Early signs in the Democratic primary for borough president point to a love-fest. Not necessarily among the candidates, but between the six Democrats and Queens itself.
Five of the six candidates vying for the seat attended last Thursday a candidates’ forum at the Hollis Hills Jewish Center, co-hosted by the Saul Weprin and Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic clubs. Each touted experience in at least one niche where government intersects with life, pointing to personal experience and past work as part of his or her bona fides.
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), former Deputy Borough President and Assemblyman Barry Grodenchik, former Councilwoman Melinda Katz, state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) and City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) stopped by to deliver their stump speeches. Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) did not attend.
The race, still months away from the planned primary, has devolved into a contest over who will love the borough harder. And the limited scope of power emanating from Borough Hall didn’t stop some from making veiled promises the job wouldn’t allow them to keep.
Peralta’s stump speech included promises to “streamline rules and regulations that govern small businesses.”
Grodenchik lamented the state of the borough’s healthcare system, saying, “We’re caught between two goliaths of healthcare in Nassau and Manhattan.”
Avella — as you may have guessed — deplored developers’ ability to run roughshod over the “character of the borough.”
Katz promised to “knock heads” and “effectuate change at the city level.”
“Experience is going to matter in this race,” she added.
Vallone, to his credit, fell short of promising to leap beyond the very high walls set around borough presidents in the City Charter.
To be clear, the six Democrats are engaged in a race for a position that has been largely neutered after the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989 declared the city’s Board of Estimate unconstitutional.
A revision to the City Charter in 1990 reduced the position of borough president to a largely ceremonial one with a limited advisory role, the nominal ability to introduce legislation and a bit of taxpayer lucre to dole out.
The nominal allusion to legislative power at the Council level — a legislature in which its own members can’t introduce legislation with any ease — has not been practiced in any sort of substantive way by Borough Hall’s current occupant, Helen Marshall.
And so five of the six candidates for borough president came before two of northeast Queens’ Democratic clubs to essentially argue why they’re most suited to spend at least four years in Borough Hall holding a figurative megaphone and purse.
None spoke to specific budgetary priorities or programs that would benefit from their election. They did, however, give Queens a big verbal hug.
Peralta set the tone for the proceedings, blowing the expected kisses to the borough.
“I want to make sure Queens becomes a destination,” he said, later adding “This is the greatest borough in the world.”
The line was repeated ad nauseam by nearly all the candidates, along with the expected Queens bona fides. And for good reason.
The presence of departing Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz loomed large over the discussion. Mr. “Fugghedaboutit!” has become the de facto model for the post-charter revision borough president: brash, eloquent, omnipresent, loud and a total ham in front of news cameras.
Our borough, it seems, needs its own Markowitz. Someone who will stand on the Queensboro Bridge with a megaphone and shout “Welcome to Queens” during a blackout, as Markowitz did for Brooklyn in 2003. (We assume our borough president will still call it the “Queensboro” Bridge.)
One finds it hard to imagine any of the candidates declaring Yankees fans in Queens “treasonous,” the way Markowitz ribbed Manhattan Knicks supporters hailing from Brooklyn.
Some of the candidates said Queens needs an advocate at the city level and beyond — presumably one who shows emotion beyond the dopey grin on Mr. Met’s face. The quintet in Hollis Hills tried.
There were moments when some reached for that level of outsized personality.
Katz came closest. She supports mayoral control of schools (not that she’d have an iota of a voice in the matter). Why? “I like having someone to yell at.” Zing.
So if not a show of megawatt character, what’s being offered to the people of Queens?
The candidates would do best to check the City Charter’s fourth chapter, labeled “Borough Presidents” and come back more versed in the job they’re applying for.