By Maitefa Angaza
A virtual 40th Congressional District Candidates’ Forum was held Thursday, March 4th, introducing local residents to five people vying for their votes in the June 22nd primary — Kenya Handy-Hilliard, Rita Joseph:, Edwin Raymond, Blake Morris and Josue Pierre. (Candidate Vivian Morgan, was not in attendance.) The forum was convened by Alicia Boyd, representing the Movement To Protect The People (MTOPP) in coalition with Flower Lovers Against Corruption, Save Associates and Respect Brooklyn. She opened by introducing MTOPP.
“We are a grassroots organization that’s been in effect since 2014 and we’ve been very instrumental in protecting the community from out-of-scale development, district-wide rezoning, and now we’re protecting our green spaces, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and our playground. [The Jackie Robinson Playground.]”
She was referring to the battle over the Spice Factory building at 960 Franklin Avenue, which sits on land that developer Continuum Company is eager to own in order to build mixed-use condominiums that would shadow a portion of the garden, killing its carefully cultivated plant life. A second restraining order was granted March 2nd and representatives on both sides are due in court on the 12th to consider the compromise offer of a 17-story tower, down from 39, and then 34 stories.
Edwin Raymond: Discretionary Funds is one of the most powerful tools that a council member has. Other levels of legislators, be it Congress or the State, they don’t have that. On top of funding organizations, you can also fund initiatives in the district. So things like hunger, to fixing streets… educational, dealing with health, those are the things. I’m out there working with organizations that deal with food insecurity. So it’s critical that any member make decisions that are in the interests of the community.
The Small Business Jobs
“The Small Business Jobs Survival Act,” she offered, “is a bill that’s been sitting in the City Council for years. What steps would you take, once and for all, to get this bill passed? Two candidates’ answers stood out.
You want to make sure the agency can actually administer the policy in the appropriate way. A lot of times we have progressive legislation, but it’s stuck at the agency. It’s not always paid for. So we have to make sure that there’s any funding in the budget that’s going to allow it to go through the agency… so that it reaches the ground.
Blake Morris: “I would support the bill. It’s actually not what people think it is. There’s a whole controversy about commercial rent control, but this is actually about protecting small businesses, so it’s actually a pretty good idea. It gives stability and gives a duration of time, so that a small business has an ability to survive. There are cost escalators and if the landlord and tenant can’t come to an agreement, they can go to binding arbitration.”
“Councilman Corey Johnson has proposed a very controversial bill,” said Boyd. It’s called the Comprehensive Rezoning Plan. What is your understanding of this Bill 2186?”
BM: Corey Johnson’s bill is basically top-down City land-use planning, when we really need bottoms-up. So I definitely would be against this bill. Zoning is just a tool in the toolbox for land-use. Basically, the people who are living in the neighborhood — they should have a voice and that’s where we should start this process. This is the opposite of that.
Josue Pierre The zoning process should always start from the base level because it’s about the people who live there. The zoning allows you to build more, which is a good that belongs to us, that we’re giving to the developer. What are we getting in exchange for it?
The Spice Factory
“The 17-story version is to be considered instead of the 34-story original plan,” said Boyd. “What do you think about this option? Can it work?”
JP: Lowering the height does not take away the fact that you’re still not building affordable housing, you’re still casting a shadow over The Botanical Gardens. And it’s still not reflective of what the community members have approached and said they want. So no, I am not in support of that.
Rita Joseph: The building is not appropriate for the neighborhood at all and it definitely will cast a massive shadow over the community garden. So I’m not in favor at all, not even at the 17-foot height.
BM: The developer is playing bait-and-switch on two or three different levels, because we have a 40-story building, we have a 17-story building, and his as-of-rights zoning is only six floors. The City Councilperson for that district is basically not being supportive of the community. It’s a threat to the Garden so I’m definitely opposed to the project.
KHH: There’s a level of disrespect. There’s no way you’re going to come into my community and didn’t tell me you’re putting in an application to build something. And the council member needs to get community input first. Another issue I have is that we don’t build for families. If there’s going to be density, at least we know there will be investment in the community. We build for transient people who leave the district because they’re trying to get the market rate apartments.
Boyd’s first questions were to Edwin Raymond, whose donations far surpassed those received by his fellow candidates. She asked why 60 percent of his contributions are from outside New York and why many overall are from police officers of varying ranks, considering the lawsuit he filed against the NYPD for violating citizen rights.
Edwin Raymond: Since becoming a whistleblower… there are cops who call me from across the nation, even as far as London, sometimes in tears, because of what their respective departments are doing. They are justice-minded officers — sleeper cells, if you will, who are ready to push forward reform if they can find a soft landing. If it won’t jeopardize their careers, their livelihoods… Since George Flloyd so many cops have become whistleblowers! And they DM me and say, ‘I saw you in that documentary. And if you can do this, then I can do this.’ So those are the people who donate.
Kenya Handy-Hilliard: had the next highest total, with 25 percent of contributions coming from out of state, many from Washington D.C.
KHH: When I was working for this district in Congress I built a large and supportive network. I also have a very large family and my family came in from all over and they supported me. I think it’s a testament to — wherever I go I create large-scale networks that invest in me and my community and invest in our future.
Boyd addressed Josue Pierre, saying that although he’s vowed to not accept funds from special-interest groups, he has the largest amount of money coming from real-estate industry attorneys and lobbyists. Included in that tally was $926 from the lawyer representing the Spice Factory developers.
JP: I’ve not taken any money from real estate developers. There are a number of people who work in the industry, from brokers, to paralegals, to assistants, etc. These are people that I know because I’ve also worked within that industry. There’s a difference from taking a check from a developer who says I’m gonna build ‘x,y,z’ and from an individual in the industry who works for a particular real estate sales firm and gives you a check. And by the way, I’ve never had a conversation about that particular project, nor do I intend to, with them.
Boyd asked Rita Joseph about a $700 contribution from the same lawyer for the developers.
RJ: At the time that I took the donation I wasn’t aware who he was. We can kindly return that donation.
Pierre said he’d do the same. Boyd informed the audience that monies returned can be verified at Follow the Money. To close this segment, she asked Blake Morris, “As a lawyer whose main focus is debt-collecting, how do you appeal to a community who’s burdened with a lot of debt for a variety of reasons, including COVID-19?”
BM: That’s a great question! Yes, I’m a debt collector. I’m a commercial litigator, most of my work is actually business-to-business disputes. I also do a lot of defense work on behalf of consumers who find themselves at the wrong end of a lawsuit. I have been defending our grocery stores right here in the district that are being abused by out-of-state insurance companies. So as a legal advocate I understand the rights and privileges that people have and I know how to defend them.
At the close of the event the virtual audience got to vote for whom they’d like to see represent the district. Rita Joseph took both first and second place.