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In Queens, a Race to Control the Senate

by Giovanni Russonello, Aug 11, 2008
 
ny state senate district 15, joseph addabbo versus serphin maltese

Update (Aug.25, 2008): Albert Baldeo ended his campaign for the State Senate seat on Aug. 22 and announced that he was throwing his support to his opponents in the Democratic Party, City Councilmember Joseph Addabbo.

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"It was a gut-wrenching, difficult decision,” Baldeo said in an interview with the Times. “But I decided to endorse him for the greater goal of Democratic Party unity. We want to put all of our resources behind one candidate, and that’s Councilman Addabbo. I’ll be actively campaigning for him."

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Baldeo will still appear on the Sept. 9 primary ballot, but the end of his campaign, many experts believe, increases the Democrats' chances of capturing the seat held by Republican Serphin Maltese. Baldeo's decision "is not good news for Maltese, who is one of the Democrats' top targets as they try to take control of the Senate from the GOP this fall. Baldeo had threatened to remain in the general election on a third party line, which could have made a difference in a contest that's expected to be very close," Elizabeth Benjamin observed in the Daily Politics.

Two years after coming within 900 votes of snatching Republican Serphin Maltese's long-held state Senate seat in Queens' 15th district, maverick Democrat Albert Baldeo faces what many call an even more formidable opponent-this time from within his own party.

Meet Joseph Addabbo Jr.: a City Councilmember who elicits fierce loyalty from many constituents, a down-home Democrat running in a conservative but overwhelmingly Democratic district, the son of a former member of Congress from the neighborhood and the party establishment's candidate to take a pivotal seat as it fights to win a majority in the Senate.

The Queens Democratic organization, which did not back Baldeo in 2006, has long let Maltese go unchallenged as part of a furtive truce between Republican and Democratic officials. That ceasefire has apparently ended. The Democrats trail the GOP by only two seats in the Senate and believe the time has come for them to take control.

Michael Reich, the executive secretary of the Queens Democratic organization, said a victory in the 15th district - which encompasses Howard Beach, Ozone Park, Woodhaven and Middle Village - is crucial. This race is "about trying to win the seat and trying to win back the Senate for the Democrats," Reich said. "We're in a unique situation, in which we have an economy that's failing, a war that's unpopular and a strong Democratic presidential candidate."

Baldeo's and Addabbo's policy views mirror each other-and most of them stand in stark relief to Maltese's.

But the two Democrats have wildly different personalities and bases of support, and both sides are fighting hard.

Baldeo complains that, in backing Addabbo, the Democratic establishment has hung him out to dry after he exposed Maltese's vulnerability. "I got 49 percent of the vote last time, and in a fair world or a logical world that would have propelled me to be the consensus Democratic candidate," said the immigration lawyer and activist, himself an Indo-Guyanese immigrant.

The Democratic establishment argues that Addabbo is more electable and that Baldeo did so well last time only because Maltese hardly competed. "I think a lot of [Baldeo's success] had to do with Serf Maltese being asleep at the switch," Reich said, noting that Maltese even returned money that he thought he would not need to the Republican Senate Campaign Committee in 2006.

"I didn't expect him to come that close," Maltese said.

From 1992 through 2004, no Democrat even ran against Maltese, who has held his seat since 1989. Experts cite the agreement between local party bosses, which has helped keep the Assembly Democratic and the Senate Republican. "The various party organizations get together and essentially make deals - whether explicitly or implicitly - on endorsements, who to run against, etc.," said Doug Muzzio, a professor of political science at Baruch College and an expert on New York government. "It's really the party organizations in tandem with each other versus the reformers. I mean, the Democratic Party boss would rather deal with the opposing party than with the reformers within his own party."

State Sen. Eric Schneiderman, who was seen as a reformer when he chaired the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, said that since majority Republicans have had the power to shun any Democrats who take GOP seats, minority leadership discouraged any meaningful challenges. "There was a view among a lot of folks in the state that the Republicans are in the majority so you should make deals with them," Schneiderman said.

The Democrats vs. Baldeo

Democratic leaders attribute the fact that they did not support Baldeo in 2006 to other factors. One prominent Democratic elected official said many of his colleagues had doubts about Baldeo's temperament and his fitness for office. "He would constantly accost elected officials at events and try and get us into posed pictures with him that he was going to use to suggest that we were supporting him," said the politician, who requested anonymity.

Maltese had similar misgivings about Baldeo after running against him in 2006. "I don't think he's the kind of person who should be elected senator here in Queens County," Maltese said.

Baldeo said there is nothing strange about him. "I'm a respectable father and parent," he said. "I'm a law-abiding citizen and a family man."

Frustrated with the Democratic Party organization, Baldeo is hoping to run with the Green Party and his own Hope and Change Party. He insists he is still seeking the Democratic nomination, and that the extra line is intended to "supplement" his Democratic effort. But should Baldeo lose the primary to Addabbo, he said he would campaign hard on the other tickets, "because there are a lot of disillusioned and independent voters in the district who would not vote Republican or Democrat."

Reich condemned Baldeo's plans to stay on the ballot if he loses the primary. "If that's what Baldeo is going to do it just proves that he's not a real Democrat," Reich said. "It's more about Albert Baldeo than anything else, you know? It's not about trying to win the seat and trying to win back the Senate for the Democrats."

While he plans to run on other tickets, Baldeo has tried to knock Addabbo off the ballot's Working Families Party line. Baldeo helped spearhead a lawsuit that challenged the signatures in Addabbo's WFP petition. A judge quickly threw out the case, but Baldeo's lawyer wants to have it reopened.

Changes in the District

Having Baldeo on the November ballot would give Addabbo reason to worry. He enjoys fervent support in Howard Beach, a conservative and largely Italian-American neighborhood. "He's loved by everybody," said Barbara Nardone, 63, of Howard Beach. "He's there whenever you need him. He's there for the community."

But the area is changing; the percentage of residents identifying themselves as white dropped from 83 to 63 between 1990 and 2000, according to a Queens College study, and many minority residents feel they have little say in local politics.

Take the "A" train north from Howard Beach to Ozone Park, and Addabbo gets some lukewarm reviews. "We don't see him enough in Ozone Park. He could be doing more for us-he seems too concentrated on Howard Beach," said Lindsay Ramcharran, a 44-year-old immigrant and deli owner. Because the burgeoning immigrant population feels left out, Ramcharran said, race will be a factor in this election.

Tensions came to a head last year when a Guyanese resident of Howard Beach irritated his white neighbors with construction he did on his property. He then said his neighbors threatened him, in what he described as a hate crime. Addabbo met with the resident, whose lawyer was Baldeo, and told him a fence he had built violated zoning regulations. This fueled allegations that Addabbo was siding with bigots, a charge he rejects.

Baldeo thinks Addabbo and Maltese could split the vote among conservative Democrats, allowing Baldeo to win on the strength of the immigrant vote. Addabbo is "not going to get the Ozone Park vote," Baldeo said. "They cannot relate to him and he cannot relate to them."

Plans for Policy

Despite their differences, the two Democrats share views on many issues. For example, both rank housing and tenants' rights as top priorities.

"A portion of our constituency -- and really the constituency in the northern part of the district -- thousands of tenants are worried about their rent," Addabbo said. "That's probably going to be one major difference between Sen.Maltese and myself. I plan on protecting the rights of my tenants." The two Democrats favor upholding the regulations on all the district's rent-controlled units and adding more regulated housing. Maltese has supported weakening rent control.

Addabbo, who chairs the council's Civil Service and Labor Committee, said that if he moves on to Albany he will work to change the state's Taylor Law, which guarantees certain rights to public employees but bars them from striking. Calling the bill "a big whip aimed at the workers," Addabbo said, "We need the Taylor Law to better force negotiation of a contract."

On his labor committee, Addabbo said, "We have basically improved the workplace safety for many of our city workers . . . and the benefits for our city workers." He boasts widespread backing from labor unions, including the New York State Nurses Association, a large union that has historically backed Maltese, according to the Addabbo campaign.

Baldeo said his work as an activist and a lawyer - he is well known in the district for litigation on behalf of immigrants - qualifies him to be a state lawmaker. "I'm a grassroots worker who sees the pain on people's faces," he said

He points to improving education and making health insurance more affordable as his main concerns. "We do not have enough classrooms, science labs and teachers, nor do we have enough after-school programs," he said.

For his part, Addabbo said he has allocated over $10 million to the area's schools for capital improvements, such as laptop computers, schoolyard renovations and other amenities.

Maltese also takes credit for aiding education in his district. "We've actually secured millions and millions for education," he said, calling himself "one of the foremost advocates in Albany for smaller class sizes." Maltese believes in state-funded school vouchers; Addabbo is opposed. Baldeo favors them as a temporary "Band-Aid solution."

The senator is quick to point out his work on behalf of Latino residents, who make up over a quarter of the 15th district's population. "I have printed materials half English half Spanish, I have reached out with phone calls, I have run a Hispanic awards ceremony, I have had a Hispanic health fair," he said. He said these voters share his traditional values.

Maltese is pro-life; Addabbo and Baldeo are pro-choice. The incumbent opposes legislation to prevent discrimination against transgender people, whereas Addabbo and Baldeo have said they support the Gender Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which recently passed the state Assembly.

Thinking Locally

Beyond these issues, Addabbo and Maltese disagree on a key political point: who could best serve the district in Albany. Addabbo describes himself as an advocate for "reform and transparency. . . . What sets me apart from the current state senator is, I have a different energy than he does and . . . I'm the better candidate to continue that change and reform" in state government, he said.

Maltese says the only way he has been able to keep his mostly Democratic constituents happy has been to concentrate on them first, and greater New York State second. "I wouldn't be here if I wasn't a district-oriented senator," he said. "The people constantly tell you, 'We like you, we don't care if you're a Democrat or a Republican but we look for your name on the line and we want you.'"

Don, a 63-year-old, moderate Republican living in Howard Beach, considers both Maltese and Addabbo responsive to their constituents. Don called Addabbo's office with a complaint about noisy teenagers. Addabbo's office wrote back, then sent the police to quiet the teens. "He follows up on what he says," said Don, who declined to give a last name. Maltese "is also a concerned politician," he added. The race between the two is "a toss-up, really," he said. "I probably won't make up my mind till I get in the voting booth."

Maltese is heartened by what he sees as a recent indication that middle-of-the-road voters like Don might land on his side. Republican Anthony Como, Maltese's former chief counsel, narrowly defeated Democrat Elizabeth Crowley in a special City Council election in June to represent the northern half of the 15th Senate district. "The way it heartened us, it discouraged the Democrats," Maltese said of Como's victory.

Both the Democratic and Republican establishments have made it clear: The 15th-district race is crucial. "We are committed to this race," said Doug Forand, the chief strategist for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. "We're going to win this race, [although] I don't want to put a specific number on it."

Maltese, meanwhile, says his victory is of utmost importance to Republican leaders. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos "said that I was a top priority for the Senate, and in private meetings with me indicated that I would do very well" in terms of funding, Maltese said. "My financial reports indicate that I've already received something like $250,000, [and Skelos] indicated that that would be matched."

Baldeo does not lack for funds, either. "We have over $400,000 in the bank, and we plan to spend it wisely," he said.

For More Information

Joseph Addabbo, Jr.

Albert Baldeo

Serphin Maltese

Queens Crap Blog

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