Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAG) hosted the “Ultimate Verbal Smackdown” Tuesday night, the first debate between the democratic candidates for the 33rd district council seat, currently held by David Yassky, since candidates handed in their petitions July 20. It is likely that the results of the democratic primary election on September 15 will determine who will succeed Yassky, who is running for New York City comptroller.
“It’s likely that this time of the year, not a lot of people are going to show up to the polls,” NAG co-chair Michael Freedman-Schnapp said, addressing the audience. “So this election is where the power is truly in your hands in terms of your vision of what you want this community to be. All you have to do is to listen, to choose, and to vote.”
The debate, moderated by NAG co-chair Susan Albrecht, centered on issues of affordable housing, public transportation, open space, education, and the influx in North Brooklyn of traffic (pedestrian, bicycle, and motor), noise, trash, and most recently, “gutter punks,” transients who are accused of squatting in empty buildings and using heroin.
One of the most heated discussion points, however, was the 2005 Williamsburg/ Greenpoint rezoning laws which have been largely unfulfilled in regard to providing much needed affordable housing and open space. Taking the “smackdown” theme to heart, newcomer progressive Doug Biviano did not hold back in accusing frontrunners Evan Thies, JoAnne Simon, and Stephen Levin (who was not present), of being part of the “democratic political machine” and making “backroom deals.”
“Are you going to stand up to eight to twelve more years of the Yassky, Levin, Simon machine?” Biviano asked.
“Doug, there are a lot of people in this room that worked very hard on this rezoning who spent years of their life getting a historic agreement out of the city,” Thies responded later. “It’s disgraceful that you would say that.”
Later, Simon defended herself against Biviano, who had referenced “three people who were in the backroom designing the development,” in response to a question regarding overcrowding on the L and G trains.
“Let me tell you what a democratic district leader does,” Simon said, citing her work with community coalitions on projects of transportation, land use, and environmental justice. “She works with her community for her constituents. As a community person that is the way I’ve been able to work, because I have not been working for an elected official or pulling strings anywhere.”
Levin, who missed the debate to participate in a statewide labor and political leaders summit in Kingston, was unable to immediately respond to Biviano’s accusations.
Aside from the tension, candidates did manage to speak to important issues, all which centered on the recent development in the area, which has led to loud, crowded streets, uneven funding in regards to housing, open space, and transportation, and the inability of the city to absorb the cost of fixing these problems, especially given the turn in the economy and housing market.
In regard to congestion on the L and the G trains, both Issac Abraham and Biviano talked about water transportation, while Theis and Ken Diamond Stone, and Ken Baer discussed extending the length of the G train and increasing bus rapid transit. Simon stressed that the MTA is a public authority which needs to be held accountable.
The MTA, along with the city, was also accused by candidates for lack of action in regard to relocating the trucks at the 65 Commercial Street site, which was slated to be open space.
Regarding the question of increased noise, traffic, and vagrancy in the North Brooklyn, and particularly Williamsburg area, candidates discussed the need for increased funding for the 90th and 94th precincts, which would allow for traffic monitoring, a greater police presence in the neighborhood, and better reporting of crime statistics. Baer called for increased trash collection on weekends, while Diamondstone suggested the use of BigBelly solar powered trash compactors, which are currently being used in Union Square.
In the lightning round, in which the only issues candidates unanimous agreed upon were the creation of separate bike lanes and voting against the Broadway Triangle re-zoning, moderator Albrecht livened things up with a challenge for the candidates to draw the oddly shaped 33rd District with provided paper and markers. Candidates held up their scrawls, most of which were vague. The audience began to laugh—a sound not heard frequently that night. Abraham had drawn a smiley face.