Assembly candidate Doug Biviano blasted away at incumbent Joan Millman in a debate last week, hammering her for taking her pension even as she works as a lawmaker, lambasting her for backing transit cuts, and for flip-flopping on housing inside Brooklyn Bridge Park — but the harshest word he had for Millman was that she’s “nice.”
By our count, Biviano taunted his rival with the seemingly innocuous adjective six times during the hour-long debate in Community Newspaper Group’s Downtown studio, where the candidates in the Sept. 14 primary battled in hopes of attracting voters in the Brownstone Brooklyn assembly district.
Being repeatedly slammed as “nice” certainly didn’t faze Millman, who said she was more upset that Biviano called her a bum on his website.
“I don’t think ‘nice’ is a pejorative word,” she said. “I don’t mind being called nice because I am a nice person. But I’m also an effective person.”
Biviano certainly didn’t agree, slamming Millman (D-Carroll Gardens) on the issues — and for collecting her pension from her prior job as a city teacher while working as our elected representative in Albany. Biviano called that “double dipping.”
“I’m on the street and I talk to the people and they’re worried about their pensions,” Biviano said. “These people aren’t making six figures and on top of … another government pension. It’s an abuse of the pension system.”
Millman makes $92,000 as an Assemblywoman. She was elected to office in 1997 after she retired from her 27 years as a teacher and began collecting her pension.
“I had already put in my paperwork,” she said. “You can’t rescind it.”
Actually, you can. According to the Teachers Retirement System website, educators can “voluntarily suspend their retirement allowance by filing a ‘Retirement Allowance Suspension/Resumption Form.’ ” That said, it’s also perfectly legal for retirees to draw their city pensions if they’re in “elective public office,” as Millman is doing.
For the most part, the exchanges centered on three main areas of local concern — transit service, Brooklyn Bridge Park and Albany dysfunction — with Biviano claiming that Millman is just another state Capitol insider on the wrong side.
For instance, he lambasted Millman for staging a photo op against MTA budget cuts after she voted to reduce the agency’s funding.
Millman’s answer? She was against the cuts, but had to vote for them because they were part of a “larger bill” that would also save student Metrocards.
“Don’t be fooled by her rambling,” Biviano retorted. “This is how the magician works. She voted for the bill knowing the consequences, then turns around and stages a photo op against the MTA with the very people she hurt.”
Biviano also accused her of switching gears on Brooklyn Bridge Park, claiming that Millman changed her mind about putting luxury housing in the green space after former state Sen. Marty Connor, who supported housing, lost a re-election bid to a young rival who opposed housing in the park.
Biviano saw the change of heart as a “pure flip-flop.”
“Marty Connor’s gone and she suddenly swings the other way,” he said. “It was a political calculation.”
Millman countered that housing became a necessary funding stream after she helped defeat an earlier, and to her, far worse money-making proposal: a bid by developer David Walentas to turn the Civil War-era Empire Stores warehouse into a vertical mall. After that plan was foiled, she agreed to the formula that many park advocates say was the original sin of the waterfront development: that it needed to be self-sustaining rather than funded as a normal city or state park.
For now, Millman said that she opposes “any more housing in the park.”
And that vertical mall? Millman was forced to admit under questioning that the historic Empire Stores building is falling down, a victim of state neglect.
In other debate action:
• Biviano held Millman personally responsible — thanks to her very brief stint as chairwoman of the Assembly’s election law committee — for making it difficult for grass-roots challengers to get on the ballot. Millman didn’t address that point directly, but said that she is pushing for a bill that would redraw district lines in a non-partisan fashion.
Biviano agreed that the bill is needed, but called politics-free redistricting a “tiny piece of the ballot process.”
“Qualified candidates are thrown off ballots because election law allows incumbents go into back rooms and nitpick at their challenger’s signatures,” he said. “If they remove people from the ballot before the race begins, they can be there for life.”
Millman, who said she’s never knocked anyone off the ballot in her races, argued that the current election law is “less stringent than it ever was before.”
But Biviano did the math: Out of five congressional, nine state Senate and 21 Assembly candidates up for election this year in the Democratic Party, only seven are facing challengers.
• Biviano had a lot to say about how Millman waffled on key issues, but couldn’t give our panel any clear examples about how his voting record would differ from Millman’s if elected, outside of what was discussed in the debate. Nor did he have any solid plans for ridding Albany of its dysfunctional culture other than “tackling the big issues” and providing “social pressure.”
The primary election is Sept. 14.