By JAMES FARRELL, Staff Writer
Queens’ City Council members and challengers vying for their offices took the stage together on Aug. 17 for a candidates forum at St. John’s University that was hosted by the Queens Tribune.
The event was divided into two sections. The first included Councilman Peter Koo (D-Flushing) and his challenger, Ackman-Ziff Managing Director Alison Tan; Councilman Paul Vallone (D-Bayside) and his challenger, urban planner Paul Graziano; Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Glendale) and her challenger, civic leader Bob Holden; ex-councilman Hiram Monserrate, who is running for Julissa Ferreras-Copeland’s (D-East Elmhurst) seat; and Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest).
The second section included Councilman Barry Grodenchik (D-Oakland Gardens) and his Republican challenger, former NYPD captain Joseph Concannon; community activists Adrienne Adams, Hettie Powell and Richard David, who are all running for former Councilman Ruben Wills’ vacant seat; former Marine and District 27 candidate Anthony Rivers, who is challenging Councilman I. Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans); and Mike Scala and William Ruiz, who are running for Councilman Eric Ulrich’s (R-Ozone Park) seat.
Topics at the forum included everything from transportation to overdevelopment and featured heated exchanges between some of the candidates—particularly Koo and Tan.
This story focuses on the responses offered by City Council candidates from the 19th, 20th, 21st, 23rd, 24th, 30th and 32nd districts. The others, which are located in southeast Queens, will be featured in our sister paper, the PRESS of Southeast Queens, tomorrow.
Every candidate in the first round expressed support for gender-neutral bathrooms in schools.
“We should just implement it and that’s it and be done with it,” Holden said.
Asked to identify the top priority for schools in their district, combating overcrowding was agreed to be the most pressing.
Monserrate—who was kicked out of the state Senate in 2010 after being found guilty of assault charges and served jail time for federal corruption charges—spoke unopposed during the event. His opponent, Assemblyman Francisco Moya (D-Jackson Heights), did not attend. Monserrate argued for more city and state money for more school seats.
While Koo touted incoming annexes at various schools in his district, Tan pointed to overcrowding as a crisis that needs more attention. She said that students spent hours on buses and subways commuting to schools.
“City Council District 20 is facing explosive population growth,” she said. “Our schools, at every level, are bursting at the seams.”
She said that there was a need to identify locations to build schools and expand classrooms.
Crowley argued that she has addressed overcrowding in her district, citing the building of four new school buildings and annexes to existing buildings that, she argued, led to 5,400 new seats. But Holden didn’t seem impressed.
“Unfortunately, school district 24 is still one of the most overcrowded in the city, if not the most overcrowded,” he said. He suggested a school voucher program or tuition tax credits to send students to parochial schools with empty classrooms.
Lancman took a different approach to education, arguing that enrichment programs that go “beyond the basics” were a top need. He argued that schools in the 24th Council District were performing strongly, and school needs included arts and after-school programs.
Vallone touted his work in his district, arguing that prior to his taking office, schools had little contact with city government.
“What we did in the last four years was reconnect the principals and the teachers to resources,” he said. “Fifty percent of all of our money went to schools. Period.”
Meanwhile, Graziano said that he had recently met with “about a dozen” teachers in the district.
“The problem, according to these teachers, is that the district, or people who are administrating the district, don’t really listen to the teachers very much,” he said. “And I personally think that the teachers know a lot more about the kids than the administrators do.”
In round two, Concannon cited recent work with Queens College to bring a “Global Science Program,” where Queens College teachers “teach the teachers” in local schools, to a school within the 23rd Council District. Grodenchik cited frequent visits to all schools in his district, a new playground, auditorium seats and a science lab at I.S. 109.
Scala argued for after-school programs in coding, learning to work computers and other “21st- century skills” as well as practical school curricula, such as civics. Ruiz also wants to focus on after- school programs, especially for parents struggling with childcare.
Development And Housing
Sparks flew between Koo and Tan on the issue of development. Koo boasted about stopping the development of Flushing West—a large development proposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration—saying “it would only encourage development” that could leave the Flushing community open to gentrification.
Tan, on the other hand, cited rising “luxury condo development that nobody can actually afford,” coupled with a shortage of affordable housing.
“Under his watch, numerous luxury condos have been developed, and those developers have not been held accountable to delivering affordable units within the community,” she said.
In a following question on homelessness, Koo returned the attack on Tan, suggesting it was “ridiculous” that she criticized overdevelopment since she lives in a luxury condominium and works for a real estate firm, “making millions of dollars, taking advantage of the tax laws and taking apartments from our neighborhood people.”
“Me living in a luxury condo is very different when every single luxury condo developer in Flushing has contributed to your political campaign,” Tan responded. “That is a conflict of interest, Peter Koo.”
Monserrate, meanwhile, argued that the city needed to build more affordable housing and called for more units at Willets Point. And while Vallone pledged to advocate for community boards’ interests to preserve quality of life, Graziano touted his authoring of several protective rezonings in the 19th
Several of the council districts represented at the forum have been directly affected by the issue of homeless shelters—particularly those being housed in hotels.
Crowley said it was “wrong” and “illegal” to house homeless families in hotels, citing a lawsuit against the de Blasio administration—a notion at which Holden scoffed, referencing his Juniper Park Civic Association and its repeated protests in front of hotels used as shelters in the district.
“That is one of the biggest jokes I’ve heard so far this year,” he said. “Her lawsuit…was thrown out of court. We were out there every night protesting….We still have a lawsuit pending.”
Scala referred to the Rockaways, in his district, as a “dumping ground” for homeless shelters.
“I’m in support of making sure local community boards and elected officials are part of this conversation,” he said.
Ruiz pointed to the Rockaways as a problematic area of homeless shelters—especially in hotels, which he described as inadequate.
“There are no kitchens,” he said. “How do you expect a family to cook for their kids when all they have is a microwave?”
In a topic only examined in the second forum, candidates discussed a reported rise in hate crimes and other issues.
Concannon argued that police have appropriate resources to deal with hate crimes, but that “the community itself does not reach out to the police department and does not join its programs.” Grodenchik blamed President Donald Trump, saying “he may have been born in Queens, but Queens was not born in him.”
Concannon, the only Republican to attend the forum, also expressed support for stop-and-frisk, calling it a “critical component” of policing. That put him at odds with the Democrats on the panel, including Grodenchik, Ruiz and Scala, who argued that the NYPD’s own data showed that most people who were stopped and frisked were innocent.
“Look at this ugly face right here—I’ve been stopped so many times it’s not even funny,” Ruiz said. “I believe that cops need to go back to the ethic schools and train themselves, and not only that, but know the community they’re serving in.”
When asked how to deal with the “transportation deserts” of Queens, candidates in the first round had a variety of answers.
Monserrate pointed to overcrowding on the MTA and blamed the “finger-pointing game” between the mayor and governor. He called for the MTA to be an agency, not an authority.
Lancman called for expanded bus service—particularly Select Bus Service—“in an intelligent way.” And while Vallone touted a free, door-to-door senior transportation pilot program for northeast Queens, Graziano pointed out glaring gaps in the district.
“We are outside any kind of transit beside bus lines,” he said. “As everybody knows, whenever there’s a monetary crisis in the city of New York, the first thing that’s cut is bus service.”
Crowley pushed for her light- rail proposal to run from Jamaica to Long Island City, which recently received funding for a feasibility study. She accused Holden, a member of Community Board 5, of being the only person against her proposal in her visits to community boards.
Holden criticized the proposal for increasing crowds on the crowded 7 line and opposed a number of grade crossings along the rail.