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BY HEATHER DUBIN | Sparks flew as City Councilmember Margaret Chin and challenger Jenifer Rajkumar, candidates in the race for the City Council’s First District, clashed in a debate last Thursday. sponsored by NYC Community Media, publishers of Downtown Express and The Villager.
About 170 spectators — with an even show of support for both candidates — packed the room. The crowd was extremely vocal during the 90-minute debate and somewhat antagonistic with each side rooting loudly for their candidate. Both women are running in the Democratic primary election on Sept. 10 for the Lower Manhattan council seat.
Hot topics of the debate included land use, specifically New York University and the South Street Seaport, and campaign financing. Chin claimed her opponent lacks political experience and spews misinformation, while Rajkumar knocked Chin as the candidate of big real estate, based on her support from the Real Estate Board of New York.
The candidates referenced their immigrant pasts, and were proud of their accomplishments. Chin, who grew up in District 1, recalled her journey to the United States 50 years ago, and marveled that she is a first term city councilmember today; Rajkumar, who was born here, has dedicated her life to social justice, and is a civil rights attorney.
Later in the evening, Rajkumar, a Democratic district leader from Battery Park City, acknowledged the very notion of opportunity. “This is progress seeing a South Asian American and a Chinese-American running for an office. When does that happen?” she asked. Rajkumar pointed out that we live in the Obama era, where people vote on issues and strong representation.
While Chin and Rajkumar give land use top priority, their perspectives vary.
Chin has been involved with several land use development projects during her four-year term, and looks to Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) as a boon for affordable housing. On a site that has been vacant for over 45 years, Chin was able to help secure 50 percent permanent affordable housing, which accounts for 500 units.
“Because of the community coming together — [former] site tenants, organizations, housing, and community boards working together with the city, we were able to come together and craft a compromise,” Chin said.
But Rajkumar was critical of Chin’s ability to work well with the community, and accused her of serving real estate interests rather than her own constituents.
In terms of SPURA, Rajkumar wrote an op-ed article in The Lo-Down and blasted elected officials for not doing enough for future residents. She advocates for 100 percent affordable housing in the development, and said people displaced from their homes 50 years ago for SPURA, are thankful for her position.
Chin criticized Rajkumar for not attending SPURA meetings. “How can you write an article criticizing the work people did for three years to come together for a historic compromise?” Chin asked in an angry tone.
Rajkumar said it was not her job to attend SPURA meetings, and instead listed all the community meetings she has attended, including the Battery Park City Community Emergency Response Team, where she is the government relations director. “You are not, I am,” shouted Ninfa Segarra, former deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration, who stood up at the debate to say this. The crowd grew wild and began to yell out questions to the candidates.
In regards to N.Y.U. 2031, and the South Street Seaport, Rajkumar was more directly involved in those land use projects, and said Chin has let real estate developers do whatever they want.
Rajkumar, who was lead council on discrimination cases with large companies, said Chin is a bad negotiator.
“It was a historical moment when Chin approved a 2 million square-foot expansion into Greenwich Village,” Rajkumar said. Rajkumar said Chin approved the city’s uniform land use review procedure against the unanimous vote of Community Board 2 and almost every resident in the Village who wanted to protect the character of the neighborhood.
Chin’s rebuttal was to declare Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s support for the plan. She also said the expansion was scaled down more than 25 percent, and there were many years of meetings on the project.
Rajkumar also took Chin to task for helping developer Howard Hughes Corp. move forward with plans at the South Street Seaport.
“She [Chin] hid a letter of intent from Howard Hughes where he said, ‘We intend to build luxury hotels and market-rate apartments.’ How can you not let that information be public?” Rajkumar questioned.
Finally, issues of campaign financing fired up the crowd and brought some to their feet, yet again. Rajkumar said REBNY is supporting Chin as a reward for putting real estate interests first. “They’re pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into this race to buy this council seat for Councilmember Chin,” Rajkumar said.
Chin suggested Rajkumar look at her campaign finance record, and questioned where the funding was. Rajkumar had asked Chin to disavow the outside real estate Political Action Committee support in a previous debate, but Chin said there was nothing she could do, and she did not want the funding.
A lightening round of questions by moderators Josh Rogers and Lincoln Anderson, editors of Downtown Express and The Villager, brought some levity to the debate. Chin is for the Yankees; Rajkumar likes the Mets. When Rogers asked for a positive adjective to describe their opponent, Rajkumar said, “I love the colors that she wears,” (both candidates had on different shades of pink) and “Female,” was Chin’s answer.
WATCH VIDEO CLIPS OF THE AUG. 22nd DEBATE