The differences were crystal clear as the three candidates vying to replace disgraced former Congressmember Michael Grimm –who resigned in January after pleading guilty to tax evasion — spoke out at a forum sponsored by the Bay Ridge Community Council (BRCC).
Democratic Councilmember Vincent Gentile, Republican Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan and Green Party candidate James Lane – the three candidates running in the 11th C.D. which includes Staten Island and part of southwest Brooklyn — traded occasional barbs during the two-hour event which drew a standing-room-only and largely partisan crowd to the Guild for Exceptional Children, 68th Street off Third Avenue.
How partisan the crowd was – with many people holding signs for Gentile, others cheering loudly for Donovan or Lane, and questioners from the audience clearly sent to the microphone by one candidate or another — was noted by Donovan, who at one point remarked wryly, “There are probably about four of you in the room who haven’t decided who you are voting for yet.”
Nonetheless, for those who truly hadn’t decided, there was much food for thought to be gleaned from the remarks made by the candidates.
Gentile came out swinging against the Republican-led Congress, particularly the budget recently passed by the House of Representatives that, he contended, would devastate Social Security and Medicare, and take $13.4 billion in funding from New York City over the next decade.
“It’s bad for seniors, bad for veterans, bad for families, and it’s all being done to lower the top tax rate for millionaires to 25 percent,” Gentile charged. “So why would we strengthen their hand by sending another member of the majority to Washington?”
Calling himself “a son of the BRCC,” Gentile reminded his listeners that he had served as president of the group, which he called “the main reason that I went into public service.”
That public service, he stressed, had included 18 years as a legislator, the only legislator in the race. “That’s not to say that you couldn’t vote for someone with no legislative experience, but why would you, when the stakes are so high?” he asked.
Gentile said he backed raising the minimum wage to $10 this year, then $13, then indexing it to inflation. He said he supported taxing multinational corporations who don’t pay taxes on their offshore profits, as well as providing a federal tax break to small businesses that hire new workers, and said he supported keeping Social Security solvent by raising the income cap on contributions, so that those who make the most would pay more. Gentile also said he had a plan for saving Medicare, but did not go into specifics.
The district, he added, has been shorted for years in terms of federal funding, which he said could help not only bring additional ferry service but also could have paid for the installation of an elevator at the 86th Street subway station, something that has been awaited for years.
Donovan, stressing his “over 28 years in public service,” depicted himself as an everyman, growing up in a three-room apartment without his own bedroom till he was 17 and telling the crowd that he was “52 when I made my last student loan payment.” At 58, he said, he is expecting his first child and that, he added, is why he is running for Congress, to try to “give [that child] a life better than” his own, as his parents did for him.
“The things that mom and dad were able to give me, I’m not sure that your government is allowing you to give that to your child,” he went on, blaming high taxes, student loan debt, the national debt and policies that he said discourage job creation for the country’s current economic problems.
His top priority, Donovan said, is, “Relief for the people devastated by Superstorm Sandy,” too many of whom, he charged, are still waiting for the federal government to provide help. “Government,” Donovan contended, “should do things for people they can’t do for themselves,” such as provide relief after natural disasters strike.
In addition, Donovan said, improving the transportation infrastructure is a huge priority for him, given that people in the district have “the longest commute of any place in the country.” Making improvements, Donovan added, would enable “more people to go to work,” which would result, he said, in “more people paying income tax and you could balance the budget without hurting anyone in this room.”
His third priority, Donovan told the group, was “supporting people’s efforts to live without government interference – to choose which doctors to go to, which schools their children attend.”
As for Social Security, Donovan said that, in his view, “Any changes in the system going forward shouldn’t affect people who are retired or soon to be retired.” Then – after Gentile chided him, noting, “When I hear changes shouldn’t affect people now, that means changes will affect those in the future. I say we shouldn’t have any changes to Social Security. We should save it as we know it” — Donovan added, “I didn’t say it needs to be changed. It needs to be fully funded. I am not in favor of decreasing benefits; people who have contributed to this fund deserve the benefit at the end, but I am not suggesting any change.”
Lane, for his part, assailed the two major parties, contending that both are beholden to special interests, derailing such initiatives as a $15 an hour minimum wage and Medicare for all, as well as efforts to slow down climate change, all of which he said could be achieved by increasing taxes on the very richest Americans, “taking the burden off the 99 percent and the homeowners.”
Calling himself “a political activist, not a career politician,” Lane told the crowd, “I want you to imagine how we, as a people, can take our power back from the corporations and the politicians they have purchased.”
The special election will be held on May 5.