At Our Town's District 4 meeting (clockwise from top center): candidates Vanessa Aronson, Maria Castro, Rebecca Harary, Rachel Honig, Jeffrey Mailman, Keith Powers, Bessie Schachter, Marti Speranza; Straus News Publisher Jeanne Straus and edit team Alexis Gelber, Richard Khavkine, Douglas Feiden, Michael Garofalo. Photo: Molly Colgan
Every now and then in a local political campaign, the discussion is substantive, the tone is elevated, the discourse is civil, the mood is upbeat, the candidates are reasoned and well-informed, and the dialogue is leavened with wit and good humor and even bonhomie.
It is a moment to savor. It lends credence to the notion that it is indeed possible, in Barack Obama's felicitous phrase, for opposing advocates to “disagree without being disagreeable.” And to state the obvious, that doesn't often happen these days in city, state or federal politics.
But all those qualities were in evidence during a spirited debate on August 31 featuring a crowded field of contenders vying in the hyper-competitive race for the open District 4 City Council seat being vacated by incumbent Council Member Dan Garodnick due to term limits.
Hosted by the Our Town editorial board at the paper's Chelsea office and live-streamed on Facebook, the 90-minute face-off attracted eight of the 10 hopefuls who boast backgrounds, resumes, experiences and competing visions that are as diverse as the district they seek to serve.
The “Garodnick seat,” as it is known in City Hall for the Democrat who was first elected in 2005, encompasses East Midtown, Times Square, Central Park South, Turtle Bay, Stuyvesant Town, Peter Cooper Village and the chunk of the Upper East Side closest to Central Park.
Debate participants hoping to claim the prized plum – which takes in Carnegie Hall and Bellevue Hospital, the United Nations and a swath of the Silk Stocking District — included seven Democrats who will square off in the September 12 primary, and the lone Republican who will then face the Democratic victor in the November 7 general election.
They addressed the city's soaring cost of living, its problematic transit system, rising homelessness and the burden of the commercial rent tax. They also parried questions about small business survival, affordable housing for the middle class, pedestrian safety amid a cycling culture — and the large shadow cast by the departing and still-popular Garodnick.
What's at stake in this election? Whoever the voters choose to lead City Council District 4 for the next four years will have a direct impact on the lives, security, schooling and well-being of its 108,000 citizens — and will hold the post until he or she faces the voters again in 2021.
Among the highlights of the wide-ranging conversation between the six female and two male candidates present:
• Small business survival. There is, in the words of Our Town columnist Bette Dewing, a “crisis of unprecedented small business loss,” to which, she argues, more attention should be paid. How would you to promote small business on the East Side?
Jeffrey Mailman, a legislative director and counsel to a City Council member, said he'd “explore tax reforms so that landlords don't have the financial incentive to write off vacant storefronts as a loss,” as opposed to renting them out to new tenants. He'd also fight to repeal the “unfair” commercial rent tax, or CRT, which only impacts small businesses in Manhattan below 96th Street.
Keith Powers said he knows the issue first-hand, and it's “really personal” for him: His father was a small business owner in Stuyvesant Town, and his first job was in a neighborhood grocery store. Powers, an ex-lobbyist and ex-legislative aide to both a state senator and a state Assembly member, suggested a “vacancy tax or other disincentive” to discourage the warehousing of multiple properties, a method landlords often use to site, say, a big-box store.
Take a look at Bessie Schachter's block on 61st Street to understand the scope of the problem. “We had our fourth and fifth vacancies” as shops face a tripling of rents, said Schachter, a community leader and director of outreach for a state senator. One possible fix: Place some businesses into a lower tax category that already exists — but doesn't currently include grocery stores, laundromats, dry cleaners and key-makers, she said.
Noting she'd conducted a small business tour of the district and was a former small business owner herself, Marti Speranza, the director of Women Entrepreneurs NYC, said she'd champion reform of the 4 percent CRT, called for lifting the floor to “at least $500,000,” and said city enforcement should give businesses a chance to cure violations before hitting them with burdensome fines.
Vanessa Aronson, a former public school teacher and ex-foreign service officer, went further on the CRT, calling for its full repeal and noting the measure places a “particularly unfair burden” on District 4 since it's situated south of 96th Street. She also argued for a crackdown on city landlords who are “being creative” in how they write off some of the maintenance costs for their vacant storefront spaces.
Immigrant advocate and government relations consultant Maria Castro, herself a small business owner for 35 years, would also junk the CRT, and she called for a more proactive, business-friendly mission for government, which should do much more outreach to small businesses. Trump Tower, for instance, is in the district, and multiple nearby stores have been suffering, yet “government has failed” to provide relief.
Citing her own bona fides as the owner of a small company for 10 years with a payroll of 30 full-time employees, Rebecca Harary, the founder of four nonprofits and the lone Republican in the race, said today's landlords are “hogging up” empty space. Her solution: “After a landlord hasn't leased his space for one year, he should be taxed on the difference between what his last tenant was spending on rent, and what he's currently asking for in rent,” she said. “Watch how fast that landlord rents the store!”
Ease the regulatory burdens on businesses, said Rachel Honig, an arts advocate who owns a public relations and marketing firm. She gave the example of a would-be entrepreneur who wants to open a bodega in the city: “You need 70 different permits and licenses — from 30 different government bodies,” she said. Put them all under a single roof where small businesses could go to painlessly get all their licenses, she argued.
• Construction and availability of affordable housing. It's a cornerstone of the de Blasio administration, yet projected set-asides for moderate-to-middle-income tenants have been cut by some 11 percent. What can the Council do to address the housing needs of middle-class families?
Speranza proposed using city-owned vacant land — there's over 1,000 empty lots citywide — to partner with nonprofit developers, set up a land bank and create permanently affordable housing.
Schachter called for an immediate audit of available housing and tax abatement programs at a time when so many units are being lost, saying it would help tenants get the lower rents they're entitled to.
“We should create a new, 21st-century Mitchell-Lama program that is permanent,” Powers said. Don't just develop market-based housing, but build low-income, middle-income and mixed-income projects as well, he said.
The Council's right-to-counsel bill for low-income tenants was a key first step to curb evictions and harassment, Mailman argued. But he said “more money and greater subsidies” were needed to make affordable projects viable.
Honig backed the idea of an audit to document the available affordable stock. She also called for a “means-based approach” so people who need affordable housing can avail themselves of it, as those who don't need it are phased out. Even with some of her friends, it would prove “unpopular,” she said.
Take a look at the New York City Housing Authority stock, Harary said: There are “literally thousands of vacant apartments nobody is talking about.” City Hall has failed to repair them, and it would cost far less to do so than to construct new units, she added.
Change the classic 80-20 ratio in which 20 percent of a project's units must remain affordable to low-income households, Castro said. “Be a tough negotiator” and raise the ratio to 70-30 or even 65-35 for mixed use units, she said.
“We need to protect, and we need to fight to protect, every existing affordable unit, that needs to be the plan from day one,” Aronson said. “And we also need to be thinking about some creative new revolutionary concepts — just like Stuyvesant Town was at its time.”
A pair of contenders did not participate in the forum, the Democrats Alec Hartman, who is the co-founder of two technology start-ups, and Barry Shapiro, an information technology project manager and systems analyst.
And in a revealing exchange toward the end of the editorial roundtable, they were gently led out of their comfort zones when Alexis Gelber, Our Town's editor-in-chief, introducing what she called a “lightning round,” asked all eight candidates, “What three words best describe you?”
All answered gamely and with equanimity, starting with Aronson, who was asked first because the questions were posed in alphabetical order.
After laughingly objecting to having been placed on the hot seat first, Aronson replied, slowly and deliberately, “Meticulous. Energetic. Compassionate.”
Castro was next. “I'm a good communicator. I'm a good negotiator. And I am a relentless hard worker,” was how she described herself.
Then came Harary: “Compassionate. Strong. And fiscally responsible,” she said.
“I would say passionate, pragmatic and ethical,” Honig said.
“I'm patient, I'm a good listener and conscientious,” Mailman said.
“Pragmatic, progressive and effective,” Powers said.
Next was Schachter, who put it like this, “I'm a fighter, I'm dedicated, and I'm persistent.”
And last in alphabetical order came Speranza, who described herself thusly: “Entrepreneurial, energetic and a hard worker.”
But the last word belonged to Harary, who deadpanned of herself and her seven Democratic rivals, “I noticed that none of us said, 'Modest.'”
That brought down the house. And the debate for one of the 51 City Council seats that are up for grabs this year was at an end.