Wanted: Candidates who’ll fight big real estate

AMNY.com | February 11, 2019

BY LYNN ELLSWORTH | The crowded public advocate race has made me jealous of the congressional voters over in Queens. They got Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upsetting the applecart of New York City — and now the country’s — machine politics, a win that has been a riveting spectacle.

Wouldn’t it be great to get more of that for city government?

David Eisenbach, an advocate for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, is one candidate that the writer thinks has the right stuff to be public advocate.

At first thought, we have reason to hope. After all, the 2021 election is coming up and more than half the City Council seats will be up for grabs.

Alas, if the public advocate race is any indication of the future, my hopes are too high. The race is rife with term-limited politicians, machine pols and recipients of real estate money.

We have no less than five City Council veterans (Rafael Espinal, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Eric Ulrich, Ydanis Rodriquez and Jumaane Williams) and three state Assemblymembers (Michael Blake, Ron Kim and Danny O’Donnell) all trying to play musical chairs with elected positions.

The City Council veterans on the list have a special credibility problem. Not only do they take serious money from big real estate, but they voted to upzone the entire city against widespread community opposition. Three of them actually sold out their own neighborhoods for a de Blasio upzoning that was fiercely opposed by their own constituents. They also voted in favor of big real estate’s anti-landmarking bill Intro 775, overruling massive community opposition.

How exactly are these recycled pols going to make credible public advocates?

The sniff test of “who takes real estate money and who doesn’t” leaves a few candidates standing: David Eisenbach, Nomiki Konst, Dawn Smalls and Ben Yee — and to a lesser extent Kim and O’Donnell. The two women, Smalls and Konst, passed the first of the Campaign Finance Law’s funding thresholds and got into the public debate.

In Small’s case, her money comes from a loose network of Democratic Party elites and big-shot lawyers: 24 percent of her cash comes from out-of-state donors while 26 percent comes from colleagues at Hudson Yards-based law firm of Boie Schiller Flexner LLP. From a community point of view, that does not look so promising.

What does the Democratic Party elite care about us? Are they just trying to position Smalls for some other office?

Nomiki Konst, another candidate who is not taking real estate money for her campaign, is another candidate who passes the writer’s “sniff test” criteria.

That leaves Konst, an investigative journalist and activist. Konst lived up to a pledge not to take real estate money, which is not surprising given her anti-big real estate stance, but she has raised enough cash to be viable.

Two other candidates — Yee and Eisenbach — are struggling to make the finance board’s thresholds. To his credit, Yee doesn’t have developer donors but he is literally part of the Democratic machine: He is secretary of the New York County Democratic Party and a Democratic State Committee man. Eisenbach is a community-oriented historian running for the advocate’s seat a second time. He has lived up to a promise not to take real estate money and has reliably showed up at community land-use battles.

O’Donnell hasn’t taken a lot of real estate money, but then, our research shows he did take a lot of money from the hotel and liquor lobbies.

Kim doesn’t take huge amounts of developer dollars per se. But he didn’t have the reflex to turn down a $1,000 donation from the Real Estate Board of New York and a few other real estate guys. And Kim has his own real estate issues about owning condos and paying taxes. (See Crain’s, “Public advocate failed to disclose condos and upstate house.”)

Troubling, Kim actually worked as a lobbyist before running for office. So if your sniff test is “no real estate money,” “no special-interest money,” “no bad land-use votes” and “not part of the business-as-usual party machinery” then only two candidates are left, Konst and Eisenbach, both of whom would make a fine public advocate. (Full disclosure: I have given to both of them.)

What the public advocate race is revealing is this: As the 2021 elections approach, we desperately need a popular, nonpartisan “clean government” movement. Many of us are sick of the way real estate interests dominate our city. We are angry that our city politicians are progressive in every way except when it comes to zoning. We are disgusted with machine politics and party elites deciding things. We want new blood running for city offices, people who will stand up to the bullying habits of the real estate lobby and stop making terrible deals with them. We want candidates who will fight to democratize our city.

So if you are an “outsider” who still actually believes in democracy and are thinking of running, please run for City Council or borough president! And if you are a voter who is sick of business as usual, take the Human-Scale NYC Voter Pledge not to support candidates who take real estate money.

Sign the pledge and keep up with our research on who takes real estate money at www.humanscale.nyc.

Ellsworth is chairperson, Tribeca Trust, and president, Human-Scale NYC

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