With just a month and a half until the primaries, three of the four candidates vying for the 35th City Council district seat gathered at the Crown Heights’ Epiphany Lutheran School, 721 Lincoln Place, last night to square off in a tense, heated two-hour candidate forum.
The district includes the neighborhoods of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights and parts of Crown Heights,
Judge Ray Jones moderated the forum, which included incumbent City Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo, her Democratic Primary challenger Ede Fox and Green Party candidate Jabari Brisport. A fourth candidate, Republican Christine Parker, did not show.
Housing and gentrification dominated the conversation as most of the questions posed by Jones touched upon topics like rent hikes for stabilized apartments, plans for the Bedford Union Armory plan, and whether the city’s area median income, used to determine eligibility for affordable housing, should be based on national or regional averages.
“I think this is one of the most important races that is happening around the city, because we are talking about the most important issue that’s facing so many New Yorkers, and that’s housing,” said Fox.
The candidates discussed other issues, such as charter schools and improving STEM, but they all pointed towards a central theme; namely, that the district is largely composed of marginalized, vulnerable people who are at risk of being driven out of their own neighborhoods.
“Our communities are hurting,” said Cumbo. “The longtime residents who have lived here for so long, such as my family who has been here for five generations, are hurting. People do not know what their future is going to be.”
From the outset, it was clear that passions were ignited among the three candidates, even though their professed stances on the issues were largely the same (all, for instance, opposed expanding charter schools). Despite warnings from the moderators not to heckle and to save their applause for the end, attendees frequently interrupted candidates with both cheers and jeers, while Cumbo and Fox spent ample time taking not-so-subtle jabs at each other.
“We can send someone to City Hall who really speaks for our voice,” Fox said. “We have the power to send someone who’s not in the pocket of developers… who has not forgotten who she’s working for.”
Later, Cumbo responded in kind to Fox’s attack.
“My opponent has decided, again, to go negative,” said Cumbo. “Throughout this debate, I will not be going negative, because as Michelle Obama said, when they go low, we go high.”
Even Brisport took a direct shot at the incumbent.
“I’m happy to collaborate [with Cumbo], but every time I go to a protest for the Bedford Union Armory, she’s not there,” said Brisport.
During the audience Q&A, the questions posed by the audience members ranged from pointed to biting to accusatory. Attendee Joe Gonzalez asked all three of the candidates whether they were familiar with the issues faced by Brooklyn’s subways, after requesting that they take out their Metrocards to prove they ride the subway “like regular people do.” When Cumbo said she’d left her wallet at home, several audience members booed her, and only stopped when Cumbo’s mother, who was in the audience, stood up to show her own Metrocard.
Community activist and provocateur Alicia Boyd accused Cumbo of lying about contributions her campaign had received from real estate interests, citing $229,616.47 spent on Cumbo’s behalf by their political arm, Jobs for New York.
“Jobs for New York got their money from two LLCs fronting for Two Trees developers; those are the developers in Williamsburg and Downtown Brooklyn,” said Boyd. “However, on July 15, 2017, Laurie stated in public, and I quote, ‘I have not received or accepted any money from the real estate industry’!”
Cumbo said the money that Boyd cited was an independent expenditure that she neither solicited nor approved, and that she “never received a dime” from Jobs for New York.
Fox also drew the crowd’s ire. Renee Collymore, the former Democratic District Leader of the 57th Assembly District, asked what Fox had done to protect low-income tenants in the district from being priced out, mentioning the hundreds of families who were evicted from the Ebbets Field Apartments in the past year.
“You’re quick to talk about what Cumbo has not done, but I’m here to talk about what you have not done,” an angry Collymore announced. “When the downtown Brooklyn plan was being assembled, and was executed, and was shown to the community, what did you do? The elimination of 1,600 residents in Ebbets Field, what did you do?! You knew about it and you did absolutely nothing.”
Fox, a long time City Council staffer and community leader, replied that the incumbent, not the challenger, should be held accountable for those problems. “That is the role and the job of the council person,” said Fox. “If I had millions of dollars, yes, I would fund legal aid to go and provide legal support to Ebbets Field.”
In her closing statement, Fox said she was pleased by the “passion” expressed at the meeting.
“It represents, to me, that many of you recognize just how important the issues that we’re talking about tonight are,” said Fox,“making sure that people are able to stay in their homes, that kids are actually getting a proper education, and that they have the resources to thrive.”