By Bill Parry
For the second time in two years a political earthquake emanated from central Queens as civic leader Robert Holden stunned two-term incumbent City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Glendale) in the city’s tightest, and most intense election campaign. The race was decided by just 137 votes and Holden was declared the victor eight days after Election Day after absentee ballots and paper votes were counted.
“It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done. I still can’t believe it, I’m slapping myself,” Holden said the following morning after Crowley conceded defeat. “I’ll tell you what — it feels good because I’m the victor, but it’s a real whirlwind.”
The political newcomer’s stunning win came a year after Brian Barnwell, a young Woodside attorney and political neophyte, upset longtime Assemblywoman Margaret Markey in the Democratic primary in 2016 and went on to capture her seat. Holden and Barnwell stood together most weekday nights for months protesting the city’s plan to convert a Maspeth Holiday Inn Express into a homeless shelter in 2016 and they proceeded to oust the two elected officials they said had failed to represent their communities in the fight.
Holden, 66, was the only challenger to defeat a sitting Council member in the city in November. When the recently retired college professor threw his hat in the ring and announced his run against Crowley, the longtime president of the Juniper Park Civic Association made it clear he knew what he was getting into.
“I don’t really like politics,” Holden said. “I know politics can be nasty and I’ll be going up against the Queens Democratic Machine, but I’m ready for their smear tactics.”
The two campaigns became divisive and sometimes incendiary almost from the start. Crowley’s campaign literature began circulating comparing Holden to Grandpa Simpson and ripping his connections to the Republican Party. In an interview with TimesLedger Newspapers, Holden accused Crowley of having a “lack of representation and competence,” adding “he knew he could do a better job then her.”
When Crowley trounced him in the Democratic primary by capturing nearly 64 percent, Holden remained confidant of his chances in November’s general election because of his cross-party relationships.
“I have so many people in the neighborhood who come up to me and tell me, ‘Bob, I’m a Republican and you’re the first Democrat I’m ever going to vote for,” Holden said as he prepared to run on three party lines — Conservative, Reform and Dump de Blasio — in the general. The calculus changed greatly in late September when the Queens GOP offered Holden, a registered Democrat for more than 44 years, their vacant Republican party line.
Holden accepted and as Crowley labeled the move a “bait and switch,” he explained he would be “crazy not to accept it.”
Knowing he had the support of Republicans and Conservatives in Maspeth and Middle Village where he had served the community for more than 30 years, Holden and his volunteers began knocking on doors in the neighborhoods of Glendale, Ridgewood and Woodhaven where he was something of an unknown entity and he acted less like a politician and more like a civic leader listening to resident concerns.
In late October he presented a blueprint he helped draft with the Reform Party on how to solve the homeless crisis and he began hammering Crowley for supporting the plan to close Rikers Island and replace it with community jails.
It worked and now Holden is gearing up for his next career, racing to put together a staff and find the right office space. He took a break from that to take his oath of office last Friday from City Clerk Mike McSweeney, an old friend from Woodside.
“It’s official. I even paid the $9 fee,” Holden said. “I gave Mike a $10 and he gave me back a dollar. We’re going to frame that. You know, I thought the election was a whirlwind, the last few weeks have been even more hectic. You get tired but energized at the same time, and yes I’m excited about what’s ahead.”
He is becoming aware that being an elected representative of a Council district is a different level than civic leader.
“As a civic, I only cared about the community, but now I’m getting a sense of the politics involved,” Holden said. “I didn’t know part of the job is being in a fishbowl. I can’t go out dressed like a bum anymore, no jeans and sneakers. Now I have to wear ties. I didn’t know how much everything changes.”
Last week he even had a conversation with Mayor de Blasio.
“It was very good. The mayor called me and congratulated my on my victory and I congratulated him on his victory and joked that mine was a little closer than his,” Holden said. “He said that he has worked well with Republicans in the past and I explained I’m not really a Republican, it’s more complex than that. He said I like your tone and let’s turn the page and find common goals.”
Holden was also invited to meet de Blasio at Gracie Mansion in January.
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr