Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
In the five-way Democratic primary for retiring Rep. Steve Israel’s seat there may not be a single contender from Queens — but no one in the race is ignoring the 20 percent of the district where they are all political newcomers.
What makes the area significant is that all the contenders start out on an equal footing, as largely unknown.
“Queens to some extent is the wild card,” said candidate Jon Kaiman, a former North Hempstead supervisor, who said he spends part of almost every campaign day in Queens. “Each one of us has to make their own connection with the Queens community.”
What makes the 39,150 Queens voters even more important is that Democrats’ dominance in New York City politics makes primary elections more important than the general election, and it’s likely that a greater percentage of Queens voters may turn out June 28, compared with their suburban counterparts.
With 50 percent of the district located in Nassau, four contenders — Kaiman, former Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, North Hempstead Councilwoman Anna Kaplan and attorney Jonathan Clarke — are competing over their home turf. They’re also looking to poach the 29 percent of the district in Suffolk, where Suffolk Legis. Steve Stern resides.
Recognition of Queens clout made North Shore Towers, a tony cooperative just over the Nassau line with 2,000 Democratic voters, the site of the campaign’s first debate in March. It is also likely to be the location of the campaign’s last joint event later this week. Several of the candidates also have held town-hall sessions at the towers, which on primary day will have its own on-site polling place.
All candidates back proposals to ease financing for the district’s many cooperative apartment buildings and qualify them for federal aid in the aftermath of disasters.
Early on while he was exploring the race, Suozzi sought to make himself known in Queens by asking local officials not for endorsements, but for tours to help him understand the borough’s needs.
“I think they appreciated that attention early on,” said Suozzi, saying it spurred a half-dozen endorsements from officials including borough President Melinda Katz.
Stern, an attorney who specializes in elder law, recalled that as a young lawyer he often visited the towers, where he represented clients. He said he has knocked on hundreds of doors there, and did his own town-hall meeting, which was replayed on the complex’s in-house TV system.
“Every candidate has their own areas of strength, but Queens gives us an opportunity to introduce ourselves from the beginning,” Stern said.
The only candidate with Queens roots is Kaplan, who lived in the borough from age 18 to 28. Kaplan said the experience gave her a deeper appreciation of the needs of city dwellers.
“I understand what it is like to take the bus rather than jump in the car to go someplace and the need to improve public transit,” she said.
Clarke, a Bernie Sanders backer who is running his campaign on a shoestring, said he gathered nominating petitions in Queens, but decided to cede that ground to Suozzi and focus closer to home.
“Neighbors who know you are more likely to vote for you than someone outside your area,” Clarke said.