City Council hopeful Thomas Lopez-Pierre says he is opposed to rival Mark Levine’s candidacy because of Wall Street contributions Levine has received. Also, he says, Levine might not stand up to what some perceive to be the Upper Manhattan neighborhood bully, Columbia University, because he has a graduate degree from Harvard, another Ivy League school.
But those concerns aren’t listed in a controversial e-mail sent by Lopez-Pierre to members of the Douglass Grant Democratic Club, which covers Harlem, Morningside Heights and other areas.
The subject line of the e-mail is: “A White/Jewish City Council Member representing Upper Manhattan?”
Lopez-Pierre, a real estate broker and entrepreneur who lives in the Manhattan Valley neighborhood, hopes to hold a meeting in January with leaders of the black and Hispanic community with the intention of uniting behind one black and one Latino candidate to succeed the term-limited incumbent Councilman Robert Jackson.
“The purpose … is to discuss the potential damage to the political empowerment of the Black and Hispanic community if Mark Levine, a White/Jewish candidate was elected to the 7th Council District in 2013 with very little Black and Hispanic support,” he writes.
Otherwise, he says, a divided vote in a district that is 70 percent minority could allow Levine to “sneak into office (like a thief in the night.)”
In his Nov. 26 e-mail and in a phone interview with The Jewish Week Tuesday, Lopez-Pierre insisted he does not oppose Levine’s right to run but that he instead supports black and Latino empowerment.
“I don’t hate Jews; I love black people,” said Lopez-Pierre, 45, who is African American. “I love political empowerment. … A black person has represented the district for many years, and we don’t want to see the black and Latino caucus be minus one.”
But incumbent Jackson, who is black, on Tuesday called the letter “racist.”
“It is clearly divisive,” said Jackson. “This is the United States of America. Everyone has a right to run.” He noted that prior to his 2001 election, he was a strong supporter of the late Jewish Councilman Stanley Michels, who was forced to leave office by term limits.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York called Lopez-Pierre’s message “offensive.”
“We believe candidates, of any description, should go to the voters and they should ‘make their case,’ and that the final decisions belong to the voters,” said JCRC associate executive director David Pollock.
“However, it is offensive for any political leader to refer to a candidate as ‘a thief in the night’ solely on the basis of that candidate’s race. The voters should choose their elected officials, and decide why they choose them.”
Pollock added that Lopez-Pierre’s concern about the crowded field of black and Latino candidates could be ameliorated by the long campaign process, in which not all announced candidates make it to the ballot.
“New York City political history records elections when candidates withdrew and threw their support to others,” he said. “That practice might be repeated in the new 7th Council District.”
Ron Meier, New York director of the Anti-Defamation League, told The Jewish Week “introducing race and religion into a city council election as a stand-in for qualifications is offensive to all voters in the district and offensive to the democratic process.”
After receiving a flood of calls from reporters to the number he listed in his e-mail Tuesday, Lopez-Pierre said he had accomplished his goal of publicizing the race and its implications, since as many as 10 black or Latino candidates may enter the race.
“All I did was throw more light on the deliberations,” he said. “We need to come together to pick a candidate that represents our community in terms of values and racial background. A City Council member’s job is to represent an individual district, and 70 percent of this district is black and Latino. I don’t want a councilman that represents all the people; I want a councilman who represents my community.”
He said chasidim in Brooklyn’s Borough Park and other ethnic groups should elect members of their own groups to look after their interests, adding that other black and Latino leaders in the district share his concern but were reluctant to speak out.
“They said those Jews are gonna lynch you,” Lopez-Pierre said. “But because I work for myself, I don’t have to answer to anyone. I have the cojones, the balls, to send out this e-mail.”
Lopez-Pierre said he would support a white candidate whom he felt represented issues important to blacks and Latinos, such as former Manhattan Assemblyman Ed Sullivan, but did not feel Levine would be such a person. When asked why he did not highlight issues in his e-mail rather than race or religion, Lopez-Pierre said, “So that the media would call me and I could get the message out.”
Levine, 41, is executive director of the Center for After-School Excellence, a nonprofit that supports after-school programs. Though a Baltimore native he has lived in and raised his family in Washington Heights since 1995. He has run previous unsuccessful campaigns for City Council and state Senate.
Levine said he has known Lopez-Pierre for about 12 years but was “shocked to see the message and be targeted in that way.”
In an interview Tuesday, Levine noted that he had a long history of involvement in the community. “I built a nonprofit community credit union with 4,000 members, 90 percent of whom are Latino or African American,” he said. “I also founded the Barack Obama Democratic Club.”
“I’m completely bilingual and comfortable campaigning in Spanish, as I have done in the past,” he said.
Appeals based on race and/or religion are not unusual in local New York political races. Most notably, in 2006, David Yassky, then a councilman, faced criticism for running for Congress in a heavily black district in Brooklyn. (The seat went to African-American Yvette Clarke).
In 1999, Michael Nelson added the name Chaim to his campaign posters while running for City Council in heavily Orthodox Flatbush to let voters know he’s Jewish.
Jackson, who plans to run for Manhattan borough president next year, said he thought Lopez-Pierre’s goal of uniting the black and Latino vote behind two candidates is unrealistic.
“There are at least 10 to 12 people running,” Jackson said. “I don’t think his vision of trying to do that will ever happen.”