Five Dems target issues in McCaffrey-seat debate

By Dustin Brown

Allegations of campaign impropriety clouded an otherwise gentlemanly debate among the five Democratic candidates for City Councilman Walter McCaffrey’s (D-Woodside) seat last week.

Before delving into local issues, the candidates focused on a flier against Matthew Farrell that had been distributed around the district with a message encouraging voters to support Eric Gioia, who used his opening statement to condemn the flier’s source.

“I’m angry at the person responsible for this,” Gioia told the forum at Maspeth Town Hall last Thursday before announcing he had asked the Queens district attorney to investigate still another contender, Joseph Conley, as the culprit.

In his own opening statement, Conley vehemently denied Gioia’s accusation and offered a $5,000 reward to anyone who could supply information about the leaflet’s source.

“It’s negative politics, it’s not what my campaign is about,” Farrell said following the debate. “I think it’s a turnoff to people.”

The debate was sponsored by the Queens Ledger Newspaper Group along with the Queens Gazette and the Woodside Herald, giving the candidates a final opportunity to face off before the Sept. 11 Democratic primary.

The 26th Council District covers a wide swath that extends from the East River eastward to Grand Avenue, including sections of Long Island City, Sunnyside, Woodside and Maspeth.

McCaffrey, a popular leader who is prevented by term limits from seeking re-election, has occupied the seat for the past 15 years, and five Democrats — including Patrick O’Malley and Michael Kearney in addition to Gioia, Farrell and Conley — are vying to replace him.

Green Party candidate Ann Eagan did not participate in the debate.

The flier issue did not come up again beyond the opening statements, allowing candidates to present their platforms on issues ranging from education to housing concerns and immigration.

Gioia, who touts himself as the only candidate to have grown up in the district, was a lawyer in the Clinton White House before directing Al Gore’s presidential election campaign in New York State.

“I want to make sure every kid that grows up in our neighborhood can do what I did,” he said.

O’Malley, a former prosecutor with the Queens district attorney’s office who previously taught public school in the Bronx, believes his experience in both professions will enable him to deal with the issues of crime and education.

“I am an extremely dedicated public servant,” he said.

Irish-born Kearney, the only immigrant running for the seat, said his experience owning a large health-services business in Sunnyside has equipped him to balance a budget and deal with all levels of government.

“You’ve got to have diplomacy,” he said.

Farrell has served for the past eight years as chief of staff to City Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) — whose district borders McCaffrey’s — and contended that his direct experience on the Council will enable him to hit the ground running.

“I want to make our lives better,” he said. “I want to make a difference in our community.”

Conley, the longtime chairman of Community Board 2, asserted that his years of hands-on efforts to address local issues gives him a record that demonstrates his ability to lead as a city councilman.

“I am somebody that’s been here day and night working on the issues,” Conley said.

On the subject of education and school construction, all candidates agreed the School Construction Authority and Board of Education must act more responsibly in selecting locations for schools.

Addressing problems of illegal home conversions and violations of the building code, Kearney and Gioia both stressed the necessity of strictly enforcing the law.

O’Malley touted a system called CityStat — a variant of the CrimeStat system introduced by the late Deputy Police Commissioner Jack Maple — as a means of efficiently logging and addressing civic complaints like building violations.

Conley said that as CB 5 chairman he put in effect a zero tolerance policy for violations and personally ensured that agencies came to the district to investigate problem areas.

Farrell cited his existing relationships with city agencies.

On the topic of immigration, Conley and O’Malley stressed the necessity of protecting immigrants from exploitation, while Farrell focused on fostering cooperation between all levels of government to help immigrants.

Saying that immigrants “don’t want to live like animals” with many people crammed into illegal conversions, Gioia proposed more effectively enforcing the laws while providing affordable housing to accommodate the growing population.

Kearney promised to establish a one-stop immigration office in the district to help immigrants follow the laws and eventually get U.S. citizenship.

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