Monday, February 16, 2009

Personality, Not Policy Marks Debate in South Queens by Dara Miles - Gotham Gazette

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Current Occcupant: The 32nd district council seat, currently vacant, was occupied by Democrat Joseph P. Addabbo, Jr.. In November, who won election to the State Senate in November.

Four candidates (perhaps five, depending on the final outcome of a legal challenge) will be on the ballot vying to represent the 32nd district at City Hall. Although they largely agree on the issues of concern to south Queens, they have differed sharply as to who is qualified -- or who even has the right -- to represent the area.

Among those running are several candidates who claim years of service to their political parties and to their communities. The youngest contender, Eric Ulrich, is a Republican district leader who has been active in politics since his teens. Lew Simon is a Democrat district leader who claims a long tenure as a neighborhood activist. Geraldine Chapey, a fourth-generation resident of the district, touts her experience as an educator and as the founder of a non-profit organization that provides group transportation to south Queens seniors. That affiliation, though, cuts both ways; she has been under attack because she refuses to disclose how much, or whether, she makes any money from her contracts with the city.)

The field includes two newcomers to politics. Glen DiResto points to his leadership and managerial experience in the police department. Mike Ricatto, a successful entrepreneur, is hoping that voters will decide they need his business acumen at City Hall. His campaign was shaken up early on when the driver of a campaign van hit and killed a 9-year-old boy. More recently, his candidacy survived a legal challenge based on his relatively recent move into the district. Some of his opponents say Ricatto has no right to run in the 32nd, but the courts have ruled otherwise.

Far from Manhattan

District 32 spans a spread-out handful of communities on Queens' southern reaches, from Woodhaven south through Ozone Park, Howard Beach and Broad Channel, and across Jamaica Bay to Rockaway. Once an enclave of working-class Italian, Irish and Jewish families, the district is now one of the most ethnically diverse in Queens.

While most of the district's residents live no more than 10 miles from City Hall as the crow flies, they like to imagine that their quiet, tree-lined neighborhoods with modest single-family homes are worlds away from Lower Manhattan's hustle. Yet, the psychic distance comes at a price -- they complain of being short-changed when it comes to getting their share of city services, particularly transportation.

That was the message the candidates got on Feb. 4 at the first of two debates where a large part of the discussion centered on the lack of reliable public transportation and the resulting strain on traffic and on-street parking. Residents worry that service will only get worse in the face of budget cuts. With the city's financial crisis rendering train or bus route expansions mere whimsy at this point, the candidates agreed that existing service must be maintained at the very least.

Rockaway and Broad Channel residents, separated from the rest of the district by Jamaica Bay, are also distressed at the specter of having to once again pay a toll to use the Cross Bay bridge. Currently, these residents get a rebate on tolls paid, but the Metropolitan Transit Authority is mulling an end to the program. The candidates agreed that Queens residents should not have to pay to drive from one end of their borough to another and pledged to fight the authority's proposed rollback.

In contrast to the first debate, where civility prevailed, a second debate a week later touched focused on less pressing matters yet was marked, in the waning minutes, by discord and vitriol.

Although seven candidates for Addabbo's council seat had filed nominating petitions with the Board of Elections by the Jan. 15 deadline, petition challenges knocked three out of the race before the second debate. One of the victims was Frank Gulluscio, a Democratic district leader and former Adabbo staffer who many saw as the heir apparent. Sam DiBernardo, failed to gather enough signatures to get his name on the ballot. DiResto, was eliminated too but is appealing the decision.

That left four survivors, Ricatto, Ulrich, Chapey and Simon, plus a hopeful DiResto, to duke it out before a nearly packed house in a Howard Beach church basement, with audience members throwing some verbal punches as well.

The evening started benignly enough, with all of the contenders reiterating their unanimity on the transportation, toll rebate and essential services issues. The candidates' differences were more a matter of style than substance as they explained how they would fix problems ranging from dead fish in the Shell Bank basin to shrinking manpower in police precincts.

Debate moderator and Queens Chronicle editor Peter Mastrosimone asked the candidates how they would solve the apparent disparity between police protection in Rockaway and the precincts to the north. Most candidates suggested manpower sharing or reallocation among the three precincts. "Allocating police officers is not rocket science," said former police lieutenant DiResto. "You look at the map, and you deploy the officers where they're needed -- where the crime is."

Residents complain that parking regulations and noise ordinances are not enforced. The candidates agreed change is needed, and Chapey invoked former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his tough-on-minor-crime policies. "As a City Council person, I would insist that we go back to that time," she said. "The police and other municipal services must be directed to deal with them."

Ulrich also favored a zero-tolerance approach. "If one of my constituents calls my line -- which I will have 24 hours a day -- and says that somebody is blasting that music at one o clock in the morning, guess what? The police officer's going to go there and not issue summonses, not give tickets, they're going to take that sound system and confiscate it and get it the hell out of there," he said.

Like the rest of Queens, the district struggles with "illegal conversions" -- home renovations, sometimes shoddy and unsafe, done so that more families can be quartered under one roof. The contenders agree that increased enforcement is needed, as well as more oversight of the city's troubled Buildings Department. Simon proposed to get one building inspector assigned to work with each community board, and tougher consequences for violators.

South Queens residents rely heavily on the city's forestry services for maintenance of the district's many trees. As Mastrosimone noted, district residents made more than a 1,000 calls last year to the parks department, usually for removal of dead trees or tree limbs. Most candidates agreed that it was hard to get a timely response from the department and pledged to get forestry to make the district a higher priority.

Ricatto disagreed. "We are in a fiscal, financial crisis right now," he said. "Forestry is the least of our worries at this point in time. I think what important is to keep our police on duty and our firefighters on duty and to keep the core of our services up and running."

Money -- or the lack thereof -- underpins each of the district's issues. When asked for one revenue innovation to help bridge the budget gap, DiResto and Uhlrich said they would push to reinstate the commuter tax, something that requires the approval of the state government. Chapey suggested tapping the federal stimulus package, and Ricatto favored stepped-up enforcement of small crimes to bring revenues from fines into the city coffers. Simon proposed a borough-wide Lotto, with each borough running its own game and keeping the revenues for its projects.

Heating Up

Sparks flew toward the end of the evening, when the candidates questioned each other. Ricatto faced cries of "Carpetbagger!" from the crowd until a loud voice from the back rose to his defense. Ricatto, the businessman, asked Ulrich, the young politician, how he was qualified to lead in hard fiscal times.

"There's a lot more to being a City Council member than being a businessman," Ulrich responded. "Politics is not business, and these are not your employees," he said, gesturing to the cheering crowd.

Chapey found herself in the cross hairs as well. Ulrich questioned her successful effort to get Gulluscio bounced from the ballot. Shouting down a pro-Gulluscio contingent in the crowd, Chapey said, "If you go into the pool hall, the rules are listed on the wall, she said. "If you want to run for election, you should know the rules."

Addabbo had endorsed Gulluscio and so far has not indicated whether he will endorse one of the remaining candidates. The Queens County Republican Party's Executive Committee is endorsing Ulrich.

The winner of the Feb. 24 special election only locks up the council seat for a few months. Next November, District 32 voters will go back to the polls again, and they may find Gulluscio's name back on the ballot.


Geraldine Chapey, 67: A Rockaway Park resident, she is a professor at CUNY in the behavioral sciences department and a Democratic district leader for Far Rockaway. She is the director of Trinity Senior Services, a non-profit transportation service for seniors living in southeast Queens. Chapey ran unsuccessfully for the state Assembly more than a decade ago; this is her first bid for City Council.

Glen DiResto, 38: He retired last year from the New York Police Department where he served as a lieutenant. A political newcomer, he lives in Rockaway Beach.

Michael P. Ricatto, 52: The Ozone Park resident is president of Ricatto Enterprises, a group of family-owned enterprises with interests in re-manufacturing, fleet maintenance, racehorses and real estate. This is his first time running for office.

Lew M. Simon, 49: He lives in Rockaway Beach and is a long-time community activist and the founder and chair of the Good Government Regular Democratic Club. He has been a Democratic district leader since 1994. He first ran for city council in 2002, but lost to Joseph Addabbo in the primary election.

Eric Ulrich, 23: A fundraiser for the Roman Catholic Church, he previously worked as a schoolteacher and a campaign consultant. A Republican district leader since 2007, this is the Ozone Park resident's first time running for City Council.

Campaign Finance Records

Geraldine Chapey
Glenn DiResto
Michael Ricatto
Lew Simon
Eric Ulrich