Helen Sears, challengers duke it out at forum

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Most of the answers at a City Council candidates’ forum at the Jackson Heights Diversity Center Monday night were expected, as the three leading contenders for Councilwoman Helen Sears’ (D−Jackson Heights) seat and the incumbent all showed strong support for the issues brought up by immigrant rights groups that helped organize the event.

Sears, who is seeking a third term in office; Democratic District Leader Daniel Dromm; Con Edison spokesman Alfonso Quiroz; and Jackson Heights lawyer Stanley Kalathara all said they would focus on increasing English classes and employment opportunities for immigrant communities if they win in September.

The 25th Council District, which includes Corona, East Elmhurst, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and part of Rego Park, has a population that is 53 percent first−generation immigrants.

The four said they were in favor of granting legal noncitizens the right to vote in municipal elections.

Sears again touted her experience in the Council and her contributions to budget negotiations, noting that the previous two−term limit took Council members out of office before they could see the completion of projects they had inserted into 10−year capital plans.

Dromm said Sears did not get enough done in office and offered himself as an agent of change for the district.

Quiroz emphasized his pledge to bring officials and community groups together at a series of forums to determine the district’s problems.

Kalathara called Sears’ argument that term limits are bad for communities “the most ridiculous argument I have ever heard” and said he planned to create a business improvement district for Roosevelt Avenue.

When asked what she would do to help community groups preparing residents to take the citizenship examination, Sears pointed out that funding had been cut for citizenship classes in recent years.

“They’re filled and it shows the demand we have,” she said of the community organizations in the district. “We need more.”

Dromm criticized Sears’ answer.

“We have not received the full amount of funding that we need,” he said. “I would reprioritize my discretionary spending.”

Quiroz, who presented himself as a political outsider, said Dromm and Sears were being unrealistic.

“It’s really easy to say you’re going to move money from here to here,” he said, suggesting he would encourage public−private partnerships to help fund more citizenship programs.

In a moment of magnanimity, Kalathara, an immigration lawyer who became a legal citizen in 1986, offered his expertise to constituents free of charge if elected to the Council.

There were few moments of tension during the evening. At one point, Dromm called on the other candidates to commit to not accepting any campaign contributions from real estate developers. None of the other candidates responded.

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e−mail at or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 6:35 pm, October 10, 2011
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