One might have thought all the candidates for the District 26 City Council seat were running together rather than against each other, based on what they said at a forum on Tuesday evening.
The debate, hosted by an immigrant advocacy group called Make the Road New York, consisted of a string of questions involving concerns of the immigrant community — and the four City Council hopefuls who participated took turns expressing their solidarity with America’s newest arrivals and pledging to fight for immigrant communities.
District 26, currently represented by Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside), who is running for public advocate, encompasses Woodside, Sunnyside, Long Island City, parts of Astoria and Maspeth.
Democrats Deirdre Feerick, Brent O’Leary and Jimmy Van Bramer, along with the lone Republican candidate Angelo Maragos, all stressed their dedication to improving English language learning opportunities. They said creating more affordable housing for low-income families is crucial and pledged to do their utmost to put tenants’ interests over those of the landlords.
All four also said they support legislation that would require prescription drug instructions to be available in Spanish, as well as legislation that would make it mandatory for employers to offer their workers paid sick days.
As Van Bramer put it, aptly summing up his and his opponents’ remarks, “It is an absolute disgrace that anybody working in this country would not have paid sick days. … How can you be forced to make that decision between your or your child’s health and your pay?”
Each candidate pledged to crack down on hate crimes against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and all said they would do their best to ensure that immigrants are not imprisoned or deported without sufficient grounds.
More than once, candidates remarked something to the effect of, “I think we all agree on this.”
That’s not to say that there weren’t minor variations in the candidates’ answers.
When asked what they would do to keep immigrant children from falling behind in school, the candidates promoted slightly different tactics.
Maragos pushed for the creation of more charter schools; O’Leary, who taught English in Japan for a year, called for reducing class sizes, ensuring more parental involvement and raising teacher salaries so talented educators don’t leave areas with large immigrant populations; Van Bramer said English language classes should be offered for free and libraries should offer more books in a range of languages, and he called for immigration reform to ensure that children, regardless of immigration status, feel safe and welcome in schools; and Feerick said the focus in schools should be on teaching, not testing, and that students should be allowed to take more time with their studies if necessary.
Affordable housing also spawned varying answers.
Maragos would work hard to prosecute landlords for housing code violations, would make it harder for landlords to eliminate rent control and would seek federal stimulus money for affordable housing.
O’Leary agreed that the vacancy decontrol law is a major problem and added that developers seeking to come to the area should be required to include affordable housing in their projects.
Van Bramer would try to stop big corporations such as Vantage from buying up middle-class housing and forcing tenants out, would strengthen rent control and said candidates should be banned from accepting contributions from landlords.
Feerick agreed that landlords’ incentives to move people out should be taken away and added that she would also focus on transitioning homeless individuals out of shelters.
Some of the main points on which candidates differed came when the floor was opened to questions from audience members. One came from an immigrant who participated in cleanup efforts after Sept. 11 and said he knows many people who are ill but don’t have health insurance and are afraid to seek medical care because they are undocumented.
Feerick said it’s extremely important that undocumented immigrants have the right to receive health care. “You were helping a country that was hurt and torn and fractured, and now you are hurt and fractured,” she said, adding that she thinks that’s unacceptable.
O’Leary and Van Bramer both said they think government should pay for health care, including for undocumented immigrants.
“Health care is not a luxury; I believe it is a right,” O’Leary said.
Maragos had a slightly different take, advocating community-based private health care options of the sort that already exist in Brooklyn. In addition, Maragos said he would work to bring health care services and facilities to the district.
The final question on which the candidates differed came from a construction worker, who said the classes required for accreditation in the construction field are costly, and certification takes a long time.
Maragos said the problem is that the city government is “a bureaucratic mess” which needs to be streamlined. He didn’t elaborate on specific changes he would push for.
O’Leary would work to reduce red tape and added that constituents should bring their problems to his office. “I’ll go to bat for you,” he said.
Van Bramer said construction workers should have access to unions, and that the city should offer grants to those unable to afford accreditation classes.
Feerick said classes should be offered in conjunction with the City University of New York. “With increased accreditations go increased wages,” she added.
The Democratic primary is set for Sept. 15.