“This race is a mess,” says Ernie Lendler, a political consultant. “there are too many legitimate candidates to get a clear idea of what’s happening.” This is not the kind of complaint one hears often regarding a City Council contest. While some council elections have been marked by nepotism and other shenanigans, the race in Brooklyn’s fiercely independent 39th district features several formidable candidates, each with a legitimate base of support, enough to keep the city’s political gurus humble in their assessments. “Anybody who thinks they can predict the winner in a multiple-candidate race like this one is either an idiot or a liar,” says Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant.
Although the 39th is most closely identified with liberal Park Slope, the district cuts through a number of neighborhoods, including Windsor Terrace, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Kensington, and parts of Borough Park and Sunset Park. Many of these communities have witnessed rapid gentrification in recent years, bringing in a new population whose political sensibilities are still unknown. Still, it’s a safe bet that the 39th will remain one of the more liberal districts in the city, as evidenced by the candidates trumpeting their leftish bona fides. Indeed, in terms of commitment to progressive causes, two of the candidates, Steve Banks and Jack Carroll, are the real deal. Banks has been a prominent housing and community advocate for the Legal Aid Society for 20 years, and Carroll, a founding member of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, one of the few reform clubs left in the city, has given legal representation to progressive candidates and organizations for decades.
Also running are Craig Hammerman, district manager of a local community board, who has the backing of outgoing borough president Howard Golden; Paul Bader, active in the Independent Neighborhood Democrats club and the husband of Representative Nydia Velázquez ; and Anthony Pugliese, an organizer for the New York City District Council of Carpenters.
But the candidate attracting the most attention is Bill de Blasio, best known as Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager in her successful Senate run of a year ago. His close connection to the Clintons has given him name recognition (highlighted by a celebrated mention in the television show The West Wing), along with a slew of contributions from the likes of Miramax Pictures head Harvey Weinstein.
But he carries a lot of baggage as well. De Blasio was elected to School Board 15 in 1999, and his tenure has been rocky. Many public school parents charge that de Blasio was stubbornly supportive of Frank DeStefano, the former superintendent of District 15 who resigned in the winter amid allegations of overspending and mismanagement. Reports first surfaced in the fall of 1999 that DeStefano had begun to run up big deficits, taking himself and other school officials on several expensive junkets costing a total of more than $100,000. One year later the school deficit topped $1 million, leading to the cancellation of a popular after-school reading program while DeStefano maintained an expensive car service.
De Blasio still defends his decision to stick with DeStefano for as long as he did. “He was a visionary and a great educator, but he was a horrible communicator,” de Blasio says of DeStefano. “I was deeply concerned, but I was not going to make a final decision until I saw the evidence.” In the end, de Blasio says, “he could have made better decisions, but I don’t think the spending was wildly excessive. Both of my parents were victims of the McCarthy era. I do not take lightly the idea of ousting someone. You have to have the evidence.”
De Blasio has also been linked to the flap over New Square, the Hasidic village in upstate New York that has been mired in pardon scandals. Candidate Clinton assiduously courted the small Rockland community last year, winning the town by the whopping margin of 1400 to 12. Six weeks after the election, Israel Spitzer, New Square’s deputy mayor, met with the Clintons at the White House, where pardons for four New Square civic leaders convicted of fraud were discussed. In January, Bill Clinton commuted their sentences, leading to a probe by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in which several Hillary Clinton campaign aides were called in for questioning. At a Manhattan fundraiser for de Blasio in December, Spitzer made a $2500 donation, the largest permitted under the city’s Campaign Finance Board. De Blasio refused to comment on that matter, including the issue of whether he was questioned by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. De Blasio would only offer this comment: “I’m waiting to hear what’s going to happen with that.”
Of course, it’s entirely possible that Spitzer’s donation was merely part of de Blasio’s strategy of wooing the Hasidim, a key constituency in the 39th race. Endorsements will be important here. Carroll has the support district leader Jacob Gold and State Senator Seymour Lachman in his corner, both of whom have good contacts with Hasidic leaders. Banks has the surprising support of Ed Koch, still popular among the Orthodox. What’s more, Banks was an attorney who spoke out on the case of Gideon Busch, the mentally ill Hasidic man who was killed by police in 1999.
“The wild cards in the race are the gays and Hasidim,” says Sheinkopf with a laugh. “That’s an interesting combination, I know, but that’s what it may boil down to.” Among gays, Banks appears to have the upper hand; he has won the endorsement of Lambda Independent Democrats, the local gay and lesbian club, as well as such prominent gay pols as Tom Duane, and Deborah Glick.
Like most other City Council races, this election will ultimately be determined by who’s got the best field operations (that, plus the all-important New York Times backing). Steve Banks has mustered an impressive array of endorsements from housing groups, unions, civic organizations, and community leaders. Jack Carroll’s campaign is hoping to revive the reform coalition that helped elect such independents as Jim Brennan to the assembly and Joan Griffin McCabe to the City Council. After helping to elect a sitting first lady to office, de Blasio certainly knows a thing or two about running a successful campaign. (De Blasio also has the endorsements of several major unions, including the UFT and SCIU.) “Don’t be surprised if there’s a recount,” one insider jokes.