Democratic State Committeewoman Debra Cooper is the latest local leader to throw her hat into the ring for an Upper West Side city council seat.
Cooper, a progressive with a long record on the state committee, filed to run two weeks ago. She has stressed her electoral experience as evidence that she can win.
“I have the ability to project a vision that’s very progressive, and that also understands the concerns of the community at large,” Cooper told Spectator. “And unlike some of the other candidates, I know my way around the political world.”
Cooper joins Democratic District Leader Marc Landis, former Community Board 7 chairs Mel Wymore and Helen Rosenthal, and businessman Ken Biberaj in the highly contested race for an open seat on the City Council. (Term-limited incumbent Gale Brewer is running for Manhattan borough president.) The Democratic primary will be held in September 2013.
Cooper is the child of Holocaust survivors—her mother escaped from a ghetto and was hidden by a Polish farmer, and her father escaped from a German labor camp and hid in the woods. After years in a displaced persons camp, they both made it to the United States, and Cooper grew up in Clifton, N.J., where her parents worked in factories.
Eventually, they saved up to buy a small farm and moved to Guilford, Conn., which Cooper called a “lovely, idyllic town” with “tons of taxpayer money for schools and kids.”
Cooper went to school at Brandeis University and Boston College, and she moved to the Upper West Side in the late 1970s. Since then, she’s worked on congressional campaigns around the country and Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign in New York, and she’s also been involved in local issues, including a boycott of a restaurant that was preventing workers from unionizing.
In 2006, Cooper beat a longtime incumbent in an election for a seat on the Democratic State Committee. She said that this electoral experience differentiates herself from her competitors in the City Council race—of the four other candidates, only Landis has previously run for elected office.
“I was out there in the streets, talking with people,” Cooper said. “I ran a campaign. I have as much name recognition as anybody at this point.”
The Democratic State Committee nominates candidates for statewide office and passes resolutions for the party platform. As a committeewoman, Cooper has staked out largely progressive positions, writing a resolution supporting New York’s millionaire’s tax and sponsoring resolutions on hydrofracking, women’s rights and health care.
Committee member Daniel Marks Cohen, who has not endorsed anyone in the City Council rate, called Cooper “the hardest-working state committeewoman I know.”
“She is consistently at meetings, she is constantly writing resolutions, and I think she is a terrific state committeewoman,” Cohen said. “She is dedicated and really has devoted a lot of energy and time toward advancing the cause of reform in the state Democratic Party.”
Cooper has also attacked the pro-charter school polices of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Cooper, who said she got a wonderful public school education, said that Bloomberg “has failed public education in lots of ways,” both by favoring charter schools and by the “simple fact of not building enough schools.”
“As a parent, you always want what’s best for your child, but if you’re doing public policy, you have to think about what’s best for everybody, and not just some children,” Cooper said. “One of the dilemmas of charter schools is by their very nature, they’re designed to help some children and not all children.”
Cooper has echoed Brewer’s support for progressive causes like paid sick leave, stop-and-frisk reform, and living wage legislation. She also supports several local causes that Brewer has pushed, including a small business rezoning measure and reforming the city’s election system.
But whether she’ll have the opportunity to continue Brewer’s legacy is an open question—she may have difficulty breaking through, as several other candidates are playing to similar constituencies. Landis is seen as commanding institutional Democratic party support, and all of the candidates are staking out progressive positions.
Jewish Home Lifecare
Cooper also brings a new perspective to the debate over a controversial development proposal. Jewish Home Lifecare, which currently has a facility on 106th Street, has come under attack from neighborhood residents for proposing to build a new high-rise facility on 97th Street. Until her death in 2007, Cooper’s mother—who was legally blind and developing Alzheimer’s disease—lived at Jewish Home’s 106th Street location for the last two years of her life.
While JHL is not currently in Brewer’s City Council district, which extends northward to 96th Street, redistricting before the election next year may change the borders. The development could become a major campaign issue if the newly drawn district reaches further north—a change some local leaders have advocated for.
“I think the facility as it is is terrible,” Cooper said, calling it “an unpleasant place to be.” She said the location was beset by a lack of living space—as well as space for residents to meet and dine with their families–and that upgrading the facility “is important for residents and important for their families.”
“I see it differently from people on the Community Board who don’t have family there, who have never had to be there,” Cooper said. As Community Board 7 members, Wymore and Rosenthal voted against allowing the project to proceed without more stringent public review, as did most board members.
Still, Cooper said, it’s “not at all clear” that the proposed 97th Street facility would solve all of Jewish Home Lifecare’s problems.
“The developers have not been responsive to the community concerns and their presently proposed 20-story building will have a negative impact on the neighborhood,” Cooper said in a follow-up email. “So I have serious problems with the plan as it now stands.”