It wasn’t the answers that separated the front-runners from the longshots at The Brooklyn Paper and Brooklyn Independent Televisions’s 33rd Council District debate — it was the questions themselves.
In a segment of the forum that allowed each of the seven candidates in the rare open seat to directly question one another, all of the competitors pitted their queries at Jo Anne Simon, Steve Levin and Evan Thies, effectively identifying the trio as the candidates to beat — and the candidates to beat down.
The three hopefuls — who have served, respectively, as a Democratic District Leader, a staffer to powerful Assemblyman and Democratic Party boss Vito Lopez (D–Bushwick), and a staffer to Councilman David Yassky (D–Brooklyn Heights) — came under fire for their stances on Atlantic Yards, the Broadway Triangle, the Gowanus Canal, their Democratic Party pedigree, and other issues in the district, which stretches from Greenpoint to Park Slope.
“Are we going to vote for the machine candidates, the status quo … or are we going to vote for someone new?” said candidate Doug Biviano, who accused Simon of not opposing Atlantic Yards, Levin of “talking out of the side of Vito’s mouth,” and Thies of resigning from Community Board 1 to dodge a controversial vote on the city’s proposed Broadway Triangle rezoning.
Biviano continued his attack strategy, asking Simon whether she would demand that Lopez — a leader he compared (and not favorably) to Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez — step down from his post as Democratic Party Boss. She said she already has by voting against his ascension to party chairman twice.
Self-described “seasoned progressive” Ken Diamondstone asked Simon why she allowed her Democratic club, the Independent Neighborhood Democrats, to endorse John Heyer, a candidate in the neighboring 39th Council District who is opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage.
Simon, who appeared annoyed by all the questioning of her, responded by describing herself as a longtime supporter of gay marriage and abortion rights, but that didn’t satisfy Diamondstone, who is gay. He continued to pepper Simon with follow-up questions and had to be shouted down by the usually tranquil moderator, Brooklyn Paper Editor Gersh Kuntzman.
Many of the more heated exchanges in the debate surrounded the city’s controversial decision to grant two politically connected non-profit groups the right to development affordable housing in a swath of industrial South Williamsburg called the Broadway Triangle — a proposal that all of the candidates oppose except for Levin.
Thies deemed the murky process surrounding the release of preliminary no bid contracts “one of the worst that we have seen in development.”
Simon argued that the means were as important as the ends.
“Affordable housing is a great goal, but there is a good way to do it and a bad way to do it,” she said.
But Levin — whose former boss is a strong backer of the plan — defended the rezoning proposal as a way to provide much-needed housing in contextual buildings.
“What I am in support of is affordable housing being built on what is now vacant land,” said Levin.
Hasidic activist Isaac Abraham accused Levin of “playing one game with two decks of cards” due to his support for the Broadway Triangle and his opposition to Atlantic Yards — two mega-projects that have been criticised for a closed public process. Abraham questioned whether the candidate stood behind a year’s-old anti-Semitic statement made by Lopez.
Levin, who was not on Lopez’s staff when the assemblyman allegedly made the comment about “Hasidics and real estate powers,” said he had never heard his former boss say such a thing.
In her own offensive, Simon said Levin was the Democratic Party Boss’ “hand-picked candidate.” And Thies used his question to ask Levin whether his campaign benefited from his relationship with Lopez — an allegation that the Democratic Party Boss denied, albeit weakly, last week.
Levin insisted that he is his own man.
“I don’t think of myself as the machine candidate,” he said. “I am running my campaign as a grassroots campaign.”
The candidate — who last week landed the endorsement of Sen. Charles Schumer — used his prompt to ask Thies if he would limit himself to a “positive campaign.” Thies promised he would, but insisted that he won’t stop judging his “competitors on their merits.”
The other candidate in the race, Ken Baer, also participated.
The next night, the same seven candidates battled it out again at St. Francis College in a debate hosted by the Citizen’s Union — and again the underdogs weren’t afraid to try to bite the favorites.
But unlike The Brooklyn Paper/Brooklyn Independent Television debate, when given the chance to question other candidates, none of the front-runners partook.
With that debate, Levin has finally attended more 33rd Council District debates than Short has moderated.
The debate, hosted by Community Newspaper Group and Brooklyn Independent Television, will air on Monday, Aug. 17, at 9 pm the BCAT TV Network, which is channel 56 on Time Warner Cable and 69 on Cablevision. All our CNG-BIT forums can also be seen on the new election Web site, BoroPolitics.com or at bricartsmedia.org/bitspecials.