Jenifer Rajkumar gathered with supporters on the steps of City Hall yesterday, officially announcing her candidacy for the District 1 City Council seat. She’s the only announced challenger against Margaret Chin, the first-term Council member representing the Lower East Side and most of Lower Manhattan below Houston Street.
Rajkumar criticized what she called Chin’s “top down” approach to leadership and promised to give voice to downtown constituents who feel their concerns have been ignored. Recalling a Council hearing on NYU’s expansion plan in which she and other residents were kicked out of City Hall, Rajkumar declared, “we need a strong advocate… who stands up for us.”
Yesterday’s announcement was attended by a variety of local activists, including a sizable contingent from Downtown Independent Democrats, a political club that has made no bones about its displeasure with Chin’s first term. The organization’s president, Jeanne Wilcke, as well as Paul Newell, Rajkumar’s fellow district leader, and outspoken Soho politico Sean Sweeney have been particularly dismayed with Chin’s stances on NYU as well as her support for the proposed Soho BID.
Others lining up for photos behind Rajkumar were: Georgette Fleischer of the Friends of Petrosino Square; David Nieves, a tenant leader at the Seward Park Extension public housing development; and Wendy Cheung of Chinese Staff & Workers’ Association, a group that has been at odds with Chin for many years. Peter Kwong, a Hunter College professor often cited as a Chinatown expert, spoke out in favor of Rajkumar, calling her smart, energetic and a person of integrity. He said the upcoming election is about “saving Chinatown from gentrification,” arguing that the city is “beholden to real estate developers.” Kwong said he knows many people vote along “ethnic and gender lines to feel good about themselves,” but he urged District 1 voters to choose the candidate who “represents (their) interests.” Chin is the first person of Chinese descent to represent Chinatown on the City Council.
Wilcke also took a turn at the podium, saying, “elected officials do what they want to do, deal with power brokers and our voices are not heard.” Robert LaValva, the founder of the New Amsterdam Market was another participant in Sunday’s event. He recently traded barbs with Chin’s office over the development plan for the South Street Seaport, which he opposes. LaValva said he had not yet made a decision who he would support in the Democratic Primary, which takes place in September.
In her remarks, Rajkumar said, Council member Chin, “goes into a room with with real estate interests and power brokers, closes the door and makes a deal.” In contrast, Rajkumar said she would stand with “the people,” including her “Hispanic brothers and sisters,” Chinese and Jewish neighbors. “Would you rather have leadership from the top down or the bottom up?,” she asked. Her supporters answered on cue, “from the bottom up!”
In the past, Chin has noted that she was called on to deal with an unusually large number of contentious development and zoning proposals during her first term. The Council member has argued that she won important concessions for local residents but has also acknowledged that it’s not always possible to make everyone happy. In the 2009 election, Chin defeated a sitting Council member, Alan Gerson, and three other candidates. She garnered around 40% of more than 11,000 votes cast in the primary, based on strong showings in Chinatown and the Lower East Side.