BAY RIDGE – About 30 people turned up last night at The Owl’s Head Bar in Bay Ridge to meet Andrew Gounardes, who is running to unseat longtime state Senator Martin Golden this year, hear him speak, and answer questions.
Turnout was a bit bigger than two weeks ago for his primary opponent, Ross Barkan, another Democratic candidate for the 22nd state Senate District, but there did not seem to be much overlap in audience. Gounardes early supporters were there – those who supported his first run for office -this very seat – six years ago.
Gounardes was about five minutes late for the event, which began at around 7:45 pm, and lasted until about 9 pm. He touted his three years serving on Community Board 10, and explained why it is time for someone new in the 22nd District.
“We have someone who doesn’t represent the values of south Brooklyn,” Gounardes said. He went on to criticize both Golden and Albany, the latter he called “dysfunctional and backward”. He then presented his views on a variety of issues, including property tax, pedestrian safety, student loans, and overcrowded schools.
Noting that many of the ethnic groups in the district feel disengaged from the rest of society, he said: “No one should feel as if they don’t belong.” With that, Gounardes opened the floor to those in attendance.
There were rounds of applause during the night, particularly when the arts were brought up by the owner of The Owl’s Head Bar, John Avelluto, who used to head the former Bay Ridge Storefront Art Walk. “The funding that has been coming into south Brooklyn, particularly district 10, has been averaging 31 cents per person for arts and culture,” Avelluto said. “I want to hear what your platform is for the arts community in south Brooklyn.”
“There should be an Art Walk on every avenue,” Gounardes answered. “We need to build community spaces to create and display more art.” He also explained that his mother was an art teacher for several years, which means the arts are “very, very deeply personal” to him. Gounardes gave a shout out to the Bay Ridge Poetry Society, which also meets at the Owl’s Head Bar once a month.
Another question that was raised was about how big his campaign staff is, and how diverse it is. “Right now, the campaign staff is two,” Gounardes answered, explaining his staff is all volunteer, though that will change in the spring. “We have volunteers who are committed, who have reached out, and are really invested in the idea of beating Marty Golden.“
As for diversity, “That is very important to me, this is a very diverse district. It is about 25% Asian, 5% Hispanic, 19% Russian and 15% Arabic. I am fully committed that my campaign and my office represents the whole spectrum of that diversity.”
Later on, when asked about multi-lingual staffers, Gounardes responded by saying when he previously ran for office, he had literature printed in Chinese.
Things got heated at one point when a woman named Eva, who had immigrated from the Czech Republic a few years ago, asked: “Why do we open borders to people who cannot bring value to this country and give them benefits?”
Gounardes at first tried to explain that not all immigrants abuse the system. “Most of them work hard,” he said. “They are also coming from places that have no future.”
Eva went on to restate her question by asking about the middle-class support for immigrants on benefits. “How much of a tax break am I going to get?”
She and Gounardes went back and forth for a few minutes about tax breaks for the upper class and the middle class, with Gounardes insisting that “We’ve been hoodwinked to think that the problem is the people on the rung below us, when in reality it is the people on the rung above us who are taking from us.” That comment led to applause.
More applause came when he added that New York has the tenth largest economy, right behind Canada. “If Canada can run a national health insurance program, why can’t we do that here in New York?”
Eva continued, asking again about people using benefits who have never worked before in this country, adding that the rich will always be there. That led to a few attendees to argue with her, insisting it was not the majority of the immigrants abusing the system.
“You can always find stories of those who abuse the system,” Gounardes said. “You can also find those who made it to the top, on the backs of everybody else. People abuse the system on every level, whether you’re an immigrant or if you’re rich and successful. I don’t think it’s fair to say only immigrants are coming here and leeching the system out.”
When Eva tried arguing again, one man spoke up, saying. “I’m a super successful immigrant. I came here 25 years ago. It does not mean we can’t be nice to other people. It is such a jerky thing to say!”
Another attendee with a heavy accent spoke up, explaining she was a CUNY employee. “It is called the Ellis Island of education,” she said of the City University of New York. “Our students are coming from families that make 30K or less. After they graduate, they make 60K or more. We have kids who are homeless, we have hungry kids, we have a pantry on all our campuses. So, when we say ‘oh this kid is abusing the system’ – if we stop those tax cuts to the billionaires, and the millionaires and the real estate developments, I wouldn’t have to see hungry students in my class.” That comment led to applause and even some cheers.
Overall, it was a civil night. All questions were answered and many seemed satisfied with how the open forum went.
“He answered pretty well, he was diplomatic,” said Karman Chao of Bensonhurst. “I met him during his last campaign, but never saw [Golden].”
“His knowledge showed through,” said Jay Brown of Bensonhurst. “Barkan went well, but there was not one round of applause.”
“He’s my preferred candidate,” said Eugene Strupinskiy, a refugee from Ukraine. “Golden sucks, he’s been elected forever, and look at it. We need to flip this district.”