Gary Ackerman still drives the same 1966 Plymouth
Valiant that he took to DC as a first-year Congressman.
Most people know
Gary Ackerman as a Congressman.
Some might even know him as the founder of the Queens Tribune.
But few people know that Gary Ackerman was first, before anything else,
a teacher and that now, 35 years later, he is still a teacher.
“I think that if you are in government or in public service, there
should be a responsibility to get back to your constituents and teach
them what you have learned.” Ackerman said.
Ackerman considers teaching to be one of the noble professions.
Ackerman took his desire to help others – and
his sense of humor – to Ethiopia to help fight hunger.
Although he only
taught for several years, it was a defining moment in his life.
After all it was during his years teaching seventh and eighth graders
in Queens that he began to wear his famous white carnation – a
fresh one everyday, attached to his lapel.
On a day like any other, Ackerman decided to buy a boutonniere and wear
it to school. The kids assumed it was his birthday because people only
wear flowers on special days they said.
“Every day is special,” Ackerman responded.
“I closed my lesson plan book and I started talking all day long
about why every day is special. And you should take time to smell the
flowers because that is important, too.”
And ever since, the Congressman and successful newspaper publisher,
the world traveler and international peacekeeper, has been following
his own advice.
Life began for Gary Ackerman in, of all places, Brooklyn.
But soon enough his family had moved to Queens.
It is Queens that defined Ackerman.
He might now represent this borough in Congress, shaping the lives of
the people that live here and the borough’s very future. But it
is Queens that first gave Ackerman his future. It is Queens that made
Gary who he is today.
Since moving to Queens as a young boy, and despite traveling all over
the world and the United States, Ackerman said he has never considered
“After a couple of hours of being gone,” he said, “I
start going into withdrawal.”
He waxes nostalgic about the once open fields surrounding Queens College,
where as a young boy he would wander around and find remnants of a long
gone Indian reservation.
“The fascinating thing about Queens is there is so much history
behind it and there is so much change at the same time,” he said.
“It remains not static, but exciting.”
Ackerman’s political life began at Queens College where he was
involved in numerous after school activities. In fact, he admitted,
he spent a lot more time pursuing after school activities than he did
“I studied human nature at Queens College,” he said jokingly.
“I cut more classes than I went to.” It was this robust
social life, his engagement with people of all kinds, that taught him
to understand them, their lives and the issues they face everyday. But
no activity affected Ackerman more than his time at the school’s
“I enjoyed my time at the school newspaper tremendously,”
he said sincerely.
Trib Is Born
In the summer of 1970, Gary Ackerman had long graduated and had been
teaching math and social studies for several years.
He decided at this point to start his own community newspaper. In 1970,
the New York newspaper industry was consolidating. The number of major
metropolitan newspapers decreased from about 20 to five.
It became obvious to Ackerman that such a small number of newspapers
could never keep up with the community issues of neighborhoods like
Flushing or Rego Park. With so much happening in such a large city,
there was no way for the local PTA to get their voices heard in any
And likewise, there was no way for local businesses to advertise effectively
to the local neighborhood.
“It struck me that the more they consolidated, the more their
area was, the less they could concentrate on local things,” Ackerman
“In New York City, if your local newspaper is the Daily News or
the Post or the New York Times, that is an awful lot of competition.”
So despite the discouragement he received from just about everyone,
Ackerman went for it – and born was the Flushing Tribune, first
a monthly, but soon enough a weekly.
With the newspaper gaining momentum and with a child on the way, Ackerman
decided to take a leave of absence from teaching to share the responsibilities
of raising a child. Little did he know such a simple request would lead
him into the first legislative battle of his life.
Forced to apply for maternity leave, the Board of Education turned him
down, declaring that such a leave of absence wasn’t intended for
“That got me livid,” he said. “How do they have the
right to tell me what sort of role I play in my family? I have to work
and my wife has to stay home?”
Ackerman took the case to the Equal Opportunity office and soon the
story was on the front page of every major newspaper in the country,
not to mention the London Times.
Although Gary Ackerman lost his personal battle this time, he won the
battle for future parents as the law was eventually changed to include
paternity leave. It was his first foray into public life.
Ackerman never went back to teaching after that, instead devoting his
time to the newspaper.
Borrowing $500 from his mother to help him get started, Ackerman started
publishing every week.
“I am lucky to have a wife who was really willing to take a chance,”
he said. “We had three kids at that point and I am going to do
this thing full time, without a guaranteed paycheck and no benefits.”
Risks such as this one are what would one day drive Ackerman to be a
successful congressman. But first, he was a muckraker.
There is no doubt among publishers that once you start a community newspaper,
you become a community activist. Gary Ackerman was no different. And
through his newspaper was revealed the zeal he possessed for representing
his own people, looking out for their best interest.
Early on in his venture as a publisher, the public school system in
New York was decentralized. As a result, a pro-parochial school board
took over District 25 in Queens. Before long the group was raiding the
school library, forcing librarians to ban certain books.
“We took a strong stance against the school board and attended
all the meetings, in addition to covering the story,” Ackerman
A Rabbi, one of the members of board, offended by the criticism coming
from the paper and Ackerman, called Ackerman and told him if he didn’t
stop criticizing him he would have the future congressman ex-communicated.
“Oh yeah, it got down to that,” Ackerman said. “We
had this page one fight. He wrote a long letter ripping the paper. So
we ran it on the front page next to my response. So you become involved
in this activism kind of stuff.”
Carrying forward this tradition, Ackerman published a series on a local
elected official who was running for a position known as Councilman
at Large, a position that no longer exists today. Ackerman wanted someone
to run against him but no one came forward. People started telling Ackerman
to put his money where his mouth is. So in 1977 he did. He ran. And
But the political bug had bit and the ink in his blood, although still
there, had become diluted with a higher calling. A year after his unsuccessful
bid for councilman, a seat in the State Senate opened up. Ackerman knew
though that if he ran for State Senate, he could not do justice to both
the paper and his new position.
And so Gary Ackerman, founder of the Queens Tribune, trailblazer of
the community newspaper industry in New York City, left for Albany.
Foray Into Politics
Ackerman was the first U.S. politician to cross the
Demilitarized Zone, and looked at North Korea from South Korea.
The paper was a
struggling venture then and he needed someone to take over the reigns,
someone who he could trust. So he asked his good friend and college
buddy, Michael Schenkler, who also headed up Ackerman’s campaign.
A discussion and a handshake later, Publisher Gary Ackerman had now
become Senator Gary Ackerman.
The transition was an easy one. There are many similarities between
publishing the news and representing constituents in a political office.
“You advocate for your community you try and make the lives of
people better,” he said. “That was my goal in teaching.
That was my goal at the newspaper and that is my goal in politics.”
Ackerman didn’t stay on long as State Senator before a seat for
Congress opened up in his district. Long-time Congressman Ben Rosenthal
had passed away and now 36 people were vying for the spot.
After a hard fought and arguably exciting congressional race, Gary Ackerman
won and went from being in the minority of the State Senate to the majority
in the United States Congress or “The Big Leagues” as he
Now 20 years later, Ackerman still drives the 1966 Plymouth Valiant
he first bought when he first went to Washington to begin what would
be a long and illustrious career as a Congressman. When in Washington,
Ackerman stays on a house boat known as the Unsinkable II. Why it is
the second, Ackerman refuses to say. It is these quirks, these eccentricies,
which draw people to Ackerman.
His houseboat, his Plymouth Valiant and his daily white carnation seem
to fascinate people. But nothing is more fascinating than his extensive
stamp collection – a hobby he began during the 101st Congress.
The Post Office had released a collection of stamps that bore the face
and name of every Congressman and Senator during that year. Ackerman
got the idea to go around and collect the signature to match every stamp.
And ever since, Ackerman has done exactly that with every world leader
he has met. He has since collected stamps and signatures from every
major player in the Middle East peace process, including Bill Clinton,
Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat.
Ackerman is able to meet these world leaders (and get their signatures
and stamps) as a member of the International Relations Committee.
Ackerman deals with issues from the Middle East to North Korea.
And it makes perfect sense for the Congressman from Queens to play such
an important role in the world. Queens, one of the most diverse counties
in the United States, faces issues not just domestic, not just local,
but international as well.
“Cross border tensions between North and South Korea are a local
issue here,” Ackerman said. “Peace in the Middle East is
a local issue here.”
During his first ten years as a majority congressman, Ackerman can,
without hesitation call up his most successful venture.
Out Against Hunger In Ethiopia
As a member of the Subcommittee on Hunger, Ackerman went to Ethiopia.
At this time, few people in the United States knew what hunger looked
like other than a few BBC photos that had been circulating.
After his first hand look at the problem, Ackerman returned to the United
States wondering where to begin solving such a massive problem.
He decided to draw from his local community in Queens and New York City.
He put together a program, which would involve school age children,
to help feed the people of Ethiopia.
The news program 20/20 picked up the story and followed Ackerman during
TV Guide would later call the resulting program the best hour of television
Drawing from his instincts as a teacher, Ackerman went to New York City
schools encouraging children to donate a few dollars to help the children
“I made a speech at every assembly at every school that would
have me,” he said, tears forming in his eyes.
“I was off and running to every school, everyday, to every assembly
program I could speak at, telling kids that they were smarter than their
teachers, that they could act faster than their government and there
wasn’t a person in this auditorium who can’t figure out
how to get three bucks.”
Ackerman managed to inspire the children and thousands of dollars was
raised. 20/20 caught one kid in Harlem shaking down other kids saying,
“You know you got another dollar.”
“We saved hundreds of lives,” Ackerman added wistfully.
The DMZ Into The Future
The Congressman’s contributions to the world are endless. He was
the first politician to cross the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea.
He was greeted by thousands of journalists and he managed to meet with
the North Korean leadership and get them to agree to stop producing
weapons grade plutonium. It was a treaty that stood firm all the way
through the Clinton administration.
But despite the fact that more people recognize Ackerman when he gets
off the plane in South Korea than they do at LaGuardia and despite serving
under 10 U.S. presidents, Ackerman is a simple person who collects stamps,
wears a flower on his lapel, adores the Mets and lives not two miles
from where he grew up. He is still following his own advice, appreciating
everyday, stopping to smell the flowers.
“My mother is my favorite philosopher and she said, ‘Remember
where you came from,’” Ackerman recalled. “I live
two miles from where I grew up, I am one and half miles from my Boy
Scout post. I am three miles from where Mike, the cop, helped us cross
the street on our way to school.”
And although Ackerman has now served 20 years as a congressman, the
last 10 as a minority democrat, he has no plans on retiring. He wants
the White House back in November. “I won’t quit in the middle
of a fight,” he said. “Besides, this is the most exciting
job one could have. What could be more exciting?”