VIDEO: Spirited Exchange, Some Sharp Contrasts in Johnson-Kurland Council Debate

Yetta Kurland and Corey Johnson during a contentious moment in the debate. | DONNA ACETO

Yetta Kurland and Corey Johnson during a contentious moment in the debate. | DONNA ACETO

BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | In a spirited debate frequently punctuated by cheers, boos, and catcalls from the audience, the candidates who are seeking the City Council seat held by Speaker Christine Quinn for the past 14 years faced off for roughly 90 minutes.

“I think 14 years is a long time to be representing a district,” said Corey Johnson during the August 26 debate that was held at the Bow Tie Cinema on West 23rd Street in Manhattan. The 31-year-old said that while Quinn had done some “good things,” there were other actions taken by the speaker that “I vehemently disagreed with.”

Yetta Kurland. | DONNA ACETO

Yetta Kurland. | DONNA ACETO

Yetta Kurland, a 45-year-old attorney, declined to criticize Quinn and then delivered a standard Kurland shot –– an oblique reference to things that remind the listener to be suspicious of the person referred to.

“Her close relationship to Mayor Bloomberg gives her access and power and some might argue that’s a good thing,” Kurland said.

The candidates are vying to represent the roughly 180,000 New Yorkers in a district that ranges from the Columbus Circle area to Canal Street and from Fifth Avenue to the Hudson River. With no other credible candidate in the race, the September 10 Democratic primary will determine who takes the seat.

Quinn has not endorsed in the race nor has she been asked for an endorsement. Kurland challenged Quinn in 2009 and won 31 percent of the vote in a three-candidate Democratic primary. Quinn won a surprisingly weak 52 percent of the vote. Quinn and Johnson have had a difficult relationship.

Corey Johnson. | DONNA ACETO

Corey Johnson. | DONNA ACETO

During the debate, Johnson and Kurland mostly used their standard campaign rhetoric. Johnson showed his detailed knowledge of the district and city policy that he learned during eight years on the community board that covers much of District 3. Kurland avoided details and specifics, favoring broad strokes and vision.

Johnson talked about being raised in a working class home in Massachusetts by a mother who was a lunch lady in a public school and a father who was a Teamster and drove a truck for Pepsi.

Kurland’s biography consists of a string of titles she uses to describe herself –– a “small business owner,” an “educator,” a “civil rights attorney,” and many others –– as well as her accomplishments.

The enmity that is very much a feature of the race was also on display.

Kurland made repeated references to needing “representatives who are going to be honest and open and transparent.” She also referred to electing someone who is not allied with “political insiders” and “real estate interests.”

Johnson has held jobs at two real estate development firms. He only put them in his campaign biography after the first job was reported by the web site He clearly resented the implication that he is “real estate executive,” as he put it.

“If anybody wants to come see my apartment, they’ll see I’m the poorest real estate executive this side of the Mississippi,” he said, adding that his home is all of 300 square feet.

A pro-Johnson poster outside the debate. | DONNA ACETO

A pro-Johnson poster outside the debate. | DONNA ACETO

Johnson has a string of endorsements from progressive officeholders, including Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who represents Manhattan’s West Side, as well as the heads of block associations, PTA leaders, and others in the district.

“Not a single elected local official has endorsed you and I think that says something,” he told Kurland. “These are local folks who are endorsing me.”

The crowd of roughly 300 freely shared their views on both candidates throughout the debate. They cheered their candidate and booed the other during introductions. If one candidate avoided answering a question, some partisan would yell out “Answer the question.” The accusation “Liar” was used more than once as was “Tell the truth.”

The debate was a refreshing departure from televised debates in which audiences are admonished to keep silent and the discussions are often formulaic and empty.

Kurland and Johnson agree on many issues. Both say that the Lower West Side of Manhattan must have a hospital to replace the now closed St. Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center, the city needs more affordable housing, and the district needs more parks and more schools. They disagree on who can best deliver these things.

Several members of the audience show their support for Kurland as they leave the debate. | DONNA ACETO

Several members of the audience show their support for Kurland as they leave the debate. | DONNA ACETO

Kurland said it was an “easy decision” for voters. They can back a candidate who is tied to “real estate interests and political insiders” or they can vote for her.

Johnson had a different view.

“I want this race to be about the future,” he said. “This race is about who has delivered consistently for this community.”

The debate was moderated by Paul Schindler, the editor of Gay City News, and Lincoln Anderson, the editor of the Villager. It was sponsored by NYC Community Media, the parent company of both papers and of Chelsea Now, the Downtown Express, and the East Villager.

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