Colby Hamilton, Writer, WNYC News
Colby Hamilton is a general assignment reporter. He originally joined WNYC as a political blogger. He's a proud graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley and her handlers walked into the meeting just before it started. She chatted with the EMT worker union leaders, as members, some still in uniform, chewed on slices of Patsy’s pizza. Crowley, who is running for Congress in Queens, was far from her home district at the worker training facility in East Harlem.
As the chair of the City Council's fire and criminal justice services committee, Crowley is familiar with the legislative needs of New York City’s public safety workers - such as those EMT's. She was there to ask for their support in the election. While she went on to list the political agenda items she’d prioritize in Congress — better training, more funding for emergency preparation—she began with something she and the union workers had in common.
“What has always set me apart before I was elected to the City Council, and what sets me apart from a lot of other elected officials, is that I'm somebody who knows what it's like to work with my hands," Crowley told those assembled.
Out of the candidates running in the primary, Crowley is the only one that can claim to be a card-carrying member of a union. It’s a core piece of her identity — white, working-class Irish Catholic from Archie Bunker country in eastern Queens— and it's something that has helped bring a slew of trade and public safety union support to her campaign. She’s the worked-with-my-hands candidate in the race, who also happens to share one of the city’s most potent political family names.
Born Into It
A few days before the EMT union meeting, she sat in a booth in a chain restaurant in the Glendale section of Queens with a cup of coffee in her hands, absently playing with the edges of its plastic top.
“I think the people that elected me did so because they got to know me and what I stand for,” Crowley said. “My life is a life that is similar to the kind that many people in this district have lived."
She’s the youngest of 15 kids. Her father died when she was only eight years old. She went to state school, earning her Bachelor's degree in painting restoration. Out of college, she joined IUPAT, the painters union, doing restoration work in places such as Radio City Music Hall.
Crowley’s early years laid the foundation for her political ambitions. “I was campaigning before I could remember,” she said. “I was wearing buttons when I was six and seven saying vote for my dad, Walter Crowley. I was born into it in some ways."
Jack Kittle, a spokesperson for DC9, to which the painters union belongs, says he remembers Crowley coming to him when she’d decided to run for the city council for the first time in 2001.
“I thought she was a nut and I tried to talk her out of it, but as you know now she's a relentlessly hard worker who's not taking no for an answer on anything,” he said. “I've never seen a kid work harder than her."
Kittle said Crowley’s background sets her apart from many of the candidates he sees come through DC9 looking for the union’s support.
“I don't want to say this, make it sound derogatory, but most of the people running for office are lawyers,” he said. “They start with, 'my father was an auto worker, my mother was a union seamstress, my grandfather did this and my uncle was a union guy.' And I always say, you know, what does that make you? That makes you a lawyer, right?"
Kittle contrasted these candidates to Crowley.
“Then they roll their sleeves up and loosen their tie and claim they're one of us. Which, quite frankly, unless you've been on a construction site, and worked like a construction worker works, you're not one of us. You have no idea what one of us is," he said. "Elizabeth Crowley can. She's actually been there."
Winning in Archie Bunker Country
Crowley is also the only candidate in the primary race who won office by beating a Republican incumbent, but not before being beaten twice. The first came in 2001—her first race—when she ran and lost to Republican Dennis Gallagher in the 30th council district. After Gallagher stepped down in 2008, Crowley again ran and lost, this time to Republican Anthony Como, another Republican, in a special election.
The following year, in a general election, Crowley unseated Como, becoming the first Democrat to hold the seat since the council expanded to 51 seats in 1992.
“I've had to fight to get elected, period,” Crowley said. “I ran for office in a seat Democrats didn't think they could win.”
As a member of the council, Crowley has made public safety — more specifically, uniformed safety officers — her main focus. It has put her on the front lines during the yearly Bloomberg budget cuts. Every year Mayor Michael Bloomberg says he’s closing firehouses; every year the firehouses get saved.
Crowley has in the past taken the prized credit for saving firehouse, which reportedly lost her the favor of Council Speaker Christine Quinn. In 2010, Crowley’s announcement on saving firehouses preempted the speaker’s own crowing over the contrived victory. When the speaker doled out discretionary funds later that year, Crowley tied for the least amount given to any council member.
The firehouse incident helped feed a narrative held by some political commentators that Crowley is inexperienced, part of a corrupt family and political machine. Most recently, political provocateurs in Queens have accused Crowley of taking credit for a number of new schools in the district that have been in the works years before Crowley was elected to office.
The district Crowley represents had been staunchly Republican in the past, so it’s not surprising this sort of vocal criticism — however legitimate —surrounds the councilwoman. But according to Assemblyman Mike Miller, whose district overlaps with Crowley’s and who is supporting her Congressional bid, Crowley’s relationship with her constituents couldn’t be better.
“She cares about the people she deals with. It comes out when you speak to her one-on-one. It comes out when she speaks at different community meetings,” he said. “She’s pretty clear on that: She’s there to work for the people.”
The Machine Candidate, Sans Machine
According to a long-time Democratic insider, Crowley has been underestimated as an elected official and, potentially, as a candidate. “She's a council member who's actually improved over the years,” the person said. “She learns; not everybody learns."
After Congressman Gary Ackerman decided not to run in the new 6th Congressional district, Crowley had a choice. She had allowed her name to be floated during the special election to replace Anthony Weiner last year, only to watch the candidate picked by the Queens county Democratic organization, Assemblyman David Weprin, suffer an embarrassing loss to now-Congressman Bob Turner.
Crowley was more insistent this time around.
“I did ask,” she said. “And I was disappointed when I didn't receive the Queens County endorsement, but I wasn't surprised."
“Because I share the same last name as the county leader."
Instead, the county organization went with Assemblywoman Grace Meng as its official candidate. Crowley is running against both Meng and Assemblyman Rory Lancman.
In conversations, some observers—including the long-time Democratic insider—remain dismissive of the idea that having the name Crowley has ever been anything but a boon for Elizabeth.
“Why she would want to put him [Queens County chair, Congressman Joe Crowley] in that situation is beyond me, considering that she wouldn't be where she was if her last name wasn’t Crowley," said the insider.
But a name can only get you so far in a crowded primary race held three months earlier than most people are used to. Crowley’s path to victory runs straight through the sort of white, working-class communities she currently represents. With her background, it’s a space she fits in well. Her struggle is getting voters who are no reliable Democratic primary participants to feel energized and engaged enough to come out to vote on June 26.
Something, not surprisingly, she feels entirely capable of doing.
“What does it mean to fight to win,” Crowley asked rhetorically. “That means that I have to get out there and get my message to every single voter I could possibly get my message out to.
“I believe after we meet and after we have a discussion that they'll see themselves in me.”