After city campaign funding reports were released last week, two frontrunners have emerged in the crowded Democratic primary to represent the greater Morningside Heights area in the City Council.
Mark Levine, a Democratic district leader, and Zead Ramadan, the chairman of the board of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights organization, lead the pack in the race for District 7 in terms of fundraising, according to a New York City Campaign Finance Board report released last week.
Many of the candidates, who are running to replace term-limited council member Robert Jackson, have attracted support not only in the district, which also includes Manhattanville, Hamilton Heights, and part of Washington Heights, but also from particular constituencies citywide, including New York’s Muslim population and occupational groups ranging from public school employees to political organizers.
Levine, who formally began his campaign seven weeks ago, leads the pack with roughly $60,000 raised. He is followed by Ramadan, who began collecting funds only a week before the Jan. 15 filing deadline but has managed to rack up around $40,000.
In an interview on Tuesday, Levine attributed his lead to a combination of individual donations from residents of the district and dedicated political activists with whom he had worked in the past. He said these included members of his Barack Obama Democratic Club, as well as people he had worked with while in the nonprofit sector.
“I don’t have the fortune of having personal wealth or family wealth, so that is not a fundraising option for me,” Levine said. “It’s really people I have worked with in over two decades of activism, and to me, it’s really heartening to see so many people stepping up.”
According to the finance board’s report, Levine, who worked in the nonprofit sector in the past, has also attracted a number of donations from leaders in philanthropic organizations, including Teach for America, Fresh Youth Initiatives, and the Robin Hood Foundation, a city-based anti-poverty organization.
Meanwhile, Ramadan, who said in an interview on Tuesday that he raised most of his funds after returning from vacation with his family in early January, has leaned heavily on his relatives for donations. In addition to his immediate family, which owns a café in Washington Heights and has donated thousands to the campaign, Ramadan has reached out to his more distant relations.
“At this time in my life when I ask them for help, I know that they love me,” Ramadan said, referring to his extended family. “But with the fundraising that I’ve done, I’ve only reached out to about 10 percent of my extended family.”
Ramadan, a Palestinian-American, has also attracted significant support from the district’s Muslim community, which he calls a “pride factor” and says is healthy to the democratic process because his candidacy involves more Muslims in local politics. (Jackson is the only Muslim on the council.)
The geographic distribution of Ramadan’s donations is also broader than his rivals. Although no candidate drew donations exclusively from District 7, a notable percentage of Ramadan’s donations have come from areas outside Manhattan, including Staten Island, Yonkers, Brooklyn, and parts of the Bronx.
Political newcomer Mark Otto has also received donations from a broad geographic base, bringing in roughly $25,000. Educators from around the city have been a major source of funds for Otto’s campaign, with employees of major universities, public school teachers, and nonprofit activists giving him thousands of dollars.
This aligns with the issue of education reform, which Otto, a public school teacher himself, has made the keystone issue of his campaign.
“We’re targeting LGBT activists, teachers, educators, principals, and parents of public schools, and those are groups that we have gone back to consistently,” Otto said. “The district money will come as the momentum continues to build, but the issues I represent are citywide. It’s not just about education or LGBT youth in District 7.”
Cheryl Pahaham, another newcomer who was among the first to declare her candidacy, was the fourth-largest recipient with roughly $16,000, but did not reply to requests for comment Wednesday. Representatives for Luis Tejada, a community activist and the only other candidate to raise above $10,000, were unable to comment before press time.
Corey Ortega, an aide to assemblyman Keith Wright who has announced his plans to run, was not included in the report because he has not started a campaign finance committee. Ortega said he will start raising money after the formal opening of his new Democratic club in Harlem. He plans to sign the lease for the club next week, he said.