By Bill Parry
Tony Nunziato, 59, the Republican candidate facing upstart Democrat Brian Barnwell in the race to fill Margaret Markey’s Assembly seat, is a self-described “man of commitment” who has fought for his community of Maspeth for the last 30 years.
As chairman of the Maspeth-Middle Village Task Force he has led the fight against the city’s attempt to convert the Holiday Inn Express into a homeless shelter with rallies each week night and road trips to other neighborhoods including a public demonstration on the steps of City Hall last Friday.
“You’ve got to take stands on things. I take a stand even if it hurts my business, but I’ll always do it if it helps my community,” he said, admitting the time commitment has hurt his campaign. “Actually the rallies have hindered it because I’m so concerned about the neighborhood and the people I haven’t been able to put full time towards my campaign.”
Nunziato believes his life experience and fierce community activism from the first day he arrived in Maspeth and opened his Enchanted Florist shop on Grand Avenue gives him an edge in his race with Barnwell. He fought battles to clean up contaminated industrial sites, helped stop the Cross Harbor Rail Tunnel that would have brought 6,000 trucks to Maspeth everyday, he said, as well as leading the fight against a Home Depot at the location of the Elmhurst gas tanks 15 years ago.
“That’s when we started the task force,” Nunziato said. “We had it made into a 6.8 acre Elmhurst Park that was donated to the city for a dollar.”
He is proud that it will be home to the borough’s Vietnam War memorial in the coming years. Nunziato’s brother Aniello died in combat during that conflict.
“I still remember the pain in my mother’s eyes,” he said. “My vision was we could turn it into something for the veterans as a reflective space.”
Nunziato is a longtime member of the powerful Juniper Valley Civic Association, a Republican district leader and an unapologetic delegate for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. He believes Trump’s influence has led to a renaissance for his party which has fielded 21 GOP candidates across the borough this year.
“It’s phenomenal, a real turning point and he probably did spark this. He’s a businessman who wanted to make the nation better,” Nunziato said. “We have all these great candidates saying I can do better for my community, we’re not being represented correctly. We have a lot of talent out there now that aren’t afraid to run against the Democratic machine.”
He explained that was the reason he went to O’Neill’s Pub in September to congratulate Barnwell on his stunning primary victory over Markey.
“I wanted to congratulate him because he went up against the machine,” Nunziato said. “But whoever ran would have won that primary because Marge destroyed herself, Marge defeated herself, she just turned so many people off. She felt she didn’t have to answer to people. Now that times are bad, people are realizing they want elected officials to represent them now. It’s a new era and it’s no wonder she lost.
Nunziata lost handily to Markey in Assembly races in 2010 and 2012, but he was proud of getting close to 40 percent of the vote both times, he said. He has developed a friendship with Barnwell over the last two month of shelter rallies despite their differences and ambitions.
“You have to know the community. Look at Mike DenDekker, he was a garbage man but he knew his community. The late Ivan Lafayette was my father’s mechanic, but he knew his neighborhood,” Nunziato said. “I know everything about this community of Maspeth and of Woodside where my family has lived for three generations. I grew up there with 30 first cousins all in a five-block area. You have to know these communities, you can’t say you’re a lawyer and you deserve to be an assemblyman.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr