The five candidates competing to represent District 1 (including the LES) on the City Council debated the issues Monday night at a forum sponsored by The Villager and Downtown Express newspapers. The evening was marked by an aggressive attack on incumbent Alan Gerson by challenger Pete Gleason. By the end of the forum, held at Pace University, the contours of the race began to take shape. In the absence of major disagreements on the issues, the voters will likely make their choice in September's Democratic Primary based on differences in personal styles and backgrounds. Gerson vigorously defended his tenure, trumpeting a record of "unparalleled accomplishments." Gleason positioned himself as the outspoken fighter against the status quo at City Hall. Chin portrayed herself as the champion of affordable housing and education who would brings decades of experience as a community organizer to the Council. Kim touted his fresh approach to issues and an ability to build consensus. And Gregory presented himself as the affable, shoot from the hip businessman and activist, who wouldn't be afraid to speak his mind.
Gerson has a fight on his hands in large part due to his decision to support Michael Bloomberg's term limits extension. During the forum, he contended that his decision was intended to preserve, not subvert, the democratic process:
You should know and be assured that I made my decisions on the basis of principled reasoning from principles of democracy. That's why I was the ringleader, or the leader, on the Council, I say that in the positive sense. I was the one who organized the amendment from the floor of the Council to require a referendum. That's how it should have happened. Over the objections of the mayor and the Council leadership we mounted a major effort with the support of the Working Families Party and we came within seven votes of requiring a referendum. It was only after that was defeated and the possibility of a referendum was taken off the table that I concluded that the most democratic, the best of the worst alternatives, if you will, on the basis of reasoning, of principles of open democracy, required an election where all candidates could run.
PJ Kim, Alan Gerson, Pete Gleason
But throughout the debate, Gleason portrayed Gerson as unwilling to stand up to the mayor on a host of issues important to Downtown:
Alan mentioned the word ringleader. No he wasn't the ringleader. Mayor Bloomberg was the ringleader and Alan was just part of that circus… Reasonable people support the will of the voter. The voters went twice to the polls to say 'we want term limits.' There was time to put a voter referendum forth. The Council in a self-serving way decided not to put in forth. If that's the person, if that's the type of person you want in the City Council, you have a choice. If you want a leader, someone who will stand up for their convictions, if you want someone who will not be a patsy of the mayor, vote for me.
Margaret Chin also criticized Gerson's vote to support an extension of term limits, but was not as combative. She said the vote was disrespectful to the constituents of Lower Manhattan. In speaking about the prospect of a third Bloomberg term, she said "we don't want a dictator." Arthur Gregory asserted he doesn't believe in term limits. He said what the mayor and the Council did was legal, even though he didn't agree with it. But, he suggested Gleason and Chin were hypocritical for railing against the term limits vote at the same time they were filing election fraud lawsuits against their competitors:
The same way it's totally legal, with the archaic and byzantine system we have for putting people on the ballot called the petition system… Pete Gleason and Margaret Chin decided they would use it – it's totally legal – but I wouldn't have done it. I would have let the voters decide and not the lawyers. You can either say the mayor was wrong or you can say you were wrong. You can't go both ways. You can use the system but it's got to be right and I don't think either one of them were right.
Gleason filed a complaint against Gregory with the Elections Commission, and filed a lawsuit against Gerson. Chin went to court in an effort to remove Kim from the ballot. At the debate, Kim said he is opposed to term limits and opposed to the way the Council handled the issue. He agreed with Gregory that the process for getting on the ballot needs to be reformed:
I think this whole system is set up for failure and it doesn't promote democracy in many different ways, from the beginning of the process until the end. I think all of us can probably agree that we spent too much money on lawyers and not enough time speaking with the voters. I support reform of the system. I think we should have a civil discussion from here on forward and try to put everything behind us.
All of the candidates were called on to address perceived shortcomings, starting with the incumbent:
: Some of your opponents say that you are terribly disorganized. This is something we have heard many times over the years from people who support you as well as those who oppose you. Things like, 'he seldom listens to voice mail, never reads emails.' Do you agree it is a problem and, if so, why would you be able to correct it after eight years? If you disagree, why do you think there's such a widespread misconception about you?
Gerson: Well look, I've been known on occasion to have a little bit of a rumpled appearance, and once in awhile I have a bad hair day… In spite of that, maybe because of that, the record speaks for itself. It's a life record of 18 years in a high powered law firm, one of the city's best. Ten years in the United States Army Reserve. And the past almost eight years as your Council person with an almost unparalleled record of accomplishment for every part of our district… If you look at the output that my office and I have generated for new schools, for new parks, for new open waterfront space, creating not one but two affordable housing trust funds… You can walk all around this district and see the results.
Chin, a longtime activist in Chinatown, was asked whether she could be an effective advocate for other, more affluent neighborhoods in the district, such as Soho and Tribeca:
I do have a strong track record in affordable housing, but it's not just Chinatown. When I'm talking about fighting to preserve the affordable housing that we have… even in the 60's when I was a Democratic state committeewoman, I helped the tenant associations there to fight against rent hikes. When we're talking about fighting for stronger rent laws, preserving rent stabilized apartments, it's not just in Chinatown. Stronger rent laws protect tenants who are in Soho, who are in the South Village – so my experience in affordable housing spreads across District 1… In education, when I talk about stronger parental participation, that affects parents across the district. When there were no kids in Tribeca, guess where the kids were going to school? Schools in Chinatown… I have fought against the Verrazano Bridge toll that cuts across Canal Street, that causes all the traffic congestion. That hurts Chinatown, hurts Little Italy, hurts Tribeca, hurts Soho. So those are issues that I have a track record in. I am the candidate who can best represent every single neighborhood in District 1 and I will fight for every single neighborhood in District 1.
Noting that he's passionate about the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site, the moderators asked Gleason why he hadn't attended more community meetings on the subject:
I'm a little confused because I have been at a large number of these meetings… Just because I don't stand up and pontificate and blow wind about the issues in and around the World Trade Center publicly does not mean I was not concerned, does not mean I was not at these meetings. I'm the only person sitting up here who's been on national television, speaking about what's going on at Ground Zero. It's not a national disgrace. It's an international disgrace. There is not as much as a memorial built at the World Trade Center site. This is a slap in the face to those who perished on that tragic day. If you want to talk about what hasn't been done, there hasn't been a new school built in the last eight years, at least opened. There is not one unit of true affordable housing built in the district in the last 8 years. I have to look at this and say, who was in charge here? When I am elected I don't defer to the powers to be… As Fernando Ferrer said when he endorsed me… Pete is not the go along to get along kind of guy. If you want that kind of guy who will silence your voice then I would welcome you to vote for somebody else up on this stage. It's that simple.
Pete Gleason, Margaret Chin, Arthur Gregory
Kim and Gregory were both asked about their poor attendance at community board meetings, although the questioners noted that Gregory's was hampered by a serious injury. Gregory responded:
I religiously go to the financial committee meeting, the World Trade Center, the Seaport and the waterfront. I probably go to more meetings, or as much, than anyone on the community board. I also sit on Assembly Speaker Silver's school committee. I started a Tribeca organization, "From the Ground Up," after 9/11. I don't think there's anyone at this table who has given more volunteer time to this community at meetings and committees than I have. And pete I was on local TV, national TV and international TV for the World Trade Center. I delivered food down there for 600 people for 7 months. There's no one who volunteered more than I did down there.
Kim, who's term on the community board was not renewed, said:
On my second year on the community board I became vice president of Single Stop USA, and I was called away to New Jersey to work with Cory Booker in New Jersey, work with Gavin Newsom in San Francisco and Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico to really replicate the anti-poverty programs that we had really perfected in NYC to provide one stop shopping for low income families.
On the issue of the World Trade Center, Gleason was especially hard on Gerson:
The World Trade Center development committee, which is chaired by the incumbent, has one of the most deplorable attendance records in the City Council for any committee… My opponent doesn't hold meetings 80-percent of the required time. He was interviewed stating, 'what does Pete Gleason want me to do with a committee that has no power – we've exercised a lot of influence over what goes in and around?' Well you know, it's going on years now and there's not so much as a temporary memorial. We have to get it right and it needs to be done now. If it hasn't been done in the last 8 years, give someone else chance to get it right.
But Gerson was ready with a forceful response:
If you look at the record, never has a committee, with absolutely no authority whatsoever, accomplished so much. In the days after 9/11 I was the one who literally snuck in the first environmental experts behind the barricades to create the first environmental assessment. When the residential grant programs were created, they excluded the residents of public housing and Mitchell-Lamas. I was the one who shone a spotlight on that and got that corrected. The business grant programs originally excluded the small mom and pop stores with 7 or less employees. I was the one who got that changed. Fast forward to the present. I was just honored by the Professional Staff Congress… because they will tell you it was my hearings and my dogged work that got the money to replace Fiterman Hall. Bill Daniels of the Memorial Museum just credited our hearings with getting the engineers together to make sure the memorial will open on time and I could go on.
Gleason, however, did not let up:
: My question for the incumbent is where is this secret environmental report. Perhaps it was stored in one of the units of affordable housing that was never built in the district. We talk about the Deutsche Bank Building. That's a toxic tower… I say, Mr. Gerson, make sure that's down and you have my support. He talks about a memorial that's on time. Is he kidding us? A memorial on time?
Gerson: More distortions, but distortions don't work in this district. The report is the Chatfield-Kaminski report, which was cited repeatedly by Jerry Nadler in his heroic efforts to get an expanded environmental protection routine by the federal EPA. It was our hearings which were one of the sources of real progress, including preventing bad things from happening like the poorly planned Chatham configuration, which our hearing brought to a stop.
The other candidates chimed in on Ground Zero redevelopment, as well. Chin rejected the notion that there would be more tall office towers on the site. "Let's use the resources there. Build a memorial. Build a park, build schools. That's what we want to spend our tax dollars on," she said. Gregory, talking about the lack of progress on the project said, "It's a joke. We're the laughing stalk of the world." He told the audience he's a loud mouth who wouldn't be afraid to use his "soapbox" to get things done. Kim said he's concerned about the plight of small businesses, impacted by the stalemate at the WTC site, "There are still many small businesses going out of business every single day. I think we lose that core of what makes Lower Manhattan unique, we lose that distinctiveness, we lose a lot of the flavor that brought people here in the first place."
On the issue of school overcrowding, Gerson said he had taken the lead in pushing for more school construction in the district:
The reason why we are getting this September not one but two new schools is because when we had the Tribeca 5b, 5c development on city owned land I made it clear to the mayor that I was going to use my power… to prevent any development until the mayor signed on the line, assuring this community that there would be a new school created… and we got it done.
But true to form, Gleason came after Gerson on this point, suggesting that he was not "a fighter" for the district:
The incumbent said he forced the mayor to sign on the line. I question whether that was before or after the mayor forced him to sign on the line for extension of term limits… Mayor Bloomberg is an elitist. Mayor Bloomberg wants to buy and sell the City Council. We need someone who's going to stand up to the mayor.
Kim argued that the overcrowding dilemma proves there's a need for more oversight of the schools and more transparency:
For local governments not to guarantee schools for its residents is like saying there's only going to be electricity three days of the week. It's a fundamental service that local government has to provide. I think demographers at the Department of Education screwed it up… There needs to be more transparency and accountability.
Chin, who touted her experience as a school teacher and a mother, said education would be a major focus: "if we have more parents and more teachers in the City Council, school and education will be a number one priority. We need more schools."
Turning to the development of the former Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, the candidates agreed that affordable housing on the site should be
a emphasized. But Chin was willing to go further than her opponents:
Public land is our land. We need to use it as a model. We need to build affordable housing there… Mixed income? Yes. But not market rate luxury. Surrounding that area you already have a lot of market rate housing… In the City Council I will take the lead to organize everybody together.
Chin took issue with the suggestion from Gregory that "the project will never get done" without some market rate housing:
I think it's government's responsibility. We can bring in the private sector, but it's got to be on our terms. Right now the City Council, the mayor has been giving away our tax dollars for market luxury development. This has got to stop. Our money has to come back to the community.
Kim used the SPURA issue to make his central point – that as a newcomer – he's the best person to bring a district burdened with a divisive past back together:
I believe the government should honor the promise that was made 40 years ago to the residents that were cleared off that land. But I also think to move forward it has to be mixed use development because I can't see the financing working out any other way… I think for many years there's been a lot of divide and conquer politics in Lower Manhattan, pitting one group against the other. I think this neighborhood has changed and we're all bigger than that now and that we can move forward.
Gerson brushed off suggestions from Gleason that he'd not taken the lead to get SPURA moving:
A few years ago the Bloomberg administration proposed a plan for that site that was defeated. It would have been all too easy to have sat back and done nothing. It was due to my leadership that the city's EDC is now engaging the local community board in an ongoing process with a special task force to come up with a consensus. It's due to my leadership that we have generated very exciting prospective tenants who will support the affordable housing.
On the more general issue of affordable housing across the district, Gregory said he has little confidence that the city is up to the challenge:
I think we may have to look outside our city government on this issue. Maybe look out to other cities around the country, other cities around the world, wee what they've done. The 80/20 system just doesn't work here. Throw that out and start with something fresh. Maybe we don't have the people here… who can do it. maybe we have to go find some brighter people.
In the debate's final moments, the candidates covered a "grab bag" of issues in a "lightning round." They all agreed that the Grand Street bike lanes have failed, and need to be reconfigured. They all said bars and clubs in the district needed to be better neighbors. All of the candidates except for Chin support legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. On a scale of 1-10, no candidate would rate Mayor Bloomberg's job performance above a "5." And it was a clean sweep for the Yankees over the Mets.