Cindy Rodriguez is the Urban Policy reporter for New York Public Radio.
The subway station on 74th Street in Jackson Heights is the spot for campaigning in this district. Six different trains stop here, including the 7 train that roars above. During a recent evening rush hour a group of South Asian businessmen came to show their support for incumbent Helen Sears. Mahipal Singh, an attorney whose office is nearby, says Sears has always supported the local Merchants Association:
Singh: She’s always there for us whenever we call her. We want to meet her, we don’t have any hassles. She listens to us.
Singh credits Sears with re-naming 74th Street after Kalpana Chawla, a woman astronaut who died when the Space Shuttle Columbia crashed in 2003. Jusvendor Singh credits Sears with attempting to ease traffic congestion around his grocery story.
Singh: She try so many ways she changed the bus stop near my store and she put the parking meter for the customers.
While Sears is popular with these local businessmen, she’s not as popular with the street vendors who say she recently tried to put them out of business by backing an effort to create “Vendor Free Zones”. Sears says she’s meeting with the vendors this week
Sears: The fact is, we have the merchants, we have the community residents, and we have the vendors. And I’m going to see how everyone can assimilate and be able to have their space.
Stanley Kalathara, a lawyer and real estate broker is running against Sears and sympathizes with the vendors. He says it’s the economy that’s hurting local restaurants:
Kalathara: When you don’t make money as a restaurant owner, don’t blame the vendor only, c’mon.
Kalathara is unknown to the throngs of potential voters that he attempts to stop as they make their way to work.
Kalathara : Good morning mam nice to meet you. Good morning sir. I’m Stanley.
He often likes to remind people he’s an immigrant and that he worked his way up from busboy to restaurant owner, to real estate broker to attorney. He says he wants to help other immigrants advance like he did.
Improving the lives of immigrants was the focus of a recent debate in the district where a crowd of mostly Spanish speakers got a chance to question the candidates. One man asked what each of them would do to help immigrants who get arrested and then deported straight from Rikers Island before being found guilty of any crime. While none of the candidates answered the question directly, Daniel Dromm did get a good response when he acknowledged, in Spanish, that many teenagers in the neighborhood join gangs because there are no opportunities for them to do things like play sports.
Dromm: Hay muchas gangas. Y los ninos son miembros de gangas por un razon porque no tienen opportunidades para hacer cosas como jugar basketball , beisbol, y esto es muy importante.
Several voters at the debate said Dromm was their favorite candidate so far. Besides being a school teacher, he’s also a gay activist. He says for socially conservative Latinos, it hasn’t been a problem.
Dromm is well known and is Sears’ biggest threat. He recently won the endorsement of The New York Times. Queens resident Diane Pagen stopped him on the street and offered to make calls for his campaign.
Pagen: I’m in LeFrak City. I know you were just there.
Pagen complained about the overdevelopment in her neighborhood.
Pagen: We can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a mall and we’re in a recession. The planning is abysmal.
Pagen also complained about corruption in the City Council.
At Lety’s coffee shop Patricia Kaufman echoed those remarks and said she would also support Dromm.
Kaufman: Because I believe this neighborhood needs change.
Kaufman complained that Sears never worked well with other city agencies including, the Department of Sanitation.
Kaufman/Hopner: So therefore we have a dirty neighborhood. I got no complaints. She’s gonna win again. She does nothing. She’s gonna win. Don’t interrupt me.
Kaufman’s friend Barbara Hopner disagrees and says she will vote for Sears.
Sears says her biggest accomplishment during her eight years in the City Council was turning an empty building into a state of the art cancer pavilion at Elmhurst Hospital. Next, she says she plans to bring a women’s health clinic to the district:
Sears: My opponent doesn’t have one thing standing. He doesn’t have one thing functioning, except two political clubs.
Daniel Dromm says Sears is in the pocket of the real estate industry and is out of touch with tenants struggling to stay in a gentrifying neighborhood. Her campaign says she’s raised under $20,000 from the real estate industry. In total, Sears has raised just over $134,000. The other two candidates are not far behind her. And it’s looking like a close race in this district that is torn between support for a long time incumbent and a new face that is promising change.