When a Sunset Park environmental advocacy group held a forum for candidates running in Brooklyn's 38th district Tuesday night, nearly a hundred area residents jammed into the basement of Trinity Lutheran Church for free sandwiches and a substantive discussion. There was only one element missing: the incumbent, Councilwoman Sara González.
"I've lived here my entire life," says David Sosa, 19, one of the debate's moderators. "I think it just speaks to her nature."
A González campaign aide declined to comment on her absence, and the 10-year officeholder did not respond to requests for an interview. In other published reports, González representatives contended that the debate was organized by groups opposed to her and wouldn't have given her side a fair hearing.
But what is being heard in this largely Latino district—spanning the Red Hook waterfront, parts of Gowanus and Sunset Park—are the voices of several pro-business political action committees, who are injecting cash into the contest in hopes González will be re-elected. Their presence means citywide issues like tax and wage policy are coloring Gonzalez's contest against challenger Carlos Menchaca, which some local advocates say should revolve instead around ecological matters like the cleanup of the long-polluted Gowanus Canal.
"There are a lot of issues around environmental justice and years of contamination which will play a role in this race," says Hans Hesselein, the executive director of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy.
The question is whether such concerns will lead voters to elect a different councilmember. González, a former AIDS activist and a Sunset Park native who once chaired Community Board 7, has received significant support from two new PACs, Jobs for New York and the Small Business Coalition, as well as the United Federation of Teachers.
But Menchaca, who served as a budgetary aide to Borough President Marty Markowitz and an LGBTQ outreach coordinator to Council Speaker Christine Quinn, has peeled off unions from González like 1199 SEIU and 32BJ SEIU, while receiving a maximum contribution and endorsement from U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez. Menchaca, 32, is an openly-gay El Paso, Texas transplant who says local disparities remind him of those he remembers from childhood trips to visit relatives on the other side of the Mexican border.
"I had to ask those questions—why can we get these things over here, and not over there?" says Menchaca. "Manhattan continues to get the bulk of attention, services and funding. And Brooklyn, an immigrant borough, gets left out."
PACs are players
But Menchaca's campaign faces its own set of disparities. To win on Primary Day, he will have to overcome resources like the $167,341 spent on mailers and palm cards for González by Jobs for New York, a committee organized by the Real Estate Board of New York and construction unions that has pledged to spend $10 million citywide for incumbents like Harlem Councilwoman Inez Dickens and well-connected challengers like former Queens Assemblyman Rory Lancman and Staten Island Republican hopeful Steven Matteo. González has received more financial backing from the new PAC than any of its 19 endorsed candidates thus far.
Two other PACs connected to the Real Estate Board, Taxpayers for an Affordable New York and the Rent Stabilization Association, have also donated $2,750 and $750, respectively, to González.
Meanwhile, flyers and get-out-the-vote operations for González the incumbent have been funded by the Small Business Coalition, a separate PAC founded by a former aide to local pols and current principal of JEMB Realty named Louis Jerome, whose organization will spend up to $750,000 on behalf of at least 11 candidates. Good government advocates are questioning whether such support—which by law operates independently from her campaign—gives candidates like González an untoward advantage in races in which candidates who receive matching funds from the city may only spend $168,000 in advance of the Sept. 10 election.
"I think it's very skilled, very glossy and very professional," says Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York, about the PAC mailers and posters. "I'm not sure how many City Council candidates invest in this kind of high glossy literature. When you look at these mailers, it just screams ‘money to burn.'"
While representatives from Jobs for New York declined to comment, Small Business Coalition executive director John Eddy says his PAC is pushing to decrease city income taxes on business owners who earn less than $200,000 per year and notes that 400 small businesses in the city are members of the coalition. He says electing González is a "top priority" based on her support for policies like the funding of the Sunset Park Business Improvement District and increased opportunities for minority and women-owned businesses.
"We do feel like Councilmember González has been there for small businesses, so we want to be there for her," says Eddy.
Worries about the canal
But observers are wondering what effect the PAC funding might have on a district suffering from infrastructural challenges while also bracing for gentrification. A 16-building, 6 million square-foot property called Industry City at the Bush Terminal on the Sunset Park waterfront will bring new arrivals and opportunities to the area, as will proposed developments along the Gowanus.
However, longtime residents are still tangling with issues like the proposed closure of Long Island College Hospital in nearby Cobble Hill and the backlog of repair requests and upgrades at the 2,878-unit Red Hook Houses project. UPROSE, the Sunset Park environmental education non-profit for local youth that hosted Tuesday's forum in partnership with citywide green transit group Transportation Alternatives, distributes leaflets noting the importance of environmental concerns in the area.
"Sunset Park is a community with a disproportionate amount of environmental and health burdens," the brochure reads. "It is home to a bus depot, numerous truck routes, the overtaxed Gowanus Expressway, two New York Power Authority electrical turbine engines, three antiquated power plants, a sludge treatment plant and dozens of brownfield sites."
The Gowanus Canal, a muck-filled 1.8-mile stretch of miasmal waters that the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls "one of New York's most polluted waterways," is still reeling from toxic buildup that started accumulating when the canal opened in the industrial 1860s. An EPA Superfund program cleanup plan that would locate two sewage treatment tanks underneath a nearby public pool has provoked opposition in the community. and Menchaca says he is pushing for "a more environmentally-just Red Hook" and that, if elected, he would work to prevent that plan from moving forward.
"While I support the cleanup of Gowanus, I do not support the storing of toxic material in Red Hook," says Menchaca.
The EPA's 43-page summary of Gowanus cleanup options from December 2012 has been available for public comment over the past several months, and Natalie Loney of the EPA's regional office says the agency will reach a decision "within the next month or so" on the approximately $500 million plan. For now, Hesselein of the Gowanus Conservancy, a member of the EPA's "Community Advisory Group" on Gowanus, says the canal absorbs 370 million gallons of sewage and storm water each year. He expresses optimism that the agency will find a workable solution.
"The EPA has been very responsive to community input and in my mind is very unlikely to propose anything that will cause a groundswell of opposition," says Hesselein.
Stop, frisk and the race for speaker
Yet it's González's opposition to an altogether different policy that has landed her name in recent political reports. Her votes in support of the two "Stop and Frisk" bills Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently vetoed—a bill to create an independent inspector general for the police at the city Department of Investigation and another which would make it easier for people who believe they've been racially profiled to sue—cost her the endorsement of the Detectives Endowment Association, and rumors that the mayor's office has been urging her to switch her position for the override vote have been circulating. In a statement released to the Brooklyn Eagle last month, however, González announced she would maintain her support for the two bills.
"I proudly cast my vote in favor of two landmark pieces of legislation that will make New York City safer and protect the civil liberties of the men and women I represent as an elected official," the statement reads. "These bills passed that night with a veto-proof majority, and I believe we can and will be able to override a mayoral veto." The Council voted to override both vetoes on Thursday with González's support.
The votes took place in a Council whose next session will be shaped a great deal by the coming election. Gerry O'Brien of Gerry O'Brien Political Consulting, who is not working for either candidate, says he thinks the backing PAC spending is about "jockeying in the race for the next speaker." Mark Weprin, a Queens councilman who has been contemplating a run to replace Christine Quinn, donated the maximum $2,750 to González's campaign. In any case, O'Brien expressed skepticism that the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent for González through Jobs for New York will carry her to victory in and of themselves, especially since the city Campaign Finance Board does not list any expenditures on her behalf after Aug. 1.
"I assure you that in the early part of July, nobody besides Sara González's parents and that other candidate's best friends was thinking about that City Council race," says O'Brien.
Menchaca is hoping his presence at Tuesday's forum will help him take the Council seat, and he took several opportunities to point out González's absence as a symbol of her approach to problems facing the community during the short forum. It's a position that was echoed by several audience members, regardless of their support for González's position on the two police bills. Elizabeth Yeampierre, the chairwoman of UPROSE, said the organization went to great lengths to let Gonzalez's staff know about the nonpartisan event.
"She never reached us," says Yeampierre. "She never called. We reached out to her in every way possible."