A Tuesday City Council candidates debate in Sunset Park became a one-man show when incumbent Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez (D-Sunset Park) failed to show up.
Her challenger, Carlos Menchaca, took advantage of the empty stage at the forum thrown by car-critic think-tank Transportation Alternatives to tout himself as the road reform candidate, and to dig into his opponent for what he called a pattern of skipping out on her responsibilities.
“I think it’s about not wanting to be accountable to the people she represents,” Menchaca said.
In Gonzalez’s absence, Menchaca voiced support for slowing down traffic, adding bike lanes, and extending the city’s bike share program to the district that spans Sunset Park, Red Hook, Windsor Terrace, Greenwood Heights, Boerum Hill, and parts of Bay Ridge and Borough Park.
Gonzalez could not be reached for comment — but she did have supporters in the room. They said that attending the forum, which was also organized by youth group United Puerto Rican Organization, would have meant walking into a lion’s den for the 10-year incumbent. They claimed that the event’s organizers are supporting the challenger, a former aide to Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Borough President Marty Markowitz.
“It’s a set-up,” said Tom Murphy, a member of the neighborhood’s Community Board Seven.
Murphy pointed out that Menchaca has received the endorsement of the Streets Political Action Committee, a pro-bike lobbying group — which Murphy claimed is really an arm of Transportation Alternatives, a charge the group denied.
“That’s impossible. We’re a completely independent, completely separate entity,” said Transportation Alternatives director, Noah Budnick.
But eight of the pro-bike lobbying group’s 14 board members have been involved with Transportation Alternatives in some form.
The community board member also alleged that the deputy director of the United Puerto Rican Organization gathered signatures to get Menchaca on the ballot. A representative of the organization said it does not even have a deputy director, while acknowledging the possibility that members might campaign for Menchaca on their own time.
“Anybody in my office can work for anyone they want as long as they’re not on the clock,” said executive director Elizabeth Yeampierre, who added that she did not know of any members who were petitioning for the challenger.
Gonzalez entered office in 2003, after winning a special election to replace disgraced Councilman Angel Rodriguez. She is eligible to run again in the district where she grew up because, though she has served two terms, she was in office when term limits were extended.
Menchaca, moved to the district in February after being active for several months in the Hurricane Sandy relief effort in Red Hook.
The Democratic primary is Sept. 10.