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Another Special Election

by Courtney Gross, Jun 02, 2008
queens District 30 candidates
District 30 Candidates: Charles Ober, Elizabeth Crowley, Thomas Ognibene, and Anthony Como

The unofficial results are as follows: Como received 2,352 votes, Crowley has 2,282 votes, Ognibene has 1,031 and Ober has 752. This does not include absentee ballots. Currently, a Board of Elections official said, there are 196 unopened absentee ballots -- certainly enough to topple Como's lead of 70 votes. We will continue to update you as results trickle in.

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Four candidates, two Republicans, two Democrats, one woman, three men and the opportunity to widen the partisan gap in the New York City Council by yet another seat.

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The 30th district -- a Republican pocket of New York City that has served as one of the council's remaining conservative strongholds (in context of an overwhelmingly Democratic city) for nearly the last two decades -- is the scene of yet another special election. After now-disgraced, former Councilmember Dennis Gallagher stepped down as a result of a plea bargain on rape charges in April, the 30th, which comprises a swath of quasi-suburban communities from Middle Village to Ridgewood, has become center stage of council politics.

A pool of six candidates has been whittled down to the four who will face voters on June 3. Though a nonpartisan election, the two major parties have made their selection: for the GOP, Anthony Como, former counsel to State Sen. Serphin Maltese and Queens County Board of Elections commissioner, and on the Democratic side, Elizabeth Crowley, who ran against Gallagher in 2001 and whose cousin heads the Queens Democratic Party and is a member of Congress.

They battle Democratic candidate Charles Ober, an openly gay civic leader who has clinched some of the county's independent endorsements, and former Republican City Councilmember Thomas Ognibene, who served in the seat for a decade before being forced out by term limits in 2001.

The Apolitical Race

In a small, windowless room in P.S. 49 in Middle Village, four candidates passed a microphone back and forth while fielding questions on development and urban planning issues late last month.

Crowley touted her experience as an urban planner. Como described his record of community service. Ober committed to hiring a land use expert to address overdevelopment and Ognibene reiterated his experience.

This was just one event in what has become a two-month series of forums and debates in a race where no clear frontrunner has emerged.

All the candidates have, in one way or another, gleaned some sort of political know-how -- whether in Albany, in City Hall or on the streets of Glendale. All also have to leave their party affiliations behind -- at least officially -- as is required in special elections. The practice is supposed to limit the influence of powerful party leaders, since special elections often have low turnouts and can easily assure the victor of a seat for years to come (Incumbency, whether for four years or several months, sways voters in the city).

As a result, the candidates have adopted their own political label. Como is stumping on "People First," while Crowley has tweaked her slogan to "Schools First." Ober is running on "Community First," and Ognibene is using "Experience Counts."

But whoever wins the title of councilmember on June 3, cannot rest for long. City law requires another special election in November to determine who will serve the remainder of Gallagher's term, which ends in 2009. Then, the successful candidate would face another election in just a year in order to serve a full four-year term.

These candidates, however, claim to be up to the challenge.

The Issues

The 30th district has not been immune to the criticism that has plagued the City Council of late. In addition to the slush fund scandal, residents in Ridgewood, Middle Village, Maspeth and Glendale also were hit hard by the circumstances of Gallagher's resignation.

As a result, some community leaders say any potential successor will have to re-establish the trust and support of the community.

In addition, candidates face a plethora of other issues, including overcrowded schools, overdevelopment and flooding. Historical row houses are threatened by inconsistent zoning regulations, which could bring development that many see as out of character with the rest of the community. Their next councilmember, residents say, must also confront the loss of small businesses and address the area's transportation woes -- much of the neighborhood is no where near a subway.

All of the candidates have voiced support for preserving the district, including urging the city to move forward with downzoning regulations (Here is a survey filled out by the candidates for the Historic Districts Council, which addresses preservation and land marking issues).

They must also raise funds to preserve and move Maspeth's St. Saviour's Church -- a structure from the early 1800s threatened by development. And then there is flooding, which often inundates Middle Village and Maspeth.

On many of these issues, the candidates have voiced similar positions: They intend to balance development and preservation in order to protect the character of the district.

Some of the candidate's differences, however, have been seen elsewhere.

Sticking to the Issues -- Or Not

Crowley calls herself an "environmentalist." She drives a hybrid, has a master's degree in urban planning and two kids in the public schools. She's been a resident of the area all of her life. Her parents served on the City Council, representing some of the same neighborhoods she now is vying to take over.

Her critics cite nepotism, saying she is just another member of a politically powerful family and not necessarily representative of the change the neighborhood needs. Given the council's tainted reputation currently, her Democratic opponent cites fines Crowley incurred from the city's Campaign Finance Board following her 2001 race, where she failed to respond to allegations of fraud.

The Glendale resident has also received flak from a powerful neighborhood civic organization for skipping a debate in order to attend a local newspaper's editorial meeting.

Crowley has landed several key endorsements, including those of council members Joseph Addabbo and Eric Gioia, Rep. Anthony Weiner and Rep. Joseph Crowley, who is her cousin, and several Assembly members. She has raised far more than any other candidate at $159,400, and garnered more signatures than anyone else as well.

In contrast to Crowley's green perspective, Ognibene says he will not be "duped" by global warming, though he said he does recognize reducing emissions is worthwhile. While the veteran candidate has been successful at playing up his experience -- most of his answers are accompanied by anecdotes of his time as council minority leader, and he claims to be the only candidate competent enough to handle a marathon election. "When you have three budgets coming up, there is a learning curve to become a City Council member," Ognibene said on NY1's "Inside City Hall." "I think I have the experience and knowledge, and I'll be ready on day one."

Ognibene, though, cannot escape references to scandal either. Gallagher was Ognibene's protégé. Before that, Ognibene, who ran for mayor in 2005 against Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was mired in his own scandal in 2001 when he was accused of taking bribes from a buildings consultant. Ognibene has raised $35,365 and received nearly $60,000 in public matching funds.

Como, the leading Republican candidate based on endorsements, has cast himself as an experienced candidate who worked in the community for years with Maltese. A former assistant district attorney, the Middle Village resident has cited senior services and keeping taxes down as key issues in his campaign.

But Como's competence to serve has also been questioned. During a debate on NY1, Ognibene asked him what the capital budget consists of. Como could not answer the question. Como has also been criticized for snubbing the same debate Crowley had and for challenging his Republican rivals at the Board of Elections earlier in the race.

Como has received endorsements from the county Republican Party, and state senators Maltese and Martin Golden. He has raised $48,230 in private funds and received more than $75,000 in the city's matching funds.

Ober has defined himself as the independent candidate in this cast and played up his financial background. The Ridgewood resident belongs to several area civic associations and is the former president of the Queens Pride House, a gay and lesbian community center. The Juniper Park Civic Association, known as powerful political group in the area, has called him competent.

Ober has also gained the endorsement of several gay and lesbians organizations in the city and of mayoral candidate and council maverick, Councilmember Tony Avella. Ober also received an endorsement from The New York Times. He has raised $23,744 in private funds.