Race for Harlem City Council Seat is Fierce, But Voters Don’t Seem to Care

The New York City Council Chambers. Photograph by Glenn Castellano.

The New York City Council Chambers. Photograph by Glenn Castellano.

Nine candidates are competing for the City Council seat that represents much of East and Central Harlem. The District Nine seat was vacated in November when Council Member Inez Dickens was elected to state assembly.

But with a contentious national election only a few months past, and a constant flow of political news coming from Washington, many local residents have put neighborhood politics on the back burner.

On a warm Wednesday afternoon on bustling 125th Street, in the center of the district, fewer than ten people interviewed by the NY City Lens were aware of the upcoming election. Fewer still had chosen a candidate from the nine on the ballot. Screen Shot 2017-02-13 at 3.05.35 PM

“I’ve seen a couple fliers, but it’s just like the Trump stuff has taken over everything local. I’m a little overwhelmed,” said Tiffany Cook, 33, as she walked her two small dogs. “I want to disconnect.

Lisa Miller, a 25-year-old Harlem resident, agreed. “There’s too much craziness,” she said. Miller pays attention to politics, but said she primarily gets her news from TV and articles shared on social media, where she has seen no coverage of the special election on either platform.

It can be hard to find information if you are not a political junkie. Debates between candidates have been confined to community access television. The Observer and the Gotham Gazette have been the only news outlets closely following the election, and neither has a wide reach. There has been very little attention to the race from larger outlets: WNYC aired a short story about the election of February 10, and NY1 has not covered the election since it was announced in January. The Daily News ran a profile on one candidate, Marvin Holland, and the New York Post covered challenges brought by Holland’s legal team to disqualify some candidates. Even the Amsterdam News, headquartered in District 9, endorsed Cordell Cleare, but has not covered the other candidates.

So it has been left to the campaigns themselves to spread information, distributing fliers across the neighborhood, and engaging volunteers to talk with residents. Manuel Casanova, the manager of Athena Moore’s campaign, estimated his team has knocked on thousands of doors. But the door-to-door method does not seem to be resonating. Resident James Harrison, 20, for example, said he remembers speaking to several campaign volunteers, but he could not recall who they were campaigning for.

Vigil Chime, 49, said she actually met several candidates around the neighborhood. She said she had even initially planned to vote for Bill Perkins, the state Senator who had held the City Council seat before heading to Albany. But Chime met candidate, Cleare, and decided she will vote for her instead. “She seemed really passionate,“ Chime said, but she added that she was not optimistic about Cleare’s chances. “I think everyone’s going to go for Perkins,” said Chime. “He’s got the name.”

CD9 Outline

Council District 9 is outlined in red. Source: New York City Campaign Finance Board

Since he has been a state senator since 2006 and before that was a city council member, many residents have at least heard of Perkins, says Dr. Ester Fuchs, a Columbia professor of public affairs and political science, and this gives him a leg up. “Name recognition is an advantage because there’s really only a few weeks to campaign, not enough time to build up name recognition.” The campaign officially began on January 3rd, and voting will take place on Tuesday, February 14th.

“Special elections can be easier to win than elections in November, because turnout is so low,” said Fuchs. But the winner will reap the rewards for years. “Generally, who’s ever in the council stays, and incumbents by and large win. Special interests see it as their opportunity.”

And special interests are taking notice of this race. Almost $250,000 has been donated to the campaigns, with the biggest contributions coming from trade unions. Candidate Holland,  the political director of the Transit Workers Union,  has received the lion’s share of the campaign cash—$43,388. At the other end of the fundraising spectrum is Caprice Alves, an academic who has raised just $100. Dawn Simmons, endorsed by the Manhattan Republican party, has collected the largest number of contributions—343—totaling about $17,487.

Other than the Republican Simmons, political consultant Lincoln Mitchell considers the candidates very similar. “In the bigger picture it is not hugely important because most of these candidates have more or less the same views on most issues,” he said.

Fuchs, the Columbia professor, said the choice for city councilman is nevertheless important “Council members are the first line of government, the closest to the street and to the neighborhoods. If you have a problem with government, everyone knows you go to the city council member for help,” she said, adding that many city council decisions, are made with deference to the city council member from the district in question, especially on decisions about land use and rezoning.

No matter what the results of the Feb. 14 election, voters will go to the polls again this fall in the regular election for the council seat, and many of the same candidates will compete again during the primary elections in September. Casanova, Athena Moore’s campaign manager, does not put too much stock in this election. “It’s just a warm-up for September.”