Margarita Says She Knows Best

A Populist Pol Plays With the People’s Choice

City Council member Margarita López seems like the last person who would try to overturn a voter referendum by legislative fiat. "It took me by surprise," says decades-long ally Manhattan Community Board 3 chair Lisa Kaplan of López's participation in the controversial council effort to repeal a voter-designated term limits law. A proud progressive who unlike many of her peers owes her position largely to her most marginalized constituents, López of District 2 seems like an obvious defender of the people's choice. Yet in her characteristically vehement style, she has embraced the opposite position—one roundly condemned as undemocratic and self-serving by newspaper editorial boards and public interest advocates alike.

The poster child of term limits proponents—the point, says one, is to open seats to new, activist leaders, "more Margaritas"—is sounding a lot like the establishment politician she was never supposed to be. "Here I am," she declared at the February 7 City Hall press conference to defend the anti-term-limits bill, "because the system worked." She contends that her 1997 victory—as a lesbian Puerto Rican native, housing activist, and social worker over the powerful state assembly speaker's chief of staff in the speaker's own district—proves a true populist candidate doesn't need term limits to beat the machine. Moreover, López laments even with another term to go before she hits her limit, the law "takes away bad people, but it takes away good people, too," meaning herself.

With that argument, López hits the core of the question. More than the theoretical fine points of how term limits may blunt minorities' political clout or how low voter turnout rates cast doubt on the legitimacy of referenda, her own record will be what her term limits position is judged by. If she has been the effective, progressive advocate she promised four years ago to be, then the end—keeping her around—could justify the means—subverting the people's vote. Or she's merely reacting to term limits "the way politicians react," as the left-of-liberal former councilmember Sal Albanese puts it. The "11th-hour end run" only "confirms why people wanted term limits" in the first place.

City Council term limits repeal backer López argues her case.
photo: Jennifer S. Altman
City Council term limits repeal backer López argues her case.

"People know not to mess with Margarita's people. She don't want anyone taking advantage of her constituents."

The cliché about Margarita López is that she's passionate. The word pops up so often around her name that one suspects a brand-recognition marketing blitz. Yet the characteristic fire is no smoke screen, longtime friends and fellow activists contend. Those who have organized alongside López for over 20 years, and others who came to know her only after she took office, describe an ardent advocate for the disadvantaged, someone whose empathy for the working poor, disabled children, and communities of color can move her to tears or tirades.

"People know not to mess with Margarita's people," declares neighborhood resident Marie Christopher, who has worked with the councilwoman on preserving Section 8 subsidized housing. "She don't want anyone taking advantage of her constituents" and she is "very hands-on," Christopher says. She laughs that if a tenant were to call López's office complaining of an abusive landlord, "She may come in person to the landlord."

"We both come from working-class families," says Chino Garcia, executive director of the East Village community institution CHARAS/El Bohio, who has worked with López on housing and other social justice issues for two decades. "That stays in our blood." In an interview with the Voice, López confides that her experience as an incest survivor also fuels her, demanding, "From where do you think my passion comes?"

Active in labor and anti-imperialist movements during her days as student council president at the University of Puerto Rico, López says that fear of political persecution brought her in 1978 to the Lower East Side. Arriving at a time when the area's buildings and residents had been largely abandoned by the city, she plunged into the homesteading movement (where locals took over and renovated dilapidated buildings), homeless advocacy, and public speaking.

"She was remarkable," says Frances Goldin, a Lower East Side resident and activist for 50 years, who remembers welcoming the new arrival into the fight against gentrification. "She had the crowd spellbound" at her first public speech, recalls friend and co-organizer Kaplan. "Her dynamism saved her from the fact that she couldn't conjugate a verb in English to save her life." Twenty years later, dramatic crescendos and percussive, rolling rs still make up for a less-than-perfect grasp of English grammar.

Getting her degree in social work, López became a professional and, by most accounts, effective advocate. For roughly a decade, she served the homeless as an outreach worker at the Goddard-Riverside Community Center, garnering a glowing reputation for her ability to connect with clients when no one else could. She continued to organize against private real estate development and for improved public housing conditions, and still, according to constituents, shares organizing tips with tenant groups that contact her office.

Her friends swear her activist instincts haven't changed, but López admits that electoral politics is a different game. Her crossover—from "little-p" to "big-P" politics—occurred in the wake of an infamous 1993 Community Board 3 meeting where she, a boardmember at the time, and several others were arrested during a heated disagreement over housing. Shaken, she came to "the realization that I needed real, true power" to lift initiatives above the contentious fray of Lower East Side politics.

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