Hunting the Magic Number

In council races around town, it's a tale of two cities

The window of the We the People document service center on East Tremont and Bruckner Boulevard is hedging its bets: There's a "Jimmy Vacca for Council" sign and a "Steve Kaufman for Council" sign. You can't blame the owners for playing it safe; the five-way Democratic race in District 13 is too close to call. Same goes for Manhattan's East Side, where neighboring windows on First Avenue promote Dan Garodnick, Jak Jacob Karako, and Jack Lester—three of the four Democratic candidates in District 4. And then there's the pharmacy door near the D train's 205th Street station in the Bronx. It's pitching Ari Hoffnung, not District 11 councilmember Oliver Koppell—one of the few incumbents in a tough scrap for re-election.

Across New York's 51 districts, City Council races exist in parallel universes. Eight sitting councilmembers face no primary or major-party challenger at all, and most of their colleagues are contending with mere token rivals. But for the handful of open seats and a couple where incumbents seem vulnerable, there are mad dashes for the small pool of voters who will turn out for a Democratic primary that hasn't generated much excitement so far.

On the air: District 4 candidates Brodsky, Garodnick, Karako, Lester
photo: Kate Englund
On the air: District 4 candidates Brodsky, Garodnick, Karako, Lester

In all these fierce council contests, most candidates have identified the raw number of votes they will need to win—a calculation based on presumed turnout, the size of the field, and the appeal of rivals.

In the East Bronx, it might be a mere 3,000 to 3,500 votes. That's the magic number facing Joseph McManus in his campaign head quarters, a detached building that blends into a neat residential neighborhood along Morris Park Avenue. Seated next to a wall of letters from unions backing him, McManus—a Democratic state committeeman and shop steward in Steamfitters Local 638—says his blue-collar background is his biggest asset.

"Working people want government to respond to them," he says, adding that he wants to form a labor caucus in the council made up of people from union and blue-collar backgrounds. "These are the people who understand you. Who needs a bullshit Italian caucus or Irish caucus or something like that? What's that do for you? Nothing."

McManus sees the race as a three-person affair: himself; Vacca, the district manager for Community Board 10 for 25 years; and Kaufman, a onetime councilman and longtime state assemblyman. But with the vote pool so small, businessman Ismael Betancourt and veteran candidate Egidio Sementilli are also in the mix.

District 13's is a race being waged door-to-door, as well as in the pages of local newspapers. Vacca's rivals claim that he has benefited from generous coverage in the Bronx Times Reporter, whose co-publisher John Collazzi has donated to his campaign. The Times Reporter has been linked to the Bronx Democratic machine. Kaufman's opponents say he has been boosted by the Bronx Press, which front-paged his endorsement by Ed Koch. Last week, the Press was mailed to an unusually large number of households, with a story critical of Vacca on the front page and ads for Kaufman and Bloomberg inside; publisher Andy Wolf, a Kaufman supporter, says campaign ads sometimes permit larger distribution this time of year. "It is not necessarily tied in to the fortunes of any one candidate," he tells the Voice. Sementilli publishes his own paper, the Bronx Advocate. But while the papers duke it out, the Bronx County Democratic machine is expected to sit on the sidelines—although it's widely believed that the bosses don't want Kaufman to succeed.

Kaufman chalks that up to what he calls his "independence." Sitting in his campaign office on East Tremont, next to a Carvel shop, Kaufman recalls voting in Albany against the repeal of the commuter tax, joining a revolt against Shelly Silver, and endorsing Michael Bloomberg to win goodies—like a zoning change—for his district.

"I'm the only one who has the balls to stand up for the people. I know it sounds corny. I know people go back and laugh at it," Kaufman says. "But I stood it. I stood it many times. Nobody else can say that." No one else can say they've tried to run on four lines, either, as Kaufman did in last year's state senate race. (He lost the Republican and Democratic primaries.)

Maybe that won't matter this primary day. McManus ticks off a list of bread-and-butter items as the top community concerns: parking tickets, libraries, parks, buses. Kaufman adds to that "a problem with bums." ("Oh, I can't use the word bums," he smiles.) And everyone agrees that development is the biggest worry of all.

"Every piece of land has been taken up with three-family homes, row houses with no parking," Vacca complains. He's taken money from construction and realty interests but says that hasn't stopped him from fighting overdevelopment. "We led an effort to downzone City Island, Waterbury, LaSalle, and Throgs Neck. My problem is the Buildings Department is not aware of how to interpret or to enforce the new regulations," he says, adding that he spends his days at the Community Board office complaining about newly approved applications for projects that are too big. As he drives the district, Vacca points to properties, recounting old complaints and recent battles. "I know this district like the back of my hand," he says.

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