Jan. 20, 2020 By Allie Griffin and Christian Murray
Two candidates vying to be the next borough president traded barbs at a forum in Sunnyside last week when the topics of Amazon, real estate contributions and the Queens County Democratic machine were raised.
Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Donovan Richards — two of the six candidates who participated in the forum — got into a heated exchange after Van Bramer asked Richards why he backed the Amazon HQ2 deal after its corporate leaders said it would not allow workers to organize.
Van Bramer also accused Richards of being the “pro-Amazon candidate” in order to win favor with the real estate industry.
“The truth is now all the Amazon lobbyists and the billionaires are funding your campaign for borough president,” Van Bramer — whose campaign is anti the influence of big real estate and Amazon — said.
Richards shot back saying Van Bramer used to take real estate money from large developers and flip-flopped on the Amazon HQ2 deal.
“There’s been no one who’s taken more real estate [money] in his entire career than Jimmy Van Bramer,” Richards alleged.
He claimed that Van Bramer’s change of heart on Amazon HQ2 was brought about by the election of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The other candidates at the forum — Council Member Costa Constantinides, former Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, police reform advocate Anthony Miranda and former Assistant District Attorney Jim Quinn — also weighed in on Amazon’s scrapped plan to come to Long Island City.
Crowley and Quinn said they had supported the Amazon deal, while Miranda and Constantinides said it was bad for Queens.
But the tension between Richards and Van Bramer was prominent.
“This is our tenth debate, they’ve all been pretty sleepy,” Van Bramer said to ease the mood. “I’m glad Donovan and I just woke this place up.”
The pair sparred throughout the evening on Amazon and real estate contributions, and presented two very different views on the Queens County Democratic Party.
Richards said that Van Bramer signed two letters of support of Amazon before changing his mind.
“I just want to point out history,” Richards said to Van Bramer. “You sent two letters of support for Amazon in the community and then you had a change of heart automatically when AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] was elected.”
Richards noted that Van Bramer — who has positioned himself as the progressive candidate — endorsed incumbent Joe Crowley against progressive newcomer Ocasio-Cortez.
“I just want to state that because it’s very important that we speak about records and not blow with the wind,” he said.
But Van Bramer (who opposed the Amazon deal in part due to the $3 billion in subsidies that were later offered) wondered how Richards could support the Amazon HQ2 deal and accept real estate money — yet proclaim to want to combat gentrification.
“If you’re up on this stage and you’re talking about gentrification … it is absolutely insane to have supported HQ2 because had they come, an absolute tsunami of gentrification would have rolled over western Queens and moved east and all of us would have been priced out,” Van Bramer said.
Richards said he supported Amazon’s HQ2 in Long Island City because it would have brought 25,000 jobs to Queens and given Queensbridge residents a chance for upward mobility.
He said leaders must sometimes make tough decisions.
“That’s the job of leadership — not to blow at the wind,” Richards said. “Leadership is sometimes making an unpopular decision, but once again standing on principle and conviction, not on politics.”
The pair also sparred over real estate contributions.
Richards, who was the chair of the City Council’s subcommittee on zoning and franchises, acknowledged that 30 percent of his campaign contributions have come from the real estate industry.
Real estate contributions to Richards’ campaign — according to the latest filings — include $4,500 from the Ciampa Organization, a Flushing-based developer; $3,000 from Stanley Schuckman, founder of the New York brokerage Schuckman Realty; $3,500 from Edward J Minskoff, who runs a New York real estate firm; and $1,500 from David Koptiev of Platinum Realty.
Taxpayers for an Affordable New York, a coalition of real estate groups including the Real Estate Board of New York, also contributed $750– after some of it was refunded.
Attorneys for the lobby group Greenberg Traurig–hired by Amazon to bring support for HQ2– contributed a combined $335 to Richards. The president and an employee at another lobby group hired by Amazon, Yoswein New York, contributed $620.
Alicia Glen, the former deputy mayor who helped bring Amazon to New York, put $500 toward Richards’ campaign.
“Yes, people want to be the winner, so they cut checks,” Richards said in response to Van Bramer’s criticism at the forum.
Van Bramer said that he is not taking real estate money for his campaign.
Van Bramer first announced in October 2018 that he would no longer accept real estate contributions. He told the New York Daily News that his decision to reject real estate money was partially inspired by Ocasio-Cortez, who was critical of big real estate and the role luxury developers played in local politics.
“I am proud to not be taking any real estate money in this race,” he said at the forum.
But Van Bramer has generated significant contributions from the real estate industry in the past, which Richards alluded to.
For instance in the 2017 election cycle his campaign received a significant amount from the owners and employees of large New York real estate companies — including those based in his district in Long Island City.
Those included contributions from the owners and employees of Rockrose, which gave $4,500; Werwaiss & Co. $4,500; Brodsky Organization $3,000; Related Companies $5,750; Plaxall $2,625; Millennium Partners $5,750, Lions Group $4,000; T.F. Cornerstone $500 — among others.
In the current race, Van Bramer has received big contributions elsewhere. For instance, he has received $14,500 from Basil Messados and his family, co-owners of Queens Medallion leasing. Messados’ Long Island City-based company, Queens Medallion, has been subject to criticism for its involvement in the taxi-cab lending business.
Messados was among those named in the New York Times piece “They were conned: How reckless loans devastated a generation of taxi drivers,” as one of the many players to profit from the medallion lending controversy that devastated immigrants.
The Queens County Democratic Party
The pair presented an entirely different view of the Queens County Democratic Party, which has gained a reputation for appointing candidates to positions — such as judges — and blocking outsiders from running for office by using its team of attorneys to stop them from getting on the ballot.
The party, dubbed the Queens machine, has recently come under attack, particularly by Ocasio-Cortez and Tiffany Cabán, who was defeated last year in the controversial Queens District Attorney race.
Van Bramer said he was proud to have never been part of the “machine.”
“Ten years ago I stood in this very room as an insurgent candidate for city council running against a machine-backed district leader,” he said, referring to Deirdre Feerick, a party district leader who Van Bramer beat in 2009. “We ran a people-backed campaign and won that race.”
In 2014, Van Bramer bucked the machine by endorsing Melissa Mark-Viverito, a progressive, as speaker– as opposed to Joseph Crowley’s choice of Dan Garodnick. She later appointed Van Bramer Majority Leader.
Van Bramer said the borough would be better off without the party organization and said he would stand up to it as a progressive insurgent.
Richards, who was endorsed by the machine last month, said he was “very proud” to have the organization’s backing.
The organization’s endorsement of a candidate, however, irked two progressive groups that are trying to bring change to the party apparatus. The groups, New Reformers PAC and Queens County Committee for All, held a rally outside the party headquarters in Forest Hills before the Dec. 30 endorsement.
The groups protested the concept of the party making an endorsement, arguing that the party should not pick candidates in races where Democrats square off against one another. They said the closed-door endorsement process shuts many people out.
But at the forum last week, Richards said he had the same goal — to bring Democrats together and to be more open. He said that now is not the time for division.
“I know that there are individuals who want to paint this as a progressive versus the establishment, but this is about ensuring that 2.2 million people take pride in our city,” he said. “We’re trying to unify this borough.”
The forum came just two weeks after Van Bramer and Richards had a war of words over twitter — on the eve of Richard’s endorsement.
“The corrupt Queens Democratic Machine is the opposite of democratic, and Monday’s meeting & endorsements are clearly a sham…” Van Bramer tweeted. He went on to say that he has “stood up against the machine” since being elected to office in 2009.
The corrupt Queens Democratic Machine is the opposite of democratic, and Monday’s meeting & endorsements are clearly a sham. I beat the county machine in my 2009 insurgent progressive campaign for Council and have proudly stood up against the machine since.
— Jimmy Van Bramer (@JimmyVanBramer) December 28, 2019
Richards fired right back with a tweet of his own questioning Van Bramer’s historic allegiances.
Let’s discuss the other guy who supported Joe Crowley over @AOC and all of a sudden is anti-establishment. This individual also sent two letters of support for Amazon to come to LIC, before he knew what was in the deal and talked to his community. @Costa4NY is at least genuine.
— Donovan Richards (@DRichards13) December 28, 2019
Van Bramer endorsed Crowley in the congressional primary, with Crowley posting a picture of the endorsement on his Facebook page on June 8, 2018. Crowley, who was the long-time kingpin of the machine, also posted a photo of Van Bramer and his supporters on Facebook getting signatures for him to get him on the ballot.
But Van Bramer, in a post on medium last year, said that he didn’t endorse Ocasio-Cortez since he feared the machine would punish him and withhold resources from the area.
Nevertheless, Van Bramer’s 2017 campaign did help the party.
It contributed significant amounts to the Queens County Democratic Party as well as candidates backed by the machine.
For instance, Van Bramer’s 2017 campaign contributed $2,400 to the party, while also contributing to many candidate campaigns —such as $2,750 to The Committee to Elect Elizabeth Crowley; $2,750 to the We Support Paul Vallone; $2,750 to Peter Koo 2017; $2,750 to Grodenchik 2017. The fund also contributed $250 to the Crowley Leadership Fund.
Richards, too, provided the party with a plenty of funding in 2017. His 2017 campaign wrote out a $1,000 check to the Crowley Leadership Fund; about $1,400 to the party; and $2,750 to many party-backed candidates– such as $2,750 to We Support Paul Vallone; $2,750 to Adrienne [Adams] for New York; and $2,750 to Re-elect Antonio Reynoso.
Van Bramer became an outspoken critic of the party after Crowley’s loss and was quick to embrace Ocasio-Cortez. He endorsed Cynthia Nixon for governor against Andrew Cuomo two days after Crowley lost.
Van Bramer then backed Zephyr Teachout, a progressive who sought the state attorney general position. In doing so, he rescinded his endorsement of Leticia James, who was backed by the party.
Meanwhile, Richards endorsed party-favorites Cuomo and James.
Van Bramer was then first in the council to endorse Tiffany Cabán for Queens District Attorney, who was backed early on by Ocasio-Cortez supporters. Richards supported the party candidate Melinda Katz.
At the Sunnyside forum, Richards acknowledged that the machine needed to do more to reach out and include more people in the process. However, he said the party was taking steps, noting how the party organization is becoming more diverse. He pointed to Crowley’s replacement being Congressman Gregory Meeks, an African-American.
“We still have a lot of work to extend out our arms.”
The special election for Queens Borough President will be held on March 24.
You can watch the full forum, hosted by the Sunnyside Post and Sunnyside Community Services, below.