In UWS Reelection Bid, Helen Rosenthal Has Both Opponents and Antagonists

City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal (in red, at podium) at a Day Without A Woman rally on International Women’s Day this past March 8. | Office of Councilmember Helen Rosenthal

BY JACKSON CHENIncumbent City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal has at least four opponents in her bid for reelection to her District 6 seat, but those are not the only political antagonists she faces on the Upper West Side.

Rosenthal will face off against challengers Mel Wymore and Cary Goodman in the September 12 Democratic primary, and the winner will go up against independent candidates Bill Raudenbush and David Owens on November 7. With nearly a full term under her belt, Rosenthal said she hopes to continue her progressive agenda on issues including school rezoning, tenant protections, and pay equity for women.

In addition to the incumbent’s four challengers at the ballot box, there appears to be continued resistance toward Rosenthal below the surface from the Community Free Democrats (CFD), a political club that includes heavy-hitting West Side politicians including Congressmember Jerry Nadler, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal.

When the councilmember beat out six other candidates in the 2013 Democratic primary for the open District 6 seat being vacated by Gale Brewer — who went on to become borough president — one of her defeated opponents was Marc Landis, CFD’s choice, who finished third.

Rosenthal also found herself at odds with CFD’s leading lights over School District 3’s controversial school rezoning on the Upper West Side. While Rosenthal ultimately backed the Community Education Council 3’s majority vote to push through the rezoning, Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal did not support the changes. The assemblymember joined State Senator Brad Hoylman and a representative from Nadler’s office in a September 2016 rally against the rezoning plan presented by the Department of Education. Separately, in an interview with the New York Times, Stringer said the DOE and the de Blasio administration failed to engage the stakeholders, and noted that “if it wasn’t for Linda Rosenthal, no one would have any voice in that district.”

Despite Helen Rosenthal’s tiffs with CFD, her political stance broadly aligns with the progressive values of the club and the major politicians in it, a point not lost on Michael McKee, the treasurer of TenantsPAC. “This is all about the Community Free Democrats and their quest for hegemony on the West Side,” McKee told Manhattan Express. “[Rosenthal] is an outsider and they’ve never liked her. Years ago, she beat their candidate and they don’t like that.” TenantsPAC was quick to endorse Rosenthal’s reelection early this year, as McKee explained that there was no reason not to go with her. “It was a no-brainer,” he said.

From the perspective of advancing tenants’ rights issues, McKee said, the tension is proving to be unproductive. “I try not to pay attention to this bullshit,” he said, adding all the politicians engaged in the internecine spat are on board with TenantsPAC’s mission. “The last thing I’m interested in is infighting among West Side Democrats.”

Councilmember Rosenthal with Congressmember Jerry Nadler at City Hall. | William Alatriste/ New York City Council

Community Free Democrats, which bills itself as among the “oldest, strongest, and most influential reform Democratic clubs in Manhattan,” opted to not endorse in this year’s District 6 race.

Rosenthal said she is interested in working with CFD, but noted that it took years of her requests for the club to put her name on its website as one of the elected officials representing the area. When she asked for CFD’s endorsement this year, Rosenthal said, she discussed her commitment to the district and the progressive nature of her agenda and her accomplishments over the past three years.

“Now that I have my sea legs on and really got the hang of it, we’re not done yet with protecting tenants,” Rosenthal said when asked of prospective issues for her next term. With Manhattan colleague Corey Johnson, the incumbent has a bill, Intro 944, working its way through the pipeline that would make the process of getting construction work permits stricter to prevent the too-common practice of landlords falsely claiming their building is vacant in order to expedite approvals. Rosenthal said she is also looking to create an Office of the Tenant Advocate within the Department of Buildings to better oversee tenant protections.

The councilmember said she is also committed to improving gender equity and the value placed on women’s work. According to Rosenthal, the lion’s share of city contracts is split between construction, a disproportionately male sector, and human services. While construction contracts often carry high wages, Rosenthal said that human services contracts offer “poverty wages.” Human services workers are due to receive $15 an hour wages under city law, but Rosenthal said there would need to be an additional bump of up to $13 or even $15 per hour to get them to livable wages. “We’re not valuing what women are really good at, which is taking care of people,” she said. “We undervalue schoolteachers, caretakers, social workers. That work is not paid at the level we really should value it.”

Another major issue the incumbent hopes to delve deeper into is bettering the environment. Rosenthal said she’s only begun focusing major attention on this issue in the last year, but asserted the “fiscally responsible thing to do is divest from fossil fuels in every way and to invest in green energy.”

Rosenthal professes to harbor no ill will toward CFD for its failure to support her reelection.

“When I go to their meetings, I’m welcomed by the membership and they enjoy hearing from me,” Rosenthal said. When asked about the tension between the club and herself, she responded, “Well it’s not from me… door’s open from my end.”

According to Wymore, however, he was just a few votes short of snagging the CFD endorsement.  “They invited all the candidates to speak, but they chose not to endorse,” he said. “I believe about half of the voters were for no endorsement and the other half was largely for me.”

Many of the club’s members, he said, are avid supporters of his campaign, and he argued that CFD’s unwillingness to go with Rosenthal spoke volumes. “I do also think the lack of endorsement is unusual of an incumbent,” Wymore said. “I think that’s significant and goes to the kind of relationship when you don’t establish yourself with the community.” When asked whether he would be endorsed by Nadler, Stringer, or Linda Rosenthal, Wymore said he suspected their stance would mirror CFD’s.

Rosenthal has been endorsed by the Three Parks Independent Democrats, the 504 Democratic Club, which advocates on disability issues, and the LGBTQ-focused Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, as well as by her predecessor Brewer. Her campaign endorsements page shows a picture of her with the Council’s seven-member LGBTQ Caucus, significant in that Wymore, if elected, would be the first out transgender member of the Council. [Editor’s note: Subsequent to the publication of this story, the Stonewall Democrats of New York City also endorsed Rosenthal’s reelection.]

Wymore earned endorsements from the Park River Independent Democrats and the Ansonia Independent Democrats.

As of press time, representatives of Nadler, Stringer, Linda Rosenthal, and CFD had not responded to requests for comment.