Gotham Gazette

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GOP County Chair vs Progressive Educator as Republicans Try to Hold Lone City Council Seat in Queens

Gotham Gazette: Felicia Singh and Joann Ariola

l-r: Felicia Singh and Joann Ariola

This fall, residents of City Council District 32 in Queens will vote to choose their next City Council member in one of the few competitive general election races across the city. District 32 is the only remaining district in Queens currently represented by a Republican, but long-time Council Member Eric Ulrich is term-limited out of office, creating a wide open race to replace him. Ulrich is currently one of only three Republican members in the 51-seat City Council, and the only one outside Staten Island.

The race is largely a two-way contest between Democratic nominee Felicia Singh, a far left progressive candidate representative of growing diverse communities, and Republican nominee Joann Ariola, the conservative borough party chair and an ardent Trump supporter, setting up an ideological clash that is drawing attention from political players across the borough and city.

A third candidate, independent Kenichi Wilson, is also on the ballot but is not running a campaign of any note. 

District 32 encompasses parts of Southeast Queens and includes the western Rockaway peninsula. It covers the neighborhoods of Belle Harbor, Breezy Point, Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Lindenwood, Neponsit, Ozone Park, Richmond Hill, Rockaway Park, Roxbury, South Ozone Park, West Hamilton Beach and Woodhaven.

In Queens Community District 10, which encompasses the northern part of District 32, about 45% of residents are foreign born, according to an analysis of American Community Survey data by the Department of City Planning; 21.5% of residents are white, 25.8% Hispanic, 23.7% Asian, and 14.1% Black. In the southern half, which falls in Queens Community District 14 and covers the Rockaway peninsula, about 26.7% of residents are foreign born; 34.2% are white, 35.8 are Black, 23.9% are Hispanic, and 3.8% are Asian.

Ulrich originally won the seat in a special election in 2009 at 24 years old, and has held it through three more elections despite Democrats outnumbering Republicans there and the city becoming much more heavily Democratic. District 32 had 97,851 registered voters in total as of February 21, according to Board of Elections data, about 54,764 of whom were registered Democrats, 17,826 registered Republicans, and 21,276 unaffiliated with any political party. 

But voter turnout has tended to be low in races for the Council seat. Only 10,347 Democrats and 2,900 Republicans voted in the June primaries this year. The largely residential district is also ideologically split, with the northern part home to a diverse array of voters who lean Democratic and the southern half home to largely white voters who lean more Republican.

Ulrich has governed as a more moderate Republican elected official than many others in the city or state, often voting with Democratic majorities. He was once a “Never Trump” Republican critical of Donald Trump as a 2016 candidate and then president, though he did say he would vote for him last year. He has endorsed Ariola to succeed him, while also backing Democrat Eric Adams in the mayoral race over Republican nominee Curtis Sliwa.

Among the more prominent issues that City Council candidates have raised during the race are public safety and transportation (the district is also known as a transit desert, with limited access to mass transportation options). The pandemic has exacerbated local “quality of life” issues, strained public health, disrupted small businesses, and increased unemployment.

In the June primaries, Singh and Ariola beat out their competitors to receive their respective party nominations for the general election. Singh won the Democratic primary with 52.5% of the vote after three rounds of ranked choice-voting eliminations, and Ariola won the Republican primary with 82% of the vote of first-choice tallies, according to official results from the New York City Board of Elections

Felicia Singh
Singh, a high school and middle school teacher, is running on a platform that prioritizes education and environmental justice. She has served in the Peace Corps, worked as Vice President of Our Neighbors Civic Association of Ozone Park, and was most recently the Queens Borough Director of Amplify Her, a group that provides financial and logistical support to female candidates for office.

She has previously been elected to serve as a member of Assembly District 23’s County Committee and also worked on the Southeast Queens Complete Count Committee for the 2020 U.S. Census.

If victorious, Singh would be among the first South Asian people elected to the City Council, along with Shekar Krishnan in District 25 and Shahana Hanif in District 39, both of whom are expected to easily win those seats in the general after prevailing in their primaries. 

“Going into the general's about really making sure our community understands what's at stake here,” Singh said in a phone interview. “For the last 12 years, we've been under-resourced, we've been underfunded and our communities have changed drastically...Our communities of color really have been isolated and forgotten over the last 12 years.”

“We could have another eight years of the same type of leadership or we could have something different, something more,” she added. 

Singh has a lengthy education platform that prioritizes anti-racist teaching. It covers early childhood education, K-12, and beyond. She has called for an expansion of 3-K – which is already underway citywide – and is pushing for pay equity for 3-K and pre-K teachers. She wants to ban student suspensions and expulsions, opting instead for restorative justice practices, and wants free quality childcare for essential workers and working families. 

She has promised to develop and implement an anti-racist curriculum for K-12 schools and students, with an emphasis on building safe spaces for students who identify as LGBTQ+, undocumented students, and students of color. She aims to reduce class sizes in District 32’s schools, while ensuring that schools are police and metal-detector free. And she plans to reallocate resources to increase counselor funding and build restorative school spaces. 

Singh has called for greater investments in students with disabilities, with enhanced reporting requirements for schools, priority for hiring bilingual school psychologists and expanding dual-language programs to include more Bengali, Chinese and Tagalog programs. She has also pushed for dedicated College and Career Readiness (CCR) teams for 10-12 graders, an initiative that would require funding and legislation.

Singh also supports the CUNY Rising Alliance’s “New Deal for CUNY,” which would, among other things, provide free undergraduate tuition to CUNY, increase faculty size by 5,000 positions, give part-time and adjunct staff comparable pay to full-time staff, increase the number of mental health counselors and academic advisors, and invest in school repair and construction. Though most CUNY-related policy would need to be passed at the state level, the City Council plays a role in oversight of the system and can help achieve those measures, while also influencing city budget allocations toward the university, particularly its community colleges. 

Echoing progressives across the city, Singh has called for diverting funds from the NYPD towards community needs, unlike her main opponent, Ariola. “Are we going to feel safe if the only thing my opponent is promising is a police officer on every corner? No!” she said.

Taking a broader view of public safety, she said the city needs to invest in people who are housing insecure, who lack access to adequate health care or good schools and well-paying jobs. “When you're able to get money in your pocket and food on the table, that makes you feel safe. When you're able to keep your home, that makes you feel safe. When you are able to have access to health care at a city public hospital, that keeps you safe,” she said.  

Among Singh’s legislative priorities is a detailed  “Climate Change and Environmental Resiliency” plan that focuses on education and service learning, STEM programs to teach children about energy, heat and food equity, and the creation of school gardens to help students interact with their environments.

Singh wants to create an integrated plan to combat climate change and increase environmental resiliency and would push the city to do so by bringing city agencies, scientists, community leaders, and youth and community-based organizations together. She also calls for the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) to remain public and fully-funded in order to provide upgrades like electric stoves, solar power, and community gardens. 

Singh believes that her plan will not only fight climate change but create new jobs in the renewable energy, local manufacturing hubs, public waste management, and public land development sectors. She has also pushed for reinvesting in curbside composting pickup and expanding organic waste processing facilities.

Her climate agenda also includes animal rights, and she has promised to create a mitigation plan that will adapt protective strategies to reduce risk to marine life and animals, continue support for the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in District 32, allocate funding to maintain independent animal rescue organizations and overall prevent the exploitation of animals in District 32 by banning horse carriages and the sale of fur fashion. 

Singh has racked up a series of endorsements for her campaign from elected officials including State Senator Jessica Ramos, Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi, Queen Borough President Donovan Richards, former District 22 Council Member Costa Constantinides, former gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout. She has also been backed by progressive organizations, Democratic clubs, and labor unions including the Working Families Party, Sunrise Movement, the #LaborStrong2021 union coalition, Tenants PAC, Citizen Action of New York, New York Progressive Action Network, New York Communities for Change, New York Immigration Coalition, among several others. 

Singh is hoping that broad support will help her flip District 32, particularly by expanding the electorate and encouraging greater turnout from Democrats. She said her campaign has focused on outreach to residents who speak a language other than English, for whom participation in the political process has been difficult for years without adequate language access. “We have communities here who speak Chinese, who speak Mandarin, who speak Spanish, who speak Punjabi, and no one has ever translated material for them to participate in the electoral process,” she said. 

Thus far through the primary and general elections, Singh has raised $45,451 in private funds and has received $233,754 in public funds from 774 contributors and two intermediaries. She has spent $165,911 on her campaign, leaving her $113,294 to spend on the general election. 

Joann Ariola
“The simple answer to why I'm running is to serve people,” said Ariola, the Queens GOP chair, in a phone interview. 

Ariola is a civic leader in Queens with 30 years of experience, having worked in intergovernmental affairs for the Giulani and Bloomberg administrations and as chief of staff and press secretary to members of the New York City Council from Brooklyn and Queens. She is currently director of intergovernmental affairs for the MediSys Health Network, and serves as the President of the Howard Beach Lindenwood Civic Association and a member of Community Board 10. And she is now the chair of the Queens County Republican Party.

“I've worked on issues and concerns that are important to people who live here for years, whether it's been airport noise, or transportation, parks or resiliency issues or policing or public safety or quality of life,” she said, insisting that her strength lies in being able to create relationships throughout the district and across party lines. 

Above all, Ariola’s top priorities are public safety and quality of life. She is an ardent supporter of the neighborhood policing program instituted by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, which places the equivalent of dedicated beat officers in precincts across the city. Ariola wants to invest more funds in the program, not fewer, and expand its work with young people in the community.

“These are wonderful programs that should continue, because they foster good positive relationships between the NYPD and our community residents,” she said. She has called for greater funding into “training good police” that are sensitive to community needs.

Ariola also wants to reinstate the NYPD’s plainclothes “anti-crime” unit to crack down on illegal guns. The unit, primarily an anti-gang force, was disbanded by the police commissioner last year over its history of complaints of abuse of power, with its responsibilities shifted to local precincts. Ariola’s poisitons have earned her the endorsement of the NYPD Police Benevolent Association (PBA), the NYPD Sergeants’ Benevolent Association (SBA), the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA), the New York State Supreme Court Officers’ Association, the New York State Court Officers’ Association, and more, along with Ulrich.

Ariola said she wants to promote the interests of homeowners in the mostly residential district. “They're worried about what they pay in taxes and if their taxes are being wisely used to maintain and modernize our infrastructure like schools, roads, bridges and the like,” she said. 

She has also called for relief in the form of incentives and grants for small businesses affected by the pandemic. “I think that the businesses throughout the district are concerned that the next city council member will have the knowledge and the wherewithal to really start a catalyst for economic recovery from the pandemic for them,” she said. Besides economic growth, Ariola has pledged to improve public health access, another need accentuated by Covid-19, and has demanded more COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites for the district.

In a district that was hammered by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, resiliency is naturally a salient issue and Ariola cites her experience in working on several resiliency-focused committees over the years. She said she would introduce legislation as a Council member to promote resilience as well as push for investments in climate-resistant infrastructure. 

Ariola has also called for improving all modes of transportation in the district, with an emphasis on ferry services. She aims to maintain Jamaica Bay’s safety and cleanliness while continuing the district’s long-lasting recovery from Hurricane Sandy.

What sets District 32 apart, Ariola said, is that its residents have more practical concerns than political ones. It’s why she said the district has had both Democrats and Republicans represent it and also why she’s hoping to appeal across party lines in the general election. “It's not my intention to represent a Republican or Democrat, someone who's far to the right or far to the left,” she said. “I would be representing the constituents, the people who live here.”

In the primary and general combined, Ariola has received $188,374 in public funds and raised $31,086 in private funds from 249 contributors. She has spent $94,915 on her campaign thus far, leaving her with $124,545 to spend on the general election, far more than any other candidate in the race. 

Kenichi Wilson
Wilson is running as an independent candidate, on the Community First party line. According to his Facebook page, Wilson created the party line after switching his party affiliation from Republican to Democratic. Although Wilson lacks an operating campaign website, he shared some key aspects of his background and campaign with The Wave, a newspaper in Rockaway. 

According to his election announcement, Wilson started volunteering within District 32 at the early age of 17, joining the NYPD’s 102 precinct auxiliary unit. He is also a member of the Woodhaven-Richmond Hill Volunteer Ambulance Corps. He is currently the Chairman of Community Board 9.

When discussing his experience, Wilson highlights how he is the only candidate running who already has experience with city agencies, predicting the future of his election as “basically turn-key.” Wilson particularly prioritizes transportation, suggesting the reactivation of the Rockaway Beach Rail Line in order to better connect Rockaway to Queens and the other boroughs. His plans for the rail line include studies amongst those who live along the rail line, in order to find a middle ground between homeowners and commuters.

In his campaign announcement, Wilson discussed his priorities within District 32, which include public safety, education and small businesses. “I’m big on small business. We need to create funds and programs to lessen the burden of being in business,” he said. His plan includes supporting business improvement districts to avoid fines and penalties from city regulations, along with making commercial districts more attractive in order to encourage businesses to put down roots in District 32. Wilson says his 33 years of business management experience will allow him to correctly fund the district in order for it to thrive. 

In his education plan, Wilson touts his previous assistance in getting security cameras, STEM and after school programs. He says he is a big believer of the “broken windows theory” of policing, which posits that police should crack down on low-level offenses or risk them leading to more severe crime. Wilson sees it as a quality of life issue, promising to work hard to abate these problems.  

During his interview with The Wave, Wilson criticized the newer Select Bus Service (SBS) lines, which he claims take up an extra car lane and contribute to congestion. He also said that he does not think the new lowered speed limit was particularly helpful either, citing aggressive drivers.

“It takes a certain type of person to be able to gain trust and work with an agency to get things done,” Wilson said. He indicates that he is the certain type of person the residents of District 32 are looking for in The Wave article.

Wilson has raised $17,612 in private funds and has received $89,931 in public funds from 232 contributors. Thus far, he has spent $33,926, leaving him with $73,617 to spend while campaigning as the third party candidate in the general election.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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