Residents of the two housing projects that fly in the face of Chelsea chic must have been surprised to see so many Big Cup types parading through their grounds last week. Few tenants in the projects are aware of the special election being held on February 16 to fill the City Council seat vacated by Tom Duane with his election to the state senate.
Indeed, few people in the district— which runs through Soho, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, and Clinton— can identify the candidates. But it’s widely known that three of them are openly gay, while a fourth refuses to discuss his sexuality. That has inspired the media to call this a contest for “the gay seat”— which is where the projects come in.
Each of the candidates has a power base in the district’s plethora of political clubs, and each has a record as a gay or AIDS activist. But running for office on the Lower West Side also requires a nod to the area’s radical tradition, and only one contender, Aubrey Lees, has unblemished progressive credentials. The others— front-runners Christine Quinn and Christopher Lynn and dark horse Carlos Manzano— have mixed records on issues dear to the left, which is why all three are working the walks of the Elliot-Chelsea and Robert Fulton houses, though the district is overwhelmingly white.
Lynn touts an endorsement from the president of the Elliot-Chelsea Tenants Association, while Manzano, not to be outdone, held a press conference last week at a shuttered recreation center on West 25th Street. “It has been there for 25 years, it has the second largest pool in the city, and yet it never opened,” he told the Voice. But when asked whether development in the area has anything to do with the curtailment of services to the poor, Manzano balked. “It has more to do with a lack of leadership,” he insisted. Lynn, too, has a soft spot for realtors. His contributors include a group connected to the
landlord-run Rent Stabilization Association (though Lynn says that, when he realized where the money came from, he promptly returned it).
Development is the most pressing issue in the district, now that the greenbelt abutting the West Side Highway is a real possibility. But the subject brought a nebulous response from all the candidates in interviews with the Voice last week. Lees sounded the Jane Jacobs mantra of low-rise housing, with no real plan for how to achieve it in the age of rampant realty. Lynn presented the kind of ambitious program for subsidized middle-income dwellings that hasn’t been politically viable since the days of Robert F. Wagner. Manzano vowed to expand the Mitchell-Lama program at a time when it is clinging to court challenges for dear life. And Quinn floated the idea of landmarking the waterfront area, a prospect that seems about as likely as a moment of quiet prayer in the Halloween Parade.
The lack of real differences among the candidates gives their rhetoric an oddly grandiose quality— as when Manzano vows to protect the district against the scourge of Y2K. But no issue sparks more heat than the Village Halloween Parade. Manzano is proud to say he’s the only candidate who marched (albeit in a suit), while Quinn and Lees are locked in combat over whether the parade is an inducement to violence. “I don’t think any of us likes it,” says Lees, “but when the parade started being described as a sea of homophobia, I really got angry.” Quinn, who at one point joined Duane in demanding that the parade be shut down, points to a sharp increase in antigay attacks around the march route (though this year, there were no such incidents).
Fighting gay bashing is clearly Quinn’s strong suit. As executive director of the Anti-Violence Project, she has run an agency that is vocal in opposing police harassment and effective at monitoring antigay assaults. This record is no doubt why Quinn was invited to sit on the police brutality task force that met last year. But she promptly made alliances with a faction sympathetic to the mayor, and when Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union spearheaded a minority report that demanded an independent investigator for brutality complaints, he chose not to share it with Quinn. “They were afraid that if they showed it to her, she would take it right to Giuliani,” a source close to the task force notes. (Siegel was ill and unavailable for comment.)
The fact that Giuliani handily beat liberal icon Ruth Messinger on the Lower West Side has not been lost on the candidates. To a person, they have signed on to the mayor’s quality-of-life campaign, though only Manzano approves of the crusade against sex shops. Even Quinn’s libertarian instincts end at the disco door: she believes party promoters should be licensed by the city. Lynn rails about “your right to have a good night’s sleep,” and Lees envisions a crusade against “rowdy bars.”
In their Voice interviews, Lees and Quinn were more critical of Giuliani than their opponents dared to be, but at an NY1 debate, both were decidedly cautious, with Lees sniping at Duane’s “horrible relationship with the mayor, which hurt us in getting services.” That gave Lynn an opening to promote his own “personal relationship with the mayor,” a bonding experience that includes running two city agencies.
While he is eager to discuss his tenure at the Taxi and Limousine Commission— citing his threat of fining cabbies who fail to pick up blacks and his flat fare to the airports as evidence of populist leanings— Lynn doesn’t mention the suit against him from one cabbie who had his license pulled after he got into a dispute with Lynn’s lover. Nor does he talk about his career as an attorney, which included associations with drug dealers that earned Lynn the sobriquet “crack lawyer” from the late columnist Mike MacAlary.
Yet his sometimes wacky independence is also something rare in city politics. Lynn’s awarding of a lucrative street-furniture contract, in a way that impeded the flow of patronage, may have led to his removal from the
Department of Transportation. (“No comment,” he says when asked about that theory.) And Lynn’s endorsers range from Ed Koch to Brooklyn councilmember Una Clarke. Still, his conservative streak is reflected in the fact that his only supporter in the Manhattan council delegation is a Republican, Andrew Eristoff. And Lynn’s closest ally in gay politics is the bane of Downtown activists, Antonio Pagan.
“This is not Pagan west,” Lynn proclaims. “I’m a liberal Democrat and I always have been.” In a typical gesture of bipartisanship Lynn-style, he has been distributing one flyer touting his ability to “work with both parties” and another promoting his ties to Robert Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Bella Abzug. Abzug’s daughter, Liz, is up in arms about this leaflet, but then, she is a Lees supporter, and in this race the personal is
exquisitely political. The fact that Manzano won’t discuss his sexuality has led to some unsavory
rumors, as well as raising questions about whether it’s important for the district to be represented by an out-and-proud lesbian or gay man. Manzano says his sexuality is no more relevent than his ethnicity, but he has no qualms about mentioning his Colombian roots.
In the end, the winner of this special election (in which only about 10 percent of the district is expected to vote) will probably be the candidate with the most aggressive institutional support. That has to be Quinn, whose backers include the
labor union UNITE,
as well as two of the city’s most prominent gay elected officials, Deborah Glick and Margarita Lopez.
Then there’s Duane himself, who has groomed Quinn since she was his chief of staff. Though it isn’t mentioned in anyone’s flyers, Duane’s impact on the district is the hottest issue in this race, with some progs insisting he is building a gay machine whose ultimate beneficiary will be likely mayoral candidate Alan Hevesi. But power is fleeting in the 3rd District, where whoever is elected will have to run again for a full term— no doubt against some of the same opponents— in just seven months.
The pettiness of gay politics is another sign that it is not so different from any politics. Which leaves Big Cuppies asking the same question all minorities in this city do: with so much “power,” how come so little gets done?