Democracy was at its best as over 400 attendees packed the auditorium of Xaverian High School, 7100 Shore Road, on Tuesday, August 15 to hear the nine candidates running for City Council in the 43rd District, during a debate hosted by The Home Reporter and Brooklyn Spectator.
Democratic candidates Justin Brannan, Kevin Peter Carroll, Vincent Chirico, Reverend Khader El-Yateem and Nancy Tong joined Republicans Bob Capano, Liam McCabe, Lucretia Regina-Potter and John Quaglione to discuss their philosophy and local issues in Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst and Bath Beach. All hope to replace Democrat Vincent Gentile, who has held the seat since 2003, but who cannot run again due to term limits.
One of the more pressing topics of discussion was public transportation.
“My proposal is to give some power back to the city,” said Brannan. “The state legislature is the one in control of the MTA. That means that people who represent Buffalo and Rochester have more of a say in our city commute than City Hall, the City Council or you or I does. I don’t think it makes any sense for New York State to have control over our subways and buses.”
McCabe disagreed. “I do not want Mayor de Blasio in charge of the New York City subway system. It’s broken enough,” he said. “But the issue here is the MTA. It’s a bloated, broken bureaucracy, so what you have to do is audit it. Look, the price is going up and the service is going down.” He proposed, “To make the board directly elected and answerable to the people.”
Quaglione reminded the crowd that he had worked with State Senator Marty Golden and local activist Steve Harrison to get a ferry after 9/11 and also extend the routes of the X38 and X28 uptown via the FDR Drive, “To pass Lower Manhattan, because it was impeding people getting to work on time,” said Quaglione. “I know Joe Lhota. I have a very good relationship with him and I’m confident that with him at the helm is a smart move by the governor and I look forward to working with him.”
Illegal conversion has become a major issue in the district, especially Dyker Heights, and all the candidates responded to concerns about it.
“We know it’s spreading and I do believe illegal immigration is a big root cause of this,” Capano said. “The sanctuary city policy causes illegal home conversions and overcrowding in schools and it makes me sick to my stomach that my mom, who had to go work 20 years ago after my dad died at 49, works her butt off while those who come here illegally get a handout and public health benefits. That must stop today.”
“If I were city councilmember, I would enact legislation to create an emergency unit within the Department of Buildings,” said McCabe. “Maybe we put some retired firemen in that unit to respond immediately to some of these illegal conversions and catch them in the act.”
Regina-Potter had a different perspective. “What puzzles me going around the community is to see two-family homes with 15 or 20 electric and gas meters,” she explained. “We need to make these utility companies answer for why they are knowingly allowing these builders to break the law by installing all these gas and water and electric meters. It doesn’t make sense. They’re complaining about illegal immigrants, but as a daughter of an immigrant, everyone needs a place to live.”
The Democratic candidates had a different take on the issue.
“People that live in these illegally converted homes are either new immigrants or undocumented ones that don’t know their rights. They are living in these homes in unsafe conditions because people are taking advantage of them,” said El-Yateem. “I have issues with our mayor giving tax cuts to developers without holding them to providing affordable housing. It is about everyone having the right for safe living in our neighborhood. I want to fight for that.”
Chirico pointed out the dangers illegal conversions pose to first responders. “I talk to friends who are firefighters and they say they are scared out of their minds responding to a fire where they don’t know where the electric conduits are because of illegal home conversion,” he said. “They’re afraid to go in because what happens next door and next door. The current legislation doesn’t go far enough. You have to have three illegal apartments before the landlord gets fined. It should be the first time around.”
“Do you know why the tenants go to those illegal conversions?” asked Tong. “Because they can’t afford it. If they could afford it, they would not live like that. Once [inspectors] come in and fine landlords, people have to leave and they end up homeless. We need more affordable housing. If they have a choice, they would never live in those home conversions.”
As in many neighborhoods, education is a prime concern among residents. Although some common ground was found among candidates, there were also vast differences.
“I will make this a top priority,” said Carroll. “One of the ways I’m going to do that is by implementing a council of PTAs and have all of the different public schools in our district represented. One of the things I hope comes out of that is a committee to help find new spaces to build new schools.We have to engage the parents who are going to send these children to these schools and get them involved to help us find sites.”
Brannan made a promise that, if he were to be elected, “We will at least have one new school in this district.
“I worked for the Department of Education for about three years and one of the biggest issues was working with the School Construction Authority real estate division which tries to find land where we can build schools,” he said. “We need to get creative and build more schools.”
“I happen to think there is a problem with our public schools and maybe the answer is making it easier for parents to send their kids to charter or parochial schools,” contested Capano. “It’s a matter of budgetary priorities.”
“The solution to overcrowding in the schools is to give the parents the choice as to where they wish to send their children whether it’s private, public or parochial schools,” agreed Regina-Potter. “As a product of a Catholic school and as a parent who has paid tuition for many years, it would have been nice to have a voucher to help us.”
Quaglione attributed the overcrowding in part to illegal conversions. He recalled that, in 2003 and 2004, money was awarded the city’s DOE as a result of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, and the city had used that funding, “To help reduce overcrowding. In last 11 years, we built 10,000 more seats.” Nonetheless, he added, the overcrowding has persisted because of the burgeoning population.
Race, which has been a hot button issue throughout the country and the community, was also discussed as candidates were asked what role a local government should play.
As an Arab American, said El-Yateem, “I have been the recipient of so much racial profiling in this campaign from Republicans and Democrats visibly and under the table. “They say an Arab can’t win an election in this district,” he went on. “You have an opportunity on September 12 to send a message to Trump and the world that you’re not afraid to send the first Arab American to the City Council to represent you.”
“This community is a microcosm of America,” said Chirico. “Tonight I see different faces from all different parts of the world. What can local government do? I would have one of these nights every single month in a different part of the district.”
“No matter where you go, the 43rd district is very diverse,” said Tong. “We all have to work together. No matter what color you are or where you’re from, we should all work together no matter what.”
Brannan brought up what occurred over the weekend at Charlottesville. “When we have a president who is afraid to call racism and white supremacists by their name, we need to look in the eye of racism and xenophobia and call it what it is,” he said. “It’s up to local elected officials to stand up now more than ever and stare racism in the face and say, not now, not ever.”
Capano later responded to his comment. “To me that was one of the greatest examples of political opportunism ever,” he told Brannan. “He attacked the president for not calling something what it is. I wonder if you said the same thing about President Obama refusing to call a terrorist attack that, and instead calling it a workplace incident. You can’t be hypocritical.”
The primary is Tuesday, September 12. The Democratic and Republican winners will face off against each other in the general election, to be held on Tuesday, November 7.