Is politics about finding simple answers to simple questions or developing solutions that address the subtle complexities of a problem?
The question points to one of the key differences between Councilmember Alan Gerson and Peter Gleason, who is trying to unseat the incumbent in the Sept. 9 Democratic primary for the First City Council District.
To Gleason, Gerson is a wishy-washy politician not willing to take a stand. Gerson calls this a simplistic view of what a Councilmember does.
Some people want you to take their position when they want it rather than consider the totality and the nuances of an issue, Gerson said last week. Life is not black and white
One persons indecisiveness is another persons thoughtfulness in dealing with the complexities of an issue.
Indecisive is precisely one of Gleasons accusations. He sits there and he waits to see what the political powers, [Assembly Speaker] Sheldon Silver and [State Senator] Marty Connor say, and then he takes a stance, Gleason said.
During an interview outside his Spartan campaign headquarters on LaGuardia Pl., Gerson was asked for the four accomplishments he is most proud of after his first two years in the Council. He said they were making sure 9/11 funds went to those most in need by insisting that Downtowners living in rent-regulated apartments were eligible for the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. residential grant program and that small businesses with fewer than 10 employees were eligible for aid; convincing his colleagues in the Council to buck the City Planning Commission and Mayor Bloomberg by passing zoning to prevent high-rise development in the South St. Seaport Historic District; helping to protect affordable housing at Gouverneur Gardens on the Lower East Side and working on legislation that could prevent Independence Plaza from losing its middle-class rent protections; and implementing a pilot eye exam and eyewear program at P.S. 1 and 137.
Gerson said the principals at both schools wrote to say that the free eyeglasses have made a significant difference in many childrens lives and Gerson said the program will be expanding to other schools next year.
He said the Seaport was a good example of an instance where he chose not to compromise. Community Board 1 and the Seaport Community Coalition had been fighting for years to reduce the height limit of new buildings to 120 feet, but City Planning proposed 180 feet. When the issue moved to the Council, Gerson said many recommended that he look to settle on a number less than 180, but the Council voted for 120 instead. Here was a case, if I hadnt have dug my heels in, we wouldnt have achieved a victory, he said.
Gerson gave credit to Assembly Speaker Silver in that fight and Madelyn Wils, chairperson of C.B. 1, has also said that Silver, one of the most powerful Democrats in the state, played a key role.
Gleason argues that too often Gerson takes a back seat and that as the councilmember representing the World Trade Center area, Gerson could have gotten more attention and used it to embarrass the federal government into paying for things like cleaning dangerous W.T.C. chemicals from peoples apartments and offices. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did not agree to clean apartments until a year after the attack and they have not taken responsibility for offices.
He sits in the most important City Council seat in the entire nation, said Gleason. The key is you shame the people into doing the right thing.
He says Gerson should have been able to get on shows like Larry King Live. Asked if that was a realistic goal for a councilmember, Gleason said: Ive seen firemen on the show.
Gleason, 40, is a retired firefighter and is collecting a disability pension because of a bad back. He has passed the Bar and worked briefly for a law firm before entering the Council race. He was also a police officer and worked for the Coast Guard. As one of New Yorks Bravest and Finest, he spent a lot of time on the Lower East Side and he expects to do well there on Sept. 9.
The district also includes Tribeca, Chinatown, the Seaport, Financial District, Battery Park City, Soho and parts of the Village. The winner will face Seth Elliott, a Republican financial executive who lives in B.P.C., in the November general election, but the Democratic primary is considered almost tantamount to winning in the overwhelmingly-Democratic district.
Gleason lives on N. Moore St. in Tribeca and says he was able to afford a loft on the block because he bought it five years ago before it was completed. He and his ex-girlfriend have a 2 1/2 year old son that spends time living with each parent.
I pay property taxes the 18 percent increase which Alan Gerson rubber-stamped, said Gleason.
Gerson takes credit for more than just rubber-stamping the increase. I was one of the first to point out 18 percent was the more appropriate number and thats about what we ended up at 18.5.
Mayor Bloomberg originally proposed a 25 percent increase. Gerson said given the large deficit and the fact that the property tax was the only one under the citys control, the only other choice was to severely cut city services such as schools, police and fire protection.
Gleason declined to say how he would have closed the budget, but he thinks the problem came about because of years of neglect of economic problems. He said this year Bloomberg is talking about rolling back the increase, which indicates the hike was too high. Bloomberg ends up looking like a hero, and the Council like buffoons, said Gleason.
Gerson said Downtown loft owners are treated unfairly by the property tax and he has gotten Council Speaker Gifford Miller to agree to form a commission to examine any inequities. Gerson said Tribeca loft-dwellers pay more taxes than homeowners in the outer boroughs and co-op owners on Central Park West. Because there are more rent-regulated apartments on the Upper West Side, Gerson said that under the formula, a Tribeca owner pays more taxes than his Uptown counterpart who owns an apartment of the same value.
Gerson, 45, is also an attorney, and he is a former chairperson and was a longtime member of Community Board 2. He lives in the Central Village with his parents.
Gleason, for his part, said his priorities will be improving quality of life, safety and security issues, education, housing and the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan.
He said his opposition to a tunnel under West St. is absolute, compared to Gerson, who is skeptical but has left open the possibility of supporting some type of tunnel.
The tunnel is a bad, bad idea, said Gleason, who noted how much more it will take to build a tunnel as compared to making street-level pedestrian improvements. Its a $700 million white elephant. Alan has been wishy-washy. Hes been indecisive.
Gerson, who has received praise from the main tunnel opposition group in Battery Park City, said: It would be irresponsible of me to say I would not listen to a new proposal that the governor puts on the table.
The two also differ on the idea of expanding P.S. 234 in Tribeca in order to accommodate the ever-growing population in Lower Manhattan. Gleason thinks its a good idea, but Gerson is concerned about making a successful school too large and backs C.B. 1 leaders who are focusing on getting a whole new school.
Gleason said hed rather get 10 percent of something rather than zero percent of nothing.
Gerson bristles at most of Gleasons criticisms including the charge that Gerson shouldnt have taken the maximum amount of matching money with candidates. Most observers consider Gerson to be a heavy favorite to hold his seat. Gerson has raised over $150,000 in contributions and city matching funds and Gleason has about $24,000. Gerson said if his opponents dont end up raising much money, he intends to return some of the $82,000 in matching funds he has received.
Gerson said the campaign finance system is a model law. This guy is attacking me for doing the right thing, he said.
Gleason also claims that there is a $20,000 liability unaccounted for in Gersons 2001 campaign. Gersons campaign manager, Leo Glickman, said the charge is absurd. About $15,000 was for a printing fee that the campaign accidentally listed twice, Glickman said. Most of the rest of the money goes to a billing dispute between Gerson and Lincoln Mitchell, the 2001 campaign manager, and Glickman said it is not likely Gerson will have to pay it off. In addition, Glickman said because one of Gersons opponents in 2001 did not participate in the campaign finance program, Gerson had no spending limits during the primary, so regardless of what Gerson ends up paying for the last campaign, he cant be in violation of the overall spending limit.
Gleasons campaign also provided Downtown Express with a letter from the Campaign Finance Board asking Gerson to return over $9,000 in public money from 2001. But Molly Watkins, a C.F.B. spokesperson, said last week that the city dropped its claim after Gerson produced more documentation. Gerson was fined $720 for technical irregularities, but Watkins said that was not an unusual amount and some candidates are fined significantly more.
Glickman said that the finance system is extremely complicated and that $700 fines are for minor offenses.
During last weeks interview, it was clear that Gleasons attacks have gotten under Gersons skin.
Two years ago, it was an open seat, there were seven candidates, but it wasnt a nastily run campaign, Gerson said toward the beginning of the interview.
In the 2001 primary, Gerson got about 21 percent of the vote and the next two challengers received 18 percent. Gerson was perhaps hurt because the primary, originally scheduled for Sept. 11, 2001, was only delayed two weeks and many people in Battery Park City, where Gerson was strong, had not yet been able to return to their homes.
Last time, Gerson faced three Chinese candidates and still finished third in Chinatown. This time there are no Asians in the race and Gerson is expected to do much better in the neighborhood. Over 40 percent of the districts population is Asian, but a much lower percentage are registered Democrats. The district lines are roughly the same ones that were drawn 12 years ago and this is the first time since then that a Chinese person is not running. Gerson takes that as a sign that he is representing Chinatown well and he is also proud that he has developed good relationships with two of his past opponents, Rocky Chin and Margaret Chin (no relation), who came in third and fourth respectively in the 2001 race.
The winner will serve a two-year term. If Gerson wins, he will be eligible to run for one four-year term in 2005 before he would have to leave because of term limits.