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Sorting through the 35th CD Democratic race: getting "Trumpian"?

Laurie Cumbo
One of the hardest-fought--and most bitter--races for City Council is the Democratic primary in the 35th District between incumbent Laurie Cumbo (previously director/founder of MoCADA) and one of her 2013 rivals, Ede Fox, a former Council aide.

After going to a couple of debates, and reading various documents/articles before the election Tuesday, I find there's a lot to sort through.

When Cumbo disses Fox as a lightweight and calls her campaign "Trumpian"--I'll get to the exaggerations on both sides--that ignores how Fox has been criticizing the incumbent from the left and has garnered significant progressive endorsements.

Ede Fox
(Also see coverage of the Green Party candidates, who've raised some important issues.)

Endorsements split

Cumbo has been endorsed by some major unions (teachers, hotel workers, SEIU, DC37) and the local political hierarchy (Mayor, Borough President, Congress members, Assembly/Senate), as well as several fellow Council members. 

The debate over the Bedford-Union Armory led the New York Daily News, the only daily newspaper to endorse in the race to back Cumbo, blaming Fox for divisiveness. (The Times, which in 2013 backed Fox, is sitting this one out.) 

StreetsPAC backs Fox, citing her commitment to transportation improvements; Streetsblog noted that Fox is more receptive to congestion pricing. (Cumbo actually endorsed dockless bikes because she thinks Citibike racks have taken away too much parking.)

Fox has been endorsed by some more construction-oriented unions (mason tenders, ironworkers, laborers, transit workers), the good-government group Citizens Union (the only race in which CU backs a challenger), KidsPAC, NYS Higher Ed Pac, Tenants PAC, and New York Communities for Change. The latter two groups are critical of de Blasio's development agenda.

For those focused on Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, Fox--who lives in Prospect Heights and co-founded a political club--seems more attuned to neighbors' concerns about accountability, with some AY activists working in support. I've pointed out Cumbo's vulnerability on Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park; Fox has briefly raised the issue but focused far more on the armory.

Negative campaigning

When Cumbo, at forums and in a mailer, pronounces herself above negative campaigning, citing Michelle Obama's "When they go low, we go high," let's take that with a grain of salt.

There's a lot murky here, starting with the unresolved question of whether Cumbo allegedly got Fox fired from her job at the City Council.

Yes, Fox started with a critical mailer and sent a second one, both making legitimate points but also exaggerating. She's also sent mailers stressing her goals and priorities. 

And, yes, Cumbo, while stressing her record has also exaggerated in part.

Looking back

But Cumbo in 2013 was the beneficiary of others' negative campaigning, and has been this year. (So too is Fox.)

Let's recap. In 2013, Jobs for New York, the political action committee (PAC) funded by the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), spent nearly $230,000 to help get Cumbo elected, plus more than $27,000 on negative mailers targeting Fox and another candidate, Olanike Alabi.

Cumbo did not solicit that money, but she only belatedly distanced herself from that support. (No, it's not correct for the Village Voice to say Cumbo "denounced the PAC’s spending at the time.")

So, when Fox states, as in the mailer at left, that "Developers and landlords spent over $250,000 to elect Laurie Cumbo," that's an important reminder of a distortion in that race. (Note that real estate represents a small fraction of the more than $121,000 Cumbo has directly raised.)

Getting what they paid for?

Did they get "exactly what they paid for," as Fox charges in that mailer, or have they "bought Laurie Cumbo's Council seat," as another mailer charges?

That's harder to say. REBNY surely knew it wasn't going to get a Council Member cheerleading for development, just one who might be somewhat more sympathetic or open to discussion.  (Note the critical response by NY 1 Inside City Hall host--and Crown Heights resident--Errol Louis to Fox's first mailer, calling it a "factually dubious hit job," and the responses to Louis, some agreeing, others pushing back.

When it comes to projects like Atlantic Yards, Cumbo indeed has been supportive. Focusing on the Bedford-Union Armory, the most heated issue in the campaign, Fox charges that Cumbo initially backed a plan that includes luxury condos. Cumbo claims that she toughened her position after listening to constituents; then again, she moved left after Fox started pounding the issue and calling for 100% affordable housing.

Cumbo's pointed out, though, that on the land-use issues that have been voted on at Council, she's supported affordability. In recent debates, she's stressed the importance of working with nonprofit developers.

In many ways, anyone elected in the 35th would have to be liberal. Fox is unreceptive to rezonings or working in public-private partnerships, to the left of Cumbo and thus resistant to Mayor de Blasio's agenda. That's a discussion worth having, though a tactic that would be politically difficult without more allies.

Fox also opposes charter schools, while Cumbo doesn't support an increase in such schools but wants to ensure "equity across the board."

Fox and supporters have criticized Cumbo's constituent responsiveness; Cumbo's supporters say otherwise. (That's yet another dispute that a local PolitiFact would have to sort out., if it existed.)

Cumbo's record

Cumbo, like any Council Member, has a record of achievement, able to direct capital budget and use a bully pulpit, supporting playgrounds and NYCHA upgrades, and supporting efforts to reduce gun violence and raise the minimum wage.

And when Fox said she aimed to provide legal support for tenants to push back on landlords' illegal tactics, Cumbo was able to riposte, "That sounds very much like legislation I was a co-sponsor on in City Council." (It was led by CM Mark Levine; Cumbo wasn't mentioned in the press release.)

At a recent debate, Cumbo said, "I was very proud, that in the City Council, I was ranked fourth most effective lawmaker in the city council."

That's true, but with a couple of asterisks. City and State, as noted above right, ranked Cumbo tied for fourth in bills enacted, with two colleagues, in bills enacted, but 16th--not shabby, not terrific--overall.

It's not unknown for Cumbo to exaggerate her record, saying, for example that she "created" over 600 units of affordable housing at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, while it was the work of tenant activists, the city housing agency, and multiple elected officials.

At a debate, Cumbo said, "I've been able to create over 3000 jobs at Navy Yard." Actually, a city press release credited "a combination of BNYDC investment, $73.1 million of Mayoral City Capital and $3.7 million from the City Council and Brooklyn Borough President."

Getting nasty

If Cumbo's not going negative herself, she's certainly been the beneficiaries of others willing to do so. Those gathering outside a 7/25/17 candidates' forum in Crown Heights were handed various documents, along with Fox flyers, containing attacks on Fox supporter Alicia Boyd of Movement to Protect the People. (I witnessed it, and it was described by Akosua Albritton in an article in Our Time Press.)

Clearly, those were not from Fox, though the teenagers handing out the literature claimed they worked for Fox. A query to the person who seemed their supervisor was brushed off. To Albritton, Fox supporters expressed concern about the young people involved, and Fox didn't comment. 

But the query should have gone to Cumbo: did she know about this? did she support this? (I later asked, but didn't get a response.)

One page distributed criticized Boyd for opposing gentrification while renting her private home out on AirBnB. That has been an issue within the heated politics of local Community Board 9. And it also might be on the radar screen of the Hotel Trades Council, an AirBnB foe that has vowed to spend big money backing Cumbo, though there's no proof HDC was involved. That said, landlords of apartment buildings who reserve rentable units for AirBnB surely raise more concerns.

Fox, who's notably pro-tenant, has not stated a position on AirBnB, but in response to my query said "we need to do everything in our power to make sure that we're not losing affordable units across the city."

Some of Fox's supporters, including Boyd, directly charged that Cumbo got money from Jobs for New York, which is not true, given the indirect support. Cumbo campaign manager Ben Ernst has pointed out a homemade flyer, with no attribution, that Mayor de Blasio and local politicians connected to the real estate industry are putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into Cumbo's campaign.

On Inside City Hall, Cumbo charged that Fox had spend thousands of dollars investigating her family, and asked why. Fox sidestepped the question. Cumbo didn't respond to my query.

Fox, in response to my query said, "As for the investigator, that's ludicrous. Laurie is making up lies to distract from the real issues in this race--her absence of leadership on a wide range of issues across the district, from the homelessness and affordability crisis to the NYCHA repair backlog to her standing with big developers and against the community on the Bedford Union Armory project. I've never hired an investigator to look into anyone."

Asked in one debate what she'd do differently as Council Member if she had to do it over again, Cumbo did not bring up a policy or admit vulnerability. (So, no second thoughts about how she was curiously reticent, as I wrote in May 2016, when one of her constituents reported that living near the Pacific Park project was like "living in a shark tank," given the harassment.)

"I never look back, in terms of decision or votes or the way I would have handled some things," she said. "If I could do something differently, I guess I’d spend more time refuting on some of the negative things said about me."