Congressman Gary Ackerman (D-Queens, Nassau) announced his bombshell decision Thursday night not to seek re-election, and the fallout continues.
There are already three announced Democratic candidates, while the county Republicans are looking at their options. But the reality is that Queens is losing one of its most colorful elected officials.
Known for his trademark white carnation boutonniere, Ackerman, 69, said last week that it was time to move on and hopes to spend more time with his family and perhaps have another career. In a media conference call Tuesday, he said he had no job in mind but “I’m still energetic and if I’m going to do something, this is the time to do it.”
He is a strong supporter of Israel and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, having taken an active role in trying to pursue peace in the Middle East.
Ackerman denied that his decision to retire was based on redistricting. Two weeks ago he announced he was running for the new seat, in the 6th District, which has a slightly smaller Asian population than his current district, the 5th.
The veteran politician was even set to run unopposed, when he convinced potential candidate Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) not to force a primary.
“It was just time,” he said. “Moving [within the district] wasn’t a reason, but I am tired of flying back and forth to Washington.”
Two hours before Ackerman announced his retirement, Lancman issued a statement stating, “Gary Ackerman is asolid progressive who is, if the Democrats take back the House, poised to assume important leadership roles in protecting the integrity of our financial system andstrengthening the U.S.-Israel relationshipas a senior member of the House Financial ServicesandForeign Affairs committees. I have enjoyed a great relationship with Gary over the years, from interning in his office when I was a high school student to having his support in all of my campaigns for public office, and I’ll be supporting Gary this year in the new Sixth Congressional District.”
Lancman made an abrupt about-face and declared his candidacy Friday morning. Meanwhile, on Monday, the county Democrats endorsed Assemblywoman Grace Meng of Flushing for the congressional seat. Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley of Middle Village also said she will run.
Ackerman called Lancman “talented and ambitious” and noted that he gave him a hint about his impending decision, but that he had not completely made up his mind then. He called Meng “filled with Grace,” but had no comment on Crowley. His endorsement, he said, would come later as a private citizen.
Ackerman added, however, that growing up there were no Jewish political role models for him in New York, but that times have changed. “I can’t imagine what it will be like for the Asian community if they have a congresswoman of their own,” Ackerman said. “It’s uplifting, empowering and encourages people to register and to vote.”
The congressman’s decision seemed to have caught everyone off guard, even the Queens Democratic Party, which met with potential candidates over the weekend. Mayor Bloomberg seemed genuinely saddened by his pending departure.
“The Borough of Queens and the people of Israel, Africa and so many other areas of the world have rarely had a stronger ally in Congress, and our entire nation will miss Gary’s encyclopedic knowledge of foreign policy and so many other issues,” Bloomberg said.
Born in Brooklyn, Ackerman grew up in Flushing and is a graduate of Queens College. He became a junior high school teacher and it is there where he began his habit of wearing a carnation in his lapel every day. Here’s what he told the Queens Chronicle:
“When I was a teacher in South Jamaica, I stopped at a florist one day before class and on a whim, bought a flower and pinned it on. The students thought it must have been my birthday or anniversary and they couldn’t understand why I was wearing it. I explained to the class that every day is special and how to make it that way. I’ve been wearing a flower ever since for the last 39 years.”
Following the birth of his first child in 1969, Ackerman tried to get maternity child care leave and was denied but successfully sued the Board of Education for it in a landmark case.
In 1970, he left teaching and founded a weekly community paper called the Flushing Tribune, now the Queens Tribune, serving as its editor and publisher.
His political life began in 1978 when Ackerman was elected to the state Senate. He ran for Congress in 1983 in a special election and won. He has been there ever since, and while in Washington, DC, he lives on a houseboat named the Unsinkable II, which he says he will now sell.
“My family never lived in Washington and I didn’t want to own any property so I got the houseboat,” he said.
Ackerman and his wife, Rita, live in Roslyn Heights, after having resided in Jamaica Estates for many years. The couple has three children and four grandchildren.
The congressman has sponsored many successful bills in the Capitol, including Baby AIDS Law that requires mandatory HIV testing of newborns and disclosing the results to the mother.
He was also successful in requiring banks and financial institutions to notify consumers when negative information is placed on their credit reports and authored the law that prohibits accounting firms from consulting for the companies they audit.
He also got Medicare to cover testing for prostate cancer and had a measure passed that prevents war criminals and human rights abusers who have perpetrated genocide, torture, terrorism or other atrocities from entering the United States and deports those who have gotten in.
With nine months left in his term, Ackerman said he wants to continue to help others. Looking back on his career in Washington, he added, “I’ve tried to make things better and I’ve loved very excruciating minute of it.”