It was neither a love fest nor “The Hateful Eight” when candidates vying to be the next New York City Council speaker faced off Tuesday evening at the National Action Network. Rather than sharp exchanges among the candidates, there was a general bonhomie and a quest by each for the consensus the Rev. Al Sharpton cited as critical to the job.
For more than three hours that was presented in three parts—one with reporters tossing questions at the candidates, including Josh Barker from the Amsterdam News; a second segment that allowed the sponsors of the event to pose queries; and a final one with a Q&A with the audience—all of which were smoothly and wittingly moderated by the Rev. Kirsten John Foy. Almost without exception, the councilmembers were on their best behavior and basically in agreement on the issues.
The only moment of tension occurred between the Rev. John Green, representing Mobilizing Preachers and Communities, one of the event’s sponsors, and Donovan Richards (D-31st District). After Green charged that none of the candidates had stood up to Mayor De Blasio or Gov. Cuomo on “the apartheid” in New York City, particularly as it pertained to minority contractors getting their share, Richards took exception to the allegation. “We do have a contracting committee…and we have verified that a number of the organizations are from our community,” he said, noting that more oversight is necessary.
Ydanis Rodriguez joined the conversation, and when he addressed the issue of “fair share” he touched on the words that would be repeated throughout the debate about apportionment of the city’s $85 or $86 billion budget, depending on the speaker. “What I will be doing if I am the speaker is make sure that the Black and Latino community get their share of the budget.”
That was a promise that each of the candidates made and none more passionately than Jumaane Williams, who appeared to be the most popular of the candidates, and that might have come, as he noted, from his many regular appearances at NAN. “I am battle tested,” he said on several occasions, and of the candidates his literature was most widely distributed.
All of the candidates invoked racial profiling, the prevalence of police abuses and stop and frisk. “But we need to go further in criminal justice reform,” said Mark Levine. And when the candidates were asked whether it was time for an African-American to be the speaker, Robert Cornegy said he was not ashamed to insist that the speaker “represent the demographics of the city.”
“We have to fight for power,” said Jimmy Van Bramer, with a concern for whatever one’s race or color. The question of race and gender was paramount for Cory Johnson, and he called for “more women and people of color” on the council.
“New York City has one of the most segregated school systems in the country,” said Ritchie Torres, and this issue, along with the issue of gentrification and the challenge they posed, were uppermost on his agenda.
A parade of community activists lined up to fire questions at the candidates, including Joe Gonzales, Lenora Fulani, Basha Riddick and Alvin Ponder. But it was 97-year-old Katherine Nichson who brought the audience to its feet. As a representative of the New York Immigration Coalition, Nichson said, “It is up to the parents to guide their children,” choosing another topic. She went on to express her concern about charter schools being located in public schools: “This creates a fire hazard.”
“Charter schools are not the solution,” said Rodriguez, and he elaborated on the changes needed to ensure that Black and Latino students, who represent the majority of 1.4 million student population in the city, get their fair share of budget allocations.
Again, fair share resonated and it was an attitude the candidates expressed.