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Four vie to replace Ognibene in Council

The four candidates who want to succeed Thomas Ognibene (R- Middle Village) as District 30’s city council representative all have one goal in mind: to find more seats for School District 24, the most crowded in Queens.

The candidates — Democrat Robert Cermeli, Democrat Erik De Paula, Republican Dennis Gallagher and Democrat Linda Sansivieri — have overlapping but certainly not indistinguishable pedigrees, which they believe qualify them to represent the constituents of Ridgewood, Glendale, Middle Village, and parts of Richmond Hill and Woodhaven.

Cermeli, 56, a 10-year member of School Board 24 where he chaired the building and maintenance committee, is also a veteran of various city agencies. Beginning in the late 1960s under the Lindsay administration, Cermeli served in the Department of Public Works, the Municipal Service Administration, the Department of General Services and the Department of Design and Construction.

De Paula, 26, chairman of the education committee of Community Board 5, is an insurance attorney with the midtown Manhattan firm, Mendes and Mount, and three-year president of the Ridgewood Democratic Club. He worked intimately with Cathy Nolan’s (D-Ridgewood) 1994 re-election campaign for the state Assembly.

Dennis Gallagher, 37, has been Ognibene’s chief of staff since the councilman was first elected in 1992. Before that he served as executive assistant to state Sen. Serphin Maltese’s (R-Glendale). In earlier years he was the regional coordinator for the Assembly minority and an investigator for the New York State Crime Victims Board.

Linda Sansivieri, 49, a 12-year member of SB 24 and a founder of the 33rd and 37th Assembly District Democratic Club in Ridgewood, is a pre-kindergarten teacher with the New Generations school in Ridgewood. In the 1980s she served as Assemblyman Frederick Schmidt’s staff director for the district office and with her brother-in-law, Frank Sansivieri on his unsuccessful bid for the state Senate.

In an election year when the district’s schools are bursting with 38,000 students, up from 24,000 just 10 years ago, the crisis has shaped not only the campaign message — more schools for District 24 — but also the education-related lineage of each candidate.

Cermeli contends that his time with the city’s Public Works Department and Department of Design and Construction on projects such as Yankee Stadium, the new Rose Planetarium and the Brooklyn Academy of Music has given him an inside view of the process of institution-building in New York City.

From budgets to designs to site visits, Cermeli said, he has an understanding of the “concerns and politics that took place in the building and repair of these institutions. I also have some ideas on how to streamline some of the systems.”

De Paula cites school crowding as the most urgent of the district’s needs, but he also presses for government reform and accountability.

“I’d like to see bills coming into the Council publicized before being voted on, so people can know what’s happening,” he said. “I’d like to see the Department of Sanitation, the Department of Transportation and the Parks Department come before the public once in a while.”

Gallagher has received endorsements from Ognibene, state Sen. Serfin Maltese (R-Glendale) and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, but when discussing his candidacy he usually saves that for last. He first stresses his experience in youth programs and the children he has mentored as the coach for girls’ basketball at St. Margaret’s and boys’ Little League in Ridgewood and Glendale. He considers his run for the City Council to be a “natural progression for me to move on and to continue the work we’ve done in the community for nine years.”

Sansivieri, who, like Cermeli, is a longtime school board member, said she also has seen the district’s number of students soar. Her 12 years on the board, she said, have allowed her to “serve in a broad spectrum.”

However, the range of candidates’ political platforms, she believes, are not as expansive. “I think we’re all very similar,” she said of herself and the other contenders for the 30th CD seat. “We have the same ideas and all believe the issues are the same,” she said. “Most candidates would agree the issues we’re concerned about are schools.”

Reach reporter Jennifer Warren by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

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