Four years ago Shirley Huntley was the one running to throw a "bum" out. She earned her southeast Queens State Senate seat by narrowly winning a Democratic primary against Ada Smith, the incumbent who'd achieved infamy by allegedly tossing a coffee pot at a staffer.
Now Huntley is the incumbent in the cross-hairs, as challenger Lynn Nunes, a real-estate agent, comes to their September 14 primary contest with substantial money and a Daily News endorsement that could prove crucial in what is likely to be a very low-turnout race.
But the senate matchup is not the only race on Nunes' radar screen. He came out of political obscurity last year during his race for a City Council seat, falling just four votes short of defeating incumbent City Councilman Thomas White in the 2009 primary, another low turnout affair. White died last month, and the city's Campaign Finance Board said on Wednesday that Nunes was among 10 people who registered to participate in the November 2 special election to fill White's seat. Nunes seems to be hedging against a loss in next Tuesday's senate primary. And his sister has also registered for the race to fill White's seat, apparently in case Nunes decides not to run for it.
The senate race, meanwhile, has been cast as an aftershock of last December's senate defeat of a gay marriage bill. Huntley was one of eight Democrats to vote against the bill. She says she voted "no" because a poll of her constituents found that 62 percent opposed marriage equality. Nunes supports gay marriage and has attracted significant financial support from gay rights groups.
Charter champions cut checks
But it's clear that other issues are also at play in the 10th district, which is wedged between the Rockaways and Nassau County, including the neighborhoods of South Jamaica, Springfield Gardens, Laurelton, Broad Channel and parts of Richmond Hill, Kew Gardens and Lindenwood.
Both candidates have about $72,000 on hand, thanks to Huntley's fundraising frenzy at the end of August. Nunes has attracted donations from gay rights advocates—some $13,400 in contributions from organizations like Empire State Pride Agenda, Human Rights Campaign and the Stonewall Democrats, not to mention individual donors. But he appears to have received even more support from charter school supporters: $67,000 from identifiable charter school backers like Boykin Curry, Charles Ledley and Rafael Mayer—all members of the pro-charter Democrats for Educational Reform.
Nunes supports charter schools, with his website saying: "Our state cannot throw away creative solutions and innovations to schools and education policy. Lynn will explore every possible option in improving the way we educate our children for a better future."
Huntley originally opposed expanding the number of charter schools permitted in the state but ultimately voted for the change. She was a supporter of the 2009 "Better Schools Act" that attempted to weaken mayoral control of the schools and says she's launched a "parent training program" at several CUNY campuses.
Hospitals and houses are top concerns
Much of the legislation Huntley has introduced in the Senate deals with developmentally disabled people. She seeks the renaming of the state Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities to the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, the extension of the deadline for parents to request records that might detail abuse in mental health facilities and the stiffening of criminal penalties against people who mistreat the mentally incompetent or physically disabled. Huntley also wants to require the state health department to prepare specific recommendations for bridging the gap for local residents when a hospital closes.
The latter idea hits close to home: Queens has lost two hospitals in recent years, including Mary Immaculate in Jamaica. Nunes names healthcare as his top priority. In an interview with City Limits, he says his goal is "to have a full-fledged medial hospital" in the area, but adds: "The more immediate plan would be to work with clinics and have clinics opened up in the community to blunt the impact of recent closures."
According to the challenger, neither gay rights nor charter schools come up all that often as he tours the district. Instead, the hottest issues are the impact of overdevelopment during the real estate boom and the rash of foreclosures in southeast Queens. The immediate problem, he says, is that banks are not maintaining properties that have come onto their books through foreclosure. "I think we stiffen the penalties for that," he says. He also wants laws to encourage the banks to get property back into homeowners' hands. "You see these eyesores which attract crime, which depress property values, which turn away prospective buyers. I think it's about introducing legislation which sets timetables that are aggressive and work in the best interest of the community."
Nunes, a realtor (his firm Five Star Realty donated $5,000 to his campaign, adding to at least $23,000 contributed by the candidate himself and family members), launched a program called Save Your Home to "provide assistance to residents facing foreclosure," according to a campaign mailer. Huntley says she has run a foreclosure assistance program out of her senate office.
Huntley did not respond to a request for an interview or emailed questions by press time. In a recent back-to-back appearance on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show, neither candidate articulated a rationale for addressing the looming state budget deficit, projected to hit $8 billion in fiscal year 2012 and nearly $16 billion two years later.
"What should be cut? Well, spending in all areas. Spending in all areas can be cut," Huntley said. "It's very hard to cut one group. It's almost impossible. We need more revenue."
Nunes offered that taxes "would be the last thing on the totem pole. " He said the state needed more income generating projects like the Racino soon to be built in Queens, adding, "We have to make sure that programs that are inefficient or ineffective are cut."
The candidates are also indistinguishable on the buzzword issue of "reform." Both support term limits, disclosure of legislators' outside income and unspecified campaign finance reform.
Rising waters, low turnout
It's unclear whether any of those issues will matter on September 14, when few voters are expected to decide who prevails in the 10th district. It's unclear whether that favors Huntley, who took 7,600 votes in dispatching a primary challenger two years ago, or Nunes, whose solid showing in the 2009 Council race comes with the asterisk that he only attracted 1,936 votes.
The expected low turnout might reflect the non-drama of the governors' race; Andrew Cuomo is unopposed for the Democratic nomination and heavily favored to win in November. But at least some residents of Huntley's district are distracted by real-life concerns distant from either the gay marriage debate or the furor for Albany reform.
At a recent meeting in Huntley's office, dozens of Springfield Gardens residents whose homes and businesses were damaged in an August 22nd flood gathered to learn from city officials why it happened and what would be done to help those affected. The Department of Environmental Protection said that while southeast Queens was prone to flooding, it was unclear why that day's heavy rains caused so much grief, since the volume of water produced was within the capacity of the local sewer system. The agency said it was investigating the event. A half billion dollars worth of sewer improvements are already planned for the area.
But people at the meeting wanted answers and action now. They described water rushing down the street "like a river," basements flooded up to six feet deep and sewers overflowing with such force that the water propelled manhole covers into the air. One businesswoman said she'd suffered $20,000 in damages. Cecil Irvin, who is fixing up his mother's house for sale, said he was dealing not with rainwater but with sewage. "Feces. Tissue. People's goldfish are in my basement," he said, noting that when potential buyers for the house stopped by shortly after the flood, "They came down, saw this, and walked right out."
Huntley told residents to submit claims to the city to get reimbursement for their losses. But some wanted to know what to do about the damage, while they wait for the city to decide whether to pay.
"The mold and all, what are we supposed to do with that?" asked one woman.
"We'll have to check," said Huntley, adding that a local organization might be able to help.