Open State Senate Seat Draws Crowd of Candidates

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By Dan Rivoli

The Upper West Side is off to the races.

Candidates for Congress and two State Senate seats filed their petition signatures to get on the September primary ballot.

The districts only contain small chunks of the Upper West Side. But in a crowded primary, the loyal Democratic voters in the neighborhood could be a deciding factor.

The State Senate seat currently held by Eric Schneiderman covers northern Manhattan, parts of the Upper West Side and the Bronx.

To secure a spot on the Democratic primary ballot, each candidate’s petition signature must be valid and meet the minimum threshold. New York’s onerous ballot laws frequently knock candidates off the ballot.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal and State Sen. Tom Duane all skirted challengers this year. Francisco Spies, a perennial candidate, filed to run against Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell. But West Side voters are sure to play a role in some critical races this year.

The Upper West Side has a rare open State Senate seat that has attracted a crowd of six candidates who have filed to run for the seat by State Sen. Eric Schneiderman. Elected in 1998, Schneiderman is giving up his seat to run for Attorney General.

The seat is based in northern Manhattan and extends into the Bronx.

Assembly Member Adriano Espaillat from Washington Heights submitted 18,000 signatures. He is the choice of several Upper West Side elected officials. Schneiderman chose Espaillat as his preferred successor. He most recently got the endorsement of Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.

“I will show up on election day as the winner on the West Side,” Espaillat said. “I have been independent in the Assembly. I supported issues not popular with the leadership and I supported issues not popular with the mayor.”

He cited support for an independent commission to draw the districts in the state and public financing of campaigns.

“I’m not a rich guy. I don’t have Hollywood money like my opponent,” he said. “I have Inwood money.”

Mark Levine, his closest opponent, got contributions from people whose names are more often found in People magazine than campaign finance filings. Actor Ed Norton, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner and Matt Damon contributed to Levine.

The $15,000 Damon donation might earn Levine a Bronx cheer, Espaillat said.

“Last time I saw him was in Fenway Park rooting against the Yankees,” he said.

Levine, a Democratic district leader in Washington Heights, netted 12,000 signatures in his Senate bid. The founder of the Barack Obama Democratic Club, he is getting the support of party activists, district leaders and other Democratic clubs such as Three Parks, Broadway Democrats and the gay and lesbian club Stonewall.

Before running for district leader in 2006, Levine started a credit union in Washington Heights. He has been executive director for Teach for America and a nonprofit that trains staff of after-school programs.

“The West Side is a community with progressive values with activist instincts and a great hunger for reform,” Levine said. “There’s a demand for progressive activists who won’t just follow the crowd and go with the flow.”

He already criticized Espaillat’s ethics after a report in the New York Post showed that a nonprofit Espaillat funds with state money employs his sister-in-law and staffers. Levine wants the Attorney General’s office to investigate.

“I’m running to fight a culture in Albany that tolerates nepotism and insider dealings,” Levine said. “Our community demands an end to those tactics.”

In a statement, Espaillat said he was proud to fund nonprofits in Washington Heights, such as senior centers and citizenship classes.

“I don’t get involved in their hiring decisions. My opponent knows my record,” Espaillat said. “I am more interested in having a debate on the issues affecting the neighbors of the 31st District—the rising deficit, improving our education system, fighting for tenants’ rights and changing dysfunction in Albany.”

The only Upper West Side resident running for this seat is Anna Lewis, an attorney and former judge at the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission. More notably, the New York Times endorsed her for a Civil Court seat last year only to see her bounced off the ballot when most of her signatures were ruled invalid.

Lewis said she nixed another shot at the Civil Court to get to Albany.

“We have lots of good judges but we don’t have lots of good state senators,” Lewis said.

For this race, Lewis submitted 11,000 signatures, which is more than 11 times the minimum needed.

She wants to reform state housing laws and require more affordable housing in developments that get tax breaks. As the only lawyer in the race, Lewis says she can go to Albany ready to write laws.

“I won’t need to go to someone else to draft legislature or help constituents,” Lewis said.

Other candidates that filed petitions include Francesca Castellanos, Rafael Figuereo and Miosotis Muñoz.

Meanwhile, in the other State Senate seat that covers the Upper West Side, Basil Smikle submitted 7,000 signatures to run against Bill Perkins. Perkins, a Harlem state senator whose district covers parts of the Upper West Side, has criticized charter schools and how these privately-operated schools function.

Smikle, a political consultant and former campaign aide to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, jumped into the race as a vocal charter school supporter.n

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