33° Good Evening
33° Good Evening
NewsNew York

The Quiet Man / Without fanfare, Archie Spigner has brought the bacon back home to Queens Sidebar: Union Dues (see end of text)

ARCHIE SPIGNER, the City Council's deputy majority leader,

sat quietly at the end of the makeshift dais, squinting through the

windswept dirt during the ground-breaking ceremony.

One by one, politicians who rarely venture into South Jamaica claimed their

piece of the new $80-million high school for law enforcement long championed

by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Spigner was among the last called to the dais. Making the local hero wait

so long was viewed as an insult by some in the audience.

But not Spigner, who accepted the warm greeting and enthusiastically

thanked the mayor for bringing the project to his district.

The scene in May captured what many say is the essence of Spigner's 27-year

council career: a focus on delivering basic services and new projects to his

district, coupled with a humble approach to success.

As Spigner prepares to retire, forced out of the council by term limits,

colleagues and constituents say there is no question that he has delivered the

basic amenities of paved roads and regular trash pickups to his predominantly

African-American 27th Council District. The district includes St. Albans,

Hollis, Cambria Heights, Jamaica, Baisley Park, Addisleigh Park, and parts of

Queens Village, Rosedale and Springfield Gardens.

Spigner also has lobbied for economic development projects and

infrastructure improvements, including the Archer Avenue subway extension, York

College, the Kennedy Airport AirTrain project and the new 897-seat High School

for Law Enforcement and Public Safety.

Still, his critics say Spigner hasn't used his stature on the council to

fight for the African-American community on issues such as racial profiling,

education, jobs and housing.

"The best thing about him is that he will work for consensus," said City

Council member Una Clark (D-Brooklyn). "The worst thing is when I think he

could provide leadership because of his seniority to bring all blacks

together...he tries not to offend. There is a time to be a gentleman and a time

to be an activist. You can't be a gentleman when your people are suffering."

But Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Queens) said that Spigner is not only a

"gentleman," but has compiled a record of "phenomenal" accomplishments in the


"He has been tremendous to southeast Queens-what Percy Sutton [former

Manhattan borough president] and Congressman Charles Rangel have been to Harlem

and the African-American community.

"He has been the most reliable, dependable source we can go to in City

Council in all his years," Meeks said. "He saw to it that things were delivered

not only to his councilmatic district but to districts throughout Queens."

Meeks also credits Spigner with using the Guy R. Brewer United Democratic

Club, which he heads, to pull capable people into politics. Other Queens

legislators, such as City Council members Tom White and Juanita Watkins and

State Sen. Malcolm Smith, are among those who have benefited from Spigner's

wisdom, Meeks said.

Known as the dean of Queens black politicians, the 72-year-old Spigner is

quick to smile away both his critics and supporters.

"It comes with the territory," Spigner said during a recent interview at

City Hall. "...You do what you can. You serve the public as best you can."

Although term limits affect officeholders throughout the city, their impact

will be particularly strong in Queens, where all 14 City Council members are

being replaced, as is Borough President Claire Shulman.

In Spigner and his longtime ally, Council Speaker Peter F. Vallone, the

borough will lose two of the more powerful men in local government, although

Vallone is running for mayor.

"Archie Spigner and I have been not only colleagues but good friends for

many years," said Vallone (D-Astoria). "He is an excellent deputy majority

leader who works diligently for his constituents and for all the people of the

city of New York."

Spigner said he is looking forward to retirement.

"I will maintain my party position as the Democratic district leader from

the 29th District," he said, "and my involvement with the Guy R. Brewer

Democratic Club."

Elected in 1974, Spigner has risen to the second- highest position on the

council through hard work, perseverance and politicking, according to

interviews with numerous elected officials and Queens community leaders who

have worked with him through the years.

He has chaired the powerful Committees on the Legislative Office of Budget

Review, Economic Development. He serves on the Housing and Buildings Committee

and is the Queens liaison on the council team that negotiates the budget with

the mayor.

Spigner has championed the Queens County Democratic Party machine while

securing services for his district. But behind closed doors he has fought for

an expanded role for African-Americans in borough politics.

As the head of the Brewer Democratic Club, Spigner was instrumental in

electing the first African-American Supreme Court justice, Assembly member,

state senator and Congress member from the borough of Queens.

Most recently, his strong support for City Council member Helen Marshall

(D-East Elmhurst) led to her getting the party's endorsement for borough

president against two Democratic rivals. If elected, she would be Queens' first

black borough president.

Spigner's role as both a Democratic Party official and a black leader has

sometimes brought him criticism.

One of the muted criticisms was that during Spigner's tenure as chairman of

the Committee on Housing and Buildings he did not crack down on the Department

of Buildings, particularly in the illegal conversion of private homes into

virtual single- room-occupancy buildings in parts of Queens.

But others praised Spigner for refusing to buckle to the citywide pressure

from the real estate lobby.

"You can't force thousands on the streets ...when there is not enough

housing," said one elected Queens official, who spoke on the condition of

anonymity. "He took up for the party."

Privately, members of the Queens delegation have accused Spigner and

Vallone of leaving them to cut their own deals after securing funding for their

own districts. Aides for both men dispute those charges.

Clark, who clashed with Spigner over a bill that would have improved

working conditions for livery van drivers in her Flatbush district, did not


"We disagree on many issues and how we approach them," Clark said. "I

haven't always felt comfortable in approaching him for help on broader issues

that are good for the black community. Queens, the party, comes first [to

him] when you are fighting for issues that affect the entire black

community, his approach doesn't always work. But it must be said that he is an

effective leader.

"Both his seniority and his closeness to the speaker has allowed him to

deliver a lot to his district," Clark added. "That is what seniority is all

about; that is what loyalty all about. I happen to like him."

His critics also fault Spigner for not fighting the Giuliani administration

harder for more affordable housing and for supporting a lead paint bill that

was later overturned in court.

"On lead, I recognize he was in the middle on a difficult issue, but the

legislation his committee passed turned out very badly," Clark said. "It was

struck down in court, wasn't it? It was overly protective of landlords."

Others blame Spigner for not using his considerable influence to straighten

out powers in the embattled School District 29, where test results have

hovered just above average, lower than many would expect given the district's

middle-class demographics.

The district has been embroiled in controversy over choosing a

superintendent ever since 1999, when then-Chancellor Rudy Crew fired

superintendent Celestine Miller. She has since been indicted in an alleged scam

that deprived students of computers.

"I think we have to deal with his sway over District 29 and his

responsibility for what's happened to the schools there," said a Queens elected

official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

But many others have a different view of Spigner.

They speak of the volumes of successful legislation that Spigner has

introduced to the council, from the creation of the Environmental Control Board

to the business improvement districts and economic development zones. They

cite laws that increased penalties for the illegal conversion of housing,

stricter fire and construction requirements, the creation of tax abatements for

residential housing, and the increased participation of minority and women

business owners in city contracts.

"I think he is probably, in some degree, misunderstood by a good half of

the district," said State Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Queens), who served as a

Spigner aide early in Smith's career. "Working for him, I have found that

there is so much he does that people are unaware of in housing, transportation

and social welfare.

"You would be amazed if he pulled out his record," Smith said.

"Unfortunately, they are not aware of it because Archie doesn't toot his own

horn. They see the work happening but they are unaware he is behind it."

Union Dues

ARCHIE SPIGNER began earning a reputation in local political circles as a union

agitator working in the shoe industry during the racially segregated 1950s.

Spigner and his parents had come to New York City from Orangeburg, S.C., to

seek a better life. They were part of the great migration north of the 1940s

and '50s, as blacks escaped abject poverty in the rural South for the promise

of higher wages in the factories of places like Detroit, Chicago and New York


"I took a factory job out of high school because that is what you did back

then," Spigner said. "I worked as the union shop steward fighting for black

workers' rights.

"I think I have talent for involvement," Spigner said. "I was always a guy to

step up, to take the minutes at the meetings. Maybe I got it from my mother,

who was an activist in her church work."

Misfortune landed Spigner in Hollis.

"The factory fell on hard times and I was just looking for a job," Spigner

said. "I had a wife and two kids. And the factories were failing. And I had

moved to Queens in 1957, from a Bronx tenement on Brook Avenue. I went to work

for the Third Avenue bus line."

Through his union-organizing activity, the bus driver caught the eye of

legendary black labor leader A. Phillip Randolph.

"It was a group of black trade unionists that came together to improve working

conditions for black workers and fight against racial discrimination in

industry and the unions as well," Spigner said. "They ask me to organize the

Queens branch of the Negro American Council.

"I got my start in politics in the unions," Spigner said. "You couldn't think

about driving a truck back then. All of the good-paying jobs locked us out. And

if you got into the industry you couldn't move up in the union."

While looking for a meeting place for the Negro Council, Spigner met future

leaders of southeast Queens, Kenneth Browne, who would become the first black

state Supreme Court justice in Queens.

"We met at the local watering holes and struck up a friendship," Spigner said

of Browne. "He involved me in his campaign for the Assembly. Then he brought me

to Guy Brewer to be involved in his campaign for the Assembly in 1961."

Brewer, a local businessman largely credited with paving the way for blacks to

win elected office in southeast Queens, later recruited Spigner to his United

Democratic Club. The club, since named for Brewer, is now headed by Spigner.

Spigner eventually worked as an assistant to then Queens Borough President

Sydney Leviss, before being elected to the council in 1974.

"For a political person in his time period he has done all that anyone could

expect...he is respected boroughwide," said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Queens).

"Archie is now passing the baton."

More news