The 26th Assembly District features tree-lined streets, houses with American flags, parks -- and voters who switch from one party to the other.
The version of this story originally posted included Rob Speranza as a candidate in the Republican primary. His signatures were challenged, and he was no longer on the ballot, meaning Vincent Tabone is unopposed for the GOP nomination. This story has been updated to reflect that.
Republicans have a rare opportunity. In a part of Queens that has wavered between Democrats and Republicans, the GOP could pick up an Assembly seat from the Democrats. Not that the Democrats are conceding the race, however. Four Democrats and one member of the GOP are contending for this open seat in the 26th Assembly District in northeast Queens.
Ann-Margaret Carrozza, who represented the largely residential and suburban district for 14 years, announced in March that she would not seek reelection following reports that she lived outside of the district -- in Glen Head on Long Island. She has also been dogged by criticism of her low attendance record in Albany.
Although most residents of the district are registered Democrats, voters in this region of Queens don't hesitate to cross party lines, according to Susan Seinfeld, district manager for Community Board 11. Longtime U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman, a Democrat, "gets voted for overwhelmingly," she said. At the same time, the district is represented by Republican City Councilmember Daniel Halloran and by State Sen. Frank Padavan, a Republican who has held office for more than 35 years.
In other words, Democrats may face a battle ahead.
For now the GOP candidate is almost certain to be Vincent Tabone. Rob Speranza, a retired police officer, had filed signatures and hoped to challenge Tabone for the Republican nomination. He was knocked off the ballot earlier this month, leaving Tabone unopposed.
Although Speranza filed more than the required number of names, a Queens State Supreme Court judge ruled that not enough were from registered Republicans living within the district.
Tabone, executive vice president of the Queens GOP, had nearly $87,500 in campaign funds at the end of July. He has been endorsed by the Queens County Conservative Party, the Queens GOP and by Padavan. Tabone is confident that, in the general election, he can win the crossover votes he would need to become a member of the Assembly.
"Even though the registry isn't Republican, there is a large number of independent voters who care more about ability and merit than about partisanship," said Tabone, who is an attorney for the supermarket giant Red Apple Group.
Running in the Democratic primary are Ed Braunstein, Steve Behar, John Duane and Elio Forcina.
The Queens Democratic Party has endorsed Braunstein, who at the end of the August reporting period, he had $61,862 in campaign funds on hand. Forcina, an attorney in private practice, has only about $4,470 left of the more than $56,000 that he has raised so far. Duane, who represented the district from 1983 to 1984, has about $27,700 of his initial $56,000. Behar, with a closing balance of around $9,500, has raised the least amount of money among the Democrats.
At 29, Braunstein is by far the youngest candidate. A newly minted lawyer and a staffer for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, he seems to be leading the race -- and attracting the most criticism from opponents. Braunstein's uncle, Brian Meara, a lobbyist, reportedly has ties to Silver. Braunstein's rivals have seized on this to by comparing him to the speaker who, for many, represents all that is wrong with Albany.
"He's Shelly Silver's helper," Tabone said. "He got us into the state we're in now."
"Working for the leadership should be a disqualification from running," quipped Behar as he munched on breakfast at Bayside's Gold Star Restaurant, which seems to be his campaign's partial base of operations. Behar, who unsuccessfully ran for City Council in 2009, claimed earlier this year that he had turned down $200,000 from pro-charter school lobbyists if he would support expansion of the publicly funded, privately run schools. The announcement set off a war of words between him and Braunstein, who Behar has accused of being "in the pockets of lobbyists and special interests."
According to the state Board of Elections web site, Braunstein received approximately $13,000 from political action committees and lobbyists in the six-month filing period from January to July. He also received a $3,800 donation from Meara.
Braunstein shrugged off Behar's attacks, saying, "When someone has trouble raising money, they make accusations."
Braunstein says his work for Silver has helped him understand the problems confronting the state. If elected, he said, he will disagree with his former boss when his district's interests are at stake.
Jerry Iannece, the chair of Community Board 11, agreed that Braunstein's experience with Silver could be an asset. "The Assembly is a collegiate body," he said. "You have to be able to build those consensuses and alliances in order bring the bacon home for your community. If you're a maverick and out there by yourself, you're not going to get much accomplished."
The district includes East Flushing, Bayside, Douglaston, Little Neck, Whitestone, Malba, Bay Terrace, and Floral Park and contains over 770 acres of parkland. Houses with neat front yards and American flags mark the streets of Little Neck, which borders on Nassau County. Bayside's Bell Boulevard, with its small stores and tree-lined sidewalks, is one of the city's quieter commercial centers.
Most candidates agree on the main issues facing the community; the economy, education, and funding for parks and senior centers.
The state's budget woes have affected these neighborhoods. The district is feeling the sting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's recent service cuts, which eliminated two of the area's bus lines. Most candidates have expressed wariness about reductions in park services and elder care.
But the candidates' approaches to these issues differ, even among those in the same party. Forcina, the most conservative candidate on the Democratic side, supported Halloran in his run for City Council last year and has been registered as a Republican in the past.
"I'm a true Blue Dog Democrat," he said. He said his conservative views better represent the voters of northeast Queens than "extreme progressive views [that] are out of touch with the voters of this neighborhood."
With budget negotiations still fresh in the minds of many New Yorkers, and with lawmakers anticipating a similar budget gap next year, every candidate had something to say about government spending. Republican Tabone accused the state legislature of spending "like drunken sailors."
"We're the second most affluent community in New York City. ...We pay more taxes and get fewer services," he said, adding that the state's spending has created a huge obstacles to closing the budget gap. Innovation is needed to identify new revenue streams, he said.
Some of the Democrats agree. Braunstein said the state needs to show spending discipline before it raises taxes, and, on his website, Forcina charged that "Manhattan tax-and-spend progressives have buried our state in a huge financial hole."
Braunstein, Tabone and Forcina agreed that ferreting out Medicaid and Medicare fraud would provide the state with much-needed income. Behar, Duane and Tabone all said consolidating and restructuring state agencies could help save funds. Duane also proposed decreasing the payroll tax, saying that it would stimulate local economies by encouraging small businesses to hire more workers.
Reform has become the catchphrase of campaigns for the state legislature this summer -- and the 26th Assembly District is no exception. Virtually every candidate in the district, Republican and Democrat, has made legislative reform a centerpiece of his campaign, each claiming that he can bring Albany the new blood it needs to emerge from chronic dysfunction.
Almost every candidate said he backed campaign finance reform, saying that the state should implement a system of matching funds similar to the city's in order to reduce the sway of special interests over lawmakers. Behar and Duane also said they would advocate for nonpartisan redistricting.
Testing the Schools
Issues surrounding education also loom large. Candidates and local leaders say that the district's high-performing schools are both a blessing and a curse in the fraught landscape of New York City education.
Bayside's high schools received relatively high grades on the annual school report cards issued by the Department of Education, making them an attractive option for students from neighboring districts, whose local options may not be as stellar. This, along with school closings in other parts of the city, has caused severe overcrowding in district schools, some of which have been forced to accommodate the overflow by installing extra classrooms in trailers.
"All the students from these closed schools are coming to northeast Queens because we have the best schools in the city," Braunstein said, adding that the education department should focus on improving failing schools rather than closing them. Tabone, Behar and Duane echoed his concerns.
Behar proposed opening an additional high school to accommodate burgeoning student bodies, citing one school -- Benjamin Cardozo High School in Bayside -- that has over 4,000 students. Tabone is in favor of tuition tax credits for families that send their children to private and parochial schools. This, he said, would provide the “material pressure” needed to alleviate public school overcrowding.
Most of the candidates, with the exception of Forcina, reject the idea of opening charter schools in the area, expressing concern about placing charter schools and traditional public schools in the same building -- a common move by the Bloomberg administration -- and the possible diversion of funds from traditional public schools.
The results of this race will do little to change the balance of power in the Assembly. The body has long been dominated by Democrats, who currently hold a more than two-to-one edge in the chamber. Republicans, though, could pick up bragging rights and continue their modest advances that began in the 2009 City Council elections, when they picked up two seats.
"If not here, then not anywhere," said Iannece of the Republican chances of winning the district Assembly seat.
Paul Eilenberg, manager of Deepdale Gardens Community Pool in Little Neck, disagreed. "Most people that I know of here are staunch Democrats," he said. The pool is owned by the cooperative housing development Deepdale Gardens, in an area that Eilenberg said has "a long history of Democratic politics" but which, he added, may not be representative of the district as a whole.
Don Galiano, a Republican who owns a limousine company, said that Democratic catering to unions had hurt his small business. "Most small business owners feel the same way I do, and many of them are Democrats," he said. "They won't vote Democrat this time."
The 26th district also is home to a burgeoning Korean community whose voters, according to Eilenberg, tend to cross party lines.
However they vote this time around, the varying views -- and the hotly contested primaries -- will keep candidates vying for support in this district well after many other contests in the city have been decided.