Campaign 2013: Our Interview With City Council Candidate Jenifer Rajkumar

Jenifer Rajkumar speaks at a rally against NYU's expansion plan. Phot via Rajkumar's Facebook page.

The candidates competing in next week’s New York City Primary Election will be campaigning non-stop throughout the weekend, in search of last-minute votes.  Downtown, City Council member Margaret Chin and challenger Jenifer Rajkumar will face off in the Democratic Primary for the District 1 seat. Yesterday, we published our interview with Chin. Today, it’s Rajkumar’s turn.

Jenifer Rajkumar speaks at a rally against NYU's expansion plan. Phot via Rajkumar's Facebook page.
Jenifer Rajkumar speaks at a rally against NYU’s expansion plan. Photo via Rajkumar’s Facebook page.

The district includes most of downtown Manhattan, including the Lower East Side (below East Houston Street), Chinatown, Soho, the South Village, Tribeca, the Seaport and the Financial District.  Rajkumar, 30, moved to the Financial District in 2010 from Washington D.C. She grew up in Westchester, the daughter of immigrants from India, attended Stanford University Law School and became a civil rights lawyer, gaining admittance to the New York Bar in 2009.  In 2011, she won the election to the post of district leader in Lower Manhattan.   In challenging Margaret Chin, Rajkumar has accused her of neglecting her constituents, for failing to fight for their interests during several major development controversies and, above all, she has criticized Chin for allegedly being a pawn of the real estate industry.  The challenger has pointed to large sums of money being spent on Chin’s behalf, by real estate interests, as proof that the current Council member has “sold out” the communities she serves.

For starters, we asked both candidates the same question: What is the single best reason voters should choose them next Tuesday?  Rajkumar’s response:

I am someone who will always put my constituents first. I’m an independent voice. I’m unbought. I know how to stand up for people. I am a civil rights attorney and I have spent my career fighting for the vulnerable and the voiceless. And as a civil rights attorney I know how to sit at the negotiating table across from a big corporate executive and how to extract the things that my clients need.  I will do the same thing in the City Council. I will sit across that negotiating table, across from a big real estate developer and extract the things that our community needs: affordable housing, an environment where small businesses can thrive, more schools. And this is so important because Council members have such big power over land use decisions, over how the land is going to be used in Lower Manhattan. All of the big real estate developers have their eye on Lower Manhattan because we’re prime real estate. So it’s so crucial we have a Council member in there who can stand up for us and who can negotiate effectively with the developers. And in her four years my opponent has not done this at all. She has done whatever the real estate developers want and has gone behind the closed-door with the big real estate developers and the community has not gotten what it needs. That’s why it’s important to elect me and why I’d be the best candidate.

In her first term, Chin came under heavy criticism from some local residents for her handling of the massive New York University expansion plan, the Seaport redevelopment project and the campaigns to establish business improvement districts in Chinatown and Soho.  During her interview, Chin told us she listened carefully to community concerns, weighed all sides of contentious issues and fought vigorously for what she believed was right.  In District 1, which includes some of the most economically and ethnically diverse communities in the city, Chin argued that achieving consensus is not always easy — and elected officials must make hard choices.  We asked Rajkumar, who advocates a “bottom up” leadership style, how she would deal with controversies in which her constituents disagreed:

My approach is… a bottom up approach to leadership, which means leading from the people rather than leading by talking to big real estate interests… I would foster debate, robust debate, community meetings where different people voice their concerns.  I believe that will allow the community to come to consensus. It will also allow ideas to come to fruition… This is markedly different from the Council member’s approach, which is to go in the back room and make decisions that way rather than making decisions with people. 

And in those cases in which consensus isn’t possible?

It would be very odd for everyone to agree on everything. But we have to start by listening to the community when they unanimously agree on something. For example, in the case of NYU expansion, Community Board 2 unanimously opposed that expansion plan, and almost every single resident of Greenwich Village opposes that plan… So at the very least we should have a Council member who listens when everyone agrees… Again this happened in the South Street Seaport. Almost unanimously the community wanted protections for the South Street Seaport and the Seaport Museum. They wanted a world-class food market. No protections for those were negotiated by the Council member.

Jenifer Rajkumar announced her candidacy at City Hall Sunday.
Jenifer Rajkumar announced her candidacy at City Hall earlier this year.

In an editorial on The Lo-Down last spring, Rajkumar said elected officials had “fallen short” in advocating for the community in the Seward Park Mixed-Use Development Project, and she called for 100% affordable housing on the parcels, which languished for 45 years.  Some members of Community Board 3 were taken aback, since a compromise plan (allowing 50% affordable housing) was the result of a three-year community driven process.   Chin, along with other elected officials, stayed on the sidelines until CB3 hashed out a deal various neighborhood factions could support.  Although she wanted 100% affordable housing, Chin ultimately endorsed the “grand compromise.”

Was it appropriate, we asked, for Chin and her colleagues in government to keep a low public profile or should they have assumed a more active role in the negotiations?

I think it was a good decision to let CB3, the community, take such an active role in deciding how they wanted these parcels of land to be used. At the same time I think we need leaders who are going to make sure to execute the community’s wishes. The SPURA plan is still unfolding… and we are going to continue to need a strong leader who’s going to make sure that the community’s wishes are fulfilled.  For example, Community Board 3 does not want big box retail stores… But that is part of the RFP (request for proposals) as only a preference, which means a big developer could find a way to get around that and build a big box store.

In a situation like Seward Park, in which residents were divided for so long, how would Rajkumar have helped broker a deal?

I would encourage robust debate on the situation and I would personally try to understand every single perspective and would have a back and forth with the community. And I would be honest with the community at every single point about where I stand… If it’s a good discussion and the kind of discussion I would hope to lead, through the exchange of ideas, people on both sides might have their perspectives informed. When a community comes out of that process, who knows where we all will be… At the end of the day I will make the best decision I can make in full consultation with all sides.

Other issues.  On the New York City Housing Authority’s plan to lease some of its property for market rate development, Rajkumar said:

Rajkumar: I stood up against it. i stood up against it early because I knew right away it was wrong. It’s very important that we have a Council member who stands up against things that are obviously wrong, from the beginning. Council member Chin followed my lead on that. It took her a very long time to come out against this plan. It was only very recently that she did… Having talked to so many residents in NYCHA buildings, I know that there are some people who suffer from anxiety, can’t sleep at night because they’re worried they’re going to be displaced and that their homes are going to be changed forever. We need a Council member who does right by the people who live here. The NYCHA infill plan will change the character of the neighborhood forever. It will get rid of green space. It will drive the cost of living in the neighborhood up significantly. We have to look at other ways in which NYCHA can raise money besides leasing land to big developers, land that’s been set aside for affordable housing. We need more affordable housing in this city, not less. As a Council member I will aggressively look into alternative ways for NYCHA to raise its money.

The Lo-Down: What are some of the potential alternatives?

Rajkumar: That’s a very difficult question and one that i have constantly talked about with other people. Before I can answer that question I’m going to have to bring a lot of community stakeholders together to the table to figure it out, but no efforts have been made to find alternative plans.

The Lo-Down: Would you rule out leasing NYCHA property as a money-raising initiative, under any circumstances?

Rajkumar: Leasing NYCHA’s land to developers who are going to build market rate housing, that I cannot agree to. Potential other ways to lease NYCHA’s land in a way that would benefit the community, I might be willing to look into, now that you have suggested it. But whatever is going to happen to the NYCHA land, has to be something that will be good for the people who live there. The current Council member’s first reaction to the plan was ‘we need to slow the plan down, we need the plan to go through ULURP.’  But we all know what that means. The ULURP process has been a meaningless process… It’s basically going to be whatever the big real estate developer wants. The current Council member has gone through hearings but those hearings have been meaningless. They’re just formalities. People come to City Hall to voice their concerns but nobody is listened to and in the end the developer gets everything the developer wants.

Rajkumar rallied with supporters in Chinatown.
Rajkumar rallied with supporters in Chinatown.

On over-development in Chinatown and gentrification; we asked Rajkumar what can be done to protect the character of the neighborhood:

Lots of small businesses in Chinatown are moving out. Chinatown is becoming unaffordable… A lot of people who live in Chinatown are moving to Brooklyn or to Flushing. They should be able to remain here. There are family-owned businesses that are being driven out, priced out… The current Council member has made it harder for small businesses, not easier. The Chinatown BID, taxes, and they can’t afford that extra tax. One million dollars of the operating expenses of the Chinatown BID is supposed to go toward cleaning the streets in Chinatown but the streets still aren’t clean… We need to make sure we have a Council member who puts in place policies that are friendly to small businesses.

During the campaign, Rajkumar has hit Chin hard over the issue of third party expenditures on the Council member’s behalf.  Jobs for New York, a political action committee funded by some of the city’s largest developers has spent more than $200,000 to send out direct mail pieces in support of Chin and several mailers sharply critical of Rajkumar.  Chin has asserted that she does not approve of outside expenditures in the campaign and has said she has no control over the PAC’s activities, since coordinating with campaigns is legally prohibited.  Rajkumar has called on Chin to specifically repudiate Jobs for New York, as some other beneficiaries of the PAC’s efforts have done.  She has also dismissed charges from Chin that money (about $45,000 worth) from outside New York is funding Rajkumar’s campaign.

The money from out-of-state donors to my campaign is all from social justice activists, civil rights lawyers, people with no vested interest other than that I serve the people of this district well. That is their only interest.  The same cannot be said for Council member Chin. Her contributions are coming from the real estate PAC.  First of all, it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars, much more than my out-of-state contributions… The real estate industry is giving to her campaign with expectations. They want to buy the Council seat… Comparing my contributions from social justice activists with her contributions from the real estate industry, it’s apples and oranges.

A portion of a mailer paid for by Downtown Independent Democrats.
A portion of a mailer paid for by Downtown Independent Democrats.

The Chin campaign has pointed to mailers produced by a political club, Downtown Independent Democrats, which criticize the incumbent and highlight her alleged ties to the real estate industry.  Rajkumar says the club’s expenditures, amounting to a few thousand dollars, are insignificant compared with the real estate PAC’s lavish spending in District 1.   While Chin has said she cannot be bought, Rajkumar argues otherwise:

A close study of the facts is alarming. One of the heads of the Howard Hughes Corp., which Council member Chin recently gave the Seaport to, her name is Mary Tighe, she’s also on the board of REBNY (the Real Estate Board of New York), the real estate PAC funding Margaret Chin. The real estate moguls behind the NYU expansion plan are also on the board of REBNY.  The landlord of Independence Plaza, the last bastion of affordable housing in Tribeca, the landlord Laurence Gluck is also on the board of REBNY.  Larry Gluck is the one who bought Independence Plaza and took it out of the affordable Mitchell Lama program and is trying to turn Independence Plaza into market rate and drive the tenants out.  Also on the board is Richard LeFrak, the owner of Gateway Plaza, which was created as affordable housing in Battery Park City. He has said he would like to take Gateway Plaza out of rent stabilization. These are the people funding Margaret Chin and they have such vested interests in our district. So if you look at the facts it is quite clear they are very happy with Margaret Chin’s work for them the last four years. For example, REBNY, in a newsletter, recently applauded Margaret Chin on her work on NYU. It’s an alarming relationship.

Chin has strongly suggested that Rajkumar lacks experience to serve on the City Council and has accomplished little in her short time as district leader. Jobs for New York has gone even further, alleging that she has overblown her legal accomplishments and those of a non-profit organization she founded.  On her web site, Rajkumar cites several accomplishments as district leader, including: helping to restore M9 bus service to Battery Park City, helping young people become involved in community service and serving as a leader of the Battery Park City CERT (emergency response) team.

Here’s what Rajkumar told us about her resume:

I graduated from Stanford Law School in 2008.  I took the New York bar exam, became a licensed attorney. I practiced civil rights law in Washington D.C. I worked on class action lawsuits on behalf of workers experiencing discrimination at the hands of large corporations. I then worked in policy in Washington D.C. at the National Women’s Law Center during the making of Obama Care. In this capacity I helped advise Congress on how they could structure Obama Care so that it benefits low-income women and families. At the same time I also held another job as development director of WIN, an organization formed in the 80’s to support young women and help them achieve leadership positions. I then returned back to New York, where I was born and raised and at that time I engaged in entrepreneurship. So I started my own organization to try to get more women into politics, which I am still building. I ran for district leader very soon after that. While I was district leader, I became “of counsel’ in the New York office of a civil rights law firm, the same one I had worked at previously.

What were some of the civil rights cases she worked on?:

I was lead counsel on whistleblower lawsuits, called qui tam cases. This is when companies defraud the government, so we were preventing that from happening, keeping corporations honest, preventing corporate fraud. I was lead counsel on several qui tam cases. I also had the privilege of being part of the legal team of some of the largest and exciting gender discrimination cases being litigated in the country. One of them was Velez vs. Novartis, in which a class of women working at Novartis Pharmaceuticals, a multi-national corporation, were being discriminated against the company (her firm negotiated a multi-million dollar settlement for their clients).

In the Novartis case, we asked, did Rajkumar have the opportunity to conduct depositions in which she questioned corporate executives?

Yes, that’s absolutely right. In many parts of the litigation process you have to sit across the table from the other side, in this case, corporations and partners in corporate law firms. So you really have to exercise your negotiating skills in very important, crucial situations where the fate of your client is at stake.

In May, the New York Post ran a story suggesting that W-SPIN, Rajkumar’s non-profit, was a “3-year-old organization (that) has never done anything.”  In our interview, Rajkumar said the Post’s allegations were “nonsense” and she talked about her aspirations for the group:

I am very proud of W-SPIN. It’s an extension of the work I’ve done throughout my whole career, which is advocating for equality for people and getting more women in leadership positions… W-SPIN is something I’m very proud of and I have taken some really great steps to launch this but it is very new and it’s a start-up, as I’ve always said, and we’ve taken some remarkable steps.  We have secured one of the best tax lawyers in the country to help me structure this. And I brought together a collective of very smart women and men to develop programs for this. We developed a program to design teaching tools for young women all across the world because the stories of women in history are often forgotten in history texts… If anyone would like to fund this non-profit please get in touch with me.

If elected, we wanted to know, what is the first piece of legislation Rajkumar would propose:

We need legislation in place to make sure we are fully prepared for the next hurricane. All over Lower Manhattan, from the Lower East Side to Battery Park City to the Seaport, there’s been devastation after the hurricane. I would support legislation that helps streamline FEMA benefits. What has happened is the federal government has allotted significant amounts of money to our district but residents have not been able to access those full benefits… I would like to pass legislation in the City Council that streamlines the process… Also I support legislation that would identify vulnerable communities ahead of time, that will be affected by the hurricane most, such as the elderly, people with disabilities, low income individuals… The Council member of this district has to be a leader when it comes to hurricane preparedness.

And finally, asked to identify her top priorities if elected, Rajkumar said:

I want to implement participatory budgeting, which has been used by some of the most progressive Council members in New York City, successfully. It brings more people into the Democratic process… It allows residents to vote on how the Council’s discretionary spending should be spent. people actually get a say in the process and small group meetings are set up all over the district where people discuss how they want the funds spent.

The Primary Election will be held this coming Tuesday, September 10. Click here for more information about the candidates and about finding your polling location.