Polish community seeks voice in city politics

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Jackson Heights resident Magdalena Schultheis immigrated to the United States 12 years ago from Poland without knowing a word of English.

She is now the first female Polish immigrant to run for office in New York City.

As a candidate for the 25th District City Council seat, Schultheis is hoping to provide a voice in city politics for a Polish community that has long been politically inert. Lacking an active Polish constituency to support her bid, however, she faces an uphill battle to win the seat.

“Such a large Polish community in New York City doesn’t have any representation in the government,” she said. “I believe that it’s time for us finally to have a voice and to be able to stand together.”

While Schultheis strives to build a base of support for her campaign, her singular candidacy brings attention to a problem that has long plagued the Polish community in Queens: in spite of their numbers, Polish voices often go unheard in the political process.

The obstacles Schultheis faces are compounded by the fact that she is running in what current City Councilman John Sabini (D-Jackson Heights) described as a “very multi-ethnic district” covering Jackson Heights, Corona, Woodside, East Elmhurst and Rego Park, where the Polish presence is not nearly as strong as in Ridgewood and Maspeth, both of which have prominent Polish populations.

“Based on a cursory glance on who’s done work in the Council, I can tell you my colleagues such as [Kenneth] Fisher and [Walter] McCaffrey and [Karen] Koslowitz fund Polish organizati­ons,” Sabini said. “I’ve never been approached by one.”

Sabini’s statement confirmed what leaders in the Polish community have long recognized: Officials have to hear from constituents in order to understand and address their needs.

“It’s natural any politician is not going to pay attention to a group that practically doesn’t speak for itself,” said Father Lukasz Trocha, the pastor who conducts mass in Polish for at least 800 congregants every Sunday at St. Matthias Church in Ridgewood.

Although many in the community recognize the need for Poles to raise their voices in the political process, Polish leaders said their immigrants’ superficial apathy stems from traits instilled by their culture: a work ethic that affords little free time and a sense of political impotence ingrained by the Communist legacy at home.

“We really didn’t believe in the freedom of elections because everything was fixed by the political machine,” Schultheis said. “Even being here in the United States I believe that they are still not believers of politics and the political system.”

Many Poles are also encumbered by their precarious immigration status. Although there is no way of knowing exactly how many Poles are living here illegally, community leaders say many of their immigrants will not speak up politically for fear of drawing attention to themselves and their illegal status.

“We have a huge population here that doesn’t have paperwork in order and is frightened to death of immigration,” said Father Peter Zendzian, pastor at the Holy Cross Church in Maspeth, a Polish congregation. “[They are] trying to keep their noses clean, trying to keep working as long as possible — God forbid they get caught — and trying to get legal.

“Once more people get naturalized and have their Green Cards, there will be a potential for activism,” he said.

Such potential is already being realized with recent inroads made by the Polish community into city politics, not the least of which is Schultheis’ emergence on the campaign trail.

Schultheis hopes her bid for office will galvanize the Polish community, “so those who are legal can vote and be active, and those who are not legal will try to get legalized status and be able to vote.”

Schultheis may receive a boost from support by the Polish-American Congress, a national organization which six months ago tagged Little Neck resident Chet Szarejko to serve as the first-ever political activities chairman for New York City and the surrounding suburbs.

“This campaign really put us in a position where the candidates for office are looking to us for support,” Szarejko said. “So the Polish groups are starting to be recognized as a potentially powerful voting block, and that’s the way I’m pushing it.”

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

Updated 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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