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Term limits brings new wave of politicians

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With the entire Queens delegation to the City Council due to be swept away by term limits in November, more than 50 candidates have thrown their hats into the ring in the hopes that some of the borough’s longtime members do not succeed in repealing the law.

Queens stands to lose its 14 council members if the term limits law that takes effect this year after two voter referendums in 1993 and 1996 is not revoked. Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics giant and former Queens resident who lost to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the Republican mayoral primary in 1989, led the fight for the term limits law.

Both sides of the heated debate on term limits contend they know what is best for Queens and the city. Those who support term limits say the overhaul of the Council will breathe new life and ideas into the legislative body. But those opposed to limiting terms of city officials to two consecutive four-year stints warn that the removal of 35 of the 51 council members in November will weaken the legislative body and remove a vast swath of political know-how.

The council members from the Queens delegation who have sponsored the bill to repeal term limits are John Sabini (D-Jackson Heights), Helen Marshall (D-East Elmhurst), Juanita Watkins (D-Laurelton), Walter McCaffery (D-Woodside), Thomas White (D-Jamaica), Julia Harrison (D-Flushing) and Alfonse Stabile (R-Ozone Park).

But the likely removal of entrenched politicians has opened the floodgates to a new generation of political hopefuls, peppered with some insiders who are now vying for their bosses’ jobs or for a different slice of the political pie, such as the Queens borough president’s post.

At least 57 candidates are running for council seats from Queens, according to the city Campaign Finance Board and official political announcements — a far cry from the humdrum contests of the past where the Democratic incumbents faced no real competition.

The new roster of candidates for seats now occupied by 12 Democrats and two Republicans range from a civic activist in Bayside to a school board member in southeast Queens to the son of a political icon and includes immigrants, first-time candidates and political insiders.

The longest serving members of the Queens delegation, which has more than 150 years of service, are Councilman Morton Povman (D-Forest Hills), who was elected in 1971; Speaker Peter Vallone (D-Astoria), elected in 1974; Councilman Archie Spigner (D-St. Albans), elected in 1974; and Councilman Sheldon Leffler (D- Hollis), elected in 1978.

Even though, the political hopefuls come from diverse backgrounds, they all have one thing in common: the repeal of the term limits could throw a monkey wrench into their political aspirations to attain a seat in the city’s only legislative body.

Political observers have said the opening up of the 14 council seats could have a profound effect on the way the Queens Democratic machine picks and chooses its candidates for the races. Traditionally, the machine has looked to its family of Democratic leaders, political club leaders and loyal soldiers to fill open slots. But the end of term limits has opened the door for a wide array of Democratic loyalists and outsiders to step into the political arena.

The ratio of registered Democrat to Republican voters in Queens is about 4-to-1, mirroring the citywide ratio, which means the Democratic primary usually decides the races in the borough.

Corey Bearak, president of Queens County Line Democratic Club, said the new members of the Council would bring different ways of looking at old problems and revitalize the body.

“A new council member might bring a fresh perspective to budgeting and make the Council a real player,” Bearak said “Now the Council only focuses on $80 to $110 million of the city’s $32 to $40 billion budget, which is peanuts.”

He said the problem is the Council has the power to make budget decisions and influence how the city’s money is spent, but the members do not really use it.

“The City Council has not realized its power,” he said. “The new Council will have the ability to make real change.”

Some of the hotly contested races for the Council are for Povman’s seat, Leffler’s seat, Harrison’s seat and Mike Abel’s (D-Bayside) seat.

In the race for Povman’s seat five well-known Democratic insiders are vying for the job: Morshed Alam, SB 29 vice president; Jim Gennaro, environmental policy specialist to the City Council; Jeff Gottlieb, chief of staff for Povman; Barry Grodenchick, chief administrative officer to Claire Shulman; and David Reich, staffer for Brooklyn state Sen. Seymour Lachman.

The contest for Leffler’s seat pits David Weprin from a well-known political family against Leffler’s legal counsel, Bernice Siegal and Jairam Thakral.

The battle for Harrison’s seat is a five-way race so far with civic leader John Liu leading the borough in fund-raising for the council seat. He faces Ethel Chen, Evergreen Chou, Martha Flores-Vasquez, Paul Graziano.

Fighting for Abel’s seat are longtime civic activist Joyce Shepard, political insider Tony Avella, civic leader Jerry Iannece, Christopher Butler, Arthur Cheliotes, John Frank, Dennis Saffran and Greg Miley.

Bearak suggested that the Queens Democratic machine would probably endorse one person for each of the 14 council seats, favoring in particular any district leaders who are running.

He said he was not sure how much help each of the endorsed candidates would get from the Democratic Party. Even if an outsider won a seat, Bearak said he was sure the new council member would be embraced by the party, similar to the way the machine welcomed Harrison after her election.

Stabile said one of the disadvantages of term limits is that the new members might have a hard time negotiating their way through the political process.

“You have to keep the community vibrant,” Stabile said. “The newly elected council member will have the most direct effect on the community they represent.”

He said some of the topics new council members will have to focus on are school funding, finding available spaces for new schools, sewage, streets and trees.

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

Updated 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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