Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
Candidates for the Democratic nomination in New York's 7th congressional district appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show Friday morning, where they tried to lay out their platforms while addressing allegations that party politics are muddying the race.
Incumbent Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez has been in office for almost 20 years, and is hoping to keep her seat in the newly-created seventh district that—thanks to redistricting—includes large swaths of Brooklyn, as well as parts of lower Manhattan and Ridgewood in Queens. Her re-election bid has been complicated by opposition from Brooklyn Democratic party boss Vito Lopez, who is supporting one of her challengers, City Councilman Erik Martin Dilan, in the primary.
"For many years now, Vito has wanted everyone to play by his rules, and those rules basically don’t provide for transparency," Velazquez told Brian Lehrer. "It’s a matter of him being party boss, him being the person to decide who should be representing different districts in the community. I support an open process for the community, to have the right to choose who their representative should be."
Velazquez is at odds with Lopez over issues that include the so-called "loft law" that would protect people living illegally in converted warehouses, and how to clean up the Gowanus Canal.
Lopez supports the loft law, but Velazquez is wary of losing Brooklyn's manufacturing infrastructure to residential development at a time that she says manufacturing is on the rebound in New York.
"Manufacturing is coming back and we should protect the manufacturing sector in New York," Velazquez said. "One of the issues we're confronting right now is that there's no vacancy, no spaces."
Erik Martin Dilan, who has the support of Lopez, agreed that manufacturing should be a priority for the city, but said allowing people to convert defunct spaces into vibrant, livable residences has been good for communities.
"To say that people who live there are killing the economy or chasing manufacturing out, chasing manufacturing jobs away, I don't believe that's true," Dilan said.
Dilan also brushed off questions about whether the intrigue involving Lopez and Velasquez could end up hurting his candidacy, making him appear a puppet for the Brooklyn party boss. He said it was a badge of honor to have Lopez's backing.
"I haven't seen anyone build more housing for poor people in this entire state" than Vito Lopez, Dilan said. "If people are against that, they need to reconsider what they think is right for poor communities."
If anything, Dilan said, the gossip is just a distraction from the issues. "Vito Lopez is not the national foremost crisis facing the country. I expect to get votes from many people in the district who don't even know who Vito Lopez is."
Dan O'Connor, a businessman who's never held office before, also complained about the political rumor mill. He's quite familiar with it: Some observers wonder if he's not a stalking horse for Velasquez, perhaps planted by Lopez or one of his local allies, who could siphon white voters away from the congresswoman and clear Dilan's path to the nomination. The allegations, he said, were absurd.
"Anyone who knows anything about me as an individual would know that my biggest complaint is the political establishment as it exists," O'Connor said. "I don't know a whole lot about Mr. Lopez, but I think he does represent the establishment, and that's everything I'm fighting against."
O'Connor said his best attribute was that he comes from outside politics, and hasn't had a chance to be corrupted. He pledged to take on the issues of money in politics, vowing to accept only half of his salary, serve for only four terms, and fight for term limits on elected officials in Congress.
George Martinez also tried to focus on problems with the political establishment, rather than political rumors. Martinez is an adjunct professor of political science at Pace University, an Occupy Wall Street organizer and former leader of the 51st Assembly district. Even his candidacy has come under suspicion for being brought to you by Vito Lopez.
"I don't know anything about these folks' political beef for the last 20 years but what I've heard," Martinez explained. "I'm not a son or member of a longstanding political family or organization."
"I know lots of these folks, and what I recognize is, if they've been in power for 20 years apiece, I have not seen the results of that battle come to our community in positive benefits."
Voters will consider the issues and the rumors as they head to the polls next Tuesday, June 26, to decide the primary.