And they’re off ... kinda

Petitioning during COVID forces two out of race


The field for the special election to replace Andrew Cohen on the city council narrowed Tuesday as Abigail Martin and Marcos Sierra both dropped out of the race.

But it doesn’t mean they don’t still have hopes of becoming a member of the city council. Both said they’re going to wait to run in the June primary for the seat, and leave the March 23 special election to fill Cohen’s last year of his term to someone else.

Mayor Bill de Blasio set the special election date Monday, telling the candidates to “get out there and get petitioning” to get on the ballot, before returning to his calls for people to stay away from others as coronavirus cases continue to spiral out of control. 

Although several candidates joined forces last week asking Gov. Andrew Cuomo to suspend petitioning for special elections — like he did for elections last year — many of those same candidates were out on the street Monday starting to collect the 450 signatures needed to get their name on the March 23 ballot. 

But not everyone was ready to start petitioning. Martin, a former social worker and current Columbia University adjunct professor, said she wants to focus her energy on the June primary. As a first-time candidate with a grassroots organization, the logistics of running two elections back-to-back was very difficult to figure out.

“I believe running in one election, the June primary,” Martin said. “This is the smartest way to ensure that I win and can represent the voters of District 11.”

But another and perhaps more urgent reason she’s leaving the race is that she doesn’t want to her campaign petitioning while coronavirus infection rates are spiking not only in the city, but also in key parts of the district. Martin doesn’t want to ask her volunteers to physically interact with people to collect the signatures needed for ballot access.

“I actually have volunteers right now that have COVID,” Martin said. “I don’t want to do (petitioning) at all. I certainly didn’t want to do it twice.”

Martin joined with the other candidates seeking to replace Cohen last week — all with the exception of Eric Dinowitz — in calling for de Blasio to persuade the governor to waive petitioning requirements. However, so far, their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

Martin had gone a step further just before Christmas, writing an op-ed for the Gotham Gazette suggesting Cuomo should postpone the elections altogether — a position that didn’t have much support from her election peers. 

Dinowitz told The Riverdale Press he’s in favor of lowering the petition signature threshold, meaning fewer person-to-person interactions. But he didn’t take a clear position on suspending petition requirements altogether.

Over the weekend, Dinowitz won — as expected — the endorsement of the Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club. 

With that comes a mandate from club members to petition only for Dinowitz, meaning he has a built-in volunteer corps ready to collect signatures for him.  

Sierra also cited the dangers of petitioning during the height of the pandemic as why he withdrew from the special election. 

“I’m a working-class father. I’m an essential worker,” Sierra told The Press. “The health and safety of my family and neighbors supersede the reckless decision to collect signatures in a pandemic.”

Infection rates in Wakefield and Woodlawn are some of the highest in the city, Sierra said, with one-in-five people testing positive for the coronavirus. He’s concerned this danger means voters in there won’t get to participate in the petitioning process.

“it’s dangerous to go over there,” he said. “Candidates are not going to go over there — hopefully. Almost 20 percent of the district is being left out of the petitioning process, and the petitioning process should have petitions from people in all neighborhoods.”

Although both Sierra and Martin say they are gearing up to run in June, it’s not clear if the pandemic situation will be any different by then. Petitioning to get on the primary ballot starts next month. And while infection rates may not be lower by then, Martin believes it will at least give her more time. 

Sierra is a bit more optimistic. He’s confident the city will be in a better position by then with more people vaccinated and lower infection rates as a result.

Vaccination has been slow to roll out, especially in New York, where Cuomo has threatened to fine agencies that don’t distribute vaccines in storage in a timely manner. 

That means only a small percentage of the state’s population has received any shot so far, and those who got in from the beginning can’t even boast about immunity from the coronavirus until Valentine’s Day, at the earliest, public health officials said.

Martin told The Press last August her years as a social worker will help her understand the needs of people in the district so she can better represent them on the city council.

“I understand what it’s like to struggle in that way,” she said. “I think my experience working with families who are struggling sort of lent itself to my inspiration. And I just want to continue living in the city, and families like mine are getting squeezed out of the city.”

Martin wants to help people recover from the pandemic. That includes putting together plans to prevent evictions, fund affordable child care, and help parents navigate the complexities of remote learning for their children.

In his own talk with The Press last September, Sierra said he wants to better represent people in the eastern part of the district — particularly communities like Norwood and Woodlawn. 

“Whenever there’s a perceived sense of power, there is an inequitable distribution of resources,” Sierra said. “And that holds true the farther you go from that center of power.”

He added that “equal is not equitable. Equal means all of the seven neighborhoods have somebody in the council representing them. Equitable means all seven neighborhoods get their issues addressed the same way, equitably.”

With Martin and Sierra out, the remaining candidates in the special election race to replace Cohen include real estate lawyer Dan Padernacht, Dinowitz, environmentalist Jessica Haller, community arts leader Mino Lora, and former New York Police Department officer Carlton Berkley. 

Cohen resigned his council seat last month after he was elected to the Bronx Supreme Court bench.

The remaining candidates are pounding the pavement collecting signatures to qualify for the special election.

“We’re still here,” Haller said. “We’re full steam ahead, signatures and all.”