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
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
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
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]...so 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
"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
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."
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
"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."