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In the 33rd: Levin vs. everyone else, AY & Broadway Triangle, and the argument for IRV (Instant Runoff Voting)

Let’s face it. Despite some lively debates, and clear differences in style, experience, policy (only somewhat), and geography among the seven candidates vying to succeed David Yassky in the bizarrely-shaped 33rd City Council District, the race--to be resolved at the Democratic primary September 15--comes down to one thing: Stephen Levin versus everybody else.

That should matter to those following Atlantic Yards. Despite Levin’s expression of “serious concern” about the project, he supports the affordability ratio proposed by Ratner--without pointing out that it was part of an essentially private rezoning, which ACORN has unquestionably supported--and works for the Brooklyn Democratic Party boss who's done Ratner's bidding. The other candidates are all more critical of Atlantic Yards.

(Map from Gotham Gazette)

Moreover, endorsements received by Levin make him less likely to challenge the political and union figures and organizations that support the project. Also, he’s also been less likely to show up at public debates (though he has plausible explanations), wouldn’t complete a questionnaire from the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, and was unwilling to participate in a Brooklyn Review segment (below) about the district race.

I’ll also describe how those disfavoring Levin might think about choosing a candidate--fundraising leader Jo Anne Simon, who has major endorsements, is probably the strongest candidate, unless Evan Thies or Ken Diamondstone get endorsements from the New York Times and/or the New York Daily News--and why an innovation like Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) would help truly reflect voters’ preferences rather than allow a candidate to win with a mere plurality.

(Levin's supporters see Simon and Thies as the main rivals, given that a Levin backer has filed challenges at the Board of Elections to petitions by them. Update: The Brooklyn Paper reports today on how, in a recent debate sponsored by the newspaper, the candidates went after Levin, Simon, and Thies. And here's a Brooklyn Rail interview with Simon.)

Meanwhile, there’s a debate tonight at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, from 6:30 to 8 pm. There’s still time for the candidates to stand out--or commit gaffes. And there's still time for the candidates to keep knocking on doors and sending mailers.

And below is a video from Brooklyn Independent Television’s Brooklyn Review about the 33rd District Race. (See bottom for a curious story about how CNG's BoroPolitics appropriated the video.)

The Lopez connection

Levin serves as chief of staff for Assemblyman Vito Lopez, the Brooklyn Democratic Party boss and dispenser of patronage. Lopez agreed to the “Atlantic Yards carve-out” that helped save Forest City Ratner hundreds of millions of dollars. And he’s been inconsistent in comparing AY to other affordable housing programs.

Levin’s under 30 (as is Thies), but grounded in both government and politics. He says he’s his own man, but he wouldn’t have gotten as many union endorsements and campaign contributions without the Lopez connection. He has received significant campaign contributions from people associated with social services empire Lopez founded, the Ridgewood-Bushwick Senior Citizens Council (RBSCC).

Beyond that, Levin’s presence has rendered incumbent David Yassky mute, unwilling to endorse any candidate, notably former chief of staff Thies, allegedly in exchange for Lopez’s support in Yassky’s race for City Comptroller.

Levin’s presence has even stimulated the formation of an anonymously-run blog (Real Reform Brooklyn) attacking him; the blog states that he moved into the district less than two years ago. (I haven’t been able to confirm that--note the comments--and I don’t know who’s behind the blog.)

And Levin’s role has flummoxed the press. For example, the New York Times, in a lengthy article last week about the future of the rezoned Broadway Triangle, a 31-acre parcel in South Williamsburg (at the border of Bedford-Stuyvesant) at the east-central border of the 33rd District, focused on the “old feuds” between community development agencies vying for a piece of the project--which has proceeded with no-bid contracts.

The article noted that six of seven candidates to succeed Yassky oppose the plan worked out by Lopez, but failed to point out that the one candidate who supports the plan--which puts RBSCC as one of the favored developers--is Levin. The other developer is the United Jewish Organizations, or UJO, the political power in the Satmar Hasidic community, which, the Times should’ve mentioned, is more likely than any other community development organization in the 33rd to deliver votes as a bloc.

(Map from the Brooklyn Paper. Note that the dotted line outlines the rezoning, while critics of the current plan would like the rezoning extended to other shaded blocks. I'd note that the blocks between Throop and Broadway are much more built up than the others.)

What the heck is the 33rd?

Let’s consider the dubious design of the 33rd District. Stretching in a bat-like modified crescent from north Park Slope (where I live) to Greenpoint, it includes Brooklyn Heights, Boerum Hill, and part of Williamsburg--the Hasidic part, not the Hispanic part. (Map from the insider newspaper City Hall News.)

It’s a diverse district, from row-house neighborhoods to housing projects, middle-class, rich, and poor. In fact, from a geographic perspective, it’s too diverse. Brooklyn has 18 community boards (below) and 16 Council Districts. There should be a near one-to-one ratio and relative compactness, but the 33rd covers CB 1, with parts of CBs 2 and 6.

It involves several police precincts and school districts. Its residents are represented by a disparate array of state legislators.

Broadway Triangle, by the way, is in Community Board 1 but borders not the other two CBs within the 33rd District but CBs 3 and 4.

Diverse candidates

The candidates include Levin, from Greenpoint; Thies and Isaac Abraham (the first Hasidic candidate), from Williamsburg; Simon and Ken Diamondstone from Boerum Hill; Doug Biviano from Brooklyn Heights; and Ken Baer from Park Slope.

Simon has more money than Levin, who’s second, but lacks his union endorsements. They both have several elected officials behind them, and Simon has some notable political clubs. Levin was endorsed last week by Sen. Chuck Schumer, who said “I think he will follow in the footsteps of David Yassky” and also, according to the video on the Brooklyn Heights Blog, gave some encouragement to Atlantic Yards. Levin assiduously thanked Schumer. And, as the Brooklyn Paper pointed out, Schumer dodged a question about Broadway Triangle.

(The Brooklyn Paper suggested that “other candidates’ [endorsement] lists are less impressive,” but does Manhattan Rep. Carolyn Maloney's endorsement of Levin really mean much? The Daily Politics explores whether or not Maloney had a deal with Lopez.)

Simon, who has occasionally clashed with Lopez over judgeships and patronage (see City Hall News), is backed by City Council Member Letitia James, who’s also periodically clashed with Lopez. She’s long been associated with BrooklynSpeaks and its “mend-it-don’t-end-it” stance on AY, but has been toughening her rhetoric, standing with Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn at a press conference before the public hearing on July 29. (So were the other candidates, except Abraham and Levin.)

Thies has a couple of significant endorsements and is third in fundraising. Interestingly, he just sent out a campaign mailer (left and below) stressing his opposition to Atlantic Yards. (The mailer mistakenly asserts that the MTA agreed to give Forest City Ratner the entire Vanderbilt Yard site, appraised at $214.5 million, for $20 million; actually, the deal was revised to $100 million, with $20 million for a segment representing about a quarter of the site.)

Diamondstone, who ran for the seat in 2001 as well as other offices, and Baer have the longest-standing opposition to AY. Biviano and Abraham also oppose the project, but like Baer, are longshot candidates, given--take your pick--endorsements, funding, and campaign efforts.

Why the Times matters

By dint of their support and their records, Diamondstone, Levin, Simon, and Thies likely will be taken seriously by the Times editorialists, whose decision does matter.

In 2001, the fundraising leader and anointed party candidate, Steve Cohn, was defeated by Yassky, who won 42% of the vote to Cohn’s 30%, thanks, in part, to the Times’s endorsement:

“Mr. Cohn, a lawyer, has a long record of community activity, but he harks back to the city's old political patronage era rather than forward to something better,” the Times opined, and surely it made a difference. In this case, a Times endorsement will help a lot of underinformed or undecided voters make a choice.

Strategic voting and IRV

Though I’m speculating here, I wouldn’t be surprised if some Simon supporters are nudging candidates from Brownstone Brooklyn to throw their support to her. After all, votes for Baer and Diamondstone and Biviano help Levin, at least from the perspective of Simon supporters.

Indeed, Diamondstone and (more recently) Biviano have portrayed themselves as more worthy of the mantle of reformer than Simon, who has ties to Assemblywoman Joan Millman and has clashed at times with Lopez. And Biviano has also attacked Thies for his work on the rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

And, while I would be surprised if Levin supporters are lobbying Abraham and Thies, surely the road would be easier for Levin were he the only candidate from the northern part of the district.

But none of the candidates, or their supporters, should have to consider such the whispering. Rather, we should have IRV, which guarantees majority winners in a single round of voting, allowing people to “vote their hopes instead of their fears by ranking candidates in order of preference without worrying about spoiler dynamics or wasted votes.” It also eliminates the need for low-turnout, high-cost runoffs--which NYC has for citywide offices but not Council seats.

How does it work? If a candidate receives a majority of first choices, he or she is elected. If there’s no majority, the candidate receiving the fewest first choices is eliminated, and ballots cast for that candidate are now counted toward those voters' second choices. This process continues until one candidate receives a majority and is elected.

Here's some more discussion of the 33rd on Daily Gotham.

More on Broadway Triangle and Lopez

Discussing Broadway Triangle on the Brian Lehrer Show last week, the host lobbed relatively gentle questions at Lopez, who referred to one of the important constituencies as “one of the largest Hasidim community,” rather than “Hasidic.”

Lopez said that the Community Board vote was 23-12 in favor of the project, but that’s actually a significant opposition, especially since Yassky’s appointees made up a significant chunk of the vote. (Thies, curiously enough--as Aaron Short reports--resigned from the Community Board before the vote.)

“People want housing,” Lopez said. “What groups get it is another story… I will open my doors to anyone who wants to do good.” Well, maybe, but some of the community development groups on the outside regarding Broadway Triangle once had closer relationships with Lopez.

As the Brooklyn Paper reported, Borough President Marty Markowitz has until August 13 to submit his recommendation to the City Planning Commission, whereupon the rezoning is expected to be approved by the City Council, which takes the lead from the local Council Member, in this case Yassky. Interestingly, Council Member Diana Reyna, who represents the adjacent Bushwick neighborhood, opposes the rezoning and is clashing with Lopez, her former supporter.

As a commenter on the Brooklyn Paper web site noted, “One of the two organizations that is being favored and given the no-bid contracts, is the one that Vito Lopez founded, and where his girlfriend [Angela Battaglia] works as the head of their housing program, and he heads the Assembly Housing Committee, and she is on the City Planning Committee [actually: Commission], and he gets big state grants for that organization.”

Here's a lot more coverage, collected by the opposing Broadway Triangle Community Coalition but mostly press reports.

And read Short's eye-opening report on how Lopez critics believe he pressured the housing group Churches United to boot executive director Jim O'Shea and that he supported the Catholic Church's stance on a bill amending the statute of limitations in child abuse cases--all because of Broadway Triangle. Yesterday's New York Times article on the child abuse bill--which failed--omits any mention of Lopez. Then again, see the comments here backing Lopez's take.

About that BoroPolitics video

I was taken aback over the weekend to see, on the new BoroPolitics site from Community News Group (Brooklyn Paper + Courier-Life + more), the Brooklyn Review video near the top of this post packaged as "Brooklyn Review for the Brooklyn Paper," as indicated in the graphic at right, and with the "BoroPolitics video" slide pasted on top of the video.

After all, Brooklyn Review is a product of Brooklyn Independent Television, not Rupert Murdoch's CNG family.

I queried Greg Sutton, Executive Producer, BCAT TV Network, who, after contacting BoroPolitics yesterday, confirmed that the new site had overstepped. He wrote:
This byline, which has since been deleted from the page, fostered the false impression that the clip was created for the Brooklyn Paper. It was not. In reality this segment is from Brooklyn Independent Television’s Brooklyn Review which has been airing on the BCAT TV Network since July 27.

While we are pleased that thought our piece on the 33rd District Elections would be useful for their political coverage, they did err in how they ultimately presented the piece on their website.

In addition to deleting the byline, the present video player will be replaced as soon as possible and properly credited to Brooklyn Independent Television for its content.

Brooklyn Independent Television provides numerous requested web segments for individuals to use on their own blog, web pages or for personal purposes- as long as there is proper credit and it is used as set forth by our Creative Commons License.

One of the reasons I look carefully at what the Brooklyn Paper and the Courier-Life are doing these days is that, given their ownership by the same company, they're not about to critique each other. And if they're not critiqued, they might keep pushing the envelope.


  1. Great piece. Definitely follow up on Levin moving into the 33rd to run for Council. Also, I note that one of your links does not seem to work when you write "Thies, curiously enough--as Aaron Short reports--resigned from the Community Board before the vote." The link does not reference the CB1 vote. And, don't forget the fact that the CB1 bloc who voted for Broadway Triangle is controlled by UJO's Rabbi Neiderman and other Vito supporters. Therefore, Thies bowing off the Board really made no difference.

    We also find it interesting that, despite all of Simon's claims of being a talented civil rights attorney, she has not lifted a legal finger to use her talents in pressing the numerous eminent domain suits against Atlantic Yard. Certainly stopping the government from taking someone's home is civil rights issue. Showing up to public hearings to give testimony in one thing. Having the courage to walk into Federal or State court to fight for people's homes, that is whole different level of activism that Simon has never shown -- not with Atlantic Yards, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Dock Street, Brooklyn House of Detention, Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning and on and on and on.

    Real Reform Brooklyn

  2. The link has been fixed, so you can read Short's case for why Thies's presence mattered.

    Simon has long been associated with the "mend-it-don't-end-it" stance of BrooklynSpeaks, which avoided litigation. But many in BrooklynSpeaks, including Simon, have hardened their stances after recognizing they weren't getting far.


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