What started out as a “respectful” public arena for seven candidates hoping to replace late City Councilman Thomas White Jr. turned into a tag-team shouting match with two questioners and their mother on one side — and the event’s hosts on the other.
Candidates’ Night on Monday began calmly enough as moderator Celeste James explained the ground rules to the crowd of over 40 people gathered at Christ Church International in Jamaica.
James reminded everyone that personal attacks on candidates — by the panelists or the audience — would not be tolerated, and that the questions had to be germane to the election.
The panelists, in alphabetical order, were to each make a five-minute presentation and then address an issue provided by the late council member’s staff, drawn from a box. Then they would answer questions from the audience.
The answers had to be “what I would do in the first six months,” because the winner of Tuesday’s election will have to run again next November.
Albert Baldeo was a no-show, so the first to speak was Nicole Paultre-Bell, who reminded the audience that she grew up in Baisley Park.
Bell called for more funding for senior centers and local schools. She said she “supports non-profit charter schools, promised to “look into” available grant funding and advocated “fair taxation” for those making over $200,000.
Prison chaplain Charles Bilal spent most of his time recounting his biography and promising to continue his fight against “guns, gangs and drugs.” He called for more community notification about sex-offenders, funding for employment centers and small business incentives.
Martha Taylor-Butler, like White an Air Force veteran, said that as a lifelong neighborhood resident and for eight years chief of staff to Assemblymember Michelle Titus (D-South Ozone Park), she had good contacts at all levels of government and was expert at getting community input. She stressed that all areas of the district would be equally served by her and promised “a fair share of funding.”
Former Councilman Allan Jennings recounted his accomplishments while in office and promised to restore school funding, fight foreclosures and water lien sales, reduce the deficit and increase communication between the police and the community.
Harpreet Singh Toor, formerly with the city’s Human Resources Administration, noted that the district had 10 homeless shelters, while more affluent community districts “have no homeless shelters at all.”
Objecting to “rich people taking advantage of poor people,” he too promised a “fair share” of funding and agreed with a questioner that “there are no ‘illegal’ just undocumented immigrants.” He called for allowing non-citizens to vote.
As the presentations continued, questioners became more demanding of those who, unlike Bell and Butler, were old hands at running for office. It was only when Ruben Wills took to the microphone that things spiraled out of control.
Citing his experience as a staffer to state Senator Shirley Huntley (D-Jamaica), Wills called for primary healthcare clinics to fill the void created by hospital closings he attributed to “systemic neglect” he agreed with the others on foreclosures and fair funding. Then he ran into a buzz saw on the last question of the night.
Two young women approached the microphone and demanded to know “How do you take care of the community when you can’t take care of your kid?” Wills owes over $27,000 in child support.
As moderator, James immediately disallowed the question as out of order. “What does a child support issue have to do with the issues?” she said to the Queens Chronicle later.
But the pair, part of a small group of women who arrived late in the proceedings, continued to shout the question. At the same time a woman who said she was “their mother” took up a position near James and her microphone.
When Wills offered to answer the question — saying, “I’ve been expecting it” — the mother added a counterpoint to the disruptive outburst, alternated with more shouting from the daughters.
After several minutes of increasing volume and tension, Bishop Joseph Williams, senior pastor of the church, took the microphone and insisted that the women who were “out of order,” sit down. They refused.
After warning the belligerents that “the police can be here in a minute,” an exasperated Williams finally ordered the sound system off and declared the meeting over.
Within minutes, the candidates and the instigators were gone. The senior pastor then closed the evening with a prayer.
“I saw those women come in,” James told the Chronicle later. “Someone passed me a note saying they were going to disrupt the meeting,” she said, adding, “I heard them talking among themselves on who was going to do what.”
“Do you believe it?” she asked.