Call it the story of a local boy trying to do well for his hometown.
A familiar face to the corridors of power, Bayside native Austin Shafran kicked off his run for the City Council’s 19th District on Feb. 19, touting years spent working within the bounds of the political system, at the local, state and federal levels.
The former Queens College star athlete (Shafran was on the school’s varsity baseball team and named Academic Athlete of the Year) said his familiarity with government at all levels will provide a needed boon for the district.
“Having developed the experience on the local level, city, state and federal level, I have a clear record of results,” he said.
The 32-year-old currently serves as the vice president of public affairs for Gov. Cuomo’s Empire State Development agency. He also worked as a community liaison for now-retired U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman, before becoming the chief spokesman for then-Councilman David Weprin and the New York State Senate Democrats.
It’s that time spent among lawmakers that taught Shafran the value of public service. During a recent tour of the Rockaways, post-Hurricane Sandy, Cuomo pointed to the devastation and said, “This is why we’re here, because it’s the job of government to do what it can, when you can, wherever it can.”
Shafran paused in his retelling and added, “For whoever you can. I’ll add to the governor’s sage advice.”
The Dem is one of four running in the primary, including Matthew Silverstein, Paul Vallone and John Duane.
Congressman Joe Crowley (D-Queens, Bronx) joined Shafran at his kickoff on Tuesday night at the Bay Terrace Jewish Center, a possible signal of the broader support of the borough’s Democratic Party, which he chairs.
The city’s 19th Council District broadly encompasses Bayside, Whitestone and North Flushing. Shafran’s ties to the area make him a regular at all the spots on Bell Boulevard: Pappazzio’s, and Jack’s Pizzeria (he even claims to have Mr. Wasabi’s entire menu memorized). You can also catch him at the Bay Terrace’s AMC Loew’s theater. (Shafran recommends checking out “Lincoln.”) The connections go back generations, to proudly unionized schoolteacher parents and Teamster grandparents.
In fact, it is those connections to organized labor that inform (and bolster) much of his campaign. To date, he has the endorsement of two unions: the Teamsters and UFC Local 1500.
“I learned from an early age that anyone who wants to work for the American dream should be entitled to his or her piece of it,” he said.
It was during his time spent navigating different levels of government that Shafran learned the values of the job — and the values of the district specifically. From Ackerman’s office: helping seniors, the disabled and immigrants navigate federal services. During Weprin’s term: helping promote a very significant expansion of government services. As press secretary for the Senate Democrats: helping push for a fair share “millionaire’s tax.”
“I’ve always been someone who has believed in the politics of hope and the strength of action,” he said. “If we want things to be different, then we’re the ones who have to make things different. Politics is a full-time calling, not a part-time career.”
Shafran makes it a point to note the Council will be his only job, should he be elected.
“Anyone who is paid to be a representative of the public in the City Council, that should be their only job,” he said. “I would not engage in any outside employment in the duration of my outside service. You have to be responsive to everyone all the time.
“I think the City Council represents the local form of representative democracy, and it’s my job to be the eyes, ears and strong voice advocating the needs of the people,” he said.
Those eyes, ears and voice are acutely attuned to the economy, and what Shafran portrays as a dearth of jobs and stagnating wages.
“Cost of living has gone up. Wages and job opportunities have gone down,” he said. “I’m the product of some very good local schools in our area. It’s my job to pay it forward. We need to improve the quality of life.”
On a local level, education, safety and bolstered government services remain a priority. While Shafran acknowledged the dire need for a new high school in the district, he said some creative minds would have to get together to find a location. And when the kids do have a school, their parents and teachers should have a greater say in their education.
“We need a more cohesive and comprehensive approach to education that incorporates parents and educators in policy planning,” Shafran said.
The Bayside resident counts himself among the growing wave of legislators who push for greater transparency and more direct constituent participation. Think of it as the democratization of lawmaking, as embodied by regular progress reports and participatory budgeting. Shafran sees community boards as the initial version of that direct influence, largely neutered during Mayor Bloomberg’s term.