The upcoming June 2021 New York City Council election has candidates vying for a spot in the District 7 City Council race. However, they have already received unprecedented amounts of monetary contributions to their campaigns, with many receiving unprecedented levels of support from those in real estate.
The 2021 New York City Council elections are expected to be high stakes for the city as a whole. Only 16 of 51 councilmembers are up for reelection. The rest are term-limited, leaving 35 seats open for nonincumbent candidates, who have already raised over $1 million for the 2021 election. Since incumbent Mark Levine, from Manhattan’s District 7, which represents Morningside Heights, has reached his term limit and cannot run for reelection, the race is looking to be one of the more competitive elections that the district has seen in recent years. Currently,12 candidates are registered to take part in the Democratic primary.
District 7 has also witnessed high levels of funding for the neighborhood’s City Council candidates. The total amount raised from contributions to District 7 candidates' campaigns is already $222,474, despite the primary and election being over six months and a year away, respectively. District 7′s total campaign funding ranks second highest among all of the 51 council districts within New York City. The District 7 contribution amount is second only to that of District 13, where incumbent Mark Gjonaj is running for reelection.
Ester Fuchs, Columbia professor of international and public affairs and political science, attributes District 7′s high funding numbers to two factors: There is no incumbent or clear frontrunner, and, for this election, New York City’s Campaign Finance Board increased the public funds from the previous matching rate of $6-to-$1 to $8-to-$1, meaning that the first $175 contributed by individual New York City residents to eligible candidates will be matched 8-to-1 by city funds. Candidates must receive at least 75 small, in-district donations to be eligible for public matching funds.
Voters approved the referendum to increase the matching funds rate in 2018, citing the ways in which it frees candidates from loyalties to wealthy interest groups and gives more diverse and nontraditional candidates a chance to run. However, some feel that the rate is too high, particularly during a pandemic-induced fiscal crisis.
“People who can’t demonstrate real grassroots support can enter the race now,” Fuchs said. “With just a few donations, candidates can actually contest. … We don’t only want people with access to high-dollar donors to run, but what’s the balance? This costs the city money in a time of great fiscal stress.”
Housing affiliates donate in droves
Donations from real estate affiliates currently account for around 6 percent of the total contributions to the District 7 race. This marks an increase from the 2013 election, when donations from real estate affiliates made up only 2.6 percent of the total contributions within the district.
The total amount in contributions from real estate affiliates is $13,897, compared to a final total of $4,680 in the 2013 race. Over 78 percent of the real estate affiliate contributions in the 2021 race have been donated to the campaign of Dan Cohen, who has an extensive background in affordable housing.
About half of these donations have come from those working in housing and real estate, and compared to other districts.
Compared to 2013, the percentage of contributions from those in the financial sector has remained relatively the same, while contributions from those in the arts and real estate fields have increased over twofold. With Marti Allen-Cummings having the largest share of arts-affiliated donations, it seems this election has invigorated contributors from these fields.
Affordable housing has been at the forefront of the community’s priorities. Recent luxury real estate development in the neighborhood and Columbia’s expansion into Manhattanville have both raised concerns among community members regarding the possible displacement of residents and potential loss of affordable housing. Though the University attempted to mitigate the effects of the Manhattanville expansion by dedicating $10 million to affordable housing, large amounts of the funds remain unused, as the high costs of vacant land and construction continually present major obstacles to the creation of affordable housing in the area.
Experts say that while donor makeup can indicate the agendas of certain interest groups, it also may simply reflect each candidate’s background.
“If someone comes from the affordable housing world, for example, then of course he’s going to raise money from real estate donors. Does that mean they will have a disproportionate influence over him? We don’t really know,” Fuchs said.
Though local elections typically see a much lower turnout than presidential elections, residents have hope for a high turnout in 2021, with voters energized by the 2020 general election and concerned about the health and economic risks of the pandemic.
“[City Council] plays a vital role,” Victor Edwards, a Community Board 9 member and 40-year resident of West Harlem, previously told Spectator. “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.”
CB9 is a local advisory board that works with Manhattan’s 7th Council district.
Donations to District 7′s 2021 City Council race are already outpacing the total donations from District 7′s 2013 City Council race, which Levine won his first term within the district. In 2013, total donations amounted to $177,689, and Levine’s campaign received $133,427 in donations under the $6-to-$1 matching rate.
“There was a lower level of engagement in 2013,” Barry Weinberg, chair of CB9, said. “A lot of people weren’t as engaged in city politics. Though there were a lot of candidates … there was only one real candidate who had a significant following throughout the district and that was Mark Levine. This year, you have three plausible frontrunners, all of whom can raise money.”
Of the 12 candidates vying for the District 7 City Council seat, three frontrunners have emerged based on campaign funding. Cummings, a local drag artist and activist, has received the most contributions thus far, with a total amount of $69,013. Not far behind Cummings are Cohen and Shaun Abreu, CC ’14, a tenants' rights attorney.
Cummings has received over 1,169 individual contributions, with an average contribution size of $59. Abreu and Cohen have received 431 and 383 individual contributions, respectively, with an average contribution size of $153 and $128.
Low dollar amounts from Columbia affiliates
Of the $222,474 that has been contributed to District 7 candidates, only $2,155—less than 1 percent of that amount—has come from Columbia affiliates. Fuchs says this is expected.
“Most Columbia affiliates don’t live in this neighborhood. Those who do are not significantly involved in local politics. So this doesn’t surprise me. However, it is still early for most people to be donating to an election that is taking place next year.”
Though the University employs over 10,000 full-time faculty and staff members on its Morningside campus, many of these employees commute to campus or work remotely and are involved with the local politics of their own neighborhoods.
For example, Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar in the education policy and social analysis department at Teachers College, lives in Chicago. “I don’t really follow local elections in Morningside Heights,” he said. “I vote in Chicago, and I donate locally.”
Abreu has currently received the highest amount—$790—from contributions from Columbia affiliates.
Roosevelt Montás, a senior lecturer in American studies and English at the University, has known Abreu since he was a high schooler taking part in Columbia’s Freedom and Citizenship program that Montás helps teach.
Though relations between Columbia as an institution and the broader District 7 neighborhood have been historically troubled, Montás views Abreu’s candidacy as a positive, hopeful development for this local relationship.
“It seems to me that Shaun represents a kind of next generation of community relations,” Montás said. “I think that Shaun embodies the possibility of a more synergistic, embedded relationship between Columbia and this community.”
Cohen has so far garnered $460 in campaign contributions from Columbia affiliates, the third-highest amount among the District 7 candidates. One such contributor is Elaine Perlman, a program director at Teachers College who met Cohen at a friend’s fundraiser for his City Council campaign.
Perlman said she supports Cohen because of the strength she feels he brings to the ticket with his focus on issues concerning public education and housing. Perlman was particularly impressed by Cohen’s breadth of knowledge concerning public education and believes his extensive experience within the affordable housing industry makes him well-equipped to address housing crises in District 7.
Having lived in New York City for over 20 years, Perlman has seen the homelessness crisis within the area worsen, especially as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic and economic recession. She believes Cohen’s vast professional experience in affordable housing can aid him in addressing the situation.
“Homelessness is a real crisis for our neighborhood and the city more broadly,” Perlman said. “I think Dan has the experience to really be a leader in creating and sustaining affordable housing—he’s got the expertise.”
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Data reporter Ivana Moore can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.