With six months to go before the scheduled Democratic primary, the six Democratic candidates for borough president came to Astoria on March 14 to try and distinguish themselves from the rest of the field on schools, small business and just how to handle Willets Point and development proposals for Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), former Deputy Borough President Barry Grodenchik, former Councilwoman and Assemblywoman Melinda Katz, state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) and Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. were all present at various times at the forum hosted by the Greater Astoria Historical Society.
All had nuanced takes on how the borough president can use the office to benefit Queens residents in terms of city funding and services.
“It you’re not strong, you’re going to get railroaded,” Comrie said. Vallone agreed, saying that is what makes him the ideal candidate.
“You need a powerful voice in Borough Hall,” Vallone said to the crowd of about 120. “And you know I have one.”
Peralta said things like infrastructure, job creation and city services can feed off each other helping each other grow.
“We need to make Queens a destination,” he said. “We need to lose our ‘outer borough’ mentality.”
Katz said the proper candidate should be expected to have and effect a vision for everything from schools to capital projects.
About the only contentious portion of the evening was when Avella and Grodenchik both advocated a borough president and staff that are accessible and accountable to the residents.
“That’s not what I’m hearing from people I’ve been talking to,” Avella said.
“Maybe you’ve been talking to the wrong people,” Grodenchik countered.
“And maybe that says a lot about your candidacy that you would interrupt me,” Avella said.
Current Borough President Helen Marshall, who has been in office for 12 years, is prevented from running for the office again because of term limits.
Comrie and Vallone also are being term-limited out of their City Council seats.
Unless anyone drops out or the state Legislature moves the date, the six will square off in a Democratic primary on Sept. 10.
No Republicans are currently running for borough president.
All candidates said small business must be nurtured if it is to provide the jobs needed for the borough and the city.
“I run a small business,” Vallone said of his family law firm. “I’ve made a payroll. I pay taxes.” He then said the city is hurting small businesses with its massive increases in inspections and fines in recent years.
Comrie said a friendly small business atmosphere also is in the city’s long-term interest.
“This city is overly dependent on Wall Street,” he said. “And Wall Street is going to change in the next 10 years, because now you can sit at home in Bora Bora and trade stocks.”
Peralta said Queens can help existing businesses and draw more by marketing itself better.
Grodenchik said mayoral control of schools has not worked.
“In a city of 8.3 million people, in a school system with 1.2 million people in it, one person cannot be solely responsible for making decisions,” he said.
Katz used her recent scramble to enroll her 4-year-old in preschool near the deadline to say that the Department of Education must rethink its priorities.
“I got a letter from the DOE saying my child did not have one of his shots,” she said. “I didn’t get a letter reminding me that I needed to register him for preschool.”
In regard to the endangered Gifted and Talented program at nearby PS 122, the candidates acknowledged that the city is cutting a program that it should be emulating.
“I think parents are going to start pushing back,” Peralta said.
On the topic of Willets Point, Avella said he is the only candidate who has come out against all three major proposals for the area — a new soccer stadium, The United States Tennis Association’s proposed expansion of the Billie Jean King Tennis Center and a massive retail and entertainment complex proposed by the owners of the New York Mets.
The project also is supposed to include affordable housing in the region and upgrades to nearby highway access infrastructure.
But the housing for the moment is only required at the tail end of any project, which would be more than 10 years from now.
Vallone, who said Willets Point will and must be redeveloped, took particular issue with the stadium proposed for Flushing Meadows Corona park.
“Major League Soccer conducted a scam of a public hearing with a packed house,” he said.
He added that the city must seek a commitment from the USTA to give back to the city, specifically the park, in return for any approval.