Four hopefuls fight it out for Tom Ognibene’s seat

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Pitting two candidates with political pedigrees against two others boasting deep community roots, the race for City Councilman Tom Ognibene’s (R-Middle Village) seat is colored by the shadow of political history.

Dennis Gallagher, 37, who as the only Republican candidate for the seat is guaranteed a spot on the November ballot, has served for 10 years as the chief of staff to Ognibene, the Republican minority leader who is prevented by term limits from running for re-election.

Democratic candidate Elizabeth Crowley, 23, boasts a political lineage in a more traditional sense, as the daughter of a former city councilman and cousin to U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights).

She faces opposition in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary from two longtime community residents who have devoted years to local civic activism. Robert Cermeli, 56, a budget analyst, and Linda Sansivieri, 49, a preschool teacher, both say their candidacies are based on a proven commitment to the district.

Green Party candidate Sharain Pereira could not be reached for comment.

The 30th Council District covers Ridgewood, Glendale, Middle Village and parts of Richmond Hill and Woodhaven.

Although their political legacies have given both Gallagher and Crowley immediate name recognition and both have been endorsed by their party, strong ties do not come without some hardship.

Only two months ago Ognibene’s name surfaced in the trial of former Buildings Department inspector Darral Hilton for allegedly having received gifts in exchange for political favors, an accusation that put on hold his anticipated nomination to a judgeship by Gov. George Pataki.

While the repercussions for Gallagher’s campaign remain to be seen, state Sen. Serphin Maltese (R-Glendale), who chairs the Queens County Republicans and is a longtime ally of both Ognibene and Gallagher, believes the councilman has settled any doubts about his integrity.

“What it’s brought out in many cases is a certain amount of sympathy and camaraderie for what obviously is an attack that is without any merit at all,” he said.

Maltese said the case should in no way affect Gallagher’s council bid.

At the same time, the Republican Ognibene has enjoyed immense popularity in his largely Democratic district, and as his chief of staff Gallagher may reap the benefit of his success in the Council.

Gallagher did not return repeated phone calls for comment.

Crowley’s legacy also comes as a double-edged sword, providing her with immediate political support but forcing her to take steps to prove her legitimacy as a candidate in her own right.

Although Michael Reich, the executive secretary of the Queens County Democratic Organization, acknowledged that Crowley’s family background played a role in her endorsement, he said she was chosen due to the “new perspective” she would bring to the council.

“I think we’ve demonstrated our ability to locate and promote new young talent ... who are going to show that the Democratic Party in Queens County stands for diversity as well as integrity,” Reich said.

All three Democratic candidates consider education, senior citizens and policing to be the three most pressing issues in the district.

Crowley, a mother and restorative painter who also works as a substitute teacher, said she developed an interest in politics after growing up in a household where politics were always important.

“I had the desire within me to serve the public,” she said.

As a substitute teacher who has worked in many of the district’s schools, Crowley said her priority in education would be to secure better salaries for teachers and build new schools in the district.

She faces two candidates with long histories in the district and extensive records of advocating for community interests.

Cermeli, who has worked for 33 years in four mayoral agencies as a capital budget administrator, said he hopes to chair the Council Subcommittee on Government Operations.

“What I’m about is to see that our government is run in an efficient, streamlined manner where the taxpayers can be saved money,” Cermeli said.

While his financial experience would inform his decisions as a councilman, Cermeli said his civic background as a member of both Community Board 5 and School Board 24 would make him an effective advocate for the community.

As a former chairman of the school board’s building and maintenance committee, Cermeli takes credit for much of the recent facilities growth in the district.

“This is not just me telling you what I’m going to do,” he said. “I have done these things.”

Sansivieri’s experience in local politics dates back to the mid-1980s, when she worked in the Middle Village office of former state Assemblyman Frederick Schmidt and continues today with her 12-year tenure as a member of School Board 24.

“Being on the board and working with people who have different views, I had the opportunity of bringing people together,” she said.

Having received the largest number of votes in the last school board election, Sansivieri said she expects her school supporters to join with the community at large to propel her into office.

“I’m out there reaching out to all of the prime voters and the constituency out there,” she said.

Crowley and Cermeli both advocate establishing a police sub-station to make it easier for officers of the 104th Precinct to reach all parts of the area — where emergency response times have historically been very high — but Sansivieri hopes to see an additional precinct carved out of the area.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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