Voters in the 30th Council District are set to test the longevity of recent Democratic victories on Tuesday.
Democratic incumbent Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) will face off against Republican Tom Ognibene as she seeks her first full term representing the district once considered a conservative stronghold. In fact, Crowley is the first Democrat to represent the district since its creation after the 1991 city charter revision.
That her opponent was the first person elected to represent the district — a job he held for a decade — makes the challenge all the more daunting. The Republican contender’s campaign is conservative to the core — an all or nothing bet on the district’s voting history despite recent shifts in party affiliation.
Ognibene promised to fight for lower taxes and smaller government and frequently touts his newfound friendship with Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
The former Council minority leader is promoting legislation that would require a two-thirds majority to raise taxes and wants to cut government spending through changes to the city’s pension system, debt refinancing and consolidations, pay freezes and layoffs among the city’s various agencies.
Ognibene rejected arguments that sending government workers to the burgeoning unemployment lines would ultimately hurt the city by exacerbating financial problems in the private sector with fewer families spending at local businesses.
“Unless we begin to make the choices that I’m suggesting, we are heading for Armageddon anyway — so we might as well begin to look at it now,” he said.
While Ognibene has brought political philosophy to the front of his campaign, Crowley has yet to take the bait. She has largely avoided partisan issues by sticking to the center and highlighting her brief but fruitful tenure as a breadwinner for the district.
Crowley took credit for finalizing the long-awaited rezoning of Maspeth, Middle Village and Glendale — a process she said was stalled after the Dennis Gallagher sex scandal.
“A study was started over eight years ago and almost completed four years ago, but it sat on desks without moving forward at the Department of City Planning,” Crowley said. “Part of that was due to poor leadership.”
The new zoning law downsized building regulations on nearly 300 residential blocks across the three neighborhoods — a critical effort to preserve the character of these middle-class communities, according to Crowley.
“In record amount of time we were able to pass legislation to rezone more than 300 blocks,” she said. “The need for this rezoning was so evident in the overdevelopment that was putting our community in a situation that affected our quality of life and compromised the continuity and the very aesthetic that make up the low-density communities that I represent.”
She also touted efforts to secure funding for various community-enhancing projects, including relocation plans for the historic St. Saviour’s Church and proposals to clean up area business districts.
And while focusing on everyday problems may cool the partisan flames, Ognibene hasn’t been shy about confronting Crowley on quality-of-life issues.
He has frequently taken the opportunity to remind voters of an early defeat for Crowley — she failed to garner the council’s support to block a controversial school construction plan in Maspeth.
Ognibene condemned citywide zoning regulations on new schools, calling for a return to neighborhood districting with a voucher system in place for parents who want to send their kids elsewhere.
“We need schools for kids from our communities — Maspeth, Middle Village, Elmhurst. When these new high schools are built, they’re universally zoned,” he said.
The Republican candidate said that education problems in poor communities are overblown and that efforts to improve the situation by integrating students from various economic backgrounds across neighborhood lines are now putting an unfair burden on parents in good school districts.
“This is the nonsense argument that’s infected all of our thinking in this world,” he said. “People have to learn to be accountable. What your status is in life and how your children learn is directly related to what emphasis you want to put on education in your community. Join the PTA. Fight for safer schools. Don’t say, ‘What the hell, I’m going to thrust my problems on you.’”
But the freshman councilwoman claims she has since redeemed the project. Crowley pointed to successful follow-up efforts ensuring that the school would be locally zoned. According to her, the Department of Education has agreed to give local students priority seating despite its citywide zoning policy for new schools.
“The city didn’t want to give me zoning for Maspeth,” she said. “But if I wasn’t persistent, I probably wouldn’t been able to achieve that.”
Despite some mudslinging from each side, the candidates have found common ground on a variety of issues.
Both have promised to address traffic problems within the district.
Crowley boasted of efforts to remove trucks from Grand Avenue — a source of frustration for many area residents. She said that work is already underway to reinforce an alternate route that would limit commercial traffic on the congested street.
“DOT [the Department of Transportation] has pretty much promised me,” Crowley said. “They just need to strengthen one small street near Maurice Avenue.”
Ognibene is also proposing changes to the rules governing traffic in the area.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for rail traffic that can substitute for the truck traffic,” he said. “You can control the flow of traffic by having DOT map out better routes. You can have DOT organize themselves better and come up with a better plan than the current federal system that they use for deciding where traffic controls are and how they’re timed.”
In the wake of this year’s hospital closings, both candidates also agreed that Queens lawmakers need to step up efforts to secure funding for new medical facilities.
Crowley assumed her post in January, defeating former councilman Anthony Como and filling in for the final year of Gallagher’s original term. Both candidates were defeated by Como during a 2008 special election, with Crowley edging out Ognibene for second place.