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Crowded Field Vies for Adam Clayton Powell's Assembly Seat

By DNAinfo Staff on September 9, 2010 10:22am  | Updated on September 9, 2010 10:31am

By Jon Schuppe

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

MANHATTAN — A rapping ex-firefighter, a former community board chairman and several local activists are among the seven Democrats vying for the East Harlem seat of state Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV.

Some of the candidates looking to replace Powell have failed in prior elections, and see a new opportunity in Powell’s decision to take on embattled U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel.

No Republicans have filed to run, so winning the Sept. 14 Democratic primary is tantamount to winning the general election.

East Harlem is one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. It suffers from one of the highest unemployment rates. Residents feel under siege by developers trying to turn affordable housing into market-rate apartments. The city has tried to close several failing public schools. And there’s a mini explosion of charter schools. Those concerns are reflected in the 68th District race.

In an Aug. 27 debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters, all of the participating candidates vowed to protect housing subsidies and tenant protections. All said they would back increasing taxes on wealthy New Yorkers so that they pay “their fair share.” Most said they support charter schools.

There are differences, though. Starting with the candidates’ backgrounds.

Marion Bell, 40, a former public school teacher and neighborhood activist, has served on Manhattan’s Community Planning Board 11 and the board of the state NAACP. She has touted her record of community service as “all I want to do.” She has tempered her support of charter schools by saying she does not back those that share space with public schools or are operated by for-profit groups.

Edward Gibbs, a community activist, has said that his top priority is looking after senior citizens and children. He has vowed to try to save local senior centers slated to be closed as part of state budget cuts. He said he wants to create “intergenerational programs to develop respect between elders and children.” He also boasts of his record of protesting what he calls the “illegal searches and seizures” by police at East Harlem public housing projects. He was the only candidate who did not participate in the Aug. 27 debate.

Alvin Johnson, 51, a retired merchant, has staked his campaign on the housing issue. He is chairman of the Community Board 11 housing committee and a tenants’ rights activist who has led protests against his landlord’s attempts to increase its number of market-rate apartments. He promises to target “predatory” developers. He says he would press both houses of the state Legislature to pass laws protecting tenants of subsidized and rent-stabilized apartments.

Robert Rodriguez, 34, is the former chairman of Community Board 11, and remains a member. He’s hoping to capitalize on the momentum of his last race, against City Councilmember Melissa Mark Viverito last year, which he lost by a couple thousands votes. His Assembly run has been  endorsed by Citizens Union, a nonpartisan government watchdog group.

A vice president of financial advisory firm, Rodriguez touts his experience at the community board and in the business world. To balance the state’s finances, he said the Assembly needs to seriously consider raising certain taxes, like one on sugary drinks, that could benefit communities like East Harlem, where childhood obesity is a problem. And he suggested creating a new version of the 55-year-old Mitchell-Lama program, which provides reduced-rent housing for middle-income New Yorkers but is now dwindling in scope.

Felix Rosado, a former Democratic district leader and Community School Board member, has run several unsuccessful campaigns, once for city council and several for state Senate. He was a deputy to former state comptroller H. Carl McCall. He says he’s familiar with the terrain in Albany, but said he’d be a “fresh newcomer” to the Assembly. He favors term limits.

John Ruiz, 56, a former New York City firefighter, has run for the 68th District Assembly seat three times before, and lost to Powell each time. He has also lost a race for city council. This time, he has the endorsement of Mark Viverito, who did not get along with Powell.

Ruiz is also known as “The Rappin’ Fireman,” the name he uses when he’s teaching children fire safety. He has railed against the “gentrification” of East Harlem. In the recent debate, Ruiz listed the taxes he would support: higher income taxes on the wealthy, taxes on big bonuses, a commuter tax, a stock-transfer tax. The revenue from those taxes would “trickle down” to poorer communities like East Harlem, he said.

Evette Zayas, 46, a mother of five, has worked for Powell for eight years, most recently as his chief of staff. Powell has not formally endorsed her, and Zayas was hesitant about endorsing Powell in the recent debate.

Zayas says she has lived in public or subsidized housing her entire adult life, and has children in both public and charter schools. “I am the face of the community,” she said. “I don’t have to learn the issues. I lived the issues.”