In a city where about 70 percent of active voters are registered Democrats, it’s often said that City Council elections aren’t decided on Election Day, but in the September primary.
Still, every election season, dozens of candidates gear up to challenge the major party favorites—usually they’re Democrats, but in the city’s few solidly conservative districts, the frontrunner is a Republican—on the line of the other major party, a third party or a party launched just for the occasion.
And 2017 is no different. There are 129 candidates on the November 7 ballot for the Council’s 51 seats. While eight Council candidates are running unopposed, 22 Council races feature three or more names.
Some of those long-shot, general election candidates are continuing campaigns that lost the Democratic primary, where it’s proven exceedingly difficult to challenge incumbents. Others solidly stand for the principles of another party or are fed up with what they see as power entrenchment in the Democrats. The outcome of last year’s presidential election is certainly motivating more people to run for office or challenge the two-party system.
We talked to five such candidates—in a range of races and with a range of winning potential—about why they’re running. And while they’re hoping for your vote, many of them also pointed out the need for systemic reforms to increase political participation, including the institution of nonpartisan elections (in which candidates do not run on party lines) and “rank choice voting,” in which voters list candidates in order of preference so that if their first choice doesn’t win, their vote will count toward their second choice’s tally, and so on.
This is not a “top five” list and doesn’t represent our guess of where competitive races are; it’s just a sampling of the candidates who are out there. (For a full list of who is running, go here.) At the end of the day, it’s up to voters how much the general election will matter this year.
A Green Socialist in Central Brooklyn
In District 35 (which includes Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, Clinton Hill, and parts of Bedford Stuyvesant), incumbent Laurie Cumbo won 57 percent of the vote in a bitter Democratic primary against Ede Fox, but will now face the upstart Green Party and socialist candidate Jabari Brisport.
The activist, theater artist, and third-generation resident of Prospect Heights has received significant coverage for his membership in the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in the United States with 24,000 members nationwide and over 2,000 in New York City. DSA is committed to democracy and the longer-term goal of a socialist society, and while Brisport sometimes has to clarify that his vision has nothing to do with Stalinist Russia, he finds that Crown Heights is the kind of place where people seem fairly open or even excited by the idea.
“I want a world that centers around people’s needs, not profit. I want healthcare as a human right, I want housing as a human right. I want education guaranteed. These are all things that people want. We need to stop associating socialism with breadlines,” he says.
DSA isn’t a political party, but Brisport was able to petition to get a “socialist” line on the ballot. His election as the Green Party candidate—in a rare contested primary against Scott Hutchins—is also important to him. The Green Party, he says, is the only platform that calls for reparations for Black people, as well as the only one that calls for elected or appointed independent civilian review boards to investigate complaints involving the police (Brisport supports making New York City’s appointed board an elected one). He also appreciates that Green Party candidates are not allowed to take corporate money. (In addition to following the campaign rules against corporate money, Brisport is also not taking money from individual developers.)
Brisport, like Fox, thinks the de Blasio administration’s plan for the redevelopment of the Bedford Armory Union will further the neighborhood’s gentrification by introducing market-rate units to the neighborhood and thinks the plan should be scrapped and a new, 100 percent affordable project developed on a community land trust. (The incumbent has expressed her own disapproval of the current plan but is intent on negotiating.) Brisport calls for community control of all public land and the use of non-profit developers. He has also called for two taxes to subsidize the construction of affordable housing: one on property flipping and another on the warehousing of vacant property, though he acknowledged in an interview that such taxes can only be enacted by the state.
Brisport is also proposing a number of other initiatives. He’s calling for more investments in worker cooperatives and food recovery. If elected, he says he’ll only take home $47,000 of the $148,000 council salary—so that he’s earning around the median income of Brooklynites—and that he could use the other $100,000 to hire two additional staff members who are dedicated to constituent services.
He also says he’ll use the participatory budgeting process to determine the use of all his discretionary funds—not just the $1 or $2 million usually dedicated, but all $10 million, according to his website. He argues that when constituents are involved in deciding the budget—rather than various groups lobbying their councilmember for their own slice of the pie—they think more collectively and the outcomes are more equitable. Some of the more longshot ideas in his
platform—like subjecting a slice of the NYPD’s budget to participatory budgeting—he says will require a push from activists outside the Council.
Brisport currently has almost $89,000 in campaign funds left to spare, about $11,000 more than the incumbent. Christine Parker is running on the Republican line.
A Social Liberal, Fiscal Conservative in the Upper East Side
District 4 of Manhattan has by far the highest ratio of Republicans to Democrats—nearly four Republicans for every six Dems. So while Democrat Keith Powers appears to be leading the race for termed-out Daniel Garodnick’s seat (he won 41 percent in a primary divided among nine candidates and has more money remaining than other general election candidates), Rebecca Harary certainly has a base. She’s also running on four party lines—Republican, Women’s Equality, Reform and Stop De Blasio.
Harary, whose recently broken foot isn’t keeping her away from the campaign trail, calls herself a socially liberal Republican—firmly pro-choice and pro-LGBTQ rights, but a fiscal conservative. She likes the Reform Party’s focus on government transparency and democratic participation, and she’s been long an advocate for women’s empowerment. In addition to raising six children with her husband, she has started two non-profit schools for students with disabilities, a Jewish community center, and a Jewish women’s empowerment and career center, and ran for the Assembly last year. She stands for equal pay for equal work, and argues that given the potential loss of female members of the Council, it’s important to elect female leaders.
Small businesses and quality of life are key issues. She is concerned that the East Midtown rezoning, which encourages office developers to build out in exchange for making subway and public realm improvements, still didn’t include enough long-term benefits for the public. She’s especially worried about the challenges faced by small businesses, and says she’ll fight to end the commercial rent tax and for incentives to ensure landlords keep rents affordable and renew leases.
Harary is supporting Republican candidate Malliotakis for mayor—though she notes Malliotakis is more socially conservative than herself—and she voted for Trump last year. Asked to evaluate Trump’s work so far, she said she’s still waiting to evaluate his efforts on tax reform and health care, but agrees with his decision to rescind DACA.
“I really don’t think Obama solved the problem by just having immigrants renew their visas every two years. He never offered them naturalization…That’s not fair to them. I think the right thing that [Trump] did was to give it to Congress…What I’m hoping is that [Congressional leaders] figure it out in a way that will benefit our immigrants and will help them to naturalize, because that’s the right path for them. I don’t want to see them leave at all,” she says, adding, “I’m not happy with what he has said about women at all, in fact that broke my heart.”
Asked specifically her opinion on Trump’s proposed cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which could result in massive slashes to NYCHA’s long suffering budget, she swiveled to the Stop De Blasio angle: “I don’t think de Blasio is doing his job and I think that had de Blasio taken a real hard look at the very bad situation four years ago and made us all those promises long before Trump was even a thought, I think that we wouldn’t have this problem today.”
Harary’s critiques of de Blasio are many. Like advocates on the left, she says his housing plan doesn’t build sufficient units affordable for the lowest income families. She believes that instead of building 90 new shelters the city should invest more in the creation of supportive housing with job training and drug rehabilitation services. She also calls for immediately rehabilitating vacant NYCHA apartments, though the 3,000 to 5,000 such apartments she says exist is an overestimate, even recognizing that NYCHA has had issues with its record-keeping.
Her website also critiques de Blasio for “his 421- a real estate tax credit agenda failed in Albany,” though when asked for clarification on her position on 421-a, she instead focused on her opponent’s career as a lobbyist.
The Upper East Side not only has the most Republicans; it’s also among the city’s wealthiest. But Harary dismisses the notion that people who are attracted by her candidacy would be rich folks fed up with de Blasio. “The so-called rich people are not walking on the streets at 7:30 am in the morning on their way to work. Those are the people who want to stop de Blasio,” she says.
In addition to Harary and Powers, Rachel Honig is running on the liberal party line.
A Reformer and Charter School Advocate in Harlem
Longtime Harlem official Bill Perkins, who won a special election last February and the Democratic Primary in September for the District 9 Council seat, is facing another set of challengers for the November ticket, including Reform candidate Pierre Gooding. The candidate is a lawyer who made the news prosecuting Jon Girodes, a Republican candidate in last year’s race for State Senate, for a rent scam. (Girodes pleaded guilty this summer.)
Gooding ran in the February special election, though he dropped out on his own accord; he was also removed from the September Democratic primary after signature challenges from Marvin Holland. But he’s not just rebounding: Gooding is genuinely compelled by some aspects of the Reform Party, especially its focus on participatory democracy and voting system reforms. “Without the Reform Party, I would not have a chance to face and talk about the issue with Perkins,” he says. He’s also a proponent of participatory budgeting.
Gooding, who identifies as a libertarian, is also comfortable with the Reform Party’s fiscal conservatism—its emphasis on reigning in the debt and not overtaxing. Gooding believes in not “spend[ing] more money than we have,” but says that given the current surplus in the city budget, there are a variety of public investments that should be made, including in the Fair Fare program, which would provide discounted MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers.
Employment and affordable housing are top issues. Gooding wants to offer tax incentives to businesses that agree to relocate to Harlem but hire local longtime residents. He says he’ll increase the affordable housing stock and ensure developers granted tax credits are abiding the affordability regulations. And he’ll institute participatory budgeting.
One of the biggest differences between Gooding and the incumbent is the former’s support for charter schools. It’s a big issue in Harlem, where schools have long struggled to meet standards. In recent years an increasing number of parents have turned to charter schools: there are a whopping 15 charters in the district.
Gooding taught in a Washington Heights public school as a Teach for America teacher, has served as legal counsel for Success Academy, and is backed by the Teach for America-affiliated Leadership for Educational Equity. He says he’s seen levels of success in charter schools that he’d like to see replicated in public schools.
“When I walk into Success Academy two and half years ago for the first time and saw the learning that was going on, that’s when I was hooked. The kids were engaged in conversation, they were engaged in discourse, that was leading to a high amount of intellect. When I see what’s happening in some of our traditional schools, my heart sinks because I want those schools to be great as well,” he says.
Gooding says he’d be welcoming of more charter schools to the district, but also for reforms in all schools such as increased teacher pay and more support for students with disabilities. Acknowledging that charters, which have separate application processes from district schools, attract active families away from traditional public schools, he’s also an advocate for the creation of one common application for all schools. And he wants to promote information sharing between public schools and charter schools.
“The reason that’s not happening is because there’s this conversation about charters vs. traditional schools in New York…No one wants to share because they feel like it’s a war,” he says.
In addition to Perkins and Gooding, there are three other candidates running: Tyson-Lord Gray on the Liberal party line, Dianne Mack on the Harlem Matters line and Jack Royster as a Republican.
A Working Family’s Party Candidate in the East Bronx
In three council districts, the WFP is supporting a candidate that ran in the Democratic primary but did not claim victory: Hettie Powell in Southeast Queens (where Adrienne Adams won the primary), Marjorie Velazquez in the Eastern Bronx (where Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj won) and Randy Abreu in the western Bronx (where incumbent Fernando Cabrera held his seat). Only once in history has a Working Families Party candidate who was not a Democrat won a City Council election: Letitia James, who won District 35 in 2003.
Abreu, an attorney who worked at the Federal Communications Commission and served briefly for the Obama administration inside the Department of Energy, won 2,456 votes to Cabrera’s 3,898. During the primary, he repeatedly positioned himself as the progressive alterative to Cabrera, a pastor who has been criticized for anti-gay statements and for stating that it’s “harder being rich than being poor.” (Cabrera, for his part, has argued back that he’s been a strong advocate for the poor and for immigrants.)
Our Bronx youth interns interviewed Abreu in August. At that time he shared his plan to create a Grassroots Community Media Center that will offer certification courses that lead to digital media job opportunities, an updated community benefits agreement related to the Kingsbridge Armory redevelopment, and more. We also spoke to him about his interest in the cooperative-ownership model, which he sees as the answer to ensure native Bronxites can take advantage of the investment coming to the Bronx and ensure residents collectively resist displacement.
Abreu says it’s “liberating” to now return to the race as the WFP candidate. “As a Working Families Party candidate there’s more flexibility to focus on those issues that really are the more important ones,” he says. Running as a Democrat, he felt it was important to meet with many leaders of the Democratic party, but he says some of the advice he received went against his gut. He feels he fits in better with the Working Families Party, which he describes as the Democratic Party’s “progressive wing.”
Abreu says his campaigning approach has changed, too: he’s focusing less on the regular voters and more on bringing new voters—especially disengaged millennials, many of whom are not registered Democrats—to the polls. That means doing a good deal of campaigning on social media and in Spanish, and speaking to the issues that most affect young Bronxites.
“We are one of the lowest-income earning communities in America and we do have high crime rates so how do we ensure that the next generation of kids do not fall through the traps?” he asks. His answer: providing economic opportunity by ensuring both young people and parents have access to digital education, so that people can speak “coding as a second language.” Also: making reforms, such as fuel cell engines on buses, to improve air quality. “Younger millennials in our community who do have children who are four or five years old, they care about that.”
From Abreu’s point of view, one of the biggest differences between him and the incumbent is their stances on the Jerome Avenue rezoning, which is currently undergoing the seven-month review process through which a rezoning is approved or disapproved. While the majority of the rezoning falls in the neighboring district (where Vanessa Gibson is the incumbent councilmember) whoever wins District 14 will have a say in the ultimate vote as well. Cabrera has promised to negotiate for improvements to the proposal at the end of the public review process.
Abreu emphasizes his strong disproval of the rezoning. He’s skeptical about the effectiveness of the city’s HireNYC local hiring program and about the city’s argument that much of the new housing will end up being subsidized and affordable. He wants mandatory inclusionary housing revised to include housing for the poorest families.
“You’re completely changing our neighborhood, you’re from the ground up redoing everything we ever knew, so unless we can guarantee that the apartments are coming for people in our community, it’s a no deal,” he says.
Cabrera will also face Republican and Conservative Alan Reed and Liberal Justin Sanchez in the general election.
A Democrat Challenging an East Queens Republican
Michael Scala is a Democrat, but we spoke to him because he’s running against two-term Republican incumbent Eric Ulrich in District 32 (Belle Harbor, Breezy Point, Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Lindenwood, Neponsit, Ozone Park, Richmond Hill, Rockaway Park, Roxbury, South Ozone Park, West Hamilton Beach, and Woodhaven).
Scala has a fraction of what Ulrich possesses in leftover campaign funds (though he says he’ll be loaded up during the next matching funds cycle), but the area is changing in a way that might favor a Democratic candidate. In the South Ozone Park/Howard Beach community district (which overlaps with the council district) the Asian and Latino populations grew significantly, while the white population declined, and there was a decrease in the number of residents who commute to work by car between 2000 and 2015. And these changes were followed by a slight decrease in registered Republicans from 2011 to 2017: Today 58 percent of this district are registered Democrats.
Scala is a lawyer who has worked in the New York State Senate and also a public transportation advocate; he co-chaired the Rockaway Ferry committee and is a leader of the Queens Public Transit Committee. He’s called attention to ways that he’s more liberal than the incumbent, recently releasing a video that accuses of Ulrich of flip-flopping on gay marriage, abortion, and whether to support a constitutional convention. (Ulrich previously said that he supported a constitutional convention, including exploring pension and entitlement reforms, but later backtracked and said he’d want pensions and entitlements left alone. He did not respond to a request for comment.)
Yet both Ulrich and Scala are both moderates in their respective parties. Scala, for instance, notes that he opposed a Council bill that would have extended the right to vote to non-citizens. On Rikers: “At this point I can’t support closing it because the question always becomes, what do you replace it with?” On Broken Windows Policing: “I’m a little bit on both sides of that issue…We want to protect our quality of life but we don’t want to ruin people’s lives.”
And Scala has several criticisms of Mayor de Blasio. Witnessing the delays and cost overruns for Hurricane Sandy recovery projects, he’s called for a formal investigation of the “disastrous” Build it Back program. He’s critical of the “warehousing of homeless families without input from local leaders, particularly in areas where the infrastructure cannot accommodate them,” according to his website.
Transportation is his biggest issue. Scala takes issue with Ulrich’s recent comments, as reported by the Queens Chronicle, that the city’s Select Bus Service plan is inevitable and that the reactivation of the Rockaway Beach Rail line to connect Rego Park to Ozone Park “is not going to happen in my lifetime or yours.” Scala is against the Select Bus Service plan, which he says will create more congestion and is unsafe, and is a strong supporter of reactivating the rail line (also known as QueensRail), which he says will create a north-south commuting line for Queens residents and can substantially shorten commute times without blocking traffic.
“Both of those statements that [Ulrich] made were irresponsible,” Scala says, arguing that to win these two battles, it requires the councilmember to “stand up and be a stronger fighter than he has been.”
If you want to vote in the general election, today—Friday, October 13—is the last day to register in person or to mail a registration form. Find out more here.