People are surprised that a Russian is running for City Council, said Igor Oberman across a table at El Greco Diner in Brooklyn. “It’s like finding a unicorn for them I guess,” he said, referencing the tense relationship that Russian immigrants, such as himself, experienced with their government prior to immigrating to the United States. Oberman, 40, in 1981 fled the former Soviet Union with his family and settled in Southern Brooklyn.
“This is an immigrant community. You need to make sure that their issues are not forgotten,” said Oberman, who, along with Ari Kagan, the Democratic district leader for the 45th Assembly District, hopes to be the first Russian-American elected to the New York City Council.
Both Oberman and Kagan, 46, are vying to replace term-limited City Councilman Michael Nelson in the 48th City Council district.
The district, which was redrawn last February and approved by the Department of Justice in May, now has a greater number of Russian-American constituents than before, with a population nearing 168,000 within the new boundaries.
According to Councilman Nelson’s district office, the redrawn district still includes Manhattan Beach but also incorporates a portion of Coney Island, as well as larger sections of both Sheapshead Bay and Brighton Beach and less of Midwood than the old district.
In addition to Oberman and Kagan, the crowded Democratic Primary includes Community Board 15 chair Theresa Scavo, Nelson aid Chaim Deutsch and attorney Natraj Bhushan. Each candidate says they are the most qualified person to lead the Sandy recovery and prepare their coast and community for future storms.
Sources of support
Oberman, who is currently on leave from his job as an Administrative Appeals Judge for the Environmental Control Board, has picked up endorsements by the Working Families Party, the Progressive Caucus Alliance, two LGBTQ political clubs and a number of unions.
Kagan is sweeping up endorsements and is backed by New York City comptroller and mayoral candidate John Liu. He is also endorsed by the United Federation of Teachers and 1199SEIU Healthcare Workers East, among many others.
Scavo, 61, is the only female candidate and is endorsed by the Brooklyn/Queens chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), as well as the Southern Brooklyn Democrats and Local 30.
Deutsch, 44, the founder of the Flatbush Shomrim Safety Patrol, a Jewish civilian patrol, is endorsed by New York State Assemblywoman Rhoda Jacobs, the unions for NYPD sergeants, lieutenants, captains and detectives, and the Uniformed Sanitation’s Association. Also endorsing him is his boss, incumbent Councilmember Nelson.
Bhushan, 27, a lawyer at Bhushan Law Group PC, thus far has no endorsements.
Where the money comes from
Oberman, leading the candidates in campaign funds, has raised over $106,000. Oberman ran against now incarcerated former New York State Senator Carl Kruger in the 2008 primary but dropped out because, he says, he wanted to protect the thin Democratic majority in the state senate. Oberman says that after bowing out of that race, he returned all the money that he had raised.
Kagan has raised $75,660. His campaign contributions show a large number of donations under $50 from retired Brooklyn residents.
Scavo has raised the second largest sum of money, over $95,000, with close to $30,000 coming from Scavo’s abandoned run against Nelson for City Council in 2009. She says that at the time she was advised not to run, saying she was told that it would be political suicide to run against an incumbent, especially an incumbent that had just lost his wife in 2008 after a long battle with cancer.
Deutsch, who entered the race late, saying he was busy with Sandy recovery, has still done well, raising a total of $77,879. All fundraising, he says, was done over the phone.
Bhushan has raised the least, only $3,817. More than half of that money, $2,100, he donated to his own campaign. Bhushan says that his lack of campaign fundraising is due in part to wanting to prove a point
“I was only able to get this far through leveraging my network; the support of volunteers who are knowledgeable and skillful in their respective trades,” he says. “This is what I want for my community: I want them to tap into their own resources.”
Addressing the aftermath
As a district that was hit hard by Superstorm Sandy, infrastructure and hurricane preparedness is one of the main topics candidates are addressing.
“The response of the city to Hurricane Sandy was one of the reasons I said, ‘You know I’ve got to give this a try,'” says Oberman, addressing his dissatisfaction with the city’s response in the aftermath of the storm.
Oberman is the president of Trump Village West, a 1,144-unit condo complex where he lives with his wife and son. He says that during the storm his building was under four feet of water and that he was in charge of the welfare of the 4,000 residents that reside in the complex.
“I think that could demonstrate my leadership ability,” says Oberman. Mayor Bloomberg has unveiled a detailed plan for hardening the city’s coastline to storm surges, but it won’t be complete for many years. “The city has to understand that there has to be a temporary solution, so right now, what is happening in terms of the infrastructure? Nothing but conversation,” Oberman says. “We’re headed into the hurricane season again but what has changed?”
But Oberman was not the only candidate braving the storm’s wrath. During and after Sandy, Deutsch says that he was busy helping his boss Nelson’s constituents evacuate and recover from the storm. Deutsch says that before the storm, he went into the neighborhoods of Manhattan Beach and Brighton Beach with a team of about 50 to 60 volunteers to help evacuate residents. At one point after Sandy struck, he says, he even had to take a boat to rescue Nelson, who was stranded in rapidly rising waters while making phone calls at his office.
Unlike some of the candidates who have come down hard on the city for what they feel is a lack of preparation and response during and post Sandy, Deutsch believes that physical resources were provided by the city, but there was a lack of people to distribute them.
“The bottom line is that the city did give us resources for us to distribute. The manpower wasn’t there. They relied on volunteer organizations to identify the seniors,” says Deutsch.
Deutsch is currently in the process of starting a new organization called Community for Community that he says will train citizens to go into areas after events like Sandy and identify what the community’s needs are.
“When a crisis happens people will be trained to help each other,” says Deutsch, who adds that an organization such as this will allow a neighborhood to deal with a crisis until the city is able to respond adequately. “When people help each other we get through everything.”
Deutsch also says that the community needs to get answers in terms of its waterfront. “We need to know that if there is a storm again whether or not we will get all that water that we got during Sandy.”
Looking at transit, jobs, sewers
Kagan, who has worked as a radio and television host and has written for Vecherniy NY but is now concentrating on his campaign, says that there are many issues in Brooklyn that still need to be solved, such as Sandy recovery and economic development. Kagan sees the coast’s beaches as prime areas for economic development. He thinks services such as chair and umbrella rentals on the beach could provide a service to residents while simultaneously creating revenue for the city. In public transportation, he wants attendants to be brought back to stations where they have been removed and is calling on the MTA to restore service for the x29 bus that was discontinued in 2010.
Kagan has also asked the Parks Department to restore lighting on the Brighton Boardwalk between Coney Island Avenue and Brighton 15th Street, which has been out since the storm.
“It is unacceptable that eight months after Hurricane Sandy, the city has failed to restore such a basic service to our community,” said Kagan in a press release from early July.
He also says that infrastructure, such as the area’s sewage system, is in need of an upgrade, and at this point is no longer able to accommodate even a heavy rain.
Scavo also feels strongly about the district’s aging infrastructure and agrees with Kagan that the sewage system is in need of a complete overhaul. “The sewer pipes in this district are too small to handle the load that there is today,” says Scavo.
She also says that road construction is a pressing topic for her district. “There is a street that is like a rollercoaster as you’re driving down the street. It’s like this,” Scavo says, her hand tracing waves through the air.
Scavo, who became Chair of Community Board 15 in 2006, has had a long career of volunteerism in the community and was appointed to the community board in 1999. She is also treasurer of the 61st Precinct Community Council, the Second Vice Chair of the Coney Island Hospital Advisory Board and a member of the Community Emergency Response Team.
Scavo believes that, among the candidates, she has the most hands-on experience.
“I have been at that community board office, dealing with city agencies, resolving these issues, planning a budget for the community board. Doing everything a council member would do since 2006,” she said. “How do you turn around, without experience, and justify that you are going to handle this type of job?”
An emphasis on technology
Bhushan, who moved to Brighton Beach with his family at the age of six from Oklahoma, says that the level of preparedness for Superstorm Sandy just wasn’t there. “It’s always tough to prepare for something like this…I can’t fault the city entirely,” he says, but believes groups such as Occupy Sandy were extremely effective.
“When it comes to logistics we have to look to organizations like that and see what they do,” he says.
Bhushan, the youngest of the candidates, is looking towards technology and social media to empower constituents and believes that a phone call to the district office should not always be necessary in order to solve a problem. So he says he would create an online forum for residents similar to craigslist where community members could log their own issues and allow their neighbors to try and address them. He would also create a community website where available local resources would be listed in case of an emergency.
“I think we really have to make use of social media,” says Bhushan. “Technology is one of the biggest mobilizers.”
Bhushan, who says he went to law school to address community issues, has worked either for or alongside three City Councilmembers. He currently provides free legal services for constituents at Councilman Ruben Wills’ office of District 28 and previously did the same at Nelson’s. As a student, he also worked as a legislative intern for Councilman Leroy Comrie of District 27.
“Being a part of Councilmember Nelson’s office, and then Councilmember Wills’ office, I certainly felt that there was a better way to deliver constituent services. And it became really really glaring after Hurricane Sandy. I felt that as a councilmember you have a wealth of resources and information,” says Bhushan. “And I felt a lot of that information was just warehoused. It wasn’t getting out to where it needed to get out.”
There will be no lack of diversity or experience in the Democratic Primary on September 10 and religion and ethnicity are bound to play a heavy role in splitting the vote.
Whoever wins the primary will run against the sole Republican candidate, former State Senator David Storobin. Storobin, who did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article, is endorsed by Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota and has raised nearly $46,000.