By Conor Greene
An overflow crowd jammed into Saint Barnabas Church in Howard Beach to hear directly from the two candidates for City Council in the 32nd District: Republican incumbent Eric Ulrich and Democratic challenger Frank Gulluscio.
Tuesday’s election comes at a time when the district is in need of strong leadership, said Patricia Adams, publisher of the Forum, which co-sponsored the debate with the Queens Chronicle. “I’ve never seen a greater need for good leadership,” said Adams, reminding the voters that they “have the last word in who we send to City Hall.”
Both candidates were given a chance to present an opening statement before answering questions from the panel. Gulluscio started by telling the crowd that he has lived in Howard Beach since “before it was famous” and “learned to give back at an early age.” A former business owner and school teacher, Gulluscio said his ability to “listen to what the people are saying” helps him “be a great leader.”
Ulrich, who has represented the district since winning a special election earlier this year to replace former councilman and current State Senator Joseph Addabbo, said the race is “about the future of our community, it’s about the future of our neighborhoods... Sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but I make decisions based not on political considerations but based on the people I represent.”
The first question was posed in the form of a classified ad and questioned whether the candidates had the resume necessary to effectively represent the district. Ulrich called the responsibility “a very challenging job” that goes beyond nine-to-five. “Sometimes it’s a thankless job and the best thing you can do is put your right foot forward and try to do the best you can,” he said, adding that he has an “unwavering commitment to serving the needs of the constituents.”
Gulluscio maintained that he has “been doing the job of a city councilman for the past four years, every single day, in my role as district manager of Community Board 6” in Forest Hills. Other than make laws, a district manager deals with many of the same issues a councilman does, he said. Before that, he worked “for a short time” for Addabbo, where he gained budget experience. “The experiences I bring to the table are real whether they be civic, budget or legislatively,” he added.
Ulrich’s graffiti removal program, which he provided $30,000 in funding for, was the topic of another question to the candidates. The councilman was asked how he would build upon the program, while Gulluscio was questioned about a quote attributed to him in a local paper stating it is a waste of money. Gulluscio commended Ulrich on the project, but questioned whether there is a duplication of services. “I felt the money could have been used a little differently,” he said.
In response, Ulrich said that $30,000 “is not a lot of money to eradicate graffiti from the neighborhood” as it “takes a large chunk of change to attack a problem and address it head-on.” He added that it is also important to focus on projects such as street repairs and tree plantings “so people feel happy and proud that they live in this neighborhood so when you drive through it doesn’t look like a ghetto.”
In light of last week’s flooding of parts of Hamilton Beach, both candidates were asked what they did to assist affected residents. “I know about that flooding,” said Gulluscio, de- bunking rumors that he was marching in the Columbus Day parade while residents were fighting rising waters. “We have to get the city to be a lot more accountable.” Ulrich said the problem “is not unique to last weekend” and said it was “insulting and absurd” to suggest he ignored the plight of his constituents. He has been working with Davenport Court residents to push the city Department of Environmental Protection to move ahead with needed repair work in the area.
Both candidates agreed that the city needs to move ahead with repairs of Centerville streets, which has been planned for three decades. Gulluscio called it a “serious problem” and said “there are things that could have been done that haven’t been done” to lessen the impact on residents until the full project commences. “As a councilman, I will make sure we get more than lip service,” he vowed.
Ulrich called the situation a problem he “inherited” from former councilmembers and said “there is a need to get all the agency heads to sit down” and discuss the project. He touted his connections with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and said he “will hold their feet to the fire” if officials put in writing a new proposed start date for the work.
Another ongoing source for frustration for residents is parking, especially along busy shopping districts such as Cross Bay Boulevard and near schools, where parents double park while dropping off their children. Ulrich said there is “no quick fix” and that the “longterm solution to this problem” is improving mass transit. Until people have a reason to abandon their cars, they will continue to sit in traffic every day, he said. Gulluscio said he would “get rid of the mayor,” who he blamed for what many residents say has been a ticket blitz during the Bloomberg administration. “You shouldn’t get a ticket as fast as we’re getting them,” he said.
The redevelopment of Aqueduct race track is also an issue of concern for many, especially those living in Ozone Park. Gulluscio vowed the “community comes first no matter what” and said he has worked with the relevant agencies already as district manager. Said Ulrich: “It’s essential that they understand that if they want to make money in this community, they are going to have to respect the community.”
The role of Mayor Bloomberg – who is supporting Ulrich – in this race was also touched upon when the candidates were asked for examples of times they have stood up to the mayor. Ulrich reminded residents that he carried petitions in support of Bloomberg’s opponent during the 2005 election. “The mayor doesn’t pay my bills... or tell me what to vote for,” he said.
Gulluscio recalled his fight against the Bloomberg administration’s proposal to provide senior citizens with frozen meals and to close some senior centers. “I was one of the guys who stood up and said no... That’s somebody with a backbone, an advocate you need,” he said.
The candidates were then asked about a controversial issue during the campaign – Ulrich’s decision to eliminate funding for supplemental trash removal along Liberty Avenue, which was started during Addabbo’s tenure. Ulrich was asked to defend that decision, while Gulluscio was asked what he would have instead cut to allow the program to continue.
Gulluscio said he favors a “fair share of cutting” as “everyone should feel the pain” instead of one group shouldering the burden. “I think that since I didn’t have a knee jerk reaction, I would have done that differently,” he said. Ulrich argued that Addabbo “had an obligation to continue a program in his district” since he still represents the area on the state Senate. He called it a “tactical decision” that he knew would not be a popular one.
In closing, Gulluscio said he has been “involved in every kind of group you can think of” in the community. “Some people say I’m the past,” he said. “I’m the past, the present and the future for my grandchildren... We’re going to work across the board, across the aisle and work with all the people all the time,” he said. “That’s what I’ve always been about.”
Ulrich called his experience representing the district a “tremendous blessing and wonderful opportunity” that allows him to “see the impact and difference made every day throughout the district.” Pointing out that “most people have much longer to prove their worth and merits,” he asked the residents to “imagine what I could do for you in the next four years.”