3 FilAm city council hopefuls are on the ballot for June 22 primary

by Ricky Rillera

(Left to R) Marni Halasa, District 3; Deirdre Levy, District 35; and Steve Raga, District 26 (Queens)

NEW YORK – Three Filipino Americans have their eyes set for a seat at the New York City Council in their districts this coming election. Marni Halasa is running for District 3 (Manhattan), Deirdre Levy, District 35 (Brooklyn), and Steven Raga, District 26 (Queens). They all passed the first hurdle: to have their names entered in the ballot after obtaining sufficient signatures from constituents for the primary on June 22.

In Raga’s District, before he qualified to be on the ballot, there were 22 candidates; 16 made it in the list. The incumbent, Jerry Van Bramer, due to the term limit, is prevented from running. In the case of Levy in District 35, out of the original ten candidates, eight are on the ballot. Incumbent Laurie Cumbo has also reached the end of her current term. And with Marni Halasa in District 3, of the five candidates, Halasa challenges all of them. The incumbent Corey Johnson is vying for the Comptroller post.

The three hopefuls are determined to win. They pound the streets, knock at doors, and work for the crowd in their respective campaign sorties. They are confident in articulating their concerns, plans, and goals to address what is needed to improve their districts and the city in general.

This year’s elections are exciting and somewhat different from previous years. More than 300 candidates are vying for many council seats open. Term limits have prevented 35 of the city council seats and are now open. In the 16 districts where the incumbent can run again, candidates are encouraged to join the race. However, due to redistricting, instead of the usual four-year term for the first time in 20 years, all winners will only serve a two-year term. Add a new voting method called Ranked Choice Voting to that. Instead of choosing just one candidate, a voter can get to rank up to five in order of preference.

When Raga announced his candidacy on Feb. 21 in a Zoom event attended by almost a hundred community leaders and supporters, he spoke about:

  • Strengthening tenant protections across New York City
  • Implementing safe staffing ratios for New York City nurses
  • Supporting small business and providing them with COVID relief
  • Establishing necessities like housing and healthcare as human rights
  • Developing a comprehensive recovery and equity plan for those affected by COVID

“I feel like this is the right time. With all the attacks on our community and to see our elders suffer, it hit home. After the mayor played it down, a lot of people in our community encouraged me to run,” Raga said.

He is among 22 candidates for District 26, including Woodside, Sunnyside, Astoria, and Long Island City. No less than Ambassador Mario de Leon, Jr., former Philippine Consul General in New York, and civic leader and philanthropist Loida Nicolas-Lewis, introduced Raga during the launch.

“Steve is well versed and immersed in political life, and it is time to elect a Filipino American,” de Leon said. “It is time for him to serve. He has prefaced himself to a crowded list of candidates, but he will stand out.”

Nicolas-Lewis, who has known Raga for several years with his involvement at the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA), said that the Filipino American community is making history in New York City for the first time with Raga’s candidacy. “He is credible, competent, and compassionate,” she said. “He stands out as a servant leader and will serve what is good for the community.”

The three FilAm candidates (L-R) Marni Halasa, Steve Raga, Deirdre Levy, and an unidentified community volunteer at the Stop Asian Hate rally in Manhattan | Photo courtesy of Raga4Queens campaign.

Unlike Levy and Halasa, Raga is noticeably more known to most Filipinos, particularly in the Woodside area, referred to as Little Manila. He has lived there for more than 16 years and has associated it with community organizations to help advance their cause. Although Levy and Halasa are actively involved in their districts promoting their advocacies, their political involvement became known to Filipinos during this election year. The communities where Levy and Halasa reside are predominantly non-Asians with scant Filipino presence. However, it allowed all of them to understand, learn and support each other in their campaign.

(Left to Right) Deirdre Levy, District 35 candidate with community leader Potri Ranka Manis (center), and Steve Raga in Woodside at the Little Manila Foundation’s launch of Mabuhay mural. | Contributed photo.

In Woodside, Raga helped organize the Defend Little Manila Coalition, a multi-sectoral group that opposed a planned construction of a 15-story commercial building that would have overshadowed the nature of the community and affected small businesses. The Community Board eventually voted down the proposed construction.

The Filipino American Press Club introduced Raga, Levy, and Halasa to the community in a Meet the FilAm Candidates virtual town hall meeting on March 19. Members of the media fielded questions that helped the community know them better and understand their positions on pressing issues such as defunding the police, looming budget gaps, including revenue stream sources to address these gaps.

Raga said he has been mulling a run for some time. However, he said that the anti-Asian crime wave and racist rhetoric had been the ultimate deciding factor in deciding to join the race now. He was the 19th person on the list to join and without a head-start on campaign fundraising.

Steve Raga with subway hate victim Noel Quintana in a recent rally in Woodside | Photo courtesy of Steve4Queens Campaign

Raga, New York Assemblyman Brian Barnwell‘s chief of staff for four years, has a long track record in government and the non-profit sector. Raga currently works as the Northeast Regional Manager for Policy and Advocacy for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, where he oversees healthcare legislation in 11 states.

“In general, we’re not at the table at a lot of these big decisions,” said Raga. “Big policy decisions hurt us most, along with that on the budget side. We don’t get as much in proportion to our population, definitely not anywhere near there.”

Steve Raga with his fellow aspirant in District 26, Julie Won, in one of his campaign stops. | Photo courtesy of Raga4Queens Campaign

He has been a member of Community Board 2 since 2016 and sits on the boards of Woodside on the Move, Queens Pride, and the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA). He is also the Founder of Pilipino American Unity for Progress (UniPro). He started it in Woodside in 2009 to engage the community’s students and young professionals through collaboration, advocacy, and education.

When asked about his reaction to the recent nomination of Rob Bonta, a Filipino, as attorney general of California, he was proud to see him nominated. “This is a monumental moment for Filipinos across the country. Rob’s track record as an Assemblymember speaks for itself. He’s a known leader in criminal justice reform — work that is so crucial at this moment,” he told the Philippine Daily Mirror.

He also mentioned Bonta’s family history of working alongside farmworkers in California to organize and set better working conditions and better pay. “Looks like a full-circle moment for many in the Filipino community,” Raga said. “I know Rob will display true leadership and courage in this role and will continue to fight systemic injustices in the state.”

Filipinos hope that these three candidates succeed in this election which will finally give them a voice representing their constituents in city government. “Indeed, that would be historical,” said Linda Delos Reyes of Elmhurst.

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