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Showdown in City Council District 35

It’s liberals vs. leftists in a battle for a seat that runs through Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, Fort Greene and Clinton Hill.

Theodore Hamm May 27

A former staffer seeks to distance herself from her divisive boss. Developer-friendly de Blasio allies square off with the city’s leading tenant advocates. A powerful Democratic congressman continues his war with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

The race to succeed Laurie Cumbo for the city council seat that spans from Clinton Hill to Crown Heights indeed has many storylines.

Most observers agree that of the eight candidates on the primary ballot, the winner will be either Crystal Hudson, a former Cumbo staffer, or tenant activist Michael Hollingsworth. Neither was a household name entering the race—but there are plenty of high-profile figures in each camp.

Hollingsworth has the support of fellow DSA-backed candidates Jabari Brisport and Pharah Souffrant Forrest, each of whom won races for state offices covering parts of the district last year. Cynthia Nixon, Zephyr Teachout, Julia Salazar, and Marcela Mitaynes are also in his corner.

Hudson is backed by Hakeem Jeffries, who is eager to undercut the DSA in the wake of the losses experienced by his candidates to Brisport and Forrest. Jumaane Williams, for whom Hudson also previously worked, is expected to make his formal endorsement soon. While Yvette Clarke is Hudson’s most influential other supporter, Jessica Ramos may be the most surprising.

The name missing here, of course, is Cumbo, who is hardly known for staying on the sidelines. Hudson is clearly trying to distance herself. “I think everybody has worked for somebody they don’t agree with 100% of the time,” Hudson recently told the Gotham Gazette.

Hudson also has renounced any past associations with Cumbo’s positions on the Bedford Armory project, calling it “a bad deal that has only compounded since.” Yet while Cumbo was doing election-year gymnastics regarding the deal—opposing it during the 2017 primary, then supporting it right after the general election—Hudson served as her campaign treasurer.

Hollingsworth, meanwhile, was an active member of the Crown Heights Tenants Union, which led the fight against the developer-friendly armory project. As noted on his campaign website, Hollingsworth and other local residents found themselves on the receiving end of “Cumbo’s contempt and dismissal” amid the process.

While Michael Hollingsworth touts his ties to the tenant movement, Crystal Hudson has struggled to explain her past work for outgoing incumbent Laurie Cumbo. 

That same experience fuels Hollingsworth’s desire to replace Cumbo. “Old and new residents of the district understand that luxury development is a threat to poor and working-class people,” he tells The Indypendent. “They know that gentrification doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Instead it’s the result of a set of decision made by the political establishment working hand-in-hand with big real estate.” 

The late May campaign filings show that both candidates have solid amounts to spend in the final month, with Hollingsworth holding a nominal edge ($156,000-$138,000). The city’s 8-1 matching funds program has enabled many candidates without deep pockets to run competitive races.

That same program has also allowed candidates to minimize their contributions from real estate interests. Hollingsworth, like all DSA candidates, takes no such funding—but Hudson’s direct contributions from developers are not a substantial portion of her overall haul.

Nonetheless, there are clear indicators that Hudson is the real estate industry’s candidate in the race. For starters, building trades unions including the NYC District Council of Carpenters have endorsed her and contributed to her campaign. The union also named Hudson as one of its top four “priority” council candidates in its first round of endorsements.

From SoHo to Fort Greene

Leading proponents of the current SoHo rezoning plan (See Page 6) pushed by the de Blasio administration are also strong supporters of Hudson. Aaron Carr, executive director of the Housing Rights Initiative, gave Hudson the maximum donation of $1,000.

HRI is a pro-tenant organization, and Carr views the SoHo upzoning as an opportunity to create affordable units in a wealthy area with good transit and schools. Other champions of the project see it as a way for luxury developers to build high-rise condos that are currently prevented by the area’s historic district designation.

Ben Carlos Thypin of the pro-developer group Open New York is excited about both the SoHo plan and Hudson’s candidacy. In early May, he tweeted that the race between Hudson and Hollingsworth is “the most consequential in the city.” He referred to “multiple proposed rezonings in the affluent parts of the district” and insisted that “if you care about making development more equitable,” Hudson is the “clear choice.”

Thypin’s comments might raise eyebrows in the Fort Greene area of the council district. Amid the blighted 1970s, local residents successfully fought to preserve the 19th-century character of the neighborhood, creating the historic district in 1978. As seen in the SoHo rezoning, the developers seeking luxury condos on the higher floors seek to overwhelm any current height restrictions.

Hollingsworth opposes the SoHo rezoning, telling the Indypendent that it’s “a last-ditch effort of the de Blasio administration to paint their racist housing record as a success while ignoring the displacement they’ve caused.” He’s calling for next year’s newly-elected city council to create a citywide plan “that protects tenants and builds truly affordable housing in wealthier neighborhoods.”

Hudson’s team did not respond to inquiries from the Indypendent, but the fervent support from Thypin and Carr strongly suggests that Hudson is on-board with the current SoHo plan.

Ground Game

Like most of the council races, the battle between Hollingsworth and Hudson will boil down to which candidate has a better ground game. As demonstrated by its successes in the Brisport and Forrest races last year, the DSA clearly knows how to turn out votes.

While the DSA has proven that it can knock out long-time incumbents—e.g. Julia Salazar’s 2018 defeat of Martin Dilan, or the 2020 successes of Souffrant Forrest versus Walter Mosley and Marcela Mitaynes against Felix Ortiz—this race is for an open seat.

And Hudson will have her share of enthusiastic supporters, too. If successful, she would be the first openly LGBTQ Black woman elected in the city.

Hudson is also expected to receive independent expenditure support in the weeks ahead. Spending from a real estate PAC was instrumental in Cumbo’s successful campaign to succeed Tish James in 2013.

As the campaign reaches its final rounds, this one is definitely too close to call.

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