35th District Candidate Profile: Olanike Alabi

Olanike Alabi, a candidate for the 35th District City Council seat, hands a campaign flier to a commuter outside the Crown Heights-Utica Avenue subway station on August 14, 2013.
Olanike Alabi, a candidate for the 35th District City Council seat, hands a campaign flier to a commuter outside the Crown Heights-Utica Avenue subway station on Aug. 14. (Photo by Philippe Theise)

In the interest of giving locals a clearer view of the community members running for the 35th District City Council seat, The Nabe has profiled each of the five Democratic candidates. Without a Republican running for the spot, whomever wins the Democratic primary on Sept. 10 takes the abdicated seat, representing Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant and parts of Crown Heights. Check back for the final candidate profile in our five-part series.

When Olanike Alabi spotted a woman about to carry a stroller down a flight of stairs into the Crown Heights-Utica Avenue subway station in mid-August, she stopped passing out her campaign fliers and offered to help.

“Ayudar?” Alabi asked in Spanish, before lifting one end of the stroller and descending into the station.

“I know that there’s at least one elevator at that station, [but] we have a transportation system that needs to be senior-friendly and people-with-strollers friendly,” Alabi said, recalling the incident less than a week before the primary vote for New York City Council.

Alabi, running for the 35th District seat, told The Nabe that her mother’s efforts to help others inspired her own advocacy for social justice.

“She wanted to make a person’s life better and she recognized that it helped not just that individual, but it made our community better,” Alabi said.

Born in Brooklyn to parents who emigrated from West Africa, Alabi, 37, grew up in Clinton Hill and attended P.S. 20 on Adelphi Street. She said her lifetime of experience in the neighborhood helps her understand the issues facing district residents, including gentrification.

“There are faces that you saw 20 years ago that you don’t see anymore,” she said. “It’s that they can’t afford the community anymore.”

The candidate got her start in city politics in the 1990s as a legislative assistant to Mary Pinkett, the first African-American woman to serve on the city council. In 2001, Community Board 2 hired Alabi as its district manager, but fired her in 2003. Alabi sued the board for violating its bylaws during the termination process, and won on appeal in 2005.

Looking back at her lawsuit, Alabi said she learned that “persistence is key.”

“[There were] times when I became depressed, but I never thought about giving up,” she said.

Alabi worked from 2004 to 2006 as an executive aide at Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, the largest union in New York City. She said her work gave her insight into the lives of locals working for low pay, especially in the home healthcare industry.

“When you’re with a labor union, you obviously want to raise the standards of those who are doing well, but you also want to address the poor treatment of workers who are not in unions,” Alabi said.

SEIU Local 1199 has endorsed Laurie Cumbo, the founder of the Museum for Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, for the 35th District seat. Kevin Finnegan, the union’s political director, said that Cumbo’s “organizational skills” impressed the union’s endorsement committee, and noted that both Alabi and Ede Fox, a member of Community Board 8 who’s also in the race, are former union employees.

“[There was] nothing in either of their careers here at 1199 that hurt them,” Finnegan said. “Hopefully we can support them for a future office.”

Alabi has the support of District Council 1707, which represents home healthcare and daycare workers, and District Council 37, the city’s largest municipal employees’ union. The Correction Officers Benevolent Association and Local 1180 of the Communication Workers of America have also endorsed her.

In 2006, voters in the 57th State Assembly District elected Alabi district leader. She won a second term in 2010, and ran unsuccessfully for New York State Assembly last year.

Fort Greene resident Ron Arnero, 59, a former employee of DC 37, attended a meet-and-greet campaign event for Alabi at University Towers on Ashland Place last Thursday night. Arnero expressed concern about Long Island University Brooklyn’s plan to expand its athletic field, which includes closing part of Ashland Place.

Alabi, wearing a purple dress, responded by staking out middle ground. LIU Brooklyn wants to attract students, but “the narrowing of a street that receives traffic coming from Manhattan, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said.

Michael Randazzo, who organized the event, asked Alabi how to give adequate attention to traditional public schools during an “influx” of charter schools in the nabe.

Alabi again answered moderately, saying charter schools are an option for parents who are dissatisfied with “underperforming” traditional schools, but Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg “has used the charter school movement to undermine traditional schools.”

Speaking to the Nabe earlier this summer, Alabi said she favors creating community learning schools, in which “social services, health clinics, and after-school programs” would exist onsite.

“The education of a child just doesn’t occur in a classroom,” Alabi said. “If that child is not well and their parents don’t have access to a good healthcare plan, that’s going to affect [his or her] performance.”

Alabi also said she opposes two or more schools operating at once in the same building, known as “co-location.”

“It makes no sense that …  some kids have to have lunch at 10 in the morning, other kids have to have lunch as late as 2, [and] other kids get to have lunch at 12,” she said.

Addressing Mayor Bloomberg’s legacy, Alabi said she liked his efforts to eliminate trans fats in city bakeries and restaurants and to require chain restaurants to conspicuously report the number of calories in their menu items.

But she described the mayor’s response to some criticisms of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy as “insensitive,” and questioned the city’s requirement that food stamp recipients be fingerprinted, a policy Governor Andrew M. Cuomo ended in 2012.

“I think there are other ways to detect fraud than that,” Alabi said.

Alabi has raised more than $44,000 in campaign contributions thus far, according to the New York City Campaign Finance Board. That puts her in the middle of her four rivals, but far behind the leaders: Cumbo has raised over $103,000, and Fox has raised over $87,000. Jelani Mashariki, who directs a homeless shelter in Bedford-Stuyvesant, has netted more than $36,000, and Frank Richard Hurley, a lawyer, has raised just over $8,000.

In the community room at University Towers, Alabi said that running for office has “been an amazing journey,” and likened it to holding a mirror to the self.

“It shows your strengths as a candidate, your challenges, and any weaknesses you may have as a human being,” she explained the following day.