The Other Debate: A Face-Off in a Rare Undecided District

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In New York City’s mostly predictable city council races, one South Brooklyn seat is still up for grabs

Last night, while many New Yorkers watched the first general election debate between incumbent Mayor Bill de Blasio and his rivals, South Brooklyn focused on its own debate, as city council hopefuls faced off. Democrat Justin Brannan and Republican John Quaglione, each gunning to be the new face of the 43rd district, butted heads during their first one-on-one debate. The Dyker Heights Civic Association sponsored the forum, led by its president, Fran Vella-Marrone.

Though the candidates have thinned since the primaries wrapped up, crowds have not. Nearly 100 guests filed into the no-frills event in the parish hall of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, a crowd comparable to those at pre-primary forums. And they kept on coming: a mid-debate pause gave way to a stream of attendees clattering across the podium with extra folding chairs.

When Brannan and Quaglione stood for the pledge of allegiance, their tall frames towered over the slight Vella-Marrone. Both broad-shouldered candidates have strong Bay Ridge roots. The two men’s laundry lists of neighborhood affiliations riddle their campaign websites, from middle schools to volunteer stints. Older audience members say they watched the two Italian-Americans grow up, even as Brannan launched a pre-politics career in hardcore bands and Quaglione made his foray into television with NBC’s Meet the Press.

Unlike most city council seats, the 43rd district race is not decided in the primaries. Council races in much of New York City invariably swing blue, and several Staten Island districts always stay red. But as a Crain’s article last week explained, this South Brooklyn area–encompassing Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bath Beach and parts of Bensonhurst–is a wild card. While term-limited city council member Vincent Gentile held this seat for the Democrats for the past 15 years, Republican State Sen. Marty Golden has represented many of the same constituents since 2002. Both Gentile and Golden were present at the parish hall event.

Crain’s called the 43rd district one of the only two competitive races in the city, and claimed that a two-seat swing in citywide elections could “tilt the competition for the next council speaker.” The coveted speaker’s chair represents one of the most powerful roles in the mayor’s office. The speaker leads the formulation of laws that cross the mayor’s desk, negotiates the budget, and reviews zoning proposals, among other duties. Influencing the speaker selection, in other words, could have a significant impact on what actions the city government takes.

Though each candidate’s platform plays up different issues, the two District 43 hopefuls sounded a lot more like kindred spirits in the debate than rivals in the city-wide mayoral race. During the question-and-answer session, they both emphasized their long tenure as family men of the neighborhood, their experience working across party lines, their appreciation for diversity, and their disdain for some (or all) of Mayor de Blasio’s decisions. Brannan stood behind changing confederate street names, while Quaglione came down hard against legislation supporting New York’s sanctuary city status. Both men are fiscal conservatives, who say they feel they are equipped to preserve the neighborhood’s affordability, middle class character, and quality of life.

Now, less than a month from the general election, frontrunners Quaglione and Brannan are doubling down on another key parallel: experience. Each beat out a formidable, less politically established contender in their respective primary races. Both Quaglione and Brannan won with just shy of half of their party votes; Quaglione snuck past Liam McCabe, who held on to 32 per cent, while Brannan beat Khader El-Yateem’s 29 per cent.

The success of these two establishment candidates was not a given: This year is the first in which incumbent council member Gentile could not run for re-election, which opened the doors to a lively nine-candidate primary field. But the predictable players came out on top, and in these final weeks before Nov. 7 Brannan and Quaglione have both emphasized their political chops. Brannan is the incumbent council member’s Director of Communications and Legislative Affairs, while Quaglione–who also ran against Gentile in the last city council election–is Deputy Chief of Staff and Press Secretary for Sen. Marty Golden.

Neighborhood-level bipartisanship may have opened the evening’s debate, but the most contentious issue of the evening came in the form of perceived party allegiances.

Quaglione delivered strong indictments of Mayor de Blasio, a popular rhetorical strategy in this odd-duckling neighborhood, claiming that the city administration is “using our district as an ATM… treating our community like a cash cow.” He pointed to Brannan’s former position at the city’s Department of Education as evidence of his Democratic opponent’s allegiance, and claimed that he, Quaglione, was “the alternative to Bill de Blasio.” But Brannan responded by distancing himself from the man in power. “I’m gonna be a guy who will stand up to the mayor when he’s wrong,” he said. He went on to claim that as a majority member of city council, he would be in a better position to push back on de Blasio’s less popular policy proposals.

Overall, the event moved quickly. Audience questions flew by, touching on issues such as illegal home conversions, garbage pick-up, Columbus statue removal, rising taxes, and lack of affordable housing solutions. Both the moderator, Vella-Marrone, and the candidates were surprised that it lasted less than an hour. “This one went fast!” she said. “Sometimes the crowd gets a little rambunctious, but tonight they were very tame.”

But Vella-Marrone said her long-time role as moderator of these Dyker Heights-based debates has never been too difficult: “They’re all passionate about the candidacy of course, but they’re all respectful of the process,” she said of her neighbors. In contrast to the moderators at the contentious mayoral debate, Dyker Heights’ smartly dressed, gavel-wielding referee, with her signature frizzy gray hair, has no trouble keeping her crowds at bay.

One would-be conservative council member was not happy with Vella-Marrone or the night’s match-up. Bob Capano, the third-runner-up in the Republican primary, is still campaigning, as a Reform Party candidate. Capano released a statement suggesting that he was “not asked to participate” in the forum on October 10. It took aim at leaders of the Dyker Heights Civic Association, including Vella-Marrone, claiming that their Conservative Party affiliation caused them to see him as a threat to Quaglione’s numbers, and suggested that the Association “put party politics ahead of allowing their members to hear from all candidates.” He had in fact already been included in the one other debate that transpired since the primary, a three-way conversation with Quaglione and Brannan at the Bay Ridge Council on Aging last Wednesday.

In response to his frustration, Vella-Marrone pointed to Capano’s earlier position that he would stand by whoever became the Republican candidate. “I assumed he was going to support the winner of the primary, and not campaign on the Reform Party line,” she said. “But I didn’t tell him he couldn’t come.”

Though Capano could set a precedent as an alternative party candidate in the chamber, history suggests that the seat will most likely go to either a Democrat or a Republican. And which of these parties will come out on top remains one of the few mysteries in New York City politics this political season.

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