Who Can Replace Gale Brewer? A Fierce Battle for CD 6

City Council Watch attended a debate in the 6th Council District on Columbus Avenue this week, where we observed about four dozen elderly black and Jewish voters munch on cookies and fruit, and murmur amongst themselves about the slate of candidates who would presume to fill the shoes of the beloved CM Gale Brewer, champion of the liberal middle-class. “They broke the mold, they broke the mold,” muttered the octogenarian woman to my right as Brewer clomped forward to say hello to the assemblage.  “No one like her,” agreed her neighbor.

Council Member Brewer, who is revered by her fixed-income constituency with a fervor normally reserved for triliteral Democratic icons, announced that she was not endorsing any of the candidates, but added that the whole field met her approval.   “Anyone you get here, you could count yourselves lucky,” she said, so blessing the field.

Open races are supposed to be hard to judge.  Ideally, a group of engaged citizens compete for the votes of the electorate, resources and endorsements are leveraged evenly, and we don’t know who the winner is until after Election Day.  

Unfortunately, this idealized, Four Freedoms vision of democracy is not usually the case in elections to the City Council.  Typically, one candidate has the inside track, gets the bulk of the contributions or endorsements, support from the party machinery, and leaves the rest of the field behind.  For example, in District 7, though the seat is open and there are at least six credible candidates, Mark Levine has most of the money, all the major endorsements, and is the acknowledged front-runner.  

But in the 6th CD, no one of the six most viable candidates can be said to be the clear leader.  They are all well-funded, and each has been endorsed by reputable and influential elected officials, clubs or civic organizations.  Of course, they all basically have the same opinions on major issues.  Nevertheless, there is an actual contest on the Upper West Side, and it deserves more attention than it has gotten.

We spoke with Ken Biberaj about his campaign.  Biberaj, child of Albanian immigrants, separated himself from the field when he alone spoke in favor of charter schools.  Asked about his position, the candidate explained that “charter schools are not the answer, but they may be part of the solution,” noting that parents in many communities in the city have expressed a desire for more school choice.  He went further, noting that some candidates have expressed limited support for charter schools, while disagreeing with the practice of co-location, or placing charter schools within traditional school buildings.  Biberaj claims that this is a common and hypocritical position, because there is no realistic way to house charter schools without locating them in existing school structures.

Ken Biberaj has raised a great deal of money from the Albanian community, as well as from the Biberaj community: at least one-seventh of his fundraising comes from his extensive family network, though he is quick to point out that he received hundreds of donations under fifty dollars from local contributors.  He has been endorsed by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and the League of Conservation Voters, which likes his thoughtfulness on climate change.  Biberaj claims that his experience working in the restaurant and retail-leasing businesses equip him to deal with City agencies effectively, and give him the insight to help local business owners.  Asked about his lack of experience in public service positions, Biberaj says he has the “right kind of experience” to be a Council Member, and adds that he is “the only candidate who isn’t coming into this with the attitude, ‘It’s my turn now.’”

Noah Gotbaum entered the 6th CD race in what seemed like a false start after his stepmother, Betsy Gotbaum, appeared to endorse Dan Squadron over him in his initial campaign for Public Advocate.  According to the Gotbaums it was all a misunderstanding, and Noah Gotbaum assured me of his stepmother’s full support in his Council race.

A businessman and social entrepreneur, Gotbaum co-founded New York Cares, a prominent volunteer organization, and serves as the president of CEC 3.  Gotbaum announced that he is the only candidate to send his children to public schools, and denounced charter schools as union-busters, saying he opposes them “vehemently.”  As he is the son of Victor Gotbaum, former head of DC 37 and mentor to current director Lillian Roberts, it is no shock that DC 37 has endorsed Noah Gotbaum for the Council seat.  Gotbaum spoke warmly to me of his relationship with Roberts, whom he called his godmother (literally or figuratively, I’m not sure), and he told the audience that he grew up with progressive, labor-oriented values.

Helen Rosenthal, former chair of CB 7, began her run to succeed Gale Brewer in 2008.  When term limits were overturned she placed her fundraising in abeyance, and picked up again in 2011.  Rosenthal is the chair of ParentJobsNet, a non-profit that helps parents of public school students join (or rejoin) the workplace.  She was formerly employed at the Office of Management and Budget, and cites her experience there as key to her understanding of how municipal government functions.  

Rosenthal has raised the most money of any of the candidates, and as of the last disclosure date, had the most cash on hand, by a significant margin.  She has been endorsed by former Council Member Ronnie Eldridge, AM Deborah Glick, Senator Liz Krueger, and Gloria Steinem; Tenants PAC, NY CLASS and the Sierra Club.

Marc Landis is a real estate lawyer and Democratic district leader.  He has a long history of working pro bono on behalf of tenants, though as I have written elsewhere, he has courted controversy when he represented building owners in some ugly transactions.  In any other race Landis would probably be considered the front-runner, as he has received the endorsements of most of the significant labor unions apart from DC 37 and the UFT, which has not endorsed any of the candidates in the 6th CD, as well as the WFP line, and the support of Rep. Jerrold Nadler and AM Linda Rosenthal.  

Landis casts himself as a problem solver with a flexible approach to difficult problems, and cites his experience as a litigator and tough negotiator as important reasons why he would make the best candidate for the Council.  He spoke of his success in keeping Eva Moskowitz’ Success Academy out of the district.  Landis ran for Scott Stringer’s Assembly seat in 2006 after Stringer left to become Manhattan BP, and fought a bitter contest against Linda Rosenthal, the eventual winner.  Everyone made up, however, and Landis has garnered important local establishment support.  

Mel Wymore, also a former Chair of CB 7, is a systems analyst who used to be a woman.  He has received a great deal of national attention as one of the first transsexuals to seek such a widely visible elected office.  Wymore cites his role in negotiating a new 800-seat school at Riverside Center, the last major open parcel of land in CD 6, as a sign of his ability to fight for the district.  Wymore has been endorsed by Citizens Union, and also by a host of LGBT elected officials, clubs and PACs, as well as by more than two dozen community members.

Debra Cooper, who told us several times that she was born in a DP camp after World War II (though she doesn’t look it…age-wise, that is), and later married a wealthy textiles heir.  She works professionally as a real estate agent, and has been very active politically in advancing reproductive rights.  A Democratic State Committeewoman, Cooper took credit for pushing the city and state clinic access bills that later became the model for national legislation.  She has an impressive roster of endorsements, including Rep. Carolyn McCarthy and New York Communities for Change.

Ok, there is a seventh Democratic candidate I was saving for last.  Aaron Braunstein, boxing impresario, radio talk-show host, and father to actress Natasha Lyonne, is running a self-financed campaign.  Sporting a navy blazer with elaborate gold embroidery over the left breast, a plaid waistcoat, and a massive Roman coin on a ring, Braunstein called his campaign manager forward in the middle of his 3-minute introductory speech.  The campaign manager, a young black man dressed in a wrinkled suit and sneakers, sporting an ‘80s-style “fade” hairdo, was introduced as a “22 year old college grad, a kid I decided needed a shot.  So for all these so-called liberals sitting up here, I say, put your money where your mouth is.”