Quinn on hot seat in debating Passannante-Derr and Kurland

More than 200 people packed a spirited debate for the Third City Council District at New York University last Thursday hosted by Community Media’s The Villager, Gay City News and Chelsea Now newspapers.

It was the first — and most likely only — public debate in the high-profile Democratic primary election, pitting 10-year incumbent City Council Speaker Christine Quinn against challengers Maria Passannante-Derr and Yetta Kurland.

During the one-and-a-half-hour debate, audience members heard the candidates spar over term limits, the City Council’s so-called “slush fund,” overdevelopment, the Department of Sanitation’s planned Spring St. megagarage and whether Quinn — whose mayoral ambitions are well known — has been sufficiently engaged with her own district.

The Third Council District stretches from Canal St. to around 55th St. on the West Side, and is known by some as “the gay seat” of the City Council.

The crowd filled to capacity the main auditorium at New York University’s 19 W. Fourth St. — the former Bottom Line music club space — plus an overflow room. It was the largest space N.Y.U. had available that day, and the university provided it free of charge, as well as helping staff the event, plus videotaping the debate.

The event was free and open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis. The crowd started lining up before 5 p.m., and soon wrapped around the corner onto Mercer St. Quinn simply managed to get more of her supporters there earlier, and thus about an estimated 75 percent of the audience in the main room indeed appeared to be Quinn supporters; Passannante-Derr angrily charged that her backers had been locked out of the venue by the strategic maneuver by Quinn. About 45 people were turned away at the door because the space had reached its capacity based on Fire Department safety regulations.

Quinn may have had the most supporters, but Kurland’s sat closest to the front, all of them wearing yellow “I ♥ Yetta” T-shirts; a strategic move on Kurland’s part, perhaps, since signs weren’t allowed under the debate’s ground rules.

In her opening statement, Kurland, a civil rights attorney, noted she had represented “thousands of people during the Republican National Convention” in 2004, which is when she got interested in politics.

“I think we need a breath of fresh air in City Hall,” Kurland said. “We need someone who’s going to stand up to the powers that be and speak truth to power.”

Quinn listed some of her major accomplishments, such as “fighting successfully to provide affordable housing at Westbeth, Penn South and Manhattan Plaza,” going to bat for individual tenants facing landlord problems, and authoring citywide tenant-protection laws — as well as, “beating back the West Side stadium” and “making sure every 4- and 5-year-old has a [school] seat in Greenwich Village.”

Quinn said she was proud to have been involved in “the progressive struggles that have defined the West Side,” and, in particular, pledged to keep pushing for same-sex marriage.

Passannante-Derr Goes on attack

Passannante-Derr, a former Community Board 2 chairperson, on the other hand, went on the attack in her opening statement, coming out with guns blazing.

“This election is about an arrogant incumbent who has turned the City Council into a rubber stamp for a right-wing Republican mayor,” she charged. “A candidate who has sold out her community — first, with a three-district Sanitation garage, when there’s a two-district community alternative,” and second, with a marine waste-transfer station on Gansevoort Peninsula, “a station that’s 50 yards from a toddler playground, a playground where children will now ingest polluted air from Sanitation trucks that will drive into this park all day long,” Passannante-Derr said.

The early questions were among the evening’s toughest for Quinn, and her responses were frequently met with some hoots of derision and cat calls from the audience, although the audience, over all, remained respectful.The first question asked the candidates’ position on term limits and on their being overturned legislatively last year in the City Council, in an effort led by Quinn, with the backing of Mayor Bloomberg.

“It is not an issue of term limits — it is an issue of democracy,” stated Kurland, who is also an educator and like Quinn, lesbian. “If you tell me that you want two terms, I will listen to you, and I will respect that decision.”

Quinn said she doesn’t support term limits, saying they “empower lobbyists and staff over elected officials.” Quinn said she supported repealing term limits — which had been approved by two voter referenda — because of the recession.

“I think given these extraordinary times, it was appropriate to give voters a choice,” she said. “We face now the worst economic crisis this city and state and country have seen since the Great Depression.”

Wall St. provides 25 percent of the city’s taxes, she noted.

But Derr said the power of incumbency makes it impossible for challengers to have a level playing field.

Council ‘slush fund’

The next question concerned the so-called “slush fund,” under which millions of dollars of city budget funds were stashed under names of phony nonprofit groups. Essentially controlled by Quinn, as the City Council’s speaker, these funds were then doled out to various community groups and organizations, many in Quinn’s own district, including Friends of the High Line and even the Greenwich Village Little League. The question: “Who bears responsibility for the slush fund’s continuing until spring 2008?” Quinn became the Council’s speaker in January 2006.

“There is a complete disgust with the slush-fund scandal and the fact that we are paying for Christine Quinn’s legal fees and the legal fees of her staff,” Passannante-Derr said, referring to the attorney Quinn hired after the practice came under investigation.

“The Department of Investigation’s investigation was pushed under the carpet because of Mayor Bloomberg and because of your power in the City Council,” Passannante-Derr accused of Quinn. “Thank God, we have a federal investigation going on, or we would hear nothing of this.”

For her part, Quinn said, “We found out a year and a half ago that there was a very inappropriate practice going on in the City Council,” her statement meeting some groans of disbelief. “We believe it dates back to at least 1995. And when we found out that this practice was going on, we immediately asked the authorities to look into it and to investigate it. It’s a practice that never should have gone on.”

Quinn added that, due to new procedures, every budget item that gets approved is now “vetted and trackable” online.

However, Kurland said, “One of the most troubling things to me is that we haven’t seen the investigation on the slush funds — what happened?” Kurland said she was glad Quinn acknowledged the practice was wrong, then added: “But you must certainly have known about it, if in 2006, you were using those slush-fund monies for your district.

Kurland added skeptically, “I can’t believe that the Speaker’s Office asked the federal department to investigate them. I think the investigation was [already] going on.”

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

The main room for the debate was packed to capacity, as was an overflow room with 40 seats. About 225 people attended the debate.

Spring St. megagarage

Also sparking fireworks was the topic of the city’s plan for a three-district Sanitation garage on Spring St. in Hudson Square, a project Quinn approved in the City Council.

Quinn said her office continues to work with community members who oppose the three-district garage to find an “appropriate alternative” site for the trucks from one of the Sanitation districts. Getting Sanitation District 2’s garbage trucks off Gansevoort Peninsula is required under a lawsuit settlement, she noted.

In either a misstatement or just a flub in which she could have used a G.P.S., Quinn said, “I think we’ve all seen the [garbage] trucks sitting around Father Demo Square bothering people who are having fun in the park — that’s not what we want.” Father Demo Square is in the South Village, not Hudson Square.

Quinn added that Community Board 4 — which covers Chelsea and Clinton and which contains some of the proposed alternative sites — already has many similar municipal-type facilities.

But Passannante-Derr blasted Quinn, charging, “This Sanitation garage will be Christine Quinn’s legacy for selling out the community.” Noting the neighborhood already has many FedEx and UPS trucks, Passannante-Derr said, “One hundred twenty-eight more vehicles right in the middle of a growing community. It will be 120-feet tall… . We already have the second-worst air quality in the Northeast. We already have 16 lanes feeding into the Holland Tunnel. We’re going to have a 5,000-ton, open-ended salt shed with airborne salt flying all over right next to the Holland Tunnel fresh-air tower.”

Passannante-Derr said she supports the community-alternative Hudson Rise plan, which would only have two Sanitation districts, plus a park on top.

Kurland said she supports Hudson Rise, too, adding, “I think the problem with Hudson Square typifies the problem we have in this community with the type of development and the way that development is happening. This is the perfect example of how our current councilmember can’t stand up for us as a community and stand up for the problems we face. It would wipe out that community,” she said of the megagarage. “We have a solution: Hudson Rise is an incredible, complex solution.

“None of this development happens in this city until our councilmember says, ‘Yes, O.K.,’ and signs off on it,” Kurland added.

On Being Council speaker

Another flashpoint question asked whether Quinn’s being Council speaker — considered to be the city’s second most- powerful office — has benefited her district or, rather, actually taken her focus off addressing constituents’ needs.

Passannante-Derr didn’t hold back.

“Christine Quinn is an absentee councilmember who is disconnected from the district,” she said. “She shows up for ribbon-cutting ceremonies… . She’s in the outer boroughs for photo ops. Sure, Stephen DiBrienza, term-limited councilmember in Brooklyn, gets $1 million from Christine Quinn’s slush fund — but the Visiting Neighbors got totally wiped out. How is that helping us with Christine Quinn as speaker?”

(The payments to DiBrienza’s nonprofit group — termed a “ghost district office” by some — in fact, started under Quinn’s predecessor, former Speaker Gifford Miller, in 2002. Under Quinn as speaker, DiBrienza’s group got more than $200,000 in 2006. On Monday, Dr. Cynthia Maurer, Visiting Neighbors’ executive director, told The Villager that the group was still hoping for $200,000 from “the speaker’s pot” of funding. “Bottom line,” Maurer said, “we still haven’t seen a contract yet and the fiscal year started July 1. We’re running on empty, basically. It’s scary.”)

A clearly impassioned Quinn listed some of her accomplishments serving her district.

“I am incredibly proud of the work that I do and my staff does every day for the residents of this district,” she said. “Whether it’s standing up with the residents on 22nd St. when they faced a landlord who was going to take over their home for use by his own, beating that back… . I’m incredibly proud of when there’s been crime in our district, the work that I’ve been able to do with our local police officers… . I’m proud of the work I’ve done in our Housing Authority buildings, bringing them cameras that helped reduce crime in those projects, and proud of having gone door to door in those projects, to help identify problems where services weren’t being delivered, and enroll people who live in the Fulton Houses in food stamps — that’s constituent services,” she said, as her supporters burst into thunderous applause.

Quinn added that park areas like Father Demo Square and J.J. Walker ball field, which “were in desperate need of renovations,” got renovations under her.

“I do think the opportunity to serve our community has been failed,” Kurland said, “I think time and time again, as the City Council speaker, she has to serve the interests of others beyond our community. … Our community came up with a great solution to transfer the Gansevoort transfer station so it would be out of the way of children and people using the Hudson River Park — in the district still, but out of the way. That couldn’t happen because, unfortunately, Christine Quinn has to answer to a lot of people. And her close alliance with the mayor, and with other forces, stops her from actualizing that opportunity to show up and to be a fighter for our community. … I am beholden to no one but the people of the Third District.”

Passannante-Derr even blamed school overcrowding on Quinn.

“We have children that are now going to have to go from the Village down to 26 Broadway for middle school,” she said. “And that is a crime. That should have been addressed in the long-term capital plan. … We have school overcrowding because of Christine Quinn.”

L.G.B.T. issues

All three candidates said they back gay marriage.

Each expressed disapproval of the Police Department’s bogus busts last year of middle-aged gay tourists on prostitution charges at porn video stores in the East Village and Chelsea.

To address similar false arrests, Quinn said the Civilian Complaint Review Board, as before, should have prosecutorial powers, and she noted approvingly that the police commissioner’s L.G.B.T. Advisory Board has been re-established.

Kurland supported creation of a Committee on Police Oversight.

The three women said they back anti-bullying legislation for New York City public schools.

St. Vincent’s Hospital

On another development issue, St. Vincent’s Hospital’s rebuilding project, all said they favor the hospital staying in Greenwich Village.

“We need it here,” Kurland said, though adding of the project, “It is overly concerned with luxury condos being developed. This is because of the type of overdevelopment we’re seeing in this district — without the kind of urban planning and the care for the community. … The problem with St. Vincent’s is that it does not create… affordable housing — it actually displaces the community. And it also changes the look and feel of a very beautiful part of the Village.”

Quinn said she was glad St. Vincent’s project changed as it went through the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s review, so that four of the hospital’s existing buildings were saved.

“The project will now make its way through the full land-use process,” Quinn said. “There’s more work to do — to balance the medical needs of our district with the preservation and residential needs of our district…to maximize the open space in the triangle.”

Referring to Kurland’s and Passannante-Derr’s calls for creating new schools along with new development, Quinn said the City Charter should be changed so that developers “are held accountable for the services that their buildings create the need for — not just schools, but things like fire[fighters] and police officers and transportation.”

Passannante-Derr said the hospital’s construction will be the biggest challenge, which can be addressed through “vigilance” and monthly Community Board 2 meetings and curtailing construction hours.

Kurland accused Quinn of backing a development plan for the Western Rail Yards in Chelsea lacking affordable housing. But Quinn said the plan, in fact, will be an opportunity to create affordable housing — “something we’re going to fight to make sure that it happens, and is permanent,” she noted.

Prostitution and youth

A written audience question asked, “What are you going to do about the huge prostitution problem in the West Village? What do you intend doing about the unruly youth in the West Village?”

Quinn said she was happy to see the recent reinforcements for the Sixth Precinct, including a mounted unit and an infusion of new Police Academy graduates.

She said she’s “working with community members on conversations that we can have with judges” about prostitution, “particularly focused on not giving johns a pass — not letting them off the hook.” Quinn said she hopes to replicate Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes’s “School for Johns” program in Manhattan, “to be a deterrent, and stop people from coming to the Village.”

She said a program at The Door on Broome St. put in place to help the gay and lesbian youth frequenting the Village is working, and that she’ll push to keep funding it.

Taking a harder line, Passannante-Derr said, “This problem has gone on for years. Youth come into the area, some are well behaved, some are not. And the ones that are not, they terrorize the community. They walk all over the cars, they defecate, they urinate, they have sex in the streets and they’re detrimental to what’s going on in the community. People have a right to walk on the street — but with every right comes a responsibility: The responsibility to act with respect for the people in the neighborhood.”

Passannante-Derr proposed that the Christopher St. Pier be closed an hour earlier — at midnight.

She added that, a few years ago, she’d suggested to the advocacy group FIERCE that the gay youth use Pier 54 — a blacktop pier at W. 13th St. in a less residential area — late at night, instead of Christopher St. Pier.

“That was unacceptable to this group — and I don’t understand why to this day,” she said.

Kurland said, “We can’t ignore that this is, in large part, the L.G.B.T. youth. We need to get those children into education programs, into youth-program services. There are things we can do without villainizing people that set them up for success, give them opportunity, that get them off the streets.”

Lightning round

Next, a “lightning round” of questions with “yes” or “no” answers was informative, fast-paced and entertaining.

Both Kurland and Passannante-Derr said they opposed a seasonal restaurant in the Union Square pavilion, but Quinn approved of it.

Both Kurland and Passannante-Derr said they would support the Democratic nominee for mayor, but Quinn said, “I’m not going to make that commitment today.”

As for whether the Village and Union Square area could absorb further New York University expansion, Kurland said, “These are not ‘yes-no’ questions,” while Quinn said, “I agree with Yetta.” Passannante-Derr seemed noncommittal, but eventually said, “Probably not…no.”

Asked if they would accept a parking placard if elected, Quinn and Passannante-Derr both said yes, but Kurland said, “I don’t know — I don’t own a car,” prompting cheers from her supporters.

They all said they would decriminalize the use of marijuana.

Should a police permit be required for a gathering of 50 people? was another lightning-round question, to which Kurland and Passannante-Derr answered no, but Quinn answered yes.

At the lightning round’s conclusion, the energized partisan supporters erupted into cheers, each side trying to chant the name of their candidate louder than the others, while clapping rhythmically. After the candidates’ closing statements, things ended on a high note.

As the satisfied crowd got up out of their seats and was starting to file out, one man shouted out, “No third term!”

The video recording of the full debate is posted at the top of this article.