The seven candidates for City Councilman David Yassky’s 33rd district council seat went head to head on Tuesday night, and the winner? Democracy. There were also a few good laughs, though solely at candidates’ expense.
Moderators Aaron Short, a reporter and blogger, and Sabrina Gates, a Kings County Democratic County committee member, kept the 90-minute debate snappy and quick and cut the candidates off politely, but forcefully, at their time limit. Whew!
First up, here are highlights from their closing statements, and how they answered the first question, Why are you running?:
Isaac Abraham, the Hasidic businessman from Williamsburg: “What I’ve seen in the last 35 years is that our city council has neglected the important issues, and I can see some there still outstanding.” In closing, he said, “I’ve had my ears to the ground and my hand in my heart for 35 years. I have been there, and all I ask is that you give me the title, ‘City Councilman.’”
Ken Baer, an accountant and environmental advocate: “I think I can do an exceptional job. I have the unique perspective of being an accountant and lifelong environmentalist.” In closing, “Brooklyn needs a fighter. I’m not beholden to anyone, and I don’t owe anyone anything. I have no hesitation of taking on power when I know I am fighting for a worthy cause.”
Newcomer Doug Biviano, an engineer and nine-year Heights resident, had the best line of the night in his closing statement: “I believe in the power of politics, and we don’t use our government as much as we can. Now is the time, and we need a leader who is going to stand up and fight for us. We need a leader who is fearless. I’ve sailed across the ocean on a 27-foot boat. Support me.” (He said the boat line with such conviction, and without missing a beat!)
Ken Diamondstone, a longtime LGBT activist and community organizer: “I’ve been working on social issues my whole life, and I want to be in a position to set the agenda. I’m a good listener, and I think outside the box.” In closing, “The city will never be the same after the last six months, and in order to survive we must diversify its base. We don’t need more housing, and we need to support what we have.”
Steve Levin is currently chief of staff for Vito Lopez, the chairman of the Kings County Democratic Party, and appeared in his first debate tonight: “From my community organizing experience, I’ve learned that city government has the ability and responsibility to serve the people in this city who need it.” And, “We’re facing a very challenging time in this city, and we need a city councilman that stands up for the rights of New Yorkers right now. It’s a very diverse district, but we all want a safe and affordable district to live and raise our kids.”
Jo Anne Simon, a civil rights attorney and community leader: “I care about the issues that you care about — I want a seat at the table for your concerns and issues.” And, “I bring passion, experience, and skills to the city council.”
Evan Thies, a community organizer and former five-year Yassky staffer: “Obama may have brought change to Washington, but change has not made it to Brooklyn. There are still powerful forces and inertia that need to be restrained, and we need to work against them to change. I’ve worked in City Hall for five years, and I’m going to take that energy and continue to work on what I’ve done.” And, “It’s a historic opportunity to have the progressives running the city, not the status quo.”
The next question was about the city’s alleged failures to build much-promised affordable housing and open spaces as part of rezoning Downtown Brooklyn and in Williamsburg/Greenpoint, and how the candidates would hold the city accountable for those promises. Thies pointed to his “360 Planning” idea, which revamps the public review process and holds more parties accountable. Simon said she wants to incorporate transportation-related issues into the rezoning process. Levin said he “doesn’t have such a pessimistic view” and will work to keep in check “overzealous rezoning without concern for infrastructure taxation.” Biviano pointed to his urban engineering background and repeated his message to give community boards more veto power early in the process. The others railed against the city’s inefficiencies.
And what do you plan to do with your much-ballyhooed discretionary funds? Baer said, “large cultural organizations [will be] cut back,” and to “disperse the money to people who are struggling.” Biviano said “we need baseball diamonds for kids,” and he’d put the spending records online for transparency. Diamondstone, Levin, Abraham, and Simon said to send money to senior citizens, and some children’s organizations. Thies wants to have a full shake-up: “I know it’s not sexy, but reforming the budget is the most powerful thing we can do. [These funds] are how you get your constituents the help it needs as quickly as possible.”
When Levin, Simon, and Thies were asked how they differentiate themselves from the elected officials (Lopez, Assemblywoman Joan Millman, City Councilman Yassky, respectively) with whom they have been associated, each noted that they have at times had differing opinions from their bosses. Diamondstone, Baer, Abraham, and Biviano were then asked how voters could trust their lack of experience, to which each mentioned his extensive community organizing experience.
How will you keep small businesses afloat? Each candidate resoundingly said rent stabilization, provide low-interest loans, shop locally, and waxed poetic on the importance of Main Streets.
And then it was time for the lightning round, which was entertaining to the audience and maddening for reporters trying to quickly write down each candidates’ one-word answers. But, here goes:
What are you reading right now?
Abraham: “After tonight, my biography”
Baer: New York Times, local papers, newsletters
Biviano: local papers, DemocracyNow!
Diamondstone: “The Nation”
Levin: “A People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn
Simon: “The Great Bridge,” by David McCullough
Thies: Essays by Kurt Vonnegut
What’s your favorite restaurant?
Abraham: “Peter Luger’s”
Baer: “Vegetarian Palate”
Biviano: “Pacifico, for its key lime pie”
Diamondstone: “any diner food”
Simon: “Downtown Atlantic”
Thies: “Five Leaves”
What’s currently playing on your mp3 player? (Or, what is your favorite song?)
Abraham: “For tonight, it’s, ‘Anything you can do, I can do better’”
Baer: “Springsteen, ‘Born in the USA’”
Biviano: “I’m a U2 guy, too, but if I’m singing karaoke it’s Frank Sinatra, ‘New York, New York’”
Diamondstone: “I’ve been listening to Pete Seeger, after his 90th birthday”
Levin: “Bruce Springsteen, Brahms”
Simon: “What’s an mp3 player?” and, then, “Oh, Patsy Cline”
Thies: “I have 30,000 songs on my iPod. But, I’m listening to the new U2 album and it’s a huge disappointment”
Do you support East River tolls?
Baer: “most definitely”
Biviano: “not yet”
Levin: “only if the price is correlated to the cost of the subway”
Do you support putting condoms in public high schools? All yes, but for Abraham who said, “Let the parents decide.”
Do you support including ROTC in schools?
Abraham, Thies: yes
Baer, Diamondstone, Levin, Simon: no
Do you support allowing cellphones in public schools?
Biviano: “not sure”
Diamondstone: “not sure”
Levin: “for emergencies”
Thies: “in school, not class”
And, to end on a warm-fuzzy note, each candidate was asked to describe the candidate to his/her left with one nice adjective:
Abraham to Baer: “Entertaining.”
Baer to Biviano: “Nice, a good person, handsome.”
Biviano to Diamondstone: “A lot of heart.”
Diamondstone to Levin: “Perhaps he’s veto-proof.” (“Vito proof.” Ha!)
Levin to Simon: “Very intelligent, exceptionally intelligent.”
Simon to Thies: “Careful.”
Thies to Abraham: “Determined.”