The primary race in City Council District 2 figured to be one of the most crowded in the city this September 13, with 11 candidates jockeying for votes in the Lower East Side, the East Village, and Gramercy. The diverse race—the disabled, African Americans, Latinos, lesbians, straight women, and white guys are all represented—was a fitting contest to replace Margarita Lopez, the feisty, openly gay, Latino councilwoman whose election eight years ago was a progressive milestone in Manhattan. But that was before Lopez’s aide and heir apparent, Rosie Mendez, and their progressive political club CoDA moved to bounce several candidates off the ballot.
If their bid succeeds, the complexion of the race will change drastically. Instead of being one of four women running, Mendez will be the lone female (and only lesbian) against five men. Rather than three Latinos and one black on the ballot, Mendez will be the only nonwhite candidate.
It’s not unusual for City Council candidates to have their bids for ballot slots challenged. Right now, the Board of Elections is dealing with roughly 70 such challenges in Manhattan alone, with hearings planned for this week. It is unusual, however, for a liberal candidate and her liberal club to be charged with being anti-democratic, or even racist.
“Basically, Rosie Mendez is trying to eliminate all Latino, African American, lesbian, and female candidates from the ballot,” says Brian Kavanagh, who has not been challenged. “In any other context, that would be called prejudiced, but Rosie Mendez and her allies call it politics as usual.” Reverend Joan J. Brightharp, the African American who’s been challenged, melodramatically compares CoDA’s move to “a lynching.”
Rosie Mendez’s bio is steeped in grassroots activism. Born in Williamsburg, she worked as a tenant organizer and for legal services, got arrested protesting the bombing on Vieques and the slaying of Amadou Diallo, fought for environmental justice, affordable housing, and workers’ rights. Her stint as chief of staff to Lopez allied her with one of the council’s most vociferous liberals—a woman who beat the odds and Shelly Silver’s handpicked candidate to get elected to the District 2 seat in 1997.
Mendez and Lopez’s membership in Coalition for a District Alternative (CoDA) squares with their philosophies. Founded in 1992 to challenge local Democratic power brokers, the group (which has a mailing list of 100 members) fought the Con Ed substation in the neighborhood, supported the local greengrocer strike, and denounced the war in Iraq. “We’ve always been multiracial and multi-ethnic. We consider ourselves a progressive grassroots organization,” Michael Farrin, one of the two CoDA members who actually filed the candidate challenges, tells the Voice.
That’s why the move to make the District 2 ballot whiter, straighter, and more male could seem at odds with CoDA’s mission. “Shame on you, CoDA,” says Michael Lopez, the disabled candidate. “Shame on you for preventing Hispanics and gays from getting on the ballot.”
But Mendez contends the decision to challenge Brightharp, Michael Lopez, Claudia Flanagan, Milly Martinez, and Manuel Cavaco (who is white) was “based on a mathematical, statistical formula of how many signatures people are to file.”
Each council candidate needs 900 signatures from registered Democrats who live in their district and haven’t signed for other council candidates. A rival campaign that suspects a would-be candidate hasn’t made that number can file a challenge with the Board of Elections. Brightharp, for example, had supporters file two retaliatory challenges against Mendez.
But Brightharp’s challenges were dropped; Mendez claimed to have around 10,000 signatures. Campaigns typically aim to get about three times as many signatures as they need—or 2,700—to provide a cushion in case some signers are deemed ineligible. That’s a tall order for low-budget campaigns—and some of Mendez’s rivals struggled to meet it.
Flanagan admits that submitting just over 950 signatures left little wiggle room. (While openly gay, Flanagan does not think she was targeted because of her sexual orientation.) And many of the candidates the Voice contacted agreed that Manuel Cavaco, who filed a mere 85 signatures, made no genuine effort to meet the election law’s requirements. “Elections should be taken seriously,” says Farrin. “I don’t think we should have boutique candidates or vanity candidates.” Cavaco acknowledges that his petition for the Democratic line was intended only to get Mendez to waste money on legal fees. He says his real interest is in the Working Families Party line, where he’s also challenging Mendez.
The obvious question is where CoDA drew the line between legit candidates and the rest. For example, Farrin and Roanna Judelson initially objected to a sixth candidate, Chris Papajohn, a white man. That objection was withdrawn, Farrin says, when more Papajohn signatures turned up in a second volume of filings at the Board of Elections.
However, Papajohn says he filed a mere 1,600 signatures—well short of the customary 2,700—and Farrin boasts, “I suspect that we could have beaten him even on a second volume.” After all, Mendez has retained State Senator Martin Connor to argue CoDA’s case before the Board of Elections and state court, if it winds up there.
Yet CoDA decided not to go after Papajohn. But it will attempt to ax Michael Lopez, even though Lopez appears to have filed at least 2,000 signatures—fewer than the magic 2,700 mark, but more than Papajohn’s total.
Mendez insists that only the numbers mattered. “If they have not met the minimum requirements it doesn’t matter what gender you are, what sexual orientation you have, what religious belief you have,” she says. “You should not be on the ballot and able to avail yourself of city taxpayer dollars.”
That’s a reference to the matching funds provided under New York City’s generous campaign finance program, a potentially lucrative source of cash for shoestring campaigns. “Programs are being cut—after-school programs, senior citizen programs,” Mendez notes. “Our taxpayer dollars are better spent going to those programs than going to candidates who have not technically qualified to be on the ballot.”
According to the most recent round of Campaign Finance Board records, Mendez has claimed nearly $50,000 in public matching funds—or five times the combined claims of the candidates she’s challenged.
At a City Hall press conference on July 22, the candidates who’d been challenged gathered in protest. Speaking first, however, was Gur Tsabar, one of the rivals Mendez did not challenge. “A Democratic political club has taken an anti-democratic turn. They’ve turned against Democrats and against democracy,” Tsabar said of CoDA.
Tsabar has capitalized on the threatened candidates’ cause. His campaign also circulated a flyer accusing Mendez of an “attempt to disenfranchise local residents by limiting access to the ballot for people of color.” Mendez’s campaign is furious about the flyer. Others merely think the ballot access issue is starting to dominate a campaign that is supposed to be about housing, bars, schools, and other gritty issues.
What’s more, the ballot issue is a curveball in District 2’s already tough ball game. There’s not a lot of media attention to help the candidates distinguish themselves, and there’s no runoff provision—so a candidate could conceivably win with as little as 17 percent of the vote if the district splits fairly evenly.
“Every local race should be that kind of scramble,” says Darren Bloch, one of the candidates who has not been challenged. Another, Michael Beys, is looking for strong turnout. Kavanagh is counting on his leading $108,000 in funds raised to pay for an extensive field operation. Mendez, who has most of the political clubs behind her, says the equation for victory is simple, whether she faces one or 20 opponents: knocking on doors, talking to voters.
But Flanagan and the others face an earlier vote—that of the elections board, not the voters. That’s what bothers them about CoDA’s challenges. “They want to decide who runs for office in District 2,” Flanagan says. “Why are they so afraid of us?”