Last Dec. 27, Elana Waksal Posner registered to vote. She listed as her home address a newly renovated condo at 60 Warren Street, a historic Tribeca building owned by her father, who runs a biotechnology company.
Less than three months later, Ms. Posner’s picture appeared in the weekly Downtown Express , next to an article headlined “Wealthy Newcomer Considers a Bid for the Council.” The 29-year-old heiress, lawyer and former dot-com executive was quoted saying she was exploring whether she had “something to give back” to her new neighborhood.
People laughed. After all, on paper, Ms. Posner wasn’t the most formidable candidate to succeed popular City Councilwoman Kathryn Freed, who is running for Public Advocate. She hadn’t gone through the usual preparatory rituals for a run at public office–serving on a community board, making the rounds of the Village’s political clubs. She spurned public appearances. At numerous candidates’ forums held through the spring and early summer, her six prospective rivals for the Democratic nomination took to snickering among themselves, “Where’s Elana?”
What Ms. Posner did have–in large quantities–was money. She opted out of the city’s campaign-finance program, allowing her to spend unlimited amounts. She hired high-priced political consultants. She consulted with a former speechwriter for Al Gore. She flooded the streets with paid campaign workers carrying petitions, collecting the voter signatures necessary to win her a place on the ballot. She spent $95,000 in just a few months.
And she had friends–Martha Stewart, publicist Lara Shriftman, attorney Allen Grubman, MTV personality Serena Altschul–who were happy to pull in other high-powered friends to raise more money and bring in more support.
Even in a topsy-turvy election year like this one, when term limits are ousting two-thirds of the City Council, Ms. Posner stands out among the 350 candidates seeking to move into the Council Chamber seats at City Hall. The spending, the inexperience, the inherited wealth, the dot-com background and Page Six-worthy roster of supporters have made her the closest thing to Michael Bloomberg among the Council set.
But Ms. Posner’s assets could be turned into liabilities as the campaign unfolds. Already, her opponents have begun caricaturing Ms. Posner as precisely the kind of trust-funded interloper longtime downtown residents love to hate.
“She’s the Lizzie Grubman character in the race,” snorted a consultant to a rival candidate.
Still, on July 15, she made her candidacy official by filing petitions bearing more than 7,000 signatures–well more than the 900 required to get on the ballot and nearly twice as many as any other candidate. In a race most observers believe will take 4,000 votes to win, it was an impressive show of strength.
The snickering stopped.
“Elana Posner came out of the blue,” said John Fratta, one of Ms. Posner’s opponents. “We’ve had dozens of forums already, and no one’s ever heard her speak.”
Now Ms. Posner’s suddenly concerned rivals are on the offensive. “She has a lot of money–maybe she believes she can come in and buy the election,” Mr. Fratta said. “But the voters of our district are astute, and I don’t think they’re going to allow that to happen.”
It certainly doesn’t help Ms. Posner that she doesn’t, strictly speaking, live in the district–instead choosing to spend many nights in a rented apartment in a luxury building on the Upper East Side. Or that Ms. Posner’s new home at 60 Warren Street has gained infamy among Tribeca’s historic preservationists. Or that, according to Board of Elections records, Ms. Posner is listed as not having voted since 1992. (Ms. Posner’s campaign manager says records of her votes were eradicated in a bureaucratic screw-up.)
But so far, Ms. Posner has resolutely declined to talk about these issues–or about much of anything at all. The Observer tried for two months to obtain an interview with Ms. Posner or one her consultants. Finally, on July 26, as this article was being prepared, she called back.
“I really am very focused on talking to voters,” she said, apologetically.
Ms. Posner declined to talk about her opponents’ criticisms. “I think campaigns are about issues and giving people a choice between candidates and approaches,” she said. Then she said she had to go.
“I want to chat with you, too,” she said, “but I have to go and call 1,000 voters today. I want to go and make those phone calls before it gets too late. I really would love to chat with you more. Maybe after the primary, you and I can get together and we will go to lunch, O.K.?”
Help From Friends
Of course, Ms. Posner is as qualified as anyone for a career in New York City politics. And certainly the seductive power to rename streets–not to mention the $90,000-a-year salary–has attracted a wild assortment of up-and-comers, wannabes and misfits to the wide-open campaigns across the city this year .
In Manhattan’s First Council district alone, Ms. Posner’s opponents are a cross-section of downtown Manhattan’s ethnic and interest groups. There’s Mr. Fratta, a Democratic leader in Little Italy; Alan Gerson, a former community-board chairman; Kwong Hui, an organizer of Chinese restaurant workers; Brad Hoylman, a young nonprofit lawyer who has won the endorsement of the district’s gay political group; Margaret Chin, an Asian political activist; and Rocky Chin (no relation), a civil-rights attorney.
Then there’s Ms. Posner, a representative of the newest breed of downtowners, the young, successful spawn of the technology boom: “I’m running for the City Council to focus on the issues that many voters–hundreds of voters that I’ve spoken to–have told me that they’re concerned about,” she said on the phone. “And I’ll tell you what they are: whether they can afford a good home for their families, take care of their parents and themselves as they get older. Their health is an issue. Safe streets, good schools, after-school programs. I’m a staunch supporter of a woman’s right to choose. And so–that’s why.”
Ms. Posner’s message has already sparked an outpouring of support from her social set. Friends, including Ms. Shriftman and Ms. Altschul, threw her a fund-raiser on July 24 at the Lansky Lounge, where Ms. Posner was introduced by State Senator Dan Hevesi, the man-about-town son of Mayoral candidate Alan Hevesi.
“Elana is the kind of person who enjoys meeting people,” said Tamara Totah, the chief executive of DietSmart.com and a childhood friend. “So, for her, that network is so vast that she has a lot of different worlds to be able to tap into.”
Scott Wachs, a former colleague of Ms. Posner’s who now works at the William Morris Agency, signed onto the campaign after running into Ms. Posner at Nobu. “To be honest with you, I’m not overly familiar with her stances on the issues,” he said. “She just strikes me as a very intelligent, sharp person who’s very ambitious, and when she aims to do something, does it.”
Attorney Risa Levine, a co-sponsor of Ms. Posner’s fund-raiser, learned of Ms. Posner’s campaign in April, when the two attended an event for Democratic women sponsored by the Democratic National Committee. Terry McAuliffe spoke. Ms. Levine had always liked Ms. Posner, whom she’d met at a party at her house in the Hamptons a few years before.
“This isn’t something capping off a career–this is the start of a career,” Ms. Levine said.
So far, this new career has had a rough takeoff. Perhaps because of her sporadic availability she’s been savaged in the local press. In March, Ms. Posner told the Downtown Express that she wanted to see “if there is room in this race for a woman who is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors.” The paper went on to remark that “apparently, her Holocaust connection will be an important part of her thumbnail bio … since she mentioned it three times in a 10-minute telephone interview.”
Later, she told The Villager : “I am still exploring whether there is an opportunity for a woman candidate with a long-standing interest in the community and a commitment to public service to run.”
“So what was the workaholic incumbent, [Ms.] Freed, who had twice won the seat by whopping majorities–a head of lettuce?” asked the article’s author, who added that Ms. Posner never e-mailed him back. Ms. Freed, angered by Ms. Posner’s remark, promptly endorsed Mr. Gerson.
Perhaps because of such missteps, Ms. Posner’s public appearances have thus far been limited to private gatherings of friends and supporters, like the Lansky Lounge event.
“She hasn’t been active, she hasn’t been out there,” said Scott Levenson, a political consultant working for Mr. Fratta. “She’s running a stealth candidacy that’s creating a candidate from nothing, or attempting to.”
One political consultant said the secrecy apparently extends to the campaign’s hiring process. He told how Ms. Posner’s former campaign manager, Alanna Martin, had approached him this spring to work for a candidate whom she would only identify as “Elana.” When he declined, Ms. Martin asked whether any amount of money would change his mind, the consultant said.
“I certainly got the sense they’d spend whatever it takes,” the consultant said.
Campaign-finance rules would normally limit a candidate to spending $137,000 on a City Council race. But because Ms. Posner isn’t accepting public matching funds, she can spend as much as she pleases.
From January to July, Ms. Posner raised $110,000 for her campaign–much of it her own money–and spent $95,000, according to documents filed with the New York State Board of Elections. Most of the money went to her political consultants.
Ms. Martin recently left the campaign and was replaced as campaign manager by David Dougherty, a political consultant from the Global Strategy Group, a local political-consulting firm whose other clients include Mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer. She’s also getting advice from her childhood friend Kenneth Baer, a speechwriter who was one of the authors of Al Gore’s address to the 2000 Democratic convention.
Mr. Dougherty said that the campaign’s challenge was to carve out a niche in a crowded race.
“It’s about market share, and we feel like there’s a chance of developing a market share that’s just slightly higher than the next-highest vote-getter,” he explained. “Right now, we see our challenge as defining her–making her an entity.”
So who, then, is Elana Waksal Posner?
Ms. Posner declined to speak at length about her background. A one-page biography distributed by her campaign begins with the sentence: “A longtime resident of City Council District 1, New York City has been Elana Waksal Posner’s home ever since she was a young girl.”
Technically, however, Ms. Posner grew up outside the city–in Washington, D.C. Her parents were divorced, and her mother was a school administrator in Washington. Ms. Posner attended the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School there.
Ms. Totah, who attended school with her, said Ms. Posner was always destined to run for political office. “When she announced she was running for City Council, I don’t think any of us were surprised,” she said. “Ever since we were young, she’s been interested in politics …. At a time when most of us weren’t even thinking about things like that, she was off helping raise money and off spreading the word.”
Ms. Posner’s father, Samuel Waksal, lived in New York, where he traveled in elite social circles while doing cancer research. Mr. Waksal’s most promising discovery is an experimental new drug called IMC-C225, which in tests appears to halt the growth of cancer tumors. The drug is now awaiting Food and Drug Administration approval.
Speculation about IMC-C225 fueled a dramatic run-up in the stock of ImClone Systems, the biotechnology company that Mr. Waksal, an immunologist, and his brother, a physician, founded in a converted shoe factory with $4 million in start-up capital. ImClone’s market capitalization is now $3 billion. Over the past few years, Mr. Waksal has exercised options on nearly $35 million of his company’s stock, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
Even as IMC-C225 works its way through the F.D.A. approval process, Mr. Waksal has been active in politics. He and his family members have donated more than $120,000 to Democratic causes since 1996, of which Ms. Posner herself gave less than $7,000.
Ms. Posner moved to the city to attend New York University, and then Cardozo Law School.
Along the way, she met Jarrett Posner, himself an heir to a fortune. Mr. Posner’s grandfather is Victor Posner, the corporate raider who was involved in the scams that sent Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky to jail. As a result, Mr. Posner and Jarrett Posner’s father, Steven, were barred from ever trading securities again.
In 1998, the couple was married on the Caribbean island of Nevis. Mr. Waksal’s good friend, Martha Stewart, covered the event in her magazine.
For a short time, Ms. Posner practiced at the firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. Then, in 1999, Sam Waksal and a group of friends–including Marvin Traub, the former chief executive of Bloomingdale’s, and movie producer Keith Barish–bought an Internet start-up that specialized in the sale of perfumes. The site was relaunched as iBeauty.com and became one of many Web sites selling cosmetic products to consumers. Ms. Posner became the company’s vice president for corporate development.
The company has gone through two C.E.O.’s and its share of Web-economy trauma, but remains in business. Ms. Posner said she left the company, but declined to say when.
“I don’t want to get into any conversations about iBeauty,” Ms. Posner said. “I think I’m proud of having been a co-founder of a business that gave opportunities to lots of people. It was hard work. It wasn’t easy to do, and that’s the kind of focus and determination I want to bring to the Council.”
Ms. Posner remains a partner, however, in another of her father’s financial ventures, BDB Development, a company that buys and renovates downtown properties for residential use.
The building she now calls home, 60 Warren Street, was one of the company’s first projects. Plans called for building a four-story addition atop the red-brick former munitions warehouse, which was constructed in the 1860′s but is located just outside the boundaries of the Tribeca South Historic District. There were petitions, raucous community-board meetings, even a lawsuit, but the development moved forward. The four-story addition was eventually sold to the chief executive of StarMedia, another dot-com.
“It’s very rich–she’s in the most controversial building in Tribeca,” said Roger Byrom, a member of the board of the Historic Districts Council and a leader of the fight against the building. Mr. Byrom and others fear the original building can’t support the weight of the addition.
“What people have advised me is that poor Elana’s ceiling is going to fall through, and the four stories belonging to the once-wealthy StarMedia owner are going to come crashing down on her,” Mr. Byrom warned.
That danger may be lessened somewhat by the fact that, on many nights, Ms. Posner sleeps 80 or so blocks to the north. She still keeps an apartment on the 11th floor of a skyscraper at 265 East 66th Street, which she listed as her home address until recently. It’s the kind of place where the doormen wear white gloves and tunics even on a hot July afternoon, which is when The Observer rang her. She wasn’t there, but the doorman said she was in and out all the time.
Ms. Posner maintained that she does, in fact, live at 60 Warren Street.
At the close of the phone interview, she was asked about the controversy surrounding the building.
“I’m not sure what you’re referring to,” she replied.
Ms. Posner said she was merely a “passive investor” in BDB Development. However, documents filed in connection with the lawsuit over 60 Warren Street list Ms. Posner’s father as manager of the company, and Ms. Posner, her husband and her uncle as partners.
“Listen, I’m happy to talk to you about the issues,” Ms. Posner interjected.
Ms. Posner was asked whether, as a City Council member, she would support preservationists’ calls to extend the historic district to cover her immediate neighborhood, which would prevent redevelopments like the one at 60 Warren Street.
“Absolutely–I support the extension of the historic district,” she replied. “I love my neighborhood. O.K., I really want to talk to you, but I have to go and call voters now.”
As for when she last voted:
“You know, I don’t … the last election. I’ve gotta go now.”
Then is 1992–the last year the voter-registration record showed her casting a ballot–incorrect?
“Hmmm … I don’t know. I’m gonna go and call these voters now. But thank you for taking the time–I appreciate it–and for your interest, and I’ll look forward to reading the piece.”