Inez Dickens, Harlem Princess: The Rot Runs Deep

Councilmember Inez Dickens of CD 9 is the heir to a real estate and political realm that traces itself in one generational step to the roots of black Harlem.  Her father, real estate millionaire and 3-term assemblyman Lloyd E. Dickens, began buying and selling property in upper Manhattan, by some accounts as early as the 1920s, when blacks began moving in great numbers to the area.  Inez Dickens, born when her father was already a wealthy and well-established senior political figure, grew up steeped in slumlordism and a culture of political cronyism which, should she attain the Speakership, would likely mire the Council in a stew of corruption that would make the last 8 years seem tame.

Reports of CM Dickens’ own poor record as a landlord are old news, and appear to run in the family: in 1964 her father sued Charles Rangel (among others) for libel for calling him a “notorious slumlord.”  Currently, buildings owned by the councilmember and her sister have multiple open violations, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of outstanding fines and taxes levied against them.  And just a cursory review of CM Dickens’ political associations and campaign contributors should embarrass any members of the Council from considering seriously her candidacy for Speaker, not to mention the voters of the 9th CD from voting for her in the first place.  

For example, in the early 1990s, Lloyd Williams, a political and business associate of Inez Dickens and her father dating back at least to the 1970s, and head of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce and its development arm the Greater Harlem Housing Development Corporation, presided over a disastrous sweetheart real-estate deal with the City that wound up costing the taxpayers almost $4 million.  Then, in 1998, Williams, head of the publicly-funded Harlem Interfaith Counseling Service, was shown by state auditors to be using government funds to rent space at twice the market rate from buildings that he himself had an ownership interest in.   

A decade later, Inez Dickens tied her approval of the massive rezoning of 125th Street to the city’s agreement to restructure longstanding debt held by the GHHDC into a $2.5 million “forgivable loan.”  Dickens also retained her own seat on the board of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce after her 2005 election to the Council, even though she had previously brokered real estate deals sponsored by the GHCC for her own profit.

Lloyd Williams has personally contributed $6,000 to Inez Dickens’ campaigns for office, and “bundled” an additional $1,500 for her.  An important advisor and fundraiser for Dickens, Lloyd Williams will be a baleful and malign influence on her Speakership, should she get it.

In addition to voting for the development-friendly river-to-river 125th Street rezoning, CM Dickens also supported Columbia University’s controversial Manhattanville expansion.  The 2007 vote, contingent upon a much-ballyhooed community benefits agreement, allowed Columbia to exercise eminent domain over a number of coveted properties that were in the way of its plans.  After making its way through the courts, the vote was ultimately upheld, and Columbia got its way.

So did Full Spectrum NY, a Harlem construction company awarded the contract in the first step of the Manhattanville expansion: the renovation of the Studebaker Building, which became administrative office space for Columbia.  Full Spectrum is run by Walter J. Edwards, who also serves as Chairman of the Harlem Business Alliance.  Walter Edwards funneled $1428.89 to CM Dickens’ 2013 campaign through the Success PAC, which is registered in his name, and which he alone appears to fund.

Mr. Edwards is not normally shy about making campaign contributions, having put close to $30,000 to work for favored candidates over the years, including Inez Dickens in 2005 and 2009.  But since the Harlem Business Alliance has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the City Council in recent years, much of it steered by CM Dickens, who was even credited for helping to organize a $700,000 federal grant to the group, perhaps Walter J. Edwards sees reticence regarding his help for his favorite Councilwoman as the better part of valor.

There are more such stories, many more.  Executives of Petra Capital Management gave the Dickens campaign $6,000 this year.  Andy Stone, chairman of Petra, a “vulture investor” whom Crain’s calls “one of the godfathers of the commercial mortgage-backed securities market,” suffered massive failures in 2010 when his funds went bankrupt.  It isn’t clear what his firm is planning in Harlem, but based on his track record, it probably isn’t good.

Calvin Butts, minister of the legendary Abyssinian Baptist Church and potential challenger to Rep. Rangel, gave Inez Dickens $1000 this year.  The Rev. Butts faces serious scrutiny regarding the finances of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, the church’s non-profit subsidiary organization.  Having received millions of dollars in grants and earmarks from government and private enterprise, the ADC appears to run large deficits, despite a track record of profitable real estate transactions. 

Finally, Ariane Dart of Sarasota gave Inez Dickens $2,500 this year.  Her husband, Robert Dart, probably would have made the contribution, but he and his brother renounced their US citizenship in 2001 in order to avoid taxes.  The Darts own Dart Container Corporation, which owns Solo Cups and is a major producer of insulated foam packaging, which the Council is considering banning.  Dart is in a tizzy over the possibility of losing the market, and has apparently been trying to buy votes.  Inez Dickens is listed as a co-sponsor on the bill, along with about 20 other council members.  The bill is still in committee.  Assuming CM Dickens does become Speaker, it will be most instructive to see if she kills the bill’s progress or allows it to come to a vote.


Corey Johnson Prepares Lie Sandwich; Makes CD 3 Eat It

At last night’s District 3 candidate forum, Corey Johnson took issue with being labeled the candidate of “political insiders” by his opponent Yetta Kurland.  “Does anyone here really think Jerry Nadler is a political insider?” asked Johnson, referencing one of his prominent endorsers.  “Jerry Nadler is a progressive Democrat.”

If Johnson believes that a Manhattan ten-term congressman isn’t a political insider, then he is most likely stupid or cynical.  He doesn’t strike me as stupid, so let’s go with cynical, or maybe just cunning.  

Throughout the debate, which mostly covered development-related issues, when Johnson wasn’t lying, he was tendentiously parsing half-truths.  I will concede that he was probably not lying when he said that his mother was a lunch lady, that he is gay, and that he has in fact received the political endorsements that he says he has received.  Virtually everything else, based upon my close scrutiny of his record, is in doubt.

For instance, when asked by Kurland why, if he is in fact proud of his work for real estate company GFI Development, he had asked the Gay Center to remove his bio from their website, Corey Johnson answered that the bio contained “incorrect information.”  He then, in a non sequitur, claimed that the item had come from this blog, which he accused of “saying false things” about him.

Here is the offending bio, from the archived version of the Gay Center website:

Corey Johnson is currently employed by GFI Development Company as Director of Government Relations and Community Affairs, where he has worked with the New York City Council, Mayor’s office and a variety of New York City Agencies. He has overseen the re-zoning of a large mixed-use project and managed the GFI’s efforts to revitalize neighborhoods surrounding their developments. Prior to his work at GFI, Mr. Johnson directed and shaped political and communications strategy on a variety of mayoral, gubernatorial and presidential campaigns in New York. He has served on the media-strategy team of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and worked in the finance department of the Democratic National Committee. Mr. Johnson has been quoted in The New York Times, New York Daily News, The Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle. He has also appeared on CNN, MSNBC, ABC News, NPR, Sirius-XM Satellite Radio and NY 1 to offer political commentary and insight. Mr. Johnson is also the Vice-Chair of Manhattan Community Board 4, where he co-chairs the Chelsea Land-Use Committee and serves on the Business, Licenses and Permits Committee. He is the Political Director for, which is the highest-trafficked gay and lesbian blog on the Web.

Everything in this blurb corresponds with what Johnson acknowledges to be true about his work history.  The only consistent explanation for why he called the Gay Center and asked them to remove the item is that he was trying to cover up his association with GFI.  

Regarding this blog, incidentally, I challenge the Johnson campaign or anyone else to identify any false claims I have made about him.

Next, Johnson accused Kurland of lying about his current association with GFI, insisting that his employer, the Sydell Group, is not an offshoot of GFI, nor is it connected with the company in any way.  Corey Johnson identified the Sydell Group as the manager of two hotels outside of New York, and insisted emphatically that it is not connected to GFI.

Here is a little item from the New York Times from March 10 of this year:

The Local Stop column in some editions on Feb. 24 about NoMad, the area north of Madison Square, referred imprecisely to the development of the Ace Hotel in the area. The Ace, which opened in 2009, was developed by GFI Development, then a partnership between Sydell Partners L.L.C. and Allen Gross of GFI; it was not developed only by Sydell Partners L.L.C., which has since become the Sydell Group.

This blurb was a correction to an earlier article, and was thus presumably rigorously checked and re-checked.  So unless the Times fact checkers are complete incompetents, GFI Development and the Sydell Group are, contrary to Corey Johnson’s denial, closely related.

Here is an article from The Real Deal describing the fallout between the head of the Sydell Group and his partner, the head of GFI.  There is no question in the mind of the writer that the two companies operated in a tight partnership, with joint ownership and management of assets.

Here is a press release from the Sydell Group itself, describing its close partnership with GFI.

So we are left with two options if we want to preserve the idea that Corey Johnson is telling the truth about the Sydell Group: either he is very stupid, or everyone else in the world is wrong.  But if we reject the supposition that he must be telling the truth, then everything becomes clear.  That’s the problem with extremely convincing liars: the way they say things sounds so sensible that we want it to accord with reality, even when it doesn’t.  

Corey Johnson took hairsplitting to the level of the angstrom when the conversation turned to the question of 470 Vanderbilt, a GFI development in Brooklyn.  At an earlier community forum, Johnson took credit for having forced the developer to increase the level of affordable housing to be built from 20% to 26%.  He then congratulated himself for having even provided for affordable two-bedroom apartments to be built, all for the benefit of the families of Brooklyn.

Leaving aside the fact that the Council Member involved in the negotiations on the other side of the table from Johnson, Tish James, said flat out that she has no recollection of Corey Johnson’s role in securing the higher percentage, no housing of any sort was built at all at 470 Vanderbilt.  There is an office building at the site, and a parking lot where the housing was supposed to be.

Last night Johnson insisted that he had never said that the housing was built, only that he had negotiated a restriction in the event that housing were to be built.  Forgive me if I fail to follow Corey Johnson into his Thomistic musings on the nature of the unbuilt, but the lot is commercially zoned, so his imaginary restrictions have been violated in any case.  Don’t take my word for any of this, listen to the man himself talk about his fantasy building, and then decide if he was talking about restrictions or about actual housing.

Corey Johnson is a handsome, charismatic guy, and it sounds like he has worked hard on the community board.  He speaks clearly, has a nice voice, and unlike Yetta Kurland, he doesn’t get visibly nervous.  The debate last night was kind of like Kennedy-Nixon: Johnson won if you watched it on television, but everyone who listened to it on the radio said it was hands-down Kurland’s victory.

The only problem with Corey Johnson is that he lies.  He figures he can lie his way into office, and by then it won’t matter.  But the problem with lies, even if they never catch up to you (cf. Bill Clinton), is that lying is a terrible habit, habit forms character, and character is destiny.


Affordability and Development

Two articles I wrote are up at City & State and Gotham Gazette. 

First, Defining Affordability Down: 

Who opposes affordable housing? For Democratic candidates, supporting affordable housing is like coming out for better schools or equal rights for women: It is so uncontroversial and obvious that it is almost beside the point. But what does affordability really mean in a city as obsessed and driven by real estate as New York?

Read the rest here

Second, Development and Its Discontents: 

Manhattan’s 3rd City Council District, covering the West Village, Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, has been altered immeasurably in the last decade. Depending on your perspective, the last 12 years under the leadership of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the district’s current representative, have either destroyed the area, or remade it into a fabulously exciting international destination. Or both. 

Read the rest here

Brad Lander on REBNY and Margaret Chin: "Hard to Know What the Relationship is"

After my last post about Margaret Chin and her acceptance of Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) support, I started wondering about what it means in New York for an elected Democrat to label herself as “progressive.”

By the standards of legislative bodies in this country, after all, the New York City Council as a whole is about as far to the left as you could go.  The Speaker, hewing to her agenda, has prevented most legislation from proceeding to the floor for a vote, but if the Council were a more democratic institution then New York would find itself, in certain respects, in Pyongyang.

Consider, for example, the fact that the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus of the Council already constitutes an absolute majority of the entire body.  If minority representation is a proxy for a leftish, social justice style agenda, then surely the Council is already “progressive” enough, no? 

It is when we look, as Chris Bragg did in Crain’s recently, at the precise political history of the members of the Progressive Caucus, that we understand that the Caucus represents the high water mark of the Working Families Party, circa 2009, before the implosion of Data and Field Services.  The Caucus was organized as an elected vanguard to further the WFP union-left agenda.  It is more of a Montagnard clique representing a strategic tendency, than it is an ideological movement of visionaries or particularly committed liberals.

I spoke this week to Council Member Brad Lander, Co-Chair of the Progressive Caucus, about what it means to be on the caucus, and what it would take to be thrown out of it, and whether Margaret Chin is in danger of such exile.

The always affable and somewhat verbose Lander, of District 39 representing Park Slope and environs, told me about the loose requirements for joining the Caucus.  “People send a letter saying they would like to consider joining,” Lander said, “and then we have a conversation, and there is the matter of dues, we do have rather heavy dues…and then we take a vote, though we have never rejected anyone.  I believe we do have a clause pertaining to expulsion based on ethical misconduct, much as the Council itself….”

I explained that I was less interested in the mechanics of the Progressive Caucus than in what would constitute political grounds for expelling someone.  I asked Lander what he made of the independent expenditures that REBNY has made, through their Jobs for New York PAC, on behalf of Council Member (and fellow Progressive) Margaret Chin, and if that violated the Progressive Caucus’ stated principles on affordable housing.

Defending Chin, Lander said, “I don’t think Margaret Chin has signed on to the REBNY platform…it is hard to know what the relationship is.  I don’t think that Mark Levine has signed on to the REBNY platform, and I don’t think that Ritchie Torres has signed on the REBNY platform either.”  

Mark Levine (running in CD 7) and Ritchie Torres (candidate in CD 15) are both WFP candidates, and presumably prospective Progressive Caucus members, though neither of them has received any help from Jobs for New York. In fact, so far, the only elected Council Member who has received substantial help from Jobs for New York is Margaret Chin, avowed fighter for affordable housing.

(Correction: Mark Levine and Ritchie Torres have been endorsed by Jobs for New York.  Levine has disavowed the support, while Torres, according to Tenents PAC, has issued ambivalent statements regarding Jobs for New York.)

I pointed this out to Lander, who grew defensive of his fellow Progressive.  “I am not going to criticize Margaret Chin’s campaign,” he said.  “There are several races where Jobs for New York has supported the front-running candidates in hopes that they will be grateful later.  There is no way to solicit or refuse the help, so who is to say whether Margaret Chin even wanted it…”

The notion that the people at REBNY, who comprise some of the savviest investors in the world, are making random political contributions, either in befuddlement or out of earnest good will, seemed so ridiculous that I was forced to interrupt the council member to say so.  I asked him, If you will not draw lines against an organization such as REBNY, whose position is anathema to that of the Progressive Caucus, then what does it mean for there to be a Progressive Caucus?

CM Lander softened his tone: “I share the concern implied in your question. I am against large independent expenditures, and many of the battles I have fought for affordable housing and inclusionary zoning--I am sure that REBNY would be on the other side of them.

“But at the same time we have not discussed REBNY.  There is no set of specific questions and criteria that we have developed about them.  There is not a defined agenda regarding REBNY, as there is for Students First.”  

Students First is a pro-charter school PAC founded by Michelle Rhee, which the Progressive Caucus has specifically drawn a line on.  Any endorsement of or by Students First, it appears, will sink endorsement from the Progressive Caucus/WFP front.

Which makes sense, if you think about it.  The UFT opposes anyone who doesn’t take the position that the only way to be pro-student is to be pro-teacher, and that the only way to be pro-teacher is to salute the UFT.  The UFT has a lot of money, and highly disciplined voters as members.  On the other hand, REBNY, while an unsavory type of organization for people who call themselves progressives to be associated with, has no organized opposition worth fearing.  OK, there is Tenants PAC, but Tenants PAC has given away in total about $130,000, ever.  That is, a little more than one percent of what Jobs for New York is planning to disburse this summer.

So the Progressive Caucus may see Margaret Chin’s refusal to denounce REBNY’s support for her campaign as an embarrassment, but not a significant one.   It isn’t as though she offended anyone important, like Michael Mulgrew or Lillian Roberts.  And as Co-Chairman Brad Lander told me, “I am sure that Margaret Chin will continue to be a committed member of the Progressive Caucus.”


Margaret Chin, Progressively Awful

A hundred years ago being a Progressive meant you were in favor of civil service reform, eugenics, and the referendum.  Nowadays being a Progressive means being in favor of social and economic justice and against stop-and-frisk…I guess. It isn’t entirely clear what the label means.  But whatever it is, if it includes Margaret Chin, Council Member for CD 1, it doesn’t mean much of anything at all.

CM Chin, a member of the Council’s Progressive Caucus, represents Lower Manhattan, including Chinatown.  She got her start in politics as a housing advocate and was a founding member of Asian Americans for Equality, which originated as a front group for the Communist Workers Party.  She appears to have pedaled back from her Maoist commitments since then, and even from the rather less stringent doctrines of the Progressive Caucus. 

Signing on with Jobs for New York, the political action committee of the Real Estate Board of New York, Margaret Chin has endorsed the platform of the most pro-developer, anti-tenant organization in the city.  REBNY has promised to spend $10 million in 2013 to defeat candidates opposed to its agenda.  So far this season, Jobs for New York has spent more than $80,000 on Chin’s mailers, one of which calls her “Maragret.”  Coming from a soi-disant “passionate advocate for tenants’ rights,” Chin's evident doublethink is dizzying.

Chin’s record in her district on development issues is terrible.  When she took office, the oldest building on the Bowery was a circa-1817 Federal Era wood framed structure at 135 Bowery.  First American International Bank, a local company, owned the building, which was designated as a landmark in June 2011 by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  Under Council tradition, local Members direct their colleagues how to vote on most land use proposals, and Chin urged removal of the landmark designation, allowing the owner to destroy the historic property, which was in fact torn down. 

Executives and employees of the First American International Bank then contributed $5,910 to Chin’s re-election campaign.

Council Member Chin, who had originally claimed to support the landmarking of 135 Bowery, argued that, “there is opportunity on the site to build commercial space that is so needed in the Chinatown community for the small businesses.”  She claimed repeatedly that the commercial space would provide “affordable office space,” that would be below market-rate.

Here we see the shibboleth “affordable” brought out like a fetish to dispel criticism of real estate development.  Affordable housing is always promised, but at least that is an actual thing, which can be given to people with low incomes.  But how would “affordable office space” be allocated?  To businesses that need more money?  To non-profits run by her supporters?  It is totally absurd and fantastically cynical for Chin to make such a promise. 

In another case where Margaret Chin set aside Progressive principles of transparency and open government, we find that 183 East Broadway, owned by Ching Sun “Norman” Wong, was built in contravention of building code.  It was too tall and violated the “sliver law.”  It did not have enough open space.  Demolition and structural work caused neighboring buildings to crack.  Its scaffold fell on and hurt a pedestrian.  The city halted construction.

Wong’s lawyer pled to the community board that his client, who owns a real estate company, is “in the noodle business…doesn’t know much about real estate.”  He also said that Wong gave the community “$150,000 in grants and donations” (unspecified), and wanted help to finish building the structure without having to follow the law.

The board voted to support Wong, and the Bureau of Standards and Appeals went along with the board.  Presumably Council Member Chin could have stepped in at any time, but why should she?  Norman Wong gave her campaign $2,750.

When I interviewed Margaret Chin in 2009, I asked her about NYU’s plans for expanding its footprint through the lower Village.  Chin said forcefully, “NYU needs to be reined in, and made to understand that lower Manhattan is not a college town.”  Once elected however, Council Member Chin went along with the Speaker, and approved NYU’s plans to continue devouring downtown.

Assuming Margaret Chin is re-elected, it will be interesting to see what happens next term when the Progressive Caucus reconstitutes itself.  Will Chin, a “proud member,” remain as such?  Or will the Caucus expel this running dog from its midst?

Gay Center Cheerful: "Corey Asked Us to Do It"

There was never any intention to turn this blog into a constant revelation of the misdeeds of CD 3 candidate Corey Johnson's campaign.  But as Nixon showed us, when you try to cover things up, you usually make things worse for yourself.  So don't blame us when it is Corey Johnson cutting off the Hydra heads of his own corruption.

Last month, City Council Watch began looking into Corey Johnson's actual work history, which was not given in any detail in his campaign material.  We found a fairly extensive resume on the website of the LGBT Center, where Johnson had participated on a panel in 2011.  The bio discussed Johnson's work for real estate developer GFI.  

We called the Johnson campaign and asked a few questions about GFI.  When we returned to the Gay Center website, we found that Corey Johnson's bio had been removed entirely, though there was a cached version available.  See here and here for comparison's sake. 

The Gay Center is a non-profit that receives City funds in the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, and by law is forbidden to do any political work on behalf of an electoral campaign.  We wondered about how the scrubbing of Johnson's bio was authorized, so we called Mary Steyer, the Director of Communication for the Center and asked her about it. 

Mary Steyer, who could not be more helpful, looked into the matter and called us back.  "I investigated the issue and have an answer," she announced cheerfully.  "Corey Johnson called the webmaster and asked him to remove the bio."   

Mary Steyer was puzzled when we suggested that helping a prominent candidate for office bury information about himself might not be in the mission statement of a major non-profit organization, and didn't see what the issue was.  "He said the info was outdated, and it didn't strike us as odd."

 (Let me point out that the Gay Center, on 13th Street, is in the 3rd Council District, where Corey Johnson is running.  The Center receives major allocations from Corey Johnson's advocate Speaker Christine Quinn.  It was until recently headed by Mario Palumbo, Jr., a Johnson contributor and partner at Millennium Partners, a highly-connected real estate development firm.  The Gay Center is a large and politically-connected non-profit group in the middle of the West Village.  I imagine someone on the staff there must have an idea about what constitutes best practices when it comes to dealing with political campaigns.)

On the other hand, as we have said before, we aren't campaign law experts.  Maybe one of you is.




Picturesque This!

From my new column at City & State

The City Council funding process is so intentionally opaque, so jackstraw and piecemeal that it should not even be a surprise to find the Members from Kew Gardens or the Upper West Side sponsoring $75,000 allocations for the High Line.  Yet even one of the sponsoring council members in question was surprised to discover that she had been credited, in the 2013 FY Budget, with such an unusual allocation.  CM Gale Brewer, asked why she had given money to the High Line, which is not in her district, flatly denied the designation, insisting, “First time I ever heard about it.”

Read the rest of it there

Corey Johnson's Continuing Deceptions

CD 3 candidate Corey Johnson misrepresents his role in developing affordable housing in Brooklyn, repeatedly taking credit for a project that not only has no affordable housing: it has no housing at all.

Last month, City Council Watch broke the story of Corey Johnson’s work for real estate developer GFI, which he had scrubbed from his record.  In response, Johnson has changed his campaign website, adding some information about his work history and his present employment:

[…serving] at GFI Development Company on community outreach on two hotel projects in Manhattan and an affordable housing related project in Brooklyn. Corey currently works part-time in LGBT marketing at the Sydell Group.

The “affordable housing related project” Johnson refers to is 470 Vanderbilt Avenue, in Fort Greene.  The building, a former tire factory which was at one point supposed to house tech companies, stood in disuse before GFI bought it in 2008 with plans to rehab the building as mixed-use residential and commercial space, ideally capturing a major City agency as a long-term tenant.

As part of the deal to allow GFI to build out the structure and sign the Human Resources Agency to a 20-year lease, the company agreed to build a 350-unit residential building on the site of the building’s parking lot.  The company, after negotiations with local Council Member Letitia James, agreed to include 90 affordable units, more than the usual 20% allowance in such projects.

Corey Johnson worked for the GFI development team at 470 Vanderbilt, and at a West Village community forum on June 19, he made a strong case for the good work he and GFI did in increasing the stock of affordable housing in Brooklyn.  Video was taken of his speech, and we have transcribed his comments:

One more thing, to be fully transparent:  the same company that built that hotel on 29th and Broadway, they were going to do a residential building in Fort Greene in Brooklyn, on a former manufacturing lot.  They asked me to come in and work with the local community board in Fort Greene, and the local Council Member, to make sure there was an affordable housing component to that building.  When we started off, before I came in, they were going to do 20% affordable housing.  When the rezoning was over, I got them up to 26% affordable housing, and maximized the number of two-bedrooms, for people in the community that needed affordable housing.

Sounds great!  Between this impassioned and detailed description of all the affordable two-bedroom apartments Corey Johnson fought to build, and his discussion of the project on his website, who can deny that Corey Johnson and GFI are a force for good?  As he says, he single-handedly pushed GFI to increase the amount of affordable housing they were going to build.

The only problem is that none of the housing was ever built470 Vanderbilt is an office building.  Nobody lives there, and nobody can live there, because the entire lot, including the part where the residential units were to be built, was zoned as commercial real estate by GFI in 2011, while Johnson was still employed by the company.

Corey Johnson hedged the impact of his work on 470 Vanderbilt when, on his campaign website, he speaks of an “affordable housing related project.”  But when he spoke at the community forum he  lost control of what he was saying: he takes full credit for plans that were never realized.  The two-bedrooms that he is bragging about having built “for people in the community” do not exist. 

We spoke to Council Member James about what happened to the affordable housing component of the 470 Vanderbilt project.  She commented about the problem of getting developers to commit to actually building what they promise to build, and noted that this problem is endemic to the land use process in New York City generally.

Regarding 470 Vanderbilt, CM James said, “I pushed very hard to get affordable housing established in that project. Corey was part of the development team, and he may have negotiated behind the scenes.  I don’t know the extent of his work on the project.  However, unfortunately, the lot is still a parking lot.”

So, according to the council member with whom Corey Johnson claims to have worked to build more affordable housing, his involvement was vague at best, and James has no specific recollection of his participation. 

We thought that Corey Johnson was slightly deceptive when he tried to deflect attention from his professional association with a real estate developer, but many candidates for office massage their bios, and it isn’t necessarily a major sin.  However, we now see Johnson making public speeches where he overstates and distorts his role in land use negotiations, and furthermore, brags passionately about fantasy residential developments that were never built, as though people are actually living in them!

Corey Johnson builds castles in air and is irate when his good faith is challenged.  We have heard a lot of grandiose megalomaniacal politicians talk wildly about their achievements, but they usually take credit for things that actually exist. Johnson appears to be an utter fabulist, an egoist with scant regard for reality, pointing at a barren lot and waving at all the happy people he has housed there.


District 5: Micah Kellner, Wine Salesman and Derby Tout

Last month City Council Watch brought you the story of Assemblymember Micah Kellner and his vigorous efforts on behalf of the Vehicle Production Group and its miracle taxi.  (In case you missed it, the New York Post recapped it yesterday.)  To refresh your memories, Kellner was given more than $20,000 upon completion of his favorable testimony before the TLC.  Unfortunately, things went sour for VPG, and it isn’t likely that much more money will be flowing from that company to the Kellner campaign, now that the government has seized its remaining assets.

However, Micah Kellner made sure to cover his bets, and has brought his dedication to product placement to the service of several other industries.  For example, Kellner has agitated for an end to New York State’s prohibition of the sale of wine in grocery stores.  In 2009 Micah Kellner wrote an editorial for the Buffalo News in which he spoke of allowing supermarkets to sell wine as a “sacred responsibility.”

In 2010 Kellner brandished a “smoking gun” which, he claimed, proved that liquor manufacturer Diageo had improperly worked on behalf of liquor stores trying to preserve their franchise.

In 2011 Kellner, citing a study by “New Yorkers for Economic Growth and Open Markets,” a coalition of wine producers and the food industry, called allowing grocery stores to sell wine “the ultimate win-win-win.”

In 2012 Kellner wrote to the New York Times that the inability to buy wine in supermarkets is the supreme “inconvenience” for New Yorkers.

Here is what he got: $21,600 in NYS and NYC donations from grocery store owners and lobbyists.  Kellner received money from Devon Fredericks and William Wachtel (Zabar family spouses); John Catsimatidis (Gristedes); Howard Glickberg (Fairway); Daniel Wegman (Wegman’s); Whole Foods; Joni Yoswein (New Yorkers for Economic Growth and Open Markets); and a variety of wine and beer wholesalers around the city.

Another good fight that Micah Kellner has been waging is the restoration of Off-Track Betting in bars and restaurants.  Horseplayers and simple devotees of the sport of kings apparently have been at a loss since the last OTB closed its doors.  We read:

Using the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands to make his point, New York Assemblyman Micah Kellner, who represents Manhattan, railed on officials for not moving to offer offtrack betting at bars and restaurants in New York City…

“How is it that New York is such a bad bookie that we can’t make a buck on Derby day?” Kellner said in a May 5 release. “On the day of the most famous race in the country, New York has to get back on the horse. The New York Racing, Wagering and Gaming Commission, with its stalling, is forcing not only the hardcore handicapper but the casual Kentucky Derby fan to scratch from the race.”

Did anyone else know that the Kentucky Derby is now officially called “the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands?”  I didn’t.  But I bet that Micah Kellner does, as he received $4000 in donations from Yum! Brands between 2010 and 2012.

Incidentally, the only other politician to get money in that period from Yum! Brands was Governor Cuomo, and he only got $1000.  Micah isn’t cheap, but he works hard.

So it is good to know that Micah Kellner is on the front lines, working to ensure that New Yorkers can buy a pint of Thunderbird at the local grocery store, put it in their pockets, and then head over to the nearest bar and blow the milk money on the ponies.


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.


District 3: Corey Johnson's Secret Life

The race to succeed Christine Quinn in the 3rd Council District, covering the west side of Manhattan roughly from Canal Street to Central Park, is shaping up to be a battle between 2009 Council contender Yetta Kurland and Community Board 4 Chair Corey Johnson.

Yetta Kurland has a civil rights law practice and, until recently, her own radio talk show.  She incurred the undying enmity of CM Quinn in 2009 when she ran against her in the primary and, to the Speaker’s embarrassment, won more than 30% of the vote.  Coupled with Kurland’s vociferous opposition to the Quinn-approved closing of St. Vincent’s Hospital, Christine Quinn initiated a vendetta against Kurland, waging a virtual “Anybody but Yetta” campaign that has worked for the benefit of her rival, Corey Johnson, “the youngest” chair of a community board.  Quinn’s influence has won Johnson the support of the local clubs, local political endorsements and some labor backing.

Johnson boasts a long resume of accomplishment.  To wit:

Corey is also a Director on the Hudson Yards Development Corporation, a Member of the Hudson Yards Community Advisory Committee, a Member of the Moynihan Station Community Advisory Committee, a Member of the Javits Center Community Advisory Committee, a Member of the Hudson River Park Strategic Planning Task Force, a Member of the Friends of the Hudson River Park Trusts Neighborhood Improvement District Steering Committee, a Board Member of Save Chelsea, a Member of the Council of Chelsea Block Associations, a Member of the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club, a Member of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City, and a Member of the 100/200 West 15th Street Block Association.

What is odd about this extensive list of activities is the absence of any positions that offer remuneration, i.e. money.  Nowhere on his campaign material, nor in his interviews, nor upon repeated questioning to his campaign manager will the Corey 2013 machine explain the most primary question we all have about anyone we meet: What does he do for a living?

This is not an idle question.  Poke around on candidate websites for a little while and you will have no trouble figuring out how these people make money.  In fact, the subject is usually foregrounded, because in New York City politics it is important to have some kind of explanation for how you pay the rent, before other people reach their own conclusions.   So the wall of community service cited above becomes a screen: an act of misdirection that we are demanded to accept.  The guy is hiding something.

What it turns out he is covering up and scrubbing from his Internet presence is his work as Director of Governmental Relations and Community Affairs for GFI Development Company, beginning in July 2008.  GFI Development is the real estate development branch of GFI Group, which according to the company website “has been at the forefront of credit derivative brokerage services, leadership that we are now leveraging to help establish an active, liquid Exotic Credit Derivative market.”

Exotic credit derivatives, for those among us with short memories, are those quaint financial instruments that enable banks to make massive bets on the failure of loans, without having to actually own any of the underlying debt.  Credit derivatives caused a minor kerfuffle in the markets in late 2008.  GFI Group “handled as much as 40 percent of the credit-derivatives trades between the world's banks in 2007,” according to Bloomberg.

Well, Corey Johnson had nothing to do with any of that, of course…he worked for the real estate development arm of GFI.   And real estate development firms are wholesome, salubrious entities.  Which must be why after I asked Johnson’s campaign manger about his work there, his speaker bio at the Gay Center website was scrubbed.  (Compare here and here.)  And his LinkedIn profile was closed. 

GFI Development buys old buildings and turns them into hotels, condominiums and the like.  Corey Johnson’s job was to facilitate the political side of things, as we see in this June 2009 article detailing his advocacy on behalf of a GFI development before Community Board 2 in Brooklyn. 

In 2008, around when they hired Corey to be their front man in New York City, GFI Development bought the old Breslin Hotel, on 29th Street, which was an SRO.  Their efforts to evict or buy out the existing tenants led to a series of court battles, but eventually the Breslin gave way to the trendy Ace Hotel.  Corey Johnson had his birthday party there when it opened in 2010, and was so delighted that he even wore a tiara, according to this record of the evening.

At the time of the Ace Hotel’s opening, Corey Johnson, top lobbyist and community affairs director for GFI Development, was also Vice-Chair of Community Board 4 and Co-Chair of the CB4 Land Use Committee.  Is this a conflict of interest?  Well, it is true that the Ace Hotel at 29th and Broadway is two blocks east of CB4’s eastern boundary, so maybe not, technically.  But it clearly isn’t something Corey Johnson is proud of, or else he would mention it at least once, wouldn’t he?

Nor, it is fair to say, is Corey proud of his “community affairs” role in the cleansing of the tenants of the Breslin hotel.  Charges of mismanagement of the hotel once GFI bought it abound.  Water turned off, heat turned off, neglect of upkeep: all the usual things that happen when a developer wants to gut a property and redo it for a better class of tenant.  We know he isn’t proud of it because he doesn’t talk about it.  Nor will he specify when he left the company, which seems to have happened in 2011 at some point.

It is easy to let politicians say whatever pretty things they want to about themselves and their good works.  Corey Johnson cleans up well, but that doesn't mean he isn't dirty.


District 8: Who Owns El Barrio?

The 8th Council District, represented by CM Melissa Mark-Viverito, was recently reshaped drastically to straddle equally East Harlem and the South Bronx, cutting out Manhattan Valley and Central Park.  The net effect of this restructuring was to cut approximately 20,000 white non-Hispanics out of the district while capturing about the same number of Hispanics on the other side.

This move, long desired by the Puerto Rican-born CM Mark-Viverito, reflects the transition of Manhattan Valley from being part of south Harlem into part of the Upper West Side: the neighborhood since 2000 has become substantially more white and Asian, and quite substantially less black and Latino.  In incorporating all of Mott Haven and part of the East Bronx up to Highbridge, the CM looks to garner support among her base, but bears the risk of having to appeal to tens of thousands of new district residents who have not yet succumbed to her electoral charms.

Indeed, for a two-term incumbent, Mark-Viverito faces a crowded campaign field.  Some of her opponents are hoping to exploit her lower profile among Bronx voters, but are also aware of the fact that the CM is not especially popular or beloved by her constituents.  Her 2005 election was extremely close, and she won in 2009 with only 45% of the vote—not the worst showing that year by an incumbent, but close to the worst for an incumbent not hampered by allegations of corruption or senility

City Council Watch spoke to three primary challengers for the 8th CD seat, and reached out to several others.  Ed Santos, born in Detroit, is a former math teacher and member of the local community board in East Harlem.  His parents are Filipino immigrants and his mother is a nanny.  Santos stresses his experience as a community builder and his work to create a liquor license subcommittee for CB 11. 

As a teacher, Santos believes he has a unique perspective on the educational needs of the district, and also cites his “humble upbringing” as the child of the working class, specifically contrasting his background to that of the incumbent, who had a privileged youth as the daughter of a successful doctor.  He accuses CM Mark-Viverito of hypocrisy for having voted against the term limit extension five years ago, only to seek a third term herself.  Ed Santos has done a respectable job raising campaign money, and with matching funds he should have the resources to conduct a vigorous operation, despite CM Mark-Viverito’s union-stuffed war chest.

Ariel Guerrero is a son of the Bronx and a Fordham graduate, now living in El Barrio, who characterizes himself as “a community guy.”  A former administrator for the East Harlem Tutorial Program, Guerrero describes an “absolute disconnect between leadership and the community,” citing high rates of asthma and unemployment with “not enough being done” in the last eight years to justify a third term for the incumbent. 

Guerrero is also of Filipino extraction (and Puerto Rican and Polish, he added), and made some sensible comments about affordable housing.  He explained that when white people move into East Harlem, “it is because they have been priced out of other communities,” and it is not an insidious process or invasion. "I am very, very careful about using the word 'gentrification.'"  The solution to the housing problem is more housing, and Guerrero hopes to promote development with “private-public partnerships,” saying perhaps over-optimistically that the 80-20 standard should give way to a 60-40 market rate-to-affordable housing ratio.

Gwen Goodwin is a longtime East Harlem activist who ran against Melissa Mark-Viverito in 2009, winning 1200 votes.  She claims that this year her apartment has been carved out of the 8th District, and the redistricting map appears to support her assertion: there is a little notch around her block that puts her in the 5th District.  Goodwin helped save PS 109 from destruction in the 1990s, and waged a single-handed fight against the School Construction Authority to force them to replace the roof after tearing it off, and succeeded in having the building landmarked.

PS 109, built in 1900 by Charles Snyder, was left empty for years, declared an eyesore, and then sold by the DOE for $1 to a community group chosen by Mark-Viverito to handle its renovation as condos for artists, in conjunction with a well-heeled Minnesota organization called Artspace.  CM Mark-Viverito campaigned against returning the building to use as a school, supporting the City’s insistence that East Harlem’s schools are underutilized, a claim that has been countered and refuted by many advocacy groups.  Leonie Haimson, founder of Class Size Matters, points out that PS 109 is large enough to be turned into a high school, and notes that “half of the city’s kids attend overcrowded high schools.”

Gwen Goodwin sees CM Mark-Viverito as engaged in a wide conspiracy, along with Mayor Bloomberg, first to depopulate and then to raze East Harlem, replacing the existing buildings with luxury condominiums.  This kind of extreme characterization, while more than a little implausible, does reflect the perfervid intensity in which the housing debate takes place in El Barrio.  And Melissa Mark-Viverito’s preference for an exciting arts community over another public school does make one wonder what her vision for New York really is.

All of CM Mark-Viverito’s opponents raise the matter of her personal wealth as a factor in the campaign, claiming that her privileged background makes it difficult for her to relate to the needs of her mostly-poor constituency.  But how rich is she, and does it in fact matter?  The CM’s financial disclosures indicate that she has partial interest in a number of properties in Puerto Rico which put her net worth in the $1-2 million range.  She has an annuity that appears to give her some additional income.  Her father, who owned a plane, founded a hospital that was later sold to a large conglomerate, and there are rumors in the East Harlem community that her family possesses wealth in the hundreds of millions of dollars. 

There have been extremely wealthy liberals and radicals, of course, and being rich does not make you evil.  It does, however, leave you open to the charge of hypocrisy.   As the Co-chair of the Council’s Progressive Caucus, Melissa Mark-Viverito has built a reputation as possibly the most liberal council member.  Her protests against the bombing of Vieques (just off the coast of Ceiba, where she co-owns seven acres of undeveloped land), her advocacy for the release of FALN member Oscar Lopez Rivera (currently serving 70 years for seditious conspiracy), her trumpeting of the Occupy cause, etc etc, have established Mark-Viverito as a staunch leftist in the activist tradition.

But when we hear the CM loudly proclaiming her membership in the 99% against the millionaires who run the country, it sounds like she is laying it on a bit thick.  Even if she doesn’t stand to inherit tens of millions of dollars, and can only hope to retire on a paltry 4 or 5 million, wouldn’t that nevertheless put her in the top 2 or 3 percent of the country, if not the top 1?  The public loves a poor politician who rises above squalor, and a rich politician who has the common touch.  But someone who pretends to be what she isn't deserves all the opprobrium she gets.

District 5: Micah Kellner, Car Salesman

Micah Kellner, currently a member of the assembly, is seeking a 20% pay raise, a shorter commute and a 4-year election cycle by becoming Council Member for the 5th CD, on the Upper East Side.  AM Kellner hopes to replace term-limited Jessica Lappin, and he has received her endorsement and the support of other local electeds, including Rep. Carolyn Maloney.  Money has flowed in from the UFT and 1199 SEIU, and his fundraising is running 3-to-1 against his only serious primary opponent.  All the stars are aligning to elect AM Kellner to the City Council.  

Micah Kellner has served the 76th District since a special election in 2007.  Prior to that he worked as an aide for a variety of New York State politicians.  Kellner has garnered attention for being the first “openly bisexual” Assembly Member, and also for having been born with cerebral palsy.  His attention to issues impacting the queer and disabled communities has earned him a measure of visibility and respect that more senior politicians might envy.  Even while serving as a state legislator he has found time to serve as the “Assistant Organizer” for the “NYC Bisexual, Pansexual and Queer Meetup Group” on

Assembly Member Kellner has accepted an exceptionally large amount of money from the taxi industry, which might strike one as unusual, considering that he does not serve on any transit-related legislative committees.  In this election cycle he has taken at least $12,000 from taxi or taxi-related entities, which is about 8% of his total fundraising so far.

Micah Kellner’s 2012 run for the Assembly provides some depth to his relationship with the transportation industry.  That year, when he ran unopposed in the primary, he accepted at least $40,000 just from transit-related individuals and corporations, much of which was filed as “uncoded” with the state.  This money came from major medallion owners, including $4000 each from Evgeny “Gene” Freidman (who was recently in the news for his assertion that Mayor Bloomberg personally promised to “destroy [his] fucking industry” when he leaves office), Guy Roberts, and Neomi Yakuel, all of whom are on the board of the Greater New York Taxi Association, a powerful trade organization.  To give some perspective to these numbers, Guy Roberts gave $5000 to Governor Cuomo: aside from his contribution to AM Kellner, that was the extent of his state giving that year.  The same disproportionate activity holds for much of Kellner’s donor list.

So while the taxi industry is known for its deep pockets and its campaign advocacy, something odd is definitely going on when a three-term Assembly Member without significant committee membership is raking in this much cash.  We can begin to understand what made AM Kellner worth it to the yellow cab industry when we look at the controversy that attended, and continues to attend, the “Taxi of Tomorrow.”

Mayor Bloomberg, starting in 2011, attempted to resolve a number of problems with taxis in New York City.  He wanted a standard “iconic” taxi that medallion owners would be obligated to use.  And he wanted to answer the need for street hails in the outer boroughs, where livery companies provide ad hoc illegal service.  The Mayor pushed the Taxi and Limousine Commission to pick a standard model (the Nissan NV 200) and he convinced Albany to pass a bill that would allow the TLC to issue up to 30,000 street hail permits that would allow livery cars to make street hails in upper Manhattan and outside Manhattan.

Medallion owners were not pleased with these developments, especially the latter, which would diminish the value of their franchise: medallions now auction for upwards of $1 million, and their number has only been increased three times in 75 years. 

But another group was angry, too.  Advocates for the disabled were already suing the city for not providing an accessible taxi fleet, and the fact that the Taxi of Tomorrow would not be wheelchair-accessible was not lost on them either.  These two groups, medallion owners and advocates for the disabled, joined forces to stop the Mayor’s efforts, and were willing to use any available legal means.  So we saw the Greater New York Taxi Association, not generally known for its good works (Gene Freidman’s bio on the GNYTA website lists the “Israeli Defense Force” as one of his favorite charities), suing the City over ADA requirements, over its failure to allow for hybrid vehicles as stipulated by the City Council, etc etc.

Into this breach stepped/was pushed AM Micah Kellner, who offered as a kind of minor Great Compromise his Access-for-All bill which would mandate expanded accessibility for yellow cabs and livery cabs, and would allow for a greatly-reduced 6,000 livery street hail medallions.  The GNYTA and other industry groups were very happy with this proposal.  The advocates for the disabled were somewhat assuaged.  And Micah Kellner could rest knowing he had demonstrated his willingness to do the bidding of industry while maintaining his reputation as a representative for disabled people.

But if the story ended there, there wouldn’t be much story.  Pushing things further still, Assembly Member Kellner didn’t just choose to fight for accessible transit: after all, that is a laudable goal, and if it requires compromises with industry, well, who is the virgin amongst us?  No, Micah Kellner chose to fight for one specific vehicle that the City should adopt as its answer to all its taxi needs.  And here is where he crossed into shadow country.

On October 20, 2011, the TLC held a hearing to consider approval of a new wheelchair-accessible vehicle, the MV-1, produced by a new automobile company called the generic-sounding Vehicle Production Group or VPG.  Speaking on behalf of the MV-1 was the chairman of VPG, Fred Drasner.  Also testifying for adoption of the MV-1 was Assembly Member Micah Kellner, who spoke of the car’s “terrific suspension,” and who concluded by stating that “when the time comes, I think you should vote for this rule because this vehicle does work.”

Council Member Oliver Koppell also testified in favor of adopting the MV-1, but the difference between the two elected officials is that Oliver Koppell never accepted money from the maker of the MV-1, while Micah Kellner did.

Fred Drasner, chairman of Vehicle Production Group, contributed $3800 to Micah Kellner’s 2010 Assembly campaign.  And after AM Kellner demonstrated what a great car salesman he could be, the money really started to flow. 

On December 2, 2011 the TLC approved the MV-1 for use as a yellow cab.

On December 7, 2011 Fred Drasner contributed $2500 to Micah Kellner’s campaign.

On January 10, 2012 the Vehicle Production Group released a press release about the unveiling of the MV-1.  The release included the following quote from NYS Assembly Member Micah Kellner: “The time for a taxi for all has arrived.  Whether you are on two feet or four wheels, the MV-1 will insure no one is left at the curb."

On January 10, 2012 Fred Drasner contributed $5000 to Micah Kellner’s campaign.

Also on that date, the Vehicle Production Group and Clean Energy Fuels, a major investor in VPG, each contributed $5000 to Micah Kellner’s campaign. 

In July, 2012 VPG contributed another $5000 to the Kellner campaign.

When asked for comment multiple times, the Kellner campaign did not respond.

I am not an expert on campaign finance law, and cannot say whether this timeline indicates violations of those laws.  But I think anyone with the tiniest speck of understanding of cause and effect could draw certain inferences that don’t make Micah Kellner glow with moral rectitude here.  Basically it seems that the folks at Vehicle Production Group (which sounds like an East German factory conglomerate) spotted a likely front for their push to get a juicy contract, an agreeable legislator with solid credentials as an advocate for the disabled, and decided to buy him.

It is funny: back in August of 2011 when Micah Kellner was making the case for his compromise bill, a spokesman for Mayor Bloomberg said, “we didn’t realize that [Kellner] had quit his job as an assemblyman and become a spokesman for the medallion owners.” 

The sad truth is that Kellner didn’t have to quit his assembly job.  In fact, he realized it was more lucrative and effective to do both jobs at the same time.



In just the last few weeks, there were even more baroque developments in this twisted story.  Vehicle Production Group was one of five automobile companies to have been given loans by the Department of Energy to pursue "green cars."  The other companies were Ford, Nissan, Fisker and Tesla.  VPG went belly-up in early April 2013, and its assets have been seized by the Treasury.  It appears that the company was never really in a position to produce as many cars as it said it could, or else the contracts it was hoping for never came through.

There have been no charges of fraud proffered (yet)  regarding VPG, but the taxpayer is out $45 million of the $50 million the company was loaned.  Intriguingly, Jim Johnson, an Obama bundler who led the 2008 vice-presidential search committee, is Vice Chairman of Perseus, one of the lead investors in VPG.


Splitting the Yenta Vote: the Race for Manhattan Beep

Of all the municipal races this year, are any less significant than the ones for Borough President?  Ever since the Board of Estimate was declared unconstitutional 25 years ago, the role of the “Beep” has become quaint and almost vestigial.  Like “Master of the Horse.”

Ask anyone what his Borough President does and you will receive a blank look.  When my daughter graduated from fifth grade, Manhattan Beep Scott Stringer showed up and gave a three minute speech, congratulating the students for living in “such a diverse city.” And he apparently stands outside Fairway sometimes and shakes hands.

Marty Markowitz probably is the Beep par excellence with his incessant boosterism of Brooklyn.  Eating Junior’s cheesecake, praising the Nets, basically being a clown.  When you consider that Markowitz’ predecessor as Brooklyn Borough President was the legitimate powerbroker Howard Golden, one sees how completely diminished the position really is.  It is almost like a Carnival celebration where the town idiot is crowned king for a day.

Ok, maybe the role isn’t as vacuous as it seems.  The Beep has a small amount of capital funding to dispense every year, and can appoint members of local community boards.  Borough Presidents can also introduce legislation to the City Council, though this rarely happens.  And they do have influence over land use decisions.  But mostly the position is a post for either the superannuated (Helen Marshall, Marty Markowitz) or the ambitious (Ruben Diaz, Jr., Scott Stringer).

In any case, the role pays well, provides a staff, and requires limited work, so if you are already used to living on the public’s dime, why wouldn’t you run for it?

This year’s race for Manhattan Borough President is intriguing in that the candidates are relatively respectable, and also because they represent such distinctly identifiable areas of the borough.  Council Members Gale Brewer, Jessica Lappin and Robert Jackson are from the Upper West and Upper East Sides and Uptown respectively.  Julie Menin, president of CB 1, is the candidate of Tribeca and downtown.

Jessica Lappin from the Upper East Side was former Council Speaker Gifford Miller’s chief of staff, and she has long been considered a potential candidate to fill his spot after Speaker Quinn moves on to her well-deserved retirement.  Alternatively it is said that she has her eye on Carolyn Maloney’s House seat in the famed silk stocking district, but the Hon. Maloney isn’t going anywhere soon, so CM Lappin has decided to try for Manhattan BP in the meantime.

Lappin has been a faithful Council soldier, serving competently this last term as chair of the Aging Committee.  Her legislative history is respectable: she has persistently filed intros regarding food allergies and newspaper boxes, twin obsessions of her UES constituency, one imagines.  And she has succeeded this year in getting restrictions passed on those electric scooters that restaurants rely on to buzz around the sidewalks.

Meanwhile, Robert Jackson has represented sections of Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood for 12 years.  He is known as a committed advocate for public education, and co-founded the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which won billions of dollars for city schools from the state, though most of that money has never materialized.  As a black man running against three white women, CM Jackson could capitalize on a possible split vote below 125th Street and win by capturing the black and Latino turnout.  Also, Jackson is a Muslim, which though little remarked upon, would be a significant first if he were elected to a borough-wide office.

Here is a funny video where CM Jackson shows his annoyance with a heckler.

Gale Brewer is known for her vigorous, Jane Jacobs-style advocacy for a livable Upper West Side.  One recent zoning item she pushed for limits the expanding street frontage of banks and drugstores, which have turned entire blocks of Manhattan into glassy swaths of nothingness.  She has also tried to penalize landlords who turn residentially zoned units into illegal hotels.

CM Brewer has saved her considerable wrath for her (perhaps quixotic) war against bedbugs.  No one has fought more persistently, some might say obsessively, to eliminate their scourge from our city.  CM Brewer has announced on separate occasions that she has ceased going to the movies because of bedbugs, and that she crosses the street to avoid walking past chairs or couches that are being thrown out.

The thing about Gale Brewer’s candidacy is that, although she claims that she is serious about running, she hasn’t raised very much money.  More significantly, she hasn’t spent very much money either.  Her three opponents have each spent over $100,000 so far according to the CFB, while CM Brewer isn’t on record as having spent a dime.  So what’s her game?  We will see.

The final candidate for Manhattan BP has never been elected to anything, though as our Mayor has shown us, this isn’t a disqualification for office anymore.  Julie Menin is the chair of CB 1, and has pushed development projects in TriBeCa and SoHo.  She brings a little glamour to the otherwise unsexy Borough President race in the form of her intimidatingly famous supporters, most notably Robert DeNiro.  Ms. Menin has raised more money than anyone else in the race, and will surely run a formidable campaign.

Keep posted to City Council Watch for more info and news about this race and others.