With the race for president dominating the airwaves these days, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that New York City has its own primary on Sept. 13, which includes several key state Senate seats as well as the two newest justices for Civil Court and Surrogate Court, important positions that seldom receive as much attention as they should. All of the candidates we spoke with had unique stories of accomplishment and visions for our community. The following are our picks to head to the Nov. 6 ballot.
State Senate 27th District
When state Sen. Tom Duane announced his retirement earlier this year, an announcement which saddened many West Side residents, Brad Hoylman quickly emerged as Duane’s likely successor. Hoylman makes for a fine candidate. A Rhodes Scholar and alumnus of Harvard Law School, Hoylman has both the legal and community experience to make a great state legislator.
Hoylman admirably represented the requests of the downtown community on two key, recent issues, the St. Vincent’s Hospital redevelopment and the NYU Expansion Plan. While these projects were ultimately voted through by the City, we commended Hoylman for the work he put in to represent the views of downtown residents and the compromises he was able to help broker.
During his campaign, it has become clear that Hoylman has an encyclopedic knowledge of local housing issues as well as practical legislative solutions to address them. He has proven to be a forward-thinking politician. Whereas others might believe the obstacles facing the LGBT community have been largely resolved, especially in light of the passage of the Marriage Equality Act, Hoylman has advocated for the Gender Expression Non-discrimination Act on the campaign trail. (The bill would protect the rights of transgender individuals.) Hoylman’s top competitor, Tom Greco, presents a formidable wealth of experience when it comes to owning and operating a small business in New York City and the challenges local business owners face. Greco, however, appears to need more insight into other issues such as housing facing the community in order to make for a stronger candidate. Greco also makes some valid points on the “handpicked” nature of Hoylman’s candidacy in this race. As we have seen with other local, and sometimes even federal, races, it appears that not enough qualified candidates are coming to the fore. (The other candidate, Tanika Inlaw, may or may not be qualified, but she did not visit our offices for an interview.) While we endorse Hoylman, we wish that the race for this district presented stiffer competition.
Surrogate Court Judge
Judge Rita Mella’s breadth of experience is why she receives our endorsement. In addition to having a distinguished career as a lawyer, she has served as a Civil Court judge since 2007 and is former presiding judge of Manhattan Misdemeanor Treatment Court. She’s also an adjunct professor at CUNY Law School. Few candidates have as intimate a knowledge of how the Surrogate Court works as Mella. She was principal law clerk for Judge Margarita Lopez Torres in the Brooklyn Surrogate Court right after Judge Michael Feinberg was removed from the bench in 2004 as a result of improprieties. She helped restore the court’s reputation and increased accountability for the court’s clerks.
“People think of Surrogate Court as exclusively dealing with people’s wills and estates. The Surrogate Court in New York State does a lot more than that; it operates almost like a family court. It deals with guardianships, adoptions and even guardianships of adults who are mentally disabled,” she said.
She has an impressive list of reforms that she hopes to bring to the Manhattan Surrogate Court, including changing the perception of the court as corrupt and being a bastion of the wealthy as well as increasing access and diversity there.
To help change this, Mella would like the court to reach out to local community groups and other organizations to educate them on the services that the court provides and the need to plan for the future. She would also like to diversify the pool of attorneys who come before the court. She proposes a program to train lawyers and work with non-traditional bars such as women and minority groups to increase the percentage of those lawyers that speak before the court.
Judge Barbara Jaffe would also make an excellent Surrogate Court judge. Jaffe, a former Civil Court judge and member of the State Supreme Court presiding over matrimonial cases, is well qualified for the position, but her knowledge of the Surrogate Court isn’t as extensive as Mella’s and her ideas for reform aren’t as wide-ranging. For those reasons, we give the endorsement to Mella.
Civil Court Judge
A Civil Court judge must be well versed in civil cases involving $25,000 or less, criminal cases that involve misdemeanors and violations, and family court cases, which deal with custody and domestic abuse. That’s because the judge doesn’t know which of those areas they will be placed in until after the election is finished. For the sheer breath of her experience, Olga Statz is our choice for Civil Court judge.
Statz’s parents fled Haiti to escape “Bébé Doc” Duvalier, that country’s brutal dictator from 1971 to 1986, and settled down on the Upper West Side.
“What happened to my parents had a profound influence on me. It taught me that there is recourse to a system of law that is founded on a constitution. That’s something I think a lot of people take for granted, but because my parents lost everything when they fled for their lives, that was the first thing that I was introduced to, and I always wanted to work within the system of law.”
Statz graduated from City College of New York magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa at 19. She finished law school at NYU and was a lawyer by the time she was 22.
Over her two decades as a lawyer, many of her cases focused on asylum and immigration. She is currently principal law clerk in the Surrogate Court.
If elected she would bring a popular program from the Surrogate Court to the Civil Court that matches attorneys that want to do pro bono work with self-represented litigants. Statz also speaks five languages (English, French, Spanish, Creole and German), and that could serve her well in her new position.
Lisa Sokoloff, her opponent, is a volunteer special master in New York City Civil and Supreme Courts and has a calm demeanor and long list of accomplishments.
Both candidates impressed us, but our nomination goes to Olga Statz.
State Senate 31st District
Neither Adriano Espaillat nor Guillermo Linares was able to schedule an interview before we went to press, so we regret to say we won’t be endorsing a candidate in that race.
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