2012-01-25 / Political Page

Republican Councilmember Peter Koo Switches To Democratic Party

Queens Democratic Party Chairman Congressmember Joseph Crowley, who was present when Koo made his announcement in front of the Queens Board of Elections offices at 126-06 Queens Blvd. in Kew Gardens.

Assorted elected Democratic officials were also present to welcome Koo to the party. In a recent statement, his fellow Councilmember, Peter Vallone Jr. (D–Astoria), said of Koo:

“Peter has always been a liberal Republican and as a conservative Democrat we have always had a lot in common and I am glad we are on the same team.”

Vallone also predicted that Koo, owner of a chain of pharmacies in his professional life, would bring his business acumen to his new political party.

However, Koo gave no clue on whether he would seek re-election to the Council as a Democrat in 2013, or to seek any other elected office.

If there were any losers affected by Koo’s change it was the Queens Republican organization with Koo’s election in 2009, along with Councilmember Dan Halloran of Whitestone, it was Republican Chairman Phil Ragusa, who could then boast of his organization’s new found power as it brought the council ranks from Queens to three as Eric Ulrich had been previously elected to the Ozone Park seat.

Councilmember Peter Koo Councilmember Peter Koo But while Halloran’s loyalty to his borough’s GOP is unquestioned, relations with Ulrich have deteriorated badly. The young lawmaker had joined with a group of insurgents recently to challenge Ragusa for the county leadership, but it failed.

And shortly after, Ulrich branded Ragusa and his supporters as merely opportunists, but nothing has come out since to support his charges.

Ragusa, an accountant by profession, had always dreamed of, at a minimum, fielding worthy candidates for public office against Democrats, win or lose.

State Senator Michael Gianaris State Senator Michael Gianaris But winning two city council seats in 2009 was way beyond his expectations, although the euphoria of winning was soon shattered as longtime Republican state Senator Frank Padavan lost a career-ending re-election to now-state Senator Tony Avella. This was followed by a defeat for the Bayside Assembly seat by Vince Tabone, vice chairman of the Queens organization, by Democrat Ed Braunstein.

Now, the downward spiral for Ragusa and Queens Republicans continued on Monday with Koo’s defection from the party.

In his remarks about his switch to the Democratic Party, Koo characterized it as “a new start, a rebirth and commitments to positive change”. And, fittingly, it came on the day of the Lunar New Year which traditionally signals a change for the better.

Koo pointed out that he has always been an independent thinker which had led him to cross party lines to support other candidates in the past, many of them Democrats.

Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr. Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr. Likewise, in the council, his voting record showed he supported liberal, Democratic positions on immigration and other issues.

Most importantly, he said, he became a Democrat because he wants to do more for his community and other East Asians who emigrated to this country, as he did.

“As a new Democrat, I hope to better use my immigration experience and business acumen to help shape and brighten a brighter future for this great city,” he declared.

Koo thanked Crowley “for his steadfast leadership and welcoming me into the party”. He also promised to work with “many of my old friends, now my new friends who are now my fellow Democrats.”

Highlighting his well known community support and advocacy, he repeated he was “proud to now be a Democrat… but the privilege of representing our communities has and always will be about much more than party registration… this is my challenge, my purpose and my promise for the next few years.”

Speaker Sheldon Silver Speaker Sheldon Silver Although he pointedly did not make any comments about running for office as a Democrat, that was implied by the presence of Crowley and his allusions of having worked closely with Democrats, such as Assemblymember Grace Meng (D–Flushing) and City Comptroller John Liu.

STILL WAITING TO HEAR FROM JUDGE: State Senator Michael Gianaris and Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr., both Astoria lawmakers, say they are still awaiting an answer from Manhattan Federal Judge William Pauley, whom they wrote to in mid January requesting a re-evaluation of a settlement rendered in a price fixing case that caused ratepayers to lose about $300 million.

The case involved the Morgan Stanley investment bank and two Astoria power plant operators, Astoria Generating Company and the Ravenswood Generating plant. The lawmakers charge that Morgan Stanley set up an alleged price fixing scheme between the two plant operators and made $21.6 million on the deal which cost ratepayers $300 million. Morgan Stanley paid back $4.8 million by order of the U.S. Department of Justice, but Gianaris and Vallone feel the bank should be subjected to a much larger fine, which would then be returned to the ratepayers.

Judge Pauley must sign off on the deal reached between Morgan Stanley and the Justice Department, and the two lawmakers want him to reject that deal.

Gianaris feels, “Allowing a deep-pocketed investment bank to get away with just a slap on the wrist would be treated as the cost of doing business and would continue to permit the bank to reap the benefits of its illicit profits. The settlement proposal is an insult to ratepayers during a difficult economic time, and I encourage Judge Pauley to protect the public by rejecting this proposal.”

Vallone questioned, “Who came up with this deal—Bernie Madoff? How could the Justice Department and the court allow Morgan Stanley to conspire with Astoria Generating Company and KeySpan to artificially raise rates and make millions of dollars without returning one cent to the ratepayers?”

The lawmakers feel strongly that the $4.8 million settlement payment to Morgan Stanley recommended by the Justice Department plus the $16.8 million it got from the price fixing deal, conveniently forgets that ratepayers must be reimbursed— and that, in effect, “disenfranchises consumers, who have been hurt the most by the deal”.

PAY RAISE FOR LEGISLATORS? On Monday, the New York Post reported that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D–Manhattan) announced support for state lawmakers raising their salaries, which are now set at a base of $79,500-a-year, with many receiving stipends for chairing or serving on committees, which takes them up to an average between $90,00 to $100,000 per year.

Silver said the lawmakers and state officials haven’t had a pay raise since 1999. Certainly, the Speaker should realize that many people in New York state are out of work and many haven’t seen a pay check, much less a pay raise, in years. So it hardly seems that he’s doing his cause any good pointing out they haven’t had a raise in 13 years.

It also seems that bringing up a pay raise this year, when all must stand for re-election, may not be the wisest thing to do, considering the legislature has a “dysfunctional” tag hung on it.

Besides all else, discussions on the state budget are starting, and it seems like a good bet that we’ll be hearing a lot about budget deficits between now and April 1, the day the budget must be passed.

The story said Silver wouldn’t speculate on when to vote on the issue. Logically, it would be best to do that after the budget is in place and the elections are over, which would take the salary from becoming a major issue in the legislators’ campaigns.

If the pay raise is not voted on this year, it will have to be put off for two years in order for the effective date to kick in because the lawmakers cannot approve a salary hike by a sitting legislature.

Meanwhile, as long as there’s going to be an on-going discussion about a pay raise for legislators going on all year, it will perhaps make it easier for Governor Andrew Cuomo to get his budget passed and other contentious legislation, as well.

Incidentally, state senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos begged off getting into the discussion of a pay raise at this time. He’s got enough of a problem dealing with the November elections and getting 31 Republicans elected so he’ll continue his roll as the powerful majority leader.

TEACHER EVALUATION TALKS STILL GOING ON: The last we heard, talks between state education officials and teachers’ leaders reportedly produced significant progress toward the end of last week, so there’s a chance they’ll reach some kind of accord this week.

The negotiations are going on under the pressure of a deadline set for a settlement in 30 days by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The discussions between state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. and teachers’ union leaders are aimed at settling a lawsuit brought by the unions that threatened to block new job ratings for thousands of teachers which are due for release in June.

There must be agreement on the issue in order to free up millions of dollars in federal education that is due to the state, so the governor has threatened to propose his own teacher evaluation system if the talks do not produce a settlement.

It wasn’t the first time Cuomo has spoken threateningly about teacher evaluations since he proposed them in his budget address earlier this month. At one point afterward, Cuomo was reportedly ready to use state education funds to move his plan, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg supports, forward.

Cuomo’s plan reportedly would seek about $200 million from budget education funds, place them among other state taxpayer funds in the budget and then use them to implement his teacher evaluation program. There was no indication if and when Cuomo would move on the plan.

INTERNET FORCES WITHDRAWAL OF BILL: A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate by New York Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, aimed at addressing widespread on-line theft of American technology, music, movies and TV shows, was hurriedly pulled back after Wikipedia and other Web sites went dark.

Almost immediately, many senators withdrew their support of the sensitive measure.

Schumer and Gillibrand, noting that the legislation was a work in progress, explained in a statement:

“While the threat to tens of thousands of New York jobs due to online piracy is real and must be addressed, it must be done in a way that allows the Internet and our tech companies to continue to flourish.”

Many lawmakers rushed to distance themselves from the legislation as Internet powerhouses such as Google, Amazon and Craigslist ran messages condemning the legislation.

Internet companies protest that the bills discourage innovation, violate free speech and could lead to shutting down legitimate Web sites.

But some tech companies, including Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo, charge the proposed laws would expose them to lawsuits and give media companies the right to shut down Web sites over alleged copyright violations.

The unexpected development for Gillibrand comes as her first re-election attempt approaches. Waiting in the wings to challenge her are George Maragos, the Nassau County comptroller; Harry Wilson and Marc Cenedella, who will engage in a tough primary as seems necessary.

Maragos, 62, of Great Neck, already has the endorsement of Nassau Republicans. But Maragos has already been defeated in a Senate election by Schumer not long ago, so he doesn’t appear too strong.

Gillibrand’s political strength has always been suspect since succeeding Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008. Since then she’s matured somewhat in the job and has attracted almost $22 million in campaign donations so far. Meanwhile, Wilson made a good impression in 2010 while losing the state comptroller election to Tom Di Napoli.

The city council voted last week to increase the funding for the Bayside Village Business Improvement District from $80,000 to $150,000 after the increase was proposed by Councilmember Dan Halloran (R–Whitestone).

Halloran said, “In these trying economic times, our small businesses need all the assistance they can get. Northeast Queens must always be friendly to small businesses. They remain the best way to create jobs and bring us out of this recession.”

The BID is composed of small businesses located along Bell Boulevard between Northern Boulevard and 35th Avenue. The organization provides supplemental services to make the area more attractive to bring in more customers. Each business is assessed a given amount of money to cover these expenditures.

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