With A Wink & A Smile
get it on the record: I like James Sanders!
don’t remember when I last enjoyed a two and a half hour interview so
much. James and I had a good time together. He is charming, quick, funny
and cares. He and I could be friends — if he’d have me.
all that said, it seems to this writer/political observer, that James
Sanders is a living conflict.
is a dreamer with images of himself as Don Quixote toppling the unfair
windmills of society. He’d call it “being a reformer.”
are so overwhelmed by the amount of things that people need,” he said
with a quixotic twinkle in his eye.
31st District and Trib Publisher
Photo By Ira Cohen
at the same time, Sanders is a pragmatist, looking to bring home the bacon
for the good people of the 31st
District — the people who put him into office.
playing [the game] in the sense of delivering services to constituents,”
throughout the morning we shared — he accompanied by a staffer, and me
by Trib political editor Angela Montefinise and PRESS
of Southeast Queens reporter Shams Tarek — our warm,
lighthearted but poignant exchanges were punctuated by Sanders’ laughter
and pauses when his political self and ideological self met.
get me wrong, he is true to his constituents and his mission — he is as
dedicated as any elected official to delivering services to the people he
he has not fully admitted to himself that he has become one of the
politicians who compromise daily in order to get the job done. He plays
the political game — very well.
is, however, embarrassed by it.
would love to be known as an ideological champion — a man on a mission,
righting wrongs, feeding the hungry and toppling the windmills of
he got $24 million from the Economic Development Corporation for storm
sewers for Southeast Queens, $400,000 from Pathmark for local community
groups, and $300,000 from business for the Rockaways.
he got the $24 mil by bending the rules as chair of the Council’s
Economic Development Committee and the rest of the money by old-fashioned
political horse trading — giving his support for cash (for the people).
appears to march in near lockstep to the tunes played by the Council
Speaker and the Queens County Democratic Leader, but works hard to
illustrate his independence. However, neither his voting record in the
Council, nor his support of candidates indicates he is any more
independent than any of his “regular” Democratic Queens colleagues.
one was saying his, or their, voting record leaves anything to be desired
— as a matter of fact, no one was judging . . . except Sanders himself.
his independence, Sanders said poetically, “The bad thing about me is
that no one can tell me what to do. The good thing about me is that no one
can tell me what to do.”
have always considered myself an insurgent,” Sanders explained, just
moments before using County Organization language to justify why he used a
Democratic Party attorney to knock his opponent off the ballot.
we deem the law to be, it should be upheld . . .I would prefer more
inclusive laws,” he said.
why not work to change the system to improve ballot access, I asked.
struggle at a time, my friend,” was his way out.
one thing I regret is that the people of the 31st, if nowhere else
[didn’t get the opportunity to vote]. I would have loved to see their
ringing endorsement of me.”
trying to duck on the Council race in the neighboring 28th
District where the Queens Dem organization is opposing incumbent
Councilman Allan Jennings, Sanders said, “Of course I’m endorsing all
of the County candidates,” but explained, “That race, I must admit,
does cause me some personal qualms. On one hand, I relish the opportunity
that the Queens County organization has given me—a warm embrace—at the
same time I appreciate the camaraderie that I have with Allan Jennings and
the Speaker’s endorsement.”
fact, he made it quite clear that he hopes Dem County does not ask him to
do anything in the race. Nor did he give Yvonne Reddick, the County
candidate, a good chance to out-work or beat the incumbent.
then there was the reformer on the boss.
long as he [Tom Manton] brings good, smart policies and procedures—good
for Queens and the City, moral and upright—then, yes, I will support
every one of them [Manton’s requests].”
as we sat and chatted, it seemed like Sanders had the need to justify his
positions to himself.
many public officials have not served their communities well,” he said.
the other hand, he won’t say a negative thing about anyone and tries to
withhold information that may taint his “reformer” or
“progressive” image of himself.
when pushed, his selective presentation yields to the whole truth —
though occasionally off the record.
principle does come through on some issues. He vowed to lead the fight
against the Council trying to again adjust their term limits without a
referendum of the people — and added that he expects the Council to
revisit term limits.
also apologized for excluding our reporter from a meeting he held to
investigate an incident of potential police brutality.
Sanders asserted, “Elected officials must determine that there is a case
before they go forward.”
when faced by our presentation of the First Amendment and asked whether
the people are better off when elected officials determine what the press
is allowed to cover, Sanders quickly recanted, apologized and promised
complete access in the future.
must plead guilty here, and I accept a reprimand. . . Indeed, in my zeal
for justice, I may have trampled on a mission of equal value,” Sanders
said offering to back a bill to provide the press full and complete access
an aside, he explained his investigation did produce information
suggesting police brutality which he will be delivering to the Queens DA
on Aug. 9.
internal conflict was apparent on the issue that first caused us to meet.
In a column, I had suggested that it was a mistake that caused him not to
file for campaign matching funds. Sanders called me to explain that it was
a protest against the mean-spirited NYC Campaign Finance Board (CFB). We
had agreed to meet so that he could present his case against them.
the death of James’ mother caused our get-together to be postponed and
time and the lack of any real opponent changed the focus of our
when we got around to it, he explained his protest: “In the spirit of
the little guy taking that little placard to City Hall . . . I think
something is wrong and I want to do something about it.”
in reaction to his failure to make any public statements critical of the
CFB, we inquired what kind of protest could it be if no one ever sees or
hears the words on the placard?
was in a bind,” he said of his strong support for public matching funds
and his dislike of how the CFB was conducting themselves.
hate the sin, but not the sinner. I think the issue is not campaign
finance. I think it’s one of the best things for democracy,” he
explained that he didn’t want to be perceived as opposing public finance
the placard he explained, “was aimed at the people who need to know,”
referring to the CFB, the Board of Elections and “my friends in good
believes his quiet protest will produce results.
dichotomy continued as he looked to the future. Sanders said he would
rather teach politics at the university level than be in government.
it’s government that likely offers him what he really wants.
want impact. I want the ability to say “here’s what was before, and
here’s what’s here now because of me”.”
Sanders made me smile throughout the entire interview. As I drove home
that day, I couldn’t help but picture Don Quixote with the face of
Senator Pothole — Al D’Amato — bringing home the bacon to the good
people of the 31st
course, it would be done with integrity, grace, a wink and a smile.
contributor: Angela Montifinise
by Dom Nunziato
Michael Schenkler can be reached at: MSchenkler@QueensTribune.com
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