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Johnson and Kurland Attack Each Other's Record in District 3 Debate

By Mathew Katz | August 27, 2013 7:52am
 City council candidates Yetta Kurland and Corey Johnson faced off in a debate on Monday night.
City council candidates Yetta Kurland and Corey Johnson faced off in a debate on Monday night.
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DNAinfo/Mathew Katz

CHELSEA — Conversation was less about policy and more about the past at Monday's debate between Yetta Kurland and Corey Johnson, both vying to replace Speaker Christine Quinn on the City Council.

The opponents faced off at a debate sponsored by NYC Community Media and hosted at the Bowtie Chelsea Cinemas, with both proud progressives taking swipes at the other's record.

Kurland, a civil-rights lawyer who ran against Quinn for the District 3 seat in 2009, repeatedly attempted to tie Johnson, who chairs Community Board 4, to "real estate interests" and "political insiders" because of his work from 2008 to 2010 in government relations for GFI Development Co.

But Johnson sarcastically shot down the assertion and said he lives simply, making $52,000 a year working part-time doing marketing for two hotels and living in a 300-square-foot studio.

"If anyone comes to see my apartment, they'll see I'm the poorest real estate executive this side of the Mississippi," he said.

The debate before a rowdy audience that shouted out to defend the candidates had several such moments of personal attacks.

At one point, Johnson asked Kurland if she still owned a gun. The candidate has said she had a gun permit when she was executive director of the Hello World Language Center, a school in Gramercy Park, and claimed she was required to do so by the Department of Homeland Security.

But Kurland, who said she was no longer in charge of the school, told the audience that she was no longer packing heat.

"I just want you to know that I do not have a firearm," she said, going on to stress her support for gun control programs throughout the city and country.

On the policy front, both candidates struck many of the same chords before the largely liberal crowd. Both passionately pledged their support for replacing the shuttered St. Vincent's Hospital and — on Johnson's insistence — promised to continue the fight for a hospital for the neighborhood regardless of who wins.

Kurland, who led and won a fight in court forcing the Department of Health to recognize that they had a legal obligation to provide a hospital to the neighborhood, said she already had a track record on the issue.

"I stepped up," she said. "I fought and won an important victory."

On development, both noted their support for increasing the amount of affordable housing to make up for booming luxury development throughout the district, which covers Chelsea, Hell's Kitchen, the Meatpacking District and the West Village.

Kurland touted her record of keeping tenants from being evicted through her law firm, while Johnson repeatedly brought up his work negotiating deals for affordable housing while chairing Community Board 4.

"You don't spend eight-and-a-half years on a community board because it's sexy and full of praise and adulation," he said, adding that he stood up against many of the large-scale development proposals that went before the board, including the controversial expansion of Chelsea Market

But that plan — despite Johnson's opposition — was eventually passed by the board.

“Every single up-zoned plan that’s gone through your community board while you were chair has been approved," Kurland said.

The pair, who both identify as gay, also spoke about plans to fight the neighborhood's still-high HIV infection rates.

Kurland, who has represented clients facing eviction for being HIV positive, said she wanted to work towards destigmatizing carrying condoms and providing more treatment centers — like those lost when St. Vincent's closed.

"I'll continue to be an advocate to make sure that people are treated fairly," she said.

For Johnson, who recently went public with the fact that he's been HIV-positive for more than nine years, the issue was deeply personal. He said he wanted to create a comprehensive sex-education program in city schools that distributed condoms and increase funding to prevention efforts.

"It’s an issue that’s not talked about enough and it’s an issue that deserves a conversation in our city," he said.

The candidates will go head-to-head in the September 10 Democratic primary and have no Republican opponent in November's general election, meaning the winner will go on to serve as the area's City Council representative.