Council District 32 has had Republican representation since 2009. Five Democrats are running June 22 for a chance to turn the seat blue, while two Republican candidates hope to keep the district under GOP control.
That’s a testament to the sheer volume of people squeezed into the northwest corner of Long Island — the borough has a bigger population than 15 states — but also to the historic influence of the local GOP, which once reliably elected councilmembers, state lawmakers and even, in 2011, a congressman.
But the 150,409 Queens residents with an R next to their names on the voter rolls have watched their influence disintegrate, with the once formidable Queens GOP fractured by infighting and overpowered by Democrats, who outnumber them nearly 8 to 1. Their candidates are blown out in nearly every Queens City Council district. And absent a sudden eve-of-the-election scandal, most Republicans have had little chance of winning.
Except in one place.
Council District 32 — which covers Howard Beach, Broad Channel, Ozone Park, Richmond Hill, Woodhaven and the western portion of the Rockaway Peninsula — has had Republican representation since 2009. That year, 24-year-old Eric Ulrich won a special contest to replace Joseph Addabbo following Addabbo’s election to the state senate. Ulrich defended the seat in three more elections, including a victory with nearly two-thirds of the vote in 2017.
Ulrich is term-limited at the end of 2021 so will soon leave office, giving Democrats a better shot at turning the borough’s last bastion of Republican politics blue. They certainly have the numbers: There are over three times as many registered Democrats in the district. They just haven’t shown up to vote in large enough numbers.
Five candidates are running June 22 for a chance to claim the seat in November, as two Republicans hope to keep the district under GOP control — while exposing the divisions within the local party. Most are casting themselves as relatively moderate successors to Ulrich.
“We’ve had a long line of very centered — whether Democrats or Republicans — moderate- minded public servants that were the councilmembers,” says Joann Ariola, chair of the Queens County Republican Party, a Trump voter and one of the two GOP candidates in the primary. “I think that I follow in those footsteps. And I’d like to follow in Eric Ulrich’s footsteps, bringing a lot of growth, and focusing on schools, infrastructure, technology, parks.”
Democrat Mike Scala, who lost to Ulrich in the general election four years ago, is also framing himself as the centrist choice. “I think about up-down issues, not left-right issues,” Scala says. “If you look at my platform, you could characterize some things as left, right or center, but I focus on issues.”
So too are Bella Matias, the founder of an education nonprofit; Kaled Alamarie, a research scientist at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection; and Helal Sheikh, a former math teacher who linked residents with medical treatment during the pandemic.
And then there is Felicia Singh, a teacher making a progressive pitch to voters, including on the issue of public safety and policing.
As the Queens Chronicle reported last month, turnout was lower in Assembly District 38, which overlaps with the northern, overwhelmingly Democratic and largely immigrant portion of Council District 32, than in any other Assembly district in Queens in 2018.
The district’s Democratic strongholds of Richmond Hill, Woodhaven and South Ozone Park had among the lowest rates of voter turnout in Queens that year, with the number plummeting compared to the presidential election, according to the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB).
Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park had lower voter turnout than all but four other neighborhoods in 2017, CFB analysis shows. Queens Community Districts 9 and 10, which also overlap with the northern portion of the council district, also ranked in the bottom quarter in terms of voter turnout in 2019, according to the CFB’s annual report.
The general election will likely hinge on how many sometime or first-time voters head the polls. But first come the primaries.
Public safety and a just recovery
Blue Lives Matter flags fly outside homes in Belle Harbor, while a pro-cop cavalcade coursed through Broad Channel last year to oppose calls for NYPD funding cuts. In Ozone Park, residents have requested more police along Liberty Avenue, following several attacks on immigrant and Muslim residents.
Public safety and police reform have emerged as top issues in the district, but while popular perspectives on crime suggest violence has skyrocketed, NYPD statistics paint an ambiguous portrait.
This year, there have been three murders in the 102nd Precinct — up from one at this time last year — and one in the 106th Precinct, the same as this point last year. Shootings have also ticked up in both precincts, which overlap with the northern portion of Council District 32.
There have been no murders this year in the 100th Precinct, which covers the western portion of the Rockaways, located in Council District 32. In the 101st Precinct, which covers the eastern portion of the Rockaways, murders are up to three this year from two last year, but shootings are actually down from 13 last year to eight in 2021.
Over the past few years, many constituents have called for reallocation of the NYPD’s inflated budget in order to fund social services. All of those perspectives are in play in the Democratic primary, and they inform Singh’s perspective on policing.
She organized a rally to encourage more police to protect residents of South Ozone Park, but told the Queens Daily Eagle last year that she would not have voted for the 2020 city budget because it did not shift funding from the NYPD to social service needs.
The pandemic has exacerbated existing problems, fueled unemployment and drove a spike in gun violence, she says.
“I talk to everyone who wants to know about public safety and the conversation looks different in Howard Beach than it does in Woodhaven,” Singh says. “The real conversation that I’m having with people is the same: it’s that we’re in the middle of a pandemic and crime is on the rise because our city government was slow to implement plans for recovery in our neighborhoods.”
Singh, who has the endorsement of the Working Families Party and various progressive elected officials — including State Sen. Jessica Ramos and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Courage to Change PAC — says police play an important role in public safety, but so, too, do social service agencies. She says targeting jobs and opportunities for low-income residents will drive down violent crime.
“Lives have been completely disrupted,” she says. “It’s going to take a long time for people who have lost jobs and opportunities to get that back unless we invest in a just recovery.”
Scala, an attorney who has worked for the state legislature and in several community organizations, said he favors various reforms, including mental health specialists as first-responders. He also said he supports current overtime spending and wants to see an NYPD rule change that would allow officers to police the neighborhoods where they live. He won’t go so far as to support a popular push to force NYPD officers to live in New York City, however.
“I’m not all the way there on banning officers from outside the five boroughs, but I don’t think there’s a shortage of people who want to be officers who live within New York City,” he says.
Matias says she wants to incentivize officers who take mental health training courses or work as mentors in the community. “I definitely want to support our law enforcement,” she says.
Alamarie says public safety is the “number one concern for the district.” His website says he “endeavors to partner with each precinct commander to develop a custom safety plan for each community by leveraging data and community members’ voices.”
Sheikh did not respond to a request for comment for this piece.
On the Republican side, Ariola touts her support for the NYPD, and has said the city needs to increase funding for policing. She says the rise in some violent crimes has nothing to do with the pandemic and more to do with leftist lawmakers handcuffing officers.
“I think the severe cuts to the NYPD has caused quality of life and public safety to lessen in our district and city,” she says. “I don’t think the pandemic had anything to do with it. I think it was the systematic emptying of violent criminals out of Rikers Island to return to what they know and what they did.”
Despite framing by liberal councilmembers who claimed a $1 billion funding cut, the NYPD budget barely moved last year. Still, “Defund the NYPD” messaging and the mayor and council’s attempts to appease police reform advocates created a perception of major budget decreases — a useful rallying cry for moderate and conservative candidates.
Ariola’s opponent, Steve Sirgiovanni, did not respond to a phone call for this story, but told the Chronicle he shares Ariola’s perspective on policing.
Each candidate is also honing in on transit, which Alamarie called the “number two most important issue” among constituents, after public safety.
Scala, the centrist Democrat, says transportation is a nonpartisan issue. “Whether you live in Breezy Point or Woodhaven, no matter what your politics are, you have to get to work,” he says.
Still, the modes of transportation that people depend on and the measures they support to ease mobility often say a lot about a person’s ideology, or at least their priorities.
Scala, for example, wants to revive the Long Island Railroad’s Rockaway Beach branch. Elsewhere in Queens, residents are calling on the city to turn the train tracks into a public park. Mayoral candidates Andrew Yang and Kathryn Garcia have both backed the park idea, much to Scala’s disappointment. He said he was planning to vote for Garcia until he learned her stance on the so-called “QueensWay.”
“We have the longest commute times in the whole city and we need that line,” he says.
Singh is focused on street safety — ensuring pedestrians, cyclists and motorists aren’t killed by drivers while creating a network of accessible sidewalks and public transit stations for people with disabilities. That takes advocacy from a local lawmaker who cares, she says.
“City agencies don’t pay attention to our communities,” she says, citing the recent hit-and-run killing of a 24-year-old woman in Ozone Park last month. “Why are they not taking this seriously?”
Ariola, meanwhile, has focused on making life easier for drivers.
“I will fight for better transportation and roads as well as oppose toll increases and congestion pricing, because it’s already too hard for us to get to work,” she wrote in a candidate statement with the CFB during her 2020 bid for borough president.