Council Member Margaret Chin and others (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)
Nine Democratic candidates are running in the City Council District 1 primary for a seat based in Lower Manhattan. The district includes parts or all of Battery Park, the Civic Center, Chinatown, the Financial District, Little Italy, the Lower East Side, NoHo, SoHo, South Street Seaport, South Village, TriBeCa, and Washington Square. Governors Island, Ellis Island, and Liberty Island are also a part of the district.
The current City Council member, Margaret Chin, was elected in 2010 as the first Asian-American elected in the district. She is term-limited and can’t run for reelection. The fast-approaching primary includes absentee voting, early voting June 12-20, and primary day of June 22. Given how heavily Democratic the district is, the winner of the crowded primary — which includes the use of ranked-choice voting for the first time — is all but sure to become the next Council member come January.
With a concentration of public housing on the Lower East Side along with some of the most expensive real estate in the city in the Financial District and Tribeca, the district is extremely diverse economically as well as racially. Though white residents make up the biggest racial or ethnic group, about 45% of the population, there are large Asian-American populations totaling about 36% of district residents, while Hispanic residents are about 12% and Black residents about 4%. The district’s diversity along with the implementation of ranked-choice voting makes it necessary for candidates to garner wide-reaching appeal to win the seat.
The crowded field of candidates running in the Council District 1 Democratic primary include Susan Damplo, an attorney and administrative law judge with the NY State Liquor Authority; Sean Hayes, an international attorney, educator and arbitrator; Jenny Lam Low, who works as Director of Administrative Services at the City Council; Susan Lee, a legal assistant and non-profit grant writer; Gigi Li, chief of staff for outgoing Council Member Chin, who has endorsed her; Maud Maron, a Legal Aid Society Senior Staff Attorney and Community Education Council member; Chris Marte, the New York State director of Arena, a political training academy; Denny Salas, a former stockbroker, researcher and political consultant on behalf of Democratic members of Congress; and Tiffany Winbush, an adjunct professor of marketing at Berkeley College.
According to the Campaign Finance Board’s District 1 summary, as of June 3, the total private and public matching funds for each candidate was: Li with $257,979; Marte with $256,885; Low with $256,239; Maron with $238,062; Lee with $195,134; Damplo with $146,711; Winbush with $90,679; Hayes with $30,647; and Salas with $11,202.
District 1, its residents, commuters, and business, has seen its share of major city crises and catastrophes, including the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the 2008 financial crisis on Wall St., and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Now the district faces the devastation of COVID-19 and its impacts, especially on families and small businesses. Given its large Asian-American population, the district has also been among the most impacted by the rise in anti-Asian racism and hate crimes. The election to replace Chin is focused on those issues as well as major development projects and controversies, homelessness and housing affordability, and more.
Candidates and voters are looking closely at questions around development, housing, and the planned building of a new downtown jail, meant to replace the existing one in the district as part of the plan to close Rikers Island jails. The Manhattan Detention Complex, on White Street and nicknamed “The Tombs,” would be demolished and replaced with a larger, 29-story jail. Most recently, the New York State appeals court ruled that the city can move forward with its plans, rejecting residents’ claims that the process, which was approved through the City Council with Chin’s support, did not abide by local zoning laws.
Additionally, there’s the city’s planned SoHo/NoHo rezoning plan, estimated to add 3,200 housing units and potential retail space to the neighborhoods, and potentially the first neighborhood rezoning of the de Blasio years that would add significantly more housing density to a wealthy area of the city. Other controversies surround the Two Bridges development proposal on the Lower East Side, the Haven Green low-income senior housing project, how to fix NYCHA housing, protecting the area from the effects of climate change, and more.
“Whoever’s the next Council member has a large say in land use through the ULURP process, is going to take positions on and negotiate the future land use decisions, is going to be critically important,” Democratic strategist Trip Yang told Gotham Gazette in regard to the importance of the race and the role of the Council member. Yang previously worked for Chin’s reelection campaign.
The District 1 candidates recently met over zoom for a debate moderated by Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max and hosted by Manhattan Neighborhood Network.
Chin’s chief of staff, Li has garnered high-profile endorsements from not only Chin, but mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, the New York Pan-Asian Democratic Club, and others (Chin has endorsed Yang for mayor).
Li is an immigrant from Hong Kong and first generation college graduate with a masters in social work from Columbia University. She was formerly the director of the Neighborhood Family Services Coalition, a counselor at the NY Asian Women’s Center (now Womankind) and the first Asian-American elected chair of her local community board. Li says she worked on bringing signature de Blasio education programs universal pre-kindergarten and community schools to fruition. She’s been a resident in District 1 for nearly two decades, she said.
Li has pitched herself as a social worker and organizer with a “track record of broad-based coalition building.” She cites top district issues as affordable housing, protecting the social safety net, and the broader COVID-19 recovery. On affordable housing she has emphasized the need for every neighborhood to get their “fair share” of units, and the need for a reassessment of affordable housing eligibility requirements.
In the debate, Li said she favors the SoHo/NoHo rezoning. “It is a neighborhood that has great schools, has great access to public transportation, and really from a housing justice lens, could really be a gamechanger for any family or child that can get to move into that neighborhood and benefit from all of the amenities that the existing neighbors get,” she said.
“What you’ll get out of me being your next City Council member is a focus and drive towards equity and access,” she said during the debate, where she also said she will be ranking Yang first on the ballot for mayor.
Lam-Low currently serves as the Director of Administrative Services Division in the CIty Council Speaker’s Office, managing internal Council operations. She was formerly the Director of the Community Engagement Division.
At 12, Low immigrated from China and learned English in public schools. She worked as an executive in community relations and strategic philanthropy at JP Morgan Chase & Co. and focused her efforts on helping women and people of color, she has said. She has also been chair of the Board Directors for the Chinese-American Planning Council and Vice President of Eleanor’s Legacy Innovation Council.
Low’s major endorsements thus far include Congressional Rep. Nydia Velazquez, District Council 37, the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, the United Federation of Teachers, and Tenants PAC.
She has pitched herself as a nearly-lifelong resident who knows the district in and out, and a leader in the local nonprofit space. During the recent debate, Low said her top priorities are affordable housing, addressing food insecurity and finding “real investment” in public education.
Low stressed that her guiding principle on housing is “responsible development” and pointed to a Lower East Side luxury residential tower, One Manhattan Square, as irresponsible. “We need to make sure that all the stakeholders are at the table, have a transparent process from planning to deliberation to execution,” she said. “Stakeholders include residents…elected officials, experts, labor unions whose workers will be building those developments should it go through.”
After losing to Chin in 2017 by only 222 votes, Marte is running again and seen as a frontrunner. Born and raised on the Lower East Side to immigrant parents, Marte attended public schools and started his career as a financial analyst at IBM. He’s been a legal researcher and board member of nonprofit organization, Defy Ventures, focused on helping ex-prisoners run small businesses. In recent years he has helped run the Arena political training institute.
Marte has garnered a number of endorsements from groups such as the Village Independent Democrats, the Chinatown Working Group, the Downtown Independent Democrats, the New York City Asian-American Democratic Club, among others.
He has pitched himself as a local Lower East Side kid who’s been committed to the district and “already does the work that our Council office should be doing.” Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic Marte helped deliver food and PPE to seniors and healthcare workers, connect women-owned businesses to federal PPP loans, and provide free covid testing sites, he has said.
“Our plan for recovery focuses on three main issues,” Marte said in a candidate statement on MNN accompanying the debate video. “First I would pass community-based land use plans to reclaim the affordability of our neighborhoods, preserve their character and small businesses. Second, I’m running to improve our quality of life instead of cutting the budget for essential services like education and sanitation. And third, we can’t stumble from crisis to crisis and must locally address climate change and protect our waterfronts.”
Marte has been staunchly anti-development in his two runs for Council. During the debate, he said he was not in favor of de Blasio’s SoHo/NoHo upzoning plan and pointed to a few alternative locations for building new affordable housing within the district, including a federal parking lot at 2 Howard Street along with two water tunnel sites that are empty lots.
Maron, a long-time public defender and mother of four children, has been toward the top of the race in fundraising and focused her campaign on education and public safety. Maron serves as an elected Community Education Council member for District 2 and has lived in District 1 for the last 20 years, she said. She received endorsements from the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association and Police Benevolent Association, the main labor unions for sanitation workers and rank-and-file police officers.
In the debate, she said her top priorities in office would be getting schools fully reopened and stopping the construction of the new jail in Chinatown. She believes the capital budget for the four borough-based jails would be “better spent” on making public transportation more accessible.
Maron says she is committed to protecting historical districts including South Street Seaport and SoHo/NoHo, both of which are slated for new housing. Although she claimed “we can also bring our zoning into compliance with reality” by updating outdated limits. Unlike many of her opponents she does not support the conversion of hotels into affordable housing, viewing it as a potential blow to the tourism industry’s revival.
During the debate, Maron touched upon public safety stating, “If we think about the shape our city was in eight years ago when Bill de Blasio became mayor and the shape that our city is in now, we’re headed in the wrong direction. The fear is palpable from people on the street that New York City is going back to a time when our city was less safe, less clean, and a less reassuring place to be, and I think we need to have a City Council person, and I am hoping to be that City Council person, who will tackle these hard issues and have these hard conversations.”
Maron said she favors Kathryn Garcia and Eric Adams as her top choices for mayor. She also said opponent Susan Lee would be her second ranked choice in their City Council race.
A freelance nonprofit grant writer, Susan Lee immigrated to New York at six years old and grew up on the Lower East Side. Lee has repeatedly emphasized her vast nonprofit experience on the campaign trail. She previously worked as a legal assistant at an international human rights law firm and as a program manager for development at the Asian Americans For Equality Community Development Fund. Additionally, she says she has helped homeless youth at the Covenant House International and victims of slave labor and sex trafficking through the Nomi Network.
On February 17, Lee was a victim of an anti-Asian attack when she was assaulted while exiting a local train platform. Lee says she was urged by family and friends to file a police report and did so; she writes about the incident on her campaign website blog.
“I am lucky I was able to walk away from this incident, however, I know many of my Asian-American peers have not been as fortunate,” she wrote. “I stand in solidarity with my community as we continue to fight against anti-Asian hate crimes.”
During the debate, Lee said her primary concern was economic recovery with an emphasis on supporting small businesses. She would propose a property tax freeze and ensure that federal subsidies are allocated to mom and pops before hedge funds or big real estate developers. As for housing, she said she would take a holistic approach to build affordable housing with accessibility to supermarkets, medical facilities, daycares and more.
Lee said she is supportive of Ray McGuire in the mayoral primary and returned Maron’s second-ranked backing in this race.
Winbush is a Financial District resident, originally from Louisiana where she was raised by her very politically-involved family. She has a background in marketing and social media, formerly working as a marketing associate for Acurius, a digital services company and Hiscox, an insurance company. At present she is an adjunct professor of marketing at Berkeley College. Winbush was previously a member of the public policy committee at The New York Junior League and a board member at Manhattan’s Community Board 1 which serves the district.
She said her top priorities include supporting small businesses by ensuring access to ten-year leases, and repurposing vacant hotels for affordable housing and housing for homeless populations.
“When I’m elected to represent District 1 on the City Council I’ll bring progress and positive change for all New Yorkers,” she said during the debate. “While I have roots in Louisiana after 15 years, New York City is definitely my home.” She added: “I’ll be an inclusive voice for our very diverse district.”
Damplo is running on the fact that she “is not a career politician” but “an advocate.” She started her career as a paralegal for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, DC, where she worked for the director of the Employment Discrimination Project, according to her website, and she spent time in law school at the ACLU in its Reproductive Rights Project.
During the debate, Damplo stated her top priorities include housing affordability with an emphasis on finding solutions to the long-standing homelesseness crisis. She also said she believes the City Council should have the power to confirm commissioners at every city agency. On her site she states, “The City Council needs to serve as a greater check and balance. I support council confirmation of department heads.”
Salas, who has had a varied professional career and is running on his lived experience as well, said he’s running for City Council to achieve his “American dream.” Born to immigrant parents who worked low-wage jobs in the Bronx, he recalls lying about his address to be able to attend a better public school.
Salas quit his job as a stock broker to volunteer at President Obama’s Organizing for America. He also worked as a political consultant and fundraiser for Erickson & Co. where he says he helped raise $1.4 million for public school funding in the Bronx.
His campaign promises are listed within his American Dream Plan, which “recognizes the connection of housing, education, and economic policies that must be applied to rebuild and move our city forward.” Highlights include pedestrianizing areas for ‘superblocks’ and a focus on housing development for a wide range of incomes and New Yorkers. During the debate, Salas named Kathryn Garcia as his top choice for the next mayor of New York City.
Hayes has also had a varied professional career, but mostly in international business law. He is an adjunct professor at Seoul National University and the former dean of international relations at a United Nations university called the University for Peace. He works as an attorney for an international law firm based in Korea, and as a managing partner with Hayes & Simon in New York City.
On his campaign website, Hayes says he decided to run after he “looked around and saw that the majority of candidates running for NY City Council and for Mayor lacked experience, centrist viewpoints & pragmatism and were too radicalized to manage the needs of residents of New York City.”
The Battery Park City resident said he’d prioritize education and youth services. He highlighted a paid training and mentor program he’s outlined on his site, which would place young trainees with non-profit organizations, banks, law firms, tech companies and more for a two year program.
During the debate, Hayes said seniors or veterans making under $70,000 per year should not have to pay property taxes. To supplement these efforts, he would place a property tax on wealthy universities and vacant NGO land. Hayes said he was “leaning towards” Eric Adams as his top choice for mayor.
WATCH THE FULL CITY COUNCIL DISTRICT 1 DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY DEBATE HERE
by Emma Seiwell for Gotham Gazette