Zead Ramadan, president of CAIR-NY, braces for a City Council run

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Zead Ramadan. (screen grab via msnbc.com)
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The chairman of the board for the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Zead Ramadan, has opened up a campaign committee to run for the New York City Council.

Ramadan is seeking to replace Robert Jackson, a three-term lawmaker who is leaving because of term limits and running for Manhattan borough president.

A number of notable Democrats, are backing Mark Levine, a district leader and founder of the Barack Obama Democratic Club of Upper Manhattan. They include Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez of Washington Heights, Councilman Dan Garodnick of the East Side, Assemblyman Herman Denny Farrell of Upper Manhattan and Assemblywoman Gabriela Rosa of Inwood and Washington Heights.

Levine's candidacy received some attention outside the district when a fringe candidate sent emails attacking Levine because he is white.

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The district is among the city's most racially diverse. It includes portions of the Upper West Side, Harlem, Inwood and Washington Heights.

Ramadan is a member of Community Board 12, which covers the northern part of the district, and also owns the X Caffe, a popular eatery in Washington Heights. He's also worked with more than half a dozen non-profit and community groups, including the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance, the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Center, the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corportation, and others.

Ramanan's biography is, in some ways, a classic American-immigrant story.

As he told it to me:

His father was an illiterate Palestinian-born baker who cooked for soldiers in the Kuwaiti army for 17 years. In 1971, Ramadan's family (mother, father, seven siblings) immigrated to New York.

He went to public school, now owns a cafe, and has advocated for more business opportunities and educational resources uptown. He thinks motorists are getting nickle-and-dimed by the city, enjoys giving speeches at schools, and has a discerning culinary palate. 

The thing that's very different, in the context of politics in staunchly pro-Israel New York, is Ramadan's work with the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

During a nearly two-hour interview late last year before he formally opened his committee, Ramadan said that if he decided to run, "I understand that I would be a lightning rod."

CAIR has been a frequent target of Republicans and conservatives, who accuse it of being tolerant of terrorism, or worse. 

Ramadan himself has been a frequent target of local anti-Muslim commentators, and several times during the interview Ramadan predicted opponents of CAIR would turn their attention to his campaign.

Ramadan said he is not running for public office in order to make a broader statement about Israel, Palestine or the Middle East.

"I can't affect the Middle East problem," he told me, during an interview in a bakery in Astoria. "That's so far above my head. If they want a talking head to say I'm for this side or I'm for that side, I think it's useless. At the end of the day, and I don't think it's productive or helpful to the district's needs."

"The race is really about Western Harlem, and whatever the district is going to be, the lower Heights," he continued. "I don't feel the City Council position is a position where the debate should be about somebody's foreign policy. I'm not running for Congress or the Senate. And I think the conversation should really focus on our district and who has the best knowledge and the best experience to help people from our community thrive and how to help the community progress. We can talk about foreign policy all you want, but it's not going to help me, help my community. For me, that's the bottom line."

Ramadan said that in any case, being pro-Israel or pro-Palestine wasn't as important as helping both peoples by coming up with a peace plan that ended the years-long violence in the region. 

"We want peace for our children, and I think that's the key," he said, adding, "We don't know what that crypto-politics of all that middle eastern stuff is going on."

But he said he wanted to avoid using his Council campaign to refocus the dialogue in New York on Middle East foreign affairs.

"I'm not condemning anything, OK? You want me to condemn one side or the other in a one thousand, two thousand-year dispute, what are you, insane?" he said. "What good is it going to do? It's just going to piss somebody off. Why don't I not condemn it and not piss anybody off [and] just say 'I hope you guys come to the negotiating table and I hope you guys bring peace and I hope your children aren't jeopardized anymore. Why don't you think about that!' How about making that statement?"

Ramadan was less reserved when talking about Ray Kelly, the New York City Police commissioner who strongly defended a departmental anti-terrororism surveillance program that drew criticism from civil-rights groups and New Jersey governor Chris Christie, among others, for focusing on Middle Eastern and Muslim residents.

"It's not anti-terrorism, it's Muslim surveillance," Ramadan said, when I asked him about the program.

He called it that "because what he's done is he's created a unit to survey Muslims. He's checking out Muslims specifically. In fact, he wasn't checking out Christian Arab-Americans."

Ramadan cited published reports by the Associated Press, which the NYPD claimed were inaccurate and which were awarded the Pulitzer Prize last year.

Ramadan said the program was "fucked up. It's basically equating Muslim with terrorism, which is outrageous."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Councilman Robert Jackson has endorsed Levine in the race to replace him. He has not made an endorsement yet.