South Jamaica native vows to oust Cook in Sept. race

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At 16, Rachel Gordon found herself homeless, living from pillow to pillow at friends’ houses so she could finish high school.

Now, at 41, she’s ready to show how far she’s come as she challenges state Assemblywoman Vivian Cook (D-South Ozone Park) in the Democratic primary elections in September.

Gordon, a South Jamaica native who was able to return to the neighborhood, will be one of the first to challenge Cook for the 32nd Assembly seat since she was elected in 1990, Gordon said.

“This is the first time that anyone has run for that public seat,” she said. “No one has ever dared to run in that district.”

Cook refuted that claim, saying she did face one other challenger a few years ago.

“If nobody challenges me, then they must be happy,” Cook said. “I think everybody has the right to run. I look forward to the challenge.”

The 32nd Assembly district covers Jamaica, South Jamaica and Richmond Hill.

Gordon was raised in the Forties Projects in South Jamaica, and at 16 her mother shut her out of the house after suffering from mental illness, Gordon said.

“Being in that first-hand situation, I was able to see how mental illness can occur so aggressively,” she said of her mother’s condition.

Gordon was unaware of the city help that could have been available to her, including welfare and foster care, and instead stayed with friends in Brooklyn. As a student at Flushing High School, she was determined to get her degree, and commuted two hours each way to do so, she said.

“When I look back on it now, I didn’t feel any pressure or stress,” Gordon said. “I wasn’t a street child. I didn’t have that street mentality.”

After graduation, she moved to Kentucky with a man whom she thought was “my knight in shining armor,” she said. Although the relationship did not work out, Gordon was able to get back on her feet, she said.

“He put a roof over my head and I was able to get on the system and get an apartment.”

At 20, Gordon returned to Queens after the relationship fell apart. After another spell of homelessness, this time with her son and pregnant, she was able to get an apartment in the building in which she grew up and where her mother still lives, she said.

“At 41, I look back and say, ‘wow, someone was looking over me,’” she said. “Without all those trials and tribulations, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”

Gordon graduated from Springfield College in Massachusetts, went on to earn master’s degrees in human services and community psychology counseling, and has worked with men’s health issues, she said. She also runs Business Leaders of Tomorrow, a non-profit youth organization, and was working in the Southeast Queens Clergy office before she announced her candidacy, she said.

Although this is Gordon’s first time running for office, she has worked on other campaigns, she said.

One issue Gordon would like to address should she make it to the Assembly is the AirTrain light rail system, linking downtown Jamaica to Kennedy Airport, she said. Residents who live along the Van Wyck Expressway, which also is the path of the rail, have made complaints about damages to the houses caused by the construction.

Although the Port Authority has settled 95 percent of the complaints, Gordon would like to see the agency establish an escrow account, should more damages surface in the future, she said.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen down the line,” Gordon said. “I’ve already had problems with my house.”

Gordon also would like to ease the pressures placed on public school students to meet high standards as well as to make parents aware of those standards.

“The children are not allowed to be children anymore,” she said. “They’re loosing their focus.”

Drawing on her own experiences, Gordon also hopes to enhance youth services, she said.

“The youth need a safe haven where they can go and get information about the services available to them, so they know they don’t have to live from pillow to pillow,” she said.

Despite her long odds, Gordon, who is running with the slogan “a change for a change,” is optimistic about her campaign.

“I feel really good about it,” she said. “People I don’t even know have called me up and said, ‘I will support you.’ ”

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 138.

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