Rep. Nydia Velazquez could face toughest battle since her election in ’92
In a letter sent to new constituents in the newly drawn 7th Congressional district, Rep. Nydia Velazquez wrote that she is sometimes referred to as “La Luchadora,” Spanish for “The Fighter.”
That label may prove more than fitting as Velazquez seeks re-election to the congressional seat she has held since 1992, which as the result of the 2010 Census has undergone redistricting.
Many political insiders say this could be the veteran congresswoman’s toughest fight yet, as she goes up against three challengers in the upcoming Democratic primary on June 26.
Term-limited Brooklyn Councilman Erik Martin Dilan, political newcomer Dan O’Connor and Occupy Wall Street/hip-hop activist George Martinez are all vying to oust Velazquez from the new 7th District, which is now 20 percent Chinese and includes parts of Chinatown, the East Village and the Lower East Side in addition to areas in Brooklyn such as Williamsburg and Sunset Park and Woodhaven in Queens.
Rep. Nydia Velazquez
Velazquez, who is leading her three challengers in fundraising, with more than $300,000, according to the latest figures from Opensecrets.org, prides herself on fighting for the city’s working families.
“Most recently, I secured more than $50 million for numerous public housing facilities throughout the city,” said Velazquez in an email interview. “I’ve consistently fought to ensure NYCHA receives the federal funds it needs to keep our public housing stock safe and affordable while protecting programs that prevent working families from being evicted from their homes.”
When asked about her greatest achievements in the past two decades in office, Velazquez pointed to legislation she authored on the Women’s Procurement Program, which, she said, has helped female entrepreneurs tap into the $500 billion federal marketplace.
“By standing up to Republican efforts to gut and weaken small business programs, assistance for thousands of New York City entrepreneurs was preserved,” she said.
Responding to accusations by some of her challengers who have called the congresswoman a “career politician” whose major donors include large financial institutions, Velazquez countered that she came to Congress to be an “independent voice” who stands up for working families.
In addition, Velazquez, who has received endorsements from powerful politicians including Sen. Chuck Schumer and State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, said a current analysis of all representatives’ voting records found that she was among the members of Congress “most likely to stand up to special interests.”
Regarding the issues of most concern to her constituents, Velazquez said that given the economy, jobs are paramount.
“First and foremost, we need to stay focused on creating good-paying, local jobs,” she said. “With new, high-technology businesses migrating to Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan and Queens, we can create another wave of economic opportunity. In addition, we need to make the investments in infrastructure and education that provide immediate job opportunities while creating conditions for long-term prosperity.”
Once again reiterating her commitment to help the city’s small businesses, the congresswoman cited legislation favoring small business tax breaks.
“I’ve introduced a measure providing a $6,000 tax break for small businesses that add new workers to their payrolls,” Velazquez said. “Tax incentives like these are also a priority of the president’s and can make the difference for a restaurant, store or small manufacturer trying to grow in a tough economy.”
She added, “Our economy is getting better, but we still have a long way to go. I have the experience to implement policies ensuring New Yorkers benefit as our economy turns the corner and our nation moves back toward prosperity.”
Brooklyn-born challenger Dan O’Connor is unique for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is his familiarity with Chinese culture, keen knowledge of economics and decided lack of any political experience.
O’Connor, an economist and businessman who worked at an unnamed alternative energy company in Manhattan, was immersed in Chinese culture during a six-year stay in mainland China, where he learned to speak fluent Mandarin and Cantonese. He also studied economics at Johns Hopkins University in Nanjing, China, and later worked at an economic think-tank in Hong Kong before returning to the United States in 2009.
In March, O’Connor opened a campaign office in Chinatown and has knocked Velazquez for all but “ignoring” the Chinese community while growing increasingly complacent as a result of being unchallenged for so long.
But O’Connor, who made it on to the ballot with about 9,000 signatures in early May and has raised just over $50,000 for his campaign, has repeatedly warned of Washington’s economic policies and the corrupt relationship between big business and government that has produced a crop of politicians who are only concerned with pleasing corporate sponsors and getting re-elected.
A spokesman for O’Connor reported recently that polling is going well and that the candidate has been reaching out to thousands of voters each week.
“Dan is coming off a strong showing on the May 24 edition of NY1’s Inside City Hall and is looking forward to an upcoming candidate forum,” said spokesman Paul Hanson. “Dan’s focus has been on connecting with voters on the issues they are most concerned about—jobs and the economy foremost among them—and showing them that they have an alternative to Nydia Velazquez’ corporatist cronyism.”
Further, Hanson said, “We are planning a full-court press as June 26 draws nearer, and we are looking forward to shocking the establishment by making Dan the nominee of the Democratic Party for District 7.”
In an interview with Our Town Downtown in April, O’Connor commented on Velazquez and her “disregard” for the Chinese population in Manhattan.
“Everyone knows that she [Velazquez] has completely ignored the Chinese population and has only recently begun to visit the community since I entered the race,” O’Connor said.
“She brags that she has brought back a lot of federal money to the community, but in fact she has brought back less money to this district than any other representative in New York. She has nothing to brag about when it comes to bringing back money to the district.”
When asked what he would do differently if elected, O’Connor said he would opt to help stabilize the middle class.
“Instead of giving bailouts and trillions of dollars to large banks, hedge funds and corporations, I will fight to put money back in the hands of everyday middle-income and lower-income families,” he said.
“I will provide real solutions to fix the economy, not the failed attempts to revive the economy of recent years,” O’Connor added. “I will push through real initiatives and legislation to revive the Brooklyn waterfront, which has only fallen apart during her time in office.”
Councilman Erik Martin Dilan
Dilan, a lifelong resident of the 37th Council District, which covers the communities of Bushwick, Cypress Hills, East New York, Ocean Hill-Brownsville and Wyckoff Heights, was first elected to City Council in 2001 and is currently serving his third term in office.
Generally seen by political insiders as the most credible threat to unseat 20-year veteran Velazquez, Dilan, as chair of the Council’s Housing & Buildings Committee, has worked to create housing laws and policy that are balanced to both building owners and tenants.
With a focus on construction safety issues, Dilan has worked on legislation to improve housing inspections and repairs in addition to helping increase the safety of suspended scaffolds, tower cranes and retaining walls at construction sites.
He has also worked to secure roughly $4 million to completely renovate Irving Square Park and more than $10 million to rehabilitate parks across the district.
To better safeguard his council district’s local neighborhoods, he helped appropriate nearly $450,000 for NYPD precincts 75 and 83 for a Mobile Command Vehicle.
On his congressional campaign website, Dilan wrote that he believes Congress must kickstart economic growth immediately by supporting small businesses, incentivizing new hiring and easing the tax burden on working families.
Further, Dilan added that small businesses need to be supported with tax cuts, grants and loan programs so they create jobs in our communities.
He also favors restoration of fairness to the tax code by cutting taxes for working families and ensuring that wealthy Americans pay their fair share while working to eliminate tax loopholes that corporations exploit to keep profits overseas, redirecting that money to small businesses to facilitate job creation both here and at home.
On energy and the environment, Dilan supports adoption of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and biofuel as well as other new transit technologies.
Dilan’s time in office, however, has not been without controversy.
In March, Dilan was investigated for obtaining a city-backed apartment that he seemingly was not entitled to by virtue of having too much income. According to news reports, Dilan’s combined household income was $160,000, while the cap for the apartments was $114,000. In addition, the developer of the apartment was found to be a donor to Dilan’s campaign.
And a recent report by the Daily News found that Dilan, along with two other city politicians, had dipped into the Council’s discretionary funds for more than $10 million, according to a report by Citizen’s Union.
In recent days, Velazquez has publicly said that Dilan, a close political ally of Brooklyn Democratic boss Vito Lopez, would not be in the race were it not for Lopez’s backing.
Dilan has since denied the accusations in statements to reporters, telling the press that he is “his own man.”
According to his campaign manager, Cecily McMillan, George Martinez has been part of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement since the second week of its encampment, and he wrote and performed the OWS’ hip-hop anthem during the third week.
McMillan writes that Martinez was a primary organizer of Occupy Sunset Park and Occupy Bed-Stuy, as well as “Occupy the ’Hood” in New York City and nationwide.
Martinez is currently involved in the End Corporate Personhood Affinity Group. In the world outside the Occupy movement, Martinez was the former district leader for the 51st Assembly District and former assistant director for the New York State attorney general.
He is currently a U.S. Cultural Ambassador to Latin America and Asia, a member of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and an adjunct professor of political science at Pace University in Manhattan.
Martinez’ main focus is an “election with a new direction”—to hear Martinez articulate his platform, it is basically to get the money out of the process and the people in.
“We want to empower people to solve their own problems,” Martinez said.
His OWS-style, hip-hop campaign is the prototype of a community-based, direct action style he has named “Bum Rush the Vote.” The Bum Rush premise is predicated upon controlling politics without money, which is what he calls “people power.”
Martinez said OWS has exposed some of the ways that corporations have used money to influence elections. “People don’t trust public officials anymore,” Martinez said.
“We were told that it takes an average of $1.2 million dollars to run for Congress, much of which comes from corporate backers,” Martinez said. “However, with less than $5,000, we made it on to the primary ballot and even won a ballot challenge!”
“Velazquez was in office for 20 years and she didn’t author one piece of legislation that really affected people in their neighborhoods,” Martinez added.
Martinez said his campaign team is truly grass-roots, made up of volunteers. “Canvassers contributed countless hours petitioning for over 3,000 signatures. We’ve had campaign, media, photography, graphic design and web design consultants donate their time and skills. We’ve had individuals and small businesses donate space and resources for meetings and fundraisers, etc.”
Calling the OWS movement the canary in the coal mine, Martinez said he wants to fix Washington, D.C., and “move the agenda forward.”
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