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Elections

Seeking Unity for a Queens Neighborhood


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NEW YORK — Where I grew up in southwest Queens, roti shops are the local cafes, Hindu religious stores sell saris and the smell of simmering chicken curry is easily chanced upon as you walk the streets.

Whether in South Ozone Park, Ozone Park or Richmond Hill, the influence of Indian cultures from Guyana, Trinidad and Suriname creates unity among the three adjacent neighborhoods.

But others apparently don’t see our community as one that shares common interests and that deserves a chance at supporting its own candidate for City Council.

Every ten years following the decennial census, the city goes through the process of redrawing the district lines for City Council members, in part by looking at demographic changes in the five boroughs.

Under the current proposal from the city’s Districting Commission, my neighborhood would be split by Lefferts Boulevard, leaving District 28 and District 32, including Ozone Park and South Ozone Park, as two distinct areas. Richmond Hill, in turn, would lie in the center of both districts, with Lefferts Boulevard cutting through them.

What is at stake is the community’s power to pick elected officials who will respond to their concerns, advocates say.

“It dilutes the power of residents in the area,” said Richard S. David, executive director of a southern Queens-based nonprofit, the Indo-Caribbean Alliance, in a recent interview.

David said the current district lines proposal “fails” the community by making it more difficult to push for legislation and policy issues if there are multiple elected officials representing a minority split between various districts.

“We are not proposing to have a majority of Indo-Caribbean and South Asians — we just want to keep the community together. We are not going to be the largest but we are going to be bigger than we are now,” he said.

The 2010 census shows that 62 percent of the city’s South Asians live in Queens, while nearly 30,000 residents identified themselves as “Asian Indian” in South Richmond Hill, Ozone Park, and South Ozone Park.

Advocates from community organizations, such as Taking Our Seat, a group dedicated to addressing the causes of voter-dilution among South Asians, say that four census tracts with high South Asian voting populations in Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park are split between four different City Council districts using major roadways such as Lefferts Boulevard and 101st Avenue as dividing lines where the community occupies both sides.

Instead of the South Asian and Indo-Caribbean population in Richmond Hill, Ozone Park, and South Ozone Park voting as one block of constituents, their votes end up as a small margin in four different City Council districts currently represented by Ruben Wills, Erich Ulrich, Elizabeth Crowley and Karen Koslowitz, according to advocates.

Queens residents from the neighborhoods testified in front of the city Districting Commission on Oct. 10, calling for the communities to be drawn into one district, not separated into three different ones.

Shirley Limongi, the spokeswoman for the districting commission, said in a recent interview that hearing testimonies from local residents helps to identify potential “communities of interest.” She noted that some factors that define a community of interest are shared religion, race, language and ethnicity.

At the hearing, a group of South Asian and Indo-Caribbean local residents from southern Queens wearing “Keep Richmond Hill United” t-shirts and holding up posters of a map uniting the two districts testified. Some were angry at the commission, some delivered their stories as immigrants and some called for redrawing the map completely.

Even business leaders were concerned about the proposed Council lines. “We have made a significant presentation, including testimonies, maps, t-shirts, placards — what else do we need to do? Please work with us,” said Vishnu Mahadeo, the president of the Richmond Hill Economic Development Council, to the 15 commissioners, at the hearing.

The splitting of the community affects how easy it is for a person of South Asian descent to run as an elected official, advocates say.

“The reality is in New York people vote along racial lines — if the lines are not drawn where you have the racial advantage, then you have to break that norm where it can be possible,” David said, giving examples of elected officials such as Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who represents Chinatown, and Councilman Peter Koo, who represents Flushing — both major Chinese American enclaves.

Advocates at the hearing also cited the Unity Maps proposed by civil rights groups, showing that the three neighborhoods could be kept as one district if Van Wyck Boulevard was made the dividing line instead of Lefferts Boulevard.

My parents, like so many others, left their native country Guyana but they soon found a neighborhood that became a second home to them — with Trinidadians, Surinamese, Sikhs, and Punjabis all holding a common Indian ancestry.

As a second-generation child of Guyanese immigrants, I see my surrounding community as a cohesive whole. I am a youth leader in my Hindu temple in Ozone Park, I write in a local newspaper called The West Indian, circulated throughout Richmond Hill’s roti shops, and I grew up in my South Ozone Park home, where I still live in today.

For me, the main concern of the independent commission should be to protect and empower ethnic populations within marginalized communities. But if the commission does not unite our South Asian community in one district, it may send a message that this community is not of interest.

Democrats Hope for State Senate Win In Conservative Brooklyn


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NEW YORK — Democrats should technically be able to win the 22nd State Senate District of Brooklyn that stretches from Bay Ridge to Marine Park, because of a voter registration advantage.

But people will tell you that the district is actually very conservative — likely explaining how former NYPD officer Martin Golden, a member of the Republican majority with an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association, has kept his seat since 2002.

This year, Golden is facing probably his strongest challenge in recent memory from Andrew Gounardes, an attorney for Citizens Committee for New York and a former staffer to City Councilman Vincent Gentile (whom Golden beat for his Senate seat).

Because of their voter registration advantage throughout the city, Democrats currently control all but three state Senate seats in the five boroughs. A win in the 22nd district could help them eke out a majority in the Senate or, at the very least, further establish their grip on New York City.

Golden, however, says Gounardes won’t be able to deliver for voters.  “I applaud his decision to run because he wants to make a change,” said Golden, who was recently endorsed by Citizens Union, the good government group and sister organization of Gotham Gazette.

“But he won’t be in the majority, he won’t be in leadership, he won’t be in management,” Golden said of Gounardes. “What matters to New Yorkers are jobs and economic development and the Republican conference has been successful in working with the governor to achieve some major legislative accomplishments.”

But Gounardes says he has all the qualification he needs because he plans on listening to the people of his district. He paints Golden as out-of-touch with the values of a new generation, and he says the district is changing as younger people move in.

“The changing demographics matter. We are attracting more minorities to Bay Ridge who have no prior attachments to Golden,” says Gounardes.

A recent debate at St. Philip's Episcopal Church served to showcase the candidates’ styles — Golden the older statesman, a bit crusty; Gounardes youthful and excitable. They traded barbs in a debate that featured booing, hooting and hissing from the crowd that seemed already firmly decided in their vote.

Gounardes estimates that he and his campaign have knocked on tens of thousands of doors across the district as well as greeted untold numbers of commuters at subway stops most mornings.

Golden, meanwhile, said he wasn’t taking any chances. “Don’t make any mistake, this is an overwhelmingly Democratic city. No matter what happens Obama is going to do better than Romney, so you will see me at the train station every morning knocking on doors,” Golden said.  “We have thousands of signs up, our office is full of people working the phones.”

Gounardes’ says his challenge is to connect Golden to the votes he has taken in Albany. “We have a state Senator who votes with upstate and Long Island Republicans 99.8 percent of the time and against Brooklyn,” Gounardes told the audience at the church.

“He’s an aggressive young man, but he doesn’t bring what he needs to to get things done,” Golden told Gotham Gazette. “His message has fallen on deaf ears and he is not going to be in management.”

Gounardes has also attacked Golden for missing a vote on microstamping — a technology that would stamp bullets fired by automatic handguns so that it would make it easier for police to trace bullets back to the guns that fired them. The technology is a favorite cause of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, among the premier patrons of Senate Republicans.

“Microstamping is a great idea,” said Golden, “but it needs to be a national law to be effective. Illegal guns aren’t made in New York. They come in from other states.”

Golden initially claimed he had a phone call that made him miss the vote. He has refused to tell interviewers what was so pressing.

“I don’t think the phone call had much to do with anything,” Golden told Liz Benjamin in 2010.  “Had I have been on the floor, I would have voted ‘no.’”

Golden has pushed legislation that would increase penalties for those who use guns in crimes but has been steadfast in his opposition to gun control legislation. When asked at the debate earlier this month whether he would support an assault weapons ban during the debate, Golden informed the audience member, “We already have a ban on assault weapons here in New York state.”

He went on to insist that Senate Republicans have put forward numerous proposals to crack down on illegal weapons but Assembly Democrats have refused to vote for them. All of the proposals had to do with increasing penalties for criminals who use guns in the commission of a crime.  

“In 1991, we had 2,600 gun deaths,” Golden said.  “This year it is going to be 500. That is still too many and we gotta do something. The only thing you can do is prosecute the bad guys and put them where they belong.”

This summer, under attack by Gounardes for his absence on the microstamping vote, Golden introduced a piece of legislation that would punish all gang members for community guns. "Gangs are a major problem in our courts and in our community and this is a way of going after those gang members,” Golden said at the time the bill was announced.

Gounardes has also focused on Golden’s voting record on women’s issues. When asked by Gounardes during the debate if he supported giving rape victims emergency contraception Golden seemed to agree, but Gounardes retorted, “Marty, you voted against that bill three times in Albany.”

Golden said at the debate that he voted against the equal pay bill because "it was flawed."

Women’s issues have become a touchpoint in the race after the press learned of an event Golden sponsored on etiquette for women. An advertisement for the event said it would help women learn about “handshakes, posture and feminine deportment.” Golden’s website said women who attended would learn to "sit, stand and walk like a model" and "walk up and down a stair elegantly.”

Gounardes poured it on and Golden cancelled the event. “This just goes to show that Marty Golden just doesn’t get it — either that or he lives in a cave and thinks 'Leave It to Beaver' is a new reality show,” Gounardes staffer Chris McCreight said in a statement at the time.

Golden’s spokesman defended the event until it was cancelled.

Perhaps the most tangible issue for Golden in this race is the reaction labor groups have had to his decision to cross a Communication Workers of America picket line last year.

Metal Lathers & Reinforcing Ironworkers Local 46 president John Skinner said in a statement, "When I heard that, I hoped we would have an opponent we could all support. Fortunately, we found that candidate in Andrew Gounardes. I trust he would never cross our picket line."

Golden said he crossed the picket line because he had to get work done for his constituents — and that  it was the only way to do so. “I crossed a Verizon picket line because my phone had fallen in water. I crossed the line and exchanged the phone. I was out of communication,” he said.

Gounardes has also won major endorsements from the AFL CIO, the IBEW Local 3 and the 32 BJ SEIU, which could all turn out to be a lot of boots on the ground working to turnout votes.

But Golden still has the backing of many trades, including the police and fire unions. He says he is unconcerned about the groups that have backed Gounardes. “I’ve got about 99 percent of the unions,” Golden said. “I’ve got police, fire, 1199, most trade unions. You name it, I got it.”

Despite the number of fronts Gounardes is fighting on, the race may be out of his reach, since he has only about $155,000 in campaign funds to Golden’s $455,000. Senate Democrats are still in debt from their losses in 2010 and have been unable to bolster their candidate.

Meanwhile, Golden enjoys hefty support from Senate Republicans, individual donors as well as a number of business PACs. “We are gonna win this probably with 65 percent of the vote,” Golden said. “We are probably going to raise $300,000 at a fundraiser tonight and we have $400,000 in the bank.”

Gounardes said the race would come down to one issue: accountability. “This is about introducing Marty Golden to the voters,” he said. “Why vote against fair pay, emergency contraception, MTA budgets, school budgets? My job is to tell women he voted against the fair pay act, to tell union members he crossed the picket line. So many people think he is a Democrat but he votes as a conservative.”

As the debate at St. Philip's church wound down, supporters of Gounardes and Golden supporters converged on the front exit, forced to be next to each other after an hour or so of booing, haranguing and hissing at each other about their chosen candidate.

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Image of Golden and Gounardes, at debate in Brooklyn, provided by the Gounardes campaign.

Showdown at Howard Beach


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NEW YORK — It was a showdown at Howard Beach last night between the two candidates vying for the 15th State Senate District seat.

The debate between Democratic incumbent Sen. Joe Addabbo and his Republican challenger, Councilman Erich Ulrich, was mainly substantive, but it had its quirks, too. The packed crowd at Our Lady of Grace parish was a mix of partisans and people who seemed legitimately torn that the two were challenging each other.

Each candidate was given the chance by moderators to defend themselves against negative mailers as well as to condemn mailers sent out by outside groups that attacked both men.

Addabbo defended himself against an attack made by an outside group saying, "I don't love parrots more than kids." Addabbo explained that he had introduced a bill in Albany about parrots at the request of a constituent but that he has two kids who he loves both. Both men decried the negative mailers that have flooded the district from PACS and said they wished they didn't exist.

During the lightning round, both men were asked to describe the other's campaign in one word. "Negative," Addabbo said. Ulrich paused and, with much gravitas, replied, "Dishonest."

Ulrich called the Democrats' control of the Senate in 2008 to 2010 an "abomination." Addabbo attacked Senate Majority leader Sen. Dean Skelos, saying Skelos did not have the people's interests in mind.

"You aren't running against Dean Skelos, you are running against me," Ulrich replied.

Ulrich insisted that he would be independent of the Senate Republicans and be able to deliver for his district, despite the majority's focus on upstate and Long Island issues saying, "They need me. I don't need them."

Read our previous story on the race between Addabbo and Ulrich: Rival Candidates in State Senate Race Say They Won't Toe Party Lines

However, Ulrich has taken $10,000 from Skelos and $234,700 from the Senate Republican Campaign Committee and $250,000 from the New York State Republican Party.

When asked about campaign finance reform, Addabbo touted his work as a councilman reforming NYC's election process. However, he touted his support of casino gaming and his relationship with resorts world throughout the debate. Addabbo has received $10,000 from Genting New York, the force behind the proposed Queens convention center and casino.

Another major difference between the two was displayed when they were asked about The Dream Act. Ulrich said he supported "some version" of the act, while Addabbo said he didn't support it at all because people in his district can't find money to send their kids to college.

Both men also went to town on their differences on gun violence. Ulrich said it was a distortion that he wanted people running around the streets holding "bazookas" and said he felt microstamping was an unproven technology.

"The problem is not with the laws in New York but with the laws in other states," he said, insisting that illegal guns come into the city from states with laxer gun laws.

Addabbo said that he supports gun ownership, but wants an assault rifle ban because no one needs an "AK47" in their closet.

On hydraulic fracturing there were also stark differences. Addabbo painted the gas extraction process as a direct threat to Queens' business. "There have been fatalities," he said. He also joked that he couldn't go to Gino's (a local Italian joint with an excellent caprese salad) if their food was tainted by hydrofracking.

"I'm for clean drinking water, in case you are wondering," Ulrich said, before adding that he thought scientists should be given time to study the process. He also advocated testing the process in an area of New York where there are no major bodies of water.

Last night's debate was co-sponsored by Gotham Gazette's sister organization, Citizens Union, and the Queens Chronicle & The Forum Newsgroup.

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Addabbo and Ulrich posed for photos with local school children after the debate was finished. The two men are seen here just as the photo shoot ended. Photo by David Howard King.



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