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Though many New Yorkers’ political attention has been primarily focused on the June 22 Democratic mayoral primary, a chance at the city’s highest office is not the only seat up for grabs that day. With 35 out of 51 seats open this election cycle, hundreds of political hopefuls are vying for the chance to sit on City Council next fall, with 14 candidates running in District 7— an expansive district that stretches from 96th Street to 165th Street and home to 179,682 people.
City Council members wield significant power over the city’s laws, as they propose and vote on bills that span a wide range of civic categories from policing to housing to the environment. The council also negotiates with the mayor about the annual budget, and members all have their own budgets that they can use to fund individual groups and projects.
[Related: Two Community Board 9 members emerge as early front-runners in high stakes West Harlem City Council race]
This year’s race is unique in two ways: The terms are shorter and the winners will be decided by ranked-choice voting for the first time in New York City. City Council members typically serve for four years, but this upcoming term will only last for two due to redistricting rules. Ranked-choice voting aims to ensure that the eventual winner of the race has broad support. Under this system, voters can rank their top five candidates in order of preference, and if nobody gets a majority, the last-place candidate is eliminated and their votes are redistributed to the voter’s second choice.
While the eventual District 7 City Council member will only represent constituents for two years, their term will undoubtedly be consequential as the city seeks to simultaneously recover from COVID-19-related challenges and address long-standing issues like housing inaccessibility, environmental concerns, and education reform. Of the 14 candidates running in the Democratic primary, Spectator spoke with eight about their ambitions, backgrounds, and relationships with the neighborhoods.
Stacy Lynch grew up in politics. The daughter of Bill Lynch, who organized the mayoral campaign of David Dinkins, New York City’s first Black mayor, she has been entrenched in the legislative world since her childhood. Yet until the District 7 City Council primary, Lynch did not see herself entering politics.
“To be honest with you, I ran so far away from politics because I saw firsthand the toll that it takes on elected officials and their families,” Lynch explained. “I used to be the person to encourage other folks to run, and so it was during the pandemic where I said to myself, ‘It’s time for you to run.’”
Prior to launching her political career, Lynch worked at the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development before being promoted to deputy director of intergovernmental affairs at the mayor’s office. While she loved her work, she was struck by the lack of diversity in terms of women and people of color; if she was to win, Lynch would be the first woman to hold the District 7 City Council seat even though the voting bloc is 55 percent female. She hopes that her campaign inspires women to run in the future and ensures that the district’s representation mirrors its demographics.
“Women in government is a very interesting dynamic. … There are very few women in the back rooms,” Lynch said. “We do a hell of a lot of the work and we rarely get the credit. There’s a lack of representation of women, which therefore affects a lot of policy.”
On the question of policy, Lynch plans to prioritize COVID-19 recovery, particularly for communities of color. Her plan would include resources for economic development, affordable housing, small business support, education, and health care, among other issues. Lynch said she developed her platform through conversations with residents about their primary concerns and is open to changing policy to adapt to changing circumstances.
“To be honest with you, I feel that everything on my website that states policy is negotiable. I think that people need to understand that their representative is there to listen to them and not tell them what to do,” Lynch said. “If someone has a better idea than I do that will get us to the goal line quicker, that is more efficient and better, then I’ll put my ego aside and incorporate that.”
A self-identified “no-nonsense” person, Lynch hopes to not only support the community that raised her but also pass the most relevant policies by diversifying the ever-elusive back rooms.
A housing advocate who has lived in District 7 all his life, Dan Cohen has long been entrenched in the civic needs of his neighborhood; he currently serves on Community Board 9—a local advisory board for Morningside Heights, Manhattanville, West Harlem, and surrounding communities—participates in neighborhood parks groups, and is Democratic state committeeman for the 69th assembly district. His experience, he believes, sets him apart from other candidates and is of particular importance in a year when so many elected officials in the city are changing due to term limits.
“I’m running for office because I’d like to be the champion for the district that I’ve always called my home,” Cohen said. “At this stage of my life—professionally, personally—I feel ready to take on this responsibility. I know I have the experience to be able to do the job as opposed to being a relative newcomer to the district or politics.”
Cohen’s top priority is affordable housing, as it is his area of expertise and a frequent topic of conversation with residents. He advocates creating more robust tenant organizing with the eventual goal of having a tenant association in every building. There are four sites in the district that are owned or controlled by New York City that he hopes to convert into 1,000 affordable housing units for constituents making less than $40,000 per year.
As a local public school graduate and current parent—Cohen spoke to Spectator while watching his son at the playground—education is another focal point of the campaign. He hopes that the next Council will have a say over the next school chancellor, which is now decided solely by the mayor. Having been frustrated by “highly reactive” and unpredictable decisions this year regarding school closings and impacted by the resulting need for on-demand child care, Cohen is sensitive to the educational challenges that have arisen during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are going to move past [COVID-19] eventually. It will also be about figuring out how to manage the schools’ resources. There’s been an unequal distribution of resources and attention,” Cohen explained. “I personally would like to get rid of screens for elementary schools because … I think that [they] unfairly penalize some families and reward others. Unfortunately, the families that get penalized tend to be lower-income and disproportionately students of color.”
Cohen hopes that his personal relationship with the district, coupled with this background in the pressing issue of affordable housing, will propel him through the primary and give him the opportunity to “further immerse [him]self in the district [he] knows so well.”
Though she is only 21, Maria Ordoñez, CC ’21, knows the West Harlem community well—really well. A lifelong resident, she has witnessed firsthand the community’s perseverance through myriad challenges from rampant evictions to a lack of governmental transparency. With her campaign, she hopes to mobilize tenants and give political voice to those whose words have long been ignored.
“My first priority would be to help as many tenants as I can, to make sure that we’re dealing with the housing crisis in District 7,” Ordoñez said. “Growing up in the community … I saw people have to leave and be evicted. … For too long, working-class New Yorkers, Black and brown people, have been left out of the conversation.”
In order to address the housing crisis, Ordoñez plans to fight for transparency in rezoning efforts, defend against overdevelopment, stand up to elite institutions such as Columbia, increase oversight of landlords and apartment maintenance, and close loopholes in zoning codes to ensure the accessibility of affordable housing. Rent cancellation during the pandemic is not within City Council’s purview, but Ordoñez is eager to put pressure on the state legislature to change that.
While housing is her primary focus, Ordoñez believes that all issues are “interconnected.” The environment, too, is of great importance in her campaign, and she intends to cut down on buildings’ emissions and place fines on buildings that do not comply with the rules. Additionally, she hopes to create renewable energy New York City Housing Authority buildings in order to spur jobs and sustainability.
“The community wants to see changes in NYCHA. They want to make sure that NYCHA is not privatized. What the community wants is what we will do, and ultimately what the community wants is for everyone to thrive and have jobs, education, and housing,” Ordoñez said. “We’re sending a message that we’re going to bring change that people want to see in this district, and I’m the voice for that change.”
MARTI ALLEN CUMMINGS
When Marti Allen Cummings was a teenager, New York City was the clichéd place of dreams. They moved here right after graduating high school at 17, hoping to pursue a career in the arts, and has spent the past 16 years in the city. Cummings, the first nonbinary candidate to ever run for City Council, entered the nightlife and small business industry as a drag artist, a career they believe positions them for the District 7 seat in an atypical yet meaningful way.
“My path to candidacy is unique, but I know what it’s like to be someone who lives gig-to-gig and paycheck-to-paycheck in a city that is increasingly built for the wealthy and not for working people,” Cummings said. “I just really believe we need real voices who are going to work for the people, not for establishment interests.”
In order to achieve their goal of working for the people, Cummings, like many other candidates, believes that the Council needs to focus on housing justice and units that are genuinely tailored to the average median income in each neighborhood. With rent stabilization, they would aim to help not only homeowners but also small business owners in order to address the economic crisis faced by local businesses as a result of the pandemic.
Environmental advocacy is also a crucial component of Cummings’ campaign, as they noted that District 7 has one of the highest asthma and cancer rates in Manhattan. Among other issues, Cummings hopes to tackle equitable school funding, small business recovery, police reform, and education. The issues in question are of varying urgency throughout the district, given its wide range of socioeconomic diversity and must be, Cummings urged, applied thoughtfully.
“Our ZIP codes in this city have dictated people’s health care, education, and housing for too long, so we need to make sure that we’re having an equitable distribution of resources. A lot of the time Upper Manhattan is left out of those conversations, and that’s not right.”
Should they be elected, Cummings is eager to work with fellow council members from neighboring districts, as they emphasized the importance of engaging with communities “block-by-block” and that issues do not disappear at a district borderline.
Shaun Abreu, CC ’14, considers himself the “son” of District 7 and said he is running for City Council in order to honor his family’s experience with eviction—one shared with many would-be constituents—and tackle the housing crisis that molded his childhood.
“I tell folks that I came home from school one day to find my mother holding an eviction notice at our kitchen table. I will never forget the pain in her eyes and I will never forget taking shelter with some very kind neighbors,” Abreu reflected. “We regained our footing after our eviction, after my mom landed a job at Zabar’s on the Upper West Side … and my father landed a job as a janitor. … The truth is, the opportunities that were available to so many like my family are no longer available to families today.”
Having spent his career as a tenants’ rights attorney, Abreu hopes that serving on the Council will enable him to engage in the same type of necessary and urgent work while reaching far more people. The pandemic has exacerbated housing insecurity, along with his other priorities like education. Abreu attended elementary school, middle school, and college in District 7 and understands that educational realities vary throughout the district.
“Kids shouldn’t have to leave their neighborhoods to get a good quality education. We
should have that right in our backyards,” he said. “I know the needs and I know how different the constituencies are by virtue of being throughout the district.”
Like Lynch, Abreu highlighted that his policies are malleable and that he is eager to incorporate residents’ ideas into his campaign. He has engaged with voters’ ideas through his work as a former Community Board 9 member, board director of Friends of Morningside Park, and advocate for children in foster care. Mark Levine, the current District 7 City Council representative whose term limit is up this year, has endorsed Abreu, who managed Levine’s 2013 campaign.
Though he has existed in the political world for many years—he worked in the Bronx Borough President’s Office as general counsel and senior policy manager—Ray Sanchez said he had never considered running for office himself until COVID-19 tore through this city this year. With his campaign, Sanchez is seeking to support New Yorkers whose plight has existed for years but only began to be recognized during the pandemic.
“As the pandemic continued [to] rage, people would talk about, ‘Oh, you know, the pandemic is hitting Black and Hispanic communities the hardest.’ If you’re surprised that a respiratory illness is disproportionately impacting communities of color in the South Bronx and Queens and Washington Heights, then you haven’t been paying attention to public health and environmental justice in the city for the last 40 years,” he said.
In order to best serve those communities, Sanchez advocates taking a “holistic” approach that focuses on the New Yorkers—namely essential workers—who have been hit hardest in recent years. Having grown up in New York City public housing and attended a public school on the Lower East Side himself, Sanchez’s top priorities include housing justice and education. Among his goals are creating more co-ops, shrinking class sizes, and paying teachers more, all of which he believes are within a council member’s purview.
“It’s important that there are people who step up and run who have actually been in the trenches and know how this stuff works,” he said. “A lot of folks who criticize from the sidelines, they have no idea because they’ve never done anything for the government. … So for me, my priorities are within the scope of what a council member can actually do.”
A District 7 homeowner for nearly 15 years, Sanchez views the varied, complex area as a microcosm of New York City itself and thereby believes that it deserves an elected official who is familiar not only with residents but the nature of their government.
President of the tenant association at Frederick Douglass Houses, a housing complex on the Upper West Side, for the past six years, Carmen Quinones is running for City Council in order to support those whom she believes elected officials have disregarded. Driven to candidacy by the hardships caused by COVID-19, she is aiming to better District 7 not for herself, but for the 2,900 Douglass House residents she oversees, as well as her 19 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
“What really needs to be said is that respect is something that is earned and needed, especially in District 7, and a lot of our elected officials have left our people out,” Quinones said. “My run is about all the people that they keep leaving out.”
As is common among candidates, Quinones’ top priority is housing, as she believes that all progress is contingent on a safe place to sleep. Criminal justice reform is also a matter of importance, particularly as it pertains to young people in the neighborhood.
Quinones has been engaging with residents for the 35 years that she has lived in District 7, including through the pandemic. Beginning in March 2020, Quinones began giving out food to those in need—she now delivers 17,000 pounds of food each month—which has left her little time to campaign. Yet her aspiration to serve on City Council is, Quinones says, divorced from her ego; it is based on her desire to reject the “business as usual” attitude she perceives in other officials and help those she cares about most.
“It’s not about Carmen Quinones at the end of the day. It’s not about me,” she explained. “But it is about my 19 grandchildren and my 12 great-grandchildren—that’s what it’s really about.”
A resident of District 7 since 1985, Luis Tejada is seeking to tackle the affordable housing crisis with his City Council campaign. Tejada was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to New York City when he was 27; he has since worked as a taxi driver, building superintendent, math teacher, and activist.
Tejada founded the Mirabal Sisters Community Center in the 2000s along with other community activists to support West Harlem residents through landlord abuses. With the organization, he helped establish tenant associations, represent tenants in court, and create a coalition to formally oppose Columbia’s expansion plan. Tejada doubts the degree to which elected officials prioritize people over big businesses and is running in order to remedy such perceived failure.
“They did nothing to stop displacement; they did nothing to stop Columbia University; they’ve done nothing to help small businesses; they’ve done nothing to stop the problems that we have in the community. So who is going to take care of the community? The elected officials? No,” Tejada said. “People ask me, ‘Luis, why don’t you run for City Council? We need someone that really knows the community, that’s part of the community and has the commitment to fight back on all of the abuses against the community.’”
While affordable housing is Tejada’s top priority, he also hopes to address education, environmental issues—particularly with regard to a local power plant—and transportation. His intimate relationships with residents are fueling his campaign, which he launched more as a way of advocating for those he cares about rather than a foray into the political sphere.
“I can walk everywhere in this community and they know me, they hug me, they call me brother,” Tejada said. “We don’t want an elected official that takes money from greedy landlords. We want to continue creating a great community of color, of immigrants, of diversity.”
The campaign of Lena Melendez did not respond to Spectator’s interview request. The campaign of Corey Ortega was unavailable for comment due to scheduling complications. The campaigns of Alberto Aguilar III, Miguel Estrella, and Keith Harris could not be reached for comment. Candidate Jeanette Toomer suspended her campaign due to health issues.
Staff writer Alice Tecotzky can be contacted at [email protected]. Follow Spectator on Twitter @ColumbiaSpec.
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