On August 22 the candidates for Queens Borough President spoke at a
"Community Conversation" forum at York College sponsored by Citizens Union
Foundation, Coro, and the Center for Excellence in New York City Governance.
Carol Gresser, Sheldon Leffler, and Al Stabile met to answer questions from
Queens residents (Helen Marshall did not attend).
Carol Gresser: Thank you very much, I'm delighted
to be with you. I'm a teacher, I'm a parent, I'm a resident
of Queens for over 40 years, I think it's the most fabulous
borough in the world, I think that it's a shame that people
think it's a drive-through to get to the airport, and
what I'd like to do is make it a destination. I served
as president of the New York City Board of Education,
I have great executive experience, I dealt with the unions,
I dealt with site selection for our schools, I had to
be a consensus builder, and if you don't think it's tough
to bring people together at the Board of Education and
have them all move in the same direction let me tell you,
my dears, I am so happy I am still coherent . It's a very
hard job but it was a wonderful job in the sense that
I got to work for our kids. All of our kids. I think I'm
a wonderful advocate, a strong advocate, and it would
be a great honor to continue to advocate, but on a larger
scale for the people of this borough, and I really look
forward to working with you and for you. I've worked my
heart out for you and I look forward to being with you
after January 1. Thank you.
Sheldon Leffler: Good evening and thank you for
coming. I've been a kid in this community from the time
I was two. I went to elementary school here at 150th street
for eight years, just a few buildings north of Jamaica
avenue just opposite King Manor. I then went to Jamaica
High School from which I graduated. I come from a modest
family from this community, somewhat typical of its time.
My dad never had the opportunity to go to college as his
father had died when he, my dad, was only 5. He founded
a small wholesale di stribution business here at 147-12
95th avenue. He would get up regularly at 2 in the morning
or earlier. So I know what it is to work hard in this
community to establish and maintain a good life for oneself
and one's family. I've gone on to, because I worked hard,
because I think I have the values of this community, graduated
with honors from Princeton, Harvard Law School, work in
one of the nation's great law firms. In the City Council
I've initiated, developed, gotten enacted 42 measures
into law and an additional 92 measures as co-prime sponsor.
I've made the city government work for people. I believe
I've shown that I have the expertise. I have impeccable
integrity. My purpose in this election is to establish
a substantive and meaningful office working for the needs
of all Queens residents so that they can establish good
and meaningful life themselves, as I've seen happen with
my family here in Jamaica over the course of a lifetime.
Al Stabile: I'd like to start off with saying
your college is home to me. I went here right after the
Vietnam war, and I remember your college being a bunch
of buildings scattered around Jamaica. Let me start off
by saying Helen Marshall, Carol Gresser, Sheldon Leffler,
and myself, all of us would make an excellent borough
president. There is no doubt in my mind, all of us have
the skill that it takes to make a great borough president.
What is different is the way they execute the office.
And the way I will execute the office is in your face.
All the time. Every day. I don't want to sit and write
legislation or suggest legislation. We've got enough stuff
on the books that go on for another 400 years. I want
to get the potholes filled, get the streetlights working,
and make sure our schools are not overcrowded, and make
sure our people are safe, and make sure everyone has the
opportunity to better themselves. But not just better
themselves economically. Affordable housing is very important.
Public safety is very important. Education becomes the
epitome of everything. Because without education we go
nowhere. So I want to be a borough president that's going
to be for real. I don't want to sit in an office and feel
like you have to make 25 phone calls to get an appointment
with me. I just want to be borough president with an open
door policy. Thank you very much.
Q: Since 1999 there has been talk about universal
health care. What do you project over the next two years
related to the universal health plan?
Stabile: I believe the only way we can have universal
health care is if all three parts of government be a part
of it and contribute to it. We have to find a set of standards
that are realistic standards. A lot of times we get pamphlets
at our office, and they sound great. But can you actually
put it to work. I get a lot of things saying about health
care for everyone. A lot of health care need to me does
not mean everyone. Because if you go to Jamaica hospital,
you go to any city hospital, they want to see something.
We have to get the federal government, who has the dollars,
and the state, to work with local municipalities to make
it a reality. Can it be a reality? Yes it can be a reality.
Should it be a reality? Yes it should be a reality. We
have to convince them , one way or another, that this
is the only way to make it work, is by putting it all
Leffler: I don't expect us to have universal health
care within the next two years. I think the experience
in the early Clinton administration with Hillary Clinton
has turned the federal government from having that ambitious
a scheme. I think as a consequence local communities have
to do their best to improve health care. I've worked closely
with Queens Hospital Center, I've continually tried to
keep it open, I will continue to do that. I have worked
with different organizations to try to further AIDS education,
as well as treatment for people. In addition I think it's
important that we expand primary care coverage to our
children, in connection with hospitals and otherwise.
I think we have to do more preventive work, particularly
in our schools. I think the real challenge is in our local
communities here in Queens because I don't expect universal
healthcare on the federal level within two years.
Gresser: Absolutely not in two years. Under a
Republican administration we're not going to see universal
health care, and I think we all know that. The federal
government has to be a big partner, as does the state.
It is not going to happen in two years. Should it happen?
Absolutely. Every man, woman, and child should be covered.
But, the political will to make this happen, I don't think
it's there. I think all of us need to speak out, and become
very vocal about this, because there are too many of our
people, especially children, that are not receiving the
health care they should be receiving. So I'm hoping that
we can all work together for that goal.
Q: Economic development has been booming. However,
this has benefited only a few developers and other outsiders.
Would you create a level playing feel for minority businesses
and how would you do this?
Gresser: Minority business owners and developers
and construction people, contractors, women-owned businesses,
are not doing as well as they should be, and we need to
work together. But I think there needs to be a borough
hall, an integrated economic policy that takes into consideration
the people who live in their areas should be given a certain
percentage of whatever contracts there are, and the minority-owned
businesses in this area are supposed to get 17%, but I
don't think they've ever been anywhere near that. There
has to be a close relationship between borough hall and
minority-owned businesses down here. And I can make this
happen and I'm very optimistic about that.
Leffler: I do believe I can help promote economic
development through the borough president's office. In
part because I think I have the skills as a first-rate
lawyer, someone that specialized in finance, my approach
would be to try to do strategic planning in the borough
president's office for the future of our individual communities,
particularly Jamaica. I think we can create infrastructure,
particularly off the air trade in Queens for the next
realm of high-tech development, also commercial development,
hotels, it has to be market-driven. Jamaica can be transformed
in the course of the next generation so that the property
within walking distance from here that was my father's
business which is now a closed plant can in fact be used
for commercial development, high tech development, and
the jobs. We need education in the community so that the
skills for doing this are passed on to our kids and that
they can benefit from this. And I think the Borough President's
office can through holding hearings, sponsoring legislation,
and in other ways to promote economic development. Thank
Stabile: I think Jamaica has seen a renaissance
in economic development . I believe 17% is too low for
a community like this, that has the opportunity to get
economic development through this community. Ladies and
gentlemen, let me tell you a true fact of life. There
is a lot of conniving going on. Let's open the pages and
say what is wrong. I have a friend who's black. I have
a friend who's female. I'll make them president, vice
president. You want to know something? It never gets to
the people in the community. They never get the jobs.
They never get the opportunities. Do you want to see economic
development? Do you want it to work? Lower taxes. Take
away the tax burden on new developers for 20 years.
Q: How are we going to address the infrastructure
issues that directly correlate to the environment? There
are several water basins in our community, there are transfer
stations that are impacting negatively on the communities.
If and how would you attempt to alleviate this problem?
Stabile: First of all, transfer stations, the
way they are being monitored right now through the city
of New York is a disgrace to any community. It's not just
Jamaica, but I could show you areas of Brooklyn, I could
show you areas of Rockaway, where rats go in, eat garbage,
and run away. There has to be a way to deal with this.
The way to deal with this is building holes in areas where
the containment can not stay overnight. Where it is something
that is environmentally beautiful. We have to enforce
it. The city has to enforce it. We have to make it where
we have the buildings. We don't just put up buildings,
we don't just put a fence. We have to make it beautiful,
we have to make it nice, and we don't have to make an
eyesore out of it. And we have to monitor it on a daily
basis. And that comes from the Department of Health, from
the Department of Sanitation, and the New York Police
Department doing their job also.
Leffler: With the closing of the Fresh Kills landfill,
disposal of trash has become a major challenge in New
York City and will continue to be a major challenge. I've
worked in that area since the late 80's, I was the author
of the city's recycling law. I think we have to do more
recycling, we have to clean up the brownfields in the
borough so we can put the land to productive use for housing
and for other purposes, schools, and some commercial development.
What I think we should do is try as soon as possible is
to move to the next stage and use the transfer stations
on the water rather than in individual communities. This
past Friday I was endorsed by the New York Conservation
League of Voters which is a coalition which is the political
arm of the environmental community in New York City so
I think I can work with communities to maintain a good
quality of life at the same time that we promote economic
development. Incidentally, I do not believe there should
be any fixed percentage of jobs, I am not in favor of
any quotas, but I am in favor of the most intensive outreach,
so that everybody is given every opportunity to compete
for a job, I think more than has been done so far.
Gresser: Fresh Kills landfill was closed without
much thought of how garbage was going to be handled. Whether
it is a transfer station that's away from the water or
on the water, it's going to be environmentally unsound
until we come up with a way to transfer the garbage that
is now having an impact on our environment. We have a
transfer station in Flushing that is on the Flushing River
and you can't get garbage from here to there without something
leaking in the water and the real problem is it's not
being addressed, there's no plan, and I think we really
have to look at it now, and make sure that we solve that
problem of how to transfer our garbage, because if we
don't we're going to be faced with disgusting, horrible
environmental problems that are really going to be almost
too big to solve. Thanks.
Q: What agencies would you remove, overhaul, or combine?
Gresser: I would overhaul the Department of Buildings
totally. I think it needs to be worked out from ground
zero and re-done. Every aspect of it has to be looked
at. What happens now is it begins anew, a rebirth, then
all of a sudden investigations start, people start getting
arrested again, and then we start all over. It just needs
to be completely redone.
Leffler: As borough president I would seek to
completely take over the Buildings Department in Queens
under the borough president's office. I think what you
need is somebody who will ultimately take responsibility
in key areas. For building problems, for code enforcement,
for illegal conversion, for traffic safety, and that's
what I would propose. I think that the chief executive
at the mayor's level and the city level has to be given
some flexibility to set up agencies and have a structure
that he or she is comf ortable with. At the borough president's
level my sense is the Buildings Department has probably
been one of the least effective agencies in Queens, it's
one of the most criticized, and I would be prepared to
take that responsibility. I think you genuinely need somebody
with integrity to run that agency.
Stabile: First of all, the Buildings Department
is a mayoral agency. So being a mayoral agency, it does
not come under direct control of the borough president.
The borough president has the right to pick or the right
to choose or the right to suggest who they would like
to be the commissioner or the deputy commissioner. No
borough president would have the total right to say before
any mayor, no matter who it is, that this is exactly what
I want. Let me just touch on two things that are very
important. We talked about the Port Authority, Transit
Authority, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, you
know, we're talking about things that we're getting nothing
out of. We have two major airports in Queens, and what
are we getting out of it besides noise and pollution?
What else are we getting out of it? What are they doing?
All of a sudden now they decide to build something in
Rockaway after so many years. Sorry, my time is up.
Q: What would you plan to do to increase and improve
opportunities for young people in southern Queens?
Leffler: The bottom result of all that government
does is that it has to be useful for people. And the people
that need it perhaps the most are the young people 18
to 23. Giving a good education is fundamental so people
have the skills to take advantage of the economy in New
York City, the economy we hope to grow in Queens. As I
said, I will lead the strategic planning. The borough
president's office runs hundreds of organizations. Youth,
cultural, religious, seniors, and the like. What we need
to do is have a borough president's office that works
with communities, that works with people, that plans for
the future. We can also get the private sector involved,
they can donate computers to all the kids, that would
be important. I think working with communities is important
and I would certainly do my best to substantially increase
funding in these areas for young people in southeast Queens.
Stabile: The first thing I would have to do as
borough president of Queens is form an agency: Jobs for
Youth. Not just an agency that has a fluffy name and looks
pretty, everyone wears a nice white shirt and tie every
day, not just that way. I'd form an agency that is going
to put pressure on the Port Authority, pressure on agencies
in the city for jobs. Pressure that has to be met. You
want to occupy our borough? You want to have two major
airports? You supply jobs. And we want the training for
the job and the education to follow it. Not just talking.
Do it, and do it now. Don't tell me you're going to donate
$10,000 to your college, that doesn't solve the problem.
That $10,000 is not do a damn thing for the young men
and women on the street. That is not the answer. The answer
is giving them the opportunity to make a living.
Gresser: As borough president of Queens I would
fund a training program for youth in this borough, and
what we have to do, I've been hearing it over and over
again, is return job training to the high schools. Do
you remember when we trained kids to be mechanics if they
wanted to be? We had the opportunity to learn how to do
a job. And I keep hearing, whenever I go to a community,
that this is what we need to do. Yes, teach them all these
things, the reading, the math, the skills, but we also
need to teach them how to do a job, and I would love to
see that return to our high schools, and I also think
we need to establish a training program. It's a shame
that 37% of people this age (18-23) are unemployed in
Gresser: I am the only person in the city of New
York in 1994, April, to stand up to Rudy Giuliani when
he started cutting the budget for our kids. I believe
in standing up for your principles, even if you're out
there all by yourself. I will fight for the people in
this borough. I am intelligent, I have integrity, and
I am independent. I am not the machine candidate, I am
your candidate. I will serve you. I will work with you.
I think that I can make a great difference. I love the
job of being an advocate, and I hope to be your advocate.
Leffler: What I bring to the office of borough
president is the same approach you've seen me follow over
twenty-three and a half years on the City Council. And
that is decision-making based on the merits, in the public
interest, to the extent possible without politics. Not
doing what's good for me, my wife, my political allies,
but what's in your interest. The general public interest.
Because I've sought to advance and have advanced the well-being
of the public over these years with such major laws as
the CCRB, gun locks, closing down apartment house incinerators,
preventing de-activation of the fire alarm boxes, the
enhanced 911 system. You can trust me to work exclusively
for projects and services that you care about, that are
important to your livelihoods, pocketbooks, homes and
children, and get positive results that benefit you. To
a significant extent this job is like that of a councilmember
in that it's what you make of it. And I submit and I expect
that good-government groups will find that I've gotten
more done in my job than any of my opponents in the Democratic
party. Thank you.
Stabile: I am the one who called Rudolph Giuliani
Mussolini. I am the one who had the guts and the courage,
when he wanted to stop the Legal Aid Society from striking,
he wanted to fire them, I was the one who had the guts
to call him Mussolini. My whole objective is this: I want
the private sector, the big-money people, who are operating
in this city, who are building in this city, passing the
money down to the people where it belongs. I am tired
of Queens Boulevard saying no to projects that are going
to benef it our children, our seniors, and give affordable
housing to everyone. That's the main issue. Nobody deserves
to live in a gutter on the street. Nobody in this city,
and nobody in this borough. Nobody deserves that.