Councilman Vincent Gentile won his third full-term to the City Council on Tuesday, but his re-election carries with it a promise to voters to bring home more resources for his district. A failure to deliver on that promise would make him unfit to serve in public office beyond his final term in the Council.
It was a heated, drawn out campaign, but Gentile beat his Republican opponent John Quaglione by nearly 30 percentage points. In nearly any other corner of the nation, such a wide margin would represent a mandate from the public to keep on keepin’ on. But in Brooklyn, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by five to one (although it’s probably closer to three to one in Southwest Brooklyn), that’s a rebuke from constituents. Here we’re much more accustomed to larger margins benefiting Democratic incumbents. Take, for example, the victories of David Greenfield, who won with a 64-point margin, or Jumaane Williams, who won with a 93-point margin.
Gentile’s victory seems a little diminished next to those stats.
No doubt it’s because of the the viability of his opponent’s message. While Greenfield’s opponent, the somewhat manic Joseph Hayon, ran a campaign of hate, singularly focused on Greenfield’s misconstrued support of LGBT causes (an argument shamefully made by presenting a continuous parade of photos with Greenfield standing next to Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who is gay), and Williams’ opponent was an unfunded third-party candidate, Quaglione seized upon a compelling narrative: “Where’s our share of the money?”
By and large, any traction gained by the Quaglione campaign can be credited to his relentless hammering away at that most primitive and resounding of sentiment in New York City politics, the sense that someone else is getting more than you.
Certainly, Quaglione didn’t make in-roads with his 24-item “To-Do” list, which was little more than wishful thinking, mostly shared by Gentile, with no roadmap to accomplishment. And it wasn’t the insufferable campaign tactic deployed at the beginning of Quaglione’s run, which one insider likened to “pointing out a candy wrapper on the street and acting like it’s hell on Earth, and Gentile’s the devil.” And it wasn’t his claims that Gentile was absent on this or that issue – the X28 weekend service or community cleanups being good examples – because they just weren’t true; we have two years of press releases in our inbox to prove it.
While you can lure a few votes with that kind of approach, most of the electorate is intelligent enough to see through it.
No, Quaglione’s most effective weapon to win votes was also Gentile’s, and that was the incumbent’s record.
The Republican, an aide to State Senator Marty Golden, consistently won applauds at debates by pointing to the inarguable fact that Gentile is 50th on the list of 51 members of the City Council in receiving discretionary funds for his district.
These funds are the most flexible of any in the city budget, doled out to members based on favoritism, and allowed to be spent on a wide range of community projects, parks, schools, groups, clean-ups, et cetera. It’s not very much money, averaging about a million per district each year, but it’s enough to make much needed improvements to the neighborhood’s quality of life and sense of community.
Now, to say that Quaglione’s attack was effective is not to say it was fair (well, all’s fair in love, war and politics, but we mean fair in the factual sense). The upstart frequently compared it to his boss Golden’s record in the Council, claiming that even as a minority member of the Council, he received the most funding of any district. We found that claim to be unverifiable, having even poured through a few old budget documents to no avail. It rested solely on Quaglione and Golden’s word.
And while Quaglione argued that the lack of funding showed the incumbent was a do-nothing, Gentile argued the opposite. And this is where he made his promise to voters.
He pointed out, although with a frustrating lack of eloquence, that his influence in the Council had been diminished by a principled stand on issues in opposition to a vindictive Council leadership. Most prominent of those issues is the extension of term limits without a public referendum, for which he was denied funding and committee appointments.
Furthermore, Gentile was aided in his defense by simple math. With 21 new members in the Council, and Gentile’s decade of experience in the body, he would be the chamber’s most senior and knowledgeable member. He would know his way around, while others are still learning the ropes. And he would be of the same political makeup as the majority (which, after Tuesday, is swinging further leftward, making Quaglione an even odder duck). Finally, he was one of few legislators who supported Bill de Blasio from the start, which will give him sway in the mayor’s office.
Even if Quaglione’s argument were true that Golden, as a minority member of the Council, had secured impressive funding, that was a different era, more than a decade ago, which might as well be the Dutch era of New York City governance. Quaglione never would never be able win influence in the Council today.
Gentile has already proven that he’ll take a principled stand on behalf of constituents, even if it’s to his disadvantage. And he told voters that as the most senior member of the Council, he will be able to secure more resources for the neighborhood.
It’s on that promise that voters sent him back to City Hall. The 30-point victory was certainly an affirmation of his record, but it was also predicated on his commitment to bring home the bacon.
The next four years should be flush for Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and Bath Beach. He may not be able to keep every commitment – stopping the Gravesend Bay Waste Transfer Station seems unlikely – but he ought to be able to rise to the highest echelons of Council leadership, and bring home the bacon for his district. In that, the community has won an extraordinary victory – a council member with a history of sacrificing for the greater good (term limits) and a future in which the community is rewarded for its past deprivation.
Now, with the election behind him and every advantage before him, if Gentile fails to deliver despite his seniority he will, unfortunately, prove himself an ineffective leader unworthy of future public office.
We’ll be watching and, we hope, reaping the rewards of a thriving, fairly-funded district at the forefront of Brooklyn’s renaissance.
Ned Berke is the editor and publisher of Bensonhurst Bean.