Margarita Says She Knows Best

A Populist Pol Plays With the People’s Choice

She joined with Armando Perez, a cofounder of CHARAS, whose decades of community-oriented work and April 1999 murder have left him a Loisaida legend, to "take over the local structure of the Democratic Party." Together, they became district leaders. She credits Perez with convincing her to run for the council. "Armando said, 'Don't you understand? If we elect you to office, we don't have to fight you. We have only to join you in the struggle for justice in our community.' I was like, 'What the hell are you talking about?' But these were profound words."

In a testament to the eclectic civic activism that has long characterized the district, López won 231 more votes than her machine-backed opponent through the grassroots efforts of "HIV activists, needle exchange activists, social workers," and public housing residents who slipped flyers under doors to save the campaign postage. She was the underdog all the way; friend Goldin confesses, "I never thought she would win." But with an opposition that took victory for granted, and a candidate whose dogged enthusiasm charmed even the upper-crusty Gramercy Park residents whom redistricting had handed her, the campaign had a winning formula. Most important, the people who felt abandoned by her predecessor, Giuliani-Democrat Antonio Pagán, trusted her to do better by them.

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

The most common criticism of López is that she operates too much from the heart. Supporters argue that her emotional fervor is an asset, proof that the empathy from her activist days is intact.

Winning the election certainly changed López's life. At the age of 50, she has never made so much money—like other councilmembers she earns $90,000 a year for part-time work. Awkwardly, in a neighborhood where people sweat blood to defend subsidized housing and slivers of communal garden space, she and her partner own a country home on the Delaware River. And with one hit of political success, this woman of humble origins is flirting with a common addiction: She refuses to rule out a future run for higher office.

But has her term in the council changed life for her district?

The list of achievements is impressive, especially considering the low expectations left behind by Pagán and the council's notoriously arcane procedures. Her name accompanies tens of thousands of dollars in program funding for youth, senior, advocacy, and cultural centers; hundreds of thousands in capital appropriations for schools, parks, libraries, and community organizations; and cosponsorship of legislation on numerous issues including disabled access, gay and lesbian rights, public safety, and welfare rights. Less tangible initiatives have included taking critical stands on social justice issues from police brutality to Vieques.

López readily admits that as an elected official, she has had to compromise. It's what makes her nostalgic for her activist days, she says. But to constituents who couldn't care less about City Hall niceties, her failures are disappointing. Several public housing residents—her base—fault her for failing to oppose deals that have set aside only 20 percent of new developments for low-income occupancy, and only for 10 years. Wing Lam, head of Chinese Staff and Workers' Association in Chinatown, accuses López of betraying Asian supporters by neglecting their housing and labor problems once she attained office. (Lam and López appear to be backing different candidates in the heated council race for District 1.)

And the event that some constituents call her worst "sellout" moment involves the complicated, controversial demise of Esperanza garden, a community spot that once stood on 7th Street and Avenue C. A private developer had his eye on either of two gardens, Esperanza or the neighboring plot owned and, rumor has it, enjoyed exclusively by López pal Carmen Pagone. In the end, despite numerous protests and the wishes of the community board, Pagone prevailed. Critics accuse López of interfering with the project on the council level and cutting a deal for her friend.

In fact, the most common criticism of López is that she operates too much from the heart. Supporters argue that her emotional fervor is an asset, proof that the empathy from her activist days is intact. But some, such as Esperanza garden defender Aresh Jazadi, say López's characteristic passion can turn ugly. She is "vindictive towards anyone who crossed her, no matter how important their cause," he claims. "It's not like you have a difference of opinion, it's like you're her enemy." He says he and his allies, who staged several protests in front of López's district office on behalf of Esperanza, are now shunned by their council rep.

"She could have been more effective on the council if she'd just thought before she opened her mouth. She had a lot of leadership potential," says a citywide official's former legislative aide, who has worked closely with López. A former Community Board 3 member says some of the capital projects López takes credit for might have happened years sooner had she not "called the mayor a Nazi" and repeatedly made a scene in the council. "Sometimes she comes out with this crazy shit," says the legislative aide, and it's a challenge for her colleagues "to keep her focused and rein her in."

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