New Kings on the Block

(BHB/Sarah Portlock)

(BHB/Sarah Portlock)

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.

herd“Let’s do this every Tuesday night,” said candidate Evan Thies, with only a slight glimmer of sarcasm.

The New Kings Democrats hosted the event in Williamsburg, and taped the event to post on its Web site.

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”
Levin: “Grimaldi’s”
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?
Abraham: “no”
Baer: “most definitely”
Biviano: “not yet”
Diamondstone: “definitely”
Levin: “only if the price is correlated to the cost of the subway”
Simon: “yes”
Thies: “yes”

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
Biviano: “condoms”

Do you support allowing cellphones in public schools?
Abraham: “condoms”
Baer: “yes”
Biviano: “not sure”
Diamondstone: “not sure”
Levin: “for emergencies”
Simon: “yes”
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.”

Aaand, scene.

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  • iNsIdEr

    How come no one caughyt biviano’s gay comment? When baer said he is good looking, biviano said “atleast it wasn’t the other ken” (who said I was good loolking. Also, I just met levin at the debate, and he did very good. His closing statement above all was on target and genuine. Good luck to all.

  • none

    They were all horrible for the heights — all (with the exception of Abraham) endosed commercial rent control. They all wanted higher taxes, especially on the rich. None had any budgetary experience, and all were ultra-liberal idealists.

    My rankings were

    Baer and Biviano were clearly unqualified

  • Floyd Clark

    This exchange (re: Bivano’s response) :
    Do you support including ROTC in schools?
    Abraham, Thies: yes
    Baer, Diamondstone, Levin, Simon: no
    Biviano: “condoms”

    reminds me of this… with “condoms” being “squirrel”:

    and the best part is that they’re both named doug

  • Doug Biviano

    Let’s get this right. I think the world of Ken Diamondstone, his platform and his values. In fact, I met with Ken before I entered the race with the possibility of working for him and his campaign. Pound for pound of know-how, “owes no favors” and take-a-stand for what is right for the community kind of action, I believe no one can hold a candle to Ken. More than anyone, you can trust Ken will fight for the people of the community, especially those who need a voice at City Hall the most.

    That said, there was a lot humor going on last night, starting with Isaac Abraham’s some people are worried about “Vito Power” in response to my initiative for CB “Veto power” that triggers a referendum in districts affected by rezoning and eminent domain to let democracy decide. Then came the condom jokes. My joke about Ken Diamondstone was off the cuff, in the moment and simply didn’t come out right. It’s not everyday that a grown man sitting next to you on stage (Ken Baer) says that you are handsome…

    Regardless of what I meant to say and my case for its context, I own my statement and take full responsibility for it. I unequivocally apologize to Ken Diamondstone, his partner Joe, and the LGBT community for my statement. It was insensitive, especially to Ken. Please accept my apology.

    I do want to assure the LGBT community and all voters my stance on the matter by talking about my “unreported” public statements. At the IND/CBID St. Francis College debate in April, when all the other candidates who supported same-sex marriage, stuck to the safe “it’s a civil right” argument, I went where no one — except for maybe Ken Diamondstone — would go. I stated at St. Francis College with great force for same-sex marriage, “It’s wonderful!” This was in addition to the human right aspect of my statement when I continued with my “wonderful” reasoning that anything that makes people happy in a long-term union and commitment builds community and is great for our community.

    To be sure, here is my CBID endorsement questionnaire response verbatim that was submitted in April (and is still archived online at ):

    “Yes. It’s a human right, it’s between two people, and it’s about love. It’s wonderful really. Again, let’s keep it real. The more happy people we have in this world the better, safer and more vibrant place it will be for all of us. Heck, if Governor Paterson and the legislature don’t pass it soon, we should tempt a test case through the state courts by legislating it on the City Council and bring some cash back into our budget via gay marriage tourism. Let’s lead the way.”

  • Edward Baran


    I’ve known Doug Biviano for twenty years and I have never come across a person in all my life who is as politically enthusiastic as Doug … he drinks it up like a cactus drinks up monsoon water after a prolonged drought.

    Case and point: I helped him renovate a rental property of his in Florida about five years ago … long before he had any political aspirations … and he literally had political talk radio on the phone from sun up to sun down … so much so that after awhile I had to put my foot down and say, “ENOUGH !!!” … ha ha ha … LOL looking back on it … :-). This is a man who literally looks forward to political events with the same level of excitement as overzealous sports fans look forward to the World Series and Super Bowl.

    But more importantly, he’s both warm and caring and kind and TRULY gives a damn while at the same time as tough and relentlessly feisty as they come when it comes to standing up for what he believes in he’s the ENERGIZER BUNNY … he keeps going … and going … and going.

    ENOUGH DOUG !!! … LOL for the second time … :-)

  • Sloper

    I think Levin clearly came out on top. He had been critized for not appearing at the previous debates, but when he did appear, he showed everyone that he is read for prime time. His answers were clear, thoughtful, and I agreed with them. The press can continue to discount him, but I have a feeling that Levin will surprise his critics in the end.

  • John Wentling

    Ick, vote Libertarian.

  • davoyager

    Dock St. = third rail

  • Rachel

    Simon’s description of Thies was “prayerful,” not “careful,” as he was mock praying when she turned to cast her single-word judgement. (Thanks for this great write-up.)

  • Bob

    I think Levine don’t have any chance he is a young puppet with any experience just follows instruction from his buss Vito Lopez, as long he is working for him he will never be elected!!

  • Bobs ur uncle

    Bob – are you “special”?

  • Ira Lubelsky

    I hear that Isaac Abraham has trouble getting to sleep at night. He thinks about his heart beating too fast and cannot get to sleep. This is a serious issue from a health point of view. How is he handling it?

  • The Where

    More importantly Ira, how are you handling it?