Four Island Pols Keep an Eye on Brooklyn

Diane J. Savino

Staten Island Advance
4 Island pols keep an eye on B'klyn
By Judy L. Randall

It's a daily juggling act that can prove daunting -- especially on days when your presence is expected at two must-go-to parades held at the exact same time miles away and a bridge apart.

That bridge would be the Verrazano-Narrows, which adds to the logistical challenges facing the four Staten Island elected officials whose bi-borough districts include portions of Brooklyn.

Then there are the nuanced differences on issues of the day and the attention that must be paid to an ever-expanding number of ethnic constituencies.

And, of course, there are only so many hours in the day -- especially when you spend the better part of your week in Albany or Washington, D.C.

Just ask Rep. Michael McMahon (D-Staten Island/Brooklyn); state Sen. Diane Savino (D-North Shore/Brooklyn); Assemblywoman Janele Hyer-Spencer (D-Mid-Island/Brooklyn), and Councilman James Oddo (R-Mid-Island), whose district includes a small portion of Bay Ridge.

"People say, 'Where is she?'" laments Ms. Hyer-Spencer of the day every March when the St. Patrick's Parade on Forest Avenue coincides with the one held in Bay Ridge -- preceded by the kickoff breakfasts, also held at the same time, in Jody's here and the Hunter Steak House there.

"It is a juggling act," said Ms. Hyer-Spencer. "There is no perfect formula. You are torn. You are late for one and have to leave the other too quickly. ... The Fourth of July parades happen simultaneously, too."

With roughly two-thirds of her district on Staten Island, Ms. Hyer-Spencer said "there are not competing issues, just different" issues. She explained that while the Island portion of her district is "horribly underserviced" when it comes to mass transit, MTA cutbacks to bus service in Bay Ridge, coupled with the high toll on the Verrazano for non-Island residents who go back and forth to visit family, are viewed by Brooklyn constituents as unfair.

Ms. Hyer-Spencer also said she represents "distinct ethnicities," including a burgeoning Russian community on the Island and a growing Muslim presence in Brooklyn.

Like Ms. Hyer-Spencer, Ms. Savino maintains a fully staffed office in Brooklyn. But Ms. Savino said she has had to dip into her campaign war chest for more than $1,000 each month to keep it operational, because she hasn't yet been able to wring money from state Senate coffers to maintain a second office there.

While transportation options for Ms. Savino's constituents include a subway line for residents of Coney Island, she said complaints about the lack of MTA buses outside the Stillwell Avenue station mirror frustrations of Island commuters disembarking from the ferry -- they're subject to the vagaries of cabs and car services.

With a roughly 50-50 split between the Brooklyn and Island portions of her district, Ms. Savino said constituencies on both sides of the bridge were hit by the mortgage crisis -- but there were more Brooklynites who rented apartments in foreclosed homes, particularly in the Sunset Park section. With all of them in mind, she championed successful legislation that permits tenants to remain in foreclosed properties for the remainder of their lease.

Ms. Savino said constituents on both sides of the bridge want "decent schools for their kids [and] access to health care." And while the health care options may be more plentiful in Brooklyn, the shuttering of Victory Memorial Hospital in Bay Ridge two years ago brought the problem home.

Meanwhile, Ms. Savino tries to "evenly split" her time between boroughs.

McMahon, who maintains full-time offices here and in the portion of southern Brooklyn that he represents, doesn't believe in so-called time allotments for boroughs. With a two-thirds Staten Island to one-third Brooklyn split, McMahon said, "I value and work for all my constituents the same; whether they live in Staten Island or Brooklyn is of absolutely no concern to me. At the end of day, we are all New Yorkers and we are all in this together."

On the issues front, McMahon said "transportation is an issue that you hear from both parts of the district. But Staten Islanders want better highways and reliable ferry service, while Brooklyn residents want to make sure we continue to invest in the subway system and shorten commutes."

And while there are similarities, there are also distinct ethnic communities in the congressional district, including a large Liberian population in Stapleton and a growing Hispanic population in Port Richmond. In Brooklyn, there is a large Chinese community in Bensonhurst and a growing Arab-American population in Bay Ridge.

As for Oddo, after the last redistricting he represents just 10,000 Brooklynites -- a quarter of his past complement. While he once maintained an office and small staff there, he said it is "no longer an effective use of money."

Rather, Oddo said, he relies on "e-mail with a cadre of constituents" who keep him posted, and an unpaid Brooklyn community liaison who used to be on his staff. But he said he continues to fund neighborhood groups whose missions benefit the community as a whole.

And Oddo said when calls do come in from his Bay Ridge constituents, "You can't distinguish between the Brooklyn and Staten Island side."

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