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Challenging an Incumbent's Record

by Gotham Gazette Staff, Jul 28, 2003

In 2001, insurgent Democrat James Gennaro won the primary race for City Council in district 24 by fewer than 600 votes. This year, Gennaro has the backing of the Queen's Democratic Party, but is still being challenged by two Democrats who claim that he has not done his job.

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David Reich, a chief of staff for State Senator Seymour Lachman who came in third in the 2001 race, is incensed that Gennaro was absent the day the 18.5 percent property tax increase was approved last November; it one of the most contentious votes of the last two years.

"Now he says he would have voted against it," said Reich. "I find that hard to believe."

Florence Fisher, a former community board member who oversees an after-school program at P.S. 219, said that she decided to run because the incumbent has refused to take a stand on difficult issues, like childhood lead poisoning. Gennaro is one a handful of council members who has not sponsored the bill 101A, which aims to create tougher laws to prevent childhood lead poisoning.

"When I approached him and asked why he hadn't signed onto [the bill], he said I had to ask Speaker Gifford Miller and he walked away," Fisher said. "I have a councilman who can't take a position on a bill and I don't want that kind of person representing me."

Gennaro defends his record. He missed the property tax, he said, due to a death in the family. And Gennaro said that childhood lead poisoning is an issue "close to my heart," but that the bill being proposed contains some unnecessary requirements on landlords and building inspectors that may be not be enforceable.

"I could have taken the easy way out and supported Intro 101 and been done with it," said Gennaro. "We're going to pass the best bill that we possibly can that incorporates the best elements of Intro 101 and goes beyond it."

While the three candidates disagree about who would best represent the community, they agree that something must be done to deal with the influx of residents in recent years. The population is growing faster than new housing can be built and the zoning laws are out of date.

For Reich rezoning means protecting the neighborhood's single-family homes and quiet streets. "Developers come in and knock down one-family houses to put in four- or five-family homes," said Reich.

Fisher said that the area's zoning laws must be used to create new affordable apartments and believes that developers should be required to include low cost apartments in their new buildings.

Gennaro said he sees a need for both new housing and protecting the area's character and believes that a community based planning process, where residents help decided the future of their neighborhood, is the best option. "Throughout the city, people should be taking a good hard look at zoning," said Gennaro. "I can only let them know what their options are and help them fulfill their common vision."

The candidates also cite education as a top concern.

Reich complains that new schools are being built in the wrong places, such as one school that was recently built on the Queens College campus. The city is also considering putting an 800-seat school on the grounds of the Queens hospital.

Fisher complains about overcrowding and cites P.S. 219 as an example; in the school, closets were emptied to create classroom space. If elected, she hopes to build new floors onto existing schools. "It would be cheaper than trying to build more schools," she said.

During his time in office, Gennaro said that he has provided area schools with new science labs, libraries, and computers. "The best impact I can have is to get them money so that they can provide the tools they need to educate the students," said Gennaro. The council member said he is also concerned about the current education reforms and fears it will diminish community involvement in decision-making.

Another significant issue is sanitation. Overflowing garbage baskets and trash on the street have made the summer months particularly uncomfortable.

To combat the problem, Gennaro has obtained funds to increase the number of waste receptacles in the district. He has also introduced legislation that would require daily pickups citywide.

Reich attributes the problem to weak enforcement of sanitation laws. "Our shopping centers are filthy," Reich said. "We need workers from the sanitation department giving tickets to everyone who litters."

In addition to proposing different solutions to the district's problems, the candidates also found different issues on which to focus. Gennaro cited senior services and public safety as the most pressing issues. Reich is concerned about traffic brought into the district by the airport, hospital, and college, whereas Fisher focused on subway problems, firehouse closings, healthcare, and taxes.

The challengers have an tough battle ahead. Gennaro has a big advantage in fundraising, raising four times more than his opponents.

Conservative candidate Walter Lamp is also running but could not be reached for comment.

Posted August 29, 2003