City Council member Margarita López seems like the last person who would try to overturn a voter referendum by legislative fiat. “It took me by surprise,” says decades-long ally Manhattan Community Board 3 chair Lisa Kaplan of López’s participation in the controversial council effort to repeal a voter-designated term limits law. A proud progressive who unlike many of her peers owes her position largely to her most marginalized constituents, López of District 2 seems like an obvious defender of the people’s choice. Yet in her characteristically vehement style, she has embraced the opposite position—one roundly condemned as undemocratic and self-serving by newspaper editorial boards and public interest advocates alike.
The poster child of term limits proponents—the point, says one, is to open seats to new, activist leaders, “more Margaritas”—is sounding a lot like the establishment politician she was never supposed to be. “Here I am,” she declared at the February 7 City Hall press conference to defend the anti-term-limits bill, “because the system worked.” She contends that her 1997 victory—as a lesbian Puerto Rican native, housing activist, and social worker over the powerful state assembly speaker’s chief of staff in the speaker’s own district—proves a true populist candidate doesn’t need term limits to beat the machine. Moreover, López laments even with another term to go before she hits her limit, the law “takes away bad people, but it takes away good people, too,” meaning herself.
With that argument, López hits the core of the question. More than the theoretical fine points of how term limits may blunt minorities’ political clout or how low voter turnout rates cast doubt on the legitimacy of referenda, her own record will be what her term limits position is judged by. If she has been the effective, progressive advocate she promised four years ago to be, then the end—keeping her around—could justify the means—subverting the people’s vote. Or she’s merely reacting to term limits “the way politicians react,” as the left-of-liberal former councilmember Sal Albanese puts it. The “11th-hour end run” only “confirms why people wanted term limits” in the first place.
The cliché about Margarita López is that she’s passionate. The word pops up so often around her name that one suspects a brand-recognition marketing blitz. Yet the characteristic fire is no smoke screen, longtime friends and fellow activists contend. Those who have organized alongside López for over 20 years, and others who came to know her only after she took office, describe an ardent advocate for the disadvantaged, someone whose empathy for the working poor, disabled children, and communities of color can move her to tears or tirades.
“People know not to mess with Margarita’s people,” declares neighborhood resident Marie Christopher, who has worked with the councilwoman on preserving Section 8 subsidized housing. “She don’t want anyone taking advantage of her constituents” and she is “very hands-on,” Christopher says. She laughs that if a tenant were to call López’s office complaining of an abusive landlord, “She may come in person to the landlord.”
“We both come from working-class families,” says Chino Garcia, executive director of the East Village community institution CHARAS/El Bohio, who has worked with López on housing and other social justice issues for two decades. “That stays in our blood.” In an interview with the Voice, López confides that her experience as an incest survivor also fuels her, demanding, “From where do you think my passion comes?”
Active in labor and anti-imperialist movements during her days as student council president at the University of Puerto Rico, López says that fear of political persecution brought her in 1978 to the Lower East Side. Arriving at a time when the area’s buildings and residents had been largely abandoned by the city, she plunged into the homesteading movement (where locals took over and renovated dilapidated buildings), homeless advocacy, and public speaking.
“She was remarkable,” says Frances Goldin, a Lower East Side resident and activist for 50 years, who remembers welcoming the new arrival into the fight against gentrification. “She had the crowd spellbound” at her first public speech, recalls friend and co-organizer Kaplan. “Her dynamism saved her from the fact that she couldn’t conjugate a verb in English to save her life.” Twenty years later, dramatic crescendos and percussive, rolling rs still make up for a less-than-perfect grasp of English grammar.
Getting her degree in social work, López became a professional and, by most accounts, effective advocate. For roughly a decade, she served the homeless as an outreach worker at the Goddard-Riverside Community Center, garnering a glowing reputation for her ability to connect with clients when no one else could. She continued to organize against private real estate development and for improved public housing conditions, and still, according to constituents, shares organizing tips with tenant groups that contact her office.
Her friends swear her activist instincts haven’t changed, but López admits that electoral politics is a different game. Her crossover—from “little-p” to “big-P” politics—occurred in the wake of an infamous 1993 Community Board 3 meeting where she, a boardmember at the time, and several others were arrested during a heated disagreement over housing. Shaken, she came to “the realization that I needed real, true power” to lift initiatives above the contentious fray of Lower East Side politics.
She joined with Armando Perez, a cofounder of CHARAS, whose decades of community-oriented work and April 1999 murder have left him a Loisaida legend, to “take over the local structure of the Democratic Party.” Together, they became district leaders. She credits Perez with convincing her to run for the council. “Armando said, ‘Don’t you understand? If we elect you to office, we don’t have to fight you. We have only to join you in the struggle for justice in our community.’ I was like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ But these were profound words.”
In a testament to the eclectic civic activism that has long characterized the district, López won 231 more votes than her machine-backed opponent through the grassroots efforts of “HIV activists, needle exchange activists, social workers,” and public housing residents who slipped flyers under doors to save the campaign postage. She was the underdog all the way; friend Goldin confesses, “I never thought she would win.” But with an opposition that took victory for granted, and a candidate whose dogged enthusiasm charmed even the upper-crusty Gramercy Park residents whom redistricting had handed her, the campaign had a winning formula. Most important, the people who felt abandoned by her predecessor, Giuliani-Democrat Antonio Pagán, trusted her to do better by them.
Winning the election certainly changed López’s life. At the age of 50, she has never made so much money—like other councilmembers she earns $90,000 a year for part-time work. Awkwardly, in a neighborhood where people sweat blood to defend subsidized housing and slivers of communal garden space, she and her partner own a country home on the Delaware River. And with one hit of political success, this woman of humble origins is flirting with a common addiction: She refuses to rule out a future run for higher office.
But has her term in the council changed life for her district?
The list of achievements is impressive, especially considering the low expectations left behind by Pagán and the council’s notoriously arcane procedures. Her name accompanies tens of thousands of dollars in program funding for youth, senior, advocacy, and cultural centers; hundreds of thousands in capital appropriations for schools, parks, libraries, and community organizations; and cosponsorship of legislation on numerous issues including disabled access, gay and lesbian rights, public safety, and welfare rights. Less tangible initiatives have included taking critical stands on social justice issues from police brutality to Vieques.
López readily admits that as an elected official, she has had to compromise. It’s what makes her nostalgic for her activist days, she says. But to constituents who couldn’t care less about City Hall niceties, her failures are disappointing. Several public housing residents—her base—fault her for failing to oppose deals that have set aside only 20 percent of new developments for low-income occupancy, and only for 10 years. Wing Lam, head of Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association in Chinatown, accuses López of betraying Asian supporters by neglecting their housing and labor problems once she attained office. (Lam and López appear to be backing different candidates in the heated council race for District 1.)
And the event that some constituents call her worst “sellout” moment involves the complicated, controversial demise of Esperanza garden, a community spot that once stood on 7th Street and Avenue C. A private developer had his eye on either of two gardens, Esperanza or the neighboring plot owned and, rumor has it, enjoyed exclusively by López pal Carmen Pagone. In the end, despite numerous protests and the wishes of the community board, Pagone prevailed. Critics accuse López of interfering with the project on the council level and cutting a deal for her friend.
In fact, the most common criticism of López is that she operates too much from the heart. Supporters argue that her emotional fervor is an asset, proof that the empathy from her activist days is intact. But some, such as Esperanza garden defender Aresh Jazadi, say López’s characteristic passion can turn ugly. She is “vindictive towards anyone who crossed her, no matter how important their cause,” he claims. “It’s not like you have a difference of opinion, it’s like you’re her enemy.” He says he and his allies, who staged several protests in front of López’s district office on behalf of Esperanza, are now shunned by their council rep.
“She could have been more effective on the council if she’d just thought before she opened her mouth. She had a lot of leadership potential,” says a citywide official’s former legislative aide, who has worked closely with López. A former Community Board 3 member says some of the capital projects López takes credit for might have happened years sooner had she not “called the mayor a Nazi” and repeatedly made a scene in the council. “Sometimes she comes out with this crazy shit,” says the legislative aide, and it’s a challenge for her colleagues “to keep her focused and rein her in.”
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.”
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