News & Politics

Brooklyn Councilmember Gives Get-Out-of-Primary-Free Card to Handpicked Successor

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David Greenfield, a Brooklynite who chairs the City Council’s Committee on Land Use, one of the most coveted roles in the legislative body, seemed to relish his job. He would often boast to colleagues about how, through an electoral quirk, he was allowed to serve until 2025, four years later than the rest of his term-limited cohort. His political ambitions appeared to have few limits, with speculation he had his sights set on Council Speaker or a seat in Congress.

And yet, to the shock of many, it was reported yesterday by Crain’s that Greenfield won’t run for re-election. Instead, he has accepted the job as CEO and executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, the New York City–based nonprofit giant. The gig pays around a half-million dollars a year, an improvement on the $148,500 base council salary that Greenfield had supported raising.

In America, you’re allowed to make a living — no problem there. But the timing is fishy. Greenfield made the announcement after election petitions had already been submitted. Since people in his district, which encompasses Borough Park and Midwood, assumed he was running for re-election — he easily won in 2013 — no challengers emerged for the Democratic primary. That means Greenfield is now allowed to designate a successor via a so-called committee on vacancies — a successor who will replace Greenfield on the ballot without a primary.

Greenfield has his man: Kalman Yeger, a longtime politico and campaign finance expert. Yeger, until Tuesday, was running in a neighboring district against an incumbent councilmember, Chaim Deutsch, a longtime rival of Greenfield’s for reasons never entirely clear. (Some Brooklyn Democratic sources have speculated that Greenfield, a power broker in the Orthodox Jewish community, doesn’t like sharing the council spotlight with another Orthodox Jew.) Instead of facing an uphill battle against Deutsch, Yeger is now set up to take Greenfield’s place without a fight. (Yeger declined to speak to the Voice on the record.)

Common Cause New York executive director Susan Lerner calls this a “cynical tactic.” A similar maneuver nearly twenty years ago launched State Assembly Member Joe Crowley’s nineteen-years-and-running congressional career, when he was handpicked by the outgoing congress member, Tom Manton, to replace him on the ballot after petitions were filed.

Greenfield, who claims he was cold-called a few weeks ago about the Met Council gig and otherwise intended to serve another term, says he made the best choice available. “We scrupulously followed the law,” Greenfield tells the Voice. “Unfortunately, the law doesn’t give us a lot of good options. We took the best of the worst options available to us. It’s fair to criticize, fair for goo-goos [good government groups] to get their fifteen seconds. I get that.”

The fairest options would have been an open primary or a nonpartisan special election — one of which allowed Greenfield in 2010 to win the seat in the first place, after Simcha Felder was appointed deputy comptroller. Greenfield says he didn’t want to waste taxpayer cash with a special election, though the cost — $360,000 that year — would not even be a crumb in an $80 billion city budget.

If it’s true Greenfield didn’t know he was going to lead the prestigious Met Council — which is recovering from a scandal in which its prior CEO, Willie Rapfogel, stole more than $3 million from the charity — until late Sunday, then picking Yeger as a replacement is less egregious than it appears. Greenfield says he will serve out the remainder of the term and not leave office immediately, as he said Met Council suggested to him.

“I don’t hide,” Greenfield said, avowing his honesty. “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and it was offered to me.”

Still, Greenfield should have considered what it would mean to deny his district the open contest all neighborhoods deserve — and which he could have ensured by waiting to resign until after November, which would have triggered a special election. As for Yeger, he currently lives a few blocks outside the district and will need to move in by election day. For the perks of an elected office, he’ll hire a moving van.

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