Divisive Voice Reemerges in West Side Council Race

Thomas Lopez-Pierre on West 100th Street last week. | JACKSON CHEN
Thomas Lopez-Pierre on West 100th Street last week. | JACKSON CHEN

BY JACKSON CHEN | A radical challenger who has repeatedly employed racially-fueled and demeaning rhetoric to stoke resentment against the Jewish community has once again set his sights on the City Council’s District 7 seat currently occupied by Councilmember Mark Levine.

Thomas Lopez-Pierre, 48, who describes himself as “of Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Haitian descent,” has raised $11,754.56 as of April 19 for his 2017 campaign bid. According to Lopez-Pierre, he has been working on his campaign since the 2013 election, when Levine first won his seat on the Council. Lopez-Pierre, a Manhattan Valley resident, said he dropped out of that year’s 10-way Democratic primary race for the open seat because he felt the eight other black and Latino candidates were dividing the vote in communities of color.

But his campaign was also rife with controversies, including race-baiting, anti-Semitic email blasts that caught the attention of many. According to a Daily News article, Lopez-Pierre sent a series of emails in the fall of 2012 calling Levine a “White/ Jewish candidate” and accusing him of trying “to sneak into office like a thief in the night.”

The candidate upped his rhetoric in a January 2013 email addressed to Brian Benjamin, a Democratic fundraiser and black supporter of Levine’s 2013 run. According to the email, which Lopez-Pierre made available to the media and was published in full by Politico at the time, Lopez-Pierre called Benjamin — now seeking an open State Senate seat in Harlem and the Upper West Side — an “uncle Tom [n-word] bitch,” for supporting Levine. In a homophobic postscript to the email, he added, “[Harlem residents] know that you are a weak, little short man who sucks White/ Jewish cock.”

Reached this week about Lopez-Pierre’s emails, Benjamin said, “This is dangerous, hateful rhetoric ripped straight out of the Trump playbook. It has no place in our local politics, and I am confident that voters will reject it at the polls.”

As recently as this past August, Lopez-Pierre, in a fundraising pitch for his new campaign, sent out an email blast that, according to a Daily News story, continued his pattern of race-baiting aimed at the Jewish community. Under the subject line “SAVE HARLEM from Greedy Jewish Landlords,” the candidate wrote, “Greedy Landlords and NYC Council Member Mark Levine are working together to push Black and Hispanic tenants out of Harlem!”

That message sparked a sharp rebuke from other elected officials, with Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Comptroller Scott Stringer, Public Advocate Letitia James, and Congressmember Jerrold Nadler demanding that Lopez-Pierre apologize.

The candidate, however, refuses to back down. In an interview with Manhattan Express, he confirmed he had sent all the emails earlier reported but offered no apologies, claiming they weren’t offensive or anti-Semitic.

“I don’t see it as anti-Semitic, I’m not going to be ashamed to be committed to the political and economic empowerment of the black community,” Lopez-Pierre told the newspaper on April 14. “Levine has no business representing a black community on the City Council.”

Lopez-Pierre clearly hopes to mobilize resentment among lower income voters whose neighborhoods are experiencing gentrification that is changing their demographic profile. According to data from the 2000 and 2010 censuses, District 7 saw a nearly 40 percent rise in its non-Hispanic white population, with a 20 percent decline in the number of African-American residents and a six percent decline in residents with an Hispanic background. African-American and Latino voters, however, continue to be a majority in the district.

District 7, which runs from the Upper West Side through West Harlem into Washington Heights, was represented by Robert Jackson, an African American, for 12 years prior to Levine taking office.

Despite the controversy Lopez-Pierre’s rhetoric has spawned, he is getting a hearing from local Democratic organizations. He joined Levine and a third District 7 candidate, Matthew Gros-Werter, along with three candidates from the neighboring Council District 6 — incumbent Helen Rosenthal and challengers Mel Wymore and Cary Goodman — at the Three Parks Independent Democratic Club on April 12.

Speaking there to a largely white audience, Lopez-Pierre stuck to his claims about the threat “Jewish landlords” posed to communities of color — pledging to “stop ethnic cleansing of black/ Hispanic tenants” in the district— while attempting a seemingly implausible pivot to appeal to Jewish voters.

“For almost 15 to 20 years, these Jewish landlords have been at the forefront at pushing black and Latino people out,” he said. “I think it’s hypocritical for the Jewish community and Jewish leaders to look the other way while black and Latino people are being pushed out of their communities to make room for white people.”

At the same time, Lopez-Pierre asked that the “Jewish community” partner with the black and Latino community to halt unfair housing practices in Harlem and Upper Manhattan — though he could only have made more trouble for himself by comparing the plight of black and Latino tenants to what Jews faced in the Holocaust.

“This is how I would make it simple for Jewish people,” he said. “If there was a candidate that was taking money from the construction managers that built concentration camps, the Jews would not look favorably upon that candidate.”

The controversial candidate has a war chest of nearly $12,000, a fundraising pace ahead of the roughly $10,000 he found to support his short-lived 2013 bid.

“Mark Levine fucked up,” Lopez-Pierre said. “If he did not take the landlord money, he had a chance to get re-elected. But black and Latino voters are not going to elect somebody that has taken almost $100,000 in money from the same landlords that are trying to push them out of their apartments.”

Levine currently has $220,917.35 in his campaign coffers for his reelection bid, and Lopez-Pierre claims that roughly half of that has come from landlords.

The incumbent declined to comment directly about Lopez-Pierre, but his campaign spokesperson, Jake Sporn, emailed a statement to Manhattan Express in response to the challenger’s bid.

“Council Member Levine’s record as a staunch supporter of tenants and their rights is well known and beyond question,” Sporn wrote. “Since taking office he successfully led the fight to guarantee every New York City tenant universal access to legal counsel in housing court, an historic victory making our city the first place in America to take this bold step to keep countless tenants in their homes. Council Member Levine has also championed legislation that would protect tenants from harassment by making it easier to pursue legal action against abusive landlords, and just recently called on the Rent Guidelines Board to undo decades of unjustified rent increases by instituting the first ever rent rollback in 2018. He has been and will continue to be an undeniably strong and vocal advocate for tenants’ rights.”