The election of New York City Council Member Inez Dickens to the State Assembly creates an open seat in Council District 9 in Harlem, and a number of contenders have thrown their hats in the ring. As soon as Dickens officially vacates her Council seat, Mayor Bill de Blasio will be required to call a nonpartisan special election.
Among the candidates running for Dickens’ seat are union organizer Marvin Holland, State Senator Bill Perkins, community activist Charles Cooper, and Troy Outlaw, who serves on Dickens’ Council staff. Other, lesser-known candidates include Donald Fields, a local businessman and advocate, immigration advocate Mamadou Drame, and Shannette Gray. Brian Benjamin, who works in real estate and is involved in the local community board, is rumored to be considering a run, but hasn’t filed paperwork yet.
Many have been waiting to see if Assembly Member Keith Wright will join the race. A Democratic power-broker who Dickens is replacing, Wright declined to run for Assembly re-election after pledging not to during his attempt to win Charles Rangel’s Congressional seat. Some say that Benjamin could be Wright’s favored candidate, though the uptown establishment could support Outlaw, or another candidate.
Holland, the political director of Transit Workers Union Local 100, came out of the gate fairly early. In a recent interview, he said he is confident about putting together a broad coalition. “I’m well-rooted throughout the Harlem community, with young and old members,” said Holland, who sits on the boards of a number of community organizations including the Latino Leadership Institute, the NYC Labor-Religion Coalition, the the Mid-Manhattan Branch of the NAACP, and Community Voices Heard’s solidarity board.
Holland’s message is “Harlem belongs to us,” he said, stressing that investment in the neighborhood needs to benefit its residents rather than creating forces of gentrification and displacement. He wants to create jobs and infrastructure in the community, relying on his experience as a union leader to navigate the complexities of economic policy. “My first priority,” he said, “was to show people I’m a serious candidate…I’m in this race 100 percent to win it.”
In a crowded race, anything can happen, but Perkins is especially formidable given his position as an elected official with at least some name recognition in the community.
“I would say Bill Perkins probably has the most infrastructure and support in the district,” said Dr. Christina Greer, political science professor at Fordham University. Pointing to the fact that State Senator Adriano Espaillat has been elected to replace Rangel, Greer said the community may be motivated to electe a black City Council member to replace Dickens, who is black. “It’s within U.S. Congressional District 13 and because there’s no African-American representative, Perkins will resonate with some voters who want to see an African-American representative in the district,” she said.
Greer said that Perkins’ chances could change significantly if Wright were to jump into the race, though he seems hesitant to do so at this point. It’s unclear whether Wright will be involved in the District 9 race at all. He was not made available for comment for this article. Dickens’ Council office also did not respond to a request for comment.
In phone interviews with Gotham Gazette, Holland, Perkins, Cooper, Fields, and Drame all indicated a similar initial approach to the election, formulating coalitions across the community and drumming up support on the ground. Each mentioned several of the same issues, chiefly focusing on creating and preserving affordable housing while bringing more development and jobs to the community. Calls to the candidate committees for Outlaw and Gray went unanswered.
Photo credit: Council candidate Marvin Holland, right, with Sylvia Tyler (photo via Holland on Twitter).