It would be hard to imagine two political contests more diametrically opposed than the two Special Election races in New York City on February 20. While the Brooklyn race has captured the most press attention with its unwieldy crowd of candidates, complicated ethnic calculations, and laundry list of issues, the Staten Island contest is fairly straightforward.
The election to fill the council seat in the 51st district presents only two candidates -- one Democrat and one Republican, even though under city law, the ballot for the special election will not identify either candidate as such. And both candidates agree that one issue -- overdevelopment and its effects on the area -- overshadows any and all other topics.
In many respects, the 51st represents an anomaly in New York. It is overwhelmingly white, resembles the suburbs more than the city and is one of only three City Council districts represented by a Republican.
Vincent Ignizio hopes to continue that tradition. Currently a member of the State Assembly, he previously worked as chief of staff to Andrew Lanza and has held other staff positions at Staten Island. He said he wants to continue in the tradition of other Staten Island Republicans, such as City Council Minority Leader James Oddo and U.S. Representative Vito Fossella. His opponent, Manny Innamorato, thinks it is time for a change.
EFFECTS OF THE BOOM
Each of the two candidates argues that he is best equipped to deal with the problems created by the area’s population and building boom. Both offer a number of proposals to deal with it. Manny Innamorato would like to see the establishment of a Staten Island Planning Commission that “would be more sensitive and more focused” than the city planning commission. He would seek a number of changes in the way the city issues building permits and questions the granting of some variances that have allowed for new constructions, some of its in inappropriate places or not in keeping with the surrounding community.
Vincent Ignizio points to his work on down zoning as a City Council aide. Zoning for less density, he said, is “a major initiative for curbing overdevelopment” that has sharply reduced the umber of new housing permits issued on Staten Island.
Traffic is inextricably linked with all the new housing. “My commuters have the longest commute in the country for the shortest distance,” Vincent Ignizio said. To provide some relief, he would work for the city and state to arrange ferry service between the South Shore and lower Manhattan. Manny Innamorato would like to see the area’s street completed; much of the planned street grid he says has never been built.
Crowding in schools is also a byproduct of all the new homes, Vincent Ignizio said. He is working with Mayor Michael Bloomberg to develop a new school complex, with grades kindergarten through 12 , on the South Shore.
While development remains at the core of his campaign, Manny Innamorato has also been expressing concern about property taxes. For years, the city property tax rate for homeowners was reasonable, but he said “we’re starting to see that our numbers are creeping up.” If that continues, he worries that people will start to leave the city for New Jersey” and, Innamorato said, that’s the last thing we want to see.”
Aside from the development debate, one of the biggest controversies in the race has been Emanuele Innamorato’s name. The candidate sought to appear on the ballot as Manny Innamorato, the name by which he says he has been known since high school. When the Board of Elections rebuffed his bid, the candidate took the issue to court. There a state Supreme Court judge ruled in his favor, declaring the ballot should be changed. The Staten Island Advance reported, it will cost the Board of Election $35,000 to make the switch.
In his campaign, Ignizio points to his accomplishments as a City Council aide, helping to bring, preserve open space and limit new construction on Staten Island. He said that as a council aide he worked on the first applications for down zoning and will continue to pursue such policies as a council member.
Innamorato is skeptical. During 30 years of Republican leadership, he said, “overdevelopment has gotten worse. Traffic has gotten worse.” Republicans only acted, he said, when problems reached a “fever pitch.”
So far both candidates have lined up endorsements from members of their party, with Michael Bloomberg and Staten Island Republicans backing Ignizio and Senator Charles Schumer supporting Innamorato. The Independence Party and Working Families Party also support the Democrat. With more than $58,000, Ignizio has raised three times the amount that Manny Innamorato has.
Vincent Ignizio’s campaign surprises some who question why a politicians would want to give up a seat in the State Assembly -- which, dysfunctional or not, is virtually a lifetime tenure -- for a term-limited seat on City Council. Ignizio said he thinks he could do more for his community on the City Council. Being a minority member of the City Council, even when the margin is 48 Democrats to three Republicans, is not the same as being a Republican in the State Assembly, according to Ignizio. “The City Council is a much more progressive body and a much more bipartisan body that the State Assembly,” he said.
A victory by Vincent Ignizio would have an interesting ripple effect. If he wins, there will almost certainly be yet another special election, that one to fill his seat in the legislature.
Vincent Ignizio: A longtime resident of Staten Island’s south shore, Ignizio worked for City Council and served as chief of staff for Andrew Lanza, whose seat he now hopes to fill. He has been a member of the New York State Assembly since 2005. He also serves as chair of Richmond County Republican Party.
Emanuele “Manny” Innamorato: A lifelong resident of Staten Island Inamorato formerly worked for the New York City Department of Transportation. He is now director of technology for the city of Yonkers. Innamorato ran against Vincent Ignizio for the State Assembly in 2004.