In the race to replace ousted Councilmember Andy King, whose predecessor left office to go to federal prison, candidates want to talk about their resumes and ideas, not King’s ejection.

William Alatriste for the New York City Council

Former District 12 Councilmember Andy King, seen with fellow members Rafael Espinal and Chaim Deutsch, Speaker Corey Johnson and Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014.

What’s not a divisive issue in the Dec. 22 special election for the 12th City Council district is the very reason the election is being held to begin with: the decision of the Council in October to eject Andrew King, who had represented the northeast Bronx since 2012. 

None of the three candidates on the ballot to replace him will take a position on whether it was appropriate for King to be dismissed.

“I believe he did good things in our district,” says Kevin Riley, an aide to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, when asked about King’s record. “He definitely did help us out, help some of the schools in our district. But certain things happened and he’s not able to represent our community.”

After facing an ethics committee investigation for a third time—this time for sexual harassment, a kickback scheme and failing to pay the fine from the last finding against him—King was thrown out of the local legislature by a 48-2 vote. As to whether that was an appropriate sanction, Riley answered: “I have no comment.”

Asked if she had any views on King’s ouster, Pamela Hamilton-Johnson says, “I don’t really.” The nonprofit executive added: “I think that that was something that the Council thought was something that was best to do. I’m not privy to the information they are privy to. I only can accept the decision that they made.”

Neville Mitchell, a veteran public defender, offers a little more detail. “Whether it is appropriate or not is not a call that I make,” he says. The process was fair and King’s behavior was wrong, Mitchell adds, but he is struck by the disparities evident in the episode. “You can murder someone on Staten Island and keep your job for five years,” he says, referring to Daniel Pantaleo, the cop who killed Eric Garner. In King’s case, however, “You can say the wrong thing and you’re on your own. I think it could have been handled differently.”

King himself came to the Council via a special election after his predecessor, Larry Seabrook, was convicted on federal corruption charges and on his way to federal prison in 2012. Given that history, the voters of the 12th district deserve as rigorous a Democratic process as possible to select their next representative in City Hall. It is uncertain that is what they will get in a special election that, per the timing of King’s ouster and the language of the City Charter, is set for three days before Christmas in the middle of a pandemic. Special elections usually attract poor turnout, and it is likely the election to replace King will attract substantially less than the 15 percent turnout seen in the district in the 2017 primary.

The race has, however, attracted three candidates with solid resumes.

The hopefuls

Riley speaks of the trauma of seeing his father, a Jamaican national, arrested and eventually deported, when Riley was but a child. A native of the district, he avoided being pulled into a life of violence, went to a good high school, then attended SUNY Old Westbury. It was through a fraternity connection that he began working for Heastie as an intern in 2008. He’s now the speaker’s director of community relations. Riley founded The Dad Gang, which he describes as a “nationwide organization aimed at changing the narrative on black fatherhood,” and has also started the initiatives Music Over Violence and Her Story Her Space. He’s running with the support of the Bronx Democratic organization, touting a slew of endorsements.

Hamilton-Johnson was a candidate in the 2017 primary in District 12, a three-way affair in which she received 27 percent of the vote to King’s 68 percent. She founded the multi-service nonprofit Urban Neighborhood two decades ago, serves as the 47th Precinct Community Council president, is vice president of the Department of Youth and Community Development’s neighborhood advisory board, sits on the citywide Participatory Budgeting advisory board, and is a consultant to the Department of Education and a former school district president.

“There has never been a woman who has sat in this seat. Throughout the Bronx women find it very hard to run for seats because [the Bronx Democratic organization] is not giving the golden ticket to women in the Bronx,” she says. “We have had two City Councilmembers who have left office and yet we keep voting for the same people over and over again. I am going to be the first woman who has ever won this seat.”

Mitchell is a Legal Aid Lawyer handling homicide cases whose clients have often been in the headlines, including a man currently accused of killing and decapitating his tech-industry boss. He is from the district and says he has multiple family connections there and visits frequently, although he is not presently a resident. (The law requires candidates be a resident of their district by Election Day.) He ran in the 2012 special election to replace Seabrook, placing a distant second to King.

The pandemic in the room

Needless to say, COVID-19 is the most important issue of the day, both in terms of its risk to the health and life and its fiscal impact.

“We definitely need to make sure we have a enough testing sites in the district. Providing PPEs to the hospitals is also something we’re fighting for right now,” says Riley. One of his daughters has asthma so he was afraid to send her to school, and is at home with both his children as he campaigns. He says he wishes schools had simply stayed closed in the fall so as to better prepare for the next semester. A mental-health program for children is a must, he adds, as is more childcare.

“COVID has really demonstrated the lack of opportunity,” Mitchell says. He notices the 2 and 5 trains in the morning. “It’s packed. These are essential workers. We have to figure out a way to make sure those people are compensated for what they do. And make sure their children are properly taught in school.”

Hamilton-Johnson highlights her support for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, a measure that would compel commercial landlords to offer 10-year leases and better terms to small business owners. “Owning a small business is hard. With COVID it’s harder. When a small business goes out of business that means a whole family goes out of business,” she says, noting that “small businesses hire those who are hard to hire, like those who have been incarcerated.” Many Bronx small businesses were left out of the federal pandemic aid and very few were able to tap into city relief funds, Hamilton-Johnson says. The Act, which has been stuck in the Council for years, would help—but small businesses also need more access to financing, ideally from banks committed to serving communities of color.

Hamilton-Johnson says she will embrace participatory budgeting. “When you have residents who are part of that process, it gives them ownership of the community. She says litter issues on White Plains Road must be addressed. “It’s filthy, and people are complaining about it being filthy.” On the Council, she hopes to join the education committee. “I want to advocate to get the money that the state owes us. They owe us for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity: billions of dollars. We need those funds.”

Riley advocates for public efforts to improve financial literacy. Some areas of District 12 were hard hit by the 2007-2009 foreclosure crisis. “Growing up in this neighborhood, I have a couple of peers whose parents lost their homes,” he says. “It’s a big issue in the community, an issue I want to address. Home-ownership is very very essential to me.”

“My primary goal is to improve police-community relations,” says Mitchell, whose father was a cop in their native Jamaica but who has been a tough critic of the NYPD for years. “My utmost concern is the young people. The biggest thing is to make sure that the children understand they’re loved, they’re cared for, that there’s enough space for them—that there’s stuff for them to do.”

Improving police-community ties and addressing rising violence in the area (shootings have doubled in the 47th Precinct this year) both require the police to stop behaving like an occupying force, Mitchell says. That means being more thoughtful about choices like where officers park their cars. “Why do the police park their cars on the sidewalk? What gives them the audacity to do that?” Outside the precinct building on Laconia Avenue, “that entire blocks is police cars. My grandmother has to walk on the other side of the street. I promise that will end. You respect the community.”

Riley offers a slightly different formula for addressing crime. “I believe moving forward we really have to invest in our communities. I think that’s the most important step in fighting crime. We have to provide jobs for people. We have intelligent people in our community who want to be entrepreneurs but don’t know how to go about doing that,” Riley says. “Prevention is the best way to cure violence. If we’re not doing prevention, we’re not doing anything about it.”

A narrowed field

Mitchell has raised little money, but Riley and Hamilton-Johnson both qualified for public financing. The Campaign Finance Board announced last week that it was awarding $132,000 in public matching funds to Riley, to go with the $44,000 in private contributions he’s raised, while Hamilton-Johnson will receive $46,000 in public funds—a big boost to the $6,800 she has collected in private donations. 

Riley and Hamilton-Johnson say they were planning to run for the seat in 2021 anyway, since King was term-limited. Several candidates shifted to contest the special election but were bounced from the ballot on technicalities, including Brian Melford, an aide to King. At least four candidates—Joyce Briscoe, Aaron Carnegie, Bernard Cylich and Adeyemi Oloruntoba—are staging write-in campaigns for Dec. 22, according to observers.

Early voting in the race begins Saturday, Dec. 12, and runs through Dec. 20. (Information about early voting times and locations, and how to get an absentee ballot, can be found on the Board of Elections’ website.)

Asked what they think of their opponents, both Mitchell and Riley speak highly of Hamilton-Johnson. Riley dismisses Mitchell as a non-resident. Mitchell says he knows little of Riley except that “he seems to be a young man in a hurry” who is “being heavily promoted by Mr. Heastie.” The attorney paints the race, like the one in 2012, as a contest between independent voices and candidates—King in 2012, Riley now—who have the backing of the Bronx Democratic organization. “They ain’t going to make no king this time,” Mitchell says, utilizing a handy pun. “This is a race between people who want to see the Bronx change and people who want to play powerbroker.”

Without naming him, Hamilton-Johnson criticized Riley for participating in a Thanksgiving turkey giveaway with Stagg Group, a developer and building manager that has encountered criticism in several Bronx neighborhoods, primarily for providing housing for homeless people. Social media posts indicate that Riley joined Councilmember Rafael Salamanca at a turkey-distribution event at Tilden Houses on Nov. 25 sponsored by Stagg. In a statement to City Limits, Riley’s campaign said: “During this pandemic we have witnessed an unprecedented amount of food insecurity across our city, and the Northeast Bronx community. In the spirit of thanksgiving, we partnered with many elected officials as well as other community based organizations to assist those in need in our neighborhood to distribute food items. Kevin, nor the Riley for the Bronx Campaign, has ever solicited anything from this organization.”

A prelude to 2021

Running in an oddly-timed election amid tightening public-health restrictions has its challenges. Mailed literature has special importance in the race, as do the healthy number of online debates and forums that have occurred or are scheduled. A BronxNet debate will be taped Friday and air Monday, Dec. 14. “It’s going to be a lot of Zooms,” says Mitchell, who faces the added obstacle of running while recovering from COVID-19. “I don’t think there’s any formula for how to do this.”

Riley announced his candidacy for the seat in February, so he was already actively campaigning and raising money when the vacancy occurred. “It’s challenging. I can honestly say, you have to come up with kind of creative ways to campaign. Usually you want to go door-knocking but because of this pandemic we don’t want to have interact with anybody,” he says. His approach relies heavily on social media, phone banking and door hangers. Three weeks ago his campaign organized a caravan through the district.

Unless the City Council moves to cancel or delay the implementation of ranked-choice voting (RCV), which would apply to special and primary elections beginning in 2021, the Dec. 22 election will be the last municipal contest in New York City to occur without RCV.

The special election is also nonpartisan, so Riley is running on the “Justice and Unity” line, Hamilton-Johnson on “Social Change” and Mitchell on “Bronx 12 Matters.” The winner on Dec. 22 will be sworn in right away and serve until the end of 2021. The contest for the next full term begins with the Democratic primary in June. It’s unclear whether the winner in December will enjoy the advantages of incumbency in that race. Riley suspects not, but Hamilton-Johnson thinks so.

“Absolutely,” she tells City Limits. “Once you’re in, you’re in. And people are going see that.” She adds with a smile: “Especially if I am the first woman in that seat? It’s over.”