By Sabina Mollot
Despite an ongoing battle with prostate cancer and some intensive surgery he is now recovering from, an East Village resident who’s running in the primary against Assembly Member Harvey Epstein says he is staying in the race.
That candidate is Juan Pagan, a former corrections employee who later worked as a contractor and is now retired.
In a campaign interview with Town & Village this week, Pagan shared that he’d had a radical prostatectomy (removal of the prostate gland) on August 14 at Memorial Sloan Kettering in this latest bout with cancer. This is after a recent full recovery from stage 4 lymphoma, Pagan told Town & Village previously, and now Pagan is saying his doctors are optimistic this time around as well. Still, the 62-year-old candidate is taking it easy, and while he agreed to an interview with Town & Village over the phone he also canceled his participation in a debate earlier in the day.
“I have a high threshold of pain, but I’d be squirming in my chair,” he explained.
Pagan had also run for the 74th District Assembly seat during the special election and then, like now, his campaign was mostly inactive. He hasn’t fundraised and due to his current condition, he hasn’t been able to do any campaigning on the streets either.
Fortunately for Pagan, he does not expect to win. He’s running anyway, though, for the same reason he ran in April, and the same reason he has run in six other local elections for the past 12 years. It’s a statement, he’s explained, against his own Democratic Party for picking favorites, enabling such anointed ones to clobber opponents in primaries and special elections that are known to have minimal voter participation.
Epstein, who won the special election in April with more than 90 percent of the vote, was nominated by the Democratic County Committee in February over two other opponents. Because of his predecessor, Brian Kavanagh, leaving before his term was up so he could occupy a downtown State Senate seat, there wasn’t time then for a regular primary for his Assembly seat. Epstein’s other primary opponent, Kips Bay resident and political outsider Akshay Vaishampayan had also complained about this, saying he thought the process in which Epstein was elected was undemocratic and this is what inspired him to run. Meanwhile, even Epstein said he agrees about the process being less than open and he has co-sponsored legislation to reform state special elections.
But in Pagan’s view, “He’s not going to do what he says he’s going to do because he’s not an elected official.” This, he explained is due to the low voter turnout in April. “The political machine put Harvey in that position because they’re aware of the outcomes of special elections,” Pagan added. “Third parties never win. Republicans don’t win. They should not have had a special election. They should have had a primary with three or four fresh Democrat nominees to run. I knew I wasn’t going to win.”
He also feels similarly about the primary. “Once you are an incumbent, you have an edge. You have connections,” said Pagan. He also believes primaries should be open to all voters, regardless of party affiliation. “It just encourages voter turnout.”
Still, he insisted he’ll be out again soon to hand flyers out to voters. As for his medical condition, “This misery I’m going through is temporary,” he said.
Pagan’s platform is centered around affordable housing, but in particular improving conditions at NYCHA.
“The number one issue has to be NYCHA,” he said. “I don’t want to sound like I’m excluding rent-stabilized apartments, but NYCHA houses half a million families. I agree with anyone who says New York City has to be the worst landlord.”
Pagan has lived in NYCHA’s Riis Houses for over 50 years, where, he said, buildings remained under a scaffolding for over three years while no actual repairs were being made and where apartments leak every time it rains. He is against the city’s partnership with private landlords to take over various developments, believing it to be a scheme to eventually privatize the entire public housing stock. This, he fears, is aimed at pushing out the low-income tenants.
Asked what he would do to strengthen the rent regulations in Albany, Pagan, who admitted to feeling out of it due to his medication, opted to pass on the question. However, in a previous interview, he said, without getting into detail, that he would take any legislative steps necessary to protect NYCHA tenants as well as stabilize residents in private properties.
Another issue of concern, not surprisingly, is cancer, and Pagan said if elected, he would like to do more to spread awareness of the different varieties of the disease.
He also wants to see marijuana decriminalized to avoid people getting police records although he stops short of completely legalizing it for recreational use. Pagan said he believes it will lead to more traffic fatalities because of drivers being intoxicated.
“You can’t just say, oh, there’s a lot of revenue and less people in our jails,” he said. “We’re going through an opioid crisis, an epidemic. Now we’re going to add pot to this? Let’s decriminalize it, but let’s not glorify it.”
Along with a career as a New York State corrections officer, Pagan also at one time was involved in a carpentry and demolition business with his brother. According to the bio on his website, Pagan was also a youth counselor. He also spent some time volunteering teaching music at a prison facility. He is also the former director of NYCHA’s Campos and Baruch Houses Community Centers, where he oversaw youth programming. He also has some educational activism experience, serving as a Manhattan representative with the Department of Education’s Citywide Council on High Schools.
The primary will be held on Thursday, September 13. Democrat voters in the 74th Assembly District, which covers the East Village, Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village, Gramercy and Tudor City, will also have the opportunity to choose a gubernatorial candidate, a lieutenant gubernatorial candidate and a candidate for attorney general as well as for judicial and state committee member races. State Senator Brad Hoylman has no primary challenger, and Congress Member Carolyn Maloney defeated her opponent in a separate primary in June.