Helene Jnane outside Peter Cooper Village
Photo by Sabina Mollot
By Sabina Mollot
It’s not easy to be a Republican in New York City, in particular on Manhattan’s East Side, and even less simple is running against a popular Democratic incumbent. However, a political outsider on the Republican and Libertarian ballots said she’s determined to give it a shot.
Helene Jnane, an Upper East Sider who’s been a practicing attorney for 23 years, is currently the only candidate for City Council running against Dan Garodnick, also an attorney, who’s now seeking a third term representing the 4th district. Jnane has had some experience in the world of politics though, having been a campaign attorney for Ron Paul, whose ideals she says she admires in terms of factors like fiscal conservatism and keeping government small.
Jnane, who left the law firm Short & Billy last February, and is now doing freelance legal consulting work, hasn’t yet begun the process of fundraising for her campaign though she said she has plans to get her name out there once the primary is over. (Neither she or Garodnick have opponents in their parties and therefore neither will be on the ballot until November.)
Meanwhile, she’s been campaigning here and there at three-hour clips, trying to get the word out on the street while fending off the occasional barb aimed at her party. While most democrats have been polite even after hearing the dreaded R-word, that hasn’t always been the case. Recently, said Jnane, while she was petitioning in midtown, a woman gave the international vomit sign by sticking her finger in her throat when asked if she was a registered republican. This, said Jnane, was in contrast to Stuyvesant Town, where voters have all at least been willing to put aside their earbuds and give a candidate’s pitch about fiscal conservatism and socially liberal values a chance. Jnane admitted it’s sometimes been hard to stay motivated in less friendly environments, but said she has “faith in the voters,” who she believes will vote in November for the candidate that has “respect for the constitution.”
When discussing the values of the Republican Party, Jnane said she believes there’s a “misunderstanding about what it means to be Republican,” that the party wants to infringe on people’s personal rights. “It’s about not growing government at the expense of the people.” And when asked about social issues such as gay marriage and abortion, Jnane indicated (though she didn’t outright say) that she wasn’t opposed to either.
“The government should not be telling people they can’t have inter-personal relationships and the government shouldn’t be telling women what they should be doing in their personal lives,” she said.
During a recent interview at Second Avenue coffee bar Pushcart, Jnane also discussed her campaign and her platform, which is more than anything else about making sure government officials are responsible for keeping the promises they make and keeping government spending at a minimum. With almost all questions asked, she paused before answering, and often referred to legal points in either the state constitution or city charter to explain her reasoning. However, consistently, she appeared most confident when discussing her philosophy about a desire to see less government overreach and spending and a return to the idea of legislators as “humble public servants.”
She gave an example of government arrogance, as well as the government catering to special interests, when referring to a bill sponsored by a state senator in 2011 that would have legislatively undone the “Roberts v. Tishman Speyer” case. The bill, sponsored by upstate Senate Member Cathy Young, which was eventually shot down, would have made landlords who’d deregulated apartments while accepting J-51 tax breaks responsible for paying back the taxes but not the money overpaid by tenants.
“The government benefits, but not the people,” she said.
As for her own interest in running for office, Jnane said, “The government has to obey the law and a lot of politicians have forgotten that. I’m not talking about anyone in particular, but there is an important adjustment the government in general needs to make to be more humble public servants.”
On the City Council having to work with the mayor, Jnane wouldn’t say if she had a favored candidate for that role, but, when asked who she saw herself working with, responded, “Whoever becomes the mayor of New York City.”
She also discussed her dislike of what she called the “one-party system” in the City Council.
“Like a monopoly in the market, it causes prices to rise and services to be reduced,” she said. “Costs go up and innovation goes down and this is what we’re seeing in city government.”
However, on the issues faced by residents of the district, which winds from Stuyvesant Town to 96th Street along the East Side, as well as issues faced by the entire city, Jnane was less quick to suggest change.
One exception to this is with regards to education, with Jnane saying it’s important to “empower students and parents” by making class size smaller and allowing families more school choice. She’s also a supporter of charter schools.
On housing, however, or more specifically concerns from tenants about affordability, she said she isn’t about to interfere with the market. Doing so, she said, would infringe on personal liberty.
For example, while sympathetic to issues faced by tenants like rising rents, in particular in Stuy Town following the settlement of “Roberts,” she has no plans for drafting legislation that would add to tenant protections. She also has no plans for building affordable housing or protecting the existing stock of it.
However, she said, she would make sure the existing laws protecting tenants “are obeyed” to the letter. “Contract is promise.”
She gave an example by responding to a growing concern of residents in Stuyvesant Town, which is that as the rents continue to rise, the community has become more transient with more and more students and post-graduates taking up residence in groups as opposed to families.
“If it is legal for landlords to rent apartments to students, I cannot ask him to do otherwise,” she said. “What I can do is make sure that the laws that may apply to habitation, quality of life (are followed), like if the students next door are making all kinds of noise. But I will not make promises to people that I can’t keep.”
On another housing matter, the Rent Guidelines Board, Jnane said she is interested in making sure that those who sit on it are “not doing it for themselves or their own self-aggrandizement.”
Another issue, one of the few Jnane has been particularly vocal about, is stop-and-frisk. This past week, Jnane posted on her campaign website that she felt the recent decision by a judge declaring stop-and-frisk unconstitutional was an example of government overreach. She explained during the interview with Town & Village her belief that one of two pending stop-and-frisk bills, which would appoint an inspector general to oversee the NYPD, is just a waste of taxpayer money that adds another layer to government while not necessarily making New Yorkers any safer.
“The solution to the problem of the government is not more government or a bigger government,” she said.
Jnane, who’s lived at the same co-op building on 95th Street for the past 15 years, sits on the board there. A native of Morris County, New Jersey, Jnane has lived in New York for 20 years in different Manhattan neighborhoods, including Greenwich Village.
When not working, she enjoys walking and reading articles on the economy and government as well as more local issues. She got into law, first with firm Seeger Weiss, which handles a lot of class action lawsuits, and then later moved onto Short & Billy, which focuses on no fault insurance law.
“I love the law,” said Jnane. “It’s a focused way of thinking. We start from principles and we apply the principles to the facts of any situation that comes up and this is how you draw a conclusion.”