Some of the wildest action so far this campaign season involved one man and two women going at it in front of a camera — in a hot City Council debate in The Brooklyn Paper’s Metrotech offices this week.
Councilwoman Letitia James (D–Clinton Hill), seeking her second full term, exchanged blows with neophyte Medhanie Estiphanos and longtime community player Delia Hunley-Adossa.
The most-heated interactions involved James and Estiphanos, showing there was no love lost between the two even though this was the first debate in the 35th district — covering Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Early on and for the duration of the affair, Estiphanos pounced on the incumbent for “demonizing” Mayor Bloomberg during her six years in office and “playing political games” that have divided the community. He specifically cited her criticism of Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project and her support for a business improvement district on Fulton Street, opposed by many Clinton Hill shopkeepers because it will raise their taxes.
But James did not back down under fire, standing up for her opposition to Ratner’s stalled plan to erect an arena and skyscraper proposal because its focus is now almost entirely on the arena and not on affordable housing.
She also repeatedly talked down to Estiphanos, schooling him on local government issues by dismissing him because he “just moved the district.”
James denied an accusation by Estiphanos that she had once likened the mayor to Idi Amin, but a video on his campaign Web site reveals she made the unfavorable comparison to the Ugandan dictator (and Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and former President George W. Bush) after Bloomberg extended term limits last October.
“It’s a shame that Bloomberg has the same thing in common as Putin, Chavez and Idi Amin and Bush,” James said in the rousing clip. “That he fears the people. That he believes that the people do not know what’s in the best interest of the city.”
In the final moments of the debate, James had her own gotcha moment, catching Estiphanos with his pants down by producing copies of his voter registration paperwork showing that he had not voted between 2004 and 2008.
Estiphanos said he did not vote because he spent much of that time hitting the streets for Democratic presidential standard-bearers John Kerry and Barack Obama.
“That’s the reason why I didn’t vote because I was actually traveling trying to get votes for our Democratic candidates,” he said.
It was strange to see the incumbent James, won a special election to finish out slain Councilman James Davis’s term in 2003 devote so much of her energy on Estiphanos, a candidate with barely any money or support, and not on Hunley-Adossa, who has the biggest war chest and has been a public figure as head of the 88th Precinct community council and the head of a mysterious environmental group funded by Ratner.
Hunley-Adossa, who had not taken questions from The Brooklyn Paper until this debate, said far less than her opponents, often not even taking the 30-second allotment for her answers and referring to a binder full of newspaper articles, notes and other study aides.
In her chance to question another candidate, she asked James why she allowed so much luxury housing to be built in the district during her years in office.
This time, James dismissively schooled Hunley-Adossa.
“I don’t support any of these projects, but there is no City Council involvement because they are all private projects,” she said, annoyed. “Thank you.”
Later, Hunley-Adossa explained her close connections to Ratner, who pumped — in her words, “a little over a couple of hundred-thousand dollars” — into her group Brooklyn Endeavor Experience through a “community benefits agreement” that Hunley-Adossa and others signed in 2005. (Coincidentally, Bloomberg, in a separate interview this week with editors and reporters from The Brooklyn Paper and other outlets in the Community Newspaper Group, said he’s “violently opposed” to such agreements.)
Hunley-Adossa said her group, whose board is filled with many of her family members, helped “downsize” Ratner’s initial plan, though it is actually larger than when it was first unveiled in 2003, and negotiate high environmental standards for the buildings.
It also has an educational component, she claimed.
“We have attempted to educate young people on how to be little green people,” Hunley-Adossa said, but its work has been suspended while the construction project is stalled, showing its reliance on Ratner.
The debate was a rare opportunity for The Brooklyn Paper to question Hunley-Adossa, who stopped returning phone calls from The Paper’s reporters months ago. She explained the snub, saying she didn’t know that we had called, though later revealed that she must have known about the reporters’ calls because they came to her home phone and cellphone — devices that she does not answer because they are “private” lines.
“It’s invasive,” said the candidate, whose opinion about privacy was not shared by the other candidates.
She promised to answer her phone 24 hours a day if she’s elected to office.
— with Shannon Geis