To Philip Reed, the incumbent City Council member defending his seat in Manhattan’s Eighth District, challenger Felipe Luciano is a slick political interloper who is making ethnicity the issue. The district is 54 percent Hispanic and 26 percent black, and includes East Harlem, part of Manhattan Valley, and Mott Haven in the Bronx.
“It’s my opponent’s whole reason for running,” said Reed, who is African American. Luciano describes himself as a black Puerto Rican—”Both parents are Puerto Rican and both are black.” But he denies his campaign is based on ethnicity.
For Luciano, a former journalist and a cofounder and onetime chairman of the Young Lords Party (a ’60s militant Puerto Rican group), Reed lacks a fundamental connection with the population he represents. He called the councilmember “unapproachable and not empathetic” and said he has failed his constituents on a number of issues. “He’s not in the projects, not in the rehabs, and not understanding that there are 140,000 people all over the city waiting for housing,” he told the Voice.
The mud flying between the two has thickened following the withdrawal from the race of challengers Edwin Marcial, Miriam Falcon-Lopez, and Meeling Eng, all Democrats who have thrown their support behind Luciano. In an area rich in Puerto Rican culture and history, Felipe Luciano’s connection to it may end up impacting the race.
On paper, Reed should have few worries. He has been widely endorsed by city pols, including Fernando Ferrer and H. Carl McCall. He has raised $76,000 in campaign funds and received a check for $75,000 in public matching funds from the Campaign Finance Board. Furthermore, he takes credit for achievements rich with political capital, most notably his work reducing asthma rates in neighborhoods that lead the nation in emergency-room visits for the condition.
“He’s been at the forefront in maintaining funding for asthma programs,” said Thomas Vance, community coordinator from East Harlem’s Asthma Smart. Vance also praised Reed’s opposition to an MTA bus terminal proposed for the area. Despite support from community activists like Vance, Reed’s annoyance is evident when he talks about his charismatic challenger.
“This guy is getting a free pass,” Reed said on the phone. “He’s got a little wave, and he’s cute, but what does he have to say?” The councilmember is quick to assert that Luciano never registered to vote in New York until last year, hasn’t lived in the neighborhood, and “his Spanish is terrible; that’s the comedy.” Reed said Luciano is still ineligible for public matching funds, because he’s not raising money in the neighborhood. He also noted that when Luciano moved back into the area, he did so in style:”onto the 29th floor of the Monterey [building] with a doorman and a pool,” Reed said. “So much for a man of the people.”
Luciano conceded some of the charges in a interview. His campaign finances were badly managed, he said, by a treasurer he let go. He also claimed that he was unaware that he could vote, since he is a convicted felon—the result of a gang-related attempted manslaughter in his youth. But he maintained he has lived in the district for 25 years and that his new apartment was the only one he could find.
Whether or not a treasurer is to blame for Luciano’s financial woes, campaign finance statements reveal that of the $23,000 raised, there was not enough collected within the district to get matching funds. They also show a donation of $2500 from Father Louis Gigante, onetime East Harlemite, now the well-known Bronx community leader and brother to reputed Genovese mob boss Vinny “the Chin” Gigante. And he received $5500 from executives of Gigante’s SEBCO Development corporation. Luciano claims he and Gigante “go back 30 years” and the contributions were made out of “love.”
Thirty years ago, Felipe Luciano was becoming known as a Young Lord leader, and as one of the Last Poets, a now legendary spoken-word group. His fame grew as a radio and TV journalist.
“This is not a campaign around celebrity, but substance,” Luciano said on the steps of City Hall. It was 100 degrees, and Luciano was dressed in a black three-piece suit. He refused to sweat. About three reporters watched as Luciano, flanked by Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV and 20 supporters, officially opened his campaign. If he served, he promised “East Harlem will become the Mecca of the United States.”