A Paucity of Choices

Few Challengers, and Fewer Issues, in Council Races

Maybe we got spoiled in 2001. That's when term limits forced 37 of the 51 city councilmembers out of their cozy leather seats on the east side of City Hall, provoking freewheeling primaries in virtually every neighborhood in the city. This time, however, only 22 incumbents face primary challenges on September 9, and all but eight of them are nominal races against underfunded and unknown challengers, fewer than before term limits.

The only incumbents to face challengers with war chests at least half the size of their own are Robert Jackson, Miguel Martinez, and Bill Perkins of Manhattan, Larry Seabrook and José M. Serrano of the Bronx, Allan W. Jennings Jr.of Queens, and Erik Martin Dilan and Diana Reyna of Brooklyn. Incumbents have so dominated the fundraising that they've received $1.14 million of the $2.24 million in public matching funds already awarded.

East Side councilmember Eva Moskowitz, for example, has collected $20,625 in matching funds, even though her primary opponent, a part-time tango instructor, has not even filed with the Campaign Finance Board. Others without September challenges have raised fortunes anyway, like Eric Gioia ($307,008) and Melinda Katz ($220,311) of Queens and Chelsea's Christine Quinn ($105,484).

Why so little competition? What term limits giveth, they also taketh away. Neighborhood leaders who might otherwise consider running may well be waiting until the next election in 2005, or even 2009, when fewer incumbents will be eligible to run (49 of the current 50, minus the assassinated James Davis, are seeking re-election now). Lower Manhattan's Alan Gerson believes potential candidates have been discouraged because the election this year is only for a two-year term, due to the just-completed redistricting. Gerson expects far more races in 2005, when four-year terms will be at stake. Bill DiBlasio, the Park Slope councilman who beat four opponents in 2001, says the primaries were so competitive then that only "the fittest survived," leading to a "younger, more energetic council" that has deflated the opposition.

In any event, even the few competitive races that are happening come across as over-the-top reality-TV shows, with burning "issues" like name- calling, princely succession, fashion missteps, and proxy wars. Whatever happened to substance like affordable housing, tax hikes, and integrity challenges? Two races revolve around name changes. The "Butcher of Brighton Beach" got thrown off the ballot—in a case appealed all the way up to the state's highest court—partly because of his name, and partly because he claimed to live, as one councilman put it, between the veal and the chicken in his butcher shop. Anatoly Eyzenberg,a Russian immigrant, has long been known in Brighton and Coney Island as "Tony," famous for cutting up whole sides of beef at 3 a.m. every day. He decided to Americanize his moniker to "Eisenberg" and collected the 900 valid signatures to run against incumbent Domenic Recchia.

The Board of Elections, however, ruled that the name change was made to mislead voters. The scrappy Eisenberg sued, bringing a linguist before Brooklyn judge Gloria M. Dabiri to testify that Anatoly Eyzenberg and Tony Eisenberg are Russian and English equivalents of the same name. The judge was unmoved, but added a second reason why Eisenberg was disqualified. She found that his claim to live above his butcher shop was bogus. Since City Council candidates are not required to live in their districts, Dabiri had to stretch the law a bit, finding that Eisenberg misled voters by listing a false residence on his petitions. Two appeals courts nixed Dabiri's decision on the name change, but upheld it on residence, making Eisenberg the first known candidate eliminated for claiming a residence he didn't have to have.

"The lights have gone out in the Russian community," said Gary Tilzer, Eisenberg's campaign manager and metaphor mangler. "Last time they did it, they changed the polling place for the election and cut the district by 5,000 [Russians]. Other ethnic groups are protected by the Voting Rights Bill, but the Russian community isn't."

In Manhattan's First District, the name game goes Asian. Challenger Pete Gleason is raising a ruckus that incumbent Gerson may be misleading Chinatown's voters by using a Chinese version of his name that would have him "appear" to be of Chinese ancestry—on paper at least. Gleason maintains that the Board of Elections is allowing Gerson to run as Kohr Arlun, with Kohr being the Chinese phonetic equivalent of Ger and Arlun approximating Alan. Having the family name appear first is a time-honored Chinese tradition, and Arlun means "friend of the Asian community." Gerson's name change "is fraud," charges Gleason. The other candidates on the ballot have their Chinese phonetical equivalents in a sharply different Western format.

"Everyone in the community knows that Kohr Arlun is a white guy, a city councilmember," insists Gerson. "This name was adopted 10 years or more before I ran for the council. The name issue didn't come up the last time, when I had three Chinese opponents."

What's family got to do with it? In the South Bronx, it's the confusing one-two generational punch of the Espada family—the father, Pedro Espada Jr. and his son, Pedro G. Espada. Espada Jr. is the incumbent, just elected to fill a vacancy in February. But he decided to back his son, Pedro G., who lost a council seat in 2001. The senior Espada was a long-term Democrat who, as a member of the state senate, walked across the aisle and joined the GOP majority in a much ballyhooed conversion last year. Then he lost his senate seat, only to win the councilmanic seat of the man who beat him in the senate race—a salsa version of musical chairs. After filing petitions, the senior Espada inexplicably dropped out and substituted his son, too late for Pedro G. to qualify for CFB matching funds. Pedro G.'s challenger, Annabel Palma, was an organizer for Local 1199 and enjoys the strong support of the hospital workers' formidable leader and mass mobilizer, Dennis Rivera. She has raised $83,637—the most of any non-incumbent. Palma began as a certified nursing assistant at St. Vincent de Paul Senior Residence in the Bronx in 1993 at the age of 21 and quickly began encouraging her co-workers to join 1199. Now 31, Palma is backed by the Bronx Democratic Party and former borough president Fernando Ferrer, longtime Espada antagonists. Only in the Bronx can a "machine" candidate take on the role of a reformer battling a nascent dynasty.

What's with the headdress? Bushwick incumbent Diana Reyna might be regretting her choice of outfits after she marched in a carnival parade during a fact-finding mission to Trinidad and Tobago. The attire included an elaborate headdress and a sexy top. Little did she know that her image would wind up on a flyer distributed at the Bushwick Houses, a 1,200-unit public housing complex, with a marksman's bull's-eye superimposed on her face, along with the caption, "Target Reyna." The flyer, certainly inappropriate after the Davis murder, went on to recklessly accuse Reyna of sending city money to Trinidad.

Reyna, a Dominican in a Puerto Rican district, is supported by Assemblyman Vito Lopez. Her challenger, Juan Martinez, is head of the school board and supported by Congresswoman Nydia M. Velásquez. Some consider the Reyna-Martinez slap-down to be, in reality, a proxy war between Lopez and Velásquez.


Research assistance: Phineas Lambert, Sarah Ruffler, and Brittany Schaeffer

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