Pioneer Councilman Faces Stiff Challenge in Primary

Photo by: Thomas for Council, New York City Council
Saundra Thomas, left, is trying to unseat Mathieu Eugene.

Six years ago Dr. Mathieu Eugene was hailed as the first Haitian-American to sit on the City Council. Now he faces a contest that reflects the growing diversity of his central Brooklyn district.

By: Darren Sands

The commercial space at 1190 Nostrand Avenue between Hawthorne and Fenimore streets in Flatbush used to be a 99 cents store. Now, it's the campaign headquarters for Saundra Thomas' campaign to become the 40th District's next representative on the City Council.

It got on the campaign's radar when Lindiwe Kamau, president of Nostrand Avenue Merchant's Organization, impressed with Thomas' easy going nature, made a few phone calls as if for an old friend. A 43-year resident of the area with deep ties to the neighborhood, Kamau wasted little time getting Thomas and her people a meeting with her new landlord. “I liked the way she connected with people,” Kamau says. The spare room's got a few tables and mismatched chairs, the kind you'd find in a church. But it's theirs.

The backstory behind the Thomas campaign's digs captures exactly the grassroots feel that has characterized Thomas' six-months on the trail, and endeared the Ditmas Park resident to a hopeful group of residents, small businesses and community activists who view her brand of collaborative politics as the future of the 40th District. Of the three challengers in the Democratic primary race to unseat Dr. Mathieu Eugene, hailed six-and-a-half years ago as the first Haitian-American on the City Council, she might be the most serious threat.

Two other candidates have not gained as much attention as Thomas: they are Sylvia Kinard, the ex-wife of Democratic candidate for mayor and ex-Comptroller Bill Thompson, and John Grant, a road car inspector with the MTA.

Roots of a challenge

Incumbent Council members don't usually face serious challengers. But Dr. Eugene hasn't achieved the kind of dominance sitting Council members typically possess. He ranked 48th of 51 Council members in securing discretionary funds for his district.

The question of whether a relative newcomer with no prior political experience can defeat the incumbent may come down to whether the district's electorate has shifted enough to favor its first serious non-Caribbean candidate in at least 20 years.

“I think at this point,” said Thomas, who served as director of community affairs for WABC-7 for the past dozen years “the stakes are so high in this community that people want to vote for someone that is going to do something to ease some of the frustration, struggle and the pain that they're experiencing. I'm going to bet on the people to rise to the occasion and say, ‘Look, this isn't about nationalism. This is about our community.' And we need someone who's going to be the leader of the future for the neighborhoods. That's what I'm banking on.”

A missing link

The Eugene campaign will try to fend off that challenge without a tool that almost all established candidates use. Of the $70,000 Dr. Eugene's campaign raised, none of it came from the city's coveted public matching funds, according to the city's Campaign Finance Board records. To qualify, candidates must receive at least 75 from CD 40 residents. It wasn't immediately clear why Eugene failed to secure the funding. Records show the Eugene campaign did apply, but a spokesman for the Campaign Finance Board (CFB), reached Friday, said he couldn't comment on why the petition was denied.

Eugene's campaign did not respond to an email requesting an interview for this story. The voice of individual who picked up the phone at the campaign office trailed off before the call eventually disconnected.

In June, Eugene supported the passage of the two Council bills reining in “stop and frisk.” He has been the main sponsor of seven pieces of legislation (mostly resolutions related to immigration and veteran housing assistance, as well as a resolution “commemorating Michael Jackson's contributions to popular music and culture.”) Eugene's legislative ambition trails that of Jumaane Williams in the nearby 45th district, who has been the main sponsor of 53 pieces of legislation since 2010, but is not much different than that of the 41st District's Darlene Mealy, who sponsored nine.

In an interview given to the blog Ditmas Park Corner, Eugene defended his record. “My opponents, they have have been doing nothing,” he said. “They were not there in the community. Nobody knows them. I've been there in the community, doing the job … The other ones, what have they been doing? I've heard that they have been walking somewhere in the community, but I've been there, too.”

The district encompasses the neighborhoods of Kensington, Prospect-Lefferts and Ditmas Park as well as parts of Crown Heights, Flatbush and East Flatbush.

A newcomer gains momentum

CFB records indicate that as of the last filing deadline, Eugene had about $14,500 left in his campaign account. Thomas, who raised somewhat less than Eugene but receive $92,400 in matching funds, has outspent him significantly and still had $58,000 left to spend. CFB records show that Thomas's financial support has come mostly from small donors who gave between $25 and $250. She counts Dr. Michael Alfano, the former executive vice president of NYU, and David Banks, the nationally renowned educator who founded Eagle Academy, among her donors.

The next representative of the District certainly has a lot of work to do. The 71st precinct, which serves the District, reported a 7.5 percent uptick in violent crime according to the NYPD's CompStat numbers from a year ago. That includes six murders through Aug. 25, as opposed to just two at that time last year. There were also increases in felonious assaults (22 percent) and rape (40 percent). In addition to mounting public safety concerns, the District, made up of seven neighborhoods, is transitional phase is marked by rapid gentrification and lack of affordable housing.

In an hourlong interview at her campaign headquarters, Thomas touted her experience as her experience as a problem-solver—an approach she says has been lacking in the 40th.

“The question is, how have we grown as a community? We're still having the same issues. It doesn't mean that one person is going to stop all of that. But the most basic part of this work is to be responsive to the needs of the community. And I don't mean when someone calls and says, ‘Can you donate money to my non-profit?' Or, ‘Can you donate to my hospital?' Because guess what? It's our money anyway,” she said.

Thomas supports the Project Safe Surrender program, in which nearly 250,000 offenders of minor crimes—who often live in fear of being arrested—can get assistance and the help they need to become productive members of society. She is also is in favor of community-based rehabilitation programs which proponents say have been proven successful in other large cities.

She also supports increased funding to make housing court fairer for tenants, efforts to bring BIDs to the district to support small businesses and pushing city schools to offer a holistic menu of services to families.

Close observers of the race have noticed that Thomas doesn't talk much, if at all, about her partner of 20 years. She's Susan Siegler, with whom she's raised a daughter, Calli, who is 16. Siegler own's Courtleyou Street's Brooklyn ARTery.

“I'm running for City Council,” she said. “My family isn't running for City Council. Some people are exploiting their situations. But I've been out for 30 years, my whole life I've been living out loud.”

“I don't think that it's something that has to be at the cornerstone of my candidacy.”

Candidates vie for voters' attention, despite challenges

Reached on his cell phone, one of the other names in the race, John Grant, said his residence, on Midwood between Albany and Kingston was rezoned to CD 41. He said for this reason the Campaign Finance Board declared him ineligible for public matching funds. “If I had the financial strength I would have done some things differently,” he said. “I would have a lot of people on my team and doing research on the topics [concerning the community].

“Unfortunately, I wasn't able to do a lot of forums,” added Grant, who decided to get into the race near the end of March. “But the few that I did [attend] I came across to the voters to the best of my ability, and I'm looking to win.

Kinard, a former attorney for the City Council, has a firm grasp of the issues and said her ground game is to communicate to voters that they have a choice. “They're the ones that should be the focal point. They have the collective power.”