News & Politics

Gotta Be in It to Win It


Summer is when many City Council members beat a retreat for Europe or an upstate lake. But for those hoping to wrangle a seat from the frenzy that will be next year’s council election, now is when the work begins.

Ordinarily, August 2000 would seem about 10 months too early to start campaigning for a September 2001 primary and November election, especially with a president and U.S. Senator still to elect this year. Yet, with term limits barring 36 current councilmembers from seeking reelection, and with the city poised to match campaign contributions by four-to-one and place democratic caps on campaign spending, there is an unprecedented sense of opportunity and urgency among these local candidates.

“It [can pay] over $100,000 a year, you don’t need a high school diploma, and it’s a part-time job!” exclaims Alice Cardona, the 70-year-old doyenne of Puerto Rican politics in Queens, who says she has been approached for advice by several hopefuls.

Cushy trappings may be part of the allure. But across the city, dozens of political newcomers are also reasoning that the unusual circumstances around next year’s elections offer a chance to advance the interests of traditionally underrepresented groups, such as immigrants and minorities. Urban studies experts have predicted that the confluence of term limits and matching funds with a swell in immigrant numbers and voting rates will bring more color into the council, which currently comprises 28 whites, 14 blacks, nine Latinos, and no Asians.

“It [can pay] over $100,000 a year, you don’t need a high school diploma, and it’s a part-time job!”

In ethnically mixed areas such as Flushing and Lower Manhattan, the pool of declared candidates is racially and politically diverse. More than a handful of Asians, Latinos, and labor activists have thrown in their hats. In the Flushing race, Taiwanese immigrant John Liu, who ran unsuccessfully against longtime incumbent Julia Harrison in 1997, is now considered by some to be the favorite. Last week, Bangladeshi activist Morshed Alam announced his candidacy for the 24th District in Queens; in 1998 the novice surprised observers by garnering nearly 42 percent of the vote in a challenge to veteran state senator Frank Padavan.

“It’s going to be a lot easier for a young person who hasn’t been in the political fold, who has been a plain activist,” says Bryan Pu-Folks of New Immigrant Community Empowerment in Queens.

“Several years ago, it would have been a pipe dream for somebody like me to run and win,” agrees Brad Hoylman, who is vying for the much coveted seat in Lower Manhattan’s District 1. Since other openly gay candidates have won in the past (there are currently three in the council), Hoylman’s statement sounds like exaggeration. After all, he’s a Harvard Law School graduate, Rhodes scholar, and nonprofit advocate. But it speaks volumes about the perceived accessibility to office in pre-term-limits politics. Echoing the sentiments of other first-timers in a city where the incumbent reelection rate has hovered at 98 percent, Hoylman says he would not consider running if current officeholder Kathryn Freed were seeking reelection.

But open seats will not be easy seats. Along with the sheer number of candidates—easily upwards of half a dozen Democrats in many districts—competition from the aides, colleagues, and even offspring of local pols is sure to pose a daunting challenge to newcomers. Margarita Lopez, who was the victorious underdog in a bitter 1997 primary contest for an open seat against a top aide to State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, predicts, “It’s going to be ugly.”

So to the novices, political observers offer a piece of advice: Get started. “If they’re not serious now, it’s quite likely they’re never going to be serious,” says consultant David Fleischer, who specializes in training left-leaning newcomers in the intricacies of electoral politics.

New candidates across the city appear to be heeding the warning. According to the Campaign Finance Board, nearly five times as many City Council hopefuls filed to run this July as did at a comparable time for the last council elections: 95 compared to 21. CFB spokesperson Frank Barry says that figure is expected to grow by the next filing in January 2001, and some observers say as many as 100 more candidates could still emerge.

“People who think the machine is all, and there’s no chance for anybody—that’s a very ignorant position about the political power the people have,” Lopez says. Fleischer insists that, even for first-timers, “these council races are very winnable.” But he warns, political minorities “do really poorly when they mimic what an incumbent or somebody who’s in a relatively privileged position does.” Immigrants and other newcomers are expected to have little chance of obtaining endorsements from influential officials or unions. Lopez agrees that, “if you want to win an election [as an outsider], you have to work for it from a grassroots point of view.”

Veteran City Council election observers offer the following guidelines for novices:

  • Candidates should “go work for other candidates now, so they can get their feet wet and understand their neighborhoods, instead of talking, ‘I’m gonna run,’ and sit home and scratch themselves,” says Alice Cardona.

  • In an average race, a candidate needs about 5000 votes to win a primary, according to John Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at CUNY Graduate Center. (In heavily Democratic New York City, the primary is normally the real race.) Meeting that number, Fleischer says, requires a core of at least 100 volunteers.

  • While only 900 signatures are required to get a candidate’s name on the primary ballot, at least twice that number is considered comfortable to survive petition challenges from opponents and cultivate voters for primary day.

  • A thicket of intricate—some say arbitrary—rules govern local politics in New York; advisors say to learn them cold. Ballot signatures, for instance, can only be collected by a registered voter who resides in the relevant district, a technicality that opponents have been able to exploit in challenging each other’s petitions.

  • Even those without political favors to give or get can “build your own political machine,” says Fleischer, by working with issue-based organizations, especially those with phone banking capabilities.

  • Established officials often neglect parts of their districts, Cardona says. A new candidate should find these areas and start shaking some hands.

  • The key word is “plan.” Fleischer advises drafting a written map of the campaign. Starting now, candidates should trace a “60-week arc,” detailing “measurable milestones” for every week. Lopez jealously guards her winning blueprint, which she says she has shared only with her campaign manager.

Barring a change in the term limits law—some councilmembers are circulating rumors of a legislative amendment or voter referendum to stagger or end term limits—next year’s races will only get bigger and hotter. So Fleischer stresses, first-timers should get cracking now: “The way that most people lose is, they procrastinate forever to get started.”

But winning has its price for those who are accustomed to working from the grass roots, according to Lopez. She is “a sucker” for activism and prefers it to “electoral politics.” Lopez says she can no longer advocate for her community “in the same fashion as when I was outside of government.” Now, she notes, “I cannot stand on the steps of City Hall and condemn the council. I am part of it.”

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