UPPER WEST SIDE — One of only two women in a seven-person battle for the Upper West Side's City Council seat, Debra Cooper believes her gender plays to her advantage.
In her assessment of likely voters, Cooper said she realized that "the district is 62 percent women, so I think [being a woman] matters."
Helen Rosenthal is the only other female candidate in the race.
Cooper was the fifth candidate to join in August 2012. In the crowded race, full of longtime neighborhood residents who've been heavily involved in local issues, Cooper, 65, is talking up her leadership role as the Democratic State Committeewoman for the district and her record on women's rights as a board member of the reproductive rights group NARAL ProChoiceNY, whose endorsement she nabbed Tuesday.
"I’ve taken a stance on being very assertive and aggressive on women’s rights," she said, noting among other things her role in co-founding the Women's Leadership Forum for the Democratic National Committee, a fundraising and organizing platform for women.
Cooper, who has lived at West 74th Street and West End Avenue for the past 35 years, described herself as a "principled progressive" who takes her commitments very seriously but knows how to negotiate.
"I never understand why people say 'lines in the sand' — they’re erasable," Cooper said. "I have lines in quick-drying cement — which are my principles."
For example, she has accused some of the fellow candidates of taking vague stances on charter schools that co-locate in neighborhood public schools, not making it clear where they come down on the issue.
Cooper said she's had valuable conversations with pro-charter school supporters, but that she's never ambivalent.
"Charters are a silent way to privatize a public good," she said.
Her strong values developed in part from her upbringing as a child of Holocaust survivors — she was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany — and as an immigrant, she said.
Cooper, who grew up over a grocery store in Clifton, N.J., said she was the first person in her family to go to college.
Cooper has a masters in education, was a candidate for a PhD in psycholinguistics, worked in special education outside Boston for several years and worked with her former husband on documentary films. She then moved to the Upper West Side, where she raised two daughters.
Eventually she became the head of her co-op board and a leader at her synagogue, but Cooper didn't become involved in politics until President George H. W. Bush was elected. Her sense of outrage at his attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade motivated her to become involved in politics through fundraising campaigns and forums, and then as a Democratic committeewoman and the New York State women's director for the Clinton-Gore campaign.
"I’ve had the longest political involvement of any of the candidates and the longest Democratic involvement," she said.
Cooper also touts her efforts in drafting legislation, citing her work on the New York City Clinics Access Bill, which passed in 1993.
She said she wants to work on the issues affecting the neighborhood but also use the office to tackle larger issues like more progressive taxation in the city.
"Your role is not just to do the narrow thing you can do within the council. Your role is to expand the possibilities of what the City Council can do," she said.
The rest of Cooper's campaign, which has raised more than $104,000 so far, will include a lot of face time with voters on local streets, as meeting people is a forte of hers, she noted.
"I’m a very persuasive person," she said.