Over the past two decades, incumbent New York City Council members have enjoyed a 97.5 percent rate of re-election. Almost all the changes in the makeup of the city’s legislature over that period have been due to the term limits law passed by referendum in 1993. So, after City Council voted in October to extend term limits, Council members might have looked at the 2009 election year and reasonably expected a smooth ride to re-election.

That is not the way the race is shaping up in several districts across the city, however. At least 12 incumbents find themselves in fairly competitive races. Several have lost the important backing of a party organization or union. A few have raised less money than their chief rival – a significant reversal of an incumbent’s typical financial edge.

Of the Council’s 50 current members (the 51st seat is vacant following the recent resignation of Miguel Martinez after pleading guilty to misusing public money), one is running for mayor, two are seeking the public advocate post and four want to be comptroller. Forty-three are hoping to retain their Council seats and certainly, many of them will stroll to victory. Brooklyn’s Simcha Felder will for the third straight election face no opponent at all. Manhattan’s Daniel Garodnick has an 18-to-1 fundraising advantage over his only rival.

But with a number of other incumbents in tough fights, 2009 could go down as a record year for insurgent candidates—which would stamp an ironic coda on a political season that began with Council granting itself and other municipal officers a chance to continue in power.

City Limits examined one race in each borough where an incumbent is now at risk. Broader sentiments—like outrage over the term limits vote itself—are certainly at play in several races, and the litany of other issues on candidates’ lips sounds familiar (better schools, more affordable housing). But each contest is, in fact, shaped by issues and circumstances unique to that district.

Backlash in Manhattan

In the frenetic run-up to Council’s vote last fall on a bill extending term limits from two to three consecutive terms, Manhattan’s Alan Gerson spent a few days in the media spotlight as one of three Council members to propose a compromise—an amendment to the bill to create a charter revision commission that could have called for a referendum on the question. Along with fellow Manhattanite Gale Brewer and Brooklyn’s David Yassky, Gerson argued that such a move would quell concerns that the Council’s process for changing term limits had been undemocratic.

On the day of the vote, when the amendment failed, Brewer voted against the term limits change, but Yassky and Gerson voted for it. Gerson told his colleagues that he thought his constituents should have the choice between change and the “continuity” of keeping him.

Now Gerson, an attorney first elected in 2001 to represent District 1, covering the tip of Manhattan up to and including parts of NoHo and Greenwich Village, is finding continuity a tough sell. He could face as many as four opponents in the Sept. 15 Democratic primary—which, as usual, is the de facto election day in a city where Republicans are a distinct minority. At press time, it was not even certain that Gerson would be on the ballot because of a flaw in his petitions.

One challenger is Margaret Chin, a longtime Chinatown figure and former deputy executive director at Asian Americans for Equality, whom Gerson beat in 2001. This time, Chin has outraised the councilman, reporting $114,000 in receipts as of mid-July, ahead of the councilman’s $100,000. “Of course, I have a strong base of support in Chinatown,” says Chin. But she adds that some of the issues facing the district unite its disparate parts. “We have seen a lot more development and unfortunately much of that is market-rate development. We’re losing a lot of our small businesses and we’re losing a lot of affordable housing. That’s why the preservation of the kind of housing that we have is critical.”

Peter Gleason, a former police officer and firefighter turned attorney who lost badly to Gerson in 2003, has secured the support of a key club, the Downtown Independent Democrats, which had traditionally supported Gerson. Gerson’s own Village Reform Democrats chose to endorse the councilman, but the vote was close. Gleason has also picked up the backing of several district leaders who had once been in Gerson’s camp, as well as the endorsement of 2005 Democratic mayoral nominee and former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer.

Term limits is certainly an issue in the race. But so is the slow pace of rebuilding at Ground Zero, and the strains on district services due to the influx of post-September 11 residents. “We have a district that has exploded with people due to Liberty Bonds, and allowing all these offices to be converted to apartments and nobody thought about schools,” says Arthur Gregory, a business consultant and former bar owner who is also running.

Several candidates fault Gerson for not taking a higher-profile role on the World Trade Center site. “I have yet to see the incumbent go to the national stage and say, ‘This is what’s wrong at Ground Zero,'” says Gleason. He adds: “Alan has been the City Councilperson for eight years. In those eight years there has not been one unit of truly affordable housing built in this district. We have a housing crisis. We have a schools crisis. And we have an incumbent who, number one, took away the voice of the people and, number two, doesn’t show up to work one in four days.” (See members’ attendance rates in the list at the end of this article.)

P.J. Kim, a nonprofit executive, joined the race recently and quickly raised $91,000. Kim, who has the DC37 endorsement, is emphasizing social networking in his campaign and says he wants to battle the lingering image of lower Manhattan as a 9-to-5 neighborhood. “I think there’s the false perception that lower Manhattan is primarily a place where people work and not where people live, so a lot of these services [like subways] get shut off on the weekends,” he says. Kim, whose background includes leadership roles at nonprofits like FoodChange and SingleStop, also stresses the importance of getting low-income families the public benefits to which they’re entitled.

(In all the races profiled here, City Limits contacted all candidates for interviews, but some did not make themselves available.)

Just north of Gerson’s district on the West Side, Council Speaker Christine Quinn is facing a spirited challenge in District 3 from civil rights attorney and tenant activist Yetta Kurland as well as Maria Passanante-Derr, a veteran community board member and lawyer. In East Harlem’s District 8, Melissa Mark-Viverito faces a fairly well-funded challenger in Community Board 11 chairman Robert Rodriguez, son of a former councilman.

The low-key mayoral primary means voter turnout is expected to be light on Sept. 15, but Manhattan races might still see a healthy response thanks to the high profile three-way race for district attorney.

Touched by scandal in Brooklyn

In the other boroughs, however, turnout is expected to be low. And in districts where there are large fields of candidates, that means a fairly small number of voters will determine who the next City Councilperson is. This could be the case in the 45th District, encompassing Flatbush and Flatlands, where incumbent Kendall Stewart has seven challengers vying for ballot slots to challenge him.

It’s not clear that all seven will make it to Primary Day. What is clear, however, is that Stewart has more to worry about than most other incumbents. He placed first of seven candidates in 2001 with 21 percent of the vote, and won re-election by modest margins in 2003 and 2005. Then in early 2008, two of Stewart’s staffers were indicted for embezzling city money that the councilman had designated for a local nonprofit. Later in 2008, Stewart placed a distant third in a race to become state senator. In October, Stewart supported the extension of term limits.

Among his challengers is Sam Taitt, a professor at Kingsborough College who has battled Stewart three times, including the race for an open seat back in 2001. Taitt lost narrowly in 2003 and feels he failed in 2005 only because of an anonymous, last-minute flyer that circulated, trying to diminish Taitt by claiming he was gay.

This year will be different, Taitt says, pointing to what he says is a deep level of disaffection among voters. “People’s major concern as I approach them is the distrust that they have of elected officials. People say, ‘I don’t want to have a conversation with you because you guys only come around to ask for a vote and then we don’t see you again.’ Many people complain about services that they’re not getting in the community,” Taitt says. “That has actually helped shape my own platform,” which focuses on service provision—getting trees cut, sidewalks repaired, streets cleaned.

The challenger with the most money raised is Jumaane Williams, a longtime community organizer and former head of NYS Tenants & Neighbors. He thinks the term limits vote made Stewart vulnerable: “I think people are very angry about the term limits extension. Not all incumbents are going to be vulnerable because of that, but a number of them are because they weren’t very popular in the first place, and I think that’s the case in my race.” Williams, who has the backing of the Working Families Party, ACORN PAC, DC37 and 32BJ, has asked for Stewart’s resignation because of the indictments of his former staff members.

The 45th is a district where the foreclosure crisis has had a visible effect, and Williams contends that while the City Council could not materially affect the mortgage market, Stewart could have done a better job of keeping constituents aware of free counseling services and the danger of predatory loan modification scams.

Roderick Daley, who for 15 years has taught Spanish at his alma mater, the Meyer Levin Middle School, says the closure of large high schools under the Bloomberg administration is an issue deserving much more attention. “Tilden High School has been around for almost 100 years. What is causing these schools to fail? Is it because you are not giving these schools enough support?” Daley says. “Are you telling me that my community is not worth the investment? Tilden could have worked very well. I know lots of schools that are doing well that are big schools.” Daley thinks schools need to run multiple sessions to ease overcrowding.

Also in the race are Ernest Emmanuel, Erlene King, Dexter McKenzie and John Williams. The community press could play an outsized role in the race, as the area is served by a battery of neighborhood newspapers, including Canarsie Digest, Flatbush Life, Caribbean life, Haitian Observer, Haitian Times and Carib Times.

Other more competitive races in Brooklyn include that of incumbent Diana Reyna, the target of challenger Martiza Davila, a protégé of Brooklyn Democratic chairman and Assemblyman Vito Lopez. Letitia James, a leading opponent of the Atlantic Yards arena and housing project, is being challenged by a project supporter, Delia Hunley-Adossa, who heads a local precinct council. Al Vann also faces a potentially challenging race against seven opponents led by Drum Major Institute executive director Mark Winston-Griffith (a board member of City Limits’ parent organization, City Futures, Inc.) and former police detective David Grinage.

A breakup in the Bronx

Last year, Maria Baez attended fewer than half of her City Council meetings and hearings. But her worst-on-the-Council attendance rate of 47 percent was still good enough for Speaker Christine Quinn, who endorsed Baez last month. “She’s been a great friend to her district, a great friend to the Bronx, and a great and loyal friend to me,” Quinn was quoted as saying of Baez.

These days, some say that Baez needs more friends. She ended up on the wrong side of last year’s struggle for control of the Bronx County Democratic Committee. While Baez wasn’t the only one to back longtime chair Joel Rivera against eventual winner Carl Heastie, she is apparently the only Rivera ally that the Bronx Dems are trying to take out this year.

In the ultimate snub to an incumbent who’s won three times, the party is instead backing Fernando Cabrera, a minister. District 14 covers Fordham, Kingsbridge and Morris Heights.

Baez, who blames her poor attendance last year on health problems, insists the race is not close. “This is not a competitive race. They know Maria Baez,” she says. “I am the first woman to represent the 14th councilmanic district. The backbone of my district is women who understand the frustration of being unemployed, of having to go to a church to get food, wanting the best of everything for their child. What I’ve been able to do is I’ve been able to bring $40 million in capital projects alone.”

With the party’s backing has come new scrutiny of Cabrera, who it turns out lived in Westchester County and was a registered Republican until last year. He’s also a graduate of Liberty University, an ultra-conservative Christian institution founded by Jerry Falwell. Cabrera told the local Norwood News that he registered as a Republican in his youth and never thought much about it until recently. He enjoys the support of DC37 and 32BJ.

Ferrer is backing Baez, who was also recently endorsed by Yesenia Polanco, a former staffer to fellow Bronx Councilwoman Annabel Palma, who was mulling a challenge to Baez, but then dropped out and joined Baez’s campaign staff.

Given the strong feelings about Baez and the Bronx organization’s role in the race, the contest is unlikely to revolve around the finer points of policy. Asked about policies she supports, another challenger, Yudelka Tapia (who until recently worked as an auditor in the comptroller’s office) says, “We don’t need policymakers. We need true community leadership that knows what it feels like to live in the district. Education – for our children not to drop out from school. Living wage jobs and benefits.” Housing is also an issue, she says, in a district where 40 percent of the population makes less than 20,000.

CWA union official Miguel Santana, who also hopes to be on the ballot, says he’s concerned about the challenges facing small businesses, like bodega owners. He believes that while Cabrera has the party endorsement, all bets were off once the party shunned the incumbent. “That opens the door for an insurgent like me.”

Probably the biggest issue in the district is the fate of the Kingsbridge Armory, a massive property that the city wants to redevelop. Community groups have fought for years to get schools and community facilities included in the shopping mall that the city wants to occupy the site. Now, there’s a battle over whether the mall will include stores that compete with existing local merchants. “The issue is if you bring a big box store that’s going to be competitive, you’re talking about losses of jobs—not one, not two, but thousands,” says Baez.

Other incumbents in the Bronx facing serious challenges are Oliver Koppell, who has barely outraised lawyer Anthony Cassino, and Larry Seabrook, who trails Andy King, founder of the Bronx Youth Empowerment Program, in fundraising and is under scrutiny for his links to organizations that may have charged the city inflated rent for Seabrook’s own offices.

Rematch in Richmond County

Three of the Council incumbents running for re-election haven’t had very much time to establish themselves in office, because they were only elected in a February special election. Democrat Julissa Ferreras and Republican Eric Ulrich won the seats vacated when Hiram Monserrate and Joe Addabbo, both Democrats of Queens, were elected to the State Senate. “There are a number of folks who are there because of special elections and therefore are presumed to be more vulnerable,” says Baruch College political scientist Doug Muzzio.

Staten Island’s 49th District, which covers the island’s north shore, held a special election in February as well, to replace Michael McMahon, the Democrat who won the congressional seat vacated by Vito Fosella after Fosella’s arrest for drunk driving last year. The race to replace McMahon was so tight it went to a full recount, with Kenneth Mitchell beating Deborah Rose by a mere 341 votes. In September, the two will face off again. Hoping to join them is civil engineer Rajiv Gowda, who was bounced from the special election ballot in February but is running again.

A Republican, Timothy Kuhn, has also entered the race. But Staten Island GOP chairman John Friscia tells City Limits, “The interesting thing is going to be the Democratic primary.” He noted the closeness of the special election in February and adds, “If there were fewer and different people in that race, more might have shaken to [Rose].” With a field of three instead of five this time, Rose—who is backed by DC37 and the Working Families Party—might face less competition for her core voters.

Mitchell, who has the endorsement of UFT and more than 20 other unions, wasn’t on the council for the term limits vote, so that’s not an issue in the race. Instead, it’s the rapid development in the area that has put pressure on existing roads, schools and hospitals, says Tony Baker, a minister in the district who ran in the February election and has not committed to a candidate for the fall.

Gowda agrees that capacity is a major challenge for the district. “Traffic has become a nightmare here. We cannot get from point A to point B without thinking, ‘How long is it going to take?'” he says. “We cannot tell the people to stop their cars and take public transit unless we provide it. We need bus rapid transit. I’ve been advocating for this for a long time.”

Mitchell’s two Staten Island colleagues on the Council, Republicans James Oddo and Vincent Ignizio, are likely to win but have less-than-impressive fundraising advantages over their Democratic opponents in a borough that is trending more Democratic.

Challengers in Queens

In April, Helen Sears addressed her home political club, the John F. Kennedy Regular Democratic Club, and sized up her re-election race. She addressed the issue of her vote to extend term limits head on. “I have to tell you: Throughout the city and throughout the district, that is a very small issue,” she said.

The room fell into laughter, but Sears continued undaunted. “What’s on people’s minds? Jobs. Education. Unemployment. How do we create jobs? How do they have affordable housing, because people have low salaries? And in this district and in this community, unemployment is high.” Sears explained her decision to run again. Eight years, she said, had simply not been enough. “If you vote someone in and they can’t finish what they’re doing,” she says, “it means it hasn’t started.”

Sears will learn on Sept. 15 if she will have a chance to finish what she started in 2001, when she won a five-way primary with 31 percent to represent District 25, which comprises parts of Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, East Elmhurst, Rego Park, Woodside and Corona. She has the backing of the Queens County Democratic Committee and a fundraising advantage over Daniel Dromm, a veteran public school teacher, and Stanley Kalathara, an attorney. But that’s where her edge ends. The Working Families Party, SEIU 1199, former Public Advocate Mark Green and several Democratic clubs are backing Dromm, who made headlines in the early 90s when he faced down attempts to ouster him from school for being an openly gay teacher.

“A good part of it is about term limits in many respects,” says Dromm. He says voters in the district did not realize right away that the Council’s vote would allow its own members to stand again for election; that late realization triggered anger, according to Dromm. But as Sears told the JFK club, there are other, more bread-and-butter issues also at play. “Our streets are more congested. We have a harder time accessing health care, especially with the closing of St. John’s Hospital,” says Dromm. “And our schools are as overcrowded as ever, and the incumbent hasn’t brought one new seat in eight years.” He expects turnout to be as low as 8,000.

Sears, running with the support of DC37 and 32BJ, agrees that health care is a major concern. The closure of St. John’s, she says, has put strains on other hospitals in the area. In addition, she says, “I think people are very concerned about housing. People have lost their jobs in this district and they’re very concerned about how they shift gears, learn a new skill and pay their bills.” Housing issues in the district range from rising rents for tenants, to foreclosures affecting owners, to coops dealing with higher taxes, she says.

Sears attributes the tightness of the race to the fact that her opponents are well-known in the district. “They’re not new kids on the block,” she says. Sears maintains that term limits is not a big issue for the voters who will come out on Primary Day. “When I made my decision after those hearings [in October] I went around to my civic groups, to the different senior centers to explain why I was going to vote the way I was going to,” she says. “That wasn’t an issue to them.”

Political scientist Muzzio also has doubts that the term limits issue will doom incumbents to defeat in the fall. “My gut tells me that it’s not salient enough for people to be prime voting issue, or a motivating issue,” he says.

Elsewhere in Queens, incumbents James Sanders and Eric Ulrich are facing serious challengers. One of Sanders’ rivals is Marquez Claxton, a retired police detective and co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. Ulrich is a target of Democrats who think he got lucky as a Republican in the special election, where standard party labels aren’t allowed to be used. His challenger, former Addabbo aide Frank Galluscio, was knocked off the February special election ballot.

Who will pull the lever?

If historical patterns continue, most of the incumbents mentioned here will hang on to their seats. In 2005, only one incumbent—Allan Jennings—lost his re-election bid. He had been at the center of a sexual harassment scandal. In the seven citywide Council elections since 1988, never have more than two sitting Council members lost their seats, and even that hasn’t happened since 1993.

But this year could be different. One reason: money. In 2005, the average incumbent raised $4.80 for every dollar that the average non-incumbents raised. So far in 2009, that advantage is down to about $3.50. Overall, incumbents have raised only 38 percent of the total fundraising haul this year, compared to 58 percent for the full 2005 campaign season. The sheer number of candidates trolling for dollars in a weak economy has made it harder than usual for some incumbents—many of whom joined the race late because they expected to be term-limited out of office—to fill up their war chests.

If money is short, will voters be scarce too? Turnout, says Muzzio, is the all-important factor in council races. There is a Democratic primary for mayor, but polls predict a one-sided win by Comptroller William Thompson over Councilman Tony Avella. Competitive races for comptroller and public advocate could draw some voters. “Does that drum up enough folks who aren’t going to vote because there’s nothing at the top of the ticket? I don’t know,” Muzzio says. “The lower the turnout, the more organization and get-out-the-vote are determinative.”

Whether to gather dollars or motivate votes, there is not much time left for candidates in the September 15th primary. As of August 3, there were a mere 43 days until the vote.

– Jarrett Murphy

For more about City Council’s role, impact and history, read the Spring 2009 issue of City Limits Investigates, The Chamber.