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Even Stephens: Alums face off in race for Brooklyn City Council

Stephen Levin ’03 and Stephen Pierson ’98 vie in the Democratic primary armed with varied strengths

What do a poker playing-patron of an art and literary magazine and an experienced politician have in common? Apparently, a first name, an alma mater and a desire to win a seat on the Brooklyn City Council. 

Today, Stephen Levin ’03 and Stephen Pierson ’98 face off for a seat on the Brooklyn City Council in the Democratic primary. But the two alums’ evident similarities have done little to soften the contest’s intensity.

Diverse backgrounds

Though both men are currently in politics, neither pursued political science concentrations while at Brown.

Levin, who has held a seat on the council since 2009, studied classics and comparative literature. His concentrations taught him “how to look at the historical perspective on things,” he said. Levin’s interest in politics was sparked by the events of 9/11, which occurred in his junior year, and the war in Iraq that followed. “I became kind of more engaged politically as a result,” he said.

“Being involved in an active political environment like Brown” further pushed Levin toward politics, he added. After graduating, Levin moved back to his hometown in New Jersey and worked as a campaign staffer for former Plainfield, N.J. city councilman Ray Blanco, he said.

His father’s cousins, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., “were always encouraging me to get into politics,” Levin said.

Unlike Levin, Pierson had an upbringing detached from the political realm. Raised by two high school teachers, Pierson graduated with a degree in modern culture and media, which he described as “a pretty reflective course of study.”

The concentration “asks you to constantly examine and be critical of all the things we see and the things we consume,” he added.

After graduating, Pierson pursued a varied career dabbling in professional poker and starting an art and literary magazine called Canteen, according to an April New York Times article.

Pierson said he is now entering into politics because he has “always been cynical about politics and politicians.”

As the parent of a 2-year-old daughter, Pierson said, he decided to take action because he “didn’t want to be one of those people that just sits around and complains.”


Challenger for council

Though both candidates are Democrats, Pierson said his plans for Brooklyn differ greatly from Levin’s.

Pierson said that, if elected, he plans to oppose what he called overdevelopment of the borough — specifically Greenpoint, a middle-class neighborhood with a small community. Greenpoint faces the development of 40-story high rises that will almost double the number of people living there, Pierson said.

Pierson, working with an organization called Save Greenpoint organized a protest of the high rises Sept. 4, he said. According to the website, the protest disputed the validity of the 8 -year-old contract, claiming that construction of the new development is an environmentally sound decision.

The protest also called for members for the community to share personal anecdotes about Greenpoint’s beauty that would be lost under the development, according to the website.

Pierson said he wants to “see the whole scale and scope of these (developments) challenged.”

Pierson has also attacked Levin’s previous stint as chief of staff for former New York State Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who resigned in May following accusations of sexual harassment of female staff members.

One of Pierson’s running points against Levin is that Pierson said he believes that Levin, as chief of staff, was just as culpable for not speaking up and condemning Lopez’s actions, Pierson said.

“It is atrocious to think that someone with so much power” could get away with this, Pierson said, referring to Lopez. “The fact that he has gotten away with this for so long means it’s not just been him.” People turn a “blind eye for their own political benefit,” he said.

But Levin said any alleged sexual harrasment occurred after he left Lopez’s office.

“I worked for him from 2006 to 2009, and during that time there were no incidents of sexual harassment,” he said. “Sometime after I left was when he started doing very terrible actions, which were reprehensible actions.”

Levin said he called for Lopez’s resignation after reading a report that indicated Lopez had harrassed female staffers.

“But it did not happen during my tenure, and I would not have tolerated it if it did,” he said.


Community conversation

While in office, Levin said he has concentrated on fairer school funding and supporting development issues in Brooklyn.

“I really enjoy advocating for my constituents and fighting for good social service policies,” Levin said.

If re-elected, Levin said he would focus on education.

“Within New York City, there’s been a large debate over the last 10 years about the future of our education system,” he said. Levin wants to make the education system less caste-oriented, he said. Levin said he would also like to work on issues like housing, especially for senior citizens and the homeless, which have “been a real failure over the last few years,” he added.

Though Pierson has won the support of the Aroynem faction of Brooklyn’s divided and influential Satmar Hasidic Jewish community, the odds favor a win for Levin, said Michael Tobman, a consultant to the Aroynem.

The Aroynem group, which has a “complicated relationship” with Levin, has indicated that they would like to communicate with him, but he has made no attempt to reach out to them, Tobman said. Despite this, Tobman said Levin has done a good job on the Council during his tenure.

“We hope that Levin will engage in more productive conversations” with the Aroynem if re-elected, and that he will be less “standoffish,” Tobman said.


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