BY HEATHER DUBIN | Sparks flew as City Councilmember Margaret Chin and challenger Jenifer Rajkumar, candidates in the race for the City Council’s First District, clashed in a debate last Thursday, sponsored by NYC Community Media, publisher of The Villager and Downtown Express.
About 170 spectators — with an even show of support for both candidates — packed the room at New York Law School in Tribeca. The crowd was extremely vocal during the 90-minute debate and, at times, antagonistic with each side rooting loudly for their candidate. The women will face off in the Democratic primary election on Sept. 10 for the Lower Manhattan Council seat.
Hot topics of the debate included land use, specifically New York University and the South Street Seaport, and campaign financing. Chin claimed her opponent lacks political experience and spews misinformation, while Rajkumar knocked Chin as the candidate of big real estate, based on Chin’s support from the Real Estate Board of New York.
The candidates referenced their immigrant pasts, and proudly touted their accomplishments. Chin, who grew up in District 1, recalled her journey to the United States 50 years ago, and expressed awe at the fact that an immigrant such as herself could fulfill the American Dream by becoming a city councilmember. Rajkumar, who was born here, has dedicated her life to social justice, and is a civil rights attorney.
City Councilmember Margaret Chin at the Aug. 22 debate sponsored by NYC Community Media. Photos by Don Mathieson
Later in the evening, Rajkumar, a Democratic district leader from Battery Park City, also acknowledged the very notion of opportunity.
“This is progress seeing a South Asian American and a Chinese-American running for an office. When does that happen?” she asked. Asked, specifically, if it was important that Chinatown, which is in District 1, have a Chinese-American representative, Rajkumar answered that this is the “Obama era,” where people vote on issues and strong representation.
While Chin and Rajkumar give land use top priority, their perspectives on the issue vary.
Chin has been involved with several land use development projects during her four-year term, and looks to the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) project as a boon for affordable housing. On the SPURA site, which has been vacant more than 45 years, Chin was able to help secure 50 percent permanent affordable housing, a total of 500 units.
“Because of the community coming together — [former SPURA] site tenants, organizations, housing and community boards — working together with the city, we were able to come together and craft a compromise,” Chin said.
District Leader Jenifer Rajkumar at the Aug. 22 debate sponsored by NYC Community Media.
But Rajkumar was critical of Chin’s ability to work well with the community, and accused her of serving real estate interests rather than her own constituents in the district.
Rajkumar wrote an op-ed article on SPURA for a local blog in which she blasted local politicians for not doing enough for the site’s future residents. She advocates for 100 percent affordable housing in the multiblock development at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge, and said former residents displaced 50 years ago when the site was cleared for redevelopment are thankful for her position.
But Chin, in turn, criticized Rajkumar for never even attending any community board meetings on SPURA.
“How can you write an article criticizing the work people did for three years to come together for a historic compromise?” Chin asked angrily.
Rajkumar said it was not her job to attend SPURA meetings, and instead listed all the community meetings she has attended, including those of the Battery Park City CERT (Community Emergency Response Team), of which she said she is the leader.
At that, Ninfa Segarra, a former deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration, stood up and shouted in objection, “You are not! I am!”
This set off the crowd and people grew wild and began to yell out questions to the candidates.
“We both are,” Rajkumar answered Segarra.
Regarding the N.Y.U. 2031 and the South Street Seaport development projects, Rajkumar was more directly involved in those land use projects, and charged that Chin has let real estate developers do whatever they want.
Rajkumar, who was lead counsel on discrimination cases with large companies, said Chin is a bad negotiator.
“It was a historical moment when Chin approved a 2-million-square-foot expansion into Greenwich Village,” Rajkumar declared. Rajkumar said Chin approved N.Y.U.’s ULURP (uniform land use review procedure) application for the hotly contested megaproject despite a unanimous “No” vote against it by Community Board 2 and opposition by most Villagers, who want to protect the character of the neighborhood.
Chin rebutted by noting that Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer supported the plan. She also said the expansion was scaled down more than 25 percent from the initial proposal, and that there were many years of meetings on the project.
Rajkumar also took Chin to task for helping developer Howard Hughes Corp. move forward with plans at the South Street Seaport.
“She hid a letter of intent from Howard Hughes where he said, ‘We intend to build luxury hotels and market-rate apartments,’ ” Rajkumar accused of Chin. “How can you not let that information be public?”
Finally, issues of campaign financing fired up the crowd and brought some to their feet, yet again. Rajkumar said REBNY is supporting Chin as a reward for putting real estate interests first. “They’re pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into this race to buy this Council seat for Councilmember Chin,” Rajkumar said.
Chin suggested Rajkumar look at her campaign finance record, and questioned where the funding was. Rajkumar had asked Chin to disavow the outside support of the Jobs for New York PAC, which includes REBNY, in a previous debate, but Chin said while she did not want the funding, there was nothing she could do, since it was a so-called independent expenditure, as opposed to a direct contribution to her campaign.
A lightening round of questions by co-moderators Lincoln Anderson, editor of The Villager, and Josh Rogers, editor of Downtown Express, brought some levity to the debate. Chin is for the Yankees; Rajkumar likes the Mets. When each was asked for a positive adjective to describe her opponent, Rajkumar said, “I love the colors that she wears.” (Both candidates had on different shades of pink). Chin had to think for a second, before grudgingly saying, “Female.”