Chinatown — Over the past two decades, incumbent New York City Council members have enjoyed a 97.5 percent rate of re-election. Almost all the changes in the makeup of the city's legislature over that period have been due to the term limits law passed by referendum in 1993. So, after City Council voted in October to extend term limits, Council members might have looked at the 2009 election year and reasonably expected a smooth ride to re-election.

That is not the way the race is shaping up in several districts across the city, however. At least 12 incumbents find themselves in fairly competitive races. Several have lost the important backing of a party organization or union. A few have raised less money than their chief rival – a significant reversal of an incumbent's typical financial edge.

Of the Council's 50 current members (the 51st seat is vacant following the recent resignation of Miguel Martinez after pleading guilty to misusing public money), one is running for mayor, two are seeking the public advocate post and four want to be comptroller. Forty-three are hoping to retain their Council seats and certainly, many of them will stroll to victory. Brooklyn's Simcha Felder will for the third straight election face no opponent at all. Manhattan's Daniel Garodnick has an 18-to-1 fundraising advantage over his only rival.

But with a number of other incumbents in tough fights, 2009 could go down as a record year for insurgent candidates—which would stamp an ironic coda on a political season that began with Council granting itself and other municipal officers a chance to continue in power.

City Limits examined one race in each borough where an incumbent is now at risk. Broader sentiments—like outrage over the term limits vote itself—are certainly at play in several races, and the litany of other issues on candidates' lips sounds familiar (better schools, more affordable housing). But each contest is, in fact, shaped by issues and circumstances unique to that district.

Backlash in Manhattan

In the frenetic run-up to Council's vote last fall on a bill extending term limits from two to three consecutive terms, Manhattan's Alan Gerson spent a few days in the media spotlight as one of three Council members to propose a compromise—an amendment to the bill to create a charter revision commission that could have called for a referendum on the question. Along with fellow Manhattanite Gale Brewer and Brooklyn's David Yassky, Gerson argued that such a move would quell concerns that the Council's process for changing term limits had been undemocratic.

On the day of the vote, when the amendment failed, Brewer voted against the term limits change, but Yassky and Gerson voted for it. Gerson told his colleagues that he thought his constituents should have the choice between change and the "continuity" of keeping him.

Now Gerson, an attorney first elected in 2001 to represent District 1, covering the tip of Manhattan up to and including parts of NoHo and Greenwich Village, is finding continuity a tough sell. He could face as many as four opponents in the Sept. 15 Democratic primary—which, as usual, is the de facto election day in a city where Republicans are a distinct minority. At press time, it was not even certain that Gerson would be on the ballot because of a flaw in his petitions.

One challenger is Margaret Chin, a longtime Chinatown figure and former deputy executive director at Asian Americans for Equality, whom Gerson beat in 2001. This time, Chin has outraised the councilman, reporting $114,000 in receipts as of mid-July, ahead of the councilman's $100,000. "Of course, I have a strong base of support in Chinatown," says Chin. But she adds that some of the issues facing the district unite its disparate parts. "We have seen a lot more development and unfortunately much of that is market-rate development. We're losing a lot of our small businesses and we're losing a lot of affordable housing. That's why the preservation of the kind of housing that we have is critical."

Peter Gleason, a former police officer and firefighter turned attorney who lost badly to Gerson in 2003, has secured the support of a key club, the Downtown Independent Democrats, which had traditionally supported Gerson. Gerson's own Village Reform Democrats chose to endorse the councilman, but the vote was close. Gleason has also picked up the backing of several district leaders who had once been in Gerson's camp, as well as the endorsement of 2005 Democratic mayoral nominee and former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer.

Term limits is certainly an issue in the race. But so is the slow pace of rebuilding at Ground Zero, and the strains on district services due to the influx of post-September 11 residents. "We have a district that has exploded with people due to Liberty Bonds, and allowing all these offices to be converted to apartments and nobody thought about schools," says Arthur Gregory, a business consultant and former bar owner who is also running.

Several candidates fault Gerson for not taking a higher-profile role on the World Trade Center site. "I have yet to see the incumbent go to the national stage and say, 'This is what's wrong at Ground Zero,'" says Gleason. He adds: "Alan has been the City Councilperson for eight years. In those eight years there has not been one unit of truly affordable housing built in this district. We have a housing crisis. We have a schools crisis. And we have an incumbent who, number one, took away the voice of the people and, number two, doesn't show up to work one in four days." (See members' attendance rates in the list at the end of this article.)

P.J. Kim, a nonprofit executive, joined the race recently and quickly raised $91,000. Kim, who has the DC37 endorsement, is emphasizing social networking in his campaign and says he wants to battle the lingering image of lower Manhattan as a 9-to-5 neighborhood. "I think there's the false perception that lower Manhattan is primarily a place where people work and not where people live, so a lot of these services [like subways] get shut off on the weekends," he says. Kim, whose background includes leadership roles at nonprofits like FoodChange and SingleStop, also stresses the importance of getting low-income families the public benefits to which they're entitled.