While whatever attention has been paid to this year’s sleepy City Council races has so far focused on the campaign for the late James E. Davis’ seat, a handful of other elections around the city are getting interesting as the September 9 primary election draws near. City Limits offers some highlights of this political season.
PALMA TAKES ON ESPADA: In its years-long effort to force the Espada family out of Bronx politics for good, the borough’s Democratic Party is putting its faith in a political newcomer. While some observers predict the Espada machine is too tough to beat, particularly in a year when few voters are expected at the polls, some heavy-hitters in Bronx politics, and the city’s powerful unions, have thrown their weight behind the new candidate in the hopes they can finally tip the balance.
Annabel Palma, an organizer for local 1199, the city’s health care union, is taking on Pedro G. Espada, the former state assembly member and son of current City Councilmember Pedro Espada, Jr., for the seat representing Soundview and Parkchester in the September 9 Democratic primary. While this is her first campaign, the single mom and nursing assistant has been entrenched in the union and its politics for nearly 10 years.
And her loyalty seems to be paying off. With $68,910 in her coffers so far, much of her support comes from members of 1199 as well as DC 37 and the Working Families Party. (The Central Labor Council is expected to endorse her this week.) Last fall, 1199 helped Assemblymember Carmen Arroyo defeat Pedro G. for her seat by just 151 votes. The health-care powerhouse plans to fan members out across the district to door knock for Palma.
And she has some big names behind her: Calling Palma a “breath of fresh air,” former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer says he’ll be on the street campaigning with her in a couple of weeks. She also has the backing of former Mayor David Dinkins and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
While the last candidate to challenge an Espada for the Council seat also had these big league supporters, he did not have all the union support, which they are hoping will make the difference for Palma. In a special election in February, Rutgers law professor Kevin Padilla unsuccessfully challenged Pedro, Jr. for the Council seat.
“She has a million foot soldiers out there with 1199,” said Assemblymember Ruben Diaz, who championed the Padilla effort and is supporting Palma.
Still, the fight to get people to the polls could be uphill, since the Council race will be the only one on the ballot and turnout is expected to be low. “The Espadas are notorious for having great poll operations,” said political consultant Elnatan Rudolph. “The one who gets out their vote is going to win.”
The Espada campaign did not return phone calls for this story.
TEARS FOR DEAR: What could have been one of the more competitive races of the Democratic City Council primary is turning into a cakewalk for incumbent Councilmember Simcha Felder.
On Friday, State Supreme Court Judge Joseph Levine ruled that challenger Noach Dear could not run for the Borough Park seat. In 2001, after holding that office for 20 years, Dear was forced to step down by the new term limits law.
With hopes of getting his seat back this fall, Dear began petitioning to get on the ballot in June. A few weeks later, however, the Board of Elections ruled that term limits prohibited him from running for the seat this year. An amendment passed by the Council in 2002 to allow Speaker Gifford Miller and a handful of other members to run again lengthened the waiting period for term limited pols from two years to four.
Dear’s attorney, Jerry Goldfeder, argued that the Council did not specifically intend to make that change.
But that’s beside the point, according to Judge Levine. The law “clearly and unambiguously provides that two consecutive full terms of two years shall constitute one full term,” he ruled. “Any different interpretation of the above-referenced Charter provisions would render the language used therein meaningless.”
Dear isn’t entirely out of the game. Goldfeder intends to appeal this ruling, and has a separate case pending in federal court.
CASHING OUT: It’s hard to imagine any candidate for city office turning down free money, but that’s exactly what Queens City Councilmember James Sanders, Jr., has done.
After a daunting — and expensive — experience in the city’s Campaign Finance Program in 2001, Sanders has decided to stay away from the program for his re-election campaign this fall.
Even though he would receive $4 for every dollar he raises, Sanders said it’s just not worth the hassle of complying with the program’s strict rules, tight deadlines and “fierce paperwork.” He estimates he spent $10,000 in time and fees last election, and in the end he still somehow owed the board $1,800.
Sanders isn’t the only one complaining. Though most of the Council incumbents are participating again this year, a May survey found several reports of inadequate training and assistance from the Campaign Finance Board (CFB). The study also found an interesting distinction: Of 208 candidates whose data was reviewed, lower-income, African-American, and Latino candidates were significantly more likely than their white counterparts to still have matching funds on hold or under dispute.
While the study’s authors — New York ACORN, Citizens Action of New York, and the Working Families Party — were reluctant to draw firm conclusions on the race and class issue, Sanders believes these candidates couldn’t afford the “lawyers and big shots” needed to navigate the system.
Greg Bensinger, spokesperson for the CFB, bristled at the critique. “The requirements are there to insure that there is no fraud or improper use of funds,” he said. “I think we have a difficult task, an important one.”
ACORN agrees and defends the hard-won program. That may be why the group barely made a peep when it released the report in May. Aaron Hecht, ACORN’s political director, said the media just wasn’t interested, and the Campaign Finance Board seemed amenable to change. But Sanders sees another motivation: “Their fear is that this will play into the right wing and their attempt to gut this program,” said Sanders, pointing to legislation introduced by Councilmember Dennis Gallagher to cut matching funds in half. Besides, he added, since many of his colleagues rely on the funds, they can’t afford to be critics.
Choosing not to participate in the program this year cost Sanders the support of the Working Families Party, which backed him in 2001. But Sanders, who considers public financing essential, said he was willing to forgo the endorsement and the campaign cash to make his point: “Mend it,” he said, “don’t end it.”