Failing to Get the Lead Out

Should Brooklyn Pol Mike Nelson Keep His Council Seat?

For a new member of the City Council, Mike Nelson of Brooklyn seems to already have the knack. Campaigning last winter in a special election, Nelson promised voters at a candidate forum that he would oppose any weakening of the laws protecting children against lead-paint poisoning. In June, with the council in the throes of a roiling battle over a lead-paint bill that was drafted by and for landlords, Nelson won praise from New York Post columnist Jack Newfield, who reported that the newcomer had announced he would buck the system and vote against the bill.

But just nine days later, with barely four months of elective office under his belt, Nelson demonstrated his apparently innate talent for doing what comes naturally, at least to politicians: He caved. Nelson reversed himself, voting for the landlords' lead bill, which also happened to be the bill of Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Council Speaker Peter Vallone. And later in the summer, Nelson pulled a prank that showed the true level of his political prowess: He sent out campaign literature claiming that he "forced the City Council to protect tenants and stop the landlord's lead-paint bill."

Such impressive duplicity is usually attempted only by seasoned back-roomers. But Nelson, facing a November 2 election, apparently feels up to the tactic. He is running again because his February election put him in the council only temporarily, to fill the seat that was vacated when Anthony Weiner took Chuck Schumer's old congressional post. If Nelson wins in November, he will be elected to represent Midwood, Manhattan Beach, and Sheepshead Bay, and parts of Flatbush, for two years.

"For Mike Nelson to say he forced the council to do anything good on lead paint is totally bogus," says Michael McKee, associate director of the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition, which got candidate Nelson to commit to a strong stand on lead-paint laws in his winter campaign. "He had taken a very forthright position, and after he was elected I sent him a letter of congratulations and reminded him of his promise. He's being totally disingenuous."

Nelson did not return calls for this story. His campaign literature claims that among the improvements he won is a "firm and legally enforceable" timetable in which landlords must remove lead paint and "forcing landlords to use approved safe work practices." But the fact is that Nelson voted against 14 amendments that could have turned the landlord-drafted bill into a truly protective law for children who live in lead-painted apartments. Instead, the bill that Nelson did support allows landlords great leeway in how and when they remediate lead-paint violations, and perhaps worst of all, severely limits the rights of lead-paint poisoned children and their families in court.

Council sources say Nelson was heavily leaned upon particularly by Vallone's chief of staff, Bruce Bender. "Word was that Nelson wanted to vote against the bill so he could represent his constituents, but because his ties to leadership are so strong, he was forced to vote with them and smart enough to realize he had to vote with them." Bender, who did not return calls, and Nelson both hail from Brooklyn's famous Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club, which still flexes muscle as other political clubs are retrenching.

It's that political pedigree that could make Nelson a victor in next week's race. His opponent is Sonya Ostrom, a longtime teacher in New York City's public schools and president of the Metro Peace Action Council. Ostrom is the candidate of two parties that only last year won status on New York ballots: the Green Party and the Working Families Party. She supports living-wage and union jobs and increased arts funding, and opposes the sale of public hospitals.

Ostrom says she has so far raised about $10,000 and won endorsements from the United Auto Workers, a musicians' local, NOW, and several tenant groups. Since he began campaigning for his February election, Nelson has raised nearly $40,000, plus another $75,350 in public matching funds. While he has no contributions from heavyweight landlord lobbies like the Rent Stabilization Association (RSA), his donors include property managers and landlords. Nelson's campaign committee was chastised by the Campaign Finance Board in February for its sloppy reports, and he could face trouble for a $50,000 loan he made to his own campaign in November 1998 but did not pay back, as required, by the time of the election. An unpaid loan is considered a contribution, and a $50,000 contribution would greatly exceed the $3750 limit for a special election.

Tenants citywide see the Brooklyn race as a bellwether for the council's upcoming vote on extending rent laws, which must be renewed by March 31, 2000. While there's little doubt that the laws will be renewed, the vote presents an opportunity to harm tenants, which is exactly what Vallone did with the lead-paint bill. If voters reject Nelson because of his lead-paint ballot, that could send a sign to the council that tampering with rent laws would be unwise.

Tenants' greatest fear is that Vallone will continue his earlier scheme of rent deregulation. In 1994, Vallone's council passed a bill allowing rent-regulated apartments to be decontrolled for tenants whose income exceeds $250,000 for two consecutive years if their rent is $2000 or higher; he also allowed for the decontrol of vacant regulated apartments if the rent reaches $2000. In 1997, the state legislature lowered the income threshold to $175,000. RSA president Joseph Strasburg, who served for years as Vallone's chief of staff, has said his goal in the council is to further the "successes that occurred in Albany" in 1997.

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