Margarita Says She Knows Best

A Populist Pol Plays With the People’s Choice

But López's former chief of staff, Patrick Gaspard, raises an important concern, arguing that criticism of López's passion is sexist and smacks of ethnic stereotyping. "I've worked for men [politicians] who've yelled much louder than Margarita," but "who are not judged the same way," he says. "Her emotions are tactical," he insists, meaning that López is as strategic in her public displays as any pol. Further, he points out that certain conditions in her district—substandard housing, underfunded education, poorly maintained parks—should provoke outrage, and that constituents therefore "connect with Margarita's anger."

In fact, Lyn Pentecost, executive director of the Lower East Side Girls Club and former Pagán backer, says that, in a neighborhood "where people hold grudges for a lifetime," López has generously buried the hatchet with her. The Girls Club has gotten "200 percent support" from López in obtaining funds for programs and capital improvement, says Pentecost. "She's willing to meet people in the middle."

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

Running through the councilwoman's stories of legislative success is an almost mystical theme of personal destiny. (Her former chief of staff calls it "the narrative she has composed.") Explaining that in her first days in New York she was curiously drawn to the Eldridge Street Synagogue as a place of solace, she recounts with wonder in her voice how two decades later she was in a position to allocate renovation dollars to this place that "spoke to my soul." Similarly, as a new arrival, she found camaraderie in an incest survivors support group at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center; when as a councilmember she was able to push for capital monies for the center, she says, "Literally, I could not believe that history had placed me there."

It takes away from López's own grit and abilities to say magic helped her overcome the triple threat of marginalization—as a lesbian woman of color—to emerge a political leader. But she may need some hocus-pocus to sell her term limits stance.

No matter how lofty López's philosophical arguments, constituents will judge her move to turn back term limits by her reputation and perceived personal motivations. Despite protestations from many repeal backers that they will not seek another term—a promise López is not about to make—they have been attacked for being self-serving and undeserving. The "general level of disgust" New Yorkers feel toward the 22 councilmembers, according to Gene Russianoff of the New York Public Interest Research Group, could rob López of whatever credit she's accrued with her neighbors.

It's a consequence López says she is willing to face. "I would be very proud to know I stabilized government, even if people said, 'Condemn her for life! Take away her credentials as a progressive person!' So be it. I didn't come to this job to be a coward."

Research assistance: Theodore Ross

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