By LUIS GRONDA
The 12 years Helen Marshall spent as Queens Borough President will have an impact much longer than the three terms she served.
Marshall will finish out her last term as the 18th Queens Borough President on Dec. 31st, completing more than a decade of service as the cheerleader of the Borough. She was elected in 2001, netting 68 percent of the vote that year. Marshall will be succeeded by Melinda Katz, former City Councilmember and State Assemblymember.
Before becoming BP, Marshall served in the City Council from 1991 to 2001, representing the 21st Council District that covers Elmhurst, East Elmhurst, Corona and Jackson Heights. While in the Council, she founded the Higher Education committee and fought against the privatization of remedial programs at CUNY.
Her involvement in community started before she was an elected official. She was an activist in her native East Elmhurst neighborhood. She advocated for youth programs, libraries and economic development. She was also a parent activist in the public school system for 15 years and a member of Community Board 3 for 13 years.
Marshall backed the upgrading and expansion of every library in her district and restored funding that rebuilt a children’s clinic in Corona. She also led the protest to prevent the sale of the Elmhurst and Queens Hospital centers and gave funding for two senior centers and vans to transport the elderly.
“Helen has brought a unique, very human perspective to the office that resonates in everything she does,” Alexandra Rosa, Marshall’s chief of staff, said.
The work she did for libraries and children continued when she took over for Claire Shulman, and perhaps is what she will be most remembered for during her time as BP.
Over the last 12 years, she has secured more than $132 million for expansions and additions to libraries, as well as building new libraries and technology improvements for those facilities. Examples of her work include allocating more than $23 million for a new library branch in Far Rockaway, providing $16 million to create a Children’s Discovery Center at the Central Library in Jamaica and founding the Langston Hughes library in Corona.
“Helen has a great mix of passion and compassion,” said Dan Andrews, Marshall’s press officer. “She’s been heavily involved in issues that do not attract a lot of attention.”
Marshall also helped ensure more than 90,000 new seats for schools in the Borough. This work was done through “war room” meetings she held with school and elected officials in Queens. She also funded more than $63 million to the CUNY institutions in the Borough: Queens College, Queensborough Community College and York College.
Marshall has secured more money for libraries than the City’s other borough presidents combined, according to the Center for an Urban Future. Because of her heavy involvement in libraries, Marshall received the Daniel Casey Library Award in 2005.
She has also funded cultural programs and institutions in the Borough with more than $117 million of discretionary money used during her time as BP.
Marshall founded a task force on sexual abuse and domestic violence, which was expanded to include child maltreatment and elder abuse. Additionally, she created the annual pride celebration at Borough Hall. This celebration is now a yearly event.
A recent project she has worked on is the Forum at Borough Hall. It is a new location at Borough Hall, designed for hosting community meetings and events at their headquarters in Kew Gardens. The project was fully funded by Marshall and provides a convenient area for residents to gather for events.
Earlier this month, Marshall sat down with the Queens Tribune editorial board to reminisce on her time in office, all of her accomplishments and the future of the Borough.
When asked about her proudest achievement as BP, Marshall said creating the Queens General Assembly was one of her best moments. The Assembly is a center that streamlines understanding and cross-cultural exchanges for the many ethnic groups that exist in the Borough. Marshall said the different groups in Queens needed a place to meet and exchange ideas. It provided an avenue for these people to discuss issues affecting their neighborhood and the whole Borough.
She said the Assembly was like the United Nations, as it brought people of many backgrounds together in one room.
“This is the most multi-ethnic county in the United States of America,” she said.
Another highlight of her civic career she mentioned was the establishment of the Higher Education Committee while in the Council. This committee focuses on the City’s universities and has continued to have a positive effect on Queens and the rest of the City, according to Marshall.
She said she wanted to provide kids who come to New York from other countries a chance to go to college and get a degree that will lead to success in whichever field they choose. Establishing this committee allowed them to break down the barriers for these children.
“What good does it do to say ‘no, you can’t do this?’” she said. “We want you to be educated.”
When asked how Queens has changed over the years, she said many of the residents are more welcoming to each other now.
“The Borough is a much friendlier place now,” Marshall said. “We are the people’s entrance to the United States.”
She was also very complementary towards her replacement, Melinda Katz. Marshall publicly supported her campaign and said she is ready and able to take over for her, because of her past experience in public office, including being in the City Council and working under Shulman before that.
“She’s smart and I like her,” Marshall said.
To help prepare Katz for her transition to office, Marshall and her staff created a 135-page transition book highlighting everything there is to know about being Borough President and the many issues going on in Queens. The book has about 65 to 70 images and graphs to enhance what is written in the guide book.
Many people who have worked alongside Marshall, and have known her for a long time, had some complementary words for the outgoing Borough President.
Barry Grodenchik, the Deputy Borough President and Director of Community Boards, said she had a tremendous career and she has helped a lot of people during her tenure.
He said she will be remembered by how much she gave towards libraries and how much she helped children while in public office.
“Her legacy is going to be her dedication as somebody who talked to the young people of the county,” Grodenchik said. “Nobody else in the history of New York City has pumped more money as a county executive than Helen Marshall did into libraries.”
Katz said Marshall has given her plenty of advice as she enters her new position, including how to create goals while in office and how to accomplish those goals going forward. She added she will always be remembered for her 30 years of public service.
“I think it’s a great legacy to leave and I wish her well,” she said.
Marshall said she has not stopped working for about 70 years. She said she started when she was around 14-years-old and is now 83-years-old, and is looking forward to settling down and relaxing. Although she was not specific on what her plans are after she leaves office, Marshall did say she will continue to live in Queens because it is the Borough that she loves.
“I’m going to say I miss it and I’m glad I’m missing it,” she said jokingly. “I’m not going to be a slave to my schedule.”