This past weekend, two candidates vying to represent the Lower East Side in the City Council made back-to-back appearances before one of the neighborhood’s more influential political clubs. Members of CoDA (Coalition for a District Alternative) heard from first-term Council member Margaret Chin and Jenifer Rajkumar, a downtown district leader.
Rajkumar has not officially announced she’s running, but the young West Side activist has raised nearly $67,000 and is almost certain to compete in the Democratic Primary for the District 1 seat. Lower Manhattan’s political clubs won’t make their endorsement decisions for awhile, but Saturday’s “Q & A” session was a chance for local activists to size up the candidates.
Rajkumar went first, filling in details of her biography for a group that was probably not all that familiar with the Battery Park City resident. CoDA is centered in the East Village. District 1 includes almost all of Lower Manhattan below Houston Street. Rajkumar raised some eyebrows in 2011, running an energetic campaign and defeating Linda Balfour, a longtime district leader in the 64th Assembly District (Part C). She was only 28 years old at the time.
In brief remarks, she emphasized her youth and, mentioning an appearance before the Lower East Side Girls Club, Rajkumar said she sees herself as a role model for “people of color” seeking political office. Her parents emigrated to this country in the 1970’s with $300 in their pockets. As the child of immigrants, Rajkumar, said, “I decided to dedicate my life to social justice.” A civil rights attorney employed by the firm, Sanford Wittels & Heisler, she previously worked for the ACLU, the Center for Reproductive Rights and specialized on health care issues at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington.
Rajkumar said she was part of a group thrown out of City Hall the day the City Council voted on the controversial NYU expansion plan. The episode is what convinced her to run for Council. “We have to make sure people have a voice,” in these types of decisions, she said. Chin’s support of the NYU proposal, as well as a plan to create a Soho Business Improvement District, have been unpopular in sections of the district. Opposition to her re-election is centered within another political club, Downtown Independent Democrats. The leadership of that organization, especially Soho activist Sean Sweeney, is furious at Chin – who they believe did not listen to community concerns – and are enthusiastic about Rajkumar’s candidacy. During Saturday’s meeting, Rajkumar said, “I believe we need a courageous voice (in the Council). I want to lead from the bottom up. I won’t have any interests other than that of the people I would be serving.”
During the question and answer session, Rajkumar faced sharp questions from Susan Stetzer, the district manager of Community Board 3, who was attending the meeting as a CoDA member. She brought up an op/ed The Lo-Down recently published from Rajkumar, who argued that Chin should have fought for 100% affordable housing on the Seward Park redevelopment site. Stetzer asked why she had targeted Chin for criticism when the Seward Park plan actually reflected a “grand compromise” by CB3. “When you condemn the process,” Stetzer asked, “aren’t you condemning the community board?” In response, Rajkumar said she has great respect for local community boards. But she added, “developers have a bottom line and (seek to) maximize profits, so “I think it’s important to stand up for the community.” Stetzer asked whether she had ever attended a community board meeting regarding the Seward Park plan. Rajkumar said she had not.
Other local residents asked Rajkumar to explain her position on the new York City Housing Authority’s plan to lease some of its property for luxury housing projects. Echoing current office holders, she called on NYCHA to make the process more transparent. “There are big fears” about the proposal, and real concerns about the loss of open space alongside affected public housing projects, she acknowledged. Rajkumar suggested the housing authority should look for other ways to raise money for critical repairs, rather than leasing its own land. Another resident asked why Rajkumar crossed a picket line last week to attend a NYCHA hearing at the Smith Houses (the tenant association there was boycotting the event). “I felt I needed to get a full view of what was going on,” she replied.
When it was Margaret Chin’s turn, she emphasized the work her office performs on a day-by-day basis for constituents throughout the district. She mentioned the devastating Grand Street fire in 2010, which took place just four months after she was sworn in as the first Chinese person to represent Chinatown. During Hurricane Sandy, Chin said, her staff, along with the offices of other elected officials, were a constant presence throughout Lower Manhattan, trying to get residents the help they needed. “It’s never a dull moment in District 1,” Chin quipped.
The Council member noted that she has dealt with three major land use issues in less than a year and that during her term has guided two proposals for new business improvement districts through the legislative process. “It’s a delicate balance,” she said, “protecting communities as development occurs. You can’t make everyone happy but you do the best that you can. I am proud of what we have done.”
Chin was asked about two contentious issues — a plan to curtail food trucks and her push to penalize people who purchase counterfeit items. She said she has proposed legislation to impose higher fines because “it’s illegal for food trucks to park in front of fire hydrants… (Operators) must follow the law.” As far as her proposed law cracking down on people who buy counterfeit bags and other products, Chin said the illegal industry is “hurting our small businesses.” Arguing that counterfeiting fosters an unhealthy culture of “haggling” in Chinatown, Chin said the legislation is intended to support local artisans who “make real products.”
Another questioner asked whether Chin would be willing to introduce legislation banning the police department from charging NYCHA more than $70 million each year to patrol housing developments. Chin, who sits on the Council’s public housing committee, said it’s an issue that she and other members have repeatedly brought up during oversight hearings. She does not believe the Council could pass a law banning the practice, since it’s a budgetary issue, but she promised to continue pressing for an end to the NYPD payments. As for the housing authority’s leasing plan, Chin believes NYCHA should be tapping into its vast real estate holdings to address an acute budget shortfall, but she wants more accountability. The agency will be offering private developers the opportunity to build 80% luxury and 20% affordable housing. “Show us the numbers,” Chin urged, and “slow down the process so that we can look at the plans and assure that we get more affordable housing.”
Chin was asked how Chinatown benefited from the creation of a business improvement district, an initiative Chin has been championing for years. The BID was finally approved by the Council last year. “The (holiday) lights went up in Chinatown,” this (past year), she answered. “I was so proud of that. It creates a welcoming atmosphere.”
Finally, there was a question about Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), the non-profit housing and advocacy organization Chin helped found in her days as a college student nearly 40 years ago. A woman said her son lives in an affordable housing complex run by AAFE, and there’s “some resentment” because “very few black and brown people” seem to get apartments there. “Anytime you build affordable housing,” Chin responded, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development oversees a lottery system. “It’s a very specific process. I think transparency is there. AAFE is a wonderful group and I’m proud of the work they do.”
CoDA is expected to make candidate endorsements later this spring. Three years ago, the group was the only downtown political club to endorse Chin. The Council member benefits from her own network of family associations in Chinatown, who are instrumental in mobilizing voters on election day. So she’s less dependent on support from the district’s mainstream political activists. The Democratic Primary will be held in September.