A year and a half before elections, the race for a vacant Upper West Side City Council seat is already heating up.
Former Community Board 7 chairs Mel Wymore and Helen Rosenthal and Democratic District Leader Marc Landis have all declared they will seek the seat currently held by Gale Brewer.
All three have been members of CB7, the most local form of city politics and community advocacy that advises on Upper West Side issues. Wymore, 49, a systems engineer, chaired the board from 2009-2011.
Rosenthal, 51, was the CB7 chair for the two years before Wymore and managed the healthcare budgets of New York’s hospitals for the Office of Management and Budget under former mayors Ed Koch, David Dinkins, and Rudy Giuliani.
As district leader, Landis, 49, serves as a liaison between Democratic officials and residents and helps with elections. Landis, an attorney at the law firm Phillips Nizer, is the most recent candidate to enter the race. Although he has not yet formally announced his candidacy, he registered his committee on Jan. 20 and created public Facebook and Twitter campaign pages.
ISSUES AND TRACK RECORDS
The step up to City Council would mean playing a larger role in city-wide policy debates for these Upper West Side advocates.
A CB7 member since 1996, Wymore said affordable housing, strong public education, and environmental sustainability are some of the top policy issues he would pursue, emphasizing that he wants his constituents’ opinions to be heard throughout.
“This is one of the most amazing neighborhoods,” Wymore said. “It’s so diverse, interesting, engaging. If we decide that’s what we want, we can keep sustaining that kind of urban life, that character, color, vibrancy, that mix.”
In his time as CB7 chair, Wymore championed an expansion of the West Side YMCA, encouraged the construction of protected bike lanes on Columbus Avenue, and brokered a deal with Extell Development Company to redesign the Upper West Side Riverside Center, a mixed-use development project west of Columbus Circle, to be more welcoming to locals.
Rosenthal brokered the Riverside Center deal along with Wymore, and currently chairs ParentJobNet, an organization that sets up free on-site ESL classes, job training, computer training, and career counseling in local elementary schools to connect with parents who have school-age kids.
She said that lowering the unemployment rate is her top priority. “We have to improve our systems for getting people access to jobs that currently exist and we have to increase investments in the city in order to create new jobs,” she said.
“What the mayor has done now for Roosevelt Island for Cornell is brilliant,” she said, referencing Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent selection of Cornell as the recipient of a $100 million grant to build an applied science campus on the island in the East River.
“We should be doing five more of these,” she said. “We should be opening the doors to small tech firms and providing space and access for these startups that are doing exciting new things.”
Landis said his biggest priorities are fixing overcrowded schools, eliminating overreliance on charter education, and making housing affordable.
“We have an obligation, not just a legal obligation, but a social and ethical obligation, to make sure every young person has access to the best quality education,” Landis said.
“It’s part of the social compact that we have to enter into as a society,” he added. “We’re not doing that right now, and some of our policy decisions are short-sighted in that they help small groups of students in the short run but don’t help them in the long run.”
In 2011, Landis represented a group of Upper West Side parents who sued to keep a controversial charter school, UWS Success Academy, from co-locating with an existing school, arguing that it would take away funding and space from non-charter school students in need.
The parents lost the case, which, Landis argued, “means the kids who get left behind are the ones who may come from a different economic background, may not have same level of parental involvement, who may not have parents who can help fill out applications.”
“I place a high value on education institutions,” Landis said. “They not only feed minds and allow our minds to grow, but are also sources of jobs and not just for professors but for everybody from mid-level executive types to sports staff.”
“I want to change the paradigm of decision-making, change the conversation completely from one that receives applications and votes yes or no and reacts, and instead create a vision for the community that is the result of a collaborative conversation over time,” Wymore said.
He cited the Riverside Center Project as an example of the type of collaborative decision-making that he wants to promote. Wymore said that by bringing together a consortium of architects, urban planners, activists, and developers over two months, the conversation resulted in not only a new public school but also a redesign of the complex to include a public plaza and walkways leading to local parks.
Rosenthal, a staunch supporter of NARAL Pro-Choice America—an organization that opposes restrictions on abortion—and an activist against illegal gun use, cited a creative and no-nonsense approach to the often hypercritical politics that make working with bureaucracy a nightmare.
For instance, in 2010, Rosenthal pushed the city to form P.S. 452, on 77th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus avenues. She worked on a data collection team that disproved the Department of Education’s claim that the district had 1,500 empty school seats.
“I looked at the data for that year, and 2,500 of new apartments that had been built in our district were two bedrooms or more,” Rosenthal said. “You cannot tell me we are not adding a tremendous amount of students to our school. Five or six of us, we went through school by school, class by class, grade by grade. … That’s the kind of detailed analysis that I think people need to be doing.”
Landis said he is running because he is committed to civic improvement and has the track record to prove it.
“First and foremost, I am a political activist and an organizer. I look at a situation and say, rather than reacting to what we’re presented with, how can we take the challenges that we’re presented with, build on them and make an affirmative campaign,” he said.
“It’s not really about distinguishing myself from the other candidates, it’s about what I stand for, the record of community involvement and accomplishment that I have,” he said.
A DIVERSE FIELD
Though all three make their home on the Upper West Side, none is a native New Yorker.
Wymore lived in Arizona for the first 26 years of his life, graduating from the University of Arizona in 1987. Rosenthal hails from Livonia, Mich. and is a graduate of Michigan State and Yale.
And although Landis’ wife is a Barnard and SIPA graduate, Landis himself is a Princeton alumnus and a Philadelphia native. He joked that he was “very pleased about Princeton’s win over Columbia at the basketball game.”
If elected, Wymore would also be the first transgender member of City Council. Wymore, who was born female, underwent gender reassignment as he was elected chair of the community board in November 2009.
“To me, my gender transformation means it’s time to be more inclusive and include more people in decision-making and create a city where individuality is a norm and not the exception,” Wymore said. “New York is inclusive, but it could more so.”
Others who have been named as possible contenders include State Assembly member Linda Rosenthal, current District 3 Community Education Council president Christine Annechino, and former District 3 CEC president Noah Gotbaum, but none have officially registered.
Wymore and Rosenthal have both raised over $60,000 to date. Landis just registered a committee on Jan. 20, past the last funding disclosure deadline on Jan. 15.
New York City’s strict election rules mandate a spending limit of $168,000 for Council candidates.
“Everyone will raise the money,” Rosenthal said. “It’s not going to be about the money. I think it’s really going to be about the issues. Upper West Siders are looking to see what people have done, what their experience has been, and where they stand.”
A City Council member since 2002, Brewer, who can’t run for re-election because of term limits, said that she is considering running for Manhattan Borough President and will decide soon. She declined to comment on the field of candidates running to replace her.