Southeast Queens primary heats up over redemption and representation 1

District 28 Councilwoman Adrienne Adams will face two potential challengers in the Democratic primary, Ruben Wills, center, and Japneet Singh.

It didn’t look like Southeast Queens Council District 28 was going to get a Democratic primary until February, when two candidates made late-entry challenges to Adrienne Adams (D-Jamaica).

Ruben Wills, a former city councilman in the district who left office amidst a corruption scandal, and Japneet Singh, a young Sikh activist from Richmond Hill, both registered their campaign shortly before the petitioning process began.

The two insurgents will force Adams, who was elected in 2017, to mount a primary campaign to get a second term. Though Adams currently has less than $40,000 of campaign cash on hand, according to campaign finance records, she insisted to the Chronicle that she had been ready for a challenge and expects to pick up public matching funds in the next disbursement.

“We didn’t expect that we would coast or that we would not be challenged. I’ll just put it that way. So we expected that there would be a challenge or a two,” Adams said. Though she added “to see two males try to take out the first woman, who’s doing a hell of a job in the seat, is interesting.”

Wills is running for redemption in his district. The former councilman, who was elected in 2010, went to prison in 2017 after a jury found that he was guilty of using over tens of thousands of dollars of government funds to buy personal items. An appeals court reversed his conviction in 2020 after it found that former Queens Supreme Court Justice Ira Margulis unfairly stopped several witnesses from testifying in Wills’ defense.

“The community now has a restored sense of honor — a restored sense of dignity because when this happens to the elected official, it casts a shadow over the community itself,” he said.

An important dynamic in the coming months will hinge on how voters see the reversal of Wills’ conviction. Wills argued that his reputation as a councilmember and the injustice of his imprisonment as the result of an allegedly faulty trial will resonate with voters.

The ethnic dynamics of the district, which has one of the city’s most dense South Asian populations on the western side and a predominantly African-American constituency to the east, could also shape a race between two black candidates and one who is South Asian. The council district’s population was 49 percent black and 16 Asian and Pacific Islander, according to Census data from 2010. But as the group Bangladeshi Americans for Political Progress has pointed out, the South Asian demographic has grown across the city in recent years.

All of the candidates emphasized their connections with all parts of the district.

The race also entailed a legal battle to get on the ballot. Tamar E. Ogburn, who appears to be a supporter of Adams, launched specified objections to Wills’ petition signatures — a process that will initiate a review by the Board of Elections, and could end up keeping him off the ballot.

Wills said that he gathered over 1,100 signatures, only to have all but around 50 challenged. His lawyer, Ali Najmi, told the Chronicle Wednesday afternoon that Wills will be appearing on the ballot.

The Chronicle has profiled the three candidates below.

Adrienne Adams

Adams was elected to the seat in 2017, after serving two terms as the chairperson of Community Board 12 and as a Queens Public Library trustee. Asked about her biggest accomplishments as a councilmember, she claimed that under her tenure she’s brought in the district’s biggest capital budget allotment ever.

She also touted funding an unprecedented number of nonprofits — over 40 of them, many of which had never received funding before.

Adams received a prominent appointment over the past year when she took over from now-Borough President Donovan Richards as the chairwoman of the Committee of Public Safety. In that role, she played a prominent role shaping a package of police reforms that the Council recently passed, the second of its kind in less than a year.

While she said that the Council still has a lot of ground to cover on police reform, “we’ve never seen anything go as far as these packages have gone.”

One of her legislative priorities involves a regulatory framework for the legalization of certain kinds of basement apartments that are prohibited by New York City zoning and building codes.

Adams also raised her advocacy to confront healthcare disparities during the pandemic as a way she has fought for her district. Adams joined with other state and local legislators to call for increased vaccine sites, which has begun to see results. Gov. Cuomo announced a new state-run site in Rochdale Village at the beginning of the month, and a site at the Ozone Park Library opened up last week.

Ruben Wills

Wills said that he had decided to run for his old seat out of a “super aggressive passion” for the community.

“There was a lot of unfinished business that needed to be done,” he told the Chronicle.

Wills said that his priorities include equity in education, citing a program that he used discretionary funding to start called Classrooms without Walls, which provided the capital for technological upgrades to schools.

On the topic of homelessness, another pillar of his platform, Wills said that he would fight for community input in shelter placement, so areas that receive new shelters get positive community benefits that contribute to the economy through jobs or vendor services sourced in the area.

Finally Wills said that he will propose criminal justice reform aimed at uncovering prosecutorial misconduct. He said that he would introduce a bill named after Louis Scarcella, a retired Brooklyn detective whose cases the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office has begun to investigate for alleged faulty convictions. He said the bill would remove the statute of limitations entirely to go before the Court of Claims, in order to file a lawsuit over being wrongly convicted

Asked what his biggest difference is from Adams, he said it was being “outspoken about his beliefs.”

Japneet Singh

Singh, a 26-year-old Sikh Punjabi activist, said that he got more and more involved with community organizing over the past year through a number of campaigns involving the food distribution during the pandemic; protests in solidarity with Indian farmers fighting deregulation laws in their native country; and the movement demanding police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Singh founded a volunteer group called the New York Sikh Council after finishing both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting from Queens College, where he got a taste in student government by serving as student body president.

His campaign is aimed at boosting civic engagement, especially with young people in the district. The policy priorities include infrastructure, education and youth and elder services. He promised to fight against any funding cuts to CUNY as a member of the City Council

Asked about his activism on police reform, Singh said that he does believe in reallocating parts of the NYPD budget but that “defunding the police is a big statement. So we need to be careful on how we plan on doing that.” One reform he says he wants to see is a higher level of law enforcement training.

Singh suggested that the district needs a councilmember who can unify the neighborhoods of South Ozone Park, Jamaica and Richmond Hill, and said that an office equidistant between the three areas would go a long way.

“We need to bring everything together. It’s an extremely divided district,” he said. “Bringing that unity aspect of all three neighborhoods is very important.”

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