester, state Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. won a plurality over three pro-tenant candidates seeking to replace term-limited incumbent Annabel Palma. While Diaz has been consistently pro-tenant, he is reactionary on social issues.

These two races illustrate the difficulty of fighting candidates with stronger name recognition and superior fundraising. They also show the inevitable result of multiple progressive candidates splitting the vote.

Diaz and Gjonaj will bring a more conservative tilt to the Council. They will find an ally in incumbent Rev. Fernando Cabrera, a rightwing homophobe who recently gave a sermon in which he stated that it is harder to be rich than poor, and who turned back a challenge from Randy Abreu in District 14 (Morris Heights/Kingsbridge).

Pro-tenant candidates won the nominations for two open Queens seats. Assemblymember Francisco Moya edged disgraced former state senator Hiram Monserrate by 700 votes in District 21 (Corona/ Jackson Heights); Monserrate was expelled from the Senate in 2010 after he was convicted of brutalizing his former girlfriend. He and Pedro Espada, both later imprisoned for corruption, were the two Senate Democrats who defected to the Republican side in 2009, derailing legislation to repeal vacancy decontrol. Adrienne Adams won a three-way race in District 28 in southeast Queens, which became vacant after Ruben Wills was convicted of corruption in July. Both victors were supported by the Queens Democratic Party.

In Brooklyn, Alicky Ampry-Samuel beat out eight others seeking to replace Darlene Mealy, who is widely considered the least effective Councilmember, in District 41 (East Flatbush/Bedford-Stuyvesant). In District 43 (Bay Ridge/ Dyker Heights), union-backed Justin Brannan beat Rev. Khader El-Yateem, a socialist Palestinian immigrant, by 700 votes. The district is one of the few in the city where Republicans are competitive, so Brannan will have a tough contest in November against GOP nominee John Quaglione to replace term-limited Vincent Gentile. Both Ampry-Samuel and Brannan, if he wins, will be protenant.

Challenges to incumbents

Some pro-tenant incumbents had serious challengers. On the Upper West Side in District 6, Helen Rosenthal, one of the strongest tenant advocates in the Council, was constantly hammered by Mel Wymore, who engaged in a nastily negative campaign, falsely accusing Rosenthal of being weak on overdevelopment. Rosenthal won 65 percent of the vote, in a race that saw the heaviest turnout in all five boroughs.

Farther uptown, incumbent Mark Levine, author of the Council bill to provide free attorneys to tenants in Housing Court, buried Thomas Lopez-Pierre in District 7 (Morningside Heights/Hamilton Heights). Lopez-Pierre ran on a platform of “protecting black and Hispanic tenants from Jewish landlords” and falsely accused Levine of selling out to real-estate developers.

Bill Perkins, who won his old seat in District 9 (Central Harlem/ Upper West Side) in a special election last spring, prevailed in a six-way race. Ydanis Rodriguez survived a challenge in District 10 (Washington Heights/Inwood).

Two pro-tenant incumbents turned back challenges from the Brooklyn Democratic machine. Antonio Reynoso decisively defeated Tommy Torres in District 34 (Williamsburg/Bushwick), and Carlos Menchaca beat Assemblymember Felix Ortiz and three others by a comfortable margin to hold onto his District 38 seat (Red Hook/Sunset Park).

Laurie Cumbo won a second term in District 35 (Fort Greene/ Crown Heights), besting challenger Ede Fox. Fox had sharply criticized the incumbent for her weak opposition to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to redevelop the Bedford Union Armory into a mix of market-rate and affordable apartments, including a slew of luxury condos. The Crown Heights community has vigorously opposed this project, fearing that the influx of high-rent units will further exacerbate gentrification. Cumbo at first supported the plan, but faced with withering community opposition, recently came out against it. The Council will vote on it soon.

On Staten Island’s north shore, pro-tenant incumbent Debi Rose roundly beat challenger Kamillah Hanks in District 49.

Undecided races

Two races were too close to call as Tenant/Inquilino went to press, with paper ballots still to be counted. In District 1 (Chinatown/ Financial District) incumbent Margaret Chin had a 200-vote lead over challenger Christopher Marte. Chin has been good on tenants’ rights, but bad on opposing inappropriate development. In District 8 (East Harlem/Southwest Bronx) Diana Ayala had an even narrower lead over Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez in the race to replace term-limited Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Ayala’s former boss and mentor.

There will be even more turnover on the Council in 2021, when more than 30 members will be termlimited out.