Volume 20, Number 29 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Nov. 30 - Dec. 6, 2007

Downtown Express file photo by Elisabeth Robert

Jan Lee, a Chinatown small business owner, said he expects to make a decision on running for City Council soon.

City Council race heats up 2 years early

By Josh Rogers

Councilmember Alan Gerson still has two years left in office but the candidates to replace him have begun to organize and are already turning to him for campaign advice.

Gerson, whose last term in office ends at the end of 2009, said he has discussed the district with two undeclared Democratic candidates and that both would be excellent candidates — Julie Menin, Community Board 1’s chairperson, and Jan Lee, a Chinatown community leader and small business owner.

Gerson also praised Margaret Chin, a former campaign opponent who has run for the seat three times before. Chin, deputy executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, is running again and said she has already raised over $15,000.

Lee, whose interest in the seat had not been well known, said he plans to make a decision on running “within weeks, if not months.”

“It’s one of those life-changing considerations,” he said in a telephone interview. “There’s been a tremendous amount of support for me to do so….Who’s going to be in the best interests of Chinatown? I think Julie Menin needs a map to find my store. She’s focused on Downtown,” in reference to Manhattan’s southern-most neighborhoods, which make up C.B. 1.

He readily agreed that a Tribeca or Battery Park City voter could make the same charge about him. He said the First Council District is very diverse economically and ethnically, and if he runs, he will have to learn more about some parts of the district.

“You have the projects on the East Side, you have Battery Park City with $4 million condos, the Chinatown community, ethnics, Puerto Ricans, it’s very diverse and you have to appeal to them all,” he said.

He thinks all of the potential candidates will have to do more outreach in one part of the district or another.

Menin said candidates should focus on what they’ve done for the district rather than “trying to attack each other.” She said Lee’s criticism is unfair, and pointed to the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. panel she served on that just announced $37 million in grants to Downtown organizations.

“A large share of that money went to Chinatown and the Lower East Side,” she said. “I am well aware of the problems in that part of the district.”

Menin confirmed the discussion with Gerson, and for the first time acknowledged she is actively looking into a candidacy.

“I am doing outreach, exploring running, “ she said. “I speak to Alan all of the time and I’m considering running, so of course I talked to him about this.”

She still plans to decide whether or not to run sometime next year and said she will talk about her platform when and if she decides to run. Her husband is developer Bruce Menin and some have speculated that she might not participate in the public campaign finance system if she ran, but Menin said she “absolutely” would adhere to the finance limits, which will make her eligible for public matching money.

She did not confirm or deny a Downtown Express item several months ago saying she planned to forgo a Council salary if she won.

Lee, owner of Sinotique furniture store on Mott St., has been one of the leaders in the fight to end city government placard parking abuse and reopen Park Row, a street the police say they closed for post-9/11 security reasons. His 311 calls and those of his brother’s led to a towing crackdown on Mott St. earlier this year.

He has spoken with Gerson and Councilmember John Liu about running and he said there’s no way he could run a business while he worked in the public sector. Giving up his 15-year-old business at least temporarily is what is making the decision hard, Lee said.

Pre-9/11, Sinotique took in about $300,000 a year. He said those numbers are now down, but he has invested a lot in a second store in DUMBO and he expects his business to grow over the next few years.

Lee has also spoken with aides to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver about his candidacy. In addition, Virginia Kee, a longtime neighborhood leader with close ties to Silver and Gerson, is encouraging Lee to run and is lobbying local pols for support.

Kee did not return calls for comment and aides to Silver declined to speak for attribution for this story.

Lee said Silver aides told him it would be a plus to have an Asian representing the First District and he walked away feeling they would be receptive to his candidacy.

Amy Chin (no relation to Margaret), another neighborhood leader, has differed with Lee on some issues but said he is “smart, knowledgeable and active” and she could see supporting him.

“I just hope it’s not like the last time [there was an open seat] and you had three Chinese candidates and they split the vote,” she said, referring to the 2001 Democratic primary when Gerson prevailed against six opponents.

Margaret Chin was one of the candidates who lost that race. She also ran unsuccessfully in 1991 and 1993. Asked why she thinks she’ll be successful a fourth time, she said, “I know more people. I have a strong track record.”

She said she will once again focus on affordable housing and said it is an issue that resonates all over the district. Lee has criticized her group, AAFE, a non-profit advocacy organization, but she said she is not going to get into a debate with him now, particularly since they were on the same side on important issues like parking and reopening Park Row.

“I’m focusing on what I’m doing,” Chin said.

The other declared candidate in the race is Pete Gleason, 44, a Tribeca attorney who is a former police officer and firefighter.

Gleason, who lost to Gerson in a landslide in 2003, has criticized Menin and said the system needs shaking up to rectify the problems with World Trade Center redevelopment.

He is developing a board game entitled “Ground Zero: It’s only a Game for the Politicians.” He said political leaders from top to bottom are in for criticism. “No one is immune from the community board to the White House,” Gleason said.

He said New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was unfairly chastised when he criticized Lower Manhattan development. “He said there is still a hole in the ground and he was right but he was admonished for it.”

He and the rest of the field will have plenty of time to thrust and parry and outline their ideas. The Democratic primary will be in Sept. 2009 and the winner will be the odds-on favorite to win the overwhelmingly Democratic district.

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