Gotham Gazette

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Experience Shapes Race in Inwood

Photo (cc) Courtney Gross

Guillermo Linares, the former City Council member and city immigration commissioner, stood at the corner of Dyckman and Broadway in Inwood last week, glad-handing commuters climbing up from the A train below.

Clad in a crisp pinstriped shirt and red and blue tie, Linares explained why he was the best candidate to represent the 72nd district in the state Assembly -- a seat being vacated by his former rival, Adriano Espaillat.

"Experience does count," said Linares, holding up his left pointer finger. "New is appealing when you bring experience. I am new in Albany, but I bring experience."

Photo (cc) Guillermo Linares. Credit: Courtney Gross

Linares' Democratic competitors, former Assemblymember Nelson Denis, attorney Julissa Gomez, a staffer for Assemblymember Denny Farrell, Gabriela Rosa, and Miguel Estrella, all beg to differ.

They say Linares' record is exactly why he is the wrong person for the job.

The Competition

Denis' face -- a snapshot from his time representing East Harlem in the state Assembly -- is splattered alongside an open-air bus idling by the number 1 train. Denis -- one of Linares' strongest challengers -- simultaneously hands out flyers to passersby.

Moments earlier, Denis slammed Linares for his alliance with Espaillat, who is vacating the seat to run for State Senate. Linares and Espaillat butted heads for more than a decade, but endorsed each other in this year's Democratic primary.

Denis said this is a matter of "political expediency" -- a marriage along ethnic lines. Both Linares and Espaillat are Dominican. Denis is the only Puerto Rican in the race. The majority of the 72nd district is Dominican, candidates said.

"You go negative when there is negative to go on," said Denis. Denis has battered Linares' record from his alliance with Espaillat to his attempt to take over the petition signatures of former Councilmember Miguel Martinez last year. Martinez had been forced out of his council seat and sent to federal prison for conspiracy. Linares was eventually disqualified on a technicality.

Linares describes the newfound alliance with Espaillat differently. "It's important to have unity and unity between the two strongest symbols," said Linares. (Linares says he was the first Dominican elected to public office in the country. Espaillat, he said, was the second.)

Linares also said he was never an ally of Martinez.

Photo (cc) Nelson Denis

Above the rumble of the train, Denis argued he was transparent and independent while serving in the Assembly and would be so again. His competitors claim he doesn't have ties to the district. Denis, 55, said he lived in the 72nd for nearly all of his life -- except between 1991 and 2005 when he was in East Harlem. He is no stranger to campaigning either, having run for City Council in Harlem in 2005 and State Senate in 2004.

Denis said he would take his successes in Harlem -- such as bringing in federal funds via the community reinvestment act -- to Washington Heights and Inwood.

"I did it in East Harlem," said Denis. "These are dramatically successful programs in other parts of the country."

Both Linares and Denis may have experience, said the 35-year-old Gomez while sitting over a cup of cafĂ© con leche in Inwood, but it’s the wrong kind. Gomez said she decided to run for office in April -- unlike her challengers who had been planning their candidacies for several years -- after becoming fed up with the political options, or lack thereof, in Upper Manhattan.

"I never thought I'd be involved in politics, ever," said Gomez. She had just finished charming seniors at Dyckman Houses with her bright, wide smile. While there she distinguished her candidacy by saying she was "a woman, a tenant and an attorney."

"Why are we recycling old politicians?" Gomez asked. A newcomer, Gomez said she is the independent, no strings attached candidate.

But she isn't the only woman to vie for the job.

Photo (cc) Julissa Gomez

Rosa, who has worked for Denny Farrell, the former head of the Democratic Party in Manhattan, and was the former chief of staff for Martinez, is the other. Campaigning at the Albania Beauty Center in Inwood, Rosa spoke about her candidacy with women getting primped and styled.

"I am a women with experience in government," said Rosa. "I've been training over these 10 years."

Now, Rosa says, she is ready.

Miguel Estrella could not be reached for this story. The winner of the Democratic primary will face off against Daniel Russo, an Independent, in November.

Fixing Albany

Following a legislative session monopolized by stalemates and coups, candidates for the 72nd Assembly race are all trying to capitalize on the burgeoning anti-incumbent sentiment sweeping the state, arguing they would make change in Albany.

"Albany has become oblivious and disconnected," said Linares, while driving down Broadway in his Acura SUV. Linares has been endorsed by nearly all the incumbents in the area, including Rep. Charlie Rangel and State Sen. Eric Schneiderman.

Photo (cc) Gabriela Rosa

Farrell and Councilmember Robert Jackson have backed Rosa. Both Denis and Gomez have no major political endorsements.

Linares, Denis, Gomez and Rosa said they would support the disclosure of outside income for state legislators. They also all voiced some support for independent redistricting reform.

Denis said he would lobby the legislature to call for an independent commission to investigate corruption.

"I am the original canary in the coalmine," said Denis of his previous tenure in Albany. "I've been tried and live by my principles."

All of the candidates cited affordable housing and the economy as major issues in the district. Denis said he would urge the state to use pension funds to help finance affordable housing, and would ensure any development in the area had a community benefits agreement attached.

Linares said he would boost the district's economy by making decision makers in Albany aware of its problems and ensure small businesses had access to capital and loans. He declined to give specifics on how he would do that.

"I want the state government to understand the problems of this community," Linares said.

Linares said he would be "on the side of tenants," protect them from harassment, and would focus on safety and education.

Gomez said she would like to start an arbitration panel for small businesses under the threat of eviction. She wants to see the repeal of the Urstadt Law on rent regulation, rescind vacancy decontrol and hold real estate agents accountable so they don't rip off tenants. She also wants to see universal child care.

Rosa said she would hold job fairs and training sessions to educate the area's work force. She also said she would sit down and examine the state's affordable housing laws in an attempt to stop the displacement of residents of the district. She declined to say what programs in particular she would tackle.

"I don't like to say I am going to do something, A, B, C," said Rosa. "I don't like to do things on my own. I will sit down with experts in the community and they will give their input."

In response to the state's looming budget deficit, all of the candidates interviewed for this story said they support a progressive tax on the state's wealthiest residents. Rosa was the only candidate to pledge support for the failed soda tax. All the candidates said they would be open to taxing out of state hedge fund managers.

Linares, Denis, Gomez and Rosa all said they support same-sex marriage (Estrella reportedly doesn't) and increasing the number of charter schools in the district.

In the money race, the most recent filing for Linares reveals he has $22,018 on hand. According to the 11-day, pre-primary report, Denis leads with $30,739, Gomez has $12,470 and Rosa has $2,307.

Fox and Hevesi Face Off in Queens

Photo (cc) Department of Parks and Recreation. Juniper Valley Park in the 28th Assembly District in Queens.

"Who's Running for What" mistakenly listed Republican Aleksander Powietrzynski as having been disqualified. He remains on the November ballot as a candidate for Assembly from the 28th district

Amid pervasive anti-incumbent sentiment at both the state and national levels this year, the fight for Queens District 28 is unofficially officially on.

Elected in a 2005 special election, incumbent Democrat Andrew Hevesi faces a challenge in the upcoming Democratic primary from attorney Joe Fox. The district covers the Queens neighborhoods of Rego Park, Forest Hills, Middle Village and Glendale.

campaign logo

Republican Aleksander Powietrzynski will also run in the November general election.

District Woes

Home to three major shopping plazas including the Queens Center Mall, the central Queens district has faced issues ranging from congestion to health care in the past few years.

Since former Gov. George Pataki's 2006 initiative to dramatically downsize New York City's hospital industry, three hospitals in City Council district 29 (which includes neighborhoods in Assembly district 28) have closed over the past few years, leaving only one open to the entire district. Though Hevesi sponsored the "hospital closure planning act," or legislation designed to "minimize the healthcare impact of a hospital closure among the surrounding community," Fox charges that "the silence of local legislators"in the face of hospital closures is “reprehensible.”

"We lost three hospitals and we’re left with one hospital with 220 beds. If you do the math, we have 220 beds for 126,000 people in this assembly district. That ranks us between Jordan and Nigeria for the number of hospital beds per person," Fox said. Parkway Hospital -- formerly LaGuardia Hospital -- in Forest Hills was the first in the district slated to close in 2008. After it shut its doors in 2009, St. John’s Hospital and Mary Immaculate followed, leaving what Parkway spokesperson Fred Stewart called a "health care crisis in the borough."

The New Guy

At his headquarters on Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills, Fox points to the slogan, “Real life experience” emblazoned on his campaign poster. “I don’t need a soundbite,” he says. “It says it all there.”

A resident of Forest Hills for 30 years, Fox touts his experience in "good government," working for two years in Albany serving as counsel to the Consumer Affairs Committee. He subsequently served as a legislative attorney in the city’s Office for Economic Development during the Koch administration, where he drafted legislation designed to create jobs and expand the city’s economy. For the past 20 years, he has worked as an attorney for a private practice in midtown, handling real estate and bankruptcy cases. He has lived in Forest Hills as both homeowner and renter, and is a member of the local Community Board 6.

Photo (cc) Joe Fox courtesy of the Fox campaign

As one of the earliest supporters of the New York Uprising good government pledges, former Mayor Ed Koch praised Fox, saying, “This year, voters are counting on candidates to commit to specific reforms in advance, as Joe has done.” With support from the group New York Uprising (led by Koch, Citizens Union, the sister organization to Gotham Gazette's publisher, and New York Civic), Fox says “My whole campaign is based on changing Albany into a functioning government that represents the people of the state of New York.”

Apart from nonpartisan control of the redistricting process, the pledge also encourages ethics oversight and enforcement, as well as a “balanced budget.”

“I remember Albany when it was much more functional, when other states looked to us as an example of how things should be done,” Fox said. “And we’ll be back there, but it’s gonna take some changes to do that.”

Running Against the Record

Hevesi too is a supporter of change in Albany, a spokesperson said. He, too, has signed the New York Uprising Pledge and supported the Ethics Reform bill passed by the legislature but vetoed by Gov. David Paterson this year. He also has cosponsored the Valesky-Gianaris Redistricting Bill, which creates a citizen redistricting commission.

Hevesi declined to speak with a reporter for this article. His spokesperson Doug Forand said that during his years in Albany, Hevesi has pioneered a wide variety of environmental and energy policies, including the Power for Jobs and Green New York programs. He was named chairman of the Assembly’s Subcommittee on Renewable Energy in 2008.

Creating “green legislation” to create job growth and expand alternative energy industries is a “critical area of growth” for both the state and the country, Forand says. “This is going to be a big growth industry in the country and in New York, that’s why he’s been pushing legislation.”

More recently, Hevesi introduced legislation to address complaints of a “stink train,” an open-air freight waste container spreading “noxious fumes” in the district’s Middle Village and Glendale areas. He also sponsored a bill to make multiple bike theft a felony to curtail theft and the growth of “chop shops,” said Forand. The Assemblyman also sponsored a bill directing the Board of Elections to print voting materials in Russian, and another to require billing information be printed in large font for the elderly or visually impaired.

Photo Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi. Credit: State Assembly

Despite political controversy surrounding his father, former state comptroller Alan Hevesi, as well as suspicions that his 2005 seat was held vacant as a political favor, Hevesi is said to be optimistic about his bid for re-election.

“The people of this district are going to judge Andy on what he has done, not on whatever they think Alan did,” says Forand. “If somebody wants to try to use an issue of family to attack a candidate, voters are going to respond negatively.”

Forand says that while there seems a very obvious “general concern” with Albany, there has been no sense of anti-incumbency so far in the district. He adds that while the Assemblyman was well aware of such sentiment, “the response so far has been better than we expected.”

Garnering Green

According to the July 2010 filings with the board of elections Hevesi raised the most of the three candidates, at $59,323. His largest contributions -- apart from $3,800 from his father -- came from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s Friends of Silver. United Healthcare Workers East, the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolence Association were among his top union contributors.

Fox raised the second most of the three candidates at $54,123. His single largest contribution, topping almost $15,000, came from his brother, Sheldon Fox. His largest corporate contribution came from a law firm in Woodbury.

Powietrzynski raised $2,316, the majority of which came from individual contributions.

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.

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