Povman’s seat draws four candidates

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With city council candidates in all five boroughs sparring to knock each other off the ballot, the race for Morton Povman’s 24th District seat has been notable for the absence of such hostility.

After a hectic beginning to the campaign that saw Povman’s chief of staff, Jeff Gottlieb and community activist Morshed Alam drop out, all has been quiet for the four candidates vying for the seat that represents northern Forest Hills, southern Flushing, Kew Gardens Hills, Fresh Meadows, Briarwood and Jamaica Estates.

Democratic candidates for the term-limited Povman’s seat are: James Gennaro, the senior environmental policy adviser for the City Council; Barry Grodenchik, chief administrative officer to Borough President Claire Shulman; and David Reich, chief of staff and legal counsel to state Sen. Seymour Lachman (D-Brooklyn). Lori Zett, a labor activist with a master’s degree in international relations from Columbia University, who is running as a Green Party candidate.

Gennaro called the ballot challenges across the city “silly games,” saying they took the decision process out of the voters’ hands.

Reich said there were no ballot challenges in the 24th District race because “the belief was on all sides that every single candidate got the required number of signatures.”

Instead of fighting to exclude each other, the candidates are focusing on distinguishing themselves from one another in a race where they agree on the main issues. In interviews earlier this week, the three Democratic candidates spoke of education, public safety and senior services as key problems facing the district.

“School overcrowding is a very important issue for Queens,” said Grodenchik. Noting the Board of Education’s recent announcement that it underestimated its construction budget by nearly $3 billion, he added, “We’re short 30,000 seats and we’re going to bear the brunt of the shortfalls in the construction budget.”

Gennaro also spoke of the importance of easing school overcrowding. “We have to have a certified teacher in every classroom and manageable class sizes,” he said. “Every student has a right to this.”

Reich said the Board of Education should be disbanded. “It’s not accountable to anybody,” he said. “Every time we turn around there’s another scandal, another problem. In 1993, Queens was short 23,000 seats. Now it’s 30,000. We’re moving in the wrong direction.”

In accord on the main district concerns, the candidates sought to emerge from the pack by concentrating on their levels of experience.

“The differences in the candidates are in experience,” said Grodenchik. “I have been running borough hall for Claire Shulman for 10 years and that’s given me a wealth of experience. I am better informed on a broad range of issues than my opponents.”

Gennaro felt that his background would best serve the residents of the 24th Council District. “I’m the only one with any city council experience whatsoever,” he said. “Next year, in a council that will be full of new members, it will be important to have people who have a background in the institution.”

Reich views his qualifications as the strongest for the job. “I am the only one of the three that’s trained in the law,” he said. “I’ve written, drafted, analyzed and researched hundred of bills.”

Zett, the Green Party candidate, said her views of government differ significantly from those of her opponents.

“We think democracy is voting once every four years, which is not the way it is,” she said. “I think we’ve forgotten how to be a democracy. We’ve become government by money and for money.”

Gennaro and Grodenchik have both collected significant endorsements. Shulman’s chief administrator has garnered the support of several influential Queens Democrats, including the borough president, state Assemblywoman Nettie Mayersohn (D-Flushing), Povman and more than 30 labor unions, including SEIU 1999, the union representing New York City’s health and hospital workers, and the United Federation of Teachers.

Gennaro, a member of the CUNY faculty union, has had less luck with the city’s large unions, but has been endorsed by former Mayor Ed Koch and by the environmental attorney, Robert Kennedy Jr.

While Gennaro and Grodenchik trumpeted their endorsements, Reich highlighted his lack of ties to politicians and organizations. “I’m independent. Endorsements don’t mean anything,” he said. “They’re not going to bring people out to vote. I’ll only be responsible to the community. And that’s the only way I would have it.”

Armed with their experiences, knowledge of community issues, and the backing of their endorsers, the candidates also have a significant amount of money at their disposal to win voters’ hearts.

Despite running what he termed a “grassroots” campaign, Gennaro raised more money than Grodenchik, who has the support of the Queens Democratic organization, headed by county leader Thomas Manton.

“I out-raised the machine candidate and that’s very significant,” he said. “I did my best to reach out to as diverse a group as I could and take my message to them and people supported me and contributed to me based on my campaign and my message.”

Gennaro raised $89,678, while Grodenchik amassed $84,800 in campaign donations, according to the latest figures available from the New York City Campaign Finance Board. Reich, who collected $27,920, said he only received donations from individuals.

Zett, who has raised only $40, said even though running without money is difficult, it is also liberating.

“I think I’m there mainly to say things that other people don’t say,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about saying what the powers that be want me to say.”

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

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