Assembly candidates talk issues at first forum


By Jefferson Siegel

The Democratic candidates for the 74th Assembly District at Monday night’s debate, from left: Sylvia Friedman, Brian Kavanagh and Esther Yang.

Three candidates running for Assembly in the East Side’s 74th District squared off in their first formal debate Monday night. In the basement meeting room of St. Nicholas Church on 10th St. in the East Village, incumbent Sylvia Friedman, Brian Kavanagh and Esther Yang laid out their positions for 100 local residents.

Previously, the candidates had met in forums at local political clubs, but this was the first opportunity to ask questions of each other. The 90-minute debate saw a few moments of contentious exchange but, for the most part, the candidates were polite, attentive to the audience and the issues.

Each hopeful tried to put the best face on his or her candidacy during opening statements. Friedman recalled her 40 years living in the district, including service on her local community board and its Parks, Recreation and Landmarks committees. Kavanagh spoke of his involvement during high school in the Nativity Mission Center of Forsyth St. His experience also included stints in housing oversight programs in the administrations of former Mayors Koch and Dinkins.

Yang, a yoga teacher, was most recently active in protests against The Falls, the Soho bar where a patron was last seen drinking before she was murdered, allegedly by a bouncer from the bar, last February. Her opening comment on state legislative dysfunction lightened the mood when she declared, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” with stalled government. Albany gridlock was a recurrent theme throughout the debate.

The evening’s format opened with five questions from the debate’s organizers, Citizens’ Union, a good-government civic organization, Our Town Downtown and City Hall. There would then be questions from the candidates, followed by questions from the audience.

The first questions dealt with general issues: the candidates’ priorities, state government reform issues, their stand on term limits, selection of State Supreme Court justices and voter criteria for electing officials.

All three identified housing as a priority.

“We, first of all, need to protect what we’ve got,” Kavanagh stated. “That means repealing vacancy and luxury decontrol. It means ending the abuse of M.C.I. increase provisions and ultimately it means repealing the Urstadt Law,” he added. The Urstadt Law was passed in 1971 and gives control of city housing laws to the state.

Yang zeroed in on education funding.

“I think the kids have to be taken care of,” she said. “Pumping money without full disclosure, without accountability, is insanity.” Unemployment and senior care were also high on her list.

Friedman said constituent survey responses listed housing as a hot-button topic.

“We have to create a new Mitchell-Lama-like program that does not expire and we have the money to do it,” she declared. The Mitchell-Lama program, created in 1955, granted property tax exemptions and low mortgage rates to builders in exchange for offering affordable rents to limited-income tenants.

In a discussion of legislative reform, Yang offered another zinger.

“I think Albany needs a real cleanup — with Clorox.”

Friedman called for a nonpartisan redistricting commission to enable fair representation.

Kavanagh’s backs campaign finance reform and limits on lobbyists.

Although term limits were enacted in the city after two voter referendums, no similar stricture exists for state government. Friedman is opposed to them.

“I believe it is up to the voters to determine who is going to represent them,” she told the room. “We have term limits that are called elections.”

Kanavagh is also opposed to the limits, believing newly elected members need a period of adjustment to the Legislature. Yang supports term limits.

After a discussion on the selection of State Supreme Court justices, the candidates had the opportunity to ask their own questions of each other. Friedman asked how her opponents would go about repealing the Urstadt Law. Calling the housing situation a “crisis,” Kavanagh said Downstate leaders need to take back the power to control local housing. He called for hard bargaining with Republican-controlled State Senate members and the governor. Yang, emphasizing the contributions of the middle class to city life, called for a freeze in any further erosion of rent stabilization.

Kavanagh asked how the philosophical and political views of Friedman and Yang differed from State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Yang replied that she would represent the 74th District and would expect Silver, who represents the neighboring district to the south, to have an open-door policy for her efforts.

“All of you are my bosses,” Yang said to the crowd.

“The speaker does not seem to think that we should have low- and moderate-income housing in the Seward Park extension,” Friedman replied, referring to the long-dormant renewal area south of the Williamsburg Bridge. “I disagreed strongly with the speaker on the statute of limitations on rape,” she said, adding Silver supported ending the statute on the criminal side but not the civil side. Leaving the civil statute unchanged prevents victims from suing for damages after a period of time.

In posing her question on financial disclosures, Yang opened the debate and herself to the first confrontation of the night. Quoting figures that Kavanagh had raised $120,000 and Friedman had raised $90,000 (Kavanagh later contended that Friedman had only raised $60,000), Yang said her treasury topped out at $16,000, none of it from unions or special interests. Yang asked how her opponents could be independent of obligations from contributors.

“We really don’t know what Ms. Yang raised because she has not filed with the Board of Elections, which, by the way, is illegal,” Friedman responded. Yang later said her filing had been returned and her lawyer had mailed it back to B.O.E.

Friedman confirmed Yang’s statement that Speaker Silver contributed $2,000 to her campaign.

“He knows our differences,” Friedman added in her own defense, regarding Silver’s contribution.

Kavanagh said his fundraising was necessary to communicate with the 140,000 people in the East Side district — which stretches from the Lower East Side up to the United Nations area — an ability Friedman has had for free with constituent mailings, he added. Kavanagh also said his financial support comes “mostly by going directly to people who are not in the business of buying influence in Albany.”

The first audience question dealt with noise from a gentrifying neighborhood filling with nightlife. Kavanagh called for diminishing tensions between nightlife and residential life.

“The best way to do that,” he said, “would be to bring about a ‘City Liquor Authority.’ Take that out of the hands of unresponsive state legislators.”

Yang called the state regulatory agency the ‘Sleeping Liquor Authority,’ ” a sobriquet she coined when protesting against The Falls bar in Soho for its lack of cooperation with authorities after the murder of student Imette St. Guillen earlier this year.

“I’m not against nightlife,” Yang said, “I’m against irresponsible bar owners.”

“We have to have very strong and serious representation on the State Liquor Authority,” Friedman said, adding she had voted to increase the number of S.L.A. enforcement agents.

A question on preserving the history and the community of the East Village against overwhelming market forces had Friedman calling for an end to the tactic of “phony demolitions,” where a landlord demolishes a portion of the interior of his or her building in order to vacate all the tenants. Friedman also called for commercial rent regulation to preserve small local businesses.

Kavanagh recalled his involvement in fights to save CHARAS/El Bohio (the old P.S. 64 building) and St. Brigid’s Church.

“We need zoning that prevents bars from moving into these blocks so that the rest of our neighborhood doesn’t get steamrolled by the continued proliferation of bars,” he said.

Yang said the neighborhood must be preserved so that it isn’t destroyed, like the original Penn Station was before landmark preservation laws existed.

After the debate, audience members each scored the participants. Anna Sawaryn, chairperson of the Coalition to Save the East Village, said, “I would have liked to hear more detailed plans as to what they’re going to do about specific issues. What is going to happen with the S.L.A.? How are they going to address noise issues? But I think, over all, they addressed the issues of the community,” Sawaryn said.

Like the candidates, Rob Hollander of Lower East Side Residents for Responsible Development had housing issues on his mind.

“There are some deeper issues that haven’t been addressed yet,” he offered. “For example, the role of inclusionary housing. All of the candidates favor affordable housing.” But, Hollander added, “Affordable housing is not truly affordable for people who live in the neighborhood currently, and it encourages wild real estate speculation.”

There is another debate scheduled for late August at the Solar One building, a green-energy, arts-and-education center, in Stuyvesant Cove Park at 23rd St. at the East River. Primary Day is Tues. Sept. 12.