By Carol Tannenhauser
Current City Councilmember Gale Brewer won her 2021 bid for re-election to the District 6 seat — which she has held for roughly 13 of the past 21 years — with 87% of the vote. That has not discouraged Diane di Stasio, Brewer’s latest challenger, who will be on the Republican ticket for the council seat in November.
West Side Rag: You know, this is a pretty Democratic district.
Diane di Stasio: I understand. But I’m a pretty unique candidate, because of my involvement in the arts all my life. I also petitioned and qualified to run on the Arts & Culture and Clean Up NY independent ballot lines.
Raised in the San Francisco Bay area, di Stasio, 62, has had a successful career as an opera singer, a soprano, studying first at the University of Southern California, graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music, and becoming a vocalist for the San Francisco Opera. She also won an Emmy Award for her contribution to a music track in the television series “A Guiding Light.” One of her last concerts was at the Beacon Theater. WSR interviewed her by phone last Thursday. The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.
DdS: As far as being a Republican, I’ve been one all my life. I grew up in a military family — my father was an Air Force pilot. I believe in fiscal responsibility, smaller government, and I’m pro business — small business. But I’m very socially liberal. I believe that one of our inalienable rights as a human being is freedom of choice. And just because I’m a registered Republican doesn’t mean I’ve always voted for Republicans. I’m not going to change my stripes just to get elected.
WSR: When do you become extreme?
DdS: I’m not extreme. I believe in common sense. I’ve been on the streets a lot and to many meet-and-greets. A lot of the people there are Democrats, and they’re very upset. Most everyone loves this city…they’re just disheartened and sickened to see what’s happening to it. And there’s a lot we can do to restore it, to make it safer and cleaner, measures we could be taking that we’re not.
WSR: Like what?
DdS: We need to repeal and replace what I believe is a disastrous bail reform law that Gale supports. It’s taken away judicial discretion.
WSR: Didn’t Governor Hochul amend bail reform to fix that?
DdS: There have been some amendments, but there need to be a lot more. I’ve spoken to retired detectives and police officers. They say [NYPD] retirements are vastly outpacing recruitment. They don’t have enough manpower, and they feel like they have their hands tied when it comes to doing their jobs. They’re spending four, five, six hours on paperwork and suspects are getting released immediately, they’re back on the streets, because we have nowhere to put them.
A single mother, di Stasio has no experience in government, but believes her work in the private sector will carry her through. She moved to NYC from Nashville — where she was “involved in the music scene” — in 2011, when her daughter, Rachelle, then 14, confided that her dream was to one day dance with the American Ballet Theater. “I sold my car and we came straight to the Upper West Side,” di Stasio recalled. She became the managing director of a local ballet school. Rachelle realized her dream, but grew too tall to dance in the company. Now 26, she is a model, and, in 2023, was named Miss New York USA. She is currently campaigning for her mother.
WSR: What would you say is the number-one issue facing the UWS today?
DdS: Right now it’s the migrant crisis. I am the daughter of an immigrant. My father came on a boat from Naples, Italy. I believe in welcoming immigrants. But I think, because of the state our city was already in, and the crisis that we’re having with our own homeless — and the mental health of a large percentage of them — we need to take care of our own. When I was petitioning in front of Zabar’s and Fairway, people were very concerned with safety and addicts and folks with mental illness using their front steps as a safe haven. They [homeless people] are on the sidewalks and subways, because those have become somewhat of a substitute for the medical care they need.
WSR: So, what should we do?
DdS: Regarding the migrant crisis, if I were a member of the City Council, I would call on Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul to declare a statewide emergency and deploy the National Guard, like they did in Buffalo and Rochester [to help with security and manage the process]. And I would work on moving migrants out of Upper West Side hotels and shelters that are meant to house the homeless and working poor, out of our parks and play areas, into temporary housing on piers 90, 92, and 94.
Here, di Stasio was a little unsure about the details. She knew the piers were on the river, but took some time coming up with the cross streets. The plan sounded in its early stages.
DdS: Between West 44 and West 54. They’re, like, terminals, away from residential and commercial zones, but close to the FDNY and NYPD, which would help with safety, security, and emergency services. This is temporary, but at least it’s a start. And that’s just a piece of it.
WSR: What else is on your agenda?
DdS: Believe it or not, a number of women who signed my petitions had their arms in casts. When I asked what happened, they said, ‘I was hit by an e-bike.’ In New York City, for class one, two, and three e-bikes, you can go up to 25 miles an hour and you do not need to have a license or to register the bike. If they can go that fast, they can cause a lot of damage to either property or a person. There’s no way to identify them if they take off, so that needs to change.
WSR: What about bike lanes and open streets?
DdS: While I support seasonal initiatives like Open Streets, and limited outdoor dining, I oppose the repurposing of major thoroughfares on the Upper West Side [the installation of “permanent pedestrian plazas” ]. Our community is extremely vibrant, mobile, densely populated, and services major transportation hubs. We need better timing on our traffic lights, we need designated taxi drop-off zones, greater designated loading zones to alleviate double parking, and we need more public parking (not less).
WSR: Homeless shelters?
DdS: I’ve been a part of the press conferences and protests against the West 83rd and West 59th street shelters, because of their proximity to public schools. It’s a big concern for the community. I know that, because the community was contacting Gale’s office all year from about February, March, until now. It was only within the last few weeks that she finally appeared at one of the press conferences. She’s switching her opinion, because it’s close to an election, because she has always been in full support of these shelters.
WSR: Why, if you are hearing all these complaints, does Gale keep getting elected by overwhelming majorities?
DdS: Because not that many people vote. I don’t think people understand the impact the city council has….they control the budget and provide oversight for all city agencies. So, it’s a direct trickle-down effect of what we’re seeing on the ground in the city. I think if more people understood the role of their city council member, they would be more likely to use their votes to affect policies.
WSR: What accomplishments in your past would you cite as evidence that you can handle this job?
DsD: All my work experience in the private sector. Building coalitions. I built many coalitions in Nashville, and I’ve been doing that in my job for the past 10 years to benefit students and families. And I’m a good listener! I think the community is upset because they don’t feel their voices are being heard anymore. They are told, ‘We’ll give you a chance to speak at a community board meeting,” but the decision’s already been made!
WSR: Can you beat Gale Brewer?
DsD: It will take people coming out to vote. If they come out to vote, I believe I can beat her.
Next Tuesday: An interview with City Councilmember Gale Brewer.
The general election is on November 7. For everything you need to know to vote, from registering (online) to casting your ballot, check the New York State Board of Elections website here.
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