As he relaxed over a cup of tea in a crowded café on Amsterdam Avenue, Mark Levine laid out an ambitious message for his City Council campaign.
“This campaign is about change at a time when the entire elected leadership of this city is now turning over,” Levine, a Democratic district leader, said. “We want to make New York City the progressive trendsetter for the rest of the country, the way it once was and I’m sorry to say is not anymore.”
With this hope of “redefining New York politics,” Levine formally declared his candidacy last month for the District 7 City Council seat, aiming to replace term-limited council member Robert Jackson, who is running for Manhattan borough president.
After earning a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard, Levine taught math and science at a public high school in the Bronx and entered the nonprofit sector. He founded the Neighborhood Trust Federal Credit Union, a credit union that helped its members learn financial literacy, and eventually worked as the executive director of Teach for America in New York.
Levine pointed to both his nonprofit experience and work as a district leader in Upper Manhattan as exemplars of his deep-seated progressive mindset.
“I come from a deeply political family which is progressive to its core,” he said. “My mother marched with Dr. King at Selma, so my roots are very much connected to the social justice movement.”
He was quick to note, however, that achieving social justice is not an immediate outcome of running for political office. He said he was inspired to transition from the nonprofit sector to politics after witnessing “the failures of local government,” and came to believe that only political action could truly provide a remedy for them.
While working “on the front lines” with nonprofit organizations in Upper Manhattan, Levine said he was troubled to see businesses closing, wealth disparities growing, and families forced to finance education through “loan sharks that charged them 10-percent interest per week.”
“More than a decade ago, I came to realize that as critical as the nonprofit sector is, transformative change requires local government to do the right thing,” Levine said. “But the transition between nonprofit and politics has been quite seamless.”
Although he thinks that no single issue will define the race for Jackson’s seat, Levine said any victorious candidate would have to immediately focus on improving the availability of affordable housing in Upper Manhattan, as well as working to reform stop-and-frisk, which has come under heavy fire in recent months from activists who claim that the police tactic encourages racial profiling.
“Anyone representing this neighborhood has to tackle that as an urgent priority,” he said.
Since declaring his candidacy, Levine has received endorsements from a number of prominent local Democratic officials, including City Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito, CC ’91, Rep. Jerry Nadler, CC ’69, and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.
He has also received an endorsement from State Senator Adriano Espaillat, a political ally whose loss to Rep. Charles Rangel in last year’s congressional primary and subsequent decision to run for re-election in the State Senate pushed Levine toward the City Council race and away from a possible Senate candidacy.
If Espaillat had won, he said, “there is no doubt I would have run for State Senate. But alliances matter and coalitions matter and we have worked quite hard to build a coalition uptown. It was not something I was looking to dismantle.”
A growing string of political endorsements in a competitive race that has thus far attracted eight other candidates makes Levine stand out, in addition to being a white Jew in a largely Hispanic and African-American demographic makeup of the 7th District.
Levine attracted controversy in December when fellow candidate Thomas Lopez-Pierre emailed a warning to his followers invoking “the potential damage to the political empowerment of the Black and Hispanic community if Mark Levine, the White/Jewish candidate was elected to the 7th Council District in 2013.”
In addition to condemning Lopez-Pierre’s email as divisive, Levine said he was confident that his skin color would not play a part in the campaign. He speaks fluent Spanish—he paused halfway through the interview for a quick phone call in the language with his wife—and said that his coalition is diverse enough to withstand such attacks.
“That kind of rhetoric has been rejected by all but the most fringe elements in this district,” Levine said. “I don’t think I could draw a district that would be a better fit for me.”