A tradition of handing down power within this 50th Council district office is under assault in the most contested Republican primary in this cycle.
The City Council district covering the center of Staten Island features a wildlife refuge, Historic Richmondtown, a salt marsh, sprawling parks, a CUNY campus, the funky commercial strip of New Dorp Lane and the sandy stretches of Midland Beach.
Above all else, however, it offers continuity.
The district was created back in 1991, after a court ruling torpedoed the old Board of Estimate and a charter change awarded more power to a City Council that expanded from 35 to 51 seats.
The first man to represent the district in City Hall was John Fusco, who is now a judge. Fusco was succeeded by James Oddo, who had been Fusco’s chief of staff. When Oddo became borough president in 2014, Steven Matteo—who had been Oddo’s chief of staff—became the councilmember. Now Matteo is looking to follow his old boss into the borough presidency, and Matteo’s chief of staff, David Carr, is running for the Council seat.
To continue the lineage, Carr will have to win a June 22 Republican primary—one of only three around the city on a day that is otherwise dominated by Democratic races. Early in-person voting begins June 12.
Joining Carr on the ballot are Jordan Hafizi, a former journalist; Marko Kepi, a one-time aide to Brooklyn Republican State Sen. Marty Golden; Sam Pirozzolo, an optician; and Kathleen Sforza, who works for a local economic development organization. It’s by far the most crowded primary in the district’s 30-year history.
Public safety in the spotlight
While their platforms feature different points of emphasis, the four candidates who spoke with City Limits (Sforza did not) all highlighted public safety as a dominant concern.
“If people don’t feel safe going to work, going out shopping and don’t feel safe in their homes and home neighborhoods then we don’t have a city,” Carr says. “The NYPD has to be re-funded and allowed to do the work they know how to do. That needs to be our mantra when it comes to public safety going forward.”
Kepi agrees that restoring police funding is key. “I think public safety should be our number one priority,” he says. According to the city’s Independent Budget Office, the cuts in last year’s city budget reduced the NYPD’s spending by about $470 million, although it was unclear that the planned reduction in overtime spending could be achieved. The agency’s uniformed headcount is about 2,000 less this fiscal year than in 2019-2020. The current budget of about $5.4 billion is still larger than anything the department had to work with before fiscal year 2017.
Pirozzolo says it’s about more than the budget. He blames “all of these nonsensical initiatives” for the rise in crime. He says he supports limited degrees of bail reform, but not the breadth of change that the state adopted in 2019 (which was narrowed somewhat in early 2020). “Do we need reforms? Of course we need reforms. But that doesn’t mean we open the doors.”
Crime in Staten Island is down by about 2.8 percent so far this year, and the number of reported rapes and robberies has plunged. However, the number of shootings has risen by 50 percent (there have been 12 so far in 2021) and the murder count has doubled from 3 to 6. Last year’s total of 20 murders was the most the island had seen since 2016.
Hafizi says the public safety problem on Staten Island is as much about anxiety over what’s coming next as it is about what’s actually occurred. “I think that there’s a certain degree of fear because there’s the bail reform that happened. People living on Staten Island remember there was a time when there were no murders on Staten Island,” Hafizi, who used to cover crime for the Staten Island Advance, says. “Now they’re seeing a slow decline in the quality of life. They’re seeing crime in the news like they did when [David] Dinkins was mayor.”
From 1990 through 1993, the years of Dinkins’ mayoralty, Staten Island averaged 27.75 murders a year. Over Mayor Giuliani’s first term, the borough averaged 26 killings annually. The island’s population has swelled by roughly 100,000 people since 1990.
On her campaign website, Sforza decries what she depicts as the demonization of police officers over the past year. She also proposes that some—but not all—crime statistics have been fudged, but only during the de Blasio era. “It is a known secret that crime statistics have been manipulated for the past 7 years. Nothing is a crime anymore!” her site reads. “Yet the murder rate saw an increase! There is no way to hide a murder in the statistics. It is a crime that cannot be manipulated by statistics!”
A host of other issues
As a fast growing community linked to the rest of the city by a single bridge and a ferry, getting to, from and around Staten Island is a perennial issue. Kepi wants the city to capitalize on the island’s waterfront to bypass congestion on roads, by creating new “fast ferries.” He’s especially keen on a plan to start a ferry between Bay Ridge and Staten Island, which he said would help keep families connected and would largely use existing city infrastructure. Carr also highlights the potential for water transit to address the bottlenecks on land.
When it comes to roads, candidates offer different views. “People always talk about speeding cars, especially at night time and during school time,” Hafizi says when asked about top community concerns. Yet Pirozzolo believes part of the problem on Staten Island is the city’s effort to reduce speeding through the use of speed cameras. “It’s a war on cars. The mayor wants to take one of the lanes on the Brooklyn Bridge and turn it into a pedestrian bike lane?” he says. “There’s an incredible amount of stupidity and insanity in the city.”
Pirozzolo sees road enforcement as part of a larger issue: the increasing burden of taxes and fees in the city. That includes not just property taxes, but also water rates and traffic tickets. “I’m not promising to lower your taxes. What I am promising is that, as a Republican, I will get up there and yell and scream and make sure they hear me.”
Homeless shelters have generated controversy in Staten Island in recent years, and Kepi has made his opposition to them a top issue. He says his concern is the lack of programming that the shelters offer to residents with mental illness or substance-abuse problems (although many of the city’s homeless work and do not suffer from mental illness or drug issues). “They’re not really implementing the programs they should be to help these people. They need a place where they can actually get help,” he says. “You want to be fair to both sides, the homeless and people who have invested their life savings in their properties.”
Pirozzolo, a longtime Community Education Council leader, wants to establish a mechanism that would pay off student loans for teachers who agree to work in public schools—a step he believes would diversify the teaching corps, with benefits for non-white students. “The teachers aren’t the problem,” he says. “The union is the problem.” (Pirozzolo has, however, also been involved in a lawsuit challenging teacher tenure laws.)
Carr stresses the importance of helping small businesses. “We need to help small businesses make up for the fact that they had a lost year,” he says. “It’s crucial that we find ways of supporting them going forward and not go back to the business as usual of nickel-and-diming them.”
Hafizi is especially irked by what he saw as “arbitrary COVID restrictions” and proposes that elected officials’ salaries should be indexed to restaurant capacity—if your local diner can only have 50 percent of its tables full, then the mayor, councilmembers and other electeds should be working on half pay too, he argues.
Sforza, who owned a small business for decades, proposes that the city “provide cash grant programs that go directly to the small businesses to assist with rent and utilities.” She also calls for more affordable senior housing and for the construction of more firehouses to reflect the Island’s growing population.
Inspired by a story he wrote during his reporting days about a man doomed by a late cancer diagnosis, Hafizi says he’ll work to increase access to cancer screenings. He also wants to improve Staten Island’s east shore boardwalk to make it a more vibrant competitor to beaches in New Jersey.
The big divide
The defining issue of the race, however, seems unlikely to be policing or transit or small businesses, where the candidates’ views are generally aligned. Rather, it’s whether voters want to stick with the Republican establishment that has passed power down from Fusco to Oddo to Matteo and now wants to tap Carr, or shift to an outsider—and if so, which one.
“There’s really no leadership on the City Council. Our police officers are being let down, our taxes keep going up. There’s no one there to fight for us,” says Kepi. He also faults current Island officials for a lack of visibility. “You never hear from them. And they’re not even active in the community.”
Pirozzolo says he’s “deeply upset with the Republicans on the City Council,” He adds: “I don’t think that they are using the power of their offices to call out the radical socialist policies of the left. They’re going along to build their pensions.”
Pirozzolo says he wants to help other Republicans get elected to the Council. “One party control is really the problem here, because there’s no pushback.” There are currently only three Republicans on the Council, down from five a decade ago. Some believe that presents Republicans with a choice of whether to cooperate with the Democratic majority in the hopes of achieving some goals, or adopt an oppositional stance on principle.
“I think it’s important that you do work with the other side,” Hafizi says. “You need to, especially in a one-party system. But it’s also really vital that you remain a strong voice for the people you’re representing, which is something we don’t see from our current leaders on Staten Island.”
Carr says his approach to the problems of the district will be “block by block, intersection by intersection”—the same way Matteo describes his own strategy for governing. Carr believes the victories by his mainstream predecessors reflect public appreciation of their accomplishments. “I think the voters reward hard work and effectiveness,” Carr says. “If folks are happy with that style of leadership then I’m looking to continue that.”
“I think you can be incredibly effective if you know how to build relationships and navigate the way City Hall and the way the legislature works and the bureaucracy works,” Carr continues. “There’s still no Democratic or Republican way to take out the trash. There’s a way to work on an issue where you agree without compromising your principles.”
Some of the apparent battle lines in this year’s race are familiar. When Matteo ran for the Council seat in 2013 with Oddo’s backing, there was a bitter primary battle between him and Lisa Giovinazzo, who was backed by then-Congressman Michael Grimm. Last year, Kepi ran with Grimm’s backing for the Assembly seat being vacated by Nicole Malliotakis. Michael Tannousis, the candidate whom the county Republican apparatus supported, beat Kepi with 56 percent of the vote.
The insiders-outsiders split among Staten Island Republicans in the 50th district echoes the schism opening up in the national party over affinity to former President Donald Trump, although it is not clear that there is much daylight among the candidates when it comes to loyalty to the former president.
Pirozzolo displayed a 12-foot “T” for Trump in 2016. When someone burned it down, he erected a taller one that ran afoul of the building code. He does not believe President Joe Biden was legitimately elected, and was involved with efforts to uncover alleged voter fraud in Nevada in the 2020 election.
Neither Carr nor Hafizi responded to questions about whether they acknowledged Biden’s legitimacy. Kepi, a U.S. Marine Reservist, told City Limits, “I can’t really comment on the president because he’s my commander in chief. I did support Trump in his re-election.”
More drama ahead?
Unlike most districts around the city, where the winner of the primary will almost certainly win the general election in November, the drama in District 50 might not end in June. It is one of the very few Council seats where a change in party control is possible.
Incumbent Republican Matteo won the seat in 2013 with 64 percent of the vote and was re-elected in 2017 by an 80 percent to 20 percent margin. The district actually has a slight Democratic registration advantage, and Democratic registration has increased 3.5 percent since 2017. Republican registration, however, has boomed: The GOP voter rolls are 14 percent bigger than they were four years ago, so the Democratic edge has shrunk from 5,900 to 2,900 votes. Nearly 30 percent of voters belong to neither major party; nearly a quarter of the district’s voters belong to no party at all.
But the Democratic nominee, former Brooklyn Councilmember and three-time mayoral candidate Sal Albanese, has name recognition, a helpful anti-establishment reputation, a slew of union endorsements—including from law-enforcement unions—and a decent amount of money: $170,000 in the bank, which is less than Carr or Kepi, but unlike those two, Albanese will not have to spend energy or money winning a primary.
The x-factor for District 50, on both Primary Day and in November, might be the competitive borough president’s race. Matteo faces a contentious primary of his own, featuring former Congressman Vito Fossella, well-known activist Letitia Remauro and martial arts and real-estate magnate Jhong U. Kim. Democrats, who also have a crowded primary for BP, think they have a shot at taking Borough Hall. The borough-wide contest could affect turnout in the 50th district in June and in November.