With primaries on Sept. 9, residents of Prospect Heights heard from candidates vying for their Assembly district Wednesday night at a forum hosted by the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council.
The debate took place at the Duryea Presbyterian Church on Sterling Place.
Moderated by WNYC economic development journalist Janet Babin, candidates from the 52nd Assembly District answered questions submitted by the community and debated topics ranging from education to development.
In the 52nd District, Jo Anne Simon, Doug Biviano and Pete Sikora are campaigning to replace long-time Assemblymember Joan Millman.
The district, encompassing Brooklyn Heights, Gowanus and parts of Park Slope, is a hotbed of controversy this election season, with issues ranging from the closing of Long Island College Hospital (LICH) to the sale of libraries and development battles in Brooklyn Bridge Park, Gowanus and Brooklyn Heights.
The candidates agreed on many substantive issues but drew very different pictures of their experience, political backers and ability to get the job done.
A building superintendent in Brooklyn Heights who called himself a “solid, middle-class person,” Biviano stressed his conviction that the people have lost control of governing decisions, and that neighborhood issues are controlled by special interests.
“My entire campaign is about returning the respect and power of governing back to you the voters. Neighborhoods have lost control – that’s my central theme,” he said.
“The public did not want LICH (Long Island College Hospital) to close, but the developers do. The public does not want Brooklyn Heights and Pacific libraries to close, but the developers do. Many of you didn’t want Atlantic Yards, but it happened, and ten years later there’s still no affordable housing,” he said.
Throughout the forum, Biviano repeatedly tried to connect fellow candidate Sikora with the PR firm Berlin Rosen, and implied Sikora was part of a political machine which included Mayor Bill de Blasio, real estate interests, the Working Families Party and lobbyists.
Sikora, who moved to Brooklyn in 1997, spoke of his experience with the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG); with Consumers Union; and as an organizer for the Communication Workers of America. At NYPIRG for seven years, he says he was deeply involved in pushing the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Act through the City Council.
“I’m running to fight income inequality and climate change and to keep neighborhoods affordable and livable. Albany is broken. I’ve been going there almost 20 years, starting with NYPIRG,” he said.
Sikora said his experience as a lobbyist gave him insight into state government. “The system is bad in Albany, and it needs to change. We need to change the top-down system in the Assembly.” He called for changing campaign finance system and rules and process reform.
Jo Anne Simon
Simon stressed her decades of experience as an activist and as district leader. “I have taken strong positions on issues that have been very controversial, and worked with people on both sides of those issues to achieve reform and to achieve growth,” she said. “Including 37 ½ percent low-to-moderate income housing in Downtown Brooklyn in spaces that were simply parking lots.”
“I’ve worked with the state, I’ve worked with the federal government, I’ve worked with the city for positive change in the community, and for transparency and accountability, such as we were just able to achieve at Atlantic Yards,” she said.
“My single goal is to give people who live in the district a meaningful voice in the decisions that affect their lives.”
An audience member asked where candidates stood on Common Core and “its high stakes testing program.”
Sikora said that while the standards themselves are “actually pretty good,” the implementation of Common Core “has been a complete disaster.” He added, “It seems to be just a scheme to benefit Pierson.” He called for a pause in the implementation of Common Core as it applies to teacher evaluations and over-testing.
Simon, whose law firm focuses on disability discrimination in standardized testing, said that while common standards are a good idea, “the problem is that we are trying to implement the Common Core too quickly; we are trying to implement it without curriculum; we’re testing on curricula that isn’t even developed; and tests don’t teach. Tests are not standards.”
Biviano said, “The real problem in education is overbuilding. The tax breaks and abatements in the name of affordable housing are a Band-Aid for the cancer of driving people out of neighborhoods and gentrification that’s also overcrowding our schools.”
All three of the candidates agreed that the Urstadt Law, which allows Albany to set standards for rent stabilization in New York City, should be repealed, though it might be difficult to do so.
About the compromise at Atlantic Yards regarding affordable housing, “The deal doesn’t provide enough affordable housing for lower income,” Sikora said. “The level of affordable housing should reflect what the neighborhood used to be like.”
Simon pointed out that she was the only candidate involved in the Atlantic Yards issue over the years. “The affordability levels were not set by anybody other than the developer, in accordance with some community benefits agreement with certain organizations -- many of whom were created by the developer for the purposes of working out that community benefits agreement.”
She added, “We have moved up the housing, we have expanded the number of apartments and the size of the apartments to adequately deal with families.”
“It’s the special interests driving these issues . . . it’s about tax breaks and abatements,” Biviano said. Biviano attempted to tie Sikora to developers via his PR firm Berlin Rosen, but was asked by the moderator to desist.
Both Sikora and Biviano said they would endorse Zephyr Teachout for governor, while Simon said she was still undecided.
“I think Andrew Cuomo has done some very good work,” Sikora said, listing passage of Marriage Equality Act, gun control legislation, a green bank, and certain types of housing. “But he’s failed to reform Albany, he set up redistricting in a partisan manner and the Moreland Commission revelations are just terrible. I also don’t believe in what is effectively the conservative approach to economic justice issues that he takes.”
Simon said she was “watching this race very carefully.”
“The Governor has been a driving force against the community at LICH,” she said. “On the other hand, much of the polling finds the governor is enormously popular, which is very interesting to me because locally, people -- and I -- are very disappointed in the governor.”
Biviano said, “Undecided? Really? Teachout, hands down. Cuomo took tens of thousands of dollars from people affiliated with Fortis [the developer who is buying LICH from the state], as we can tell, because we can’t look at the PACs. De Blasio did it as well . . . and then he tried to deceive the neighborhood, and Pete Sikora was part of that with Berlin Rosen.”
Parking and Transportation
All three candidates were in favor of residential parking permits for Prospect Heights, with Simon discussing her role as a leader in residential permit parking and in getting a traffic calming study in Downtown Brooklyn.
Sikora said he was endorsed by StreetsPAC, a traffic advocacy organization, and said he had worked on mass transit issues at NYPIRG.
Biviano tied the parking problems to tax breaks for developers.
“They are historic, precious resources and I support public funding of libraries,” Simon said. “One of the reasons we’re in the dire circumstances we are now at the Brooklyn Public Library is because Mayor Bloomberg cut the budget for the libraries dramatically. That needs to be reversed.”
Sikora said, “The budget crisis that has been imposed on us is a manufactured crisis, based on tax cuts for the very wealthy and corporate tax breaks. If we return to the tax levels of the early 80s, we’d have $8 billion dollars a year more.”
Biviano tied the library financing issue to PR firm Berlin Rosen and by connection, Sikora, Forrest City Ratner, the Brooklyn Public Library and a host of officials.
Sikora responded that Berlin Rosen does his mail and other campaign-related work. “They do really good work. They also represent GreenPeace and the Coalition for the Homeless.”
Probed by Babin on finances, Sikora said he has raised roughly $194,000 for his campaign; Simon reported roughly $190,000; Biviano said he has raised $7,000.
Simon said she has not taken any money from developers with projects in the community. Sikora said that he wasn’t taking any money from real estate.
“But you’re exploiting every campaign finance loophole that’s out there,” Simon said.
Biviano said that the other candidates raised more money than he did because they were beholden to special interests. He was cut short when he tried to list individual donors who gave to his competitors’ campaigns.
Another 52 Assembly District forum will take place at St. Francis College on Tuesday, September 2 from 7 to 9 p.m. (doors open at 6:30 p.m.). The event is sponsored by the Brooklyn Heights Blog.
In addition, Brooklyn Independent Media is sponsoring a debate on Wednesday, September 3 at 7 p.m., BRICHOUSE Ballroom, 647 Fulton St. at Rockwell Place. The debate will be moderated by Erik Engquist, assistant managing editor of Crain's New York Business.