Levine la Vida Loca: Uptown City Council Campaign Becomes a Circus

Thomas Lopez-Pierre’s email to developer Brian Benjamin began innocently enough. The New York City Council candidate even wished him a

A tranquil view of the district where Thomas Lopez-Pierre is attacking Mark Levine. (Photo: Wikipedia)
A tranquil view of the district where Thomas Lopez-Pierre is attacking Mark Levine. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Thomas Lopez-Pierre’s email to developer Brian Benjamin began innocently enough. The New York City Council candidate even wished him a happy New Year.

But a few paragraphs later, Mr. Lopez-Pierre called the recipient an “uncle Tom Nigger bitch.” He berated Mr. Benjamin for being a black man fund-raising for one of Mr. Lopez-Pierre’s political rivals, Democratic district leader Mark Levine, in what has emerged as the most racially charged City Council race in the city.

“What good does it do our community (by this I mean Black and Hispanic people) to have uncle Tom Nigger bitches like you graduate from Ivy League schools if all you do is suck the cock of guys like Mark Levine?”

After Politicker and other outlets reported on the email, it was condemned by officials from around the city, including party bigwigs and mayoral candidates. The district’s current representative, Councilman Robert Jackson, who is term-limited, has also repudiated Mr. Lopez-Pierre.

But Mr. Levine himself, sitting with Politicker over lunch last week, was not shaken.

“You can’t get into politics in New York City if you’re not prepared for a rough fight,” he explained. “This is an ethnically diverse town, and sometimes tough fights have ethnic overtones.”

Mr. Levine also said he was “heartened” by the condemnation, across racial and ethnic lines, of Mr. Lopez-Pierre’s rhetoric. “It’s unfortunate for our society, for our political culture that someone espousing those views has a megaphone.”

Mr. Lopez-Pierre has been known to rant against gays, recently telling an uptown gay rights activist that he supports gay marriage, but “would be greatly disappointed if any of my kids were born gay (in the same way I would be unhappy if my kids were born mentally ill).” However, the candidate, who claims Puerto Rican, Dominican and Haitian descent, more often rants against Jews.

“Jewish people never ask the question is it morally wrong to take limited resources at the expense of others such as from poor Black and Hispanic people in order to promote, protect and service the needs of Jewish people?” he wrote in a letter to reporters and operatives last month. “Jewish people just do it! And could care less about who the FUCK complains about it!”

Mr. Levine, a Harvard-educated nonprofit executive and former public school math teacher, described these sorts of comments as a “wake-up.”

“I have to say that overt anti-Semitism in that form is not something I expected to see in political discourse in the 21st century,” he said as he chewed on the stewed codfish at El Presidente, a restaurant on 165th Street in Washington Heights, just barely inside the northern tip of the district. “What we’ve witnessed in this race is far, far beyond what I consider the bounds of acceptable political discourse. And it’s certainly been a wake-up to see this kind of rhetoric expressed in a modern political campaign.”

Despite the demographics of the district, which stand at 47 percent Latino and 19 percent black, almost every institutional force—from State Senator Adriano Espaillat, an influential Dominican power broker, to the labor-backed Working Families Party—has thrown its support behind Mr. Levine.

“He was a teacher for many years, so education has been a passion for him. And housing, of course, is a critical need,” Mr. Espaillat said in an interview, also touting Mr. Levine’s trilingualism (he speaks English, Spanish and Hebrew). “I don’t know anybody who can beat that, but if they can, let them come forward,” Mr. Espaillat said.

The backdrop to Mr. Lopez-Pierre’s diatribes is gentrification, as well as the district’s soaring white population, a result of a recent redistricting that changed its borders to include parts of Morningside Heights and Manhattan Valley. When Mr. Levine first ran for office in 2001 against Mr. Jackson—he managed to finish second in a crowded field—the district was only 13 percent white. More than a decade later that percentage has doubled, and the world beyond Columbia is now seen as a land of opportunity for developers.

If Mr. Levine is elected, will be reversing a prevalent trend in New York City politics. Typically, longtime elected white officials have given way to minority representatives as the city’s newer communities multiply, assimilate and wield their electoral muscle. (Mr. Jackson, the current officeholder, is both African-American and Muslim.) Based on recent electoral history, pundits would project that Mr. Jackson’s successor would be Latino.

But the race for Mr. Jackson’s seat has been anything but normal. Mr. Levine’s main opponent, according to several neutral observers, is Zead Ramadan, who is of Palestinian descent. Mr. Ramadan, the chairman of the board for the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, is backed by a few influential power brokers himself, including Bill Lynch, a senior adviser to Congressman Charlie Rangel.

“I hear a lot of anger, obviously, and clearly I don’t think we should focus on the identity of an individual—I really think we should be focusing on the issues, number one, and the experience and leadership qualities … all the other stuff is just fuzzy background noise and just muddies the waters and poisons the minds of the voters,” Mr. Ramadan said when asked about Mr. Lopez-Pierre.

Yet it is Mr. Lopez-Pierre, a fringe candidate perhaps previously best known for opening a racy singles club, who has managed to suck up all of the oxygen, even as he’s raised less than $10,000—compared with nearly $100,000 by Messrs. Levine and Ramadan. The attention could make it harder for opposing candidates like Mr. Ramadan to get their own traction, especially with Mr. Lopez-Pierre promising a “political reality show” on his campaign website.

He recently posted a YouTube video of himself confronting Mr. Levine at a Democratic club forum. In the clip, Mr. Lopez-Pierre corners the mild-mannered Mr. Levine in the lobby of Bank Street College, hammering him with the question, “Why do you take money from landlords?”

Adjusting his glasses and grinning painfully, Mr. Levine eventually shoots back, “I don’t take as much as you do.”

“Why do you take thousands of dollars from landlords?” Mr. Lopez-Pierre reiterates, circling Mr. Levine. The race’s front-runner slips through a pair of double-doors, away from his taunting antagonist.

“Did you get it?” Mr. Lopez-Pierre says to the cameraman as the video cuts out. “Okay, good.”

Levine la Vida Loca: Uptown City Council Campaign Becomes a Circus