Monday, September 08, 2014

In race to succeed Millman, a designated successor, a union/WFP-backed rival, and a pox-on-all gadfly

The race to replace retiring 52nd District Assemblymember Joan Millman covers a district including Brooklyn Heights, Gowanus, and parts of Park Slope.

Millman has had an intermittent presence regarding Atlantic Yards, so it's not like we should expect her replacement to make it a priority, not with other pressing issues in the district. As noted below, none of the candidates gave particularly incisive answers when asked an Atlantic Yards question at a recent debate.

The overview

The race involves Millman's designated successor, attorney and district leader Jo Anne Simon (also endorsed by Public Advocate Letitia James and Comptroller Scott Stringer, among others), who has the most local money;  Communications Workers of America political and legislative director (self-described as "consumer advocate, union economist") Pete Sikora, endorsed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, Council Members Brad Lander & Steve Levin, and the Working Families Party, who has the most union money; and building superintendent and local gadfly Doug Biviano, who's running a shoestring insurgent campaign and is backed by former mayoral candidate Sal Albanese, who also ran as a reformer.

Simon has endorsements from the New York Times and the Citizens Union; Sikora has the Daily News nod.  Here's a NY1 debate and a WNYC election guide. Here's Brooklyn Heights Blog debate coverage, including some useful video.

Here are the Citizens Union questionnaires for Biviano, Sikora, and Simon, which list priorities.

Biviano's priorities:

Sikora's priorities:

Simon's priorities:

Hammering away at taint

It's been an interesting race to watch, since Biviano, aided by consultant Gary Tilzer, has hammered away at what he considers signs of taint, some of which are clearer than others.

Without Instant Runoff Voting, in which voters rank candidates--which I think would be helpful--a protest vote for Biviano likely helps one of the other candidates.

(A similar but more dramatic situation came up in 2009 when Biviano and Simon were among seven candidates to succeed David Yassky, and Levin, a protege of County Democratic Chair Vito Lopez, won a very split election. Levin turned out to be not to be a Lopez clone, though Instant Runoff Voting probably would have elected a candidate opposed to the Brooklyn Democratic machine.)

Consider Biviano's statement: “The [sic] are sharks who will hurt our community working for both of my opponents in this race. Berlin Rosen for Sikora and Brooklyn Boss Seddio and his Gang for Simon.”

The role of consultants Berlin Rosen--a mega-firm that represents the mayor, Forest City Ratner, the Brooklyn Public Library, and, as Sikora takes pain to point out, some virtuous nonprofits like Greenpeace--in city politics is troubling, as noted by the Star-Revue. Indeed, Crain's just published an article about how consultants like Berlin Rosen play a lobbyist-like role but don't register as lobbyists.

Sikora has spent more than $65,000 on Berlin Rosen, But Biviano ascribes a little too much power to one consultant, claiming: "Berlin Rosen has taken away from us the power of governing decisions in our neighborhoods. They control government agencies like the Brooklyn Public Library and our local elections." 

Sikora has received more than $42,000 in assistance from the Working Families Party, by far the party's biggest lift. (The CWA is part of the WFP.) The disclosure has taken a while. Sikora's campaign also has transferred nearly $23,000 to the WFP.

Regarding Simon, Biviano points to support from County Democratic Leader Frank Seddio--Simon says she doesn't have to be in lockstep--and to a contribution from a board member of Brooklyn Bridge Park who supports condos in the park.

As to Biviano, his rivals question his ability to work in any coalition and his record of work in the community.

A video via Brooklyn Heights Blog where candidates ask each other questions (go to 13:27):

The Atlantic Yards question

At a recent debate in Prospect Heights, moderator Janet Babin of WNYC asked a version of a question I had posed: "Would you have approved of compromise regarding Atlantic Yards, setting a new timetable for affordable housing... how can you change deals like these to ensure that people of Brooklyn who truly need affordable housing can get it?"

Sikora said, "The deal doesn't provide enough affordable housing, particularly for lower income. The affordable housing that's in Atlantic Yards going forward should reflect what the neighborhood used to be like... people got pushed out. I would have approved of this compromise, because it seems to be better than the alternative, but we should back up and not get put in a box as a community on these kinds of deals."

He went on to extol his capacity in forging coalitions, "so we don't get stuck with these kind of disasters.". He didn't mention--nor did have time to do so--that the Working Families Party was co-founded by New York ACORN, which endorsed the Atlantic Yards affordable housing plan. Neither the WFP nor ACORN's successor organization, New York Communities for Change, criticized the configuration of affordable housing in the next two towers, which skews toward middle-income households.

Biviano's response: "I want to put this into the real perspective, the special interests driving these issues... Affordable housing is a bandaid on a cancer, it's because of the tax breaks and abatements given to developers... it's about public giveaways. You want it eliminated, control the campaign finance laws, such that candidates can't take large contributions and then give away all our public properties and overdevelop, overbuild, and then deplete the tax base so we can't really address affordable housing."

He's right that state campaign finance law needs reform; this election likely would have more candidates, and a more robust debate, if there were matching funds, as with city elections. But it's unclear what Biviano might do, or how he would "Return the power of governing back to the neighborhoods," as stated in his Citizens Union questionnaire.

"As the only candidate here who was involved in Atlantic Yards at all, publicly, I can tell you about the very, very long fight," responded Simon, a member of BrooklynSpeaks, which helped negotiate the compromise. "So here's the thing: the affordability levels were not set by anybody other than the developer, in accordance with a Community Benefits Agreement with certain organizations, many of which were created by the developer.... It actually didn't benefit very many people at all. What we have done in this agreement is we have moved up the housing, we have expanded the number of apartments and the size of the apartments to more adequately deal with families. The affordability levels were set by HUD, and there was actually no opportunity for us to do that. We'd be happy to work with that going forward."

Note that the terms of the agreement and ESDC letter deal with the timetable but not the size of the apartments. That was a discretionary decision--there are more two-bedroom apartments and now three-bedroom apartments--in the next two towers, but at the cost of a shift in affordability, another discretionary decision. The uncritical endorsement of the deal by Simon and others papered over the complexity.

More from the debate

The Brooklyn Eagle offered a good summary of other issues in the debate, including the Common Core, local control of rent laws, endorsement of Zephyr Teachout for governor (Biviano, Sikora yes, Simon undecided), public libraries (a rather cursory discussion).

Also note the discussion of fundraising:
Probed by Babin on finances, Sikora said he has raised roughly $194,000 for his campaign; Simon reported roughly $190,000; Biviano said he has raised $7,000.
Simon said she has not taken any money from developers with projects in the community. Sikora said that he wasn’t taking any money from real estate.
“But you’re exploiting every campaign finance loophole that’s out there,” Simon said. [an apparent reference to the WFP help.]
Biviano said that the other candidates raised more money than he did because they were beholden to special interests. He was cut short when he tried to list individual donors who gave to his competitors’ campaigns.

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