Gotham Gazette

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In Astoria, the Field Narrows

Photo by Actor212
The two candidates seeking to represent Astoria in the State Assembly disagree over what the district needs and who can better serve it.

UPDATE: More than a week after this story was posted, John Ciafone was knocked off the Democratic primary ballot, leaving Arvella Simotas unopposed. Ciafone told Queens newspapers he was still considering running against Simotas as a Republican in the general election

After 10 years, Michael Gianaris is leaving the State Assembly to make a bid for the State Senate. Only two candidates, though, have decided to seek the job -- despite the rarity of open Assembly seats in New York.

At first the race to represent the 36th Assembly District, which is anchored in Astoria, had the potential to be highly contentious. There were three candidates, no incumbent and the threat of low voter turnout, which could slim the victory margin.

Then last month, after the filing deadline to get on the ballot, one of the leading contenders, child advocacy lawyer Jeremiah Frei-Pearson, dropped out, telling supporters he did not want to run a negative campaign against fellow Democrat Aravella Simotas.

"It was becoming very clear that it wasn't going to be a three-way race. In order for [Frei-Pearson] to win, he would have to go all-out negative" against Simotas, spokesman Mike Murphy said. (Simotas' spokesman also is named Mike Murphy.)

Because Frei-Pearson and Simotas have similar stands on the issues, Frei-Pearson did not want to take votes from her that might allow for the third and more conservative candidate, John Ciafone, to win, Murphy said.

Michael Reich, the executive secretary for the Queens Democratic Party, said although the group endorsed Simotas, they were impressed with Frei-Pearson's campaign.

"We have been talking to him all along. He wanted to demonstrate to us his ability to put together a campaign," Reich said. "We look forward to working with him in the future."

Reich added no deal was made with Frei-Pearson in exchange for his withdrawal.

Now, with Frei-Pearson out of contention, Simotas is off to fight round one, of what will likely be two, with Ciafone.

Hospitals and Taxes

Although both remaining candidates agree that corruption in Albany is stifling efforts to resolve issues facing the 36th Assembly District, each has a different idea of what the district's pressing problems are.

Simotas, a 31-year-old litigator, has been living in Astoria since her family emigrated from Greece when she was six months old. She said she grew up working in her parents' deli, attended local public schools and continued to live in Astoria while earning her bachelor's and law degrees at Fordham University.

Simotas said because of her personal history and many years in Astoria, she knows what the community needs. And, she added, it needs hospitals.

With three hospital closures in Queens in recent years, the area is having a "health care crisis," Simotas said. "Ensuring that we have expanded access to health care services is something I really want to fight for."

In addition, she said, citing her parents' difficulty in getting coverage when they ran their deli, she would look into providing health insurance options for small business owners.

Also an attorney, Ciafone runs his own general practice in Astoria. He was born and raised in Queens and attended New York University and St. John's School of Law. Ciafone said from his real estate cases and speaking to neighbors, what local residents are most frustrated with is the rising cost of living.

Astoria in particular and Queens in general, have been attracting new residents over the years, specifically young professionals and immigrants, because of its relatively low housing costs.

But Ciafone said increasing rents and the shutting down of the W train earlier this summer could reverse that trend.

Albany is "overtaxing," he said. "Everyone is complaining -- tenants, landlords businesses. They're complaining that they're not making it. We have to help them make it. Otherwise we're going to lose these people to other parts of the city or other parts of the country."

Additionally, Ciafone often points out that a major difference between him and Simotas are their positions on same-sex marriage, which she supports and he opposes.

Aravella Simotas
Aravella Simotas is a lifelong Astoria resident who has been endorsed by the Queens Democratic Party.

Gays and lesbians "have a right to civil union and civil rights," he said. "I'm a Catholic, and my position is based on Catholicism and it's based on essentially every religious group -- like Muslim or Hindu -- that don’t recognize same-sex marriage."

Ciafone is not worried about being the more conservative candidate, he views it as an asset. "Even with the diversity of this neighborhood," he said, Astoria "is a moderately conservative area."

Preparing for the Job

Simotas, who serves on Queens Community Board 1, said she is the more qualified candidate because she has experience working alongside lawmakers. Specifically, as a board member with the United Community Civic Association, Simotas helped organize community meetings, rallies and news conferences in a campaign with Gianaris to curb construction of highly polluting power plants in Astoria. Gianaris has endorsed her.

"In order to work with 149 other members of the Assembly and 52 senators, you have to be someone who can build coalitions, you have to be respected, and you have to be someone who has worked with them before," she said. "That way, if elected, I can hit the ground running when I get to Albany."

Ciafone said he is in an uphill battle against Simotas, who, he said, "was groomed for the position."

Unlike Simotas, "I have a record of serving the community via elected office. [She] was appointed to everything [she] had," said the 40-year-old. He was elected to Community School Board 30 and served as treasurer and then president.

John Ciafone
Assembly candidate John Ciafone is a candidate in the Democratic primary but he says if he loses that contest he wil run again as a Republicanin November.

Ciafone ran against Peter Vallone Jr. for City Council in 2002 in both the primary and general elections.

"Back then we did pretty good, even though we were outspent and out organized. We didn't have the support of the machine," Ciafone said. He finished second behind Vallone, who won both elections.

Just as in 2002, Ciafone intends to pursue his quest for office in November if he loses the Democratic primary to Simotas. In 2002, he challenged Vallone on the Libertarian ticket. This time, he will run on the Republican, Independence and Conservative party lines.

Ciafone said it's an odd arrangement, but necessary because he is working against the "Democratic machine."

However, his campaign faces other hurdles. He claims residency at three addresses, but only one -- his mother’s home -- is within the 36th district. Furthermore, his voter registration is in the 30th Assembly District, where he lives with his wife and children.

As of July 26, Ciafone said he has yet to file financial information pertaining to his campaign with the Board of Elections. When asked about contributions, Ciafone said he will fund his own campaign with $100,000.

Simotas, meanwhile, has held a few fundraising events and been going door-to-door to voters, According to what her campaign filed, Simotas has $119,247 in her campaign coffers.

She said she has been enjoying this part of the campaign and attributes it to her upbringing in the community, which encouraged her to be civically involved.

"We always had that benefit in Astoria, the legacy of community engagement," she said.

Moonlighting Council Members

Photo (cc) Tracy O

It pays to be part time.

Just ask Councilmember Oliver Koppell. He made between $107,000 and $210,000 moonlighting as an attorney in 2009 on top of his $112,500 council salary and the $10,000 stipend he gets for chairing the mental health committee.

The coveted City Hall post, after all, is only a part time gig.

Koppell was one of three council members -- Domenic Recchia and Thomas White were the others -- who made more than $100,000 working part-time outside of City Hall last year, according to disclosure forms released by the city Conflicts of Interest Board Tuesday.

Collectively, the three could have made more than $1 million. Outside income is reported to the board in ranges, and it is unclear whether members fell toward the top or the bottom.

To see our full list of outside income, go here.

In total, the council members who served in City Hall last year and were re-elected made at least $533,000 in outside income in 2009. On the other hand, 22 members, including Council Speaker Christine Quinn, made none at all.

As the city Charter Revision Commission contemplates what to put on the ballot this fall, advocates and officials are examining how the city oversees and regulates income at the City Council.

At least one commissioner wants to make the City Council a full time job. As an alternative, advocates have pressed for more disclosure, replacing the ranges with more specific dollar figures -- a measure a number of council members also have expressed support for.

Bringing Home the Bacon

To Koppell, practicing law on the side makes it easier to understand his job at the City Council. He wouldn't want to see any limit on what someone can earn outside of City Hall.

"Even though the council salary is certainly better than it used to be, for someone that has good experience and substantial credentials, it is still quite modest if you want to have a family and send kids to college," said Koppell. "It really is a barrier to getting them to serve."

The bare bones council salary is $112,500, but two-thirds of members make more than that. They receive stipends, or lulus, to supplement their salary for holding leadership positions or chairing committees.

On top of his council salary, Recchia gets $18,000 for chairing the finance committee.

Peter A. Koo*
$556,000 - $625,000 or more
Owns a number of pharmacies, interest
Domenic M. Recchia, Jr.
$155,000 - $430,000
Attorney, real estate
Thomas White, Jr.
$115,000 - $370,000
Executive director at a nonproft, real estate, pension and social security
G. Oliver Koppell
$107,000 - $210,000
Attorney, social security, pension, interest

*Members that just joined in January 2010.


Last year, Recchia also made his extra pocket change -- anywhere between $100,000 and $250,000 -- from legal services.

He also raked in at least $55,000 from rental properties in both Vermont and New York.

White moonlights as the executive director of the Queens Village Committee for Mental Health for J-CAP Inc., which pays him between $100,000 and $250,000 annually.

Recchia declined to comment for this story, and White did not return phone calls before deadline. The speaker's office also declined to comment for this story.

Many of those with outside income practice law, but there is the occasional professor (like Jimmy Vacca, who made at least $11,000 at Queens and Monroe colleges) or fundraiser (Eric Ulrich made at least $1,000 raising money for a Queens Church last year).

Many members own additional property. Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito owns four properties in Puerto Rico. Indicted Councilmember Larry Seabrook owns vacant land in South Carolina and Florida.

Disclosing Income

In questionnaires filled out by candidates before the 2009 race, at least 18 current council members said they would support making the City Council a full time job. According to the questionnaires, Inez Dickens opposed it. She made between $15,000 and $120,000 managing real estate in addition to her council salary in 2009.

At least one commissioner at the City Charter Revision Commission wants to capitalize on that so-called support.

"They make $112,000 a year," said Anthony Cassino, a city charter commissioner, who ran for the City Council in 2009 against Koppell. "Most people would kill for a salary like that."

Cassino said making the council a full time job would limit conflict of interest and get officials to concentrate on their work in the district.

Others would scale that proposal back.

In a report to the charter commission released last month, Citizens Union, the sister organization to Gotham Gazette's publisher, urged the commission to increase the disclosure of outside income at the council. They did not go as far as calling for a full-time council.

"If term limits are to continue, it's not fair to ask lawyers and business people to give up their enterprises for eight to 12 years," said Dick Dadey, the executive director of Citizens Union. "But we remain concerned over the potential conflicts that exist if they continue to earn money from outside sources."

Specifically, the report called for revealing the number of hours worked by council members, smaller ranges for income and the disclosure of clients, with some exceptions.

Koppell said he would support similar disclosure requirements.

Currently, council members must disclose if they do make outside income and give a range, which can spread $150,000 intervals. They also must disclose if they are licensed professionals, if they sit on any boards or are members of any political party organizations.

While the charter commission's preliminary report made no mention of outside income as a potential ballot proposal, supporters of more disclosure said that does not mean the issue is completely off the tab

Who Got What: FY2011

Photo (cc) stgermh

When it comes to bringing home the bacon, some City Council members do a lot better than others.

According to an analysis by Gotham Gazette, Councilmember and Finance Committee chair Domenic Recchia sponsored more individual member items than any other council member in this year's budget (more on its approval here). Recchia raked in nearly $1.3 million for nonprofits of his choice.

Recchia was one of four members -- Lewis Fidler, Leroy Comrie and James Oddo are the others -- who topped the million-dollar mark in member items, often referred to as council pork.

At the other end of the spectrum, Elizabeth Crowley garnered the least amount of money with $358,321, falling behind recently indicted Larry Seabrook, who had $362,276. Vincent Gentile, Gale Brewer, Margaret Chin and Helen Foster also got less than $400,000


These figures only include each councilmember's individual youth, aging and discretionary funding. All council members receive the same amount for youth programs and for senior programs. The difference comes in the so-called discretionary funding, which can go to a wide array of nonprofits.

The figures below do not include funding doled out by the speaker's office in consultation with the rest of the council (known as the speaker's pot or list). That pot was nearly $18 million this year, and its programs are often sponsored by one or more members.

When asked yesterday how discretionary money is doled out, Council Speaker Christine Quinn said more experienced members know how to navigate the discretionary funding system more than newer members. So, it's not surprising those that top the list are members of the council's leadership.

If a member wants to fund a program,"you got to ask," Quinn said.

Recchia said his position as finance chair means some member items that benefit the whole city have his name attached.

"A lot of these things are for the city of New York, not for my district," Recchia said. "These are all good programs."

The programs Recchia funded this year include $75,000 for the Brooklyn Arts Council and $15,000 for the Kings Highway Beautification Association to clean graffiti.

The numbers below are about 19 percent of the council's total discretionary funding, which is valued at about $165 million in fiscal year 2011. The vast majority of that, about $115 million, goes to citywide initiatives, such as combating domestic violence or adult literacy programs, among many others. This does not include another $231.6 million the council used to restore programs cut by the mayor.

Domenic M. Recchia, Jr. $1,371,839
Lewis A. Fidler $1,244,089
Leroy G. Comrie, Jr. $1,118,121
James S. Oddo $1,089,131
Joel Rivera $998,901
Peter F. Vallone, Jr. $978,321
Inez E. Dickens $940,464
Erik Martin Dilan $881,339
Annabel Palma $857,651
Christine C. Quinn $852,464
James Vacca $712,651
Robert Jackson $710,464
Thomas White, Jr. $703,571
Vincent M. Ignizio $702,131
Maria Del Carmen Arroyo $683,526
Albert Vann $682,839
Stephen T. Levin $672,339
Deborah L. Rose $672,130
Diana Reyna $651,839
Jessica S. Lappin $612,664
Melissa Mark-Viverito $592,964
James Sanders, Jr. $578,321
Eric A. Ulrich $578,321
Mathieu Eugene $577,339
Michael C. Nelson $577,339
James F. Gennaro $543,321
Sara M. Gonzalez $539,839
Mark S. Weprin $534,321
Daniel Dromm $528,321
Julissa Ferreras $528,321
Karen Koslowitz $528,321
James G. Van Bramer $528,321
David G. Greenfield $502,339
Darlene Mealy $502,339
Fernando Cabrera $498,151
Letitia James $487,339
Jumaane D. Williams $477,339
Ydanis A. Rodriguez $460,464
G. Oliver Koppell $457,651
Daniel R. Garodnick $453,114
Brad S. Lander $427,339
Peter A. Koo $416,321
Daniel J. Halloran III $415,321
Charles Barron $414,703
Rosie Mendez $414,664
Vincent J. Gentile $377,339
Gale A. Brewer $367,964
Margaret S. Chin $364,464
Helen D. Foster $362,651
Larry B. Seabrook $362,276
Elizabeth S. Crowley $358,321

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