The Race for Staten Island Borough President
GOTHAM GAZETTE: SEARCHLIGHT ON CAMPAIGN 2001: STATEN ISLAND BOROUGH PRESIDENT

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May 10, 2001

Robert Straniere
Interviewed by Jeffrey Kroessler

STRANIERE We always talked history and politics. My parents were never active at all in politics; my mom wanted me to be a history teacher, and thought that was something I should do, so I was a history major at Wagner College and an education minor. Of course my brother, Philip Straniere, who's a Republican Civil Court judge on Staten Island, and I developed as boys a very lively interest in history and politics, it was part of our dinner discussion with our parents. When I got to Curtis High School, I became even more interested in politics, the high school fraternity I was in, they were all Democrats, except for me, I was a Republican.

KROESSLER As a young man, what was it that made you a Republican? Was it just admiration for Dwight Eisenhower?

STRANIERE I liked studying history, I liked studying the dynamics of politics, and I was attracted to Republican icons: Abraham Lincoln, and his commitment and principles and effectiveness in reaching out and making us one nation, and seeing that all Americans, black and white, would have equal rights under law. I was also attracted from my interest in the Boy Scouts in Teddy Roosevelt, and the fact that Teddy Roosevelt had come from New York and Teddy Roosevelt was an environmentalist, someone who liked to to hike in the Adirondocks and was an outdoorsman. And then the Eisenhower mystique following World War II, my dad was in World War II, and the period in the Korean War when Dwight Eisenhower said he would go to Korea and end the war. But my parents' social group were all Democrats, my best friends were all Democrats, but I was a Republican. When I was at Wagner College I actually staged a coup and took over what was then the Richmond County Republican Club, they were extremely conservative in those days. We had something then called Liberal Republicanism. I got everybody in my fraternity and in my girlfriend's sorority, who were all Republicans, to pay their dues and we took over the Richmond County Republican organization, beat back the forces of Barry Goldwater, and I eventually went to the Republican Party convention in 1964. I had been an intern in Senator Javits's office in 1963, following my role as the college director on Staten Island for the Rockefeller-Javits campaign. In fact I wrote a letter to the editor, which I understand has recently come to light, where I urged all liberals on Staten Island to vote for Rockefeller and Javits. The Conservative Party had only begun in 1962, so there was not a conservative-Republican Party, everybody in New York who was in the Republcian Party was essentially in the liberal, national wing of the party, Remember it used to be called New York Republicanism, going back to [Governor Thomas] Dewey, and then certainly Nelson Rockefeller and the kind of programs he advanced. Based on that I was selected to be an intern in Senator Javits's office in the summer of 1963, again I was the only one of six interns in the office, and the only one who was actually in politics, the other five interns seemed to have some family connection to the Senator, but it was a wonderful opportunity, because that summer we worked on the civil rights legislation, and I participated in the march from the setps of the Capital to the Lincoln Memorial with Martin Luther King, we also worked on the revision of the immigration laws, and Javits's office was really the point office for the Republicans in the Senate in moving both civil rights legislation and the revision of the immigration laws. Liberal as Javits was, he always said he was a Republican, in fact he wrote a book called "Order of Battle," which was published in 1966. At that time frankly there was a lot of interest in Javits possibliy becoming the vice- presidential candidate in 1968, had Nelson Rockefeller not pursued it. I also worked in 1961, very aggressively, on Louis Lefkowitz's campaign for mayor of New York City. We used to ride around in a station playing a song that went something like: How could we miss with a ticket like this, Lefkowitz, Gilhooly and Fino. That was like the ultimate balancing. We had Louis Lefkowitz, who actually had served in the Assembly in the '20s from Manhattan, Paul Fino, who was the Republican Congressman from the Bronx when there were Republican in the Bronx, and Gilhooly was a lawyer from Queens. That was the kind of ticket balancing that used to take place. We had a lot of fun with that campaign. Following my internship with Senator Javits I met John Marchi, at the old Republican clubhouse in Port Richmond, he had read about my activities in Washington and asked me if I wanted to start with him. So for $12.50 a week on December 12, 1963 I joined the staff of Senator Marchi, and except for the 1967 session, since 1964 I have gone to Albany each and every January until such time as the legislature has adjourned. I guess John Marchi, myself, and I think there may be one of the elevator operators have been there for this long period of time. But I have enjoyed this tremendous opportunity. As a boy my ambition was to serve in elected office on Staten Island, although as I got into politics, I never aspired to borough president until two years ago. When I graduated Curtis High School, my friend Billy Siegler I remember writing in my yearbook, wished me luck in becoming borough president one day. I guess back then by the time I was 35 that would the time to be Borough president.

KROESSLER Borough president, then governor, president?

STRANIERE I don't know how far out I stretched it. I only wanted to be in elected office, and I guess borough president, when I was in high school, sounded like a good place to begin. And over the years as we know, there was very little opportunity to young people to seek public office. Ed Amann and Lou Russo were elected in the Eisenhower landslide of 1952, as really the first Republican Assembly-people. Sidney Jacoby had served one term as an Assembly Republican in the '30s, as a La Guardia Republican, but there really were very few Republicans. The Republicans also won a state senate seat, that only lasted two years. And then John Marchi won it in '56 in the Eisenhower sweep. But Staten Island had been a Democratic county electing Democrats, '52 provided a break, Ed Amann and Lou Russo both served for over twenty years each, Amann left in '73 to become a judge, then Mrs. Connelly ran for his seat. That was the year I moved out of that Assembly district to Dongan Hills, I kept thinking if maybe I had stayed one more year in Randall Manor I might have been the candidate maybe in 1973 for the Assembly since I had been Senator Marchi's counsel at that point. Moved to the South Shore, then in 1980 when Guy Molinari ran for Congress, I had run for the City Council in 1977, by the way, I had a primary that year, in both the Republican and the Conservative Parties, won both of them, and was the party designated choice in 1980, but won a primary again for that designation, and there's word I might have to win a primary again this year. We'll see what happens.

KROESSLER You mentioned Fiorello La Guardia a moment ago. And one of the things La Guardia said was that there's no Republican or Democratic way to clean the streets or pick up the garbage. What do you make of his remark?

STRANIERE I think he's absolutely right. When I worked on the John Lindsay campaigns for mayor, and the Marchi campaigns for mayor, we used to say much the same thing. Which, I guess, for a city-wide race is a good point of view for a Republican to take in a city where you are subject to an overwhelming registration against you. But I think when you're talking about a mayor, a borough president, a city councilman, we know that in many large cities, including Los Angeles, the second largest city, people really don't run on partisan lines. Frankly, when we were doing the Sovereign Commission, which was the precursor to the Staten Island Charter Commission, in the early '80s, I had made the recommmendation that candidates for local office in fact, do not run on party lines. What's interesting, for special elections now for the city council people don't run on party lines, but they do in the general election. So I felt this was some recognition of what we were saying for local offices. An office like borough president, an office like city council, and an office like mayor, you're not dealing with political philosophy, the way you are certainly in a national legislative body or even in a state legislative body. You're talking about the delivery of basic services to people, you're talking about the priorities and the distribution of funding that essentially comes from elsewhere, particularly at a borough level because you have no taxing authority here. What you are, certainly in the office of borough president, and by the way I fought voiciferously to preserve our vote on the Board of Estimate, that was a matter we worked on for many, many years, went all the way to the Supreme Court and lost, because I felt very strongly that Staten Island deserved an equal vote.

KROESSLER The loss of the seat on the Board of Estimate is what propelled the secession movement forward.

STRANIERE No question about that.

KROESSLER That's a very legal, very technical point, but once the secession movement got going it really struck an emotional and local pride chord. Did you get that sense?

STRANIERE You just brought up pride, and what I've been talking about is creating a sense of pride in being a Staten Islander, that I'm concerned is not quite there. You know, when you tell people from outside Staten Island that you meet, that you're from Staten Island they're reaction is usually a smile, You have that garbage dump, you have that quaint little ferry boat, it's the backdrop for the Godfather, or they could have filmed the Sopranos just as well on Staten Island as New Jersey, or Working Girl, kind of personifies working women on Staten Island, that's the general image. I want to change that. As a matter of fact, after I leave here tonight to honor high school students who have been active in the community, I'm going to talk about the flag. Because in 1971 Borough President Connor had a contest to create a flag for our borough, and although he accepted the flag, and althouth the flag has flown over the Staten Island Advance and the Chamber of Commerce, and is in city and borough hall, it has never been officially adopted. So I have a bill in to make the flag that has existed for thirty years that few people know about the official flag of Staten Island, and actually I've been taking every opportunity to describe the flag and present the flag. The flag also is a symbol of our borough, and the makeup of the flag tells a lot about our borough. But this is a borough, this is a county, this is a community, this is the 39th largest city in America. I want people to be proud they're Staten Islanders, and I also want them to know the history of this island. And when you see that the population of this island has increased 17%, we're the fastest growing county in the state. Many people have come here knowing very little about the wonderful history of this borough. So I have another bill in to give Staten Island what Brooklyn and Queens have had since 1905, and that's an Anniversary Day. They actually close the schools in Brooklyn and Queens on those days; my bill doesn't close the schools, although it gives the School Board the option to do so, but let them negotiate that with the UFT or the Chancellor.

KROESSLER But that began with Brooklyn Sunday School Day, and I don't know how they included Queens. It makes no sense at all.

STRANIERE Regardless of the genesis of it, it exists and it provides an appropriate day in the year for our community to focus on our history. I've had discussions with members of the school board, District Superintendent Cagini , they're all supportive of the idea, I said maybe we could have one period, but I'm talking about trying to develop a curriculum where we could have one day a year we could talk about Staten Island, and the very significant events in American history which have taken place here and the famous people who have lived here, and the people who live here now and what they're doing. When you take all this together you create a sense of pride in being a Staten Islander.

KROESSLER If you have no sense of history, as a historian I'm perhaps a little biased about this, but if you have no sense of history you can't see where you're going. If you're looking ahead, if you had to warn your grandchildren in the next 25 years of the one issue we're facing that you would hope we would deal with for them, for their lives, what would you think is the greatest crisis?

STRANIERE It's hard to say the greatest crisis. When you look at our borough, many of our problems, most of our problems that we deal with everyday are the effect of the negative impact that overdevelopment has had on this borough. Now it just took me thirty minutes to drive from New Dorp, which is why I was late to the reception beforehand, a distance of three miles, perhaps. Our streets, which essentially were developed in colonial times, cannot absorb 440,000 people and the number of cars we have here. We have more cars than the borough of the Bronx, even though the Bronx is three or four times the size of this borough, population-wise. People in the Bronx obviously use mass transportation that we don't have here. We have seen the impact on our schools. And the most recent statistics I have, which are the Fall of 1999, our schools were 96% capacity. Where are we going to put all the children of the families who are moving here? We built two new schools on the South Shore, and by the way I'm very proud to have been the co-sponser of the School Construction Authority legislation that is finally bringing the schools we needed to Staten Island. But the two new schools we opened are already at maximum capacity. This winter when I held a press conference outlining my suggestions on how we responsibly address the issue of overdevelopment, I saw all the trees being taken down as far as the eye can see for 2,800 new homes. Now, I believe 2,800 new homes will probably generate about 5,000 students. Where are we going to put them? And this isn't only a South Shore issue, this is a North Shore issue, as we see older homes being taken down on the North Shore on large lots, replaced by 4, 6, 8, 12 units; as we see open fields on the North Shore now being developed with housing. It's a major crisis on Staten Island: how are we going to have appropriate facilities for youngsters to go to school. Our kids shouldn't have to be in portable classrooms, our kids shouldn't have to be in split sessions, our kids shouldn't have to study in closets or converted space in gymnasiums, that's not a healthy atmosphere for education to take place in. So I think that's a problem. Also I'm very concerned about the environment, and the environment is really one of my signature issues for the the twenty-one years now that I've served in the legislature, I've been on the environmental committee from day one, in fact I requested that committee as the first committee I wanted to serve on, because I had felt Staten Island has been an environmental war zone. But we're winning the battle, we've closed Fresh Kills. Our waters are getting cleaner around Staten Island, we've created new parks, I'm pleased that I've been able to initiate and work with state officials and the governor to save Mount Loretto, to preserve St. Francis, to enhance areas like Lemon Creek, and other parks throughout Staten Island, in fact next Friday I've organized a tour of the waterfront of the north shore, beginning over where the Homeport was, and where I'd like to see movie studios created, around to Port Richmond. We're going to be looking at Staten Island from the water, to see what we can do to possibly create a greenbelt along our water. You know we have 57 miles of waterfront more or less on this island, and we have very limited public access and public use of our waters.

KROESSLER That's common throughout the city, the question of the waterfront. Just the other day I was driving along Bay Street and I noticed a new impediment to the waterfront has just shown up, a generating facility, right there.

STRANIERE It's not on the waterfront, it's on Bay Street, that's the problem. It should have been set back from Bay Street, not on Bay Street.

KROESSLER What is your take on the sudden planting of these power facilities?

STRANIERE Interestingly enough, as you may recall, the last month, I had Ray Haynes, a friend and co-director of the Legislative Exchange Council, who's a state senator in California, come to Staten Island, to talk to us about the California energy crisis and assist and evaluate where we are. The fact is we have to have new sources of generating energy, if we're going to avoid the California experience. Just today Long Island has announced a new plant of the Long Island Power Authority, which will be constructed in Melville. The ten plants that are going to be available and ready, are not going to be used except when necessary, those few days of the year when you cannot meet the energy needs of New York City. We have to replace the older power plants in the state, the youngest of which is about 30 years old. We also have a bottleneck in that the transmission lines to bring power from upstate and out of state are very limited, so that has got to be expanded. And as we replace the older plants we're going to do so with plants that are state of the art, very limited pollution, a way of generating the energy we need. That said, we can do more on conservation, and we should be looking at wind power and solar power, in the city. Some of the studies I've read indicated up to 20% in savings could be achieved, although we should not be ashamed of our conservation, we are number 2 in the nation as far as the amount of energy that is used on a per capita basis. California I believe is fifth. So we're doing a good job in educating New Yorkers in conserving energy, but that's not enough, given the expansion of our economy, the nature of our economy, and the personal use of computers and other technological devices, either for education for employment or for learning, need energy in order to function. But we also ought to be looking at solar power and wind power as a way of reducing our need to rely on more traditional ways of generating energy, either petroleum based or gas.

KROESSLER It's intriguing that you're a Republican and it's hard to fit, given what the national Republican Party seems to be saying, and even some local Republican statements, that we should control development, or that we should protect the environment, or we should seek alternative forms of energy. These don't seem to be traditional Republican positions these days.

STRANIERE I think they're traditional Republican positions in the philosophy that I believe in, that as I said is rooted in Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, in whose seat I sit on the floor of the Assembly. Teddy Roosevelt was the Republican Assembly leader a hundred years befor I was elected, he was elected in 1880, I was elected in 1980, and certainly the kind of enlightened public leadership that I think New York Republicans have brought to issues historically. I don't look at issues and then say, gee, what does my philosophy tell me what to do. I like to be a problem solver, and use common sense in addressing public issues.

KROESSLER You mentioned an issue I'm very interested in, that is, you have a marvelous single family house, you drive by in a day there's a fence up, I just saw this from the Victory Boulevard bus, and suddenly three single family houses are gone and we're going to look at a half dozen or a dozen townhouses going up. Now as a borough president, what practically can you do?

STRANIERE That's a very good question. I outlined back in February an eight point plan, which I have legislation now pending in the State Assembly, that I think if adopted could address these issues. Number one we need a new zoning for Staten Island. The zoning resolution we have was adopted 40 years ago in 1961, when this was a totally different island, it was done by people not of Staten Island, for Staten Island, that gave no regard to the contour of our land, the nature of our community, our road network, and what we were going to become with the impending opening of the Verrazano Brdge. I don't think rezoning of Staten Island should be done by Manhattan or Queens or Brooklyn based people, it should be done and I think it could be done in rather short ordr by Staten Islanders, I call this borough empowerment. So the first thing we do is get a zoning resolution that doesn't attempt to rezone the entire city of New York. Look they haven't been able to move the plan Chairman Rose advanced two years ago on Manhattan bulk development, can you imagine if we wanted to turn this over to the city to re-do Staten Island? So as Borough President one of my first priorities would be immediately to implement a coming together of this community, the professions and the civic leaders to get a new zoning resolution so we change the rules by which development is taking place. The other thing we must do, we must put a moratorium on the construction of new residental housing until we can be sure there are school seats available for those children. The South Richmond School Certification law is 25 years old, it was a very limited and weak attempt to respond to development that was beginning to take place 25 years ago on the South Shore. Five years ago I asked both the Board of Ed and the Planning Commission to revisit that issue. Both have refused to do so. This is what we should do. We put a freeze on development the issuance of new permits for new dwellings, unless you can certify, meaning the government, the planning board, that there are two school seats available in the school district to be served where that house is going to be constructed. Not if you have a vacant seat in St George for a house inTottenville. If you're going to build near PS 16, where I'm going tomorrow to be principal for a day - a month late but that's how the scheduling worked out - and where I went to school, then you can get your permit, And I say two for one. You see the current law is you can get two permits for one seat anywhere. That's no reglulation at all. That's something else we should do. Another thing we should do is the posting of bonds, by developers, especially commercial developers. Why do all the commercial strips on Staten Island have to be institutionally ugly? Why are there no trees, why are there no planters, why is there no cleaning up? It's not that that they aren't required to do it, I think they buy dead trees cheap. If you require the posting of bonds you can make sure that places are properly maintained, there are proper amenities, that there are trees, that there are planters, that there's cleanliness. And how about having the parking in back of stores, not in front of stores.

KROESSLER I had to laugh, because to hear an elected official, or a candidate for elected office speak in terms of aesthetics, as if the aesthetics of our community would be something of concern is very unusual. It brings me to my next question, about historic Staten Island. We just had a very unfortunate event here, the destruction of the Dorothy Day Cottage. What about historic preservation and the Landmarks Commission?

STRANIERE Thank you. Because part of my package also had two other components. The governor's budget as presented, and I have over the years sponsored legislation that would grant a tax credit for the preservation of historic structures. But historic structures on a federal registry or a state registry are much too limited. What I would like to see is the use of tax credits up to the $50,000 now authorized for the preservation of older buildings that are appropriate to the neighborhoods where they are located because they anchor and they give a certain character to a community, and if you as the owner, or the developer who buys that house, if you're willing to preserve that structure, let's help you out with the tax credit, not just historic homes but significant older homes, and let's do for the increase in the assessment for that home what we do with new construction, or the J-51 program, which is to taper in over a period the increase in tax, so we don't in effect penalize you for having improved your property. And that designation, being able to preserve what I call older homes that anchor communities, should be by a Staten Island based neighborhood preservation commission, and my legislation addresses that. The second point, the Doroty Day House underscores the failure of Borough Hall and some of the Council members of this borough for not seeing that the Landmarks Commission calendared the issue. Now there was an interesting story in a city-wide publication two weeks ago that raised a number of issues as to why this may have happened, the article by Wayne Barrett outlining the campaign contributions, certainly gave a lot of people time to pause about what's going on here. I believe we should have a Staten Island landmarks commission, why does it only have to be the city of New York in Mahnattan looking to designate properties that this borough believes ought to be preserved, or that you as the owner of a property wants to have preserved. I worked some years ago with the people in New Dorp to preserve the Lane Theater which was built in 1938, and is the last art deco theater still standing in the city of New York. There was talk of turning it into a disco, but many thought it would be disruptive, not only to New Dorp but the loss of this wonderful entertainment facility that we might have. In fact in those discussions I was trying to see if we couldn't get Snug Harbor interested because the reality is we don't have a community based cultural center for the South Shore. Now I'm a firm supporter of Snug Harbor, and do many events there during the course of the year, but the fact is it's something of a long trip for people on the South Shore to sometimes get all the way up to St. George, and maybe some satellite cultuiral facilities on the South Shore would be a good idea, so that was the idea behind that. If we had a borough based landmarks commission you wouldn't see something fall through the cracks like the Dorothy Day house. Now that it's down, what is left to do, landmark an empty lot, put up a marker, I am very disturbed and concerned by what I read about why this may have happened.

KROESSLER Shifting topics for a moment, we are at the College of Staten Island, which is part of the City University of New York. In recent years Mayor Giuliani and the Board of Trustees under Herman Badillo have been attacking the City University as not having proper standards, of not doing a good job of education their graduates. I'm just wondering, as a candidate for borough president what your approach to the City University might be.

STRANIERE Well, I think, along with Senator Marchi, in whose room we are doing the show today, we have been a team, and I don't think you will find two stronger legislators who have been as concerned and supportive of this university and its mission. And this university began with a very important mission in this city, about 1848 or so, that is the concept of free tuition for an immigrant population in order to pursue private higher education. So that's where we start with the mission of this university, a university that provides an opportunity for all of the people in this city, who want to to pursue higher education to have the opportunity to do so. And certainly this university, for a hundred plus years, has graduated some of the most prominent and successful and enlightened Americans of any university in the United States. For a variety of reasons, perhaps cutbacks in the ability to expand faculty, so that we didn't have overcrowded classes, perhaps part of the problem has been the public school system, since most of the students come out of the public schools of New York City, were ill-prepared to do college work. And I think there's a middle ground. The remedial program has been revisited. I believe we should have remedial education available to help those either while still in high school, or getting out of high school, to develop the skills they need to do college level work. I don't want to characterize what has taken place as an attack on this university. I'd like to characterize it more as a reformation or a revision of how we insure that the students who graduate from this university can have pride in their degree and that that degree is valuable. My son Brit is a graduate of the College of Staten Island and Hunter; he's got a job but he got that not because of his ability to market the degree he got from the university. And that's been disappointing to him. He enjoyed his courses here, he enjoyed his courses at Hunter College, he has a degree in Cinema Studies, but that doesn't mean he just watches movies. He works in entertainment companies, he's a producer and he's doing very creative things. And the faculty here, particularly in his courses, was excellent, everybody I've worked with at this college over the years, I've been extremely impressed by their commitment. I once taught for one semester an international law course here myself, and I enjoyed that opportunity, This is a wonderful university. I think this college which bears the name of our borough is something very, very special, and the atmosphere that students have here, and the technology that is available, a growing internet capability, and the special programs that are being generated, and trying to bring the business community into what's happening at this college, I think bodes very well for the future of the College of Staten Island and for the University. I was very impressed, and I in fact met here two months ago with the Chancellor, and President Springer, brought us all together, I'm very impressed by the increase in enrollment in the City University, the improvement in test scores, and the direction the university is going. That is not to be critical of what was here before, but I like where we're going on now, and I will continue to be supportinve of this university and its mission, and let's remember its mission: to educate the people of this city, wherever they come from. And when you realize we now have the largest immigrant population in this city since 1910. About 40% of the people in the city of New York were born outside the United States; over 50% of the students in the public schools, their parents were born outside the United States, so we need a university that's going to welcome those students and their families. And one of the great things about this college is the number of adults, the number of people over 25 who are going back to school and pursing their degrees.

KROESSLER Which is why the tone of the debate about CUNY about graduating in four years and the rest seems rather misplaced.

STRANIERE Took my son seven or eight years and he went full time. Either he didn't get the right course or he changed his major. But he kept at it, and it was a very proud day three years ago when we were all here for his graduation.

KROESSLER Another aspect of education is public libraries. And I heard the other night that the public library in Stapleton doesn't even have a bathroom. And I'm wondering,

STRANIERE Libraries are part of the overall education network that we have an obligation to provide. Under the New York State constitution education is the responsibility of the state, not the city, not the federal government, it is the responsibility of the legislature and the governor. We have, I'm glad to say, in recent years been able to enhance the funding for libraries, but we've got to do a lot more. As youngsters go on the internet and work with laptops and computers, I still like to read books, frankly, we have to improve the capacity of our libraries. Something else I'm very concerned about. We cannot have a situation where young people who are going to school do not have at home access to computers in order to be able to study. Having a computer today is as essential as taking home a book to study at night. And although we have wired our schools, and we have computer capacity in virtually every school in the state of New York, I do have concern about our ability to see that youngsters can have a laptop to take home, or at least a basic computer so they can study at night at home with their parents.

KROESSLER Laptops for all the students on Staten Island would pretty much break your budget I think.

STRANIERE No, actually we have a bill that the Assembly Republicans introduced a year ago, which would grant a tax credit of up to $1,500 a year, credit, not a deduction, so it's money back, for purposes of assisting parents in supplementing the public education of their children. We spend $40 billion in this state, maybe more, probably $70 billion if you combine the local share, the state share and the federal share on education, but parents have very little direct control over how those dollars are spent. Some parents need help buying a computer, some youngsters need remedial help after school which maybe they can't get, some parents want their children to take up a musical instrument, some parents want to be able to enhance the reading material of youngsters. I believe it's a good approach, and that is definitely affordable, the total price tag for what I'm suggesting is about $400 million. We're sitting with a surplus right now of about $2.7 billion, that's growing every day because there's no state budget, this is now May, they're talking about no budget for the entire year. By the way, I don't get paid until there's a budget. I wish we'd bring this to closure. But we're talking about possibly going the entire year without a budget, which means we do now monthly extenders. So we are spending at last year's rate, but revenues continue to increase, because in spite of this little dip in the economy the tax revenues continue to be strong. So we're going to have an enormous surplus available to do a lot of good things. Yes, we can and should cut some taxes, and I've been advocating the beginning of cutting the sales tax on gasoline, which is something the state can do, it can do right now, one way we can respond to the people of the state of New York in meeting the high cost of buying gasoline at the pump. We have to put some money aside, because I think most people anticipate, maybe not a recession, but a slowing, a cooling of the economy, at least as an interim measure. And, we have to enhance funding in a number of areas, and frankly most of us want to see a stronger commitment to education, in fact we must address education and the DeGrasse decision which said by September 15th, legislature, you'd better find another way of funding education in this state, particularly the city of New York. And the city of New York has unique and special problems. We are adding 25,000 children a year to the public schools in New York City. Many of them immigrant children, many of the kids inour city with special needs for a variety of reasons. So it can't just be, we're going to give everyone in the state the same money and you're all going to come out the same, because everyone doesn't come in the door with the same background, everyone doesn't come in the door with the same family support to perhaps give some of the enhancements I spoke to you about. So this is a high priority, an important priority, and frankly I'm disappointed, I work out when I'm in Albany every day with Randy Kuhl, who's head of the Senate Education Committee, and just nothing is happening in this area, and this is very troubling, because I thought we should have met Judge DeGrasse's date, which we could have done, of Spetember 15th, the way we're going now is virtually impossible.

KROESSLER I'd like to open it to questions, about life and politics on Staten Island.

QUESTION 1 Mr. Straniere, I'm not from here, but I wanted to ask a couple questions.

STRANIERE Where are you from?

QUESTION 1 I'm originally from Oklahoma. Considering that the people that you have to work with at borough hall, and the people who will have to be more or less of your philosophy, considering some of the things you want to accomplish, you make an awful lot of sense, how hard will it be for you to carry through with your plan and your projections, how strong can you be, and, I don't mean this in an ugly manner, considering you have not had exactly the best publicity at times.

STRANIERE Hey, I'm on the front page of the paper more than George Bush! First, I want to thank you for your question and then for your optimistic assessment that I might win the election. Thank you for both. I am not interested in having people in borough hall who are necessarily Republican. I'm interested in having people in Borough Hall who are committed to doing a good job every day, who are committed to improving this borough, who are honest, and who will reflect the diversity of Staten Island. I am terribly disturbed, and I have said this repeatedly, the fact that we have in borough hall, and we have had for the last 12 years, an ethnic litmus test as to who works and who doesn't work. I want to see African-Americans in prominent positions in Borough Hall. I want to see Hispanics. How can we have a borough hall where nobody speaks Spanish when we have 53,000 Latinos in this borough. We have a growing Asian population, there's not one Asian that I'm aware of working in Borough Hall. I'm very proud that with my very limited staff I have both an African-American and an Asian- American, in fact I'm the first one to have an Asian-American in any of the legislative offices working on my staff. I want to see people from all of our communities to have a place at the table, and I am committed to doing that. I think people have stayed away because they have felt unwelcome, or they will not be considered, and that's going to come to an end. Another thing I want to do to create this sense of community. You know borough hall looks out at the Statue of Liberty, and you know how when you go to the United Nations you see the flags of the world, I want to see a flag in front of our borough hall that represents every country that we have a Staten Islander who came from, or their parents, or their grandparents, or their ancestors, because borough hall . Now I've served 21 years in the Democratic Assembly, there are only 51 Republicans but I have never seen that as a barrier in any way in being effective for this borough, working with my Democratic colleagues, I always calll us the team for Staten Island, I work very closely with Eric Vitaliano, Mrs. Connelly, now John LaValle, I don't know, and I lead the debate for the Republicans on the floor, I don't believe I've ever had anything but a friendly debate, not only with my Staten Island colleagues but with colleagues on the other side of the aisle, as long as we stay focussed on trying to find the right solution to public problems. Let's sit down together, and try to develop a consensus on how we resolve public issues. I feel the same way about working with whoever the next mayor may be. This is not a personal, a political agenda, because when we opened the discussion we talked about there not being a Democratic or Republican way of picking up the garbage. I am proud to be a Republican, I will run as a Republican, I hope I will win as a Republican, but in all my campaigns I never really put on what my political party is. In fact I have a campaign piece for me for Borough President, cause I run for what I stand for, talking about what my accomplishments are, what my vision is for this borough, and what my priorities are, the borough hall that I want. I want an inclusive borough hall, I want borough empowerment, which is a different aspect of secession. Borough empowerment means bringing back to this borough the ablility of the people, America's 39th largest city, maybe with the recent census figures we'll even move up, but based on the 1990 statistics we're the 39th largest city in the United States of America, and yet the people who live here, which is separate and apart from the rest of the city, have a extremely limited ability to control development, which is a major issue from which so many other problems come off. Address the issues of education in a more meaningful way, by giving powere to a borough board, a lot of these ideas came out of the work I did on the secession charter commission, the commission by the way still exists, and I believe that there will be great interest, whoever the next mayor is, in seeing borough empowerment, which is power in this borough, so the people of the borough have a say, they have a say in decision making, but they also have a say in coming to borough hall. I'm also anxious to explore the possibility of two satellite borough halls, because it takes so long to get from mid island or the south shore to St. George. We have three community boards, I don't see why, I don't know what the charter allows as far as calling them deputy borough presidents, but somebody at the level of the deputy borough president in mid island, the south shore, and in borough hall, because government should be close to the people. It shouldn't represent having to take a day off to go all the way to St George because you have a problem. Let's face it, except for the train, it's very difficult to utilize public transportation to get around this island. We're being strangled by the amout of traffic we have now. This is part of my proposal to bring government closer to the people, and we're not dealing here with issue of national philosophy, we're talking about the delivery of basic services, we're talking about police protection and sanitation and parks. Another role that I see the borough president having, and the borough president is the most important office on the island, except for the district attorney, it's the only office elected by all the people of the borough, because the Congressman is elected by Brooklyn, so he's got split responsibilities. The Borough president is elected by all the people of this borough. The borough president should be the advocate, the leader, the initiator, the model, the person who stands up and speaks out, who lobbies the government and other colleagues about what is right about this borough. My personal problems? They've been out there for many, many years, I think like most Staten Islanders, who've had good days and bad days, and we've weathered them.

KROESSLER Another question?

QUESTION 2 You mentioned what you don't see in Borough Hall in terms of the minority community, but how do you embrace the minority community? How do you dispell the notion that Staten Island, at least from the minority perspective, is run mainly by Italian men, Molinari, Straniere, Molinaro. How do you deal with that issue? I feel about as attached to Staten Island as I do to this carpet, and I've lived here all my life. How do you begin to embrace a community that has felt so separated?

STRANIERE Thank you for your question. I think one of the things you have to do as the borough president is affirmatively reach out to all the communities you describe. I have for many, many years, on my own, I have sponsored the biggest Black History celebration on Staten Island for over 15 years, and my own Assembly district has the fewest African- Americans of any Assembly district, certainly in the city of New York out of the 61 districts, if not the state of new York. I have for 15 years sponsored a Lunar New Year program where I reached out to the Chinese and Korean communities. In fact last Saturday I sponsored my annual Pan-Asian Month Brunch, because May is Pan-Asian Month, where we brought in additional communities of Asian Staten Islanders, to come together to discuss their issues. I have been an active member working with the Latino Civic Association. I've sponsored a new Americans program, I think this will be either the third or fourth this summer, where we single out seven people who were born outside of the United States who have been successful and to serve as role models. Each fall I do a Hispanic heritage program where we single out a high school student of Hispanic background who is excelling academically because we have foud through studies that the Latino population in this city is lagging terribly behind the general population in academic performance, and what can we do to encourage that. I have toured the schools on the North Shore even though I represent the South Shore, because I'm interested in seeing what's happening there. I'm a graduate of Curtis High School by the way, and I've worked closely with Ed Zito. I've been meeting on a regular basis with the African-American ministers, the religious leaders, to see what can be done. I went to PS 31 in January when no one else did to meet with Arnold Obie, the only elected official to do this, to find out what could we do to improve that school. I grew up in St. George and Tompkinsville, I know that neighborhood. And I met with Arnold to see, are there things we could be doing together, to get that school off the Chancellor's watch list. These are just some of the things that I have personally done and that I will do more. And by having representatives of the communities you describe in Borough Hall, in my cabinet, meeting with me every day, I'm going to know what those issues are, I'm going to come up with ways to resolve those those problems. And we're going to do it collectively as a borough. We're not going to be North Shore- South Shore, we're going to be Staten Islanders. Go back to Abraham Lincoln, North and South, Civil War, no. I want one Staten Island that all Staten Islanders are proud to be part of. And an island that overcomes some of the reputation that you described. I often say Staten Island is no longer Georgia 1953, this is Staten Island 2001. We're an important part of this country, we're a diverse borough. I'm proud to say I'm the first candidate who campaigns shopping centers, on ferry boats, and on the trains with people who reflect the diversity of Staten Island, because I want people to know my commitment, and what I stand for, and the kind of office I'm going to run if they choose me as borough president. That is absolutely what I'm committed to. So when my four years or eight years as Borough President are over, I want to see a Staten island where we are one community and a proud communty, black, white and Asian and Latino, all coming together, proud to be members of this borough.

KROESSLER Assemblyman Straniere, we have just time for one more question, and since we are in a library I want to ask you, what are you reading?

STRANIERE Oh, that's a very interesting question. The book I'm reading right now is the book that just came out about El Duque, and Havana and baseball in Cuba, that my son Bret gave me for my birthday. Before that I read The Bible Unearthed, which is a fascinating study of the events that took place in the Bible and putting them in a time frame. When I finish this one I'm going to be reading a book on Woodrow Wilson, a biography that just came out. What I try to do is balance a biography, a historical book and a piece of fiction. Fiction that I like to read are generally stories about New York. I'm always fascinated with books on this city, and as a history major and a political person I enjoy history and biographies. I finished two months ago a marvelous book about the construction of the railroad, the Ambrose book, and I've read most of Ambrose's books about World War II. A wonderful book I read recently, The Flag of Our Fathers, about the Marines putting the flag on Iwo Jima, which I found fascinating. I'm interested in space so I just finised a book on Mars, and the questions about whether there is life on Mars. I read Four Blondes by Candace Bushnell, that was a lot of fun. My wife always yells at me when I go to bookstores because I come home with a bag of books, and they're all over the place. I don't know where to put all the books. And I also like to read books on the New York Yankees. I read a great little vignette, had 15 people each write a chapter on the World Series, on the Yankee-Mets. I read a book on the New York Jets, I'm a Jet fan, which was the history of the old New York Titans for three years before they became the Jets. I subscribe to the History Book Club and the Book of the Month Club, and you can actually save a bit on the books instead of going into Barnes and Noble. I think it's great we have a Barnes and Noble on Staten island, though it's dangerous for me to walk into the store.

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Find what city council district you are in -- and learn more about what's going on there, and who's running.


What is this?
Gotham Gazette's Searchlight on Campaign 2001 offers a comprehensive look at what is being called New York City's most significant campaign season in modern history. (See the left-hand column for an explanation).


Districts of the Week

District 1 -- Lower Manhattan
Whoever wins the election in district 1 will represent immigrant Chinese garment workers, as well as Wall Street traders living in Battery Park City. There are several candidates hoping to be the council's firsts -- the first Asian-American man, the first Asian-American woman, the first gay Rhodes Scholar, the first dot-com guru -- running against some politically well connected opponents. Endorsements and fundraising will play a big role in this race. But voter turnout could be the main determinant of who will next represent district 1 on the council. The key question is how many voters from each community will come out on Election Day.

District 7 -- Washington Heights, Manhattan
The northern tip of Manhattan has become one of the most popular places for new immigrants to call home. The northern tip of Manhattan is a place that today's new immigrants call home. The majority have come from the Dominican Republic, but also from countries in South America, Eastern Europe, and Asia. But it is not just new immigrants that are moving in. Students, artists, and other Manhattanites looking for less expensive rents and larger apartments have also moved north. Ten Democratic candidates are competing for the 15,000 voters expected on primary day. The winner who emerges from a crowded field of candidates will have to balance the needs of the newcomers with those who have lived there for years.

District 16 -- Highbridge, Bronx
The neighborhoods of district 16 are the city's poorest, with the highest rate of unemployment and the lowest median household income. But those who live there also point out that much is positive and stable about the area, thanks in large part to local organizations, not-for-profit agencies, and houses of worship that help hold the neighborhoods together. Each candidate for City Council believes that through his or her connections to churches and local organizations, they can help empower the community toward a better life. Helen Foster, the current council member daughter, will face Michael Benjamin, who has worked as an aide to several government officials and Anthony Curry, a Bronx neighborhood activist.

District 20 -- Northeast Flushing, Queens
This year district 20 may elect the first Asian-American ever to the City Council to an area which now has the second highest number of immigrants from Korea and Taiwan in the city. There are three Asian candidates in the Democratic race who have each drawn big endorsements. Council Speaker Peter Vallone endorsed Terence Park, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi endorsed John Liu, and the New York Times recently endorsed Ethel Chen The campaign has also drawn national and international press coverage

District 25 -- Jackson Heights, Queens
Thirty-seventh Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens is one of the most diverse streets in the world. Little India quickly blends into Little Colombia, with vendors selling Latin American food to Colombians, Peruvians, Ecuadorians, Mexicans, and Uruguayans. And each summer, the Queens Pride Parade fills the same street with rainbow banners. So it is no surprise that this election year the district produced a diverse field of candidates. A number of them, however, found out that getting on the ballot is not an easy task, especially when the Queens Democratic organization sends teams of lawyers to challenge petitions. But five Democratic candidates survived and will face off on September 11.

District 31 -- South East Queens
When a heavy rain hits southeast Queens, many residents in neighborhoods like Springfield Gardens, Laurelton and Rosedale head to the basement with a bucket in hand. And it has been that way for the last 50 years. In the rush to build housing in the area after World War II, developers overlooked the need for storm drains in hopes that the city would eventually build a city-wide sewer system. The plan never materialized and the area has experienced "100-year rains" three times in the last decade. The eight Democrats -- all with little experience overseeing massive infrastructure projects--will try to convince voters that they can finally solve the flooding problems.

District 35 -- Central Brooklyn
The residents in council district 35 have some of the highest incomes in Brooklyn and some of the lowest. They can play in a famous park and a beautiful botanical garden, and live in the city's most crumbling public housing. They can attend one of the four institutions of higher learning in the district, and the worst-scoring high schools in the city. Such juxtapositions are a way of life for a district that includes the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens; mid dle-class African-American communities near Prospect Park; immigrant communities from Haiti, Sierra Leon, Nigeria, and Trinidad, and in Crown Heights, a mix of Hasidic Jews and African-Americans. Seven Democratic candidates are campaigning in hopes that they can bring some kind of unity, and attention, to the area. Their backgrounds are as diverse as the neighborhoods themselves.

District 39 -- Park Slope/Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn
The candidates in district 39 include a chief of staff for an Assemblywoman, the husband of a member of U.S. Congress, a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society, an attorney and president of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, Senator Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, the district manager of Community Board 6, and a labor organizer. This is the race to watch this year. The group of high-profile Democrats have raised a lot of money, almost $1.4 million combined.

District 45 -- East Flatbush
In no place in the city are the effects of campaign finance reform and term limits being felt more than in East Flatbush. The seven Democratic candidates seeking to represent this largely West Indian district come from a number of Caribbean nations. Many have been working on politicians' staffs and serving with community groups, clearly hoping someday to win their own elected office. Term limits has presented them with that opportunity, and they want to make the most of it. But this race that usually draws only about 8,000 voters could be decided by just a few votes. The candidates are attempting to come up with anything that will separate them from the pack.

District 49 -- North Shore, Staten Island
Staten Island has always been somewhat of a suburban stepchild to New York City. When a 1998 survey asked New Yorkers why they go to Staten Island, the top two responses were ''visiting friends and relatives" and ''passing through.'' But in many ways, the north shore has more in common with areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn than with the rest of the Staten Island. The top priority for all the candidates -- Jon Del Giorno, an administrative manager for the Board of Elections, Mike McMahon, an attorney and counsel to current Councilmember Jerome O'Donovan, and Debi Rose, an administrator at the College of Staten Island and the first African-American candidate in Staten Island politics -- is to make sure that the island becomes more than just a turn-around-point for the over one million tourists who ride the free ferry from Manhattan each year.


Register To Vote or Be A Poll Worker

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Links You Can Use

Government sites
NYC Campaign Finance Bd.
NYC Board of Elections
NYC Voter Assistance Comm.
NY City Council
Federal Election Comm.

Local non-partisan sites
SavvyVoter.org
NYVote.com
Votesmart
NYPIRG
NY League of Women Voters
Common Cause New York

National non-partisan sites
Ctr. for Responsive Politics
Common Cause
DemocracyNet
League of Women Voters

NAACP Voter Empowerment
Vote Smart

E-Voting
Election.com

Political consultants
Amer. Assc. of Pol. Consultants

Prime New York

Media
Gotham Gazette
The Empire Page
Campaigns and Elections
Legislative Gazette

Political columnists
Andrea Bernstein
Joe Conason
Mario Cuomo (radio)
Rudy Giuliani (radio)
Clyde Haberman
Nat Hentoff

Joseph Mercurio
Joyce Purnick
John Tierney
Michael Tomasky

Political parties
Conservative
Democratic
Green
Independence
Liberal
Republican
Right to Life
Working Families
Communist
Libertarian
Marijuana Reform
Natural Law Party
Socialist
Taxpayers Party

Political clubs and groups
Blueprint Camp. Finance Reform
DL21C
Central Queens Greens
The Jefferson Democratic Club of Flushing
NY Young Republican Club
Stonewall Democratic Club
Village Independent Dems.


Abbreviations for Party Affiliation

American Dream Party (AMD)
Better Schools Party (BES)
Communist (Com)
Conservative (Con)
Constitution (CST)
Democratic (Dem)
Friends United Party (FUN)
Fusion Party (FUS)
Green (Gre)
Harmony Party (HAR)
Independence (Ind)
Liberal (Lib)
Libertarian (LBT)
Marijuana Reform Party (POT)
Natural Law Party (NLP)
Party of Ethics and Traditions (PET)
Reform Party (Ref)
Republican (Rep)
Right to Life (RTL)
School Choice Party (Sch)
Socialist Workers Party (SWP)
Working Families (Wor)


2001 Election Calendar

June 1 -- Deadline for candidates to join the Campaign Finance program, qualifying for the four-to-one match of contributions.
June 5 - First day for candidates from the eight major parties (Democratic, Republican, Indpendence, Conservative, Liberal, Green, Working Families, and Right to Life) to circulate petitions. Candidates running for City Council must collect the signatures of at least 900 people living in the district for which they are running in order to appear on the Primary ballot. Candidates not running under these eight major parties do not appear on the Primary ballot and have a separate set of deadlines.
July 12 - Deadline for major party candidates to file petitions.
July 10 - First day for unaffiliated candidates to circulate petitions, in order to appear on the ballot in the General Election. They must collect the number of signatures equal to five percent of the total enrolled in that party.
August 7 - Board of Elections announces candidates appearing on the Primary ballot.
August 17 - Last day for non-absentee voters to register to vote in the Primary Election.
August 21 - Deadline for non-major party candidates to file petitions to be included on the General Election ballot.
September 4 - Last day to postmark application for absentee voting in the Primary
September 10 - Last day to personally deliver application for absentee voting in the Primary Last day to postmark absentee ballot for Primary
September 11 - Primary election; Polls open at 6:00a.m. and close at 9:00p.m.; Absentee ballots must be hand-delivered by 9:00 p.m.
September 25 - Runoff Primary election for Mayor, Comptroller and Public Advocate, if needed
October 12 - Last day to for non-absentee voters to register to vote in the General Election
October 30 - Last day to postmark application for absentee voting in the General Election
November 5 - Last day to hand-deliver an application for absentee voting, or to postmark an absentee ballot for the General Election.
November 6 - General Election; polls open at 6:00a.m. and close at 9:00p.m. in NYC; Absentee ballots must be hand-delivered by 9:00 p.m.

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