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Queens Chronicle

Como Scores Early, Narrow Lead

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Posted: Thursday, June 5, 2008 12:00 am

Republican Anthony Como unofficially topped Democrat Elizabeth Crowley by 70 votes in the District 30 special election for City Council on Tuesday, but hundreds of uncounted absentee ballots left Como’s claim to victory uncertain until at least next week.

According to the city’s Board of Elections, the unofficial voting machine count gave Como 2,352 votes; Crowley came in second by a hair’s breadth, with 2,282.

BOE officials said those numbers would not be official until voting machines were opened, a process they hoped to begin Friday.

More importantly, the BOE cited 196 valid paper absentee ballots that had not yet been counted. Election rules state that mail-in ballots will be accepted until Tuesday, June 10, so that number is expected to grow.

As the first unofficial numbers began pouring in from around the district, Republican candidate, and former councilman for the district, Thomas Ognibene, paced the floor of his campaign headquarters in Middle Village, stepping out often for air. In the first half-hour after the polls closed at 9 p.m., staffers kept a running tally of poll station reports, furiously checking and rechecking them as the room grew quiet and tense. The early numbers indicated a statistical dead heat.

Ognibene addressed his staff as the votes were counted, thanking them in advance. “No matter what the results, we fought for what we believed in,” he said. “We never sold out.”

Over the next half-hour, as the totals continued to mount, it became clear that Ognibene would place third, while Como and Crowley were separated by a single- digit difference. Ognibene finished the night just over 300 votes behind the leader, with an unofficial total of 2,031 votes.

Democrat Charles Ober, a grassroots candidate from Ridgewood, came in fourth, with 752 votes.

By around 10 p.m., with all poll sites having reported, Como declared victory before a rowdy crowd of supporters at his headquarters in Glendale.

“We won the machine count,” he said between rounds of applause. “There are paper ballots out there, but we are confident that the paper ballots tend to swing the same way with the machines. I don’t believe, in my opinion, that it’s enough to overcome our lead.”

Among those he thanked were his parents, who were celebrating their 41st anniversary that night. Como said he would be ready to show up for work the next day.

Festivities at the Crowley camp, which had rented the Woodhaven House in Middle Village for the evening, were slightly muted, but still hopeful.

Crowley’s speech was a litany of thank yous to all the unions, politicians and campaign workers who had helped her.

“We won’t know until next Wednesday,” she said afterward. “It’s sort of like the waiting game I’ve been playing for the past six weeks.”

Crowley’s cousin, Congressman Joseph Crowley and Council Speaker Christine Quinn were present, along with a who’s who of other city Democrats.

“There’s been some negativity in this campaign,” Joseph Crowley said. “Elizabeth has been a ray of light. … Not all hope is lost, not now, and not all hope is lost for the future.”

A Long Day On The Stump

It was a grueling Tuesday for all four candidates — a warm June day that started early and ended late, marked by a flurry of last-minute campaigning, poll site visits and the occasional photo op.

Ognibene spent his morning visiting the various polling stations around the district, meeting voters, thanking poll workers, in part by dropping off boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts. By around noon, he had already put in a long day, having gotten started around 7 a.m. when he cast his own ballot at P.S. 49, in Middle Village, just as the polls were opening.

In those early hours, voter turnout looked meager. Asked about his chances of winning, Ognibene said he was “optimistic,” but qualified that optimism. Hinting at the party backing secured by Como and Crowley, he still considered himself an outsider.

“In this election, it’s about who has the political machinery to draw people out,” he said.

Como spent his morning similarly, stopping off at all the polling sites with tins of cookies for the workers. By around 10:45, he had voted, visited about 15 polling sites and campaigned at a local subway station. By the end of the day, he planned to have visited all of the roughly 30 polling sites in the district.

“So far, I think it’s good,” he said of the support he had seen up to that point —adding, however, that he hoped overall voter turnout would improve. At I.S. 93 in Ridgewood, where he had just taken his grandmother to vote, only 14 voters had shown up thus far.

“I hope more people get out and vote,” he said. “With all the hoopla, I still believe a lot of people still don’t know there’s a special election.”

Elizabeth Crowley cast her vote later that afternoon, arriving at about 3:30 p.m. to P.S. 113, in Glendale, with her two sons. Rather than spending her day at polling sites, she had chosen to knock on doors all morning instead, encouraging people to vote. Like the others, she had also spent some time campaigning at a subway station as people made their way to work.

“We think everyone knows who they’re voting for before they go to the polls” in this election, she said.

Regarding voter turnout, she was more positive than some of the other candidates, who had expressed some worry over what was a relatively slow day at the polls.

“Our community is one that gets very involved in issues and in politics,” she said. “So I expect a good turnout all around.”

Ober was the last of the day to cast his ballot, arriving at P.S. 88 in Ridgewood around 5:30. He had spent much of his day contacting voters that his campaign had identified as favorably inclined toward his candidacy, and encouraging them to get out and vote.

“We’re very, very confident that we have the numbers to pull this off and that I will be elected,” he said. “I think we got the message out.”

By around 6 p.m., as candidates began to wrap up their campaigns, Ognibene finished with a little “cold campaigning” outside the Metropolitan Avenue subway station, in Middle Village, just down the road from his campaign headquarters. Commuters streamed out of the exits on their ways home from work.

“This is the toughest crowd,” Ognibene said as he and several campaign volunteers handed out fliers and shook hands with commuters, joking, however, that “41 years of marriage helps you deal with the rejection.

“You make your best effort,” he added assessing a long day on the stump. “It keeps the boredom from eating away at you and making you anxious.”

A Special Election

It was fitting, in a way, that a race born out of contention remained in dispute well after the polls closed at 9 p.m.

The election was first set in motion the night of July 8 2007, when former Councilman Dennis Gallagher, a Republican, was accused of raping a 52-year-old woman he met at Danny Boy’s pub, just around the corner from his Middle Village home.

Gallagher would ultimately plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of sexual assault in March. He received no jail time, but was forced to resign as part of the plea bargain, serving his last day in office on April 18.

Soon after, a special election to replace his vacant seat was proclaimed, officially beginning the race for what, in the beginning, was a field of six candidates, including 23-year-old Democrat Michael Mascetti, and the Republican Joseph Suraci. Mascetti dropped out of the race early; Suraci fell short of collecting the required number of signatures to make it onto the ballot.

From the early days of the race, local civic life was dominated by Gallagher’s dubious and damaged legacy.

The Juniper Park Civic Association, a bitter enemy of Gallagher’s long before the rape allegations surfaced, remained at the epicenter of the race. In May, the group hosted a candidate debate night — one of many candidate nights hosted by civic groups around the district. Como and Crowley made last minute cancellations, meeting instead with the publisher of a local weekly to seek endorsements.

Not surprisingly, voter comments outside polling stations on Tuesday indicated a marked ambivalence about the election at times, if not outright cynicism.

Referring to Gallagher, one woman, who asked not to be named, said she had voted hoping for “someone who won’t get arrested.”

Others said they had no strong opinions about local issues. One woman, who also asked not to be named, said she made her choice because “we need a young insight into the neighborhood.”

Still others came armed with strong opinions, in a district that has often been characterized by sharp differences of opinion and an intense political-mindedness in the months since Gallagher resigned.

Rose Mendoza, of Ridgewood, said that, as a mother, “child care, the safety of the children and after-school programs” were her top concerns “That’s what keeps the community going,” she said.

Thomas Cacaci, a 29-year-old father of two from Glendale, agreed. Funding for schools was among his top concerns, he said, as was choosing a candidate whom he felt would help fund the local volunteer ambulance corps, of which he was a member. “It’s nice when the city and the state can help us out,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ernest Pospischil, a 68-year-old voter from Ridgewood, said that “prior experience” was a big issue for him. He added that he had attended a candidates debate and had voted in large part based on the candidates’ ideas about builder and architect self-certification, and about the use of discretionary funds in the City Council — both hot button issues of late. “How the candidates presented themselves in that event was critical to me,” he said.

“We’re concerned about our community,” he added, remarking that he was more concerned with how the candidates could “best serve our interests, rather than just a political philosophy or agenda.”

Additional reporting by Matt Hampton

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