Wanted: Candidates who’ll fight big real estate

BY LYNN ELLSWORTH | The crowded public advocate race has made me jealous of the congressional voters over in Queens. They got Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upsetting the applecart of New York City — and now the country’s — machine politics, a win that has been a riveting spectacle.

Wouldn’t it be great to get more of that for city government?

At first thought, we have reason to hope. After all, the 2021 election is coming up and more than half the City Council seats will be up for grabs.

Alas, if the public advocate race is any indication of the future, my hopes are too high. The race is rife with term-limited politicians, machine pols and recipients of real estate money.

David Eisenbach, an advocate for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, is one candidate that the writer thinks has the right stuff to be public advocate.

We have no less than five City Council veterans (Rafael Espinal, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Eric Ulrich, Ydanis Rodriquez and Jumaane Williams) and three state Assemblymembers (Michael Blake, Ron Kim and Danny O’Donnell) all trying to play musical chairs with elected positions.

The City Council veterans on the list have a special credibility problem. Not only do they take serious money from big real estate, but they voted to upzone the entire city against widespread community opposition. Three of them actually sold out their own neighborhoods for a de Blasio upzoning that was fiercely opposed by their own constituents. They also voted in favor of big real estate’s anti-landmarking bill Intro 775, overruling massive community opposition.

How exactly are these recycled pols going to make credible public advocates?

The sniff test of “who takes real estate money and who doesn’t” leaves a few candidates standing: David Eisenbach, Nomiki Konst, Dawn Smalls and Ben Yee — and to a lesser extent Kim and O’Donnell. The two women, Smalls and Konst, passed the first of the Campaign Finance Law’s funding thresholds and got into the public debate.

Nomiki Konst, another candidate who is not taking real estate money for her campaign, is another candidate who passes the writer’s “sniff test” criteria.

In Small’s case, her money comes from a loose network of Democratic Party elites and big-shot lawyers: 24 percent of her cash comes from out-of-state donors while 26 percent comes from colleagues at Hudson Yards-based law firm of Boie Schiller Flexner LLP. From a community point of view, that does not look so promising.

What does the Democratic Party elite care about us? Are they just trying to position Smalls for some other office?

That leaves Konst, an investigative journalist and activist. Konst lived up to a pledge not to take real estate money, which is not surprising given her anti-big real estate stance, but she has raised enough cash to be viable.

Two other candidates — Yee and Eisenbach — are struggling to make the finance board’s thresholds. To his credit, Yee doesn’t have developer donors but he is literally part of the Democratic machine: He is secretary of the New York County Democratic Party and a Democratic State Committee man. Eisenbach is a community-oriented historian running for the advocate’s seat a second time. He has lived up to a promise not to take real estate money and has reliably showed up at community land-use battles.

O’Donnell hasn’t taken a lot of real estate money, but then, our research shows he did take a lot of money from the hotel and liquor lobbies.

Kim doesn’t take huge amounts of developer dollars per se. But he didn’t have the reflex to turn down a $1,000 donation from the Real Estate Board of New York and a few other real estate guys. And Kim has his own real estate issues about owning condos and paying taxes. (See Crain’s, “Public advocate failed to disclose condos and upstate house.”)

Troubling, Kim actually worked as a lobbyist before running for office. So if your sniff test is “no real estate money,” “no special-interest money,” “no bad land-use votes” and “not part of the business-as-usual party machinery” then only two candidates are left, Konst and Eisenbach, both of whom would make a fine public advocate. (Full disclosure: I have given to both of them.)

What the public advocate race is revealing is this: As the 2021 elections approach, we desperately need a popular, nonpartisan “clean government” movement. Many of us are sick of the way real estate interests dominate our city. We are angry that our city politicians are progressive in every way except when it comes to zoning. We are disgusted with machine politics and party elites deciding things. We want new blood running for city offices, people who will stand up to the bullying habits of the real estate lobby and stop making terrible deals with them. We want candidates who will fight to democratize our city.

So if you are an “outsider” who still actually believes in democracy and are thinking of running, please run for City Council or borough president! And if you are a voter who is sick of business as usual, take the Human-Scale NYC Voter Pledge not to support candidates who take real estate money.

Sign the pledge and keep up with our research on who takes real estate money at www.humanscale.nyc .

Ellsworth is chairperson, Tribeca Trust, and president, Human-Scale NYC

23 Responses to Wanted: Candidates who’ll fight big real estate

  1. The statement that Ben Yee is part of the democratic machine is COMPLETELY INACCURATE AND SO INFURIATING! The writer knows nothing of the grassroots movement or of local politics if they believe this…BEN has spent years educating regular people in how the democratic system works FOR FREE and has participated in the local democratic party as a REFORMER! He is part of the change in the party that out seated the IDC despite "Cupomo and the machine". He has demanded transparency in the party and has held incumbents feet to the fire. There is new blood in the party BECAUSE OF BEN! He is part of CHANGING THE MACHINE! But you can't change it if you don't participate in it – EVERYTHING he does inside the party he does for FREE! He isn't a POLITICIAN, he's a grassroots organizer who knows more about the inner workings of "the machine" than most people and he's in it to change it. Anyone who takes his workshops, meets him, talks to him for two seconds would knows this.

    • So are you disputing that:
      "He is secretary of the New York County Democratic Party and a Democratic State Committee man"
      Because if not, working for the machine means you are part of the machine.

  2. Katherine O'Sullivan

    Take the pledge, if you want our city politics to change

  3. THIS RIGHT HERE:
    "What the public advocate race is revealing is this: As the 2021 elections approach, we desperately need a popular, nonpartisan “clean government” movement. Many of us are sick of the way real estate interests dominate our city. We are angry that our city politicians are progressive in every way except when it comes to zoning. We are disgusted with machine politics and party elites deciding things. We want new blood running for city offices, people who will stand up to the bullying habits of the real estate lobby and stop making terrible deals with them. We want candidates who will fight to democratize our city."

  4. The overriding need is to find and support candidates who just do not take real estate money, period! It's poisoning our government and by extension, our neighborhoods. We're all seeing the dramatic transformation of the city for the worse resulting from giving the real estate industry free reign over development–enormous buildings completely out of context with their surroundings towering over city streets, sidewalks, parks and green spaces, blotting out the sun, casting us all in shadow; the endless construction noise and pollution, tremendous increases in traffic and congestion, and in the final analysis, fewer real affordable apartments for those who are truly in need. It's an ongoing tragedy.

  5. Big real estate has called the shots in the City Council for too long-the Council has become the petri dish for complicit bad behavior. City Council members' deference to the sketchy double talking Mayor must be owned as they attempt to climb up the political ladder. What we've seen for years,is oppression of those who are voiceless being displaced,numbers of more of the homeless go up,more reverse migration,more store closures & an assault on New Yorkers' quality of life. Those who did nothing are as guilty as those henchmen who propagated this harm.

  6. Who's going to dispute the evidence (after FOILs are issued!) of hidden real estate lobbyist meetings… of 'mother's milk' nurturing by REBNY campaign donors …the one-size-fits-all Council votes in spite of unwanted upzoning…the appointments of Committee Chairs with questionable self-interest (kinda' like the Trump Cabinet cesspool)??? Who dares paint lipstick on the pig that is reflective of representatives whose real constituents are often predatory developers & landlords that continue to do harm with impunity as the Council safely engages in distractions in order to evade mitigating dire problems NYC? (The Borough Presidents don't get a pass either…)

    So to even consider for a moment any of the incestuous pols that see the Public Advocate role as 'earned' by their newly-found moral imperative & the smug certainty of their recently acquired virtue after failing their responsibility to New Yorkers, is to fool oneself & be in denial about reality.

    Karma is afoot.

  7. Who's going to dispute the evidence (after FOILs are issued!) of hidden real estate lobbyist meetings… of 'mother's milk' nurturing by REBNY campaign donors …the one-size-fits-all Council votes in spite of unwanted upzoning…the appointments of Committee Chairs with questionable self-interest (kinda' like the Trump Cabinet cesspool)??? Who dares paint lipstick on the pig that is reflective of representatives whose real constituents are often predatory developers & landlords that continue to do harm with impunity as the Council safely engages in distractions in order to evade mitigating dire problems NYC? (The Borough Presidents don't get a pass either…)

  8. Perhaps the author should do her homework. Candidate Nomika Konst – like many of the other candidates – also is taking money from real estate developers. Maybe not as much as others, but the disclosure reports reveal the truth.

    She went on the debate broadcast by NY1 and made a big deal about how pure she was, and that all the others were on the real estate dole. Yet she is too.

    How can anyone write an article like this, and how can the Villager publish it, when basic facts are not checked?

    • Pardon me, but I do check facts. In fact, I personally went on to the Campaign Finance Board's website and looked through all of Konst's donations. I did not find any developers or real estate people that I could recognize. What specific donation on the CFB's website are you thinking is from real estate? I would definitely like to know.
      Best,
      Lynn Ellsworth

    • Still looking for your facts about Candidate Nomiki Konst's supposed real estate donations. Did you find one? Nobody I know has found one.

  9. For each of the candidates, I personally looked at the data from the CFB's website. Definitely very detailed fact checking on my part!

    • Congratulate yourself, eh? Why not check again. Be thorough this time. Or maybe you don't know the names of major NYC developers. Please check with someone who knows. Hint: there's at least two on the list. One admittedly small; but another on the larger size.

      • Instead of offering "hints" like the author and readers are children, how about just list the developer names. It sounds like Ms Ellsworth is willing to make any corrections. Total snarky attitude on your part. If you really want to be an activist, be helpful.

  10. The current administration has been totally owned by the real estate industry. The city council members have done their bidding and turned their backs on the people who elected them. We now live with half empty towers many that serve as money laundering sites and where very rich people add nothing to the tax base or even to local merchants. Where we once had light and air we have shadows and towers. There is no urban planning. There is no thought of how the crumbling infrastructure can support the over development. The middle class is fleeing, the small merchants are closing up shop. We must elect people who are not beholden to the crass real estate industry. Thank you for this insightful article!

  11. Lynn Ellsworth has put a spotlight on two top candidates, who I agree, will stand up to the the mayor and the billionaire real estate bullies and racketeers who are running roughshod over New Yorkers. I also agree with one of the commenters that Ben Yee is a grassroots activist working within the Democratic Party to help clean it up and there certainly is a lot of cleaning up to do. He is an excellent candidate.

    Ms. Konst and Mr. Eisenbach have the experience, energy, integrity and courage a Public Advocate needs to effectively challenge city administrators who are in the pocket of REBNY (Real Estate Board of New York) and the many property speculators, ruthless developers and slumlords REBNY represents.

    Mr. Eisenbach, running on the Stop REBNY Party line, has been a tireless advocate to pass intact the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA) to save our Mom & Pop Stores and other small businesses from further extinction. REBNY has prevented passage of the SBJSA for 33 years and REBNY's Chair Bill Rudin and President John Banks have made it clear that they have no intention to ever let it pass.

    On January 17th, Mr. Eisenbach joined the Interfaith-Labor-Community Coalition protest against REBNY during its annual $12,000-a-table fundraising banquet and told the large crowd: " Inwood didn’t rezone itself. Jerome avenue didn’t rezone itself, Elizabeth street garden is not giving itself away to big developers nor did St. Vincent’s hospital. It is the democratic establishment in New York City and the Real Estate Board of New York. They have a plan. They are into displacement and replacement. They want to displace our communities, they want to displace long term New Yorkers, they want to replace them with what they call high income earners, and I say enough is enough. We not only have to stand up to REBNY, but we have to stand up to the sell out politicians." Those sentiments could just as well have been uttered by the tough, articulate Ms. Konst.

    You can view eight Public Advocate candidates showing the courage to publicly rebuke REBNY by boldly posing with a "Beware of REBNY Real Estate Bullies Plaguing New York" flyer at http://www.stopREBNYbullies.org

    They are: Theo Chino, Dan Christmann, David Eisenbach, Nomiki Konst, Latrice Walker, Jumaane Williams, Ben Yee and Michael Zumbluskas

    • Too bad Jumaane Williams takes money from real estate, says he doesn't, and then to cover his tracks lies and says that Nomiki Konst takes real estate money (uh, excuse me, did Williams check his facts? No.)

  12. Dear Ms. Sullivan,
    I welcome you to a public forum where we can invite the press and go through the spreadsheet from the CFB's website and see if we can find a developer who is donating to Ms. Konst. You name the time and place.
    Best,
    Lynn

  13. The pledge on the Human-scale NYC website (link in the article above), has a link to our google doc where we post our research on real estate donations to candidates. Members of the public are welcome there to add comments if they believe our research is in error. If you believe there is an error, please name the amount of the donation and the name of the donor and which database you think we should be looking into. We do look frequently at the database of the Campaign Finance Board and download the files as Excel spreadsheets to do some totalling and adding up. We welcome the help of other researchers as we eventually move to looking into the candidates who emerge for City Council, Borough President, and Comptroller.

  14. And what about Manny Alicandro

  15. This is the sort of local journalism we desperately need. I was somewhat at a loss in this wide open race, and this article really helps clarify things. Thanks!

  16. Yes, kindly elaborate your real estate interest by identifying the donors who you allude about and stop being “Snarky” for pete’s sake…

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