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, 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.)

To help voters get a better grasp of these candidates, we’re launching a series of profiles this week 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.

Although he represents brownstone Brooklyn, David Yassky went to high school at Dalton and lived on the Upper West Side as a teenager. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Although he represents brownstone Brooklyn, went to high school at Dalton and lived on the Upper West Side as a teenager. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

DAVID YASSKY

Running for City Comptroller
By Zara Kessler

Confronting New Yorkers during their morning commutes is no small feat. But on a recent summer morning, City Comptroller candidate David Yassky looked unperturbed as he greeted potential voters at East 77th Street and Lexington Avenue. Most passersby accepted handshakes and fliers from Yassky and fellow Council Member Dan Garodnick, who is running for reelection in his East Side district. Some signed petitions to put both men on the ballot; a few scoffed at being bothered.

Yassky’s mother, also the campaign treasurer, stood nearby, petition in hand. She was joined by volunteers from the Lexington Democratic Club, which has endorsed Yassky, along with the Brooklyn and Manhattan Democratic Parties, over his three primary challengers: Council Members John Liu, David Weprin and Melinda Katz. Other prominent support comes from East Side Assembly Member Jonathan Bing, Staten Island Rep. Mike McMahon and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz.

Yassky, who is often characterized as “wonky,” suggested a must-read piece to a passerby who was toting a recent issue of The New Yorker. While some may make light of his “nerdiness,” that seriousness may attract Democratic voters, who are choosing between four candidates, all Council Members, to be the city’s next chief financial officer.

“The basic quality of life that we’ve come to value and enjoy in New York is genuinely at risk, and we have to be very disciplined and very creative in the city government to make sure we get back on track,” he during an interview at a downtown Starbucks.

As comptroller, Yassky says he would cut fat in city budgets to maintain critical initiatives, like open firehouses, Meals on Wheels and class size control. He promises to keep a close eye on the Department of Education. To temper the city’s reliance on Wall Street, he champions investing in biotechnology and environmental technology, and continuing to promote the film and television industry. As a Council member, he recently called for an expansion and extension of the New York City Film Tax Credit, a program he sponsored as a Council member that was signed into law in 2005.

Of course, the comptroller’s most well known responsibility is to be a steward for the city’s pension funds, and Yassky has been thinking about the recent pay-to-play scandal that led to the indictment of political advisers close to former city and state comptroller Alan Hevesi. But instead of an outright ban on the intermediaries who help broker deals between investment firms and the fund, as Katz proposes, Yassky wants to limit placement agents to smaller companies whose assets are less than $1 billion.

In a push to make the city budget more transparent, Yassky created www.itsyourmoneynyc.com, where New Yorkers can examine budget allocations for city programs and agencies, search earmarks and leave comments on how crucial they think individual programs are. If elected, he promises to publish every city contract online.

Although Yassky represents brownstone Brooklyn, including parts of Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Brooklyn Heights, he spent his formative years on the Upper West Side and attended the prestigious Dalton School.

After graduating from Princeton, Yassky worked in the city’s Office of Management and Budget, where he says he learned how to make the most of every dollar, then headed to Yale Law School. He’s also worked for Sen. Charles Schumer in Washington, D.C., and as a teacher at Brooklyn Law School.

On the City Council, Yassky has worked to eliminate waste in the City’s Housing Department, assisted in closing a tax loophole used by luxury developers and supported efforts to make taxis gas-electric hybrids. He points to these accomplishments as evidence that he is most qualified to serve as comptroller.

“I have by far the strongest record of using the tools of a Council member to advance the progressive agenda to go after waste in the city government,” he said.

His support of Bloomberg’s term limits bill is a hitch in his claim to the progressive mantle. The day before the Council vote was scheduled, he backed an amendment that would require a voter referendum on the matter, killing the term-limits push. When the amendment failed, though, Yassky supported the mayor.

Defending his actions, Yassky explained that he had a problem with the way the mayor went about the extension, not the extension itself.

“Term limits are bad policy, and I continue to believe that a 12-year limit is much better policy for the city than an eight-year limit,” he said. “I think part of the lesson here is it’s not enough to pursue the right policy, you’ve got to go about it the right way.”

As far as the right way to pursue primary voters, Yassky seems to be putting his wonkiness to work. His campaign recently released an invitation to join the Council member outside four movie theaters on the opening day of the new Harry Potter movie. The invite boasted a Hogwarts crest reading “David Yassky for NYC Comptroller 2009,” as well as Yassky in a Harry Potter getup, pointing Uncle Sam-style. “The World of Muggles needs YOU!” it beckons.

Let’s just hope that Harry’s a financial whiz, too.

Cy Vance was a prosecutor under Robert Morgenthau from 1982 to 1988. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Cy Vance was a prosecutor under Robert Morgenthau from 1982 to 1988. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

, JR.

Running for Manhattan District Attorney
By Zara Kessler

The sun was shining outside of the Harlem Legal Services building on 125th Street, and Cyrus Vance, Jr. couldn’t have looked happier. While volunteers distributed fliers and “Cy Vance for D.A.” pins, Vance greeted those congregating for Gloria Steinem’s endorsement of his candidacy for Manhattan district attorney. It was an especially noteworthy event, given that one of Vance’s opponents, Leslie Crocker Snyder, is gunning to become Manhattan’s first female D.A. The other challenger in the Democratic primary is Richard Aborn.

To many, Vance is most notably the son of Cyrus Vance, secretary of state under President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1980. But Vance is careful to stress his background as a lawyer and policy expert in criminal justice issues who has an in-depth understanding of the D.A.’s office.

Steinem’s support stemmed from Vance’s “Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women, Children and Intimate Partners,” which includes a proposal to increase sentences for repeat offenders, create a human trafficking unit and stalking hotline, and open a family justice center in northern Manhattan similar to those in Brooklyn and Queens.

“To me, domestic violence cases really are a reflection of violence in the home spilling out into the acceptance of violence in our society,” he said.

Vance also promises to protect immigrants and the elderly, groups who are often preyed upon and defrauded.

A graduate of Yale and Georgetown Law School, Vance was a prosecutor under Robert Morgenthau from 1982 to 1988. Morgenthau virtually handpicked Vance as his successor, determining that he had the best shot at taking down Snyder, whom he has never forgiven for her acrimonious 2005 primary challenge. Other prominent Vance supporters include former mayor David Dinkins, former state comptroller H. Carl McCall and two members of the Kennedy clan, Caroline Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

While Vance lacks Aborn’s long list of endorsements by political clubs and elected officials, he believes he has a good balance of support, including endorsements by a number of former senior and federal prosecutors.

“I don’t think the D.A.’s job is a politician’s job,” he said.

Leaving his Upper East Side roots, Vance moved to Seattle in 1988 to raise a family, build a law firm and make a name for himself outside his father’s shadow. He returned to New York in 2004 with wife Peggy McDonnell and their two children, now both in college. Vance joined Morvillo, Abramowitz, Grand, Iason, Anello & Bohrer, P.C., where even the doorman wears a “Cy Vance for DA” button.

While this 16-year stint on the West Coast has been criticized as detracting from his ability to serve New Yorkers, Vance touts the perspective he gained out West.

“We should as an office and as, I believe, a city, welcome people who bring breadth of experience to leadership in any office,” he said.

He stresses that his experience as a lawyer on both sides of the criminal justice system makes him fit for the role.

Noting his in-depth understanding of white-collar crime cases as a distinguishing characteristic among the candidates, Vance sees the D.A.’s office working with federal authorities and the attorney general to prosecute all types of fraud. But businessmen and corporations aren’t the only ones he hopes to scrutinize.

“I can’t wait to get into office and take a look at the issue of public corruption,” he said.

Citing roughly 20 years of experience on sentencing commissions in Washington State and New York, Vance promises to look at alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders and provide support to prevent recidivism. He has proposed creating special units to address mental health issues and hate crimes. Other structural changes include working on the backlog of cases and creating a computer crime unit to investigate cases involving computers and the Internet, support other divisions and work with the private sector to prevent data breaches and identity theft. Vance has also proposed a community-based justice model that would align teams from the office with Manhattan precincts.

“The D.A.s will not only be more accessible, but they’ll understand more what the specific challenges are for the neighborhoods,” he said. “And the communities will know to whom they can turn within the D.A.’s office.”

Vance, for one, knows he can turn to Morgenthau for support. And that may be enough for Manhattan primary voters. As the Steinem press conference dissipated, two pedestrians passed by and remarked at the gathering.

“He’s taking Robert Morgenthau’s place,” one says.

Vance certainly hopes so.

Eric Gioia worked night shifts as a janitor and elevator operator to pay for tuition at New York University. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Eric Gioia worked night shifts as a janitor and elevator operator to pay for tuition at New York University. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

ERIC GIOIA

Running for Public Advocate
By Clara Martínez Turco

Eric Gioia believes that politicians have a tendency to talk about, rather than solve, problems. Yet for the past eight years he has represented Queens in the City Council, and now he’s hoping to be the next public advocate, an ombudsman position that’s viewed as a watchdog for city government.

“We need elected officials who listen, who understand what people are going through and who are willing to fight and actually get results,” Gioia said. “Through the work I have done, you see I’m result- and action-oriented, and I think that’s what we need.”

To the 36-year-old Council Member, the public advocate can be the voice of unheard New Yorkers, and speak against what he considers “powerful interests.”

Speaking out is exactly how Gioia says he was introduced to . As a 5th grader at P.S. 11 in Woodside, Queens, he was selected by the principal to advocate for more classroom space in front of then-Mayor Edward Koch and the school board.

Growing up in a family that has owned a Queens flower shop for more than 100 years, he says he learned the value of hard work. That lesson continued during his college years, when he worked night shifts as a janitor and elevator operator to pay for tuition at New York University.

“Working my way through college, I learned what an incredible city we live in that gives kids like me an opportunity,” said Gioia.

After graduating from NYU in 1995, he got a job as a law clerk in the White House Deputy Counsel’s office during the Clinton administration. Three years later, he graduated from Georgetown Law School and returned to New York to work as a private attorney. Finding it impossible to stay away from politics, in 2000 he served as Al Gore’s New York campaign coordinator. That’s where he met wife Lisa Hernandez, a political consultant who is now one of his campaign advisers. The couple has a daughter and is expecting a second child around Sept. 15, the day of the Democratic primary.

Gioia speaks broadly when talking about his goals as public advocate: he wants to give a voice to an invisible middle class and to those who are underrepresented in the current administration. He plans to continue working to improve schools, fighting for economic justice and holding government accountable to make sure that taxpayer dollars are well spent. The overall goal, he says, is to give New Yorkers a government they can be proud of.

Much like his City Council bid, which was successful despite a lack of the support from the Queens Democratic organization, Gioia is appealing to unions and young and professional voters in the race for public advocate. That support helped him win his Long Island City Council seat, making him the second youngest Council member to date.

A well-known joke in political circles is that Gioia has been running for public advocate since his re-election to the Council in 2005. He has amassed 5,558 contributions as of May 15, totaling $2.2 million, well ahead of his competitors. They include fellow Council member Bill de Blasio, civil rights attorney Norman Siegel and Mark Green, who was public advocate during the Giuliani years.

“This is a grassroots campaign,” Gioia said during his annual party at the Long Island City water taxi beach, as old supporters and prospective voters approach him.

As a Council Member, one of Gioia’s priorities has been to end child hunger in the city. In 2007, he was the only New York elected official to take the nationwide “Food Stamp Challenge” and lived for a week on $28 of groceries, although he gained two pounds. Critics slammed the maneuver as a media stunt, but he used the attention to push for legislation that would allow the city to offer the application online. And after almost two years of pressure from Gioia and others, Costco also started accepting food stamps in its two New York stores.

“That’s both advocating with legislation and policy change to attack an issue,” he said. “You have to be creative, tough and willing to stand up, no matter what the odds.”

He says the success of the food stamp initiative is what first made him consider running for public advocate.“It became the perfect fit for me,” he said.

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