In 2017, Marni Halasa ran for City Council kind of on a lark. Friends she’d acquired through activism and her time in a graduate program at Columbia pushed her to challenge incumbent Corey Johnson in District 3, with the larger goal of building the Green Party in New York City.
Her campaign was small, but it made a lot of noise. She pushed Johnson hard on his campaign taking $63,000 from real estate interests and the need to pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA), legislation that aims to level the power between commercial landlords and their tenants.
Halasa ended up losing in a pretty big way, earning just 1,556 votes compared to Johnson’s 25,744 – but she thought she influenced Johnson’s allowing a hearing on the SBJSA (though never bringing it to a vote), and that was a measurable achievement.
Now, in 2021, Halasa is running again, this time as a Democrat, in a field of six candidates all trying to become the next representative for Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen and the West Village. But in a lot of ways, this race isn’t much different from the one she ran four years ago: she’s still an underdog; she’s still pushing hard to pass the SBJSA; and while she’s not facing the term-limited Johnson, she is running against his presumptive heir in Erik Bottcher, the Council speaker’s former chief of staff.
A fight against the perceived establishment suits Halasa’s approach to politics. She has a “burn it down” mentality, though she laughed at the suggestion of making it her campaign slogan. Halasa views many of the systems within city government – such as City Planning, Economic Development Corporation, and even some community boards – to be rigged against tenants and set up to fall in line with luxury real estate developers. The only way to unrig a rigged system, Halasa said, is sometimes starting from scratch. But it also begins, she said, by electing a different kind of Council Member, and she thinks she fits that bill.
Speaking Her Mind
Like most candidates, Halasa’s approach to politics is informed by her life experience. She learned her work ethic from her immigrant parents – a Filipino mother and Jordanian father – who raised her in Akron, Ohio. As a competitive figure skating coach, she understands the discipline it takes to work on a goal over and over until you accomplish it perfectly. But much of her fire and flare comes from her days as an activist and organizer.
When Occupy Wall Street began in 2011, Halasa was teaching figure skating and working as a performance artist. A friend suggested she join the protests in one of her costumes, thinking it would draw a lot of attention.
“People were really angry, and I would come in these colorful costumes and kind of change the energy of the protest,” Halasa recounted. “I feel like it sort of diffused a lot of tension. But then the media just would come to me and I realized, wow, this is a way I can get progressive issues into the media.”
Now, she employs these tactics as a community activist fighting for some of the issues she deems most central to her campaign: protecting and funding NYCHA, ending the homelessness crisis and passing the SBJSA. In protesting the city’s adoption of a federal housing program called Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), which essentially turns over NYCHA to private management, Halasa said she infiltrated two working group meetings and nearly got arrested trying to shut another down.
She said some residents she meets on the street don’t agree with some of her goals, like defunding the police, but she’s earned respect for speaking her mind.
“What I’ve noticed about campaigning is that I think voters want a different kind of candidate,” said Halasa. “I think they want somebody who’s outside; they want a regular person who doesn’t have inside connections.”
And that’s where Halasa feels like she has an edge on Bottcher, who, in her mind is a part of the city’s political machine – a system that favors those with connections and money and is rigged against the average New Yorker. She sees Bottcher as the machine’s torch bearer in District 3 – as he’s garnered the most of the coveted endorsements and has raised twice as much money as the next leading candidate, all of which Halasa attributes to Bottcher’s ties to Johnson.
“These machine people need somebody challenging them or else they can just like waltz on in,” said Halasa. “That’s really why I ran against Corey in 2017. “I feel like it’s important to criticize a council administration that’s doing nothing. And I know with this ranked-choice voting, they’re saying, ‘Don’t be so negative,’ but if you’re not negative, and you don’t call out what needs to be done, you don’t give voters a reason to vote for you.”
Meanwhile, Bottcher’s campaign says their candidate isn’t in anyone’s pocket.
“Over 930 people have contributed to our campaign - those most of any campaign in the history of our district - without a dime from real estate developers, lobbyists or corporate PACs,” Bottcher said in response. “Hundreds of residents are volunteering, and we garnered 4,961 petition signatures to get me on the ballot. We are a grassroots movement of New Yorkers who believe that if we come together, New York City’s best days are still ahead.”
If the primary election plays out the same as Halasa’s previous campaign, and she loses out to the favorite, she’ll feel satisfied that she had an influence in the race and the policies that were prioritized. But even if that’s the case, she doesn’t plan on letting up on Bottcher, or whoever wins out in June.
“I’m going to keep pushing because I’m so mad. I can have a smile on my face, but I’m so angry about the things that just need to be done,” said Halasa. “Occupy [Wall Street] taught me, what do you do you? You collectively organize disaffected people, you’re out in the street, you can shut things down - it actually can make an impact.”
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