As election day nears, voters were given another opportunity to become better informed via “Meet the Candidate Night” at St. John’s University on Monday evening.
The forum included the participation of the two leading candidates for borough president along with the candidates for City Council from districts 23 and 24.
Many of the candidates took an opportunity to personalize their political positions. But few turned out to hear them.
Democratic candidate for borough president Melinda Katz, a native and current resident of Forest Hills, emphasized the need for better healthcare, citing the example of the night her two-year-old son developed an ear infection.
Reasoning that emergency rooms in the borough are always packed, she opted to wait for morning when her own pediatrician would be available. The anecdote sent home her message that “we need healthcare.”
Katz, a familiar face on the local political scene as a former member of the State Assembly and City Council, acknowledged the need to “recognize the diversity” of the borough. Part of her responsibility, she said, would be getting more funding from the city.
The daughter of pioneers in the borough’s cultural scene, she stressed the need for additional funding to support the arts, saying Queens shouldn’t get shortchanged compared to the other boroughs.
Regarding the City Council’s recent approval of a multi-billion dollar development plan in Willets Point, she said, “I want to get something built there.” Taking into account the plan to start building 200 units of affordable housing in the area by the end of the year, she said, “From that perspective, it’s a good thing.”
Katz “has a problem” with the notion that charter schools don’t have to adhere to the same standards as conventional schools.
Republican Borough President candidate Tony Arcabascio grew up in Jackson Heights and currently serves as project manager at North Shore LIJ Health System. A relative political novice, he contrasted his background with Katz’s.
“She has political experience,” he said. “I have a lot of practical experience.”
Arcabascio described the job of borough president as being an advocate who needs to be a personality but not partial.
“I’m not sure Melinda has that impartiality.” Unlike Katz, he said the City Council had “every reason not to make that decision” to vote on Willets Point.
On other issues, the two are in agreement. Regarding the recent closures of several local hospitals, Arcabascio, the only candidate who works in healthcare, said, “We can fight to try to get new facilities open.” He also believes “we have to get some businesses in Queens” in order to keep young people, such as those in the audience, in the borough after they complete their education.
Running for City Council in the 23rd District are incumbent Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens) and retired NYPD captain Joseph Concannon on the Reform line.
Weprin said the city’s current education system “emphasizes standardized tests too much.” He is not opposed to charter schools “as long as they are done properly.” Similarly, he said of stop and frisk, “when it is used constitutionally, it is a very good program.”
He agreed with Katz on Willets Point, saying something needs to be put there.
He suggested several solutions to the city’s budget deficit: eliminating expensive run-off elections, cutting down on the Dept. of Education’s “enormous waste,” and raising more revenue.
Concannon devoted his entire opening statement to one issue, saying, “there is no such thing” as a stop and frisk program. Rather, he termed the practice “a very successful police strategy.”
He said the city wants police officers to be “pro-active,” admitting that, at times, “some of our police officers get it wrong.” As to hospital closures, he admitted he was not too familiar with the situation.
Running for Council District 24, seeking to replace James Gennaro who is exiting due to term limits, are Republican Alexander Blishteyn, a trial attorney, and Democrat Rory Lancman, a former state Assemblyman.
“My concern is that we need to continue with the public safety initiative,” Blishteyn said in his opening comments. With safe streets, he said, “small businesses can flourish.” He added that “small businesses are the lifeblood of this city,” and should not be over-regulated. “We can’t keep nickel and diming the business owners.”
He said the city needs to give parents a “choice” of where to send their children. He also wants to curb city spending.
Citing a problem he had with his home, Blishteyn said he contacted Gennaro for assistance. “Has he done a good job? Not as far as I’m concerned,” he said, having never heard back from the councilman.
On education, he said the biggest problem is “the end result,” suggesting that 80 percent of the students graduate from high school unable to read, write or do arithmetic. He said universal pre-kindergarten is “absolutely a good idea.”
On stop and frisk, he said the police “were basically told to stay in their cars,” and he cited high risk areas that he said are already seeing the results of a smaller police presence.
With nearly all of city government set to turn over following the upcoming elections, Lancman said the city is facing pretty extraordinary challenges.
To close the projected structural budget deficit, he suggested the elimination of failed programs, the need to “establish efficiencies” in programs that will continue, and asking the wealthiest to pay a “small increase” in income taxes. On stop and frisk, Lancman said, “No person should be stopped by the police unless their conduct arouses reasonable suspicion.”
Brian Browne, Assistant Vice President for the Government Relations Office of the President at the university, hosted the forum. The panel of questioners for the two-hour forum consisted of St. John’s students Jelani Wheeler, Katie Dineen, Luis Quinones, and Stephen Boniberger and Michael Gannon, an editor at the Queens Chronicle.
Election Day is November 5.