It appears that Sara González will be the sole incumbent out of 31 City Council members seeking re-election not to reclaim her seat in January. The other 30 members all coasted to easy victories, with no challenger coming within 10 points of unseating the incumbent.
Of the 20 members who will join González in leaving the Council, most were prevented from running again by term limits, which are meant to stop politicians and their machines from entrenching their power through the many advantages that accrue to incumbents. By restricting the number of years any individual can serve, term limits are supposed to build in reform, ensuring that fresh voices are heard and that special interests are checked.
It is noteworthy, however, that nearly one-quarter of the 21 members leaving office are all but certain to be replaced by sitting members of the state Assembly. These five incoming members bring with them an existing history of political and financial ties that will certainly affect their work on the Council, and so it is worth reviewing some of these links ahead of the general election that stands as a mere technicality in the way of these Democratic nominees assuming their seats in overwhelmingly Democratic districts.
There is a swath of southeast Brooklyn where the current Assembly members are poised to take over the seats in adjacent council districts: those held currently by Lew Fidler, Charles Barron and Erik Dilan, which will be taken by, respectively, Assembly members Alan Maisel, Inez Barron and Rafael Espinal. What makes this phenomenon all the more remarkable is that there are very good odds that the departing Council members will be elected to the Assembly seats vacated by their successors, in a staggeringly precise minuet of political seat-shuffling.
Alan Maisel of Flatbush, winner of the Democratic primary in District 46, was formerly the chief of staff to current Kings County Democratic leader Frank Seddio, and took over his boss’ seat in 2006 when Seddio became a judge. Maisel has been a workaday assemblyman and most notably sponsored the bill that outlawed shark-fin soup in New York. He also had a moment in the sun when he claimed that a panel discussion regarding a boycott of Israel was creating “the potential for a second Holocaust” at Brooklyn College. The panel took place nonetheless.
Assemblyman Maisel appears to have extraordinarily close ties to the city marshal community, having accepted contributions from a number of individual marshals totaling close to $11,000, the bulk from Howard Schain and his family. City marshals, empowered to enforce civil court actions, including evictions and seizures of property, function as private entrepreneurs. These enforcers often skirt the boundaries of legality: Schain was fined $50,000 and suspended by the Department of Investigation in 2000 for filing false records pertaining to evictions. The franchise can be highly lucrative as well: One prominent Maisel contributor, Ronald Moses, earned $5 mil-lion from the city in 2010 after towing cars with accumulated ticket fines of $100 million.
Reached for comment, Assemblyman Maisel said, “The Schain family are community-minded people with long ties to my district. I have never done any favors for Howard Schain in his capacity as a city marshal.”
The employers of city marshals have also been very generous donors to Maisel’s political campaigns. Members of the Edelstein family, owners of Edel Family Management Group, have together contributed more than $13,000 to Maisel’s Assembly and Council runs. Edel owns and manages rental buildings and co-ops; just two of its Washington Heights rental properties have nearly 200 open Housing Department violations against them.
Inez Barron, currently the Assemblywoman representing East New York, will succeed her husband, Councilman Charles Barron, in the 42nd CD. It is expected that Councilman Barron will run for his wife’s seat after she resigns, so the area will have mirror-image representation going forward.
Assemblywoman Barron has served in the Legislature for three relatively undistinguished terms, though she has sponsored some unusual legislation. One bill she has introduced would allow churches and “other religious organizations or sects” to “issue bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in religion without registration or approval by the Board of Regents, the Commissioner of Education or the Education Department.”
The Barrons are both members of Rev. Herbert Daughtry’s House of the Lord Pentecostal Church. Pentecostal ministers are typically “called” to the ministry, and as such formal ordination is not always a requirement. As a result, ministers in these churches often lack degrees or other forms of certification. Assemblywoman Barron’s proposal to allow churches to award advanced degrees in “religion” would presumably make it easier for Pentecostal ministers to append highfalutin letters to their names.
Inez and Charles Barron have together awarded tens of thousands of dollars to Man Up!, a nonprofit organization that runs antiviolence intervention programs to help at-risk youth stay out of trouble. Man Up! is run by a political associate of the Barrons’, Andre Mitchell, who has also worked as a paid aide on the couple’s campaigns. Mitchell also appears to run an organization called Hip Hop Stand Up and Vote, which has received campaign expenditures from both Barrons’ campaigns. Hip Hop Stand Up and Vote shares the same address as Man Up!
Electioneering by a nonprofit organization receiving public funds is illegal. Neither of the Barrons could be reached for comment.
Mitchell, who served time in prison for a manslaughter he told The New York Times he was not involved in, is also chairman of a local development corporation, the East New York Restoration Local Development Corp., which was funded by the Related Companies as part of a community benefit agreement (CBA) brokered in part by the Barrons, in exchange for their support for the construction of the Gateway II mall. Man Up! has the contract for all job training and placement programs established by the CBA.
Continuing our tour of southeast Brooklyn, we approach CD 37, where Erik Dilan is leaving after 12 years of service in the Council. Dilan took over his father’s seat when the senior Dilan, Martin, moved to the state Senate. Now Dilan’s former chief of staff, Assemblyman Rafael Espinal will succeed him, and there is every indication that Dilan will in turn run for Espinal’s current job.
Having served for less than one full term, Espinal has not yet had the chance to sponsor signature legislation. He has, however, had time to collect substantial contributions from the real estate industry. For instance, the Wartski brothers, Jerry and Jay, have given Espinal’s campaigns thousands of dollars. In the 1970s Jerry Wartski was arrested for running a hot-sheet hotel. In the early 1980s he was identified by the FDNY as central to a cabal of investors whose SROs appeared to burn down at a rate significantly higher than normal. In the 1990s the city seized a Wartski-owned building in Washington Heights that had been taken over by drug dealers. This unusual move was justified on the basis that the owners of the building did nothing to prevent the use of their building for criminal enterprise.
Assemblyman Espinal, who could not be reached for comment, is a minor asset to the Wartskis, who continue to hold questionably managed properties around the city: Their main relationship has always been with Erik Dilan, the exiting chairman of the Council’s Housing & Buildings Committee. Council member Dilan has introduced legislation that would make legal hostels, or communally occupied temporary rental units, that were made illegal in 2010—legislation that would certainly be of advantage to the Wartskis, owners of low-rent hotels for decades.
While many candidates in the current cycle received independent expenditures from the real estate industry’s cat’s-paw Jobs for New York, most opted to shrug at it, claiming quite plausibly that it was none of their business who spent money on their campaigns. Not so in the case of Assemblyman Espinal, who was eager to show his appreciation. “I’m very grateful for their endorsement,” said Espinal. “They do believe that I’m the best candidate to create jobs and to do the job in the City Council.”
As Simon Cameron said a long time ago, “An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, stays bought.” It is doubtful that his donors will ever regret their investment in Rafael Espinal.
Seth Barron (@NYCCouncilWatch on Twitter) runs City Council Watch, an investigative website focusing on New York City politics.