Term-limited Councilman Rory Lancman resigned his seat on Wednesday for a new position created by Governor Andrew Cuomo - Special Counsel for Ratepayer Protection - which represents the interests of consumers in relation to utility companies and telecom providers. With his departure from City Hall, a nonpartisan special election will determine the next Council Member to represent the district with the largest Jewish population in Queens.
“This is a very diverse district. The next member will have to knock on every door as many times as possible. With the pandemic, they will have to be creative and figure out ways to achieve victory,” Lancman said.
Besides his hotly-debated legislation on banning police chokeholds and support for relocating the Rikers Island prison, Lancman built his reputation on understanding the needs of the many communities within the district. “People on Main Street may not know the needs of Hillside Avenue, and those on Jamaica Avenue may not know about Kissena Boulevard,” he said. “It’s very important that the city government be fair to all of its citizens in enforcement and delivery of services.”
The role of Special Counsel seeks to do this for utility providers by determining whether they are providing required investments and the level of service that is promised to customers, residential and commercial. Lancman will also investigate whether utilities are complying with renewable energy goals and standards.
“The Public Service Commission has 500 people with a broad portfolio of responsibilities. This Special Counsel office will focus like a laser beam at utilities,” Lancman said. “One only needs to look at power outages after storms, or failure to supply the broadband levels that companies committed to do, or services promised but not provided by gas companies.”
Concerning his ability to represent the Jewish community, Kew Gardens Hills resident Shimi Pelman said that he has been a vital partner with local nonprofits. “Project Lead, Amudim, Queens Jewish Community Council, Kehilat Sephardim food pantry, the Met Council - Rory has been a big help to the Orthodox community. He was a supporter of the rezoning in Kew Gardens Hills that enabled larger families to live here,” he said.
In his role as a Democratic District Leader, Pelman has been receiving calls from candidates seeking to succeed Lancman, while encouraging younger members of the Orthodox Jewish community to take an active role in politics. “This is an open seat with a special election. One would have to be elected in the January special, then the primary in June, and then again in November. It means constantly running and you can never be safe in your seat.”
For this reason, he expressed confidence in former Councilman Jim Gennaro, who represented this district for three terms between 2001 and 2013. “I’m asking our community to give its support to Jim. He was our Councilman for 12 years and was good to the Jewish community.”
Pelman said that with many younger and more progressive Democrats expected on the City Council, it will be more difficult for Orthodox Jewish nonprofits to secure the same amount of financial support, unless an experienced representative advocates on their behalf.
Gennaro expressed confidence in the likelihood of running in three elections for the same job within the coming year. “There’s so much more work to do at City Hall. There was always enough common sense that existed in the City Council for people to work together. Recent politics have moved away from common sense towards a radical rhetoric,” he said. “I have a familiarity with the needs of the community.” He argued that funding considerations for nonprofits should be based on “need, not politics.”
Like Lancman, Gennaro’s political path also involved the Cuomo administration. Following his outspoken advocacy for environmental causes as Councilman, he was appointed as the Deputy Commissioner for New York City Resiliency within a year after Hurricane Sandy devastated coastline communities. The role involved projects to mitigate flooding and storm damage using infrastructure that absorbs the impact and redirects excess water away from the street sewer system through natural drainage such as bioswales and retention basins.
Since his last stint at City Hall, the district’s demographics have changed, resulting in a larger South Asian population whose activists are seeking a seat at the table. Among them is Dr. Neeta Jain, a Kew Gardens Hills resident who also serves as a District Leader and President of the Moynihan Democratic Club. “I’ve worked for 22 years in the Jewish community. Most of my neighbors are Jewish. My children went to Lana’s Gymnastics and Queens College,” she said.
Jain immigrated to Queens in 1992. As a social worker, she developed an understanding of the relationship between elected officials and nonprofits. “We became like a family and that’s how I became involved in the Democratic Party.” After earning her PhD in Psychology, she worked as a psychologist in public schools. In 2016, the county party leaders endorsed Jain as District Leader, making her the city’s first Indian-American elected official. She has also served as Vice President of Jain Center of America in New York, Executive Committee member of Association of Indian Americans, and Senior Vice President of the Hindu Center in Flushing. “There’s no boundary for serving humanity. I’m up for the challenge.”
Assemblyman Daniel Rosenthal has been suggested as a possible successor to Lancman, but Pelman dismissed such talk, arguing that he has been an effective advocate on the state level for the Jewish community and serves the community best in his current role.
With the new year, elections in the city will have ranked choice voting, where the public can choose their favorite and second favorite candidates. Under this rubric, if no candidate receives over 50 percent of the vote, the hopeful with the fewest first-slot votes is removed from the race. The process continues until one candidate receives more than 50 percent, winning the vote. Ranked choice allows many candidates to run but also narrows the field without a costly runoff election.
Lancman said that this puts the district in the spotlight as it will be the first in the city to conduct a ranked choice election. As his job is based in the city, he will continue to live in Hillcrest. His wife Mojgan is also an elected official, serving as a civil court judge. “You will still see us around the community,” he said.
Besides Gennaro and Jain, other candidates for this seat are leftist activist Moumita Ahmed, attorney Stanley Arden, higher education executive Dilip Nath, attorney Soma Syed, small business owner Deepti Sharma, and Judicial Delegate Mohammed Uddin. The date of this nonpartisan special Council seat election has not yet been announced.
By Sergey Kadinsky