Too few in our district take their civic duty seriously...and your vote is incredibly important, even by the numbers. Politics don't get much more local or crucial for us New Yorkers than City Council. Due to a top heavy City Charter, the Mayor's really got the power in this town, but a Councilperson speaks for her district, and can lead in so many ways - if only they have the spirit, passion and smarts to do so. They can respond, set agenda, identify problems, take City agencies to task, and see that money is allocated wisely for the District. They can take on causes and make them, by sheer force of will, the causes of the City itself. Witness Jumaane Williams and Stop and Frisk - his passion has led to new laws and heightened interest in dealing with human rights issues underlying the policy. So yeah, a council person is a big deal. Even if you're incredibly cynical about politics, you gotta admit it's nice to have someone you respect representing you.
We're a rapidly changing district, with all the attendant growing pains. We're a wildly diverse area. We're full of newcomers from the world's nations and lately from the nation's colleges too (checked the subway platform lately? It's like campus library some days.) We've got old-timers of every stripe living in every type of domicile from every economic background and ethnicity imaginable. We've got giant houses with yards in "Victorian" Flatbush; giant troubled apartment buildings resembling a Dickensian NYC; we've got lots of new buyers in Dinkens-ian era coop conversions; plus a lot of Edwardian era built brownstones (built 100 years ago as tract homes, but now suggesting a Victorian Brooklyn that's all myth) changing hands at top dollar. Oh, and the neo-Tudor's on Chester Court and the Georgian Revivals of Albemarle Terrace, to run with the theme. There are so many gorgeous stabilized rental apartment buildings of the pre-war variety that our district will likely (hopefully anyway) remain livable, rowdy, exciting, surprising and full of the guts, brains and sweat of an honest-to-goodness REAL New York City neighborhood. We're the real deal, and we deserve a real representative in City Hall.
(Speaking of City Hall, we've got a steaming hot mayoral race going on, and frankly I've been so buried in local community stuff I haven't really been paying attention. Seems to me de Blasio and Thompson will have the upper hand in our area. I have yet to meet a single person excited about Quinn. The rest of the field look like a bunch of dorks to me, though Liu has been fairly tough as a Comptroller. And Weiner? Really? Frankly, I don't WANT to know what my elected leaders looks like with their shirts off. And now, as is often the case, I'm on a tangent and talking out my asphalt. Feel free to comment on your thoughts for Mayor!)
What this competitive mayoral race means, hopefully, is that this September 10 Democratic Primary will likely spur a much larger turnout than 2009, the last time we elected a council person. Our district tallied a pathetic 6,000 or so votes that cycle, and elected Eugene over two mediocre campaigners, and yet the incumbent tallied only about 58% of those who bothered to show up at the polls. Remember the district has over 120,000 people in it. You figure at least 50K can vote, and since most are registered as Democrats, and it's the primary where these things are won...well, Flatbush isn't exactly winning any Civic Responsibility Awards. Other neighboring districts voted at twice that rate. (Every wonder why so little gets done around here?) To those who DID vote, I know I'm preaching to the choir. (And what a wonderful richly voiced tapestry of a choir you are, too!) But we can do much better, and at least if the incumbent is reelected, we'll know democracy made it so. And we can cry into our loose chads.
We have three challengers to Dr. Eugene's throne. John Grant is sweet; I met him at the CB9 meeting. He will not win many votes, if he can even accumulate enough signatures to get on the ballot. Sylvia Kinard is starting to rev her engines. Besides being the ex-spouse of Bill Thompson (here's a fantastically gossipy piece on their divorce), she's a lawyer who seems way too eager to step into the spotlight - she ran unsuccessfully for congress last year, so maybe (certainly) she has some extra bread in the collection plate, and needs to spend it on another campaign. Is she merely fishing for a job? Out to upstage her jerk husband? Maybe. She's smart, she's got experience, but her credentials reek of insider-ism, and same ol' same ol'. Prove me wrong, but she just seems too traditional a candidate for such a flashy district. Which leaves us with Saundra Thomas (no relation), and this is what she looks like when she's doing her favorite thing - hanging out with and listening to the needs of young people:
I've only known her since February, but I gotta say I've grown to respect and dig her a lot in a short time. She's very, very real. And by that I mean she doesn't put on airs, she's not overly slick or politician-y. She knows the City well, its people, and most of all, she knows the way kids are often left behind, far behind, in this City of wealth, prestige and power. She'll listen to you, but she won't pander. She's not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom, and she carries herself with dignity and respect for others. As they might say in Crown Heights, she's a mensch, and her reputation as such is echoed by those who know her.
This would be her first elected office. In early conversations I could sense that despite her years as WABC TV's VP of Community Affairs, where it was her job to get out there in front of people, and assess the needs and efficacy of countless non-profits, and dole out philanthropic dough, and get honored a time or two for her dedicated service, she was/is still new to the game of electioneering. However she's grown more confident in the last few weeks and is really strongest one-on-one with people. But most of you probably won't spend a lot of time with her between now and September, so in the spirit of active bloggery, I did what any Qurious Quasi-Journalistic Brooklynite would do...I asked her to come over to my house and sit on my stoop one night and talk turkey. My first question? How would someone with little experience in politics hit the ground running. Answer? It's all about your network, the hires and volunteers you surround yourself with. True, true. A council candidate needn't be an experienced legislator, but she dang well better hire one. And be a fast learner. Added Ms. Thomas:
I would want someone strong in legislation, and someone, actually a few people who are really good at constituent services. This is a crucial part of a council person's job. People want a place to bring their problems. I did that a lot at WABC. We will be responsive and caring, and if we don't know the answer we will find out what we need to know and bring it to you.
A NYC Councilperson needs to communicate. And it's important to know that different people have different access to technology. How do you deal with seniors and people who aren't technologically savvy? You must be able to reach out the old fashioned way, AND have a strong online presence.
I want someone in my office who's excellent at being a liaison between the various constituencies. We need collaboration between the different parts of the district. We're not communicating with each other now. If we get something right somewhere, the other parts need to know about it. And I'd want a whole committee dedicated to youth and education, because that's where my passion lies.
Q: Your social media person, Danny Hairston, said something that will always stick with me, I think. He talked about kids in Brownsville, surfing the subways. Not a crowd likely to be given much in the way of opportunity. And in his program, he comes up to these kids and says "hey, you wanna go snowboarding? we can sign you up for that." And once the kids are out of their neighborhood and all the stuff going down there, they can open up, maybe talk about the way they really want to live their life, not just the streets and dead-end jobs.
ST: Danny's figured out how to bring youth to the table, and new ways to use their skills and talent. You look at kids who are into hip-hop culture and rap, they're amazing writers. Innovation is happening all over around this stuff. A program in Texas has former drug dealers, just out of prison, and hones their business skills. You gotta work with people where they are.
Q: What about the most difficult kids, the known dealers, the ones who might have guns and that we hear about all the time.
ST: I know where the drug dealers are in my neighborhood. These wild kids, I engage them, I'm not afraid to talk to young people. They're a lot more respectful than you'd think. People don't talk to them, they're afraid. And the problem gets worse. We've got to engage them, talk to them.
Q: I feel like we've all become so fearful we just avoid people on the street we think might be into "the life." And I emphasize the word "might," because it's hard sometimes to tell who's cool and who's not. Tell me about the makeup of the district. People call Flatbush a black neighborhood. How black?
ST: I was just looking at the numbers today. It's 59% black; less than 20% white; and among the other you've got Asian, Hispanic, Southeast Asian (Pakistan, Burma, Yemen), you name it.
Q: And among that overarching group referred to as "black" the diversity is astounding. As a newcomer years ago, I don't think I had any idea how many ways a person could be "black." I mean I knew theroretically, but not up close and in person. African-Americans of every background and "class," West Indians from every island, Africans, Europeans...it's just remarkable. And the district goes how far east?
ST: To Kingston. And west to roughly Coney Island.
Q: With Empire on the north and a weird step-like zig zag on the south, heading down towards the Junction. What's the key to victory?
ST: I've got some good people in my corner. But being new you got prove you can do it. The Unions, for instance, ask "what's your number to win?" And they want to see how much money you can raise, and how many ballot signatures you can get. In the end, it's gonna come down to who comes out to vote.
Q: Does your partner, Susan Siegal, come up in conversations with folks?
ST: Absolutely. She used to head Flatbush Development Corporation. She was very involved in getting Cortelyou Road off the ground, and starting the farmer's market. She was part of a group called Friends of Cortelyou Road, with Jan Rosenberg (Brooklyn Hearth Realty) long before the area became trendy. I'm always happy to talk about Susan. She's one of the deeply committed stakeholders in Ditmas.
Q: Let's talk more about youth. Beyond the obvious other things that people are concerned about - like public safety and affordable housing - what to do for young people seems like a huge issue for the area.
ST: You know I really want to figure out a way to engage businesses with young people in the community and bring clergy, schools, business owners together to talk about ways to bring youth in. There was a time when clergy could do this; we need to try again. And we need to create apprenticeships...we need a mechanism to do that. People don't know what to do with these kids...they're scared of them in some cases. Too scared to engage them.
Q: And of primary importance to so many in the district - immigration?
ST: I'm very progressive on pathways to citizenship. I will be every bit as effective working for the rights of immigrants in this neighborhood as we're seeing now, and better. I can see that so many people I talk to WANT to vote.
Q: Let's talk about affordable housing. This seems like something politicians give a lot of lip service too. So many of the issues of housing come back to landlords for me. Politicians talk about rent stabilization, because that's something you can vote on. But I believe the power of capitalism is just too great. The lure of money, fast money, steady big money. That's where change happens, and it happens so quickly...
At which point it started to sound like I was interviewing myself because I kept on talking about affordable housing like I was a politician. Saundra sounded all the right notes, and echoed my frustration at the lack of real options to deal with rapid change and greedy landlords.
AND now, for those brave enough to make it to the end of this post, I ask you to pose your own questions in the comments, and I'll ask Saundra to respond in a separate post once I've compiled them. Anyone game? You may consider this post 1 on the subject. I'll continue to check in with Saundra on the issues that you know, as a Q reader, are near and dear to my heart - from traffic and trash and crime to community building and plazas and the green metal Flatbush trees. Maybe we can get Saundra's partner Susan to come and help us start a green-market on the Q plaza? Hmm?
Let me say it loud and clear - electing Saundra isn't the end...it's just the beginning. And you have my word that I'll do my best to hold her feet to the fire. Not literally of course, that would be cruel and illegal. Probably more like a persistent nudging, but you get the idea.
Don't forget to go to Saundra's website and get on her e-list or give, if you're so inclined. www.saundrathomas2013.com. Her campaign wants people to weigh in on the "education issues" section of the site. They'll be monitoring it closely.
I guess this could be described as an endorsement. Maybe not the most important online endorsement, but definitely the first. And if you can't be the best, be the first, as my dear Auntie Merriwether used to say.*
*this is a complete fiction used to bolster the Q's cred as a Will Rogers folksy type.