With less than a week remaining until the crucial Democratic primary election, Mark Levine has the longest list of endorsements in the race to represent Morningside Heights and the surrounding area on the City Council—but his rivals are turning up the heat.
The Democratic district leader is at the head of a crowded field of candidates in terms of fundraising and endorsements, and he has consolidated the support of major unions and advocacy groups.
But his opponents call him a career politician and a product of the Democratic party machine, and they say he lacks traction outside of the political establishment.
Voters around the city will head to the polls on Tuesday for the local primaries, and while the competitive mayoral race has attracted the most attention, a number of City Council races will also be hotly contested. District 7 stretches from the northern part of the Upper West Side to the southern tip of Washington Heights, and includes both Columbia’s Morningside campus and its Medical Center campus.
Levine, who spent Tuesday morning greeting pedestrians at the subway station on 103rd Street and Broadway, said he was focused on delivering a positive message.
“People want a representative who can unite people from all walks of life,” Levine said, citing his founding of a credit union in northern Manhattan as well as his fluency in Spanish.
Over the course of the campaign, Levine has scored endorsements from major unions—including the New York City Central Labor Council, which held a canvassing event for him Tuesday evening—as well as support from business groups, including a political action committee backed by the city’s main real estate developer group. He has also racked up nods from prominent politicians from the area and from around the city, including the leading Democratic mayoral candidate, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.
Furthermore, he’s ahead in fundraising, having raised roughly $130,000 in private donations, according to the city’s Campaign Finance Board.
But Levine’s closeness with the Democratic party establishment may also be a liability among voters.
Former Community Board 12 Chair Zead Ramadan—who has raked in about $125,000 in private donations—said that Levine has “created a résumé to be a lifelong politician,” and is the product of a party apparatus rather than an independent leader.
“If Mark Levine was not the machine candidate, he wouldn’t have a chance in this race,” Ramadan said in an interview. “He has nothing to stand on. For example, he was a teacher for two years. Don’t tell me about your commitment to education just because you were a teacher for two years.”
With respect to Levine’s arsenal of high-profile endorsements, Ramadan argued that support from public figures was not evidence of his opponent’s ability to represent his constituents. He emphasized his own past work in economic and cultural development, particularly in the nonprofit sector, as a member of the board of directors of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, and the former chair of the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance.
Most of the candidates agree on policies and the major issues in the district—especially education and increasing the availability of affordable housing—so the race has hinged more on who represents the grassroots Democratic base.
“While Mark Levine has been at 35,000 feet getting endorsements from elected officials and unions, touching the people on the ground has been our focus,” Ramadan said. “We believe we are winning this race.”
Former congressional candidate Joyce Johnson, who is also running for the council seat, accused the party establishment of “taking the easy route” in offering the “lion’s share of endorsements” to Levine, who ran for the City Council in 2001 and for State Senate in 2010.
While Ramadan drew attention to his credentials in the nonprofit sector, Johnson said her defining trait was a management skill set honed over more than a decade in the private sector, as well as a staunch commitment to remaining independent from established politicos.
“I can sit at a table with the biggest boys and girls, look them in the eye, and say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ as I choose. I am not an ideologue,” she said. “If the establishment knocks me out after four years, so be it.”
Mark Otto, a former teacher who has made educational reform the main plank of his campaign, also leveled the “establishment politician” criticism at Levine.
“I don’t think Mark Levine is the frontrunner, but I do think establishment people have tried to make him the frontrunner,” Otto said. “By and large, the unions, even though there are a few exceptions, have decided, ‘We are going to stick together and throw all our money at Mark Levine.’”
Also in the race are 3333 Broadway Tenants’ Association President Alicia Barksdale, former police officer Manuel Lantigua, Luis Tejada, executive director of the Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center, perennial candidate Ruben Dario Vargas, and teacher David Sasscer-Burgos. CB11 member Brodie Enoch dropped out of the race and endorsed Levine on Tuesday.
While the field is crowded, most of the candidates haven’t made much of a splash or had significant fundraising success.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly implied a paraphrase of Levine. Spectator regrets the error.