Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Downtown Political Contests

There has been some gnashing of teeth Downtown over the upcoming contest for State Committee slots. Usually, there isn't much to talk about since State Committee is more important in appearance than in substance. Not so this year. Voting on the part of this year's State Committee members will result in deciding who gets on the ballot this fall, an important election in which Democrats, so far, are expected to turn a lot of Republicans out of office.

Arthur Schwartz, Chairman of the Parks and Waterfront Committee of Community Board #2 is running on a slate with Lisa Cannistraci, a new Board #2 member and owner of the Chick Inn. The opposition is incumbent Larry Moss, current Democratic State Committeeman and Human Rights Watch lawyer, and Rachel Levine, an outspoken advocate of same sex marriage and other progressive issues.

Behind the curtains, of course, is where the fun is.

Cannistraci is a relative newcomer to politics Downtown, has just recently joined the Community Board and is a close friend of the new Chair of Board #2. Arthur Schwartz, a union lawyer who was deposed from the Waterfront Committee on Board #2 by Aubrey Lees and then was placed back in that slot with its expansion to include Parks by Maria Derr. However, while he has been riding a bucking political pony at the Community Board, the local electeds, Tom Duane and Chris Quinn -- gave Schwartz the heave-ho as District Leader - preferring the company of Brad Hoylman instead.

Larry Moss, on the other hand has had his own problems with the support of the Downtown clubs. While the Village Independent Democrats are likely to support Moss and Rachel Levine, it is not clear which way the Downtown Independent Democrats will line up. There have been "difficulties" between Moss and D.I.D. President Sean Sweeney and it is unclear as well if David Reck (District Leader) is thinking more positively towards him these days. It is doubtful that D.I.D. would support Schwartz/Canistraci.

And, it is unclear which way Village Reform Democrats are leaning in this race.

It seems likely, regardless of how the clubs line up, that Duane, Quinn and Glick will be supporting Larry Moss and Rachel Levine. Thus far, the major support given to Schwartz and Canistraci is from Maria Derr, Chair of Community Board #2. With that kind of political support lined up, it seems clear which candidates have the best odds.

The Community Board #2 election is no longer a forgone conclusion. Usually, in the second year of a two year run, the Chair of the Board gets a free ride. At this Board, of course, anything is possible. So, this June, we get to watch it all again.

Most recently, Derr ran and won with the support and campaign management of Bob Rinaolo, someone who had considered running for Chair but was compromised with a conflict of interest scenario involving the Business Committee. Plus, there is the pregnant issue of bar owners running community boards -- still a hot, unresolved issue. Rinaolo, a bar owner, supported Derr, who has made good use of the Passanante name and managed a lot of support from Virginia Fields when she was Borough President. They gave good fundraisers.

This year, however, in the middle of Derr's two year run, she is being challenged by architect David Reck, Chair of the Zoning Committee of Community Board #2. The split on Board #2 has been especially rancorous due to the Bar Business vs. Community issue. Reck is an activist that has supported and established community groups to fight bars, lounges and nightclubs which have wreaked havoc in SoHo, NoHo, Greenwich Village and Hudson Square neighborhoods.

His thrust in opposing Derr is that the Community Board representing these neighborhoods is basically off course. While some would say Board #2 is mired in self-serving, self-interested, sub Rosa insider deals which has basically benefited the Chamber of Commerce/Nightlife takeover of the Board at the expense of the Community - Reck has simply used the ship off course analogy. Others would say that Board #2 is more like a hospital ship that's on fire, soon to sleep with the fishes . Derr has been busy, along with her mentor Bob Rinaolo in hurriedly interviewing the new appointees to the Board in an effort to read them the riot act about the upcoming election. No doubt they are getting the new party line about how community-friendly the current slate of bar owners and associates have become. And, oh, by the way, which committee would you like best?

Reck has promised that he will take his candidacy to a vote regardless of how difficult or contentious the campaign gets. There is no doubt that his is a difficult task. Reforming Community Board #2, with its deeply rooted penchant for attacking and defaming opponents, is a tough road for any activist to travel.

While the Chair of any Board has little real political power, Derr has the machinery to operate in trying to hold on to her seat. The appearance of power is sometimes enough to sway new Board members in their voting.

Even if it's against their best interests. Or against the best interests of the community.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Downtown Wars

Borough President Scott Stringer has started to reshape the Community Boards by introducing new members and discarding others. The new members know that becoming a member is an honor, and the existing members know that remaining on the Board depends upon service to the community. Those who have not been reappointed know that the community comes first and special interests come second, or not at all.

However, not everyone gets the message or likes hearing it.

While the Boards are elemental groups of citizens involved in community work for no compensation, it is also a body where all of the positive and negative currency of Democracy is always in full bloom. There are businesses vying for permission to operate (such a liquor licenses or sidewalk cafes), there are builders seeking to change the use of a parcel (changing from manufacturing to residential condos), and there are organizations seeking to expand their area of management (as with Business Improvement Districts).

Then, we come to the personalities and members who seek to improve their own standing in the community by creating power cliques within the Board. This could be a restaurant owner who fought the community over obtaining a liquor license in the past and rose through the ranks of the Chamber of Commerce. It could be a local landowner who wants to usher through developments by being involved in the process. Or, it could be a City worker who is branching out and starting a consulting firm - who wishes to collect clients based upon his "inside contacts" at the Board.

Fortunately, most people join the Community Board simply to improve the quality of life in their area of the community. And, most remain dedicated to membership for that reason alone, even though it is inevitable that they get caught up in the political crosswinds.

As John F. Kennedy once said, "Politics is the only game for adults." And, that is just as true at the Community Board as it is on the national scene. Only the players and the objectives are different. For Board members, there is another saying that resonates, "It's better to be a big shit in a little town than to be a little shit in a big town." Communities are microcosms in New York City and each Board is a little fiefdom that takes care of its own. It's possible to be a relatively important person in a community while having no importance at all with the general public. Many residents of SoHo, for example, have no idea who the Board members are from their area.

That's one reason why more entrenched Community Board members take membership on the Board very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that they are willing to resort to any number of tactics to maintain their little clique and to maintain their power base. For some, this power base translates into homage paid by prospective applicants for licenses, developers wishing to build multi-million dollar condos, and existing business owners wishing to expand their operations.

In some cases, the reason is more direct. It may clearly advance the individual member's personal business plans and favorable decisions can be worth millions. It can also be about personal or politcal favors.

The war that has already begun is focused on Community Board #2 - and is continuing with this year's election contest. David Reck, a respected architect and Chair of the Zoning Committee, will be challenging Maria Derr, the current Chair of that Board.

It is not a war between Reck and Derr. But it is a war being waged between the residents of the communities of SoHo, Greenwich Village, NoHo, Hudson Square and Little Italy -- and political as well as business interests that do not value the quality of their lives. The citizens are tired of all night bars and lounges that interfere with their families, the traffic that pollutes their air and prevents them from safely crossing the street, the illegal billboards that display half-naked models or booze, and the developers who want to cut off their light and air to build bigger condominiums.

And, the residents are also pissed off that they, the community, don't come first - after the interest of businesses and special interests.

David Reck wants the Community Board to move in the direction of the Community, to support the needs of the community associations that want to improve quality of life for residents. Maria Derr was elected by the strong connection to Virginia Fields and support of the nightlife members on the Board who supported Fields' campaign for Mayor. Her reign is not about the community, but about sustaining the business clique and thier power on the Board.

The new Board members are welcome and it appears that Scott Stringer has added nearly 15 new community-oriented people to Board #2. They are a cross-section of what is needed on a community board. Independent individuals who are capable of considering the needs of the community first.

Those who remain on the Board and who are not happy about the changes fall into two categories. Those who think that more people should have been dropped from the board in order to reform it, and those who are doing whatever they can to discredit their opponents.

If you have followed the recent issues of the SoHo Journal, you know that the nightlife industry to some degree is represented by Board members like Bob Rinaolo, Roscia Sanz, Phil Mouquinho and Rick Panson. Maria Derr ran for Chair with their support and connections - as well as the connection to the former Borough President. Mouquinho has represented himself well and has appeared to be sensitive to the needs of the community - a community that he has lived in all of his life.

However, the clique that represents the nightlife community has started to resort to highly unethical maneuvers. Not just to maintain the power base but to denigrate community people and activists who support them.

"Anonymous" letters have started to surface once again. This seems to be a historical method used almost exclusively in Board #2 to discredit others that are political enemies. It is a testament to the rancor and petty vendettas drawn from a medieval characters like Machiavelli. With all due respect to our dearly departed, it was widely believed that the former District Manager at Board #2 had some information on using that particular ploy. And, he was directly responsible for allowing such letters to appear in everyone's mailbox.

The "Reform" group, among which are people like Sean Sweeney of the SoHo Alliance and off-Board activists like Zella Jones of the NoHo Neighborhood Association, have started to experience personal attacks for all of their community efforts.

Jones has been the victim of a "slap suit" for her involvement in a recent Town Hall meeting seeking to deal with traffic, development AND liquor license issues. She and other activists have successfully blocked bars in NoHo that are supported by the Nightlife people on Community Board #2.

Sweeney, a vocal and sometimes curmudgeonly activist who tirelessly works for the benefit of Downtown Democrats and the SoHo community - has been the object of many of these personal attacks. He was jettisoned from important committees by Derr as soon as she became Chair.

According to Sweeney, "The real scandal is that leadership of Community Board 2 is using anonymous letters, lies and sleaze tactics to silence opponents."

In fact, rather than investigate an unsigned letter that blatantly attempts to get community activist members off the Board, Maria Derr (the Chair), simply comments that the people who are attacked should be investigated.

That is clearly the party line of the Nightlife power clique - and not the voice of a Board Chair who is outraged by unethical behavior by Board members in circulating missives written by character assassins.

While Derr wants victims investigated to satisfy her nightlife political allies on the Board, she should begin investigating the misdeeds of Board members who seek to circulate lies. Unless, of course, she knows more that we know about its origin.

We do know, though, that the letter was penned by Community Board #2 member or members. That is a fact that has been confirmed by a news source.

We have a new Deep Throat - only this time he or she is coughing up fabrications.

Let the Games Begin.