District 7: Open Seat Scramble in Upper Manhattan

Few council districts have been as radically altered by redistricting as District 7, which used to comprise west Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood up to the Harlem River, and which has essentially been bumped south about 40 or 50 blocks.  District 7 now includes Manhattan Valley, Morningside Heights and Washington Heights only up to 165th Street.

Demographically the new district is now whiter, more Asian, slightly more Hispanic, and substantially less black.  The current Council Member, Robert Jackson, is term-limited and the open seat and new boundaries have thrown the race wide open in a kind of electoral land rush.  At least 10 and perhaps as many as 18 hopefuls are currently petitioning to get on the ballot, and a number of prominent District 7 candidates have found themselves living not just in adjoining districts, but two districts away from the people they plan to represent.

City Council Watch interviewed five of the highest-profile candidates in the CD 7 race in order to bring some perspective to this free-for-all.

Mark Levine is currently a district leader, and drew attention in 2010 when he ran a tough race against Adriano Espaillat to replace Eric Schneiderman in the State Senate.  Levine has mended fences with Espaillat, drawn endorsements from the most elected officials and labor unions, and is widely considered the front-runner if not the presumptive winner, to the annoyance of the rest of the field.  A resident of Washington Heights until very recently, Levine has just relocated to Hamilton Heights to comply with the rules of primary domicile.

Levine spoke of himself as “passionate about schools,” having taught in NYC schools for two years in the early days of Teach for America, whose New York chapter he later led as executive director.   He “dissents strongly from the Bloomberg [education] legacy, starting with how teachers have been treated,” saying that educators have been “demonized and blamed” and that they “need to get the tools they need,” rather than “punished” by the “emphasis on high-stakes testing.”

It is no surprise that Mark Levine has the support of the powerful UFT, and he describes himself as “unabashedly pro-union.”  Yet he walks a fine and cautious line, as he is also a proponent of charter schools.  He has accepted significant contributions from Ravenel Boykin Curry, a wealthy supporter of education reform and trustee of Girls Prep charter school, which made the news in 2010 when Joel Klein used emergency powers to displace the public school program for autistic children with which Girls Prep was co-located.   

Levine argues that charter schools must be “accountable,” and mandated to accept special education and English language learner students in proportion to their population in the district, and cites the Green Dot schools as models of how charter schools should operate.  Green Dot schools have what are called “thin contracts” with their teachers, where the teachers forgo tenure for higher pay, and a pension plan for a corporate-style defined contribution retirement plan.  Mark Levine contrasts the Green Dot model with the controversial Success Academy approach of Eva Moskowitz, whom he criticizes as “unnecessarily hostile and critical towards traditional schools,” adding that “the tone she takes towards unions is misguided.”

However, we see that these lines are not so sharp: Gideon Stein, founder of Green Dot, is a major contributor  to the Levine campaign, and he is also Vice-Chair of Success Academy.  One can’t fault Mark Levine for dancing with the education reform crowd and also making nice to the UFT: the future of education is very much in flux and nobody knows how it will all play out. 

In any case, Levine “feels great about the coalition” he has built and speaks of himself as someone who can “bring together the most diverse district in Manhattan."

Zead Ramadan, former head of NY-CAIR, is campaigning to be the first Arab-American elected to the Council.   Former Chair of CB 12 and a small business owner (he is the proprietor of the X Café at the site of the former Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was assassinated), Ramadan stresses his deep ties to upper Manhattan, where he has spent much of his life since emigrating from Kuwait as a child, and his work in promoting economic development in Upper Manhattan. 

“People used to leave the area to go out to dinner,” says Ramadan, who points to the burgeoning nightlife scene on Dyckman Street as one of his successes.  He also claims that he has done more for Upper Manhattan job creation “than the rest of the other candidates put together.”  Ramadan also emphasizes the need for more “affordable housing,” a shibboleth in local politics that every single candidate solemnly swears by, and for supplemental education to assist local kids who need extra academic help.

Until very recently Zead Ramadan lived in Riverdale with his wife and child, but has moved into the district to comply with residency laws.  Though he boasts of a “tremendous grassroots ground team,” his support, if you go strictly by CFB filings, is also mostly outside the district: of the more than $100,000 he has raised, less than $3,000 comes from District 7 residents.  The bulk of his donations comes from Arab-Americans in Brooklyn and Westchester.  The candidate responded that his “formula is to bring money from outside the district and not pick the pockets of the voters…I bring money from outsiders who appreciate what I have done for the community.”  Campaign contributions aren’t normally construed as a form of economic development, but fair enough.

The conversation took an odd turn when Zead Ramadan brought up the subject of the “establishment candidate,” Mark Levine.  Ramadan repeatedly said that a “cabal” had chosen Levine “an outsider, not from around here…a Harvard kid from the Baltimore suburbs” to be the favorite.  He spoke darkly of the early endorsements of Levine by elected officials and unions that had “poisoned the waters” against him.  Given the ugly tone set earlier in this race by former candidate Thomas Lopez-Pierre who criticized a black supporter of Mark Levine for “sucking Jewish cock,” one might imagine that the remaining candidates would make an effort to avoid certain linguistic clusters.

Ramadan went on to say that the reason he was not given institutional support was because he is an Arab.  “If my name were Rodriguez, Johnson or Kline I would have been elected already, but since I am an Arab I have no natural base.”  Asked why Levine in particular had been the early favorite, Ramadan insisted that the choice was “political,” and that even Levine’s supporters don’t really like him.  Regarding Levine’s endorsement by the Council’s Progressive Caucus, Ramadan said, “they are holding their noses to endorse him,” and again insisted that unknown forces had “caballed” against Zead Ramadan.  He cited unnamed union political directors who complained that “Mark Levine has been harassing us for five years” as the reason why they had to endorse him.

Asked about the diverse demographic nature of the district and the crowded field, Ramadan returned to the question of Mark Levine and said, “Levine hopes that all the people of color divide their vote and he wins by default.  If the election were just between Levine and me I would win easily.”

Well, unfortunately for Zead Ramadan, his dreamed-of championship match-up is not likely to occur, as there are a number of other strong candidates in the race.  Luis Tejada is a Dominican-born engineer and teacher who founded the Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center in Washington Heights.  Tejada, who claims to have helped organize more than 80 tenant associations, has never run for office before but says that his years of community organizing are essentially no different from campaigning.

Tejada contrasts the local nature of his fundraising with those of both Ramadan and Levine, and claims that 90% of his donations come from district residents: CFB records indicate that the figure is closer to 65%, which is nevertheless substantially higher than the others, and in terms of money eligible for city matching funds the three are close.  Tejada speaks of his strong connection to the Latino segment of the district, but says he has close connections with the black and white populations as well.  He coordinated an unusual outreach program which targeted neighborhood newcomers, unaware of the unscrupulous practices of uptown landlords.  The program, Tejada says, educated middle-class whites, who have been priced out of other neighborhoods, to the question of illegal rent increases.

Criticizing Mark Levine as a “nice guy” who is out of his depth politically, Luis Tejada suggests that Levine should be running in the 10th CD, where he would “probably” unseat CM Ydanis Rodriguez.  Calling himself “controversial,” Tejada slammed CM Rodriguez’ highly-publicized co-naming of a stretch of upper Broadway for Juan Rodriguez, who in 1613 became the first “Dominican immigrant” to New York.  “How was he the first Dominican, when the Dominican Republic wasn’t founded until 1844?” demands Tejada, though to be fair, CM Rodriguez appears to have called Juan Rodriguez the first “immigrant” to New York, not the first Dominican.  Tejada also called CM Robert Jackson a “sellout” for approving Columbia University’s expansion plans, and is proud to report that the Mirabal Sisters Center returned a $5,000 grant to Jackson’s office in protest over this perceived betrayal, an unusual act of conscience for any non-profit.

Further south in Manhattan Valley, Joyce Johnson is positioning herself as the leading woman in the race for the 7th CD seat.  This campaign marks her fourth time running for office, which Johnson rather optimistically cites as a positive, in that she has experience and good name recognition.  Joyce Johnson ran against Charles Rangel in 2010 and came in third, though she did outpoll Adam Clayton Powell in the 69th AD. 

Regarding Mark Levine’s early lead, Johnson remarks, “I wasn’t in the race when he got those endorsements,” and “nothing is decided yet because no votes have been cast.”  Johnson points out that in a 70% minority district where 60% of the prime voters are women, it is impossible to count out an African-American woman who has both extensive corporate and governmental experience. 

Johnson worked for Seagram for many years, ending up as head of Equal Employment Opportunity for the company.  She then worked in city government, including stints under Rudy Crew and in the Comptroller’s office.  Recently she was CEO of an organization called Black Equity Alliance, from which she was fired for supporting Mayor Bloomberg’s 2009 re-election campaign.  In a wrongful termination suit against Black Equity, Johnson claims that the board of the organization told her it didn’t look good for her to be seen endorsing a Jew for mayor.

Another contender for the 7th CD seat is Mark Otto, assistant principal of a “socially conscious” high school, for whom education is a prism on politics.  “I see policy issues through my students, including questions of affordable housing and stop and frisk,” says Otto.  He favors, not unexpectedly, more development of housing for low and middle income people.  As with many of the other candidates running, Mark Otto took shots at Mark Levine, whose campaign he claims has “zero momentum,” and who is “personally disliked,” even by his endorsers.  Mark Otto says that though he faces name recognition challenges, many of his students are district residents, and they will vouch for him as he makes his rounds.

Mark Otto fun fact: his campaign has received contributions from 25 different employees of Spirit Cruises, totaling more than 15% of his total fundraising.