Saturday, February 21, 2009

Candidates Play Hardball in Howard Beach Debate by Lee Landor - Queens Chronicle

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(photos by Julie Court; design by Ella Jipescu)

Finally, a debate that lived up to its title.

The 32nd Council District special election debate held last Thursday at St. Barnabas Church in Howard Beach began like any other candidates’ forum: one-minute introductions and a simple question-and-answer session set before a quiet and attentive audience.

But diplomacy and courteousness eventually dissipated and were replaced ith a heated and acerbic back-and-forth between one candidate and the audience.

Rockaway Democratic District Leader Geraldine Chapey clashed with many of the nearly 200 community members in attendance over her campaign’s successful push to remove former contender Frank Gulluscio from the ballot and her refusal to answer a question about her nonprofit organization, Trinity Services.

It all started when each candidate was given the chance to ask another a question. Ozone Park Republican District Leader Eric Ulrich was the first at the podium.

Addressing the “800-pound gorilla in the room,” as he put it, Ulrich asked Chapey: “Why do you feel that Frank did not have the right to run for City Council?” Chapey’s campaign had challenged nomination petitions Gulluscio filed with the city Board of Elections, which found that he had an insufficient number of valid signatures.

Ulrich’s question riled up the audience, which immediately applauded and loudly cheered. As soon as Chapey started to speak, attendees began booing.

Chapey attempted to answer, but the audience’s jeering cut her off. “You could shout up till tomorrow, it doesn’t matter,” Chapey said to the rowdy crowd, noting that the Board of Election ultimately made the decision.

Some audience members did not accept Chapey’s response. “Answer the question,” one woman shouted from the back of the room. “Why challenge? Why challenge?”

The moderator of the debate, which was sponsored by the Queens Chronicle and The Forum, had to step in and ask the audience to quiet down.

The tension didn’t end there. Two other candidates, retired NYPD lieutenant Glenn DiResto and Rockaway Democratic District Leader Lew Simon, each asked Chapey questions that further incited the audience, evoking an uproar.

DiResto wanted to to know which employees of Chapey’s Trinity Services — an organization she founded to provide transportation for seniors — were on the payroll in the last year. It was a question that went unanswered during an earlier debate held in Rockaway, DiResto said.

Chapey evaded the question, never actually providing numbers in her response. Instead she explained to the rambunctious audience that the city regulates Trinity’s budget. Unhappy with her answer, the audience got loud, shouting down the Kingsborough Community College professor.

Unwilling to accept what she called disrespect, Chapey told the audience to let her speak and said “If you don’t want to listen, then please go outside.”

As things quieted down, it was Simon’s turn to grill Chapey. He asked, who pays Trinity Services’ rent and why does Chapey hold Democratic Party meetings in her nonprofit group’s office. Trying, once again, to speak over the unruly crowd, Chapey ended up shouting her answer: her husband pays Trinity’s rent and her office is open to everyone who wants to hold meetings there.

The candidates weren’t the only ones grilling each other — area residents had questions of their own for the five hopefuls, some that stumped the contenders and others that showed their community involvement.

When asked a question by Donna Gilmartin, president of the Locust Grove Civic Association, Mike Ricatto admitted that he didn’t know what Locust Grove is. He, Chapey, Simon and DiResto said they were not familiar with the Bernard Fineson Center’s recently released request for proposals.

Ulrich was the only candidate who could answer Ozone Park resident Pat McCabe’s question about the RFP in detail and who interacted most with Community Board 10 Chairwoman Betty Braton.