March 1, 2013 at 2:31 PM
By Alex Kratz
With sleet pelting the slushy sidewalk outside of Mosholu Montefiore Community Center on Gun Hill Road in early February, Public Advocate and mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio took first-time City Council candidate Andrew Cohen to school on how to turn a static conversation into drama for the camera.
As Cohen and his handlers looked on, de Blasio showed him various hand gestures: slapping the back of one hand into the other, vigorously pointing at things, counting off numbers with your fingers.
“You’ve got to give them some drama,” de Blasio said, half-joking. “See, I’m showing you all the tricks here, dude.”
De Blasio was just one of several elected officials to endorse the relatively unknown and mild-mannered Cohen for the soon-to-be-vacant 11th District City Council seat over the past two months, including its current resident, Oliver Koppell.
Cohen’s primary rival for the seat, Cliff Stanton, who declared his intention to run for office early last year, derides the endorsements as nothing more than calculated political moves to play nice with the Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club, which Stanton says owns a “monopoly” on Riverdale’s political scene.
Stanton says “Cohen is a manufactured candidate with thin leadership credentials and a scant record of achievement; a product of the political machine of the Northwest Bronx.”
Without any political support, Stanton’s trying to position himself as the anti-establishment candidate. “If you want an independent voice from someone who has fought for our community and has a record of getting things done, I’m your guy.”
The district also includes Norwood, Bedford Park, Woodlawn, Wakefield and Kingsbridge, where Ben Franklin’s reach isn’t extensive. And both candidates admit that, policy-wise, very little separates the two.
So the race may come down to resume, style and personality.
At first glance, the two couldn’t be more different. Stanton wears stylish, form-fitting clothes that show off an athletic physique. He looks like a quarterback. Bookish and unassuming, Cohen wears glasses and loose fitting suits. He looks like a lawyer or a college professor — which he is.
After growing up in the Rockaways and getting his undergraduate degree at SUNY-New Paltz, Cohen got his first taste of politics while studying at Cardozo School of Law in Greenwich Village when he joined the local Village Independent Democrats Club.
“I found that you can get good things done by electing good people, good Democrats,” Cohen said in an interview.
For about a year, in 1998, Cohen worked as counsel for Assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz, who also represents much of the 11th Council District and is one of Cohen’s most adamant supporters and Stanton’s biggest critics.
From there Cohen spent eight years as a law secretary for a judge in Bronx Supreme Court, which Cohen called a “great job.” Basically, Cohen said, he worked behind the scenes, doing legal research and acting as a mediator between the two parties in any given case.
Cohen now practices law out of his home in Spuyten Duyvil and has a host of extracurricular activities filling out his resume, including aging committee chair on Community Board 8, board member on the Friends of Van Cortlandt Park and member of the Bronx Bar Association. He’s also an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Stanton’s a local boy who grew up in Kingsbridge Heights attending PS 95, JHS 143 and graduating from Bronx High School of Science. He then graduated from the University of Michigan, where he studied political science and finance.
After college, Stanton spent a year working for a Detroit-area bank before returning to New York and creating one of the city’s largest street vending companies. Stanton eventually became a leader and spokesman for the Big Apple Food Vendors Association, a group that advocates for street vendors.
That experience led him to seek a more involved civic life, he says. In 1997, he worked on Freddy Ferrer’s mayoral campaign and he served as chief of staff for Brooklyn City Councilman Noach Dear from 1997 to 1999.
Since leaving Dear’s office, Stanton’s spent the past several years engaging in more local efforts — getting deeply involved in the Parents Associations at his kids’ schools, PS 24 and Bronx Science, as a treasurer and board member of the Kingsbridge-Riverdale-Van Cortlandt Development Corporation, and helping to launch the now-annual Riverdale Riverfest. A couple of years ago, he helped recruit a charter middle school to Kingsbridge and now sits on its board.
It’s through these local efforts that Stanton has bumped heads with the political establishment, specifically Dinowitz, who Stanton has labeled an “obstructionist” for what he considers the assemblyman’s repeated attempts to derail his initiatives.
“Any time there’s a challenger [against the Ben Franklin Club], they circle the wagons and when any attempt at innovation or creativity comes around, it gets snuffed out,” Stanton says. “This is a biggie for them, because it threatens the monopoly.”
Stanton says Dinowitz put up roadblocks against a plan he supported to put an ice skating rink in Van Cortlandt Park, then happily showed up to a ribbon-cutting when the plan was approved. When Stanton proposed putting a pedestrian plaza on Riverdale Avenue, Dinowitz vehemently opposed it.
Any mention of Stanton or his community efforts obviously gets Dinowitz riled up. But he says any opposition Stanton’s experienced is based on the merits of the ideas he’s proposed. “Is it possible that I think it’s a bad idea?” Dinowitz asks, rhetorically. “Some new ideas are dumb ideas.”
Stanton realizes he’s fighting an uphill battle, but he says he’s never been afraid of a fight. He’s not so sure about his opponent.
“I think he’s in way over his head,” Stanton says about Cohen. “There are 51 council members and City Hall is a tough place to do business and he’s not going to have Uncle Jeff [Dinowitz] by his side. You need somebody who is not only going to build consensus and coalitions, but who’s going to fight.”
Cohen says he got into the race because of all the support he felt in the first place. The endorsements, which also include Speaker Christine Quinn, State Senator Jeff Klein, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Congressman Eliot Engel, show that there’s a “coalescing of support around my candidacy,” Cohen says.
“The Council is a legislature, you need support in order to get things done,” Cohen says.
Sergio Villaverde, a member of Community Board 8 and the Ben Franklin Club, says he’s seen another side of Cohen, combative side, during club meetings, where he hasn’t been afraid to criticize even the most decorated elected officials.
“That’s a side of Andy you don’t really see,” Villaverde said, adding that Cohen once wrote him a check during his campaign against Assemblyman Jose Rivera, who once controlled the Bronx Democratic machine. “He didn’t have to take that risk.”