When politicians in overwhelmingly Democratic New York City seek re-election, they don’t stress too much. Serious primary challengers, as Mayor Bill de Blasio is learning, rarely materialize. On the Upper West Side, however, where politics is a blood sport and careers of the powerful are launched — the New York State attorney general, city comptroller, and Manhattan borough president call it home — a fight has broken out over a City Council seat where the first-term incumbent, Helen Rosenthal, is a facing down an opponent trying to make history.
“I don’t think my voters care about whether or not I’m transgender, but the fact that, being transgender, I know what it’s like to be in a marginalized population. I know what it’s like to be left out,” said Mel Wymore, the man challenging Rosenthal this September. “I will not let anyone in this community feel left out or marginalized by local government.”
Wymore, 55, is a former engineer and community board chair. He has two grown children who still, with his blessing, call him mom. Until recently, he was the federal and state director for TransPAC, a political action committee fighting for the rights of transgender people. Should he win the September 12 Democratic primary, he is all but assured victory in November, which would make him the first transgender elected official in New York City and one of a handful across America.
“Representation matters,” he explained during a sit-down interview in his spacious apartment, which also doubles as campaign headquarters. “The fact of being transgender, like, it’s literally an unheard voice in this country.…I know what it’s like to fear an unwanted pregnancy, I know what it’s like to be the only woman in a missile production facility operating as an engineer trying to make her way as a professional. I know what it’s like to have to worry about work-life balance when you’re raising children.”
Wymore also knows how to run a campaign and court press. In 2013, he finished second to Rosenthal in a hotly contested Democratic primary, losing out in the seven-way race by a little over a thousand votes. The New York Times endorsed his candidacy. But given Rosenthal’s liberal track record, the Gray Lady is unlikely to endorse Wymore this time around, and some local politicos have quietly questioned his rationale for waging a primary challenge. Thanks to the city’s public finance system, the two candidates will be on equal footing in the money race, but Rosenthal’s incumbency makes her the natural favorite.
Wymore says he’s running because Rosenthal has failed to organize the district effectively against Donald Trump’s presidency, citing burgeoning activist groups like Get Organized Brooklyn, started up by Councilman Brad Lander, as examples of more successful models. The race promises to get nasty: Rosenthal blocked Wymore last month from speaking at a rally to oppose the construction of a tall building in the district, claiming she was the rally’s sole organizer, according to West Side Rag, a local news website. (According to the website, Rosenthal said that “this is not a candidate event.”)
Wymore has other reasons for a primary challenge. He argues that Rosenthal has not fought strenuously enough to save small businesses in the district and has not curbed overdevelopment. He also thinks she’s too cozy with a member of the Independent Democratic Conference — a group of breakaway Democratic state senators who share power with Republicans — representing a chunk of the Upper West Side.
“The Upper West Side’s been a voice for the women’s movement, for the LGBT movement, for the anti-war movement, for the civil rights movement, and here we are in probably one of the most significant historical opportunities to raise our voice — with no leadership,” Wymore said. “And that’s significant to me.”
A native of Arizona, Wymore moved to the district in the late 1980s and has been active in the area’s civic scene since, chairing the community board and the West Side Y and even invested in a Greek restaurant. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in mathematics, speech communications, and systems engineering from the University of Arizona.
On most issues, there isn’t much that separates Wymore from Rosenthal. Both belong to the party’s decidedly liberal wing. Rosenthal is a proud member of the council’s Progressive Caucus, which has fought for paid sick leave, decriminalizing certain quality-of-life offenses, and legislation that will stabilize the schedules of low-wage retail and fast-food employees.
In a statement, Rosenthal said she found it “interesting” and “honestly great” that “both this year and when Mel first ran four years ago, voters in our community really do look beyond issues like gender identity and sexuality when deciding who to support,” adding that the council’s LGBTQ caucus is backing her re-election bid. “It’s really more about who has delivered in fighting for academic excellence for all kids, keeping tenants in their homes and pedestrians safe, standing up to big developers, promoting gender pay equity, and being fiscally responsible with our tax dollars,” she said.
Rosenthal has been willing to tack left on unpopular local issues, like a school rezoning proposal that enflamed otherwise liberal Upper West Siders. Rosenthal backed the Department of Education’s plan to redraw elementary school zones to reduce overcrowding while increasing racial and economic integration at three schools. The plan, which is going forward, would mix affluent white students with poorer minority students, a noble goal that has nevertheless angered parents who don’t want to put their students in lower-performing school districts.
Wymore was a critic of the DOE’s plan, though he said he supported the goal of integrating the local schools. He claimed Rosenthal initially misled the community about where she stood and didn’t seek enough parental input. “The problem in this case was the way Helen managed the rezoning,” said Daniel Gleick, Wymore’s communications director.
On other issues, Wymore’s liberalism has its limits. While other council members, including Rosenthal, have backed the closure of Rikers Island and said they would be open to the idea of new jail facilities in their own districts, Wymore hesitated to do the same. “We have very low crime rates on the Upper West Side so we’d be importing criminals to jail them here, so I don’t know how fair that would be.”
Neither candidate is particularly beloved by the Democratic establishment. Those who know Rosenthal describe her as intelligent but abrasive, a lawmaker who hasn’t naturally forged political relationships in the district. Democratic power brokers didn’t support her when she first ran in 2013.
For some neighborhood Democrats, there’s a lingering feeling that Rosenthal is an “accidental” councilwoman because she shares a last name with an assemblywoman representing an overlapping district, Linda Rosenthal, said Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College and an Upper West Sider himself. “The primary four years ago was a bitter one,” he said. “If you supported somebody else, there was a strong feeling that it was a hard one to lose.”
Wymore’s candidacy, however, doesn’t necessarily mean local elected officials and community leaders will unite to try to take Rosenthal down. She’s an incumbent, after all, and some think Wymore is overambitious. Given the lack of interest in the mayoral race, the primary is likely to be a low-turnout affair, a ground war between the most fervent allies of each candidate.
“Mel is threading together disgruntled constituencies, but it’s not clear that’s going to work,” said one well-connected Upper West Side Democrat unaligned with either candidate.
For Wymore, the hope is that enough people agree with him: The Upper West Side needs to send someone to the City Council who thinks a lot more about Donald Trump.
“I realized that we have a long way to go to have the kind of representation and service we need on the Upper West Side,” he said. “And that’s true particularly after Trump was elected.”