UPPER WEST SIDE — It's more than a year before the election, but the contest to replace longtime Upper West Side City Councilwoman Gale Brewer when she leaves office in 2013 is already shaping up to be a heated battle.
Three candidates, including one who would be the city's first openly transgender council member, are already in the race, and several more are expected to enter the contest.
DNAinfo recently sat down with Helen Rosenthal to learn more about why she's running and what she would focus on as a city council member. Rosenthal, 51, worked in the city budget office during the Koch, Dinkins, and Giuliani administrations, where she oversaw a $6 billion healthcare budget.
She was chair of Community Board 7 for two years and now serves as chair of ParentJobNet, an organization that helps public school parents prepare for and find jobs. The married mother of two teenage girls, Rosenthal named over-crowded schools the most critical issue facing the Upper West Side.
Here's more from DNAinfo's Q&A with Rosenthal:
Q: Why are you running for City Council?
A: The question really is, why am I running now? And I think it's because I have City Hall experience and community experience, and in these economic times, somebody with my background — of working to balance a budget, of having experience working on investments in our communities in order to create jobs — that it's important with my background to run for office and try to help turn the city around.
Q: Tell us more about your background.
A: I worked during the Koch, Dinkins and Giuliani [administrations] in City Hall, in the budget office, overseeing all the healthcare budgets. It was a $6 billion responsibility of capital and expense money. I had a staff of 20 people. We worked with the agencies to decide what would be funded, and when there were cuts, what cuts had to be made and if there was a health crisis, how we would fund it in a fiscally responsible way.
Under Dinkins, he wanted to expand access to primary care. What was holding us back was, of course it costs money to build primary care centers and to staff them up. So working with a small team of people, we figured out a way to draw down a small amount of city funds to access many more federal, state and bond revenues so there was a great incentive for people to build primary care sites. Since 1993, when the program started, we now have 90 freestanding primary healthcare centers throughout the state —it started in the city but then expanded to the state — with 2,300 new jobs.
Q: What are the most pressing issues facing the Upper West Side?
A: In our community the pressing issue is our over-crowded schools, and there I've already had experience. I helped start P.S. 452 [the school that was formed to handle overflow students from P.S. 87]. The Department of Education firmly believed that we had 1,500 empty seats in the district. They were not interested in hearing parents say, 'But my kid has to have PT in the janitor’s closet.' Or, 'We've lost our art room or science room.' They didn’t care.
So working with parent leaders in each of the nearby public schools, we were able to do an analysis, class by class, grade by grade, to prove without a doubt that there was not classroom space for these kids. So I have experience in getting things done for this community and addressing the issues that exist now.
I was chair of Community Board 7 for two years and negotiations for Extell's Riverside Center project began in my first year. I set up an open and transparent process where we discussed every single issue having to do with this new ... buildings going up. We had separate meetings on affordable housing, parks, transportation, schools — and it was the schools meeting where 800 parents showed up for that meeting. No other meeting had more than more 50 [people]. It's what gave me the drive to say this whole project is a non-starter unless there’s a public K-8 school that goes in the first building that goes up. And that set the tone for all those negotiations.
Affordable housing is the second one, and again, I've had experience in helping tenants keep their homes affordable. At my first meeting as chair of Community Board 7 a tenant of Jewish Home Lifecare [then called Jewish Home and Hospital] came to the meeting and said they were going to end the Mitchell-Lama status of our building attached to the Jewish Home and we're going to have nowhere to go.
We brought a lot of attention to the issue, and we had a success by being an advocate for these tenants. In fact Jewish Home converted an office building to apartments, and they now live there.
Q: What sets you apart from the other candidates?
A: I have City Hall experience. I've worked in City Hall and I know how to get things done in government. I've used that experience already to get things done for our community. A perfect example of that is what happened with P.S. 452. I'd like to continue that work to do more. I think the school at Riverside Center needs to be larger.
Parents stood up at meeting aftet meeting saying there was no space at P.S. 87 and P.S. 199 and nothing happened. I got in there, thought about how we need to do an analysis in order to convince the Depatment of Education to agree to start a school. We thought very hard about what data to collect and how to put it in a package so they couldn't say no.
As your city councilperson, knowing how government works, I will make sure our community gets the space we need for schools, gets the services we need. I'm not about coming to a friendly outcome, I'm about getting to a good outcome for our community and I’ll work very hard and very fast to make that happen.