State Sen. Malcolm Smith’s pending retrial on federal corruption charges were never very far from the surface during an Aug. 14 candidate forum for the 14th Senate District.
But the forum did give Smith (D-Hollis), former Councilman Leroy Comrie and Munir Avery the opportunity for a freewheeling discussion on education, jobs, economic development, funding for the district and a host of issues that will be confronting the person sworn into office in January.
The forum was hosted by Majority Baptist Church in Jamaica.
Many of the substantive issues saw only degrees of disagreement among the three Democrats, and the winner is not expected to face serious Republican opposition in November.
The primary point of contention between Smith and Comrie was on who was best suited to deliver for the district beginning Jan. 1.
“You can’t buy my experience, and we don’t have 12 or 13 years for somebody to catch up,” Smith said. “I know where to go and who to speak to.”
He cited, as an example, his work in securing York College’s inclusion in Gov. Cuomo’s Start-Up New York program, which seeks to establish partnerships between businesses and state colleges.
He also mentioned the SAFE Act, a measure he co-sponsored to tighten state firearms laws.
Comrie cited his record over 12 years on the City Council. He did not mention either Smith’s arrest or the senator’s reported isolation from Queens and Albany Democrats since joining the Independent Democratic Conference two years ago.
But he apparently wanted people thinking about them.
“You need someone who can work with people, someone who can walk into a room and knows how to build a consensus,” he said.
All three expressed serious reservations about how charter schools have been handled, and all oppose co-location in existing schools. All would like to see some revisions to laws allowing mayoral control of New York City schools when it comes up for renewal in 2015.
Avery launched a verbal volley at Gov. Cuomo when asked about last year’s Moreland Commission, Gov. Cuomo’s anti-corruption panel that is itself under federal investigation since Cuomo abruptly shut it down.
“It was disgraceful,” Avery said. “He closed it down and he cut a deal.”
Comrie said it shows the need for more transparency in state government, while Smith said it was inappropriate to comment while the matter is under federal investigation.
On economic development, Comrie said targeted tax credits for companies that hire local residents would be good for small business, good for jobs and good for the people of Queens, particularly young people seeking work.
He did not say why narrow tax incentives would be better that broad tax cuts.
“I’d be willing to consider both,” he said after the forum.
Avery was not impressed by anything his opponents had to say about leadership on the jobs/economic development front.
“I have not seen it here,” he said.
Again trying to press home his experience in Albany, and references he made earlier to the racial motive behind his prosecution [see related story], Smith said residents need veteran leadership to combat gentrification.
“If you think gentrification is not happening, pay attention,” he said. “... Look at foreclosure rates. Look at your real estate values. ... Don’t get caught up with the innuendos. Don’t get caught up with the media spin. Don’t get caught up with false allegations.
“Be careful who you talk to, be careful what you say. Because they’ve got their eye on Southeast Queens. They’re trying to shift it, the way Harlem is no longer Harlem and Brooklyn is no longer Brooklyn.”
On crime, particularly gun violence, Comrie said he would prioritize keeping 16- and 17-year-olds accused of crimes from being jailed with older, hardened criminals. Smith touted the millions he has secured in state budgets for things like gun buy-backs and related programs for young people. Avery pointed to his time as an assistant district attorney.
“I would look at a case and dismiss it if it didn’t pass the smell test,” he said.