Volume 78 / Number 9 - July 30 - August 5, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

State Senate candidate Daniel Squadron, campaigning on the Lower East Side, greeted Dara, Adam and 9-week-old baby Theo Freed (no relation to former Councilmember Kathryn Freed).

Education and traffic are issues in Senate primary

By Josh Rogers

When Martin Connor was first elected to the State Senate 30 years ago, his current challenger wasn’t even born. In many ways, this year’s Democratic primary is a study in contrasts — the Albany veteran versus the young challenger with new ideas.

There are differences in tone and approach between Connor, 63, and Daniel Squadron, 28, a political consultant and former aide to U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, but there are also a surprisingly large number of similarities on the issues.

Both favor same-sex marriage, stronger rent protections, congestion pricing and government reforms, like having nonpartisan commissions redraw legislative district lines. Both predict the Democrats will capture the State Senate this November, and each says he is in a unique position to make sure Senate Democrats resist the temptation to keep the rules the same once they get the majority.

“There is going to be a moment of reorganization and there is going to be a moment when the Senate’s going to decide whether it creates itself as a functioning Legislature or whether it makes cosmetic change,” Squadron said in a recent interview with Community Media, owner of The Villager, Downtown Express and Gay City News.

“If I beat a 30-year incumbent who used to be the minority leader, then those folks who are making a strategic, as opposed to a moral decision, will have a lot of incentive to make a strategic decision toward reform,” he added.

Connor said he and his Democratic colleagues have been promising change in Albany for too long for him to let his colleagues back out when they finally have the chance to make it happen.

“I’m not going to quietly acquiesce at this stage,” Connor said in an interview with Community Media editors. He said he’d tell any senator reneging on reform: “I’m having a press conference. If it embarrasses you, well, you want to not be embarrassed. Join me at the press conference.”

Villager photo by Robert Kreizel

State Senator Martin Connor shook hands with a constituent at the St. James Church Street Fair.

But later in the same interview, he said this approach has not been his style in the past. When asked for examples of times when he has taken a strong stand, and for an explanation as to why other Downtown politicians are mentioned more often as leaders on various issues, Connor said, “I don’t look to do a press conference every Sunday. I don’t look to brag about everything I’ve done. I’ve passed over 100 bills into law and that’s not bad for somebody in the minority. It’s quite good.”

He said he was the main sponsor of about 120 bills that became law. He mentioned several he’s most proud of, including the 1995 comprehensive law that provided incentives to building owners in Lower Manhattan’s Financial District to convert outdated vacant offices to apartments or to upgrade them. The others he mentioned were a law to require traffic to stop while school buses are loading and unloading, which he said was strongly opposed by former Mayor’s Koch administration 20 years ago; a law enabling caregivers of the disabled to ride the subways free with their charges; and a measure granting podiatry students access to low-interest loans for their entire four-year education.

In recent weeks, the two candidates sat down for hour-plus meetings with Community Media, and then fleshed out their views further in telephone interviews.

Winning the Democratic primary on Sept. 9 is considered by most political observers to be tantamount to victory in the 25th State Senate District. The district includes most of Lower Manhattan, the East Village, Lower East Side, Soho, Little Italy, Chinatown, Tribeca and, in Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and part of Williamsburg.

The primary winner will face Republican John Chromczak, 37, a medical technologist and Financial District resident.

School positions

Even on an issue where there appears to be a clear distinction — whether to continue mayoral control of the school system — the differences between Connor and Squadron lessen when one looks deeper.

At a City Hall rally a few weeks ago on school overcrowding attended by both candidates, Connor said he favored ending mayoral control when it comes up for renewal next year in the state Legislature; but then he subsequently said he didn’t know if there was a better person or group to be in charge.

“Maybe, ultimately, the mayor ought to be in control, but it shouldn’t be unlimited power,” Connor said.

His position as it turns out is similar to Squadron’s: Both favor giving parents more of a voice in decisions.

“We need a structure that empowers parents and communities while maintaining clear lines of accountability that we see with mayoral control,” said Squadron, who worked on the city’s school empowerment zone program for part of 2006.

He favors giving the parent Community Education Councils the power to evaluate superintendents and to make recommendations to the schools chancellor. Squadron also wants to reduce the size of large school districts, such as District 2, which includes Lower Manhattan, Greenwich Village and Chelsea, as well as parts of Midtown and the Upper East Side. He said district lines should relate to neighborhoods, and proposed that community board boundaries would be a good guideline for the new school districts.

Squadron wants to explore tax incentives and requirements for developers building in neighborhoods with overcrowded classes to provide space for schools. He said Connor voted to keep empty Upstate prisons open at a cost of $150 million — money that would have been better spent on new schools.

Connor called the accusation “an absurdity. I wanted to close those prisons…. It’s a disgrace they’re wasting money on them. The governor shouldn’t have caved on that.”

He said the vote was for the overall budget and, had he voted against it, he would have also been voting against a $643 million allocation for city schools and many other worthy programs in the budget.

Connor said one of the reasons he is considering ending mayoral control of schools is the city’s “abysmal failure” planning for Lower Manhattan’s population growth. He said the state provided an additional $1.2 billion for city schools the last two years and the mayor has not used it well, nor should the mayor get high marks in education.

“People forget the school bus fiasco and the cell phone controversy,” Connor said. “They’re kind of riding high now on test scores, but you know there’s a lot of criticism of ‘teach to the test.’”

Connor is co-chairperson of the State Senate’s new school governance task force and will help lead a public hearing in Lower Manhattan for parents next Wed., Aug. 6, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at 250 Broadway on the 19th floor.

Congestion pricing

Both candidates supported Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan to charge drivers $8 to enter Midtown or the southern part of Manhattan during busy times; but they had criticisms of some of the specifics, such as the provision that would have allowed many New Jersey tunnel drivers to avoid a congestion fee. Both men think the issue of traffic pricing is likely to come back for debate soon, given the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s severe capital budget deficit.

In the interviews, Connor spoke more negatively about congestion pricing than Squadron did. Yet, he is also more bullish on East River bridge tolls, which have much less support citywide, particularly in the Brooklyn part of the district.

“I think we have to revisit them,” Connor said of bridge tolls. “I think we really have to consider it.”

Although he backed the mayor’s traffic-tolling plan, Connor supported the decision not to bring it to a vote in April because the measure had no chance.

“There was no way the leaders could have brought it to the floor and twisted arms,” he said. “It would have been a total embarrassment.”

Squadron said, in the face of a massive transit deficit and traffic problems, Albany, instead of working on a solution, chose the worst option — no action.

“Nothing happened, because they let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” he said.

He also criticized Connor’s support for cutting off revenue to the city by voting to end the commuter tax and for vacancy decontrol, a system in which apartments are removed from rent stabilization and rent control. Both votes were in the late ’90s when Connor was State Senate minority leader.

Connor said the commuter tax had little chance for renewal and was due to expire anyway. He said his vote to end the tax a few months early strengthened the chances of Democratic senatorial candidates in the suburbs and did not cost the city much additional money.

Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno made it clear he was ready to let rent controls end altogether in 1997; Connor said he wasn’t involved at all in the negotiations for the final deal, but he voted for it because it was better than no rent protections, particularly since he was advised that tenants under rent control would have been vulnerable to drastic rent increases after a month.

Squadron also criticizes Connor for being one of only a few Senate Democrats to vote against the statewide ban on smoking in bars.

Connor said, “It pre-empted New York City’s law, which I thought was a better law… . It has created the nuisance I feared it would.”

The city ban was better because it allowed bar owners the option of building self-contained smoking rooms that employees could not be forced to enter, Connor said. Connor said without any bars that allow smoking, customers smoke on the sidewalk, keeping residents up at night.

Connor and his campaign aides have criticized Squadron for many things, including being too young and inexperienced.

Squadron was a special assistant to Schumer from 2003 to 2005, and in 2006 he helped the senator write “Positively American,” a bestselling blueprint for how the Democrats can win back middle-class voters and the White House. Most recently, Squadron was a consultant at Knickerbocker SKD, a political consulting firm where he worked from last summer until January, when he began campaigning full time. Squadron was also the communications director for the campaign to pass the Transportation Bond Act, a $3 billion referendum for transit improvements, including for the Second Ave. subway.

Squadron said he’s proud of his work for the new transit line. But he does not sound naive, despite his youth: “I’d like to see the Second Avenue subway make it down to Hanover Square in my lifetime — that might be a bit ambitious.”

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