Adi Talwar

Harvey Epstein, who has the Democratic and Working Families lines in the April 24 special election, has been a public-interest lawyer for nearly a quarter century.

On February 5th, 2018, Governor Cuomo issued a proclamation establishing special elections to be held on April 24th for nine vacant Assembly seats and two empty Senate seats. Four of those elections will be held in the five boroughs with a Senate seat in the Bronx up for grabs, along with three Assembly races.

One of them is District 74, which covers most of the Lower East Side, the East Village, Gramercy Park, Murray Hill and some of Midtown East. The preceding assemblyman, Brian Kavanagh, left office to take a seat in the State Senate.

The Assembly seat is being pursued by Democrat/Working Families Party candidate Harvey Epstein, who has been endorsed by public advocate Leticia James, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and others in his party. Also on the ballot are the Republican candidate Bryan Cooper, an events coordinator and Navy retiree; Reform Party Candidate Juan Págan, a retired correction officer and community advocate; and Adrienne Craig-Williams, a graduate student representing the Green Party.

Epstein has been a public-interest lawyer since he graduated CUNY School of Law in 1994, advocating for low-income tenants. He casts his run for public office as an extension of that movement-building work. “I’ve used my career to support organizing and gross-roots movements across New York,” Epstein told City Limits, “And my first and foremost goal is to continue to do that.”

Targeting power dynamics

In 2015, while project director of the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center and a tenant representative on the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB), Epstein was “instrumental in successfully orchestrating the first rent freeze for one-year leases in the 47-year history of the RGB,” according to his website and The Villager.

The Lower East Side, which has long been predominantly home to people of color, has seen those demographics shift because of gentrification. Advocates say one aspect of the change has been landlords hiking rents, creating hardship for many long-time residents. This has affected other neighborhoods as well.

The freeze was a temporary relief to many low-income and working-class New Yorkers. Last summer the RGB voted 7-2 to allow rent hikes to commence. Epstein was one of the two who voted against it.

Epstein believes that the issues facing New York go beyond policy details to the basic question of how government makes decisions. “How do you talk about race, class and power in a thoughtful and sensitive way (or thoughtfully sensitive way) that changes the power dynamic within the system and structure (or systemic structure)?” said Epstein, “What needs to happen is that we have to talk about systemic changes within the infrastructure of Albany.”

Among other issues to discuss in Albany, according to Epstein, is the school-to-prison pipeline, in which school discipline—often meted out in a disparate fashion to kids of different races—leads to interaction with the criminal justice system. “First of all, we have to recognize that it even exists. There hasn’t been a statewide conversation that it exists,” Epstein said.

News outlets like The Guardian, USA Today and ABC News have all reported that Black students are four times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white counterparts, citing federal reports. According to Teaching Tolerance, a non-profit organization that gives free resources to educators who work with children from Kindergarten to High School, school to prison pipelines are when “school districts across the country employ discipline policies that push students out of the classroom and into the justice system at alarming rates.” Instead of handling situations internally, kids are being taken into custody for “minor classroom issues.”

“So why are we suspending, arresting, detaining, black and Latino kids at a much higher rate than white kids. Why are we doing that in our public-school system?,” Epstein said, linking those discipline issues to broader questions of racism in the school system, like those concerning the annual Specialized High School Admissions Test. “Stuyvesant admitted three black students, seven Latino students, out of a class of a thousand. Why is the system set up against them?”

Harvey has called for ending “admissions policies that segregate students by race and class.” He also backs single-payer healthcare, commercial rent regulation, a statewide system of public matching funds for campaign finance. Addressing a major local concerns, he wants to “Limit nightlife activities in saturated neighborhoods like Lower Manhattan, to better balance commercial activity and residential living.” He supports “fully fund” the MTA’s capital and operational needs, but isn’t sure a full-scale congestion pricing system is the way to do it. Epstein wants to create a statewide right to civil counsel. He advocates repealing vacancy deregulation and ending the vacancy bonus for landlords.

Asked whether a white man is the best messenger to take on entrenched power disparities, Epstein said: “I don’t think I’m the messenger. I just think I’m running for a position and the community is the messenger. I think I believe in what I believe in, and running for office to stand up for what I believe in. And I think I what I need to do is speak my values.”

Epstein continued: “I am a white man. I am a white man with privilege, I have educational privilege, I have gender privilege, I have race privilege – I acknowledge all that. It doesn’t mean that I don’t stand up for what I believe in and fight for what I believe.”

According to the most recent information held by the state Board of Elections, Harvey had $70,416.59 on hand. Neither Cooper nor Pagan reported their finances. Craig-Williams reported a balance of $1,659.85. Whoever wins on April 24 will have to defend the seat in the general election in November, and possibly also in a September primary.

Afraid of ‘dumbing down’

Juan Págan, the reform party candidate, has been a NYCHA resident in the Lower East Side for 50 years and is a former youth counselor with the NYS Division for Youth and a retired corrections officer with a degree from John Jay College for Criminal Justice. He also describes himself as a community activist for the area.

“Affordable housing is the number one issue,” said Págan, “So many people are priced out of their apartments.” He gave an example of a woman with disabilities, who relies on a fixed income, and soon will be unable to afford her rent due to increases that do not match her Social Security increases. “A resident in Riis Houses showed me her documents. In 2018 she received a $2 cost of living increase in her social security income, and then showed me her new 2018 lease with NYCHA. Her rent was increased by $119.60. This is crushing for a person on fixed income.”

Págan feels that gentrification is a big issue, effecting not only housing but education as well. “Gentrification is causing school overcrowding. It’s taking away quality education for the poor”, said Págan. He also feels that public schools do not have enough resources to accommodate the increase number of students in his district and throughout the city.

Págan feels that changing the SHSAT exams would be a great disservice to children of color. “‘Retooling the entry tests’ as Harvey puts it, is to dumb it down. That will not solve the issue of why our Black and Hispanic children are failing to get into good high schools or ‘elite’ high schools, let alone into college.” Págan feels the problems go deeper: “We are ignoring the core problem that leads to crime, poverty, drug abuse, incarceration, homelessness, poor education, unemployment, and many other societal problems, and that is the extreme lack of family structure at home, poor parenting, under-parenting, and fatherless homes, which affects mostly blacks and Hispanics

Epstein counters that he doesn’t want to simplify the admissions exams, he wants to even the playing field. “First of all, a new test and application would not ‘dumb it down.’ That is insulting to many of the hard working 8th graders who are extremely bright and would do well at the specialized schools but do not have the opportunity to attend.” What he is proposing is to add an interview to the admissions process like those used by several elite high schools.

Afraid of ‘dumbing down’

A Denver native who has lived in the city since 2004, Craig-Williams is working toward a degree in childhood education with the hopes of becoming a classroom teacher—if, of course, she is not elected on the 24th. With only 222 registered Greens in a district of 76,000 active voters, Craig-Williams faces steep odds at winning the race. The flip side of that short roster, however, is that her secondary goal—activating those Greens for an election year when they are hoping to maintain or improve their ballot position by drawing a high vote-count in the gubernatorial contest—is straightforward.

Craig-Williams biggest policy goal is for more aggressive action to prepare for climate change, which is unavoidable at this point. “We need climate resilient infrastructure now. We need to start talking about that now. Most of this district is in a flood zone and the poor are in the lowest area,” she says. “We need to start talking about reinforcing NYCHA basements of moving people and making it equitable rather than a mad dash.” She adds: “The longer we wait, the less equitable we will be.”

The Green candidate says her “dream city budget” would flip the funding for policing with that devoted to education. She supports congestion pricing, but wants to make exceptions for low-income people who cannot avoid driving.

Craig-Williams says she and Epstein share many progressive policy positions. But she thinks her role in the race has been to force the Democrat to state those positions on the record. “I’ll be glad to hold him accountable.”

Cooper, the Republican candidate, did not reply to requests for comment.

Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. for the special elections on April 24. To find out if there is a race in your district, check out this voters’ guide. The other races in New York City are for State Senate district 32 (read our coverage here) and Assembly district 80 in the Bronx. Assembly district 74 in Queens will also be filled that day, but Democrat Ari Espinal is running unopposed (more here).