Labor Support Comes To 35th Council District Race

Originally published May 1, 2013 in the New York Times Local Blog.

City Council candidate Laurie Cumbo. (Photo: Nicholas Wells)

City Council hopeful Laurie Cumbo scored two major labor endorsements recently in her bid to replace Council Member Letitia James in the 35th District, who is stepping down to run for Public Advocate.

On April 19, Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, the country’s largest property service workers’ union, announced its endorsement of Ms. Cumbo. The news came a day after the New York Hotel Trade Council (HTC) voiced its support for her campaign. As the candidates make the rounds, the endorsements will give Ms. Cumbo a leg up in a field where candidates differ more in experience and connections than in policy.

“From paid sick leave to better access to healthcare, Ms. Cumbo is fighting for the issues that matter to our members,” union President Hector Figueroa said in a statement. “Not only does she serve as a living example of the pathway to the middle class that unions create, she has vowed to protect and preserve that pathway for others.”

In addition to the recent labor backing, Ms. Cumbo is leading in fundraising, having amassed nearly $70,000 since September. Of that, $13,300 has gone to political strategists The Advance Group, according to campaign filings. The Advance Group — a 20-year-old strategic consulting firm whose recent clients have included Congressman Hakeem Jefferies and the anti-Christine Quinn group NYC Is Not For Sale – has turned Ms. Cumbo’s campaign into a well-oiled machine, holding fundraisers and maintaining a constant Twitter presence.

Ms. Cumbo speaks about expanding arts education in schools and public housing projects. She wants school buildings to be more integrated into community life, and favors transforming community boards from advisory panels to legislative bodies with power over what happens in their districts. She highlighted the Atlantic Yards project as an example of a weakened local authority trumped by outside forces.

“How is it that millions of dollars came through the district and totally sidestepped the Community Board?” she said. “These resources were plopped down into the community because people at a higher level wanted it to happen. And I don’t think that should happen.”

Ms. Cumbo, founder and director of the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Fort Greene, faced her rivals at a recent candidates’ forum at the Ingersoll Community Center on Myrtle Avenue.

Appearing at the forum were: Ede Fox, a member of Community Board 8 and former staffer to Council members Melissa Mark-Viverito and Jumaane Williams; Jelani Mashariki, director of the Pamoja House homeless shelter and an Occupy Wall Street organizer; Jesse Hamilton, a Crown Heights Attorney and District Leader, and Frank Richard Hurley, a lawyer.

At the forum, Mr. Hurley said he entered the race to “give a voice” to unemployed and homeless residents, and to get “involved in the conversation” about development in Brooklyn.

“If you build in Brooklyn, you must hire from Brooklyn,” he said repeatedly.

Mr. Hurley, who has raised $856 for his campaign, did not respond to requests for an interview.

Olanike Alabi, a former District Leader for 57th Assembly District, has not publicly announced her candidacy, but is expected to do so. Ms. Alabi has raised more than $20,000 since December. She declined to comment on the record for this story.

Any of these candidates would likely be left of center if elected, and their similar viewpoints don’t promise much political drama. They all want residents to be more involved in their communities, to increase the power of the community boards and put an end to the top-down decision-making they say has shaped the city for the past 12 years.

Increasing affordable housing, reforming the public school system and encouraging more community-based economic development are standard lines in each of their political playbooks.

With the backing of HTC and 32BJ, Ms. Cumbo now controls the table, but the powerful healthcare workers’ union 1199 SEIU has yet to make an endorsement.

Ms. James, who was reelected in 2009 with 92 percent of the vote, has not endorsed a successor.

Ede Fox is second to Ms. Cumbo in funds, having raised about $61,000 since she started fundraising in mid-2011, according to campaign filings. Many of her donations came from municipal employees and council insiders, indicating her government connections.

Ms. Fox said she thinks the 25-year Atlantic Yards project is “an opportunity to create affordable housing and jobs,” as long as the public stays involved and makes sure the community benefits agreement is followed. “So let’s make sure that happens,” she told The Local.

Small businesses are being squeezed in Brooklyn, Ms. Fox said, and she wants the city to reduce the maze of regulations and fines she says hampers small-scale development.

“I see small businesses as an organic, living matter,” she said. “They’re a living, breathing part of the community. And we need someone in government who understands that.”

Ms. Fox cut her teeth working for 1199 SEIU, first in South Carolina and then as an organizer around the country. Back in her native New York, Ms. Fox worked as legislative and budget director for Ms. Mark-Viverito and then served as chief of staff to Mr. Williams, giving her government experience that she plans to parlay into votes in the 35th District.

Jelani Mashariki told The Local that his run for the Council was inspired by his family’s background in advocacy, coupled with his experience with Occupy Wall Street. His father Job founded Black Veterans for Social Justice, an organization dedicated to helping service members reintegrate into civilian life.

Mr. Mashariki said he learned of the Occupy Movement through his uncle Jitu Weusi, a community activist who in 1969 founded The East, an African American-centered cultural and educational organization.

As director of the Pamoja House homeless shelter on Sumner Avenue in Bedford Stuyvesant, Mr. Mashariki said he saw the number of people in need more than double in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. He said the emergency showed him that “people needed help and the bureaucracy wasn’t going to help them.”

He cited the 37 percent turnover in the Council, saying that “now is the time to push the progressive agenda.”

Mr. Mashariki said he would bring participatory budgeting—the system in which community members have a direct voice in allocating discretionary funds — to Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. Borrowing from his Occupy Wall Street days, Mr. Mashariki said he would hold quarterly “people’s assemblies,” informal meetings to build consensus from residents around the community.

“I want to see more people activated,” he said. “Not just the same people.”

Mr. Mashariki has raised almost $30,000 since October, including donations from celebrities Talib Kweli and Chris Rock.

If Mr. Mashariki is the newcomer activist candidate with unconventional ideas, then Jesse Hamilton is the number cruncher with bureaucratic experience and a history in the Democratic Party.

Mr. Hamilton has worked for 27 years as an assessor for the Department of Finance, served as the president of his local school board and is a district leader for the 43rd Assembly District.

He has made job creation and affordable housing central to his campaign. He wants affordable units included in more residential developments and for eligibility rates to be based on a percentage of an individual’s income, rather than the median income of the neighborhood. New York City currently offers zoning for extra floor space to developers who choose to include affordable housing, but doesn’t require it.

“You literally have people working at McDonalds and Burger King living in shelters,” he told The Local. “People who buy a million dollar condo, they [should] have to kick in to a pool to support affordable housing.”

Mr. Hamilton has raised $13,500 since January, with many of his donations coming from people in finance and real estate.

Mr. Hamilton has received endorsements from a few local politicians—including 57th Assembly District Leader Renee Collymore and New York State Senator Eric Adams—but has yet to receive labor support. He acknowledged that the path to victory is through on-the-street campaigning and simply reaching enough people.

“It’s all about communicating,” he said. “In a City Council race, it’s all about touching people.”

Latima Stephens contributed reporting.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include current campaign finance numbers for Olanike Alabi.