The window of the We the People document service center on East Tremont and Bruckner Boulevard is hedging its bets: There’s a “Jimmy Vacca for Council” sign and a “Steve Kaufman for Council” sign. You can’t blame the owners for playing it safe; the five-way Democratic race in District 13 is too close to call. Same goes for Manhattan’s East Side, where neighboring windows on First Avenue promote Dan Garodnick, Jak Jacob Karako, and Jack Lester—three of the four Democratic candidates in District 4. And then there’s the pharmacy door near the D train’s 205th Street station in the Bronx. It’s pitching Ari Hoffnung, not District 11 councilmember Oliver Koppell—one of the few incumbents in a tough scrap for re-election.
Across New York’s 51 districts, City Council races exist in parallel universes. Eight sitting councilmembers face no primary or major-party challenger at all, and most of their colleagues are contending with mere token rivals. But for the handful of open seats and a couple where incumbents seem vulnerable, there are mad dashes for the small pool of voters who will turn out for a Democratic primary that hasn’t generated much excitement so far.
In all these fierce council contests, most candidates have identified the raw number of votes they will need to win—a calculation based on presumed turnout, the size of the field, and the appeal of rivals.
In the East Bronx, it might be a mere 3,000 to 3,500 votes. That’s the magic number facing Joseph McManus in his campaign head
quarters, a detached building that blends into a neat residential neighborhood along Morris Park Avenue. Seated next to a wall of letters from unions backing him, McManus—a Democratic state committeeman and shop steward in Steamfitters Local 638—says his blue-collar background is his biggest asset.
“Working people want government to respond to them,” he says, adding that he wants to form a labor caucus in the council made up of people from union and blue-collar backgrounds. “These are the people who understand you. Who needs a bullshit Italian caucus or Irish caucus or something like that? What’s that do for you? Nothing.”
McManus sees the race as a three-person affair: himself; Vacca, the district manager for Community Board 10 for 25 years; and Kaufman, a onetime councilman and longtime state assemblyman. But with the vote pool so small, businessman Ismael Betancourt and veteran candidate Egidio Sementilli are also in the mix.
District 13’s is a race being waged door-to-door, as well as in the pages of local newspapers. Vacca’s rivals claim that he has benefited from generous coverage in the Bronx Times Reporter, whose co-publisher John Collazzi has donated to his campaign. The Times Reporter
has been linked to the Bronx Democratic machine. Kaufman’s opponents say he has been boosted by the Bronx Press, which front-paged his endorsement by Ed Koch. Last week, the Press was mailed to an unusually large number of households, with a story critical of Vacca on the front page and ads for Kaufman and Bloomberg inside; publisher Andy Wolf, a Kaufman supporter, says campaign ads sometimes permit larger distribution this time of year. “It is not necessarily tied in to the fortunes of any one candidate,” he tells the Voice. Sementilli publishes his own paper, the Bronx Advocate. But while the papers duke it out, the Bronx County Democratic machine is expected to sit on the sidelines—although it’s widely believed that the bosses don’t want Kaufman to succeed.
Kaufman chalks that up to what he calls his “independence.” Sitting in his campaign office on East Tremont, next to a Carvel shop, Kaufman recalls voting in Albany against the repeal of the commuter tax, joining a revolt against Shelly Silver, and endorsing Michael Bloomberg to win goodies—like a zoning change—for his district.
“I’m the only one who has the balls to stand up for the people. I know it sounds corny. I know people go back and laugh at it,” Kaufman says. “But I stood it. I stood it many times. Nobody else can say that.” No one else can say they’ve tried to run on four lines, either, as Kaufman did in last year’s state senate race. (He lost the Republican and Democratic primaries.)
Maybe that won’t matter this primary day. McManus ticks off a list of bread-and-butter items as the top community concerns: parking tickets, libraries, parks, buses. Kaufman adds to that “a problem with bums.” (“Oh, I can’t use the word bums,” he smiles.) And everyone agrees that development is the biggest worry of all.
“Every piece of land has been taken up with three-family homes, row houses with no parking,” Vacca complains. He’s taken money from construction and realty interests but says that hasn’t stopped him from fighting overdevelopment. “We led an effort to downzone City Island, Waterbury, LaSalle, and Throgs Neck. My problem is the Buildings Department is not aware of how to interpret or to enforce the new regulations,” he says, adding that he spends his days at the Community Board office complaining about newly approved applications for projects that are too big. As he drives the district, Vacca points to properties, recounting old complaints and recent battles. “I know this district like the back of my hand,” he says.
Oliver Koppell could say the same thing about his district, which links the neighborhoods around Van Cortlandt Park in the northwest Bronx. After all, he was the assemblyman from Riverdale for 23 years and has been the area’s councilmember since 2002. But those roots haven’t spared him a race this year. “I am confident that I’ll win,” he tells the Voice. “On the other hand it’s not a walk in the park by any means.” The reason, he says, is “I have a very aggressive opponent who’s quite well funded, and Mr. Hoffnung is very nasty, very negative in his campaign.”
Ari Hoffnung has certainly run hard, staking out subway stations every morning, faulting Koppell for devoting too little time to his council job and slamming him for being ineffective at City Hall. The magic number in this race could be as many as 10,000 votes, coming from a diverse district that includes the relatively affluent and largely Jewish Riverdale section, Irish Woodlawn, black Wakefield, and mixed areas of Norwood and Kingsbridge. The race is not exactly on everyone’s lips in the northwest Bronx: Asked if the election is news to the people he meets, Hoffnung quips, “Outside of Riverdale, the City Council is news to them.” He blames Koppell—one of the few councilmembers without any leadership posts or committee chairs—for that.
Koppell, never a favorite of former Bronx Democratic boss Roberto Ramirez, acknowledges that his outsider stance at first posed “very substantial obstacles” to his getting things accomplished in the council. Now things are better, he says. “I’ve sponsored a fair number of bills that have become laws,” he says, “the most important one to change the zoning in Riverdale—to downzone to prevent buildings over seven stories being built in central Riverdale.”
Downzoning is a catchphrase in races this year, but in District 11 it goes to a major difference in how the rivals see their district. To Koppell, overdevelopment is the major concern in the area. But Hoffnung has supported new housing. He also backed the unpopular filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park. “I figured, ‘This thing’s going to happen. What I have to do now is get a fair share of the mitigation funds,’ ” Hoffnung says, referring to the $200 million allocated to Bronx parks to compensate for the plant—a project that Koppell equated to “a rape of the park.”
The rhetoric is a little cooler on the East Side, where Garodnick, Karako, Lester, and Meryl Brodsky are vying for the seat Eva Moskowitz is vacating. She hasn’t endorsed in the race and isn’t expected to, so the rivals have developed other alliances. Lester, a lawyer active in tenants’ issues, has cross-endorsed Virginia Fields. Garod-nick, a litigator who was involved in the CFE case, has Gifford Miller’s backing, as well as the New York Times endorsement.
The winner in District 4 will likely be whoever captures the most votes in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. Lester says his polling has him “far in the lead there,” but Garodnick, who grew up and still lives in the complex, says he’ll have knocked on Democrats’ doors in all the development’s buildings by September 13. He’s already been to 93 of them; the magic number is 110.