How to become involved in public affairs - Queens Chronicle: Central/Mid Queens News

How to become involved in public affairs

by David Russell Associate Editor | Posted: Thursday, June 13, 2019 10:30 am

How can someone become involved in politics and helping their community?

As state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) explains, “It’s not like you wake up one Thursday and go, ‘Oh, what a great Thursday. I think I’ll be a state Senator.’ It doesn’t work that way.”

The nice thing, Addabbo said, is there’s no special degree needed to become an elected official.

“There are just average people who get elected to City Council, Congress,” he said. “And that’s what’s great about our democracy. But I do tell them it all starts on your block. No matter, president on down, elected official, it all started pretty much with the idea of getting involved in your neighborhood. That’s where the genesis starts. And then it grows up from there.”

He said he would like to see younger people attend civic meetings.

“It’s the younger residents who have the more vested interest because they may have the longevity of being in a community for a longer time but they feel that their voice doesn’t mean much, or ‘Why should I speak out? I’m not registered to vote. Elected officials don’t hear me,’” Addabbo said.

“And meanwhile, I’m really keen on what they tell me because, man, student debt, career opportunities. And then when they do reach out, I try to really act on what they want to work on because you want to show them that [officials] do react to younger residents, not just the older population.”

When Addabbo speaks to high school students he asks them if they’re registered to vote and they look at him as if he’s crazy.

“I know you can’t raise your hand,” he said. “I know you can’t. Does that mean you can’t speak to me? Does that mean you can’t call me and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a problem’?”

Addabbo believes younger people have become more politically minded since Donald Trump was elected president.

“They like the internet. They like Twitter and Instagram and everything else but to still physically go to a meeting to voice your opinion and to use your right as a community member to voice your opposition to something or support for something, I still think that’s very important,” he said. “You get more out of that than just clicking keys on a keyboard.”

Addabbo said joining a community board is one way to become involved.

“Community boards are made up of civic leaders or community leaders who volunteer their time and they talk about ... approving of a license for a certain bar that may have had issues in the community, other quality of life issues,” he said.

“The person can go up to each member, talk to them about the area they represent when they go to the table as a community board member.”

Addabbo added people can “really get a feel of what’s going on in their neighborhood and then they say, ‘Wow, the park needs to be fixed.’ Or, ‘Yeah, we’ve been fighting for a stop sign here.’ They get to hear some of the issues that are going on in their own community.”

Precinct community council meetings are another way to become informed.

“If you don’t watch out for public safety, people leave,” Addabbo said. “If they don’t feel safe in the community, they leave. At most precinct council meetings, there’s the captain, the commanding officer, inspector, the NCOs, community affairs. They’re all there for the most part.”

He said issues range from life and death to the mundane, like when he was a councilman and an elderly woman in Howard Beach was crying and screaming on the phone about “something on her block ruining her life.”

“She finally calmed down because she was in hysterics and she told me the Mister Softee ice cream truck was going down the block and the music was just driving her crazy,” Addabbo said.

He said he understands people can be scared away from working in politics because of all the negativity they may see.

“Democrats and Republicans do conversate, they do have working relationships,” Addabbo said. “It’s not all a cat-and-dog kind of thing.”

He also said internships are a great way to become involved.

Addabbo’s father was in Congress for a quarter-century and Addabbo Jr. was the youngest of three children.

“I only saw my dad as an elected official,” he said.

He wasn’t scared off from following his father into politics.

“My brother was,” Addabbo said. “My brother was like, ‘I want no part of this.’”

He acknowledged that being an elected official isn’t for everyone and people can think about other careers surrounding politicians.

“If you’re really keen on the environment, latch onto an elected official who cares most about the environment and say I want to be your environmental policy person,” Addabbo said.

He said he always encourages younger residents to become active because they can make a difference in the community.

When Addabbo ran for City Council, he asked a number of students what they would like him to do and skateboard park was a popular answer. And he put $500,000 in the city budget for one located at Rockaway Beach.

By his own admission, he had no idea what he was looking at when he saw the blueprint of the project so he asked the students what they thought. They criticized it, saying it was designed wrong and made changes of their own.

Addabbo said it was the first skateboard park in the area designed by 10- and 11-year olds.

“All because they spoke out, saving the city half a million dollars,” he said.

Breeana Mulligan is the president of the Queens County Young Democrats, a group that includes members from ages 16 through 36.

Mulligan, who is first deputy press secretary for City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan), became involved in politics when she was a teenager and worked on Paul Vallone’s campaign for City Council 10 years ago.

“I met him, I volunteered on his campaign, I stayed in touch with him,” she said.

Vallone lost in 2009 but ran again in 2013 with Mulligan again working on the campaign. That time he was victorious.

She began working in the Council office even while she was still attending St. John’s and working toward a journalism degree.

“It was a really rewarding experience I had to balance both of those at the same time,” said Mulligan, who has also served as deputy press secretary for former speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

Eventually, Mulligan became involved in the Queens County Young Democrats.

“I wanted to meet other like-minded folks my age who also work in this field or have an interest in politics and it’s been a great step forward for people who want to get involved in politics,” she said.

Mulligan said the Democratic base became energized after Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016 but that she can see why the negativity of the job could dissuade people from pursuing work in politics.

“I could see how people might feel discouraged at times,” she said. “I know it’s kind of a scary world we’re living in with politics right now nationwide.”

She said the club is inclusive of race, religion and ideology, whether far left or middle, all are invited. “The first step is having a conversation,” Mulligan said. “We are very open. We want to include everybody.”

She added, “If they meet other folks who show they’re not the only ones giving the time for this and they find a sense of community, then they might change their minds and just take a chance.

“That’s the scary part though, right? Walking in the door and not knowing anyone. That’s definitely, I think, the most difficult part but once you walk in the door to one of our meetings ... we welcome them with open arms.”

Mulligan also said long hours at the office don’t have to be seen as a bad thing.

“If you love something so much and you want to make a difference, I’ll sleep eventually,” she said.

When it comes to entering politics, Councilman Bob Holden (D-Middle Village) joked about doing what he did: “The best advice I could give is be a civic leader and a community board member for 30 years and then you can run for office. And then you win slightly.”

Like Addabbo, Holden spoke of the importance of community participation.

“Civic people and community board members, we know,” Holden said. “We’re out there at civic meetings.”

Holden, a Democrat who actually won on the Republican line, said more than political ideology and party lines are at play when it comes to becoming involved.

“It’s the hard work,” he said. “It’s the cleanups you do in the neighborhood. It’s attending umpteen meetings and offering input. And it’s understanding how government actually works.”

Holden said “volunteer” is the key word in the conversation on involvement.

“If you volunteer in your community you’ve kind of earned the right, I think, to run for elected office,” he said.

Holden said one of the tough parts of being so involved is the time constraints.

“I missed a good part of my kids’ childhood,” he said, adding, “I was out a lot and my wife still reminds me of that.”

Holden said he was on seven committees at once, civic president, designer and editor of the Juniper Berry civic magazine in addition to his full-time job.

“This job is a little easier,” he said, though he acknowledged it’s a seven-day-a-week job. “I’ve got one job now. This job is all that in one now.”

He added, “If you have the work ethic and if you show it and you feel that you can lead people, I think you should run for office.”