Community Board 9 members Marti Cummings and Dan Cohen have emerged as early frontrunners in a competitive West Harlem City Council race. In a post-pandemic city, council members will face unprecedented challenges—including a $9 billion revenue shortfall—making their role, which includes negotiating the city’s budget, a crucial one.
Community Board 9 is a local advisory board that works with Manhattan’s 7th Council district, which encompasses Morningside Heights, Manhattanville, and surrounding neighborhoods. Cummings, Cohen, and nine other candidates have announced bids for District 7′s seat in the 2021 City Council election. Elected council members' responsibilities will include monitoring the Department of Education and The New York Police Department and voting on housing and development legislation beginning in January 2022.
Thirty-five of the 51 total New York City Council seats are open, including that of District 7′s incumbent Mark Levine, who is ending his two-term limit after serving since 2014. Levine is running for Manhattan Borough President, a position that primarily reviews Manhattan land use and development projects.
“[City Council] plays a vital role,” said Victor Edwards, a CB9 member and 40-year resident of West Harlem. “When people think of city government, they often think of the mayor … but the mayor can’t be everywhere. [City Council] is our representative to the mayor, to get our voices heard.”
“It’s worth noting that we’ve never really had a councilmember for West Harlem from West Harlem,” CB9 Chair Barry Weinberg said. “Community Board experience could be a fantastic asset [for a council member] because you really know the nitty-gritty details of our community’s problems when you’re on the board.”
Cummings, a local drag artist and activist, is New York City’s first nonbinary city council candidate. Now a Hamilton Heights resident, they have lived in the city for 13 years, moving to New York City at 17 to pursue musical theater but gravitating to drag nightlife and activism. They founded the Hell’s Kitchen Democrats in 2017 and now serve as an advisor on the New York City Nightlife Advisory Board.
Cummings' campaign emphasizes housing justice, desegregated schools, and criminal justice reform. They urge the city to fully fund the New York City Housing Authority, increase wages for teachers, put more social workers in schools, and defund New York City’s nearly $6 billion police operating budget. Cummings also underscores the way that COVID-19 has exacerbated many issues.
“I’m a gig worker; I live paycheck to paycheck. I don’t have health insurance. I’ve been out of work for seven months,” they said. “But being a gig worker, being a drag artist, has prepared me for politics in a unique way. I’ve been in politics for a long time, but not in the same way as a lot of other people who run for office.”
According to a study conducted by the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, job loss, housing insecurity, and food insecurity are among the most pressing issues on the minds of New York City residents, particularly people of color.
Since March, more than 2,800 businesses have closed across New York City , and according to a report by the Partnership for New York City, this number may rise to over 200,000 by the time the pandemic subsides. It is estimated that these closures have already caused over 500,000 lost jobs. And with more than one million New York City residents currently unemployed and a city unemployment rate almost twice the national average, some economists predict it will be a long and difficult road to recovery that may take two years longer than the rest of the country.
Cohen is the vice president of the affordable housing nonprofit Housing Partnership, and he has also worked in the public and private housing sectors. Affordable housing is his priority and area of expertise, and his campaign also highlights local climate change action, increased resources for public schools, and criminal justice reform.
The CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy study reported that 31 percent of New York City residents surveyed have had to change their living situations since the beginning of March despite the moratorium on evictions enacted by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Cohen emphasizes the importance of permanent affordable housing, particularly for seniors and families with children—two populations especially vulnerable to housing insecurity.
He plans to utilize existing air rights within current zoning to construct approximately 1,000 units of affordable housing above the Con Edison substation building at 110th Street and Amsterdam Avenue and the RKO Hamilton Theatre at 146th Street and Broadway. Historically, air rights zoning in Morningside Heights has been controversial because it often has been used for luxury development instead of affordable housing.
Cohen also calls for a breakdown of New York City’s Area Median Income, a threshold used to determine the number of affordable housing units constructed. The AMI is calculated using data from New York City and Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam Counties, and it does not accurately reflect District 7, resulting in a distortion of the community’s need for affordable housing.
“When you look at a granular level at local communities in District 7, the AMI is lower. We should be building more for the people that live here, rather than for the city,” he said.
Cummings and Cohen have two of the largest campaign funds thus far, and both have qualified for New York City’s public matching funds program, through which any donation under $175 by a New York City resident will be matched 8 to 1 by the New York City Campaign Finance Board. This frees candidates from loyalties to wealthy interest groups, Cohen said.
“The matching funds program is a great opportunity for people who haven’t been ingrained in our political system, who aren’t a part of the elite wealth group,” Cummings said. “This is a way for everyday New Yorkers to run for office and really be given a fair shot at having a seat at the table.”
So far, Cummings' campaign has received almost 1,200 donations—one-third of which have come from in-district donors—and the average campaign donation is $59. Cummings partly credits this success to their drag career, which has given them both a visible social media platform and a robust in-person network.
Cohen’s campaign has received nearly 400 donations, and the average campaign donation is $128. Neither Cummings nor Cohen accepts donations from real estate developers or law enforcement.