It was supposed to be an evening for the community to hear the positions of candidates in the 31st District City Council race, but a lot of the forum, held Tuesday night in Laurelton, was spent grilling one contender for his decision to sue several of his opponents, challenging the validity of their signatures and attempting to get them thrown off the ballot.
Rosedale attorney Jacques Leandre filed, and later dropped, lawsuits against his opponents Mike Duncan, Donovan Richards, Earnest Flowers, Allan Jennings and Selvena Brooks. He pursued the action against Marie Adam-Ovide, but a judge decided in her favor. He did not challenge the remaining candidates, Saywalah Kesselly and Pesach Osina.
Although Leandre vehemently defended his decision as just part of the political process to ensure that everything was on the up and up, the whole situation left a bad taste in people’s mouths.
“What we did is exactly what president Obama did in 1996 when he became the state senator of Illinois,” Leandre said. “You, as a candidate, have the right to authenticate and verify signatures. It’s a process. We’re in a fight. You can’t send a pussycat into the jungle. You’ve gotta send in a lion.”
Duncan fired back, stating he didn’t think Leandre’s type of politics is beneficial to the community and added that it keeps good candidates off the ballot and inhibits choice.
“There have been some great scholars over the last 40, 50 years, who never realized their dreams because of this kind of politics,” Duncan said. “Jacques is right. You can’t send a pussycat into the jungle, that’s why the lion is here.”
Taking a playful turn with the jungle analogies, Flowers began his rebuttal with — “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my.” He went on to say he understood and respected Leandre’s strategy.
“You have to make sure that you pick the person that is going to have the greatest impact on Southeast Queens,” Flowers added. “We have to have a plan that’s transparent. We have to have a plan that is inclusive of everyone, because whoever is elected is going to have to serve everyone.”
Adam-Ovide, clearly angered that Leandre had accused her of fraud and taken her to court, took the opportunity at the forum to give him a piece of her mind.
“I worked hard to collect 1,000 signatures on my own, working day and night,” she said firmly. “When someone doesn’t work hard, he cannot understand that someone else can.”
At one point, when the conversation kept shifting back to ballot lawsuits, Leandre said, “I think we really shouldn’t waste any more time being upset with Jacques and announcing it over and over again.”
Richards, Osina and Jennings did not show up at the event. The Rev. Philip Craig, head of the Queens Chapter of the National Action Network, which sponsored the forum at the Springfield Gardens Community Church, said their absence was insulting to the community. A crowd of about 100 people packed the house of worship.
Each candidate was held to a strict one minute time limit to respond to each question which covered topics such as job creation, education and the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy.
One resident asked the candidates how many jobs they had created in the community, and which businesses would they bring to the district to employ young people so they don’t end up on the streets or in prison.
Leandre said he created jobs six months ago when he left his job as an attorney for Travelers insurance company in Manhattan and opened up a law firm in Laurelton. Kesselly said he gave jobs to many community members at the African Center For Community Empowerment in Jamaica, which he founded and serves as executive director.
As a restaurateur, Duncan said he hired 25 people in the community and will hire more when he opens a new eatery in the near future. For his immigration services business, he hired seven people.
Brooks helped to lead an initiative called Operation Everybody Works, which helped unite employers with prospective employees. Her candidate platform is rebuilding the economy.
“I’m looking to rebuild our local economy by fostering partnerships with small businesses to help them thrive as well as to get more of the local folk employed in these companies,” Brooks said.
Flowers, who runs a marketing firm, said he tries to hire community residents as often as he can. Meanwhile, Marie Adam-Ovide was blunt on the subject.
“I have not created any jobs,” she said. “We cannot all be doctors. We cannot all be lawyers. But you know what I’ve done? I’ve taken in foster children.”
Adam-Ovide said she has taught her foster children how to read, comforted them and gave them a loving home, which is important since many of them had been abused in the past. She has also trained interns in her capacity as district manager of Community Board 8.
On the subject of making improvements to education and helping youth, Leandre touted his accomplishments as president of the Rosedale Jets football league. Similarly, said he co-founded the Northeastern Conference Junior Basketball League, as well as coached soccer, softball and volleyball, and is a member of a half-dozen nonprofits aimed at helping youth.
“I have a plan to create a youth center in 36 months,” Flowers said.
Meanwhile Brooks said she is a mentor coach with New York Needs You, an organization that “fights for economic mobility for ambitious, low-income college students,” according to its website.
When it comes to improving schools and education, Brooks said greater parental involvement and community input is needed. Adam-Ovide said people need to stop blaming teachers for shortcomings in the public school system and that there should be smaller class sizes.
“We find money for things that we want,” she said. “Just like you have your household budget, and food is important, so if smaller classroom sizes are important to you, you will find the money for that.”
Kesselly said he would have seniors mentor young people and help improve education that way, a method he has employed at his center with great success.
On the topic of stop and frisk, all of the candidates said they were against the policy.
“It’s a civil rights and human rights violation,” Kesselly said. “It has to stop.”
Flowers said the policy cannot be modified. It needs to be eliminated. “As a people, and as citizens, we determine how our laws are enforced,” Flowers said. “We determine what the authorities do. ... As a councilman, I will be fearless, and one of my main objectives will be to stop stop and frisk.”
The conversation took a strange turn when the Rev. Charles Norris said the black candidates should decide which one among them is the best to run and then the others should drop out in order to make it tougher for the caucasian, Jewish candidate, Osina, to win.
“None of you will be elected because you haven’t done the math,” Norris said. “You have one white person from Far Rockaway that’s in the race. Jews vote in a block. They will knock everyone of you out. Which one of you thinks you are best to run to beat the Jew that’s running in Far Rockaway?”
None of the candidates offered a direct response to Norris’ question.