It’s been 12 years since Helen Marshall, a longtime legislator from East Elmhurst, defeated her City Council colleague Al Stabile to become the first African-American borough president of Queens. But last week, with only a few days left in her long political career, Marshall said she has few regrets and expressed pride in what she has accomplished.
She also deflected criticisms that she was not vocal or in the public eye as much as her colleagues in the other boroughs.
Before being elected borough president in 2001, Marshall, now 84, represented East Elmhurst and Corona in the state Assembly from 1983 until 1991, when she was elected to represent the same communities in the City Council. There she served until her election to the borough presidency.
“I feel that I have worked very hard,” Marshall said. “I had a wonderful staff with a good atmosphere among them. We did accomplish quite a bit.”
She focused on one accomplishment in particular, the placement of the old No. 7 train car in front of Borough Hall as an information center. Marshall saved the train car from being sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean as an artificial reef.
“I stopped that and said, ‘You know where I want to put that? I want it on the side of the building and it’s to be an information center so people can ask questions and find out information about things,’” she explained. “They don’t have to come all the way up to the building. Sometimes to walk into a big building like that is a lot.”
Renovations and expansions at Borough Hall are among her favorite accomplishments, including the new atrium that is being built in the back of the building. The atrium proved to be controversial because a number of trees were cut down before its construction, though Marshall said at the time it was because they were diseased.
She also pointed out that she attempted to utilize the building more efficiently.
“There were big rooms that were empty and people were putting stuff in there,” she said. “And I came in and said ‘Get this out of here.’ You should see what they look like now. And it gives us extra space.”
Marshall did not single out any capital project that she funded with her discretionary money as her favorite, saying each one of them was great.
“I’m trying to do things that people can use,” she explained.
Rejecting the idea that she hasn’t been vocal enough for Queens, like Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, she defended her record, even going so far as to criticize her Brooklyn counterpart.
“You want to know something, he’s not very nice,” she said of Markowitz. “He can be very insulting. I wouldn’t play with my borough the way he does. When I talk about this borough, I’m dead serious. I love it. It’s a great place and I want to do all I can to keep it a great place or make it better. I’m not looking for praise. When I talk about my borough, I don’t say the things he says.”
Marshall had some advice for her successor, Melinda Katz.
“Keep a smile on your face,” she said. “And be nice to your staff. When you’re nice to them, they’re nice to the people and if they’re not nice to the people, that’s on you.”