Potential voters were given the opportunity to compare and contrast all six candidates running for City Council District 19 when the five Democrats and one Republican came face to face in a forum on Aug. 14 at Temple Beth Sholom in Flushing.
The Democrats, John Duane, Paul Graziano, Austin Shafran, Paul Vallone and Chrissy Voskerichian, will square off in a primary on Sept. 10, with the winner taking on Republican challenger Dennis Saffran in the general election on Nov. 5.
The wide-ranging topics facing the candidates in the politically and demographically diverse district ranged from politicians’ integrity and stop and frisk to education and services aimed at immigrants in the community.
When the evening was over, no clear-cut favorite emerged as, based on a small exit sampling, audience members, numbering around 150, to a great extent remained undecided.
Should he be elected, Duane, a former state Assembly member and longtime consumer advocate, said his top three priorities would be to focus on the integrity issue, particularly regarding discretionary funding, overdevelopment in the community and reducing overcrowding in the district’s schools.
For Graziano, an urban planner and lifelong resident of North Flushing, overdevelopment is the main issue, followed by education, which he called “a huge draw to middle-class families who move to this area,” and “nuts and bolts” quality-of- life issues.
Shafran, whose prior experience includes working for former Congressman Gary Ackerman and Gov. Cuomo, focused on the “need to end mayoral control” of the city’s schools, cutting property taxes for homeowners and overdevelopment.
An attorney, Vallone said of primary importance to him is “being able to contribute to the community,” as well as working toward education and quality-of-life reforms.
Voskerichian, a lifelong community resident, civic leader and longtime businesswoman, intends to make everyone aware of exactly what it is that the City Council does, while also focusing on education and public safety issues, particularly as they relate to community-police partnerships.
Saffran, an attorney, cited public safety, the maintenance of higher standards in education and the need to maintain the quality of life in the district as his main issues.
With some of the recent political scandals no doubt in mind, the candidates were questioned as to how they would reform the City Council for the sake of greater integrity. Saffran said that “anyone convicted of a crime should forfeit their public pension.” As an example, he indicated that outgoing Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone), who is facing corruption charges, should not be receiving a public paycheck.
The six candidates are seeking to replace Halloran, who is not seeking re-election.
Voskerichian, who acknowledged she worked for Halloran for three years, said, “You have to have unwavering integrity. Transparency is a very big part of integrity.” She added that she is an advocate for participatory budgeting, something Halloran had joined in.
Vallone said, “The most important part is to restore trust in public officials. Public officials have let us down.”
Shafran would “ban all outside employment and income for City Council members,” adding that they should not work for their personal business clients. And he advocates ending the City Council slush fund.
Graziano would like to see more public financing for political races and the elimination of political funds from special interests. He also called for the removal of the extra money officeholders receive for being committee chairs.
Duane promised to “make my office completely transparent,” and said, “We have to look at criminalizing behavior. If you see corruption and don’t report it, that should be a misdemeanor.”
Voskerichian said it was “a sad day for New Yorkers” when the Community Safety Act, an initiative that would strengthen the ban on discriminatory profiling by the NYPD when officers stop and frisk people, and more oversight of the department, was passed. “It does not help anyone except the criminal,” she said.
That was a position with which Saffran agrees. Duane and Vallone endorse the continuation of stop and frisk, while Graziano and Shafran are opposed to it.
On another issue, Shafran said he is “absolutely 100 percent behind municipal voting rights for noncitizens,” saying, “I would do everything possible to bring people into the process.”
Duane sees as an “inherent conflict of interest” in serving the community while working for private clients. It was a remark that prompted Vallone, whose law office has served the borough for over 80 years, to later say, “I was insulted by that comment,” adding that he would be a full-time City Council member.
Another thrust of the discussion concerned translation services available to immigrants in the community, an issue most of the candidates agreed needs improvement.
Shafran bemoaned cultural barriers that he said exist, particularly regarding senior citizens and healthcare. Voskerichian said, “We’re missing person-to-person communication.” Vallone said the city has failed small business owners because of a lack of communication, while Saffran indicated that all struggling businessmen and women face the same burdens, noting there is no need to separate the immigrants from the others.
Duane said “the city must do a better job providing better translation services.” Graziano said he would have a full-time staff of speakers of Chinese, Korean and other languages spoken among the constituents. The five Democratic candidates said they would hire at least one Korean staff member, while Saffran said he could not promise that he would, depending on budgetary restraints.
On the issue of overdevelopment of the district, Duane said, “I’m not taking any money from developers,” adding that it is important to “stand up against inappropriate development.”
Graziano suggested that “inclusionary zoning has not worked” as it relates to affordable housing.
Shafran acknowledged that “there is an affordable housing crisis,” but said that “any City Council member needs to make sure to stop overdevelopment. Any developer must stay within the zoning regulations.”
For Vallone, lack of housing is a chief concern. Saffran said affordable housing is important for seniors and young people.
Voskerichian said seniors “already have a lot of breaks,” and indicated while affordable housing can be an issue for some, she is more concerned with the “need to build more schools.”
Audience members submitted questions for the panel on several issues, including education, prompting Vallone to call for more community input. “We do not get our fair share of resources,” he said.
In a school district that is already overcrowded, Shafran indicated that, if unchecked, the problem will lead to “precipitous academic decline.”
Graziano suggested the decline has already been seen in some area schools and called for the abolishment of the Department of Education and the re-establishment of local school control.
Duane promised to “fight for a fair share of resources,” and said the DOE must solicit more community input. He said he would use part of his discretionary funds to help reduce the size of classes in the district.
Voskerichian suggested a partnership between the city and private schools. “We have to do something and do it soon,” she said.
Saffran vowed to bring in additional resources.
All the candidates agree that increased noise from new airplane routes into and out of LaGuardia Airport is a quality-of-life issue that needs to be addressed. They also see eye to eye on raising taxes on the top 1 percent of New Yorkers. All agreed that teachers’ salaries should not be determined by results on standardized testing, except Saffran, who said the exams should “partly” determine teachers’ pay.
Many in the crowd were ambivalent following the discussion.
Paul Klein of Little Neck said, “It’s a very difficult choice. I hope I can make a decision in the primaries. I have a little more clarity.”
Ravi Sriram of Douglaston said, “A lot of the issues were relevant,” but he remained “somewhat undecided,” as he felt “all the candidates brought interesting ideas.”
The district takes in College Point, North Flushing, Whitestone, Bayside, Douglaston and Little Neck.