Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Greg Meeks Said to be Seeking Candidate to Run Against Ruben Wills by Chris Bragg - City Hall News

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When Council Member Ruben Wills placed his hand on the Bible and took the oath of office in mid-December, the moment seemed to be one of d├ętente.

Rep. Greg Meeks, the man who had feverishly tried to block Wills' road to City Hall, stood beside the new Council member and applauded. In the four months since, Meeks has repeatedly promised to work with the incumbent as the Queens Democrat gears up to run for reelection in November.

In a hurried interview before Meeks boarded a flight to Colombia, the congressman denied having spoken to anyone about running against Wills.

"I have not talked to anyone about my support or my commitments in the race at all," Meeks said.

Yet a number of politically plugged-in Democrats in southeast Queens tell a very different story.

In fact, they say Meeks has been quietly looking for a candidate to run against Wills. This has created a lot of speculation about who will challenge Wills, who won a special election in November following the death of Council Member Tom White.

Nicole Paultre-Bell, who ran against Wills last year with Meeks' support, is said to be uninterested in another run; she will instead focus on the nonprofit she founded in memory of her slain fiance, Sean Bell.

Lynn Nunes, who lost to White by four votes in 2009, was considered a highly viable candidate. Meeks even met with Nunes about a month ago to discuss a potential run, knowledgeable sources say, though Nunes ultimately decided to take a pass on the race.

(Disputing that any such meeting occurred, Meeks insisted that he "must have a twin brother, because I haven't met with the guy.")

Clifton Stanley Diaz, chairman of the Rochdale Village board of directors, has also emerged as a potential candidate. Wills has grown so concerned about Meeks backing Diaz that the Council member and congressman are meeting to discuss the matter this week.

Other possible challengers could be 2010 candidate Harpreet Toor, and former Council member and longtime Wills nemesis Allan Jennings. District leader Albert Baldeo would also be a strong contender, though Wills said Baldeo told him he did not plan to run.

Meeks and Wills have been political foes since 2008, when Wills challenged the congressman in a primary, and sharply criticized him for alleged ethical misconduct. Last year Meeks recruited Paultre-Bell to run against Wills, who pulled out a narrow victory by gaining the support of the rest of the southeast Queens political establishment.

There are many reasons why this November's special election, which will choose a Council member to serve out the remainder of White's term, is attracting so much interest. All of them have to do with the vulnerabilities of the incumbent. In office less than a year, Wills has not had time to build a political base. Last month The Daily News reported the existence of two outstanding misdemeanor arrest warrants stemming from Wills' contracting work more than a decade ago.

Wills has also been dealing with other personal foibles, which include unpaid debts for child support and questions about a member item Wills secured for his nonprofit while working for the State Senate. Wills acknowledged being so poor at handling money that his wife gives him only $100 in cash a week in an attempt to curtail his spending habits.

With so many local politicians under a cloud of scandal or investigation, including Meeks and State Sens. Shirley Huntley and Malcolm Smith, Wills said that residents of the district blame the media for the news stories.

"To everyone in the district, this has caused them to come out and support me even more," Wills said. "It's actually a slap in the face for the people that voted for me."

Wills has spent his short time in office opposing the construction of a homeless shelter in his district and trying to help his constituents stem a tide of foreclosures that rate among the highest in the country.

But Wills' money issues are never far away. While the Council member talked over coffee at a deli near City Hall, an aide walked in and handed him a thin manila envelope before abruptly departing. Wills pulled out a crisp $100 bill and bought a sandwich, soup and a Pepsi, burning through a full 10 percent of his weekly allowance.

If Wills wins reelection, some of his financial burdens would obviously be lifted with the guarantee of an $112,500 salary. Still, Wills does not expect his wife to back off anytime soon.

"No way she's going to let me spend more," Wills said. "Then, we're going to have to get a house."