By Sabina Mollot
On September 13, a primary will be held in the 74th Assembly District for the seat won by Assembly Member Harvey Epstein in the special election in April.
The 74th Assembly District covers the East Village, Alphabet City, Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village, Murray Hill and Tudor City.
The candidates are, along with Epstein, Juan Pagan, an East Village Democrat who ran on the Reform Party line in the special election, and Akshay Vaishampayan, a 29-year-old resident of Kips Bay, who, prior to running, worked in the field of financial compliance.
In an interview this week, Vaishampayan told Town & Village he was running because he doesn’t think enough is being done to improve the subway system and because he felt Epstein’s victory as the Democratic County Committee nominee in February smacked of party politics. Epstein had bested two other candidates who withdrew from the race prior to the County Committee vote, when it was clear he had garnered the most support. Epstein then went on to beat three challengers in the special election.
This was after Epstein’s predecessor, Brian Kavanagh, left his office before his term was up to take over the Senate seat previously occupied by Daniel Squadron. In his case, there was also no time for a primary and Kavanagh got nominated by the party before winning the election.
“I feel we need a fresh batch of politicians who are independent from the party machine, who haven’t been elected by the party, but are running because they see problems in their community and they want to help solve it,” said Vaishampayan. “I respect my opponent, but I think the way he got into office wasn’t the Democratic way. I started running in April, because it didn’t sit well with me.”
He added that another motivating factor was wanting to see more young people in politics, and the recent campaign by Congressional candidate Suraj Patel, who got over 40 percent of the primary vote in Carolyn Maloney’s East Side district, was encouraging.
“We need more young people in politics, not just running, but voting,” said Vaishampayan. “We need to spread the word that what happens in a local election will affect your day-to-day life.”
The latter point was hammered home for the candidate while out campaigning in the district, only to have people he’d hand a flyer to ask what the State Assembly is.
“People don’t know the office exists,” Vaishampayan said. “And these are people in their twenties and thirties all the way up to their forties who work professional jobs and went to college.”
His view is that the voters aren’t interested because of races that aren’t really competitive. “People vote for Democrats without knowing who they’re voting for.”
As for Vaishampayan’s concerns about the county committee vote process, even Epstein agreed the system is in need of change.
“The state special election process is not an open system, like it is in local New York City elections, and I’ve co-sponsored legislation to reform state special elections,” he told Town & Village. “But just because the system is flawed, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t engage in the system. By engaging, we can push for change and move towards a more representative process. I’ve worked to diversify and engage the County Committee. This past June, we organized an event to help educate County Committee members about their role within this complex body, and we brainstormed ways to make this group more transparent and active within the community.”
Vaishampayan, the son of parents who emigrated from India over 30 years ago, grew up in Los Angeles, and moved to New York City after college. His career with a company called Navigant Consulting focused on helping institutions develop policy for financial compliance with the law, including anti-money laundering policy. Prior to that, he helped raised funds for a scholarship program at a nonprofit the New York Urban League a (chapter of the national league). As an undergrad at University of California, Irvine, he studied political science and international affairs and as a graduate student at the American University of Paris, he studied international affairs with a focus on Russian politics. While a student, he interned during the 2008 election season for the local county committee, Orange County Democrats.
These days, he serves his building’s co-op board and is a member of the 28th Street Association, an organization for shareholders of several co-op buildings in Kips Bay. While not a formally recognized group, the shareholders meet quarterly on neighborhood issues, with a particular concern being drug addicts passing out on the sidewalks after receiving treatment at Bellevue. Vaishampayan said he saw one of them do that this week in front of the building he lives in with his wife Roma.
“If you go out at 9 or 9:30 a.m. when they’re released, you will find them unconscious in front of our building,” he said. “You see the same people again and again and it’s sad.”
Still, Vaishampayan considers a much bigger quality of life problem to be the subway system, and said making it function better would be his priority if elected.
“It’s disgusting, it’s hot and it’s never on time,” he said, adding that he was frequently late for work, usually on the weekends, mainly because of time spent waiting on platforms rather than the commute itself. “You need appropriate funding for the system. The problem is that nothing’s fixed until it becomes a dire situation, like the L train,” he added.
On the issue of affordability, he wants to see rents capped on apartments being introduced to new tenants, although details on by how much and who would be eligible haven’t yet been worked out, although it would be income-based.
He explained, “If you start renting a one-bedroom apartment at $2,700, no matter how much we can cap the rent, if your starting point is $2,700, your rent will never be affordable. If we start to implement caps on when the rent starts, this could help people, especially college students and people making $40,000. Even with a roommate, $1,300 a month is a good chunk of your paycheck. People starting out at their first job that want to live in the city should be able to.”
He also wants to see more education in schools on money management, in particular the dangers of credit cards, and more encouragement of home ownership. Student debt, he said, could be helped with tax incentives for businesses that could help their employees pay it back.
Vaishampayan has been fundraising, and said he has amassed over $30,000, mostly from family members, friends and neighbors. (According to his website, he is not accepting contributions from developers or political action committees.)
The primary is being held on a Thursday because the Tuesday that week falls on Rosh Hashanah. Other races to cast votes for include governor and attorney general as well as state senator, although local State Senator Brad Hoylman is not facing a challenger in the primary.