The Queen of the Council Speaks,
There was a lot of name-calling going on
at a recent fundraiser for Queens Councilmember Helen Sears.
She was called everything from “The
Flower of the Council” to “The Queen of the Council” to
“Daughter of God.”
Now people tend to get carried away at
political fundraisers, but the tone clearly indicates that people like
Helen Sears . . . and I’m one of those people.
She’s intelligent, well-spoken,
thoughtful and dedicated to her job. When she talks, people listen. If
she has an opinion, people care.
That’s because Helen cares.
and Michael Schenkler
Tribune Photo By Shams Tarek
She’s proud of her decades-long
performance as a Democratic district leader. She was always looked at
fondly. But now, as a Councilmember covering one of the most diverse
districts in all of Queens (perhaps the world), this distinguished
“Flower of the Council” has truly bloomed.
At least, that’s what her colleagues
and constituents say.
Sears stopped by the Trib
this week to chat with us. We’ve been friends for more years than
she or I care to admit.
After an hour-and-a-half long barrage of
my questions, it’s easy to see why she’s gotten such praise. Helen
is a lady of grace. She smiles at the tough questions and answers them
eloquently without ducking. She’s knowledgeable on the issues and
personable on all levels. She impresses with her persona like no other
In fact, she credits personality for a
lot of her success. She said, “Personality has a lot to do with it.
It’s how you react to people. How you feel about them” She added,
“I didn’t run for office because I needed a job. I think I truly
make a difference.”
Many of her colleagues think she makes a
difference, too, and have called her the biggest surprise in the
Council. She accepted the title, but said as a district leader, she
always got things done. She said that as a district leader, her
colleagues never saw her as some who could effect legislation. “Now I
can accomplish, and I am.”
And she works hard to make sure she
does. She said she works eight days and nights a week, and can work for
16 or 17 hours a day. She added with a smile, “I think they’ve got
me down to about $3 an hour now.”
But that’s OK, because the warm and
inviting “Mother of the Council,” said, “I love the work, I really
do . . . I like the people, I love doing the legislation, I like the
meetings.” She tries to give the City Council and her district equal
time, and admits one of her biggest strengths is consensus building.
“I love the consensus leading up to one powerful vote.”
One recent vote that showed the
Council’s power was the vote for an 18 percent property tax increase.
In typical Helen Sears fashion, she voted in line with good old Speaker
Giff Miller. But unlike other councilmembers who voted for it and ducked
and avoided the issue for fear of upsetting their constituents, Sears
defended her vote.
She said, “If all 51 members voted
their conscience, we would not have had that money . . . It is a time
when everyone has to tighten their belts, government and individuals
She said she wished fellow Democrats
Tony Avella, Allan Jennings and James Davis would have supported the tax
increase, and thought their removal from one committee each was
She said the budget gap needs to be
closed, and believes the best way to start is to have the Port Authority
pay what it owes, the stadiums pay what they owe, and to consolidate
City agencies. “I truly believe out of 62 agencies, you can
consolidate quite a few.”
She added that “nobody wants anything
cut,” but explained that of the $42 billion budget the Council has to
work wth, only $17 billion is maneuverable. Sears emphasized, “We’re
not making cuts out of $42 billion, but $17 billion. That must be
While Sears has been one of the
standouts of the new Council class, she still follows her “leader.”
She falls in line with the Speaker, and doesn’t rock the boat.
She seems as supportive of her Council
leader as she is of her Democratic County Leader Tom Manton. Loyalty is
apparently very high on Helen’s list.
shines through in her role as chairman of the Ethics Committee. Since
taking over the role, she hasn’t investigated one member. She said,
“We haven’t gotten any complaints.” But she admits she doesn’t
actively request complaints, either. “We don’t do that,” she said.
“If we get a complaint, we’ll
investigate it.” She said the committee is limited to working with
“legal stuff” brought before it by citizens or any other entity. So
far, it has looked at bills and is about to put out its second
newsletter. The Committee is also hard at work codifying the Council’s
outdated Code of Ethics into a usable, understandable manual.
When it comes to Campaign Finance Board
misdeeds, Sears said, “What’s the sense in dealing with the ethical
portion of it when,” guilty parties will be punished by the Board.
She also defended big contributions –
she laughed and said she doesn’t get too many – and said “most
companies” do not expect anything in return. She said, “You can’t
run a campaign on $10 and $20 contributions . . . You need money to
reach the people.”
Still, she said she won’t “object”
to complaints being brought before her, and said people can mail written
complaints with enough proof to show unethical behavior to the Standards
and Ethics Committee, Councilwoman Helen Sears, 250 Broadway, New York,
N.Y. 10017 (Leglifra@council.nyc.ny.us).
She warned, “Frivolous complaints are
not what this committee is about . . . ‘Joe Blow is doing something
wrong’ with no evidence is not a real complaint.”
Although she does stay in line with her
party, it is clear she gives her opinion to the party, and will ponder
other opinions. She raised her hand for Miller’s term limits
“tweak,” but when faced with the fact that the tweak kept her
strongest possible opponent – John Sabini – from running against her
this year, she calmly said, “Well, maybe that’s something I should
She didn’t, like many of her
colleagues tell us “off the record.” She told it like it was. She
also admitted that the public has gotten “disenchanted” with elected
officials and looks for leadership.
Is she a leader?
We’ll have to wait and see.
She is certainly an asset in the Council
and serves her community well.
But, will she charge out on her mighty
steed to topple windmills?
She’ll likely wait for others to lead
However, Helen Sears works with the
system and makes it work for her district. She has the popularity in
both the Council Chambers and in her Jackson Heights district to prove
If you can’t have everything in an
elected official, having grace and compassion is not a bad place to
— Column contributor: Angela Montifinese
David Reich of Kew Gardens Hills is looking to challenge incumbent Councilman Jim
Gennaro. Reich was third in a three-way race last time out. Florence
Fisher, another local, plans to split the anti-incumbent vote with
Reich seems like a pleasant guy but JFK
Club insiders say, “he’s no ball of fire.” His drive, they tell
us, is his father. His strategy seems to be tied to the miscalculation
that Jews will turn out in great numbers to vote for the Jew over the
I’m not bowled over by most
ethnic/religious candidates even when they are from my church. I don’t
know if Reich represents anyone who sits in a different pew than him.
He’s the Orthodox Jewish candidate and will have to violate one of the
commandments to convince me and others he is multi-inclusive.
I’ve made reference previously to an
anonymous flyer accusing Gennaro of having district lines redrawn to
lower his Jewish population. The hateful flyer remains one of the most
troubling items so far in the present election cycle.
Gennaro volunteered, “The universe of
people who would have the motive and would take the trouble to conceive
of and execute such slander is very small.”
And, Gennaro insists that the
redistricting – which he certainly did not control – was not
designed to lower the Jewish makeup of his district. In fact, it redrew
the largest block of Russian Bukharian Jews into Gennaro’s district
while grouping the Forest Hills Jewish population together in Melinda
Katz’s District. Gennaro retains Orthodox Kew Gardens Hills.
Gennaro is hiring a new staff member
fluent in Russian to meet the needs of his changing district.
Insiders tell us of a recent Forest
Hills dinner attended by Councilmembers Melinda Katz, Leroy Comrie,
Helen Sears, Eric Gioia, Dennis Gallagher, and Pete Vallone, Jr.
Others — but not the entire delegation — were invited.
We are told two not on the guest list were Hiram Monserrate
and Allan Jennings.
Monserrate, who has been working to mend
fences with the Queens delegation, seems to still have quite some way to
go. Jennings on the other hand, was the butt of much of the evening’s
Speaking of Allan Jennings, he and
Brooklyn’s James Davis — two of the three Dems who broke with the
delegation on the Property Tax vote — showed up at Gracie Mansion for
the dinner Mayor Mike Bloomberg threw to celebrate the leadership
shown by the council in making the tough decision.
Pete Vallone, Jr. who voted “yes” under extreme duress, did not attend and Tony
Avella, the other “no” vote, had the good sense and class not
Finally, while on the topic of
Jennings’ Southeast Queens District, party regulars cry that a serious
challenge may be greatly overstated. They couldn’t convince Greg
Meek’s operative Patrick Jenkins to make the run and wound
up with Community Board mainstay Yvonne Reddick. The Reddick
deal, we’re told, was put together by State Senator Ada Smith
and Assemblywoman Vivian Cook.
Now, we hear, she’s apparently having
second thoughts and are told, that of the difficult decision, she’s
“praying on it.” If she stays in, it may be out of fear of the wrath
of the two female “toughie” legislators.
In spite of almost universal rejection
by party and council insiders, Allan Jennings will work hard and not go
down easily. It will take more than a wavering Reddick to unseat a
driven incumbent — no matter how strange he acts.
It gets “curiouser and curiouser.”
Trib Exclusive: Guest Speaker
Call Me Cassandra
By HENRY STERN
Almost six months ago, I wrote
“Drifting from Erie toward Ontario.” The title was meant to be
subtle, so as not to upset people who were unaware that between Lakes
Erie and Ontario came Niagara Falls. I tried to make the point in the
column that the City’s time to act with regard to the fiscal crisis
was becoming shorter.
Good government activist and former
Parks Commissioner Henry Stern.
When, on Jan. 31, 2003, I wrote “This
is the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius, Will Aid Arrive Before the Sunset
of Gemini,” I wondered how long it would be before fiscal rescue
arrived, since the day of reckoning was drawing nigh.
The authorities may have felt I was
being unduly concerned, that the cavalry would surely arrive in time.
Today, midway into Pisces – the month
after Aquarius – we are no closer to a solution of the problem than we
were in January.
In fact, the City’s deficit for fiscal
2004 (which starts July 1, 2003) has swelled; it is now estimated to be
around $3,900,000,000.00. (The .00 is used to emphasize the
enormity of the problem. The word “billion” is not as
frightening or impressive as it used to be. I wonder why.)
The City’s titanic vessel, with the
Mayor as captain, over 300,000 employees (including related agencies) as
crew, and about eight million passengers, is closing in on Horseshoe
Falls, and the current has become faster.
Observers on the prow see something
The captain, who requires the consent of
the crew to steer, as well as some officers of other ships of state, who
may be hard to distinguish from the buccaneers who lie in wait near the
east end of the Erie Canal, is not yet able to protect the passengers.
Some of the crew may have to be thrown
overboard to save the vessel, and that is an unhappy prospect. But
when the alternative is Davey Jones’ locker, lightening the load must
be taken seriously.
The captain has suggested that if the
crew consented to lose some weight, their mates might be saved. So
far, there has been no response, except that he should have asked them
The leaders of the crew seem to prefer a
smaller number of happy sailors to a larger number of potential
mutineers against their leadership.
Our mission today is to log the voyage,
much as Herman Melville did with the Pequod a century and a half ago.
Switching metaphorically from the Great
Lakes to the great oceans (remember, it’s Pisces), I see ahead a large
white whale (yes, I know it’s a mammal) circling the vessel.
It is true that this is not the ship’s
first encounter with possible disaster. After 350 years, it is
scarcely on its maiden voyage.
There were severe storms in 1975, when a
fifth of the crew were jettisoned, and in 1991, when a similar number
were required to walk the plank.
Now it is 2003, and the ship’s company
wants to hold on.
The fare for the voyage has been raised
by 18.49 percent per seat, and, if you want to move around the ship, you
will have to pay up to 33.3 percent more. But these offerings are
not enough to appease the hungry whale.
A fascinating aspect of this adventure
at sea is that it unfolds as we write; it is not being described later
from dry land.
Through the magic of e-mail, we report
on events as they occur, just as television brings the latest news of
war and peace. We are probably the best-informed generation in
But the captain still needs to know just
how to right the boat, how to persuade his partners to be helpful.
He has the will to act, but he needs to know the way.
He must pay the sums that are required,
without making the passage so expensive that the passengers will take
their business elsewhere.
The problem is that neither freedom nor
solvency is free of cost, and the longer you wait, the more you have to
pay in the end.
We have watched this drama unfold for
over a year. The bulky, expensive overhead continues to weigh down
the vessel. The captain and the ship’s new officers do not seem
to know precisely where to find it.
In fact, the first mate has just added
26,000 pounds to the ship’s weight.
And so we drift.
Whether it is Niagara Falls, Moby Dick,
Scylla and Charybdis, the iceberg of 1912, or any other nautical
metaphor, that we approach, the time has already come for, at least,
Remember the Hesperus and the Edmund
Fitzgerald, and don’t forget the Andrea Gail (not the Andrea Doria,
which collided with the Stockholm and sank in 1956). The Andrea
Gail was lost in the perfect storm of 1991, the year of Fiscal Crisis
We take heart from the fact that, even
in dark days, our skipper has stayed on an even keel.
He is neither Captain Queeg nor Captain
Bligh. Nor is he a pirate like Captain Kidd or Captain Morgan. He
could use a little of the bravery, but not the single-mindedness, of
Captain Ahab, and perhaps some of the wisdom of Captain Nemo.
We approach the Ides of March. Our
country may be at war before our City takes the measures that it must.
From the lower deck, we ask for a change
in course, more steam, and some confidence in and by the helmsman.
Henry Stern was NYC Parks Commissioner
for 15 years and a councilmember for nine. He is founder and director of
NYCivic, a good government group. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
by Dom Nunziato
Michael Schenkler can be reached at: MSchenkler@QueensTribune.com
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