By Anna Gustafson
As the youngest Democratic candidate in the bid for City Councilwoman Melinda Katz’s (Dâˆ’Forest Hills) seat, 27âˆ’yearâˆ’old Mel Gagarin knows he is an outsider in a crowded race — and he is hoping to use it to his advantage.
Although Gagarin, of Kew Gardens, has worked for politicians, including state Sen. Jose Serrano (Dâˆ’Bronx) and U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (Dâˆ’Forest Hills), he does not have the years of experience in politics like some of his opponents, such as Karen Koslowitz, who held the 29th Council District seat prior to Katz, or Michael Cohen, a former state assemblyman.
Such political greenness, Gagarin said, is something he believes will attract voters hoping to change the status quo.
“I’m not part of the establishment,” said Gagarin, who now works in media relations for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “I see myself as able to challenge the way things work.”
Gagarin has refrained from vying for endorsements and instead has focused on more of a grassroots approach to campaigning. The Elmhurst native has knocked on thousands of doors since January and he believes it is this effort and not landing endorsements from groups like the Queens County Democrats, which backed Koslowitz, or the Working Families Party, which supported candidate Lynn Schulman, that will help to usher him into the 29th Council District seat.
“Voters want to hear what we’ll do for them, not who’s backing us,” Gagarin said.
The 29th District covers Forest Hills, Rego Park, Kew Gardens and parts of Richmond Hill, Maspeth and Elmhurst.
Besides Koslowitz, Cohen and Schulman, the other candidate in the race is Heidi Harrison Chain. All the candidates are Democrats.
In his first bid for public office, Gagarin is focusing on development, green industry, traffic and flooding problems, education, seniors and small businesses.
“People are concerned about overâˆ’development,” Gagarin said. “It’s going to become a real problem. I want to make sure the community has a voice when it comes to development.”
Gagarin called the Austin Street and Cord Meyer rezonings steps in the right direction, but said more needs to be done to improve communication between developers and residents.
Gagarin said he would want to concentrate on bringing green jobs to Queens and the city, which he said will play a crucial role in rebuilding the city’s economy that has been slammed by the recession.
When Gagarin makes the rounds in neighborhoods, he frequently hears of the flooding and traffic concerns he wants to work to alleviate.
“City agencies are not as responsive to people as they should be,” Gagarin said. “There are serious flooding issues, and no action has been taken on that.”
City Comptroller Bill Thompson sent letters in midâˆ’April to Queens property owners saying the city would not provide monetary compensation to flood victims. Hundreds of people had their homes damaged in torrential rains in April, July and August 2007, during which sewer lines were overwhelmed and sewage poured into houses throughout the borough.
Gagarin recently has been working with residents to bring stop signs or speed bumps along Alderton Street in Kew Gardens, which Gagarin and residents have said is plagued by individuals driving two or three times the speed limit who have slammed into parked cars on the street.
The candidate said he would fight for the reduction of class sizes in Queens, retaining programs and services that benefit seniors — such as senior centers and technology courses, and making sure small business owners have access to affordable rent.
Gagarin, who lives with his wife Aleda; 6âˆ’monthâˆ’old son Micah; and 2âˆ’yearâˆ’old daughter Zoe Frances, said he knows he will likely have to work harder than the other candidates to get out his name and message — and this push for success he said is inspired by his mother and grandmother.
“I was raised by my mom and grandma in a oneâˆ’bedroom apartment in Elmhurst,” Gagarin said. “I grew up in a workingâˆ’class household. My mom was a nurse, and she pushed me to help others. That’s what I want to do.”
Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by eâˆ’mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718âˆ’229âˆ’0300, Ext. 174.