By Penny Mintz
“All politics is local,” Tip O’Neill once said. That was one thing he got right. The impact of government on our daily life—police, sanitation, education, fire protection, the licensing of businesses, safety regulations, mass transit—is determined almost entirely at the city and state levels. Local government could not be more important. So, despite the chaos of national politics and our exhaustion, we have to turn our attention to getting the best people in place here in New York. The immediate question is, who will represent us in the City Council?
The candidates who will run in the general election in November 2021 will be chosen in a primary on June 22, 2021. Primary elections generally have very light turnouts. That means that each vote is much more significant than a vote in national elections. However, only registered party members get to vote in the primary. So, no matter how much you may disagree with Democratic or Republican party positions, and see yourself as an independent thinker, just hold your nose and register with a party so that you don’t give up that powerful voice in determining who gets to run for office. If you have a NYS license, permit, or non-driver ID, you can register online at https://voterreg.dmv.ny.gov/motorvoter/.
There are four City Council districts in Downtown Manhattan, conveniently numbered Districts 1, 2, 3, and 4. In District 1 Margaret Chin is term-limited. There are five contenders for her seat. In District 2 Carlina Rivera has no primary challenger. In District 3 Corey Johnson is term-limited and six people are vying for his seat. Keith Powers is running for re-election in District 4. He has one challenger.
So far, while the results of the presidential election are still being hotly contested by the Trump campaign, the candidates from Council District 3 have already faced off at two candidate events. The first forum, on November 9, 2020, was hosted by the Downtown Independent Democratic Club. The second, on November 11, 2020, was co-hosted by Progressive Action of Lower Manhattan, a chapter of New York Progressive Action Network, and by the 504 Democratic Club, a city-wide political club that focuses on the needs of people with disabilities.
One topic of discussion at the Progressive Action of Lower Manhattan (PALM) /504 forum was the dramatic change in use of our city streets. Once dominated by motor vehicles, major portions of the streets have now been taken over by restaurants and bike lanes. Candidate Erik Bottcher, Corey Johnson’s chief of staff, says that we are in a time of transformation from a city designed around cars to streets designed for the needs of people. Leslie Murphy (who has organized in the areas of education and air pollution from cargo ships), Aleta LaFargue (an activist for the disabled from the Hell’s Kitchen area), and Marni Halasa, (a housing and small-business advocate from the Chelsea area), all expressed support for the use of space by restaurants, which have been hit hard the pandemic. Arthur Schwartz, a lawyer/activist who has donated his time to community groups and progressive issues and is a frequent contributor to this paper, holds that changes to street use cannot be made by fiat. He has stated, “It’s critical that communities be involved in the planning.” Halasa agrees that there should be community control of street allocation. Schwartz pointed out that the street restaurants must adhere to noise and fire safety regulations.
Halasa also says that “The seniors in Penn South are really worried about the bikes.” Phelan Fitzpatrick, a progressive small-business owner, says that bicycles have always been a problem; but the real problem, he says, is “rebel bicyclists”—those bicyclists who don’t follow traffic laws. Halasa expressed the same sentiment. Murphy, LaFargue, and Halasa want to see a comprehensive grid that would make the streets safer for the bicyclists, pedestrians, and vehicles.
Another topic at the forum was the threatened closure of Beth Israel Hospital, which Mount Sinai has put on hold, at least for now. All of the candidates oppose the downsizing and closure of hospitals. Arthur Schwartz pointed out that he has taken action on the issue. He filed a lawsuit in 2017 to stop the closure of the hospital, and he held a press conference outside the hospital on March 19, 2020 to demand that Mount Sinai return the 600 mothballed hospital beds to use in the pandemic. Four hundred beds were subsequently returned to service for COVID patients. Hospital officials deny that the Schwartz press conference had any impact on that decision.
The members of DID (Downtown Independent Democrats) and PALM were expected to make endorsements after the debates, but neither club came to a decision. DID members felt they needed more information than they had about the District 3 candidates. They are holding a second discussion on Monday, December 8th. The political club announced recently that they would not be endorsing Carlina Rivera because they are dissatisfied with her statements about Mayor de Blasio’s planned up-zoning of the Soho and Noho areas.
Only six PALM members were available for the post-forum discussion on November 11th. As they felt they needed wider participation to make an endorsement decision, they will hold an endorsement meeting on Wednesday, December 10th. To aid in their decision, the full PALM membership has been provided with written highlights of the answers that the candidates gave to eight questions prepared and posed by State Assembly Member Harvey Epstein, who moderated the PALM/504 forum.
Full disclosure: This writer is working on Arthur Schwartz’s campaign.