It seems unlikely that this is the year a Republican wins the City Council seat representing East Harlem, where Democrats enjoy a nearly 18 to 1 registration advantage.
It would take a very special candidate to beat those odds, and Wednesday night’s candidate forum indicated that no groundswell is building for Daby Carreras, who’ll hold the Republican, Libertarian and “Stop De Blasio” ballot lines come November. The crowd turned on Carreras early, heckling him as he denounced the minimum wage, backed charter schools and repeatedly blamed the city’s problems on officials’ failure to follow contract law. It got so bad by the end that even Carreras’s reference to support he says he enjoys from Cheech Marin went, one might say, up in smoke.
That leaves three contenders in the race to succeed three-term Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito—all of them Democrats, meaning the race will effectively end on September 12, primary day. One is Diana Ayala, Mark-Viverito’s deputy chief of staff and hand-picked successor, who also has the Working Families Party line and who offers continuity in the district. Robert J. Rodriguez, an establishment Assemblyman who has more money in the bank than Ayala and an endorsement from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, is Ayala’s chief rival. Tamika Mapp, a business owner, is running to the left of the other two Democrats.
Both Ayala and Rodriguez brought a cheering section to the forum at DREAM, a charter school on 2nd Avenue. By the evening’s end, Mapp received her share of the applause, too, especially after she used her closing statement to attack the voting record of Rodriguez, who has already surrendered the mic for the evening. (Video and audio are below.)
Much of the debate focused on important issues where disagreement among the Democrats was hard to detect: Everyone supports regulating the mold remediation industry and reducing asthma. The Democrats each expressed some misgivings about charter schools, but no one opposed them outright.
The biggest issue in the district, by far, is the city’s proposed rezoning of East Harlem. While Mark-Viverito will cast the deciding vote on that proposal before she leaves office, her choices are likely to impact the race to succeed her—in particular, the prospects for Ayala, who when asked to grade the incumbent gave her an A and couldn’t identify anything she’d do differently from her boss. (Rodriguez gave Mark-Viverito a B/B- while Mapp and Carreras gave Ds.)
Rodriguez, meanwhile, said “permanent affordability … needs to be part of this conversation” and called for mechanisms to protect small businesses from steep rent hikes. He voiced concerns about the scope of the city’s rezoning plan. “Where the infrastructure? Where’s the sanitation plan for this? Where’s the transportation plan? I think we have to look closely at the Neighborhood Plan, which spent a lot of work putting things together that are not in the current iteration of the city’s plan.” The Neighborhood Plan was created by a stakeholder group convened by Mark-Viverito; it calls for a more limited rezoning than does the administration.
For her part, Mapp said she supported the Movement for Justice’s 10-point plan, which does not involve a rezoning but instead emphasizes city outreach and code enforcement to protect tenants and prevent displacement. Mapp also said she wanted to activate vacant space to house the homeless.
Carreras, who expressed many concerns about dense development, gave a wide-ranging answer when asked about the rezoning. “This is El Barrio. The mayor and really the current leadership is just pushing toward rezoning every single day. We do not need community jails. 90 shelters? I’m sorry, that’s not rent stabilization, that’s not affordability. You say out of scale? We’re given more shelters. That’s living just for that day.” He has circulated a petition demanding that the neighborhood never be rezoned.
The candidates also had interesting takes on gentrification and its pros and cons. Rodriguez stressed the rights of incumbent residents to stay, but added: “We have to make sure we don’t close off the opportunity for new people to come because of fear. There is a fine line between talking about ‘gentrification’ and it being a code word for ‘We don’t want those people in our community.’ We are an open community. That said, we should be able to stay here.”
Mapp was less welcoming. “When people move in they have to adapt to the culture. I welcome them. But they cannot come in here and start changing things. That I do not welcome.” Ayala expressed a similar sentiment.
Carreras, however, charted his own course. “What gentrification are we talking about? Are we talking about more homeless, more shelters, more community jails? I’m looking for people to move up,” he said. He added, “If you move the minimum wage up higher you’re going to make more unemployment.” The crowd indicated displeasure.