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Labor gives Cheliotes big boost in race

If there is any one group that could make the difference in the crowded race for northeast Queens City Councilman Mike Abel’s (R-Bayside) seat this fall, it is labor.

In the district where five Democrats and one Republican are vying for Abel’s position, several candidates are running based on their records of community activism. But one candidate — Bay Terrace resident and prominent union leader Arthur Cheliotes — has an army’s worth of labor support behind him.

The backing of the city’s labor community is evident in Cheliotes’ campaign in which a large part of his more than $126,000 contributions have come from a variety of unions. Dozens of campaign workers with labor ties have been seen handing out Cheliotes literature to local merchants and residents, and those in the know say Cheliotes’ campaign is depending on union members to turn out the vote in his favor in the September primary.

“The fact is Arthur Cheliotes will have the most unified labor support of any candidate running in the city this year,” said Scott Levenson, a campaign consultant with the Advance Group who is working on Cheliotes’ campaign.

Cheliotes, who has lived in Queens for more than five years, is one of five Democrats in the race to replace Abel. The other candidates include community activist Tony Avella of College Point, John Frank of Bayside, civic leader Jerry Iannece of Bayside Hills, and activist Joyce Shepard, who lives in Bay Terrace. Republican Dennis Saffran of Douglaston is also running for the seat.

Abel, one of three Queens Republicans in the City Council, has been in office for nearly 10 years and is prohibited from seeking a third term under the city’s 1993 term limits law. Abel announced his candidacy in the borough president’s race in November 1999 but dropped out earlier this year due to a lack of funds.

The 19th Councilmanic District covers most of northeast Queens and includes the communities of Bayside, Bay Terrace, Whitestone, College Point, Malba, Douglas Manor, Beechurst, and parts of Douglaston, Little Neck, Auburndale, Linden Hill, and Murray Hill.

Cheliotes, who is serving a three-year term as head of the Communications Workers of America Local 1180, a supervisor’s and administrator’s union for city employees with roughly 7,000 members, has already felt labor’s massive financial support. More than 20 chapters of CWA alone have donated to Cheliotes’ bid for the Council.

Coupled with the endorsement of Cheliotes earlier this year by the Central Labor Council, a powerful consortium of labor groups led by state Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin (D-Flushing), the candidate has the power of the labor community in his corner.

The endorsement of the Central Labor Council, an umbrella group of some 500 New York City unions which boasts a membership of 1.5 million workers, is done by the group’s board and is separate from McLaughlin’s backing.

Ed Ott, director of public policy for the Central Labor Council, described Cheliotes as “a prominent, progressive, and probably one of the most caring labor leaders and people you could meet.”

Ott said the most important support the CLC could offer would be in the form of labor leaders talking to their members about backing Cheliotes.

“We’re very proud of that endorsement,” Ott said. “There are a lot of members who live in that district.”

Levenson said Tuesday it is not the CLC’s endorsement that matters most to the Cheliotes campaign.

“This is a tough race,” he said. “It’s the tangible support of the organizations that mean the most.”

Chet Szarejko, a longtime member of the Eastern Queens Democratic Club and a leading player in the Polish American Congress, which he said represents about a million Polish-Americans in downstate New York, testified on the role of labor in Cheliotes’ campaign.

“I think Cheliotes is the one to watch,” said Szarejko, a Little Neck resident who said he has seen labor members out telling residents about Cheliotes and his campaign. “I think labor is going to be a very important aspect of the campaign.”

The political leader also said labor could give Cheliotes an edge in the crowded contest for Abel’s seat.

“It’s very hard to determine who the winner is going to be,” he said. “They’re all good people.”

Cheliotes has joined the flock of people running for City Council in Queens, where the entire 14-member delegation is being forced out of office by the city’s term limits law.

Some have speculated that if he is elected, Cheliotes could be chosen as the next speaker of the City Council because of the support of the labor community.

Given the variety of factors that dominate the question of who will succeed current City Council Speaker Peter Vallone (D-Astoria), including the clout of incumbent council members, it was not clear how good Cheliotes’ chances of winning the post were.

Szarejko said “everybody wants to be the next speaker. Who’s going to get it depends on the Council.”

Among those running, both Avella and Iannece have made past bids for the seat. Avella has received endorsements from the Queens Democratic Party, Borough President Claire Shulman, and U.S. Reps. Gary Ackerman (D-Bayside) and Joe Crowley (D-Jackson Heights).

McLaughlin, who has not announced an endorsement in the race, may be forced to pick between Avella, his longtime supporter and a member of McLaughlin’s New Century Democratic Club, and union leader Cheliotes.

According to filings with the city Campaign Finance Board, only the education committee of McLaughlin’s union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, has made a donation to Cheliotes’ campaign.

Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

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