Commentary: City Council Special Elections

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A special election for New York City Council is being nullified, in part because of an interview on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show. Brian has some thoughts now on what happened in the Brooklyn race, and what should happen next.

LEHRER: The 40th City Council district in Central Brooklyn had a vacancy to fill because Councilwoman Yvette Clark was elected to Congress. Ten candidates competed to succeed her in the February 20th election, and on the day before the election, I interviewed all ten on my weekday call-in show. I asked four of the candidates whether they lived in the district, because I had read that their residency was in question. One of them, Mathieu Eugene, went on to win the election. Here is part of our exchange after I asked if he lived there.

EUGENE: People have been using that. But I think that I've been providing more services to the people in the istrict than any other candidate. Since i came to New York, I've been living in the 40th district. My two children were born in the 40 district, I go to church in the district. And also, I have my organization, Youthful Education, not for profit organization, providing services - immigration services, health services, legal services, job opportunities and housing services, referral services, Medicaid, Medicare, Social security services to the senior citizens and to the people in the community right there inside the district.

LEHRER: Right. So to be clear, you're saying that you don't live in the district but so much of the services you provide are in the district that you think it shouldn't matter. Is that correct?

EUGENE: Exactly, because I've been living in, I just moved a few years ago.

LEHRER: Those personal and professional ties to the district - and a promise to move back in if he won - were enough for the voters who elected Eugene by a wide margin. But they weren't enough for Attorney General Andrew Cuomo who said state law requires that a candidate live in the district on the day of the election. Then, Candidate Eugene changed his story, saying he had moved back into the district on February first, and telling my office there had been a misunderstanding on the air. But other evidence also contradicted him and he refused to provide proof of residency to City Council leaders when asked. Instead, he acted insulted by the request, withdrew his claim of victory, and asked for a new election.

As it turns out, this isn't the only item on which Eugene's credentials are murky. Newspaper reports this week reveal that on forms he filed with the Federal Election Commission, Eugene listed his profession as Physician and his title as MD. But he was trained in Mexico, and in his 30 years here, has never practiced medicine or received a U.S. license. He referred to himself as a doctor or as medically trained three times in his first minute on my show.

EUGENE: My name is Mathieu Eugene and I'm a medical doctor. I was born in Haiti. And I came to United States around 1978-79. And I went to study medicine.... As a medical doctor, I have created a community-based not for profit organization.

LEHRER: So what's the moral of the story? Well, to me, there are shades of gray here, and as far as I can tell, no real scandal. Mathieu Eugene is no carpetbagger. He does have a long history of family life and public service in Central Brooklyn. And he does run a community group that provides health care, in which he uses his MD training, without technically practicing medicine. But his apparent willingness to fudge the truth and then act like HE'S the aggrieved party raises questions of character and trust. So if Eugene deserves this city council seat, he'll have to prove it again, with a lot more people watching this time, when the campaign is re-run.

WNYC's Brian Lehrer. You can hear his call-in show weekdays at 10am.