The 2001 City Council election saw the already paltry ranks of council Republicans cut from five members to three. The 19th district was one of those that switched party allegiances. This year, Philip Ragusa, vice chair of the Queens County Republican Party, hopes to win the seat back for the Republicans by defeating the incumbent Democrat, Tony Avella.
Ragusa sees some encouraging signs. When the seat was open in 2001, Avella defeated his Republican opponent, Dennis Safran, by just 357 votes. Redistricting since then has made the district more conservative. In his two years in office, Avella has taken some unpopular stands - and Ragusa boasts a record of community service and endorsements from two popular local politicians, Republican State Senators Frank Padavan and Serphin Maltese.
Taxes and quality of life are among the key issues in this district, which includes the affluent residential neighborhoods of Bayside, Whitestone, Bay Terrace, Douglaston, Little Neck, Auburndale, and parts of Flushing.
Avella voted for several taxes, including the absentee landlord tax, the increased sales tax and the increased income tax. But he was one of only six council members who voted against the 18.5 percent increase in the real estate tax last fall.
The council member's vote on the property tax pitted Avella against the mayor, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and most council Democrats.
Some observers speculate that the redrawing of Avella's district to include three more conservative neighborhoods and to increase the number of Republicans may have been an act of political revenge by the redistricting commission, most of whose members were appointed by the mayor and council speaker.
Ragusa says his opposition to tax hikes would not have stopped at the property tax: He would have voted not only against the sales and income tax increases as well. Instead of hiking taxes on city residents, Ragusa said, the council has to focus more on controlling costs.
"Revenue is not that easy to make," he said. "If we give [city government] $46 billion, they spend $46 billion. They have to be more prudent about what they are spending."
While Avella agrees the city could use money more efficiently, he thinks that, in many respects, the council did a good job with the budget this year. But he said the increase in the real estate tax remains the most important issue facing the district. Avella believes the city needed at least some of the revenue from the tax hike to repair city property, something that costs New York millions of dollars a year. So he has proposed a "You Break It, You Pay for It" bill, which would allow the city to recoup money spent to repair damages caused by the negligence of others.
Both Avella and Ragusa stress that district 19 must keep its pleasant residential character. To accomplish this, Avella has proposed limiting medical offices in low-density areas. Residents complain that the doctors' offices reduce the supply of private homes, and homeowners worry that parking by those visiting medical offices decreases property values.
Parking for the influx of religious institutions in the district also poses a problem.
Under city regulations, religious institutions have to provide parking only if their chairs or pews are bolted to a building's floors. And so many religious institutions bypass this law by buying private homes for services and not fastening the seats to the floor. Avella says he wants the regulation eliminated.
But Ragusa has doubts. "This is a touchy issue," he said, noting that repeal of the law could hamper religious expression. Rather than completely eliminating the non-fixed seating regulation, Ragusa thinks each case should be examined individually.
Meanwhile, Avella wants the district rezoned to "better reflect the character of the neighborhood," which has many one and two-family houses, and not create denser development.
In the past 10 years, he said, overdevelopment and improper construction has caused overcrowding in schools and traffic congestion. Avella, chair of the council Zoning and Franchises Committee, has hired a planner to study district 19, recommend areas that could be rezoned and find spots for more open space.
Ragusa said the proposal has merit. "I only question why he waited for the last few months of his term to conduct this study," Ragusa said. "I think it's a ploy to help him win the election."
Ragusa said that he has a long record that demonstrates his commitment to preserving the residential character of district 19. For example, as president of the Beechhurst Property Owners' Association, Ragusa helped fight the construction of high-rise buildings on the Hammerstein estate in Beechhurst. Instead, the city built town houses consistent with the neighborhood's low-density housing. Ragusa has also worked on the Fort Totten Revitalization Committee, which has been successful in having the federal government transfer the defunct military base to the city. Residents and lawmakers are hoping to find $25 million to convert Fort Totten into parkland.
But the record of the candidates may be less important than the record of this district. Was the election of a Democrat in 2001 an aberration or has this part of Queens switched solidly into the Democratic column?