For the most part, today’s general election in New York City will be low key: Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to easily waltz into his second term and the majority of City Council races, especially in Queens, are uncompetitive. Incumbent Democrats are expected to easily win reelection, and some candidates are even running unopposed, like Donovan Richards, who currently holds the District 31 seat, representing the eastern half of the Rockaways.
This is not so in District 32, which includes the western half of the peninsula as well as Ozone Park and Richmond Hill on the Queens mainland. The seat, currently occupied by Eric Ulrich, the only Queens Republican serving on the Council, is contested, and the campaign has turned vicious, featuring personal attacks from the candidates. Democratic candidate Mike Scala has accused Ulrich of flip-flopping and Ulrich has revived rap lyrics from Scala’s previous career as a hip-hop artist, claiming that they show he is a racist, a misogynist, and condones violence.
The feud has drawn the attention of community leaders inside the district and the Queens Democratic organization. On Nov. 1, when the candidates met for their first and only debate at the Rockaway Knights of Columbus hall, they did not beat around the bush about the campaign’s negative tone.
“When I got into this race, I was hoping it would be an honest race on the issues,” said Scala, a Howard Beach attorney whose pet issue is the reactivation of the now defunct Rockaway Beach Rail Line, which would give residents a direct route to midtown Manhattan. “I call this [negative campaigning] out because I am disgusted by it and disgusted this has been a part of the conversation.”
“I want to take the high road to city hall,” said Ulrich, in his rebuttal. “I’m not going to address some of the mud-slinging, because there’s a lot of things that have been said about me that are not true.”
Whether the candidates feel it is politically expedient to bring up the negative tone of the race or not, there is no denying it has gotten nasty.
On Oct. 8, Scala released a video on his campaign’s social media pages showing footage of Ulrich changing his position on a number of issues, including term limits for city officials. Ulrich initially opposed the loophole allowing a third term for Bloomberg era politicians, then later embraced it. He is currently seeking a third term under this rule.
Ulrich called the attack “desperate” in a statement, and bided his time until Oct. 23, when he released an attack ad of his own. In a video uploaded to YouTube, Ulrich hit Scala for lyrics he wrote under the rap name Pizon around 2010, calling them misogynist and racist towards Latinos.
Pizon’s discography is extensive, and some of the lyrics cited included lines like “rap and me go together like Spanish chicks and strollers,” and “if they disagree stick something sharp in their brain.” He also wrote a lyric about wanted to break cops’ jawbones.
The video remained on the site for less than two days, when it was taken down by a copyright claim from TimidMC, an artist Scala has collaborated with in the past. Whether the artist issued this copyright claim on his own or at the request of Scala is not known, and neither TimidMC nor the Scala campaign responded to multiple requests for comment on the issue. TimidMC often campaigns with Scala, however, and the two are often seen together on social media.
Scala responded in a scathing statement on his Facebook page, calling Ulrich “petty” and saying that his efforts would backfire. He even brought it up in an off-the-cuff remark prior to the start of his debate with Ulrich, saying “I don’t know if this is going to be a debate or rap battle.”
On Oct. 20, Helal Sheikh, who lost to Scala in the Democratic primary election on Sept. 12, endorsed Ulrich and appeared with him at a press conference. During the conference, a flyer was presented and attributed to the Scala campaign. It read: “We don’t need someone with radical views like Helal Sheikh representing Rockaway … If you don’t vote, they win.” Ulrich insisted that this was a reference to Sheikh’s Muslim faith.
Scala again took to Facebook to vehemently deny that this flyer had anything to do with his campaign, and also brought it up at the debate on Nov. 1. He also insinuated that the flyer had been fabricated by Ulrich as a smear.
When asked why the flyer was produced so late in the race and so long after the primary election was over, Ulrich’s communications director Natalia Kozikowaska promised to pass the question along to “the right person” in the campaign, adding that it is not the job of reporters to speculate. By press time, no response was received. Sheikh did not respond to requests for comment on the matter either.
Ulrich’s reelection bid has attracted the attention of prominent Democrats in the borough, as he is the only Republican in the City Council. Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley endorsed Scala, calling him, “a bright, young leader in our borough with an equally bright future ahead of him.” In response, Ulrich took to Twitter, saying “I wasn’t planning on getting involved in her race but I might just have to remind the voters in District 30 how unlucky they are to have her,” and called Crowley one “of the most incompetent electeds in NYC.”
After Crowley came out in support of Scala, the New York Post, which recently endorsed Ulrich, reported that the Republican councilmember had filed an ethics complaint against Crowley in April of 2017. The complaint alleges that she used her political power to harass the owner of a restaurant her son worked at, after he got into an altercation there in 2016 and was roughed up. Crowley denied the claims.
Crowley’s cousin, U.S. Representative Joe Crowley, has also gotten involved in the race, elevating the dispute. Rep. Crowley and the Queens Democratic Party, of which he is the leader, endorsed Scala in a statement on Oct. 18, and made a contribution of $2,700 to the Scala campaign that same day. It is the single largest donation the campaign has received to date, according to the New York City Campaign Finance Board.
Besides the Post, the Queens Chronicle and three major police unions, including the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, have endorsed Ulrich. But on Nov. 3, the Rockaway Point News, a free community newspaper that serves residents of heavily Republican Breezy Point, Queens, wrote a blistering editorial endorsing Scala, accusing Ulrich of corruption and lying about the allocation of public funds.
“You know the old saying,” it began. “Politicians are like diapers and need to be changed often as they are usually full of $#%&.” The author, Mike Schramm, who co-edits the paper, said over the phone that this endorsement is “totally new” for the paper, having never come out in support of a political candidate.
In a round of elections largely predicted to be a rubber stamp for incumbents, this break of tradition by the Rockaway Point News is just one example of how district 32 is a very open race. Schramm said that he thinks the public war of words between the two candidates is indicative of this. “The last time, it was not this nasty,” he said. Ulrich was last up for reelection in 2013, and narrowly beat Democrat Lew Simon by just over 1,000 votes.
Despite being out-fundraised by his opponent by a margin of three to one, Scala has out-spent Ulrich by almost $10,000, according to the New York City Campaign Finance Board.
Meanwhile, voters in the area seem heavily split. Though there is no polling data for the current race, both candidates appear to be expecting a close election this time around. On social media, Rockaway residents have been discussing issues facing their community in several Facebook groups. One, Friends of Rockaway Beach, has over 15,000 members.
As for of Scala’s rap career and offensive lyrics, the reaction has been mixed on Facebook: Rita Tortorelli had some choice words for Ulrich on his campaign ad, calling it a “pretty tacky maneuver” and that it had lost Ulrich her vote. But Lisa Pina, in another post to the popular Facebook group, said “I have a daughter who is half Cuban,” referring to Scala’s lyrics about Latinos. “I am offended.” Another resident, however, Jeremy Levine, said, in a post, that Scala’s rap lyrics did not bother him, and admitted that he also “did a lot of stupid stuff” in his youth.