On June 26th, voters on the Lower East Side and elsewhere within the sprawling 7th Congressional District will have a choice: send U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez back to Washington or opt for one of three challengers. As the Democratic Primary approaches, we’ve been keeping an eye on the campaign, one of the most closely watched races in this election cycle. A few weeks ago, we published an in-depth interview with Velazquez. Today it’s Erik Martin Dilan’s turn.
If conventional wisdom is to be believed, Dilan is the leading contender of three challengers seeking to unseat Velazquez, who is defending a district with changed boundaries. The Congresswoman has been making a big push on the Lower East Side in the past few weeks (she’s at the Tenement Museum for a campaign event tomorrow). Among other changes, the new 7th District incorporates sections of Grand Street (east of Pitt) formerly represented by Rep. Carolyn Maloney.
We sat down with Dilan in a lively diner not far from his district office in Bushwick. For starters, Dilan explained what he’d like Lower East Side voters to know about his background:
I want them to know I’m an average Joe, an everyday guy. I’m a father that has two children and I’m a husband, loves sports, loves people, very affable, love comedy, got a great sense of humor. That’s on the personal side. Professionally, I’m a City Council member from Brooklyn, the chairperson of housing. I care about housing and public housing a lot. I’m from a diverse background. I’m Puerto Rican and African American. The diversity of this district is tremendous and I certainly understand and appreciate it. I would love to get to know the people of the Lower East Side a lot better. I would love to have them get to know me a lot better. I’m certainly very interested in them and their issues.
During our interview, published in April, Velazquez talked about her role as ranking Democrat on the House Small Business Committee (she was briefly chair of the panel before Democrats lost control of the House). Our question for Dilan: what would he do differently when it comes to small business issues?
Small business issues are definitely important, so we’ll do things to spur active small business development. I think that’s a key component of America’s growth. I think my approach would be different. My approach would be more community-based and listening to people and businesses in the area. From a broader perspective I think we need to make sure that certain technologies and financing is made available. I know she was chair for awhile but I know of many businesses that are still having difficulty receiving small business loans and getting the start-up cash they need. So the fact that she was chair is good and important but I haven’t seen the fruit of that chairmanship back home in the district.
Our interview with Dilan took place just before last month’s historic Community Board 3 vote in favor of the city’s sweeping land use plan for the Seward Park redevelopment site. The proposal places some limits on the location of “big box stores” within the project but would allow large retailers. Dilan said he believes “big box” retailers have a place in New York City but they’re not right for every community:
It depends on their location. I think they serve a purpose. Certainly in dense areas where parking is scarce it may not be appropriate. But there are other areas in the district where parking is plentiful and big box may work… (One consideration is) the labor conditions for potential employees. The other consideration is the impact on other businesses in the area. We certainly don’t want to create new opportunity that costs us (existing businesses). There are areas where big box has worked very well, supplying a lot of new job opportunities. It might not be the best thing for the Lower East Side, though.
We also discussed another community issue: the decade-long battle to reopen Park Row in Chinatown. Citing the potential terror threat surrounding police headquarters, the NYPD has refused, in spite of persistent complaints that the closure has had a huge impact on quality of life in the neighborhood. Dilan said he’s convinced there’s a solution to the problem:
In the past, not recently, we (the City Council) expressed our concerns to the city and NYPD in particular about reopening parts of Park Row. The NYPD is mainly concerned about security. I believe we definitely want to keep police headquarters secure but we have in Lower Manhattan plenty of federal buildings that manage to be secure without cutting off the flow of traffic, so I want NYPD to take the model of 26 Federal Plaza (FBI offices), which they managed to secure without inconveniencing anyone on Broadway or in or around the court houses… I think the same thing can be done a 1 Police Plaza.
Dilan weighed in on other issues of national importance, including: strategies for improving economic opportunity:
I would work to find a tax rate that would encourage large multi-national corporations to repatriate some of their foreign earnings and bring some of that growth back here to the United States… I gotta imagine there are a lot of CEO’s that do want to bring the money back here so they can re-invest in America and, on a broad scale, bring some job growth back to the United States. Number two, we need to look at all our building codes from a national perspective and find a way to make them more efficient… more environmentally friendly, so that state and federal codes don’t become prohibitive to green technology… Make sure there are the right tax incentives for the end-user who is willing to do the retro-fit so we can become an international leader in this area.
On immigration policy, Dilan said:
I think all minority communities in this district sincerely care about it. There are cases we’ve seen where people who have minor arrests, who aren’t U.S. citizens, go to Rikers and get slated for a potential deportation and some of these individuals have families here, have children are indeed citizens because they were born here… I think it’s fundamentally unfair. I would emphasize a path toward citizenship because I believe the value of American citizenship shouldn’t be degraded but to separate families for minor infractions — that’s not the America we should be putting forward.
Dilan also took the opportunity to come after Velazquez on Israel, and (just in case there was any ambiguity) mentioned that the topic might matter to some constituents on Grand Street, where there’s still a heavy concentration of Orthodox Jewish voters:
The current office holder has an interesting record on the State of Israel. I know that might be important to some people down on Grand Street… I will be an ardent supporter of Israel and a strong friend of the State of Israel. While the opponent is not anti-Israel the legislative record is definitely spotty and if anyone is going to be concerned about Israel in this race they should take a hard look at her record and decide if that’s the candidate they want to send to Washington.
(In an apparent response to Dilan’s line of attack on Israel, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer and U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler endorsed Velazquez earlier this month).
During the campaign, Velazquez supporters have accused Dilan of being a puppet of Brooklyn political boss Vito Lopez, who has had a long-running feud with the Congresswoman. When asked whether voters could be sure that, if elected, he would be “his own man” in Washington, Dilan responded:
Absolutely. As I said earlier, I’m happy to have his support. He did not ask me to run, did not encourage me to run, and certainly doesn’t get involved in policy or governmental issues at all. So where he is very active is in the political arena and I’m happy to work with him politically. I’ve collaborated with him here in the Bushwick area, which we mutually represent (Lopez is a powerful State Assemblyman) to build hundreds of units of affordable housing, if not thousands of units of affordable housing. We collaborated to build a youth center in the area… We worked on a lot of NYCHA issues together. So in terms of what he delivers as a government official I think anyone would be proud of the work that he’s done… For some reason he’s a volatile figure to some. To me, over the years, he’s been fairly stable. We’ve always worked together. We have a stable working relationship, a stable friendship and I’m happy to have his support. I’ve certainly reached out to many elected officials, including plenty of elected officials on the Lower East Side. I don’t have any support from electeds on the Lower East Side. I certainly coveted it. I certainly want it. I certainly respect a lot of officials on the Lower East Side and I have certainly spoken to every one of them to ask for their support. I don’t have it and I’m certainly disappointed about that, but it’s not going to prevent me from taking my case to the people of the Lower East Side… I think the main endorsement that counts at the end of the day is the endorsement of every individual who’s going to circle your box and say, ‘yeah I want to send Erik Dilan to Congress.’
We finished up the interview by asking Dilan a simple question: why should voters choose him over longtime incumbent Nydia Velazquez? Unprovoked, Dilan took it upon himself to address criticism he faced in the past over “pork barrel spending.”
They should vote for me if they want to see real change in Washington, if they want to see real change in their district. If they read up on me and they see my track record they will see real results. In the City Council, I am a legislative leader. I’ve passed important housing legislation, important consumer affairs legislation that has benefited people’s lives in a real sense… I would put my record up against anybody in terms of being able to deliver, from a budgetary perspective, for my district. Some people may think that’s not the best thing in the world, but what some people call ‘pork,’ my neighborhood calls necessary items. If you call the construction of new schools pork, fine, I’ll take the pork. If you call over $50 million in education enhancements including a new science labs, computer labs, smart boards, if you cal that pork, fine. But I have a track record of getting things done on behalf of students, getting housing built on behalf of people who need it and renovating parks and green space on behalf of people who need it. I’m going to do the same thing to bring federal investment to this district… There’s also two other individuals in this race, so it’s not just myself who sees dissatisfaction with the current representation. There’s a younger crop of people who are coming up and deciding, ‘hey it’s time to make change in our neighborhood.’ It’s not a Supreme Court judgeship. It’s not a lifetime appointment. After 20 years, a little bit of competition, even if we don’t prevail… is good and healthy and would make anyone more effective as a representative.”
Also on the ballot June 26: political newcomer Dan O’Connor and George Martinez, a former district leader. The 7th District snakes through Lower Manhattan, as well as parts of Queens and Brooklyn. If you would like to find out whether your home is located in the new 7th Congressional District, click on this interactive map.