Volume 73, Number 50 | March 14 - 20, 2004

Quest for fire: Lopez talks on borough presidency

By Lincoln Anderson

Villager photo by Lincoln Anderson

Margarita Lopez and Chad Marlow

Margarita Lopez told members of the Village Independent Democrats club last Thursday night she’s not afraid of the heat. In fact, she said, she’s more than ready to get burned, since that’s what it takes to stand up to powerful interests.

Indeed, Lopez, city councilmember for the East Village/Lower East Side’s District 2, gave a fiery speech to about 20 club members who came to hear about her candidacy for Manhattan borough president. It was 40 minutes of intensity, punctuated by the occasional fist thump on the podium, Lopez only cooling down when she started taking audience questions.

V.I.D. president Chad Marlow, in his introductory remarks, called Lopez, originally from Puerto Rico, “the living embodiment of the American dream.”

But the path of the dream wasn’t always clear, Lopez admitted. She recounted her reluctant journey into politics, noting how initially she was uncomfortable with the power it represented.

“I wanted nothing to do with electoral politics,” she said. “I hated it with a passion. Power — I was one of those people that feared that word. Because I thought power corrupts ethics, the soul.

“I now mention the word ‘power’ with a lot of pride, a lot of joy, because those without power cannot begin to make political equality happen.”

The turning point, she said, was meeting former longtime Downtown Councilmember Miriam Friedlander, who inspired her deeply. Although she didn’t mention him by name, Lopez said Antonio Pagan’s defeat of Friedlander, followed by Friedlander’s inability to win her seat back in the next election, compelled her to run for district leader herself, launching her political career.

“The man who came to be elected to that seat harmed — harmed — the Lower East Side in ways that I cannot explain,” Lopez said. “It was a Lower East Side where justice was denied…. I matured politically very quickly after we didn’t get Miriam back in office.”

Using V.I.D. as a model, Lopez and her East Village allies formed Coalition for a District Alternative to battle Pagan’s organization, and on the first try won the district leadership and many County Committee seats.

Pagan eventually ran unsuccessfully for borough president, and Lopez won his seat by a razor-thin margin against Judy Rapfogel, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s chief of staff. Now six years later, Lopez faces term limits at the end of 2005, and has set her sights on borough president.

She stressed she’s not running because she’s “looking for a job,” but because she has much to offer — including an understanding of power.

“Politics is a struggle for power,” she said. “The borough president of this borough must engage in that struggle — not in a way that is delicate or quiet.”

A priority for Lopez is the preservation and construction of affordable housing, which she lamented is fast disappearing from the island.

“We can’t afford to lose a single unit of affordable housing in this borough and must develop new affordable housing,” she said. Lopez added that Manhattan must not lose blue-collar jobs either, and that small businesses are “the fiber of what this borough is about — it’s not about the big stores.”

But Lopez isn’t shying away from thinking big, specifically about the development of the West Side rail yards and the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area.

“We must build on those parcels of land that are left in this city,” she said, “and negotiate a deal where we get affordable housing, as well as commercial [development] and jobs.”

On the Seward sites on Delancey St., Lopez said, “That is an incredible parcel of land. It should be developed with affordable housing, commercial space.”

The councilmember said the development of the long-fallow Lower East Side property is something the borough president should tackle right away.

On the West Side, Lopez explained she accepts that the city is going to build something on the rail yards, whether it’s a stadium or an expanded convention center or both. For her, the key is to have a seat at the negotiating table so the community can get things it wants included in the project.

Asked if she supported Mayor Bloomberg’s stadium plan, Lopez answered, “My position is you have to develop there. The West Side is going to be developed. If it’s going to be the Javits Center, stadium, it doesn’t matter. But we have to negotiate, as a part of it, to get affordable housing, get jobs.

“Are you willing to be bold and bite the bullet, even when you are in the kitchen and you’re the cook and can get burned? I know that I can get burned — and I can negotiate and get deals.”

Yet, Lopez said she’s had difficulty in the Council getting legislation introduced, noting she has “to be like Godzilla” to get a bill drafted. Asked what she would change in the Council, she said its leader, the speaker, has too much power.

On health, Lopez said she immediately recognized that the threat of federal cutbacks at the Veterans Affairs Hospital on E. 23rd St. was a “borough president issue,” as well as a major concern for her own district, and jumped into the fight to save the services. The hospital employs many Manhattan residents as well as 250 doctors, she noted.

“This is very serious, big — humongous,” Lopez said. “I don’t know where the cowboy from Texas thinks he can get away with this idea.”

Lopez noted that as a Puerto Rican lesbian woman she brings something special to the table. She lightheartedly wished that all the men in the room, for their own benefit, could be women too.

Keen Berger, Village Democratic district leader, asked her, “What does the borough president do?”

“A lot,” said Lopez.

“I haven’t noticed so much,” said Berger, in a dig at incumbent C. Virginia Fields, who will be term-limited at the end of 2005.

“That’s the thing,” said Lopez. “It depends who’s borough president. The borough president has power over land use, over appointments to community boards and to the school board, over putting together development plans, initiating development plans. They have an incredible amount of power. The question is — are they willing to use it?

“You have to be willing to burn,” the East Side councilmember said. “And like the song says, ‘I want to set this town on fire.’ And if you elect me, I will.”

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