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On the North Shore, Candidates Seek to Ease Traffic

by Khadijah Rentas, Feb 17, 2009

The Candidates

Current Occupant: The seat became vacant when voters elected Councilmember Michael McMahon to Congress on Nov. 4.

Results:While the race may be too close to call, as of Wednesday, Feb. 25, Kenneth Mitchell was in the lead with 4,130 votes to Deborah Rose's 4,096. Tony Baker received 849 votes in the race, John Tobbaco received 707, Paul Saryian received 538 and Donald Pagano received 532. Nearly 400 absentee ballots must still be counted.

The Staten Island race that began as the most hotly contested of this year's three special elections for City Council has been shaken up and whittled down to five candidates from nine. One independent, Paul Saryian, will take on four Democrats -- Deborah Rose, Tony Baker, Donald Pagano and Kenneth Mitchell -- in the purportedly nonpartisan election. They will duke it out for the 49th district City Council seat over familiar Staten Island issues that include curbing traffic congestion and public access to an underdeveloped waterfront.

The candidates' platforms strongly resemble one another. All of them promise expensive projects to boost a district that has been hard hit by the economic downturn. The North Shore is one of four areas Mayor Michael Bloomberg cited as having the highest increase in housing foreclosures in the city. All five want improved transportation, less crime and more money funneled to education and struggling families. But each candidate differs on the details and on how they would make good on those promises.

For more, jump here.


Tony Baker, 51: The reverend and former schoolteacher lives in Port Richmond. He is a U.S. Army veteran and on the board of the Richmond University Medical Center.

Kenneth Mitchell, 43: The West Brighton resident served as chief of staff to former Councilmember Michael McMahon. Mitchell has received endorsements from his former boss and unions, including a firefighters union.

Donald Pagano, 47: Also of Port Richmond, he owns DRP Electrical Contracting, Inc. and has worked in the electrical contracting field for 30 years. He is secretary for Community Education Council 31.

Deborah Rose, 56: The Mariner's Harbor resident ran for the council seat in 2001, but lost to McMahon. She is secretary of Community Board No. 1 and has advocated for the community for 28 years.

Paul Saryian, 49: Saryian, who lives in West Brighton, served as a New York City police officer for 23 years and retired a captain. The police Captains Endowment Association has endorsed him.

Campaign Finance Records

Tony Baker
Kenneth Mitchell
Donald Pagano
Deborah Rose
Paul Saryian

Links in the News:

Tabacco Loses Ballot Spot, The Wonkster, Feb. 12, 2009

Nine Vie for City Council Seat (video), NY1, Feb. 13, 2009

City Council Race Getting Uglier, Staten Island Advance, Feb. 11, 2009

Staten Island Democrats Vie for McMahon's Seat, City Room, Nov. 14, 2008

The most urban of Staten Island's three districts, the 49th sharply contrasts with the more suburban feel of the rest of the island and has five of the borough's 10 public housing developments. The district also differs politically from the rest of often Republican Staten Island -- Democrats have held the North Shore district seat for more than 25 years.

The district is the home of many recent immigrants and the most racially diverse part of the island. Rose and Baker are both looking to become the first black council member from Staten Island. Saryian is of Armenian and Hispanic descent, and former candidate Rajiv Gowda, who was knocked off the ballot, was born in India.


Whatever their ethnicity, though, Staten Island residents, as well as visitors, complain about transportation : traffic on the Staten Island Expressway sometimes backed up to New Jersey, the Verrazano Bridge's toll of $10 (up $2 from 2004) and the limited ferry service at off-peak times.

To ease the congestion, the candidates all advocate development of a light rail system.

Rose, who ran unsuccessfully for the council seat in 2001, suggested creating a rail line that would circle the entire island. Rose and Pagano view the rail line as a shovel-ready project that should be eligible for money from the federal economic stimulus package and could economically revitalize the neighborhoods along the route.

Mitchell promises to work for the development of a light rail on the North Shore. Baker, along with Rose and Mitchell, wants to increase local and express bus service and save bus service the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has threatened to cut because of budget shortfalls.

Saryian also wants to encourage more public transportation and has turned his eyes to the median over the Staten Island Expressway. Saryian thinks it could be the site of a rail system similar to the AirTrain over the Van Wyck Expressway in Queens.

Improving ferry service could also cut car traffic. About 19 million people a year ride the ferry, according to the city's Department of Transportation. But the boat, which is free, departs St. George terminal only once an hour overnight and on weekend evenings.

Rose wants the boat to depart every 20 minutes around the clock. Mitchell said he'd like to see the ferry motor across the Hudson River every half hour after midnight. And Saryian has a plan to subsidize increased ferry service: Tourists should pay while New Yorkers continue to ride for free.

Making Tourists Pay

After floating past the Statue of Liberty, the ferry docks at St. George. Instead of lingering, many tourists get right back on the boat. Some candidates believe developing the mostly inaccessible and unfriendly waterfront to provide recreation for islanders and tourists would boost the economy.

Pagano wants to recast the shoreline with an esplanade from the homeport, which the Navy once owned, to Snug Harbor. He envisions a new school with grades kindergarten through 12, a park, restaurants, summer boating and a low-rise hotel or two that don't block the view -- basically, "a downtown centralized Mecca." Mitchell proposes waterfront parks and housing and commercial space at the homeport.

Staten Island Tea Party?

Stimulus money and tourism offer the 49th district a way to get what some residents say the North Shore hasn't received from the city: its "fair share."

Saryian has made this the crux of his campaign. Staten Island as a whole has the highest median income of the five boroughs, at $55,039, according to 2000 data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. But, Saryian said, because of their relatively high incomes, Staten Islanders do not get back in public services from the city what they pay to the city in taxes.

"People on Staten Island are ready to start throwing tea in the ocean," Saryian said, recalling rebellious colonists prior to the American Revolution.

Serving the District

Mitchell, a lawyer who worked for McMahon, has received the endorsements of his former boss and of unions. The other candidates cite their own assets.

A community advocate for 28 years and secretary of Community Board No. 1, Rose has received endorsements from DC37 and Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member Allen Cappelli. Rose said the North Shore needs an aggressive leader. "You have to elect people that are strong, that have big mouths, like me," she said at a forum on Jan. 22.

Baker doesn't consider himself a "big mouth," but charismatic. "I'm very personable," he told a resident when asked whether he would have a strong voice on the current council. As a reverend, Baker believes he can rally people together.

Pagano worked for over 30 years in electrical contracting and development and owns his own contracting business, DRP Electrical Contracting, Inc. In these hard times, Pagano said he feels he can relate more to the people of the 49th district. "I was born in a housing project and I came to the North Shore when I was six and have lived in the corridor ever since. ... I know what it's like to wait on a surplus food line," he said. Pagano feels education and dedication spurred his success and he has become a proponent of education as the secretary for Community Education Council 31.

Saryian considers himself a strong candidate because of his 23 years with the police department.

According to campaign finance records Mitchell led in fundraising $81,245, followed by Rose with $33,797, Saryian with $31,686, Baker with $29,581 and Pagano with $14,996.

The special election is Feb. 24 and the seat will be up for grabs again in November. All the candidates said they plan to run for re-election if they win. And many said they disagree with taking the power to extend term limits away from the voters. But, hesitantly, Rose and Mitchell admitted they'd consider seeking a third term -- if they get that far.

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