Chin, Rajkumar Tangle in Contentious City Council Debate

Margaret Chin (left), Jenifer Rajkumar.

The candidates running to represent Lower Manhattan, including the Lower East Side, in the City Council clashed last night in their only public debate. In the tense, hour-and-fifteen minute affair, challenger Jenifer Rajkumar sought to portray District 1 Council member Margaret Chin as beholden to real estate interests, while Chin criticized her opponent’s inexperience.

Margaret Chin (left), Jenifer Rajkumar.
Margaret Chin (left), Jenifer Rajkumar.

The debate was held at New York Law School on the West Side and sponsored by Community Media (publisher of the Villager and Downtown Express). Most of those in attendance were partisans — a boisterous collection of downtown activists who made up their minds long ago who they’d support.  Chin, a first term office-holder, will face off against Rajkumar, a district leader, in the Democratic Primary Sept. 10.  In opening remarks, Rajkumar emphasized her immigrant roots and progressive values, but also wasted no time in going after the Council member :

I am the proud daughter of immigrants who came to New York, where I was born and raised. To honor the promise that this country gave to my parents, I dedicated my life to social justice… I became a civil rights lawyer. I dedicated my entire career to serving the voiceless and the disenfranchised…  I am now running for City Council because the last four years we have had a failure of leadership. The current Council member is in the pocket of big real estate and big landlords. Meanwhile the rents keep going up, people are driven out, small businesses are closing and our green space is being eaten up. We have to change course.

Chin said she’s proud of her record and referenced yesterday’s passage of the Community Safety Act (legislation mandating more NYPD oversight) over Mayor Bloomberg’s veto. The Council member also highlighted her own immigrant story; 50 years ago her family came to this country from China. In 2009, she became the first Chinese American to represent Chinatown in the City Council:

Never in my wildest dreams (did I think) that 50 years later I would be representing a community that I grew up in, that I worked in, that I raised my family in and that I love. This is what the American Dream is all about.  (Later, Chin added:)  Four years ago I made history with community support and it’s because this is a district I grew up in. I grew up in the Little Italy part of Chinatown, Lower Manhattan is my home. I raised my family there. The fact that I’m Chinese American, that I represent Chinatown, it is historic and significant. And the fact that I’m the first Asian American woman in the City Council is significant. But I also represent Wall Street, Battery Park City, Soho, Tribeca… I’ve been here for 50 years. That’s what I’m most proud of. How many people in the City Council can say they represent a district that they grew up in?

The conversation quickly turned to development issues; Chin has been responsible for guiding several controversial development plans, including Seward Park, NYU and the South Street Seaport, through the Council.   On the Lower East Side, the Council member said, she was proud to have worked with Community Board 3, which struck a compromise on a housing and retail plan for the 1.65 million square foot Seward Park site after more than 4o years of failed negotiations.   Making sure the project, especially 500 units of affordable housing, comes to fruition is a top priority in the next four years, Chin said.

Later,  she noted that Rajkumar had criticized the Seward Park process in an editorial in The Lo-Down this past spring and called for 100% affordable housing (CB3 agreed on a 50/50 split). And she asked Rajkumar why she decided to speak out on the issue without ever attending a community board meeting on the topic.  “I’m not the Council member,” Rajkumar replied.  “It’s not my job… I certainly hope that it will become my job but it’s not my job now. I attend community board meetings repeatedly all over this district.”  Former Seward Park site tenants, Rajkumar added, contacted her after reading the editorial to thank her for standing up for 100% affordability. Chin fired back:  “I’m just surprised you never attended one meeting. How could you have written an article criticizing the work people did for three years to come together for a historic compromise that is bringing about 500 units of affordable housing?”

d1 debate wide

Rajkumar saved her most pointed attacks for Chin’s handling of another land use proposal — NYU’s massive expansion plan:

“I’ll tell you about… (an) historic moment — when Council member Chin approved a two-million square foot expansion into Greenwich Village that is going to destroy the neighborhood and change the character of the neighborhood forever. She approved this (land use plan) against the unanimous wishes of Community Board 2, against almost every resident in Greenwich Village… We need a Council member in there who doesn’t just do whatever real estate developers want.

Chin replied, “my opponent has no experience in land use. You gotta be in it to know what’s going on.”  She went on, saying there had been “years and years” of community meetings and noted that the size of the project had been reduced by 25%:

We scaled down the plan and we’re still making them (NYU) accountable for things they have agreed to… Everything is written out in the restrictive declaration. Every month I still meet with them to make sure that they carry through with the things that they have agreed with… They have already agreed to provide more community facilities… before they even start digging anything in the ground.

But Rajkumar, pointing to the South Street Seaport redevelopment plan, argued that there’s a consistent pattern in which Chin fails to stand up for the neighborhoods she serves:

The community came together. Hundreds of people came to City hall and said, ‘Council member Chin, please negotiate protections for our South Street Seaport Museum. Negotiate protections to protect our world-class food market (the New Amsterdam Market). What did she do? Nothing. Howard Hughes Corp. has gotten the entire South Street Seaport and has opened it up… for luxury apartments and luxury hotels people cannot afford.  So we need a Council member in there who actually represents us.

Chin countered, as she did repeatedly throughout the debate, that Rajkumar has a problem telling the truth. “Where is the luxury hotel?,” she asked.  “That is not what the City Council voted on. We did vote for the renovation of Pier 17. So let’s take a look at exactly what was the (land use document called for) and what kind of misinformation my opponent is talking about.”

A main talking point last night concerned campaign finance, namely third-party expenditures from a new political action committee known as Jobs for New York on behalf of Margaret Chin, and other City Council candidates.  The organization, with strong ties to the Real Estate Board of New York as well as building trade unions, has spent more than $130,000 to send out pro-Chin direct mail pieces.   Groups such as Jobs for New York are not permitted to coordinate with candidates, but some “good government” watchdogs have called on candidates being aided to publicly denounce the pro-business PAC.  Here’s some of the back and forth between the candidates on the issue:

Rajkumar: It’s no surprise that Council member Chin is being backed by the Real Estate Board of New York. This PAC has picked her as one of their top three picks in the city and they are pouring hundreds of thousands into this race to buy the Council seat for Margaret Chin because they know she will do whatever they want.

Chin: Outside expenditures are outside expenditures that we have no control over… I have spoken out against independent expenditures in this campaign. My opponent also has independent expenditures (referencing a mailer paid for by a political club, Downtown Independent Democrats)…  My opponent keeps saying I get all this money from developers and I am in the pocket of millionaires. We are both in the campaign finance program. I have over 800 contributors and most of my contributions are smaller contributions than hers. If you look at the record, Jenifer, most of your contributions are from outside of New York City… How do you think you can represent Lower Manhattan when most of your supporters are not from the city and not from the district?

Rajkumar: Council member Chin, I think you should go back and read the campaign finance filings… because so many of your donations are from out of the district. You have donations from Asian donors from other boroughs. You’ve criticized my donations as being from South Asian donors, which is odd since you have a lot of Asian donors. My out-of-state donors are civil rights lawyers, social justice activists and they give modest contributions and they have no vested interest in the district other than that I serve the district well. The same cannot be said for your contributions from big real estate interests. They are contributing to your campaign with expectations… They are trying to buy the Council seat and they are rewarding you for all of the work you have done for them the past four years at our expense… In the last debate I asked you to disavow the support of the outside real estate PAC that’s pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into your race to buy this Council seat.  And you told me during that debate, ‘I can’t do anything about it.’  Have you changed your mind?

Chin: I have said many times, ‘I don’t want their support.” I don’t know what they’re buying because I am only beholden to my constituents. Look at who’s endorsing me and my 30 year record of fighting for tenants, immigrant families, all the progressive unions… all supporting my candidacy.

Rajkumar argued that Chin’s shifting position last spring on the landmarking of 135 Bowery, a 194-year-old federal row house, proves she allows contributions from business interests to influence her decision-making.  The Council member first supported designating the building but then after the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted, successfully urged her Council colleagues to overturn the commission’s recommendation.  According to campaign finance records, Patrick Yau, an executive with First American International Bank (the property owner), has donated $2,250 to the Chin campaign in the past two years.  In response to a question from one of the moderators, Chin explained why she changed her mind:

I think voters (appreciate) a Council member who takes everything under consideration. There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind when you get more facts and more information. On 135 Bowery, when you look at a picture and some of the information that was given by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, yes we want to protect as many historic buildings as we can. But my chief of staff went down and really looked at the building, it was already an empty shell, a building that was already gutted. We got more information from the owner and from a preservationist about… how the building was altered. In return the owner wanted to develop the building into a commercial building, which is greatly needed in the community.

Another feisty exchange ensued:

Rajkumar: The community worked very hard to get that building landmarked. Council member Chin blocked its landmark status and it turns out that the owner of that building is her fundraiser. This is a precious building, a 200-year-old building. The owner then demolished the building. The community was so upset by this. Clearly it was done because of personal interests with the fundraiser being tied to Chin’s campaign. We need a Council member who puts the community first and doesn’t just make decisions based on what’s going to benefit them.

Chin:  I love it when Jenifer keeps exaggerating and giving out misinformation.  I have over 800 donors (and Yau is only one of them). It was not a building worth saving and it could be turned into something positive for the community. Plus, he’s a donor, not a fundraiser.

The debate eventually turned to the question of experience.  Rajkumar, who was elected district leader in 2011 and received a law degree from Stanford in 2008, said her time as a civil rights attorney gives her valuable experience in negotiating with “big developers.”  Asked by the moderators whether she had any experiences in which “she was the clear leader in the fight,” Rajkumar responded, “Yes, as a civil rights lawyer I have been lead counsel on whistle-blower lawsuits, so protecting people who were facing discrimination and who were being harassed by big companies.”

Then there was the question of leadership style; Chin and Rajkumar differed on the value of collaborating with Council colleagues to “get things done” vs. standing up to the political establishment:

Rajkumar: I will work with all of them and I will work as collaboratively as possible but when push comes to shove I am going to always do what my constituents want… Council member Chin has done whatever (Council Speaker) Christine Quinn wanted and has not been able to advocate or stand up for us.

Chin: Once again not talking about facts and just making things up. 51 members in the City Council and you have to work well with your colleagues.  We support each other and we respect each other… One vote doesn’t get anything passed.

Rajkumar: She accepts $10,000 in extra lulus (stipends) for doing the Speaker’s bidding.  What makes this even worse is that she pledged when she ran last time that she would not accept these lulus and then like so many other things went back on that promise.

Chin: If you chair a committee there is an extra staff stipend and extra (personal) stipend. We do a lot of work chairing the committees and we have to have extra support. That’s what every single Council member who chairs a committee does. That’s not just for the Speaker. That’s how the City Council works now, until we change the rules.

Throughout the debate, Rajkumar kept coming back to a familiar theme:

Her response is ‘I can’t do anything.’ That is the motto of her four years in office. ‘I can’t do anything.” You got a big real estate developer who’s going to destroy our neighborhood with two million square feet in Greenwich Village. Everyone comes to Council member Chin, ‘help us, help us.” And what does she say, ‘I can’t do anything.’  You got big real estate developers. They want to tax struggling businesses in Chinatown (by creating a BID). The businesses say, ‘help, help.’ … Council member Chin says ‘I can’t do anything about it.’ Happens again at the South Street Seaport. A Texas-based developer… hundreds of people come to City Hall. Thousands of people sign a petition, say ‘please help us.’ She says ‘I can’t do anything.’ We need a Council member who can do something about it and that is why I am sitting here today.

But Chin repeatedly emphasized her accomplishments:

I have a strong track record and, Jenifer, no matter what you say you will not be able to distort it because I have a record… I am so proud of the times that I am there to help people in need. When there was a bus crash that was coming back to Chinatown, 15 of my constituents died in that bus crash. What we did is we got together with the other elected officials and we got legislation passed so we can make that industry safer.  When Private Danny Chen died (in Afghanistan), I worked with his parents, I worked with his parents and advocates to fight for justice for him. But at the same time we organized and we fought for changes in the military so that other families will not have to suffer what other families went through. So a lot of times as an elected official, you have to be there for your constituents and for your community, and not just help that individual but to help the city and in some ways even to help the country.

Other issues were discussed last night, including the Chinatown BID and Council member Chin’s controversial proposal to punish people who buy counterfeit goods.  We’ll get into some of the other topics in the next week or two.