Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) had her hands full on Monday night.
In a heated debate for the 30th district’s City Council seat, Crowley and first-time Republican challenger Craig Caruana faced off in a nasty battle of accusations and verbal attacks that drowned out discussions of substance and plans for the district’s future.
The standing-room-only crowd in the cafeteria of the Our Lady of Hope School in Middle Village was noticably pro-Caruana and his partisans made their presence known.
Throughout the debate, they applauded and cheered wildly at Caruana’s attacks on Crowley and jeered as she defended her record and criticized the Republican on his lack of experience.
The most rowdy outburst of the night came midway through the debate, when Crowley claimed that “my opponent doesn’t know how government works,” and Caruana countered by boasting, “It’ll work better when you’re out of it,” sending the crowd into a frenzy as Crowley tried to counter him over the shouting.
Once the boisterous hollering of the crowd died down to a sharp whisper a few minutes after the one-liners, the two candidates resumed describing their differing visions for the future in between attacks.
When asked about their positions on the controversial Knockdown Center in Maspeth, Crowley defended the establishment. The Democrat insisted that such an arts and filming center could bring much-needed jobs with benefits into the community, comparing it to Broadway Stages, an arts and film center in Brooklyn, which she states employs 1,500 people with benefits.
When pressed on whether she had received donations from the Knockdown Center’s owners, the incumbent stated that no one pays her to do anything, to which the crowd responded with boos and jeers.
Caruana disputed her claim that it would lead to job growth, stating that he stands with area elected leaders who oppose the venue, and that it would merely be a haven for hipsters and the consumption of alcohol.
“The people are smart enough to know this is not an issue about jobs,” Caruana said. “It’s about hipsters coming in from out of the area and creating a club.”
On the topic of overcrowded schools, Crowley stated, “No one cares more about public schools than me,” along with highlighting the more than 5,000 new classroom seats she said have been built within the district over her tenure.
“I’ve invested, through discretionary allocations, over $11 million into our local public schools so our kids can have new technologies like computers to help them get 21st-century jobs,” she said. “Compared to five years ago, kids in the 30th Council District have a much better shot now.”
Caruana attempted to knock Crowley’s alleged successes in alleviating overcrowding of schools by claiming that she had nothing to do with any expansion, leading to a mix of applause and boos from each candidate’s supporters.
Despite the trading of verbal barbs throughout the debate, both candidates agreed that trucking companies using Maspeth streets to navigate to the Long Island Expressway from the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and vice versa should be heavily fined.
The duo also agreed that noisy, noxious diesel trains allegedly carrying a commingled mixture of construction and demolition debris and commercial waste need to be addressed, but differed on what exactly could be done. Crowley cited her work with the state government to acquire modern “green” engines for the trains, whereas Caruana claimed Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi (D-Forest Hills) did all the heavy lifting on the issue instead of Crowley.
Juniper Valley Civic Association President Bob Holden was pleased with the passionate nature of the debate, which was put on mostly by his group, but feels Crowley and the crowd’s persistent interruptions were out of line at times.
“I didn’t appreciate the screaming and yelling from the crowd, but it was spirited. It was very entertaining for sure,” said Holden, a regular critic of Crowley. “I was surprised the Council member lost control tonight. I thought she was interrupting way too much.”
Audience member Barbara Menninger of Middle Village saw the debate in a different light. A Crowley supporter, she quietly clapped occasionaly throughout the debate, believing in Crowley’s assertations that she has the experience to lead the community in a positive direction.
“I’m a lifelong Democrat but I have voted Republican before,” Menninger said. “I just feel that she has the experience while he just has good intentions.”
Much like the debate itself, there was little agreement amongst the candidates’ supporters before the contest. Pro-Crowley and pro-Caruana groups of a few dozen people each took to the sidewalk in front of Our Lady of Hope church. Dueling chants of “Keep calm and Caruana on,” and “Four more years,” went on for more than 30 minutes leading up to the debate
Paul McDaid, 48, took to the sidewalk in support of Crowley, heralding her past work in the district.
“Liz is a great worker for the community,” McDaid, a Teamsters member, said. “She’s done great work for the neighborhood and she works hard for firefighters too.”
Caruana campaign manager Ryan Girdusky led the challenger’s rally, a rally that was much larger than he expected.
“We have more supporters here than I thought. I thought we’d get 10 people,” Girdusky said. “Hopefully we can prove that Crowley is a do-nothing incumbent and that we’re clamoring for change.”