The responsibilities of a borough president have recently become the subject of debate. While some have said these borough-heads who cannot make any decisions on legislation are irrelevant, Queens borough president candidate Barry Grodenchik says the position is about more than rules and regulations.
“The job is about bringing people together,” Grodenchik said in a sit-down with the Queens Chronicle editors last Thursday. “We live in the most diverse place in the country and probably the world, and while it’s easy to scream and rant, the tougher job is to work with the people.”
But how to bring a diverse borough together?
“First and foremost, you have to be a good listener and spend a lot of time working with people,” Grodenchik said. “Most of the problems that people have are similar and most of the desires people have are similar. There may be cultural differences, but everybody wants safe streets, good schools, good economic opportunities, good libraries and good parks.”
Grodenchik grew up in the Pomonok Houses in Flushing and attended public schools. And while those experiences growing up in Queens are important factors, Grodenchik says, it’s his experience in “public life” that puts him over the top.
“I grew up in Queens but I think most, if not all, of the candidates come from Queens,” he said. “But I am the only one with over a decade of experience — of borough-wide experience — having worked with the past two borough presidents and having interacted with all of the city elected officials for over a decade.”
Grodenchik began his political career in 1987 when he worked for Assemblywoman Nettie Mayersohn. He then became chief administrative officer for former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman, overseeing all correspondence, scheduling and general office administration, as well as serving as a member of her executive staff.
“I spent over a decade running Claire Shulman’s office and I got my chance and served a term in the state Assembly in the seat that Ron Kim now has,” Grodenchik said.
When he ran for a second term, he lost to Jimmy Meng but went back to Borough Hall to work for current Borough President Helen Marshall as deputy borough president, a title he dropped to run for her office.
“You cannot raise money for a campaign and be a deputy borough president at the same time, so I became director of community boards as well as the parks liaison,” he said.
When asked about some of the criticism that has been made about Queens community boards, Grodenchik was quick to defend all of the board members.
“These are all volunteers and many of them are good at what they do,” he said. “Yes, occasionally you have to step in and remind them that what they do is public record and that we hold the boards very highly in Queens.”
Between mediating with the community boards and working in Borough Hall, Grodenchik said that what the people of Queens need most is someone who will unite them.
“The job of the BP is about bringing people together,” he said. “Otherwise, frankly, you don’t need a borough president. You already have the City Council, you have the mayor and all of these other people who have the power to make these decisions. But a BP’s job is to come up with creative solutions to make people’s lives better, and that’s what I’ve spent my career doing.”
Grodenchik is up against some heavy-hitters in city politics, including Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), former Councilwoman Melinda Katz, state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) and Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria). But Grodenchik did not criticize any of them.
“I’m not that kind of guy,” he said. “Melinda Katz and Peter Vallone have done a great job fundraising, but we’re doing some good fundraising too. I’ve never attacked my opponents —it’s not my style and it doesn’t get you a whole lot of votes — at the end of the day its about bringing people together.”