Decision '09: Primary Profiles

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With two major citywide races and one Manhattan-wide contest this September, Democratic primary voters could be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed. On primary day, a total of 11 candidates will vie for three high-profile positions: city comptroller, public advocate and Manhattan district attorney. (And that’s not even counting the mayoral primary race, although most think the outcome is a foregone conclusion, and other miscellaneous contests. This week we continue a series of profiles featuring one candidate from the comptroller, public advocate and district attorney races. To determine the order, we drew names out of a hat. Stay tuned for additional profiles in weeks to come.

A Queens native, Council Member Melinda Katz now lives in the house she grew up in with son Carter. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

A Queens native, Council Member Melinda Katz now lives in the house she grew up in with son Carter. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Melinda Katz

Running for City Comptroller
By Josh Zembik

In front of a phalanx of burly but dapper union members, Council Member Melinda Katz looked up at the threatening skies over City Hall. The smallest person on the steps, nearly a foot shorter than most of the smiling men around her, Katz was ready to collect another endorsement—the support of the 120,000-member Teamsters Union—if only the rain would stay away.

That Katz snagged the union’s support wasn’t necessarily a surprise, even in the hotly contested four-person race for City Comptroller. As a Council member, Katz’s most high-profile position—which supporters trumpet and detractors flag—has been her tenure as chair of the City Council’s Land Use Committee. In that position, she has had a direct role in regulating virtually all public and private land use across the city, putting her at the center of major zoning decisions.

She is now second when it comes to fundraising, having raised $173,000 during the last filing period, with $2.4 million in her campaign chest overall. Liu is in first place, with $3.2 million in his coffers.

The city comptroller is tasked with ensuring the five boroughs’ financial health, and a big part of that is managing city pension funds. At a candidates’ forum convened last month by sister publication City Hall, Katz and her opponents—fellow Council Members John Liu, David Weprin and David Yassky—all agreed that the current system is bankrupting the city. Katz is alone, however, in wanting to invest in companies that will benefit the city while upholding her responsibility as steward of the pension fund. She says this will allow her to get concessions that will benefit New Yorkers, promote job creation and bolster the local economy.

“If you’re a big corporation and want millions from hardworking men and women, what are you doing for New York City?” Katz asks. “Where are your corporate offices? What will you do to train people being laid off?”

Tapping into her early career as a mergers and acquisitions attorney, Katz has also proposed investing a small part of the pension in companies that can make a profit but that are saddled with paying off debt. This investment strategy, skewed toward helping New York City companies, would allow businesses to restructure and emerge as a new company, debt free.

The proposal has gotten flack from challenger Liu, who argues that the pension fund should stay away from assessing the viability of struggling companies and providing taxpayer funds to help them get out of debt.

Since her first foray into elected office when she won a seat in the State Assembly in 1994, Katz has molded an “Everywoman” agenda. She has authored and pushed for legislation that improved access to healthcare, assisted the prosecution of child abusers, and increased safety standards at daycare centers. She has also placed kitchen table issues, like the economy, jobs and school performance, at the top of her agenda.

On the East Side, Katz helped broker a plan for the East River Realty project that guaranteed public access to open spaces and included significant height reductions on several of the project’s buildings, satisfying many neighborhood critics. But she has also been at the center of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s rezoning push, in which he rezoned more land than the previous six administrations combined.

The debate over rezoning often revolves around which neighborhoods are affected and how. Critics of the Bloomberg and Katz have argued that their efforts, including the rezoning of 125th Street, disproportionately affect working-class neighborhoods, giving developers free reign at the expense of small business owners and longtime residents.

Katz has benefited politically and financially from her perch on the committee, raising campaign cash from an array of developers and real estate bigwigs. Her critics charge influence-peddling, but Katz is quick to swat down any such notion.

“Look,” she said, “our role [on the Land Use Committee] is protecting the city. We try to make applications better for the community, and it’s my responsiblity to work with all parties involved. That’s what I do.”

When Katz was 3, her mother died; her father died 18 years later when she was in college at UMass Amherst. Perhaps not surprisingly, she’s been a strong advocate for children, and a strong opponent of regressive taxes that largely affect middle- and low-income families. Last year, she voted against Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan, which she called “an unfair tax on commuters,” and this past June, she was one of 10 Council members who opposed a 0.5-percent citywide sales tax increase.

“My father was a public high school teacher, and he raised four children by himself after my mother died,” Katz said. “I’m a product of the public school system, and where I come from, you need to work hard to get ahead. With the sales tax, I saw a tax that would disproportionately burden middle-class New Yorkers, and I couldn’t support it.”

A Queens native, Katz and her son Carter still live in the same Forest Hills house where she was raised. She says her policy decisions, progressive streak and populist stands were molded by her upbringing, and it’s that kind of perspective that’s needed in the comptroller’s office today.

“I get a real sense out there from a lot of New Yorkers that people don’t have faith in their political system anymore,” Katz said. “Frankly, I’d like to restore that. I see part of the job as restoring that. I’ve got a 14-month-old son, and I know what it means to make this city better, not just for him, but for all New Yorkers.”

With additional reporting by Dan Rivoli.

Richard Aborn lives on the Upper West Side with wife Ingrid, the twin sister of actress Isabella Rossellini, and their daughter. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Richard Aborn lives on the Upper West Side with wife Ingrid, the twin sister of actress Isabella Rossellini, and their daughter. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Richard Aborn

Running for Manhattan District Attorney
By Josh Zembik

Although he is gunning to be Manhattan’s next district attorney, Richard Aborn actually may be more popular outside the borough. Referred to as both a long-shot and a dark-horse candidate when he entered the race, Aborn, 56, kicked off his campaign to be Manhattan’s next D.A. by collecting endorsements at a torrid pace. Praise came from City Hall, Albany and as far away as California, along with a surge of campaign cash and instant credibility. According to the latest fundraising data, Aborn raised nearly $1 million during the January-to-July filing period, putting him on nearly even footing with his two rivals when it comes to cash on hand.

Aborn attributes his rise as a first-time candidate to his innovative approach to fighting crime.

“We’re speaking to issues that the voters of Manhattan care deeply about,” he said. “We are delivering a message that we can make the criminal justice system better. We are willing to address the fact that four out of five young people who get arrested cycle through the system over and over again, and I find that not to be a hopeless situation.”

Still, early endrorsements from across the political establishment have clearly helped. Aborn has the backing of a slew of gun-control groups, former New York City—now Los Angeles—Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, Democratic clubs and elected officials, including those from the East Side. Aborn’s records on guns earned him the endorsement of Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, the Long Island Congresswoman who was propelled to office on an anti-gun platform in the wake of her husband’s death during a shooting on the Long Island Railroad.

Aborn has spent much of his adult life working on gun issues. After earning his J.D. from the John Marshall School of Law in 1979, he worked as an assistant D.A. in Manhattan, prosecuting violent felonies under Robert Morgenthau, the man he’s seeking to succeed. When he left the office in 1984 to start his own practice, he began volunteering for the state gun-control lobby.

The part-time gig grew into more full-time work when Aborn started working for Handgun Control, Inc., now known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. His tenure as president of the campaign reached a high point with President Bill Clinton’s 1993 signing of the Brady Bill, which required a five-day waiting period and a criminal background check before a person could purchase a handgun.

Aborn doesn’t have the courtroom experience of his rivals, Cy Vance Jr. and Leslie Crocker Snyder (both of whom last tried cases in 2007), and he hasn’t tried a case to verdict since he became president of the Brady Campaign. His opponents have pounced on that fact, and Snyder has referred to him as a “consultant” during campaign stops.

But Aborn sees his background as an asset. He is quick to point out that he’s been a prosecutor and a defense attorney and that his work as managing partner at the law firm Constantine Cannon involves overseeing roughly 190 employees, a task that’s akin to the daily job of district attorney.

While he’s been cast as the dark horse, Aborn has also been referred to as both a progressive and a candidate of big ideas. He has in fact worked as a consultant, helping police departments and transportation agencies from Los Angeles to London improve and streamline operations. In 1999, at the request of then-Public Advocate Mark Green, Aborn investigated the NYPD’s disciplinary system following the shooting death of Amadou Diallo.

Aborn has carved out strong positions on issues like capital punishment, arguing that not only should the death penalty be outlawed in New York, but that it has no place in the United States—a not-so-subtle shot at Snyder, who, when she ran for D.A. in 2005, said she supported the death penalty in some cases. She has since come out fully against it. In a time of relatively low crime, Aborn has proposed using the office’s resources to stop crime at its roots, providing programs to help nonviolent offenders and putting a new focus on young people, victims and families.

“I continually think about this question: How do we break up the pathway to violence?” Aborn said. “When you look at the system through that lens, you see lots of places where you can lead people off the path to a violent life. That includes things like a much greater use of treatment for those with problems with drugs. It means a very deep commitment to honestly looking at the intersection between mental health and criminal offending. It means working with kids in targeted, innovative ways that are progressive and effective, that are designed to get kids out of a life of crime and back home and back in school where they belong.”

Aborn has lived his entire adult life in New York, and currently resides on the Upper West Side with his wife Ingrid—the twin sister of actress Isabella Rossellini and daughter of Ingrid Bergman—and their 18-year-old daughter.

Bill de Blasio worked in the Dinkins Administration as an assistant to the deputy mayor, where he met his wife, Chirlane McCray. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Bill de Blasio worked in the Dinkins Administration as an assistant to the deputy mayor, where he met his wife, Chirlane McCray. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Bill de Blasio

Running for Public Advocate
By Clara Martinez Turco

All four public advocate candidates say they want to be a strong check on the mayor they will serve alongside in 2010, and in their campaign rhetoric, they frequently talk about standing up to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Council Member Bill de Blasio’s opponents have touted their large personalities or fiery language that gets results. But de Blasio, who represents Park Slope and Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn, prefers to balance that out with effecting change from the inside.

As chair of the City Council’s General Welfare Committee, de Blasio has authored legislation that banned discrimination toward people with Section 8 housing vouchers, and reformed child welfare services after the public outcry over the death of Nixmary Brown. The Council also passed his electronic waste recycling bill over the objections of the Bloomberg administration. The bill will require electronics manufacturers to take back their products.

“I have seen the legislative process [produce] a workable compromise,” de Blasio said. “When you see the potential for a positive result, you engage that.”

He used that strategy when the Council passed a budget earlier this year that slashed the public advocate’s office by 40 percent. De Blasio, his competitors and incumbent Betsy Gotbaum held a rally decrying the cut. Afterward, de Blasio proposed legislation that would take away the mayor’s power to fund the office of public advocate, comptroller, the Civilian Complaint Review Board and the Conflicts of Interest Board.

“The public advocate is supposed to be independent and a watchdog; it really should be independently funded, as it should be [with] the other elected offices so they’re not being held hostages by the mayor,” de Blasio said.

His record of working amiably with colleagues to pass legislation has in part earned him endorsements from the city’s elected officials and unions, including Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Charles Rangel, Borough President Scott Stringer and the powerful labor-backed Working Families Party.

Before term limits were extended, de Blasio was a candidate for Brooklyn borough president. During Bloomberg’s push for a third term, the Council member became one of the most fervent leaders in opposition to the proposal.

Although he lost the fight, he decided on the office of public advocate as his next step.

“A public advocate has to be the voice of the people and an opponent of the mayor when he is wrong and someone who can organize people all over the city,” de Blasio said. “That experience led me to feel that I was the right person to take on that particular role.”

De Blasio, a native New Yorker, graduated from New York University and received a master’s degree in public affairs from Columbia University. He has a lengthy history behind the scenes in electoral politics, landing his first political gig as the volunteer coordinator during David Dinkins’ first mayoral race in 1989. De Blasio then joined the administration as an assistant to the deputy mayor, where he met his wife, Chirlane McCray. He went on to run Rangel’s 1994 re-election campaign and Bill Clinton’s 1996 presidential bid in New York, and he managed Hillary Clinton’s 2000 U.S. Senate campaign. Outside of politicking, de Blasio has served as the regional director for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“It was clear that the electoral process frames everything, so I got involved in supporting candidates,” he said.

De Blasio has built a formidable campaign despite his relatively late entry to the race. Although he is currently third in the polls, behind former Public Advocate Mark Green and Norman Siegel, he is second when it comes to fundraising, with $1,279,150 in his campaign war chest. That money will be crucial for expensive get-out-the-vote operations in the days leading up to the Sept. 15 primary. Queens Council Member Eric Gioia leads the pack in fundraising.

As public advocate, de Blasio says his record of solving problems legislatively will come in handy, but he says he will also use the office as a bully pulpit, which is where most of the public advocate’s power lays. A hallmark of his style will be to build coalitions with neighborhood groups.

“The advocate has to be community organizer-in-chief,” de Blasio said. “There are so many issues that come up on the local level.”

With additional reporting by Dan Rivoli.

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