City Council District 43 - Special Election
Candidate Forum - January 14, 2003
St. Patrick's Church, Brooklyn
Statements (in the order that they appeared)
For those of you that don't know me, I am Vincent Gentile and I am running under the party of Most qualified and certainly I think that says it all in terms of what this race is about. I just spent six wonderful years as your state Senator representing Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, and Borough Park and indeed my six years of legislative experience is actually more legislative experience than two-thirds of the current City Council. So certainly that legislative experience will serve me well as someone who comes in almost as a veteran on the City Council.
In those six years you've known me to be a fighter for the working class. I've been a fighter and a tax cutter. A tax cutter in the repeal of the sales tax on clothing and shoes. Today, we pay no sales tax on those items up to $110 because of the fight that I fought in the Senate along with my colleagues in the Assembly. And that's fighting for working families, putting g money back in people's pockets. We're fighting for families: I have hundreds and hundreds of petitions signed at subways and those locations against the property tax increase, that 18 and a quarter property tax increase. That increase is something that we need someone to stand for and go to the City Council and say, "Enough is enough" for the middle class.
You know we fight for children with the fight for the universal pre-Kindergarten program which is reality now, it's law. We' have a better and a bigger pre-Kindergarten program now than we've ever had before. With record state and school budgets: 5.2 billion dollars this past year that we were able to bring back to the City of New York, to the New York City School Budgets. I will continue to fight for school money for this community.
Parental Involvement: I stood up on the floor of the Senate and talked about parental involvement. I have need to continue that over the new school governments and because of what's in that bill I voted no, even though I thought mayoral control was a good thing, the fact that there was no parental involvement-I stood up on the floor of the Senate and voted No because of the lack of parental involvement.
I think we have to fight in the City Council to restore the school nurses to schools like St. Patrick's: I will continue to do that.
You know me as a fighter for the elderly. I'm the only candidate here that's actually funded the senior centers here in our community. Every year for six years in the Senate I funded senior centers in this community. I'll continue to fight to make sure that the cuts, there are no cuts to the funding in these senior centers because I know how vital these senior centers are, I go to them all the time. Of course, the elderly pharmaceutical coverage, the epic coverage that now covers 200,000 more seniors: that was a fight that I fought in the Senate and today many seniors in this community have prescription drug coverage because of it.
So I've been a fighter. Overall as a legislator I've handled multi-billion dollar budgets-the only one who has done that. David Weprin, the councilman from Queens who has endorsed me, he's the Chairman of the Finance Committee of the New York City Council, he said that he will look to my counsel in order to put together this new budget. Now that's saying a lot about a candidate when the Chairman of the Finance Department says that he'll be looking to my counsel as a member of that body to put together the budget. Cause I'm the only one who's worked with multi-million dollar budgets, I'm the only has strength in legislation, the only one who's worked on the floor of a legislative body. I'm the only one that's been there, the only one that has experience in lobbying with other legislators. I know all the legislators, whether they be state legislators in the assembly, (I see one of my former colleagues out in the audience tonight) also my colleagues in the senate, and everyone in the City Council; I know all the legislators on all levels.
That's why I know how to fight to preserve the ferry service to Manhattan just as I support increased service on the on the D and the M trains. I'll fight to maintain our express buses, which I supported in this year's senate budget and I'll continue to lobby our state legislature officials to maintain and improve our express bus service. I'm opposed, of course, to fare increase in our public transportation. But we need-we're gonna get an increase, we need better service in this community and that's what I'm gonna fight for.
You have to understand we're running for a legislative seat. I come in here being the only legislator among these candidates and I'm the candidate who can hit that ground running when we get to the City Council. The election's February 25th, the councilman is likely to be sworn in on February 26th. So within the minute that I'm sworn in I can use that experience, that experience on your side in the City Council.
To that legislative experience you add my background in law enforcement. As a prosecutor-eleven years, eleven years in the courtroom fighting to keep this city safe-I've taken hundreds of kilos of cocaine off the streets and I've sent drug traffickers to jail, some of them for life. I've put child molesters and I've put rapists in prison so when I speak in the City Council about not having any cuts in firefighters or to police, they know that I know what I'm talking about. Whether I'm talking about safety in crime or in police, you have a candidate in me that has a credible background as a prosecutor to know what we need in safety on our streets, whether it be fire or police, no other candidate really has that kind of a background. And these cutbacks, let me tell you, Bay Ridge will be devastated by police and fire because what happens is the communities with less crime will get fewer numbers than those with more crime if there are layoffs and cutbacks. That's something a city councilman has to prevent and I know about that and I will be there to make sure that impact is not felt in this community. I will fight against those layoffs and those cutbacks.
Add to my experience, also, my twenty years in service to this community. First, through my schools, through McKinley Junior High School, then to Fort Hamilton High School, taking that experience and starting the Bay Ridge Community Council, becoming one of the youngest presidents of the Bay Ridge Community Council and instituted new activities while I was in the Council. Those are the things that have taught me about this community and instilled a love of this community in me. But starting with the alumni association, I've continued that with the Bay Ridge Community Council and various other civic groups. That experience adds up to twenty years. Put the six years of legislative experience together with the eleven years of law enforcement experience and the twenty years of civic experience-you put all those backgrounds together and what you have in me is a proven legislator, a proven fighter, and someone who has proven his commitment to Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, and Borough Park and who has actually delivered for this community. And that's why when you put that package together I believe I am the best and most qualified candidate to be your next City Councilman. I appreciate your support. Thank you very, very much.
Stephen A. Harrison
Good evening. Thank you to Alex Conte and the Men's club for holding this forum.
Five candidates is a good thing. It shows a vibrant community, interested in its future. But this district has always been that way. When Marty Golden was sworn in as State Senator on January 1, as Chair of Community Board 10 I became the highest ranking City Official in most of this district. But my deep involvement in this community has existed for decades. There are some good candidates in this race, but I believe my candidacy best approaches the mainstream views of our people.
My family moved here when I was three. I went to St. Ephrem's Grammar School and Xaverian High School. I grew up playing for years in the rubble-strewn lots created by Robert Moses that would one day be the approach to the Verrazano Bridge. I remember saying good-bye to friends who did not want to leave and I remember the dust and the noise that wrenched our community for so long. 40 years later, that bridge has become the symbol of our community, in fact some candidates have used it as a logo. But I remember the upheaval of our community that gave birth both to that symbol and the great tradition of community activism that is its legacy today.
After college I came back to bay Ridge to go to Brooklyn Law School and I married Alice. We settled in Bay Ridge and never left. We first lived on 78th street and later moved to 79th. I've lived on 77, 78, and 79. Someday I'll make it into the 80s.
Alice and I have two children, Michelle and Jeff. They attended public schools, parochial high schools and State Colleges. Michelle is now a 5th grade teacher at PS 200 on 19th and Benson. Jeff is still in college.
I worked for a small law firm in Manhattan for about 12 years. But in 1986 I wanted to know my children a little better so I started my law practice on 3rd Ave. off 75th street. I joined the fledgling Third Ave. Merchants Association and became an active member sponsoring and operating the three mile road race that used to kick off the 3rd Ave. festival. I moved my office to Bay Ridge Parkway. I am now a member of the Fifth Ave. merchants.
I know what it means to be an employer. I currently have two employees. One, my associate, Barbara Singer, has been with me since 1987. Barbara had a baby two years ago. I had always been committed to women in the work place so I had to practice what I preached. Come to my office today and you will find playpens and toys and one little girl running around. In this new century, American employers must commit to childcare at the workplace. It is the best way to foster bonds between parent and child, to avoid latch key children and to keep our society strong with healthy, well-adjusted children. It is the best way to keep good female workers in the workplace. It is good private and government policy and I will support that policy in every way I can in the City Council.
I know what it means to be a homeowner - to pay a mortgage. That's why I know you know that a property tax increase was the last thing the Bloomberg administration should ever have done, not the first. Rosemarie O'Keefe is running on the "No New Taxes" line. Ro, that's not good enough. That's shortsighted thinking. You should be running on the "Roll Back Taxes" line. The Bloomberg taxes will drive thousand of businesses and jobs from this city and make it impossible for marginal homeowners to meet their mortgage payments. It will force landlords to increase rents. We do not want that.
I know what it means to be a parent. I've stayed up at nights with sick children. I've listened to their fears and dreams. I've paid for college tuition and saved for graduations. I put my kids through public and private schools. I've been soccer coach, baseball coach, storyteller, and swimming instructor.
You can talk until you're blue but unless you are a parent you cannot fully appreciate the concerns of a parent and the needs of our children. That's why I support the return of school nurses to all our schools, not just some of them. It will be no comfort to know that a "cluster" nurse is down at St. Patrick's when my child has an asthma attack in Lutheran Elementary. That's why I support the City Council's proposal to replace the local Boards with new Boards primarily populated by school parents.
In this time of terror, I am a father, husband, homeowner, and business owner, fearful for the safety of my loved ones and property. I am a founding member of CERT, the Community Emergency Response Team, because I believe that we must be prepared for any eventuality in this community after 9/11. But CERT is only a secondary response. Our primary responders are our Police and Fire Fighters. In a time of terror, laying off police and cutting firehouses is like cutting troop strength in time of war. It makes no sense. That's why, as Chair of CB10, I stood on the steps of City Hall with our bravest to protest any cuts in our protection. I will continue to do so.
I am a small local business owner. I understand that small business owners are the economic heartbeat of our community. Small business owners supply the jobs, make the donations, advertise the picnics and fund the scholarships that keep this neighborhood humming. And I understand that it is not rare for the small business owner to be the last person paid from his or her business. That's why I support their causes, why I supported the 86th Street BID (Business Improvement District) and would support exploring BID expansion onto our other commercial Avenues. BIDs spruce up our merchant strips without cost to the taxpayer and make the strip more attractive to shoppers, increasing profits. They are a win-win for all involved.
I am a leader. I have been for many years. And, I believe that my leadership style separates me from the other candidates. I believe that you must lead from the front, not from the rear. If you elect me to the City Council you are paying me to study the issues carefully and to make the tough decisions on behalf of all of you, not must some of you. Others would prefer to lead after taking polls or being presented with petitions. I disagree. If that is leadership, then in today's world computers would be the leaders.
Leadership means listening to individuals who present ideas but exercising your judgement on behalf of all in the district, based on your knowledge and understanding of the area. Some of the most innovative leadership ideas can come from those around you. You must have the courage to use them. On 9/13, 2001, following the WTC tragedy, a fellow named Jim O'Dea came to me and said we need a ferry on 58th street. He was right. Many in our district were frightened to go back in our subways or through our tunnels. I took Jim O'Dea's idea to then-Councilman Golden. Together we fought to get that ferry - a feat we were initially told by DOT would be impossible. On 9/17 a Staten Island ferry rolled into 58th Street and took 3000 commuters to work. That ferry still operates today and we must keep it.
Leadership means that you must not be afraid to take on tough issues.
As the president of St. Anselm's Youth Activities I fought for more ball fields and field time for our children.
As the president of the 79th Street 300 block association I and my block mates successfully fought Rite Aid to reconfigure its building to take its commercial operations from 79th Street to Third Ave. As the chair of the Bay Ridge UA task Force appointed by Councilman Sal Albanese and later by Councilman Marty Golden, I and my task force negotiated an agreement that eliminated a multiplex theater that threatened a deeply residential community. Some agreed, some disagreed. But the strategy worked. The developers kept to the agreement and the proof is in the final result. Condos stand where the theater was planned.
As Chair of Community Board 10 I revised the speaking rules to make them more fair to our residents and I've sent ambassadors to neighboring Boards to keep tabs on what is happening nearby.
Together with Marty Golden, I fought the erection of a huge backyard office on 70th Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway, being constructed with the permission of the building department under the guise that it was a "shed."
Under my leadership and that of Craig Eaton and Eleanor Schiano, CB 10 is nearing the end of a district wide zoning review. So far, I believe the review shows the need for a new concept in zoning - preservation zoning. That means revamping our codes to stop the destruction of beautiful one-family homes and converting them into 6 to 12 box-like fedders houses. This creates high-density areas, overburdening our schools and infrastructure.
As Chair I instructed the Traffic and Transportation Committee to do a comprehensive study of valet parking with an eye toward regulating the practice in such a manner that the regulation would help decrease double parking, create revenue for the City, allow the merchants to continue this valuable tool and allow restaurant patrons the convenience of on-street valet parking in a secure atmosphere. It can be done.
From the Fifth Ave. reconstruction, to Operation Dumpster to the Skateboard Park, to the construction of the Third and Ridge Blvd. Bridges I have been there.
When the MTA changed the B-70, I was there with Marty Golden and with Vincent Gentile fighting to change it back. When the MTA wanted to cut the express buses I testified against it and stood with the bus drivers.
I have done all of this as a volunteer. I would like to take that energy and that leadership to the next level. I would like to be your next City Council member.
God bless you all.
Thank you to Men's Club for this opportunity to speak to you tonight. I'm very pleased to be here. I'm here to tell you that I am ready to be your next City Councilperson.
I served you well in the Giuliani administration and I will serve you well in the City Council. As Mayor Giuliani's troubleshooter and problem solver I had the vast experience of working with over fifty city agencies, elected officials from the entire city, clergy, all neighborhood organizations and civic organizations to create initiatives and to resolve problems, to address the quality of life in our entire city.
But where did that begin? My experience goes back almost thirty years. It was on a day, like any other day-get up and go to work-we were noticing that our streets weren't being swept on a regular basis. That was a time when we were having cleaning done four times a week. We were told purely by accident that they weren't going to be swept anymore, that we would have parking meters installed in front of private homes. I thought it wasn't a good idea, but who am I, just one homeowner, one single individual? I spoke to a few of my neighbors, we gathered some notes, called the Department of Transportation, invited them down, met up with our neighbors and, sure enough 350 people showed up. We debated the issue as just another form of tax on our community: having a parking meter in front of your home. After much negotiation, the order to install 300 parking meters in front of residential homes was rescinded.
That led to the formation of a group, People working together, neighbors coming together and we became the Bay Ridge Parkway Block Association. I received a phone call from a very good local friend named Joe Honin, who said, "Ro, look what you've done with just one block and city government. I wonder what we could do together. And so, twenty years ago next month, the Alliance of Bay Ridge Block Associations was started. During my time as president and co-founder I visited and started over 32 block associations.
I came to Joanne's block and I remember her husband didn't want me to use my airhorn because it would wake up the little baby. I guess they're all grown up now. We did block watcher programs together, we did cleanups tougher, we did anti-graffiti initiatives together. We did this during a time when the city was going through a very difficult fiscal crisis, much like what is happening right now. And we felt that if we were going to get through this together, we had to band together. So we borrowed some paint, we cleaned up the graffiti of the signs and refurbished them because we couldn't get new ones, we swept the corners because the cleaning teams were gone and, sure enough, we made a difference.
And then, I began working with State Senator Christopher Mayer, who taught me that constituent services was the beginning. I was able to assist constituents in motor vehicle assistance, workers compensation, and then another wonderful teacher-Susan Molinari. When I went to work for her constituent office and helped seniors in the entire district with their social security problems, with their Medicare, their Medicaid, the ferry.
When I joined city government my welcoming speech from Rudy Giuliani was, "Who better to serve the constituents of the city of New York than someone who has been on both sides. Someone who was in the community-looking, asking, demanding-and someone who is now going to be prepared to deliver." He asked me to join New York City Parks and Recreation and I thought, "What fun that'll be." I didn't know then that Recreation had no money from years and years of budget cuts, no supplies, park houses were closed
In the short year and a half that I was there I partnered with private industry to bring back major programs to New York City Parks and Recreation. We live in a place now where park houses are open, the Playground Association is in place where you can have your child come into the park, have an afternoon of fun, learn some rules and regulations, go home, have supper and do his homework, and come back and enjoy a date with his friends. We did it. When we didn't have any money for supplies, guess what? We made supplies, all to get through some very difficult times in Parks.
The Mayor saw that my passion and my love for the children of the city of New York should be expanded and asked me to take on the position of Community Assistant where I was going to now be a liaison to the community, bringing your issues from the entire community into the Mayor's office and the Mayor's thoughts and ideas to you in the community. Across the board, this experience will take me into Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, and Fort Hamilton, serving each constituent as I did in the Mayor's office. Each constituent's problem was the most important of the day, each constituent's problem had a beginning, a middle, and an end, whether it be a traffic light, or graffiti, or something major in traffic happening in your life.
To say that anything that came across my desk was attended to, to tell you that "no" was not an option, and to tell you that we could address the very important issues in the community is what I'm here to tell you I can do. Yes, my party is "No New Taxes." What is the name of your party, Steve?
Steve Harrison: Neighborhood First.
Rosemarie O'Keefe: Neighborhood First. Well I think with those thirty years of experience I am neighborhood first. For you I well tell you, no new taxes. I will be an advocate, I will be the voice you need, I am the fighter that you know I am. I, too, have worked with the department of transportation on all the various issues: the ferries here, the buses here, the community needs and deserves the best. I will be the one that has the largest reach by being able from my past experience to work with all the legislators in the city government, and state and federal, reaching them at any time, picking up a phone, calling the commissioner, reaching them and telling them and explaining to them firsthand what this community needs cause they can know and trust that I understand firsthand what is that you need.
I've been there, I've done it, I am now prepared to go into City Council and carry on in the same tradition as Rudy Giuliani. Working with him to reduce crime throughout the city will be my main, main focus here in this community. We must not have a return to as we were in the past. We will work to have programs, initiatives, after-school programs.
I will make sure that your voice is heard-parents and teachers-in these upcoming difficult days that lie ahead of us. We're going to get through this all as we did in the late seventies and early eighties. We're going to be strong again. Having been there on September 11th, having your help and support at our side, we got through that. We'll get through these difficult times. I thank you for being part of the community that I've worked with for over thirty years and I look forward to working in City Council to be the best that Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Fort Hamilton, and Bensonhurst can be. Thank you.
It's great to be here. First of all I want to thank the Bay Ridge Men's Club for hosting us. I have to tell you I'm very excited to have our first forum here at St. Patrick's because as many of you know I'm getting married July 12th and right after we get married we're moving to St. Patrick's parish so I feel good about being here tonight, my fiancé is here tonight. Second of all, I want to complement my opponents but I really want to call them my friends because you're going to hear tonight how the five of us, our lives have been intertwined, have mingled, have been together in so many different ways so it's good to be with such a good group of people, it's good to be with four other people who care about this community, five people who are going out into the cold, meeting people, getting signatures, asking for your vote and letting people know what we stand for.
I think you're going to here tonight a lot of similar ideas. You're going to hear a lot of people telling you about what they've done in this community, about how they're going to change this community. What you have to decide is who is the person that you want in the City Council during tough times, hopefully during good times in a couple of years, during all times. Who is the person who is going to be able to work with every elected city official, regardless of party affiliation? Who is the person who is really going to make being a City Councilperson a non-partisan position? And I have to tell you it's great that February 25th is a non-partisan election because cleaning streets, keeping firehouses open, not laying off one police officer in the city of New York, and funding education are non-partisan issues and that is very, very important.
To tell you a little bit about my background, I was born and raised in Brooklyn. My parents are immigrants from Sicily; my mother is here tonight. My father passed away when I was younger. My mother taught me the value of hard work, education, keeping your word, and trying to help people. And I think one of things I've always tried to do is try to help people. Try to be there for the person who may not know who to call, the person who may not know which city agency to go to, the parent who may have nowhere to turn but meeting someone in the supermarket and saying, "Hey, I need help with my child." That's what I've been about. I grew up in Bensonhurst; I went to PS 112, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Xaverian High School. Steve, I think I graduated a year or two before you. Before or after, I'm not sure. I went to Pace University, Pace Law School and decided law school, after giving some thought about was I going to move to Manhattan and then to the suburbs like all my friends did or was I going to come back home to Brooklyn and decided to stay here, build my family and hopefully raise a family and build a life here.
I'm very glad I chose the latter of the options because there's no place like Brooklyn, there's no place like this community. I have to tell you, I tell everybody I know from Xaverian, from Guadalupe, from anywhere that I know that are getting married in the last two years, "Go to Jersey, you're going to be dying to come back to Brooklyn because there is no place like it. They come back for food, they come back for shopping because they realize that this neighborhood, where we grew up, where our parents lived, where many of our parents came from different places is really a wonderful place. I'm very happy that I've made the decision-I'm actually dragging my fiancée from Staten Island to Brooklyn so it's a very exciting thing.
So a couple of people have asked me, "Why is this so important to you? Why is being a City Councilman so important to you?" And the answer is very simple: because I think we need strong leadership, we need someone who's going to listen to people. We need someone who's going to be a fighter. Tomorrow is a very important day for the city of New York: the State of the City Address by Mayor Bloomberg. He's going to talk about a lot of things. He's going to talk about an issue that is very important to me and that's education. Many of you know in 1999 I decided to run for the school board and I've been very excited to be a part of the school board; I've met wonderful people, I've had the opportunity to work with parents and community groups and really, I think, done some great things for the school board, it's a great thing. I oppose the elimination of school boards. I oppose any, any, any idea of taking control away from people and unfortunately that's what's happening.
But tomorrow in the State of the City the Mayor is going to talk about restructuring school government, restructuring the way districts are run and schools are run and the way communities are run with schools. And you know what's gonna happen after he makes this proposal? District 20, which is the best district in Brooklyn, it's up there in the city of New York is going to be hurt because they're going to be cutting districts, eliminating districts, regrouping districts and I have to tell you, Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst are going to be losers in this new proposal.
Thursday night, my colleague Rosemarie and I are going down to 6 Metrotech Plaza to fight to let the mayor know, to let state officials know that we care about schools. Our proposal is very simple: we want a community school board, we want our district to stay intact, we want to be able to reach out to community members, to work with parents. We want a nine-member board, we want six of the members of the board to be parents, we want the three other members not to have to be parents, although it would be great if they all were parents. We want PTAs to become actively involved in the school board process, we want PTAs to become an integral part of the schools. We want school leadership teams that really work, that bring in businesses, that bring in community interests into the schools and help the schools to survive and that's very important.
Another very important issue to me is crime. I have to tell you, as a city councilman I would never support any proposal that would eliminates police officers. This is a very important time for the city of New York. We need to keep the police force where it is; we can not cut them, we cannot take money from the police. We need to keep it where it is.
We can't cut firehouses. Whatever the Mayor may be saying, it's a bad idea. We need to make sure that firehouses are kept up to date with the most complete technology, the best technology.
We need to raise standards in schools, just to come to back to schools as an issue. Teachers got a good pay raise a few months ago. It's not enough, though-they still make 20-30% less than they do in the suburbs. That's not good. We need to train, we need to keep, and we need to employ the best quality teachers here in the city of New York. We need to employ the best possible principles here in the city of New York. Without education, without strong schools the community will suffer and that is a very, very important issue, education.
One of the things I'm hearing as I go around-we all know it here in Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights-parking. Parking is a big issue here. I have a very concrete proposal for parking problems; it's a two-step process. Number 1: when I'm your City Councilman I will form a coalition of community members, business owners, church leaders, and school leaders. We have a lot of parking lots that aren't used in the evening and there's no reason this coalition could not be brought together to increase a lot of parking spots for this community.
Second proposal: I find that it's a great idea and it's something that I'll be pushing for in the City Council-resident parking permits. In every state, most major cities in the country, whether it's Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, Baltimore have what's called "resident parking permits." You pay $50 a year if you live in the neighborhood and you get to park there. If you're visiting, you only have two hours or three hours. You don't have the right to come and just park and have your car valeted and take up the rest of the space. Great idea, I think it's something that could definitely be a pilot program here in Bay Ridge. We're one of the most overcrowded parts of the city in terms of parking.
In closing, I think this is a great opportunity for this community to elect somebody who's got some new ideas, somebody who will bring some fresh blood to this community, somebody who will open up a constituent office that is unbeatable because you can talk about all the issues in the world but I think the most important thing about being in the City Council is to open up a great local office. Fully staffed, not just 9-5, but open in the evenings for people who come home from work. Open on Saturdays for people who work every day, to be responsive, to be proactive, and to get things done.
So I thank all of you. I ask for your vote, but I'm gonna ask for another thing: if you come out to vote on February 25th I would love for you to vote for me. If you don't vote for me, come out to vote anyway. It's a special election and we want to show the city of New York that we're a vibrant community, that we're an active community and that we're a community that cares. Thank you and God bless.
Good Evening, Ladies and Gentlemen. I'd first like to thank the Bay Ridge Men's Club, my colleagues and candidates, the people in the audience for coming, for caring, for caring enough about the community to come out on a cold night to talk about issues and to see the people who would like to represent you in the City Council.
My name is Joanne Seminara, and the 43rd district, which takes in the neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, and Bensonhurst really tells the story of my life. I was born in Bensonhurst, grew up in Dyker Heights on 12th Ave. and 77th Street, went to St. Ephraim's school, went on to Notre Dame Academy High School in Staten Island, and married early after graduating with a degree in Biochemistry from Lehigh University. I married my husband, Pierre-who's in the audience-my husband of twenty-four years, Pierre Lehu. And we were fortunate at the time when you could afford to buy a house in Bay Ridge, to take that small sack of wedding money and put it down on a $50,000 house on 79th Street.
I began my civic activism in the home I grew up in. I was the child of Anita and Joseph Seminara; many of you know them. They taught me how to care about this community. They taught me about speaking up when you saw something was wrong. My dad was a school board member, my mom was president of different organizations, always involved in Bay Ridge Day Nursery, Bay Ridge Forum, the Holy Name Society. I grew up in an environment in which there were meetings in my house once a month and I knew that my parents cared: cared about my parochial school education, cared that I sang in the glee club, came to our Boy Scout and Girl Scout meetings.
I'm one of four children; I grew up in a loving family that fostered civic involvement. A family of immigrants, my dad's an immigrant of Palermo, Sicily; he came when he was seventeen. It's the immigrant story; many of you share it. Came with nothing: came without parents at seventeen, with six dollars and was a self-made person-worked to get to where he is. I'm proud of that heritage. I'm very proud to be of Italian-American heritage and to appreciate where I came from: two grandmothers working for the IOGWU in sweatshops, raising children, doing the hard work-the bedrock on which this city and this nation is created.
I made a very conscious decision twenty years ago to become involved in my community and the civic life of my community. That means I moved onto 79th Street as a young mother, as a teacher at the time-I taught two years at Notre Dame Academy-and I made it my business to scour the papers, to find out who my elected officials were, get involved. Rosemarie did come to my living room, Steve Harrison was there: we started a block association and I didn't remember the airhorn until you brought it up but my baby was upstairs sleeping, and I said, "Ro, don't ring that!" And we started the block association; it was a fabulous experiment, it was very exciting for people who live near the block, for people who care about their schools, for seniors who care about their senior centers, to take action to preserve their quality of life. That's what I've been about year after year. I've been involved with my church, St. Andrew the Apostle parish for twenty years. I have reverence for the Catholic Church. I go to church every Sunday with my children; I'm proud of that heritage and I'm proud that we're a community of churches, of fabulous restaurants, of beautiful homes that I want to see preserved, and a vibrant commercial strip. I have shown my dedication to this community; I have ten years been on your community board, first appointed by Sal Albanese. And if you come to a community board meeting you will hear me speak up at every meeting, ask tough questions, ask complicated questions. And it's my goal, it's always my goal as an attorney for sixteen years-put myself through law school while raising my young children, on loans, paying mortgages; I've been there in this community, fighting the hard fight. When in the issue is school leadership in public schools where my children attended (at PS 185 and Kennedy Junior High School) I've been there fighting the fight, walking the walk, talking the talk, inviting parents to get involved as a PTA mother. Fighting for a new boiler and windows in PS 185, we did it! I got lockers for them. I asked PS 159, McKinley Junior High School cause my kid couldn't walk up four flights of stairs with a huge backpack. Couldn't do it for everyone; we're so overcrowded.
There are so many issues in this community that we need to deal with. The first one, the most important one, the bedrock on which the community is founded, is public safety. And unless we are safe community, everything else doesn't matter. I pulled an article from the New York times, it's yesterday's column. It says, "remember the fear," the late Eighties and early Nineties. I remember being afraid to get on the subway. I remember being afraid to let my son who was going to go to high school in Manhattan go on that subway. I remember my kids walking home from piano lessons on an early six o'clock winter night and being afraid. I no longer feel like I live in that city. One of the reasons I feel like I don't live in that is because we've increased our police officers by a great number on our streets. We must not go back. We must remember that unless we are safe, nothing else matters. I pledge to support increased police. I pledge to support every fire officer that we need in this city to keep people safe. I worked with the 68th precinct police officers and am very proud that we have a great 68th precinct council. If you go to those meetings you will see officers who care about every little thing.
I'm trading phone calls today with Russell Kane, Officer Kane-I think he's in the back-because someone complained to me about vandalism in their backyards, on homes on Marine Avenue. I have been working with the police; they call me to get the word out if there's an issue that needs attention. I have been there calling for answers. I have done the working for this community because I love this community. I own a home here, I raised my children here, I have the talents, the perseverance, the independence to make sure this community works for me and works for you. I have been receiving calls for the last ten years from people asking me to help them solve their problems. Yesterday I got a call from someone whose water was shut off on Shore Road: "Why was my water shut off?" Called Community Board 10, found out the community engineer was working on the sewer project. Guess what, it was a mistake: the water was not supposed to be shut off, it's not going to happen again. When you call Joanne Seminara you get the answers, you get the dedication.
Let's talk about taxes. I have the feeling that decisions are being made by the Mayor and some of the City Council that doesn't understand the mentality of our neighborhood, that doesn't understand neighborhoods. Taxes hurt everyone. They hurt my ability to pay my real estate tax on my home-I'm fortunate enough to have a home. They hurt the ability of a young couple who cannot afford to buy a home in this community; they're very, very high. And now we take another $1,000 pound of flesh from that couple-they can't afford it. They hurt small businesses, of course they hurt small businesses. Rents are going up along with the real estate taxes. They hurt tenants, they hurt co-op and condo owners. The real estate tax is unacceptable, the increase is unacceptable; with the assessment we're going to pay 25% more in real estate tax. I pledge you, I will never vote for a real estate tax increase in the City Council.
You walk all over our commercial strips, speak to the merchants; some of them are barely hanging on. This is a tough time, ladies and gentlemen, the choices are going to be very, very difficult but unless we keep taxes, real estate taxes down we sit back watching the damage that will be done. What did not on City Council member, "If we're going to raise taxes (which is unacceptable) why don't we have a sunset commission?" You know, we put the 12% tax increase, income tax increase for the Safe Cities Project and it ended and the money came back. No one said, "Where's the sunset commission?" I didn't hear it, at least, where is that independent voice?
You can count on me to be independent. I'm a Democrat; I'm very happy to be a recently elected Democratic district leader who took that post with 69% of the vote this fall. I am independent, I am much more than a Democrat; I am someone who enjoys the support of the people of this community. There's one pledge I can make to you and you can read my record of service to the community in the material provided but there's one pledge I can make: no one, no one will work harder for you than Joanne Seminara. No one will get more answers for you and be on the sight and respond to you like Joanne Seminara. I hope to be your next City Council member. Thank you very much.