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As New York politics heat up for its main event—the Democratic Party primary on September 13—several races warrant a closer look. There are two stats that generally indicate the strength of a campaign: the number of petition signatures gathered to get on the ballot, which can reveal whether the operation has a wide reach, and the size of the war chest (a combination of donations and anticipated matching funds). With six candidates leaving office thanks to term limits and a handful of incumbents facing serious challenges, there’s plenty to talk about: Harlem’s District 9, the Lower East Side’s District 2, Sunset Park’s District 38. But the field narrows considerably when you focus on neighborhood activists who’ve managed to pull together competitive campaigns. City Limits picks out the ones to watch.

Brooklyn: District 41
Ocean Hill, Brownsville

All-out war might be the best way to describe this hardscrabble contest for Brooklyn_s only open seat. Outgoing incumbent Tracy Boyland, derided for poor council attendance and lackluster performance, has represented the district since 1997; her father and brother have represented nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant in the state assembly since 1982. Determined to keep the family business alive, William Boyland, Sr—Tracy_s father, 64—emerged from retirement to take on a field of 14 candidates. The toughest challenge is likely to come from Darlene Mealy, a rank-and-file union member and community activist with heavy backing from the influential Working Families Party. Mealy’s campaign boasted $128,000 after the mid-July filing deadline—roughly $50,000 more than her closest challenger, Danny King. Boyland’s donations are harder to pin down; he’s declined to participate in the campaign finance program, and had reported only $6,700 at press time. He still had $70,000 left in his state assembly fund, though it’s unclear how much can be used for his council race.

Bronx: District 13
Throgs Neck, City Island, Morris Park

The crowded Democratic field jostling for outgoing Councilmember Madeline Provenzano’s Bronx district is topped by three candidates: Joseph McManus, a union official at Steamfitters Local 638; political veteran Stephen Kaufman, a former longtime Democratic state assemblyman; and James Vacca, a community board district manager with a quarter-century history in local civic work. McManus’s union has close ties to the party, but Vacca was winning the numbers game as City Limits headed to press: The latest campaign filings showed him with more than $300,000 in donations and pending matching funds; neither of his rivals had broken $170,000.

Manhattan: District 8
E. Harlem, Upper W. Side and S. Bronx

As campaign season hit August, a feisty three-way battle was heating up for outgoing Councilmember Phil Reed’s seat. With one-third of the district’s Democrats black and nearly half Latino, racial politics could shape the contest. A former leader of the revolutionary Young Lords Party who became a local newscaster, Felipe Luciano narrowly lost to Reed in 2001 and carries invaluable name recognition. But longtime Democratic Party insider Joyce Johnson has Reed’s endorsement_along with those of Upper West Side politicos like Gale Brewer, which could help her carry the neighborhood. But so far, political newcomer Melissa Mark-Viverito, a union and community activist, had beaten them both in fundraising. Mark-Viverito’s campaign is being backed by her union, SEIU 1199, which houses one of the most sophisticated voter mobilization operations in the city–and successfully installed Councilmember Annabel Palma in 2003. One indication of Viverito’s street cred: She blew her opponents out of the water by reporting more than 9,000 petition signatures, 10 times what’s required to get on the ballot. Her opponents claimed roughly 3,500 each.

Queens: District 25
Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, Woodside

Councilmember Helen Sears could have a scrappy race against community organizer Bryan Pu-Folkes. Mid-July filings found the campaigns neck and neck for fundraising. Still, Pu-Folkes, who has made a name for himself organizing against bias crime in the wake of September 11, faces an uphill battle against Sears. Not only is she the incumbent, but Sears has some extra oomph: a 20-year history with the county party machine and union backing fueled by her successful drive to keep Wal Mart out of the borough.

Research assistance provided by E. Holmgren and R. Breitman.

This story has been updated since its original posting on Monday, August 1. [August 4, 2005]

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