Last winter, when Democrat Vincent Gentile campaigned in a special election for City Council district 43, he characterized himself as a "tax cutter."
It was not a particularly surprising statement. Voters in the neighborhoods of Bay Ridge and Dyker are known for their opposition to taxes and have elected Republicans to local office in the past. Just a few months earlier, Vincent Gentile lost his State Senate seat to Republican Martin Golden, who left his spot in the City Council. Gentile was then seeking the council seat left open by the Republican.
Gentile even included a photo of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Upper East Side townhouse in his campaign literature and criticized the mayor and the City Council for increasing property taxes by 18.5 percent. "Unlike our billionaire mayor, Vinnie Gentile knows how hard it is to make ends meet," the mailing read.
Gentile's strategy worked. In a close race, he beat his main Republican opponent Rosemarie O'Keefe by just 31 votes.
Now, less than a year later, taxes are again the primary issue of a campaign where two new Republican candidates are seeking to unseat the Democratic incumbent.
Republicans Stephen Maresca and Pasqualino "Pat" Russo said Councilmember Gentile broke his campaign promises when he voted to hike the city sales tax and to increase the personal income tax for New Yorkers who make more than $100,000 a year. Gentile did not vote for the property tax because he was not in office at the time.
"He should have voted against all those taxes," said Stephen Maresca, a financial analyst. "Raising taxes is only a short-term budget fix. I would have liked to see them deal with the budget problem from the administrative side."
For Pat Russo, a lawyer, the city's budget problems stem from over-spending and a lack of accountability. "I am going to become a watchdog for people of my community to hold the line on spending and look for the ways where we can to make the quality of life better, " said Russo.
Gentile said his vote to raise the city sales tax and personal income tax are "absolutely consistent" with his campaign promises and believes the council handled the current budget crisis in a proper manner, preserving sanitation services, parks funding, and senior centers.
"Those are the ways we are able to raise the revenue without [further] increasing the property tax, and they came at the least expense or pain to the people I represent," said Gentile.
Other issues beside taxes are important in this district that is known for its relatively clean and safe streets and quiet neighborhoods.
Residents often complain about transportation problems with limited subway service, traffic congestion, and slow commutes to Manhattan even with express bus service. Gentile counts his efforts to preserve Brooklyn water ferry service from the Army terminal on 58th Street and 2nd Avenue in Brooklyn to Manhattan as one of his main accomplishments in his short time in office.
Education is another concern. Both Pat Russo and Stephen Maresca support Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent reform of the education system. However, Maresca believes more time is needed to see whether it works; Russo believes further reduction of the workforce in the Department of Education is needed to make it efficient and accountable.
Councilmember Gentile is not pleased with Mayor Bloomberg's educational reform thus far. "I am not convinced yet that the new system is going to benefit the parents and students in my neighborhood," he said.
The areas of Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights are known for their traditionally Irish and Italian-American residents. However, a recent study found that the area is also one of the fastest growing Chinese American neighborhoods in New York City. With past elections being decided by just a few votes, some in the Chinese American community hope that they can be an important political force this year.
According to a recent article in the Chinese language newspaper Sing Tao Daily residents may give their support to the Republican candidates because they are concerned that the incumbent has not worked aggressively enough to diversify the leadership of the local community board. On the campaign trail, Russo is quick to talk about his own immigrant background and has appeared at recent Chinese community events with Republican State Senator Martin Golden.
Russo and Maresca will face off in a Republican primary in September. Gentile can focus on the general election since he has no Democratic challengers.
Posted July 28, 2003
Republican Stephen Maresca lost his place on the ballot when Councilmember Vincent Gentile successfully challenged that he did not have enough valid signatures on his nominating petitions. Maresca's removal eliminates the need for a Republican primary and leaves Pat Russo as Gentile's only challenger.
Because of this, Gentile said Russo is no longer entitled to $20,625 in city matching campaign funds - money that was supposed to be spent on a primary that will never take place. The city's campaign finance board agreed and said the money would count against whatever Russo would normally receive for his general election campaign against Gentile.
Updated August 29, 2003