By Lincoln Anderson
After the tumult in the City Council last year over the term-limits extension and the slush-funds scandal, Rosie Mendez is hoping, if re-elected, to get back down to business and refocus on issues important to her and her constituents in Council District 2.
The district includes the East Village, Gramercy, Union Square and part of the Lower East Side and reaches to E. 35th St., though doesn’t include Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village.
In an interview with The Villager last week, Mendez, who was voted into office in 2005, said she had thought the approval of the East Village/Lower East Side rezoning would be the biggest issue of her four-year term.
“That was huge,” she said. “Along came term limits and that was such an important issue, not only for my district, but citywide.”
The 46-year-old East Villager was not facing term limits herself, being only in her first four-year term. She voted against extending term limits legislatively — and spoke out forcefully on the issue on the Council floor before the vote — though the measure ultimately passed by a narrow margin.
“I believe there was an opportunity to bring this back to the voters,” she said last week, adding, “The mayor let time run out.”
Mendez thinks the mayor and Council speaker should have term limits of eight years, because their positions wield so much power, but doesn’t think councilmembers should be term limited.
Mendez didn’t blast Speaker Christine Quinn for leading the term-limits extension push in the Council, because Mendez said, “At the end of the day, her constituency is 50 other councilmembers, and she had to cater to them.”
On the other hand, Mendez was critical of Councilmember Alan Gerson, who first proposed an amendment for a voter referendum on term limits, only to support extending term limits after his proposal failed.
“Alan...all I can say about that amendment is it was lame — and everyone knew it,” Mendez stated.
Mendez hasn’t endorsed yet in either the District 1 or District 3 primary races, in which Gerson and Quinn, respectively, are running for re-election.
Mendez said the City Council just isn’t the same after the events of last year.
Of the bitter fight over term limits, she said, “It’s still with us, and it’s been a very divisive vote, that and the slush funds. It’s been a very divided body,” she said of the Council. “I just don’t feel the togetherness, the camaraderie that was there.”
Regarding the slush funds, Mendez said she found out most of what she knows about it through the media. As for why this politically motivated, so-called “reserve fund” in the City Council ballooned from $2 million under former Speaker Peter Vallone to a combined $17 million in the years under Gifford Miller and Quinn, Mendez said the answer is simple, and again circles back to term limits.
“Because the new speaker is going to be term-limited and running for something else,” Mendez explained.
As for Mendez’s use of her own discretionary funds, of which she is allocated about $100,000 annually, she said she spreads it around to close to 30 to 40 groups. She’ll give local housing groups $10,000 each, for example.
A former tenant lawyer, Mendez continues to be extremely concerned about the use of the owner-occupancy “mass eviction” law, which was threatened at 47 E. Third St., before the remaining tenants took cash settlements to move out.
Legislation has been introduced in Albany to limit landlords’ ability to empty buildings in this way. Mendez has also made efforts at the city level, such as investigating zoning changes, but without any luck, and said she’s pinning her hopes on the state legislation.
She’s also still incensed about how the New York Police Department last year targeted middle-aged gay tourists for arrest on prostitution charges at gay porn stores in the East Village and Chelsea.
“I think they targeted gay men because they thought they’d be easier to pick off, they might be more embarrassed,” said Mendez, who is lesbian. “The history of our community is that gay men are targeted by police,” she added, referring to the arrests that sparked the Stonewall Riots of 1969 that led to the gay civil rights movement.
Mendez said the police were clearly also going after the gay porn stores when they falsely busted the men for soliciting prostitution.
“For police, this was a twofer,” she said.
As for some of her priorities in a second term, if re-elected, Mendez said, “The next big project is the Third and Fourth Aves. rezoning.” She said she has already done a substantial amount of work with community residents living in that area, and has had discussions with the Department of City Planning.
“They have agreed that there should be some type of contextual zoning there — different from what you saw in the East Village rezoning,” Mendez said. “There will be height caps — but the buildings will be taller than in the East Village. You’ll continue to see big buildings — but not out of scale. We’ve made a lot of headway.”
Mendez said she is interested in helping work on the planned rezoning for the Lower East Side and Chinatown. Even though the area is in Gerson’s district, it will impact on her district, she said.
She thinks her landmarks bill stands a good chance of getting passed in the next term; a response to Gregg Singer’s chopping historic facade details off the old P.S. 64 on E. Ninth St., the bill would give the Landmarks Preservation Commission the power to rescind pre-existing demolition permits when a building is landmarked.
She also is backing a reform that would require a free court-appointed lawyer for any senior citizen facing eviction or foreclosure, so the senior can fight the case in court.
Mendez also still has hopes for her bill, introduced in 2006, to ban the public display of exotic animals in New York City, which would notably affect Ringling Bros.’s ability to use live elephants. Mendez said the use of bull hooks on the elephants’ skin — which is actually very sensitive — is cruel.
“I have a lot of animals on that list,” Mendez noted of her bill. “I’m willing to dwindle it down — the big ones are elephants, tigers, bears... .”
From protecting abused circus elephants to standing up against white elephants in the City Council, Mendez says she’s ready for a second term.