Leroy Comrie’s message to voters, as he tries to unseat state Sen. Malcolm Smith this September, is a simple one.
“I’m not going to Albany as a typical freshman.”
Speaking in a meeting with the Queens Chronicle Editorial Board on Aug. 21, Comrie said his expertise, honed over 12 years on the City Council, includes education, health, budgets, job creation and bringing money back into his district, all while fostering consensus among those with different opinions and interests.
And in the waning days before the Sept. 9 primary in the 14th District, Comrie, who most recently served as deputy Queens Borough president, has begun not only stressing his qualifications for the office, but contrasting them with those of Smith (D-Hollis), who he believes has forfeited the trust of voters.
“When I’m out campaigning, people tell me they haven’t been well served by Malcolm Smith,” he said. “I tell people who I’m running against, and they tell me they can’t believe he’s still running. People like my style of government, of putting people first.”
Smith is being retried in January on federal corruption charges stemming from allegations that he attempted to bribe his way onto the Republican mayoral ballot last year.
He received a mistrial in June after it was disclosed prosecutors withheld hours upon hours of FBI recordings of a government witness. He will go on trial again four days after the next senator for the 14th District is sworn in.
His campaign has not responded to requests for a sit-down interview.
“He’s running around the district saying he’s been exonerated. That’s not true,” Comrie said. “But people are very well-read in my district. People know. We have educated people, a lot of civil servants, people who are astute to the goings-on around them.”
Comrie said his first bill in Albany would be aimed at curbing what he says are ongoing abuses by banks in the wake of the home foreclosure wave, something he says still is at a crisis level in parts of Queens.
“People start the process, and then the banks don’t send the right people to the hearings,” he said. “You call on Monday and deal with [one person], and call back on Wednesday and he’s nowhere to be found. Or the paperwork is nowhere to be found. They have 1,000 excuses.”
He also said that with numerous headlines about large banks settling with state and federal governments for billions of dollars over lending and mortgage practices, “I have not seen that come down in any way” to homeowners with troubled mortgages.
Comrie said if he could request it, he would serve on the Senate’s Banking Committee, with Transportation and Infrastructure being a close second.
The latter, he said, would position him to better help residents throughout the borough dealing with the noise and pollution issues that are incumbent of living near either LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International airports.
While he has ambitious plans for Queens, Comrie discusses statewide issues candidly.
With the business climate in the state either the second best in the country (according to Gov. Cuomo) or the worst in the 50 states (almost everyone else), Comrie thinks it is possible to enact legislation similar to that being studied in New York City to reduce red tape and intrusive regulations.
“I’ve heard from people wanting to open a restaurant that you can hear seven different regulations on where you should put your bathroom door and how it should open ... from seven different agencies. There’s no reason for that.”
He also has succinct views on two things being discussed to get upstate’s lagging economy jump-started — fracking, the practice of breaking apart underground rock formations to extract natural gas, and casino gambling.
“Against fracking and for casinos,” he said. “Why should we let casino dollars go to Pennsylvania and other states?”
New York State has lost population —and seats in Congress — in every U.S. Census since 1950.
Comrie said that is in large part because the middle class has found the state — particularly New York City — too expensive.
“Our children are going away to college and not coming back,” he said. “They’re looking for places that are more affordable.”
On crime, Comrie disputes the presence of any large-scale anti-cop rhetoric within the neighborhoods of the 14th District.
But be it stop and frisk or broken windows, he believes there is a great gulf of mistrust of the NYPD in minority communities.
“I know many people, businessmen, people in their 70s driving in their cars who have been stopped and intimidated and harassed by police because they needed to meet quotas,” Comrie said.
And he does not believe there is evidence to support a contention that the increase in shootings in the city — while all other major crimes are continuing to drop — is tied to a sharp drop in the NYPD’s employment of stop and frisk.
The late American humorist Will Rogers once said “I don’t belong to an organized political party — I’m a Democrat.”
That has proven to be the natural state of affairs in the state Senate, and one for which Comrie said Smith is greatly responsible, both for his alleged conduct and his decision in 2012 to join the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference.
The IDC consists of five senators including Tony Avella (D-Bayside) who joined this past spring, drawing the ire of state and local Democrats, and a primary challenge of his own from former city Comptroller John Liu.
It has a power-sharing agreement with Senate Republicans. And while Smith was kicked out of the IDC following his indictment in 2013, his defection shortly after election day in 2012 cost Democrats a numerical majority these last two years.
Comrie said Smith is now a man without a party, who will lack any ability to coalesce fellow Democrats to deliver important legislation and dollars for Southeast Queens.
“He quit the Democratic caucus. He was kicked out of the IDC. He [angered] the Republicans. How is he going to function? He says he writes letters to Gov. Cuomo. This is the district Gov. Cuomo grew up in. Is Gov. Cuomo going to work with him?”
Comrie, on the other hand, long has enjoyed a reputation for being able to bring Democratic factions together in the Council. He said that is a skill that will help unite Democrats to set their agenda and pass it to Cuomo’s desk.
Albany will require the district’s next senator having to work with far more Republicans than Comrie was accustomed to dealing with in the Council.
And should Republicans win back numerical control, Comrie believes he will be able to reach across the aisle.
He even has a restaurant picked out should GOP Senate Leader Dean Skelos (R-Nassau) want to come to the 14th District to break bread.
“The Door in Jamaica,” Comrie said. “Great Caribbean food. I think he’d enjoy himself.”
State Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Hollis) and former Councilman and Deputy Borough President Leroy Comrie both received prominent endorsements this past week in their battle for Smith’s seat in the 14th District primary.
Smith on Sunday got the backing of the Rev. Floyd Flake, the former congressman who is pastor of Greater Allen Cathedral AME Church in Jamaica.
He also received the endorsement of the Rev. Phil Craig, pastor of Greater Springfield Community Church, and the Rev. Bishop Roderick Caesar of Greater Springfield Community Church.
Comrie, who has garnered almost all significant labor support, added the New York State United Teachers, which includes the city’s United Federation of Teachers.
Comrie, who has more than 20 unions in addition to Democratic party backing, also picked up Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1, as well as Tile, Marble & Terrazzo Local 7 to his corner.
Comrie, Smith and Munir Avery will square off in the Democratic primary on Sept. 9.