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Three vie to replace Councilman Leffler

Democrats Bernice Siegal, 50, Leffler’s legal counsel; Jairam...

By Adam Kramer

Two political insiders and one political newcomer have declared their candidacy to replace City Councilman Sheldon Leffler (D-Hollis) who cannot seek re-election due to the term limits law.

Democrats Bernice Siegal, 50, Leffler’s legal counsel; Jairam D. Thakral, 64, chief financial officer at Long Island State Veterans Home at SUNY at Stonybrook; and David Weprin, 44, a lawyer and son of Queens political icon Sol Weprin are all vying to be the first new City Council member for the district in 24 years. The district stretches from Jamaica Estates to Douglaston and Queens Village to Hollis Hills.

Siegal wants to succeed Leffler so that she can continue her public service work and help the residents of northeast Queens, which she has done for the past 25 years. She has been a member of Leffler’s staff for 11 years.

“My whole life has been in public service,” she said.

Siegal started her career writing grants to help people with drug addiction after graduating from New York University with a master’s degree in public administration.

After becoming involved in a tenants fight at Glen Oaks Village, she decided to go to New York Law School at night. Following a short stint in a law firm, she was hired by Leffler as a litigation aid in 1990 and became his legal counsel about 1 1/2 years ago.

“I have worked with Leffler on administrative and regulatory change with different departments in city government,” she said. “I have not been in the driver’s seat but sat next to the driver and would like to continue that in a way that I feel most comfortable directing the ship.”

She said some of the important issues in the northeast Queens community are education, helping senior citizens and maintaining the quality of life.

“We need to maintain, at least in School District 26, the high quality of education and raise the level in School District 29,” Siegal said. School District 26, the best-performing in the city, covers much of northeast Queens and District 29 includes schools in a large section of southeast Queens.

“The main problems are overcrowding, the inability to hire certified teachers, the teacher shortage and having enough equipment to teach our children,” she said.

Thakral said he decided to become involved in politics because he wanted to give something back to the country “that has given me so much.”

He said he is proud to be an American and is grateful to the city and state that adopted him in 1971 when he immigrated to the United States from India.

Thakral, an accountant, served as the chief financial officer of Kings County Hospital — the city’s second largest hospital — until 1988 when he took early retirement to help his daughter set up her accounting practice. In 1990 he started working for the state at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

If elected, Thakral said some of the issues he will work on that affect northeast Queens are education, senior citizen housing and services, day care, community beautification and health care.

“The way that the City Council works now is that people call the city not their council members when they have a problem,” he said. “They need to call their representative on issues like helping the elderly, because they are not being taken care of.”

Thakral said the knowledge of the inner workings of the city he obtained at Kings County as a financial officer gives him the know-how to fight for the rights of the communities in the council district. He said he wants to be known for what he can do to help the city rather than relying on family connections like one of his opponents.

“I feel strongly about the community that I grew up in — Hollis Hills and Jamaica Estates,” Weprin said “I have been a member of the Hollis Hills Civic Association, on the board of Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, the Queens Jewish Council and a Democratic district leader for the past seven years.”

Weprin, who was the deputy supervisor of banking under former Gov. Mario Cuomo during his first term, said he is the only candidate with business and financial experience who has been involved with his community.

After his stint in Albany, Weprin — a lawyer — headed to Wall Street where he worked for 13 years until June 2000. He said he recently left because of the possibility he could have faced a conflict of interest as an elected official over handling government bonds. He now works for the law firm Sierajzki, Ceccaralli and Weprin.

Weprin’s brother is state Assemblyman Mark Weprin (D-Bayside).

“With a $38.9 billion budget I feel it is important to have some financial experience to be able to marshal the resources of the budget and bring resources back to the community,” he said.

Weprin said he believes education, affordable housing and senior citizen health care are particularly important to the community.

“There has not been any affordable housing effort since the Koch administration,” he said. “We need to build affordable homes to keep the middle class in the district.”

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

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