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In Eastern Queens, A Weprin Wants to Change Jobs

by Joana Mangune, Aug 31, 2009
Photo (cc) mortonfox
An intersection near Queens Village in City Council District 23

The Weprin family has been a force in the political life of eastern Queens for a long time and Mark Weprin hopes that will continue to be the case. He is seeking the City Council seat from the 23rd district, now held by his brother David, who is leaving the council to run for city comptroller.

Two other candidates, though, want to end the family's hold on the job. Bob Friedrich, a president of Glen Oaks Village, a large co-op community, and Swaranjit Singh, a realtor who hopes to become the first Sikh elected to office in New York, will face off against Weprin, a member of the State Assembly for 15 years, in the Sept. 15 primary. Friedrich has the Republican nomination guaranteeing him a spot on the November ballot regardless of how he fares in September.

Multi-families and McMansions

Like other neighborhoods in the outer reaches of the city, many areas in the 23rd have undergone rapid change. A recent debate between the candidates in a ballroom at North Shore Towers in Floral Park, reflected concerns about the changes, as well as education and who would best represent the 23rd district.

Many homeowners in the area have illegally carved up their single-family houses by renting out basements or converting their third floors to dormitories, prompting concerns about overcrowding and safety.

Photo (c) Weprin09
Mark Weprin

"You put a gas oven in the basement you'd be creating all kinds of incidents, fire hazards, fire codes and unfortunately the buildings department does not have enough inspectors to check all these things out. They don't have enough people," Weprin said.

To end illegal housing conversions, Weprin would allow buildings department inspectors to monitor the houses and increase inspections. Currently the inspectors can enter a property only when someone gives them access. That, Weprin said, is "a constant problem" because "usually when someone's doing illegal, they don't let you in."

The illegal renting of basements brings more people to the neighborhood, Singh noted, placing a burden in schools and affecting the neighborhood's quality of life. He would institute penalties for the illegal rentals.

While some single-family homes are being carved into apartment, others are being razed to make way for far grander homes -- so-called mcmansions. Some residents worry this also affects the quality of life.

"I'm not saying that you have to have a ranch house," Weprin said, but the big new homes are "not the character of the neighborhood. While we can't always account for taste, it just seems inappropriate."

School Issues

On education, the candidates have expressed sharp differences. Weprin has been a persistent critic of the Department of Education's emphasis on standardized tests. "Whether the kids like a teacher or excited about learning with a teacher doesn't matter anymore. All that matter is that you bubble in the right answer," he said.

"Principals are so loaded down with paper work right now that they're shackled to their desks and don't do their jobs of walking around buildings and evaluating teachers," Weprin said. "And because teachers are only obsessed about standardized test they don't do their job of inspiring students because they just want to make sure that they bubble in the right answers."

Photo (cc) Bob Friedrich
Bob Friedrich

Friedrich has strongly defended standardized testing. "This desire to create a "touchy-feely" educational system devoid of all objective measurements of success or failure is what got our city schools into trouble in the first place," he says on his web site. "Without some measure of objective criteria for assessment, you move children up the ladder without regard to their educational capabilities."

Singh's major gripe about education is what he sees as wasteful spending in the Department of Education.

Money and Backing

With $114,120, Weprin holds a slight lead in fundraising over Singh who has $107,952, Friedrich lags behind with $58,799.

Friedrich said he is not concerned about the gap. "I did not come with an entourage. I don't need 10 people around me telling you how great I am," he said.

Photo (c) Swaranjit Singh
Swaranjit Singh

Weprin holds a substantial lead in endorsement, with the backing of U.S. Reps. Gary Ackerman, Gregory Meeks and Anthony Weiner, the support of the Working Families Party and many unions. Mayoral candidate and City Councilmember Tony Avella supports Singh.

Friedrich has the endorsement of the Republican Party, which may be a mixed blessing in the Democratic primary. Weprin and Singh have raised doubts about Friedrich's divided loyalties.

Weprin said he has never accepted a GOP endorsement. "The Republican Party has fought against many things I believe in," said Weprin. "Whether it's a woman's right to choose, whether it's gay rights, whether it's labor unions."

But Friedrich defended his Republican backing. "I don't play identity politics game because I think that's very destructive in the community. When we can resolve things, everyone in the community benefits," Friedrich said.

Friedrich has described himself as a moderate Democrat and a fiscal conservative. He has written, "My conservative spending views come from my accounting and finance background where I have seen the ease at which government freely spends someone else's money with little oversight and accountability."

In a district with a number of South Asians, Singh reminds people the election of a Sikh would be historic. "We have no representation in the City Council, Assembly, New York State Senate, Congress, nowhere," Singh has said. "I'll be making history." However he has said his support extends beyond the south Asian community.

A native of Punjab, India, Singh recalls encountering prejudice after the 9/11 attacks. As he was walking down the street, wearing his turban, days after 9/11 he said a young woman approached him and asked, "Excuse me, are you going to bomb here today?"

Singh said this experience encouraged him to serve and educate his community about Sikhs. "This is what I'm trying to tell people – I'm one of you. I just wear a turban, it's my faith. I have the same needs, same problems, same issues as you feel," Singh said.

The Weprin Name

In his years in Albany, Weprin has passed 62 laws. His decision to give up the legislature for City Council has concerned some residents. At the debate, North Shore Tower resident Dianne Stromfeld voiced her dismay. "I am truly confused as to why you are giving up all the seniority on a state level when you have done so much good and continue to do so much good," Stromfeld said.

Weprin responded that many of the programs he has been most involved in Albany, such as education, are administered locally. Weprin has also said he would like to stay closer to home.

Certainly the Weprins have a long record in Albany. The Weprins' father, Saul, served in the State Assembly for years, including a stint as speaker. When he died, Mark won the seat. In 2001, David was elected to the area's City Council seat.

In an email last year, Friedrich raised doubts about this. "Dynasties have no place in American politics and City Council seats should not be inherited based on name only," he said in an e-mail to supporter. "Candidates should be elected based on their record of community service!"

On the other hand, Friedrich has praised Mark Weprin's record -- and urged him to remain in Albany. "You get the best of both worlds by voting for me," he said, noting that Weprin would retain his Assembly seat if he lost the council bid.

Weprin said his familiarity with his fellow politicians and experience would enable him to serve his constituents well. "I know all the people in government and I think that will serve me well when it comes time to trying to get things done for my constituents. People know me and I know the process," Weprin said.

As to his family ties, he said, "I have never asked anyone to vote for me because my last name is Weprin, but I certainly don't want people to vote against me because my last name is Weprin," he said.

Singh, though, believes that the Weprins' reign in politics will soon be over.

"The Clintons are gone. The Ming Dynasty is gone. So many big people have come. It's just a progression. And they were there and I think their time is up. There's nothing permanent," Singh said.

This article was written under a partnership between Gotham Gazette and the Baruch College's Department of Journalism and Writing Professions.
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