Since being sworn into office this January, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley has protested two hospital closings, passed her first piece of legislation, and landed on a few influential committees. Most notably, she took on the Department of Education in a heated school policy debate. She lost, but the dispute has gone far to establish Crowley's reputation as a dogged political in-fighter. In three packed months, Crowley, the first female and first Democrat elected to the 30th Council District, already has a growing list of allies and opponents on the City Council and in community groups across the Western Queens neighborhoods she represents.
The Councilwoman sat down with the Queens Ledger on April 8 to discuss her first 100 days in office. The far-ranging, candid interview - divided here into three major topics - was conducted at her spare but pleasant district office in Glendale, where Crowley grew up.
An 'uphill battle' for Maspeth's high school
The City Council's 38-10 vote on April 2 to approve a new $80 million high school in Maspeth ended months of education policy debate between Crowley and the Department of Education (DOE).
The school quickly became Crowley's signature issue and has helped define her as a politician to the many community groups and residents that took part in the dispute. Speaking six days after the City Council vote, Crowley acknowledged the difficulties of opposing the DOE and Bloomberg Administration.
"I understood that this was going to be an uphill battle that was going to be very, very tough to win," said Crowley, who did not succeed in getting DOE to include a strict local zoning provision in the final plan for the school. Crowley voted against the school, for that reason.
Crowley said she was disadvantaged from the start, because the project was already near completion when she was sworn into office. "I was coming into one of the final stages of a plan" that was begun in the spring of 2007, Crowley said. "It was a unique situation for a City Council member."
Despite starting, as she described it, so far behind, Crowley attracted attention almost immediately by stating publicly she would not support plans for the school unless it were locally zoned.
This launched a rigorous back and forth between the DOE, which officially opposes local zoning, and Crowley and Community Board 5, which insisted Maspeth teenagers be given enrollment priority in part to help ease school overcrowding in Queens.
Crowley said she met several times with Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott between February and March to negotiate over the school, but an agreement could not be reached. She described a "grueling" subcommittee debate that eventually sent the proposal to the full City Council, where it was passed despite her opposition and that of nine other council members.
"At the end of the day I knew it would be almost impossible [to get the local zoning]" Crowley said. "But if I didn't fight as hard as I did and take the stance that I did we wouldn't have gotten" concessions on the proposal from the DOE.
Bowing to community pressure, the Education Department did give the school local School District 24 priority, and also agreed to build a much smaller facility with 500 fewer seats. Crowley said critics of the school should remember both are significant victories, ones other council members were impressed she was able to land.
"I don't have any regrets," said Crowley. "The lesson I learned is really how powerful the administration is," she continued. "As a new City Council member, looking back I did all the right things. I kept the community involved and I never lost sight of who I was elected to represent."
Rezoning the future
Crowley said she began working on the problem of overdevelopment in her district - which is comprised of Glendale, Maspeth, Middle Village, Ridgewood, Richmond Hill and Woodhaven - even before taking office, so she could hit the ground running after being sworn in.
"The district is still an area that is different from the rest of the city," said the 31-year-old Crowley, who is a lifelong Glendale resident. Though many neighborhoods have retained their small town character, Crowley said, the district has grown significantly in recent years.
Crowley said the rise in out-of-context residential developments has increased traffic congestion, school overcrowding, and placed a greater burden on local sewer and transportation systems.
Since taking office, Crowley has supported the City Planning Department's proposed 300-block rezoning of parts of Middle Village, Maspeth, and Glendale, a measure that would protect existing housing and block large-scale development.
She said she made securing the downzoning a priority upon entering office.
"It is our goal to get [the resolution] to City Council as soon as possible," said Crowley, who suggested this could happen in the next few months.
If it is passed, the downzoning would be the third in the area since 2006. Crowley said while protecting overdevelopment is crucial, any city planning should take into account the changing demographics in her district, which now includes growing Polish, Latino, and other immigrant groups.
"When we look at Maspeth, Middle Village, and Glendale neighborhoods, a majority of the people who grew up there seem to stick around," said Crowley. In the past this produced a tight-knit sense of community, she added, but also meant traditionally Irish-Italian-German communities didn't "change all that much in terms of demographics."
"Now you have a little more diversity, which is great. There's a certain liveliness that goes with it," Crowley said. "I see good things happening as it relates to growth in the 30th district."
What's next? Another election
In November, Crowley is up for reelection, again. It will be her third election in 17 months, and fourth since she first ran for office eight years ago. (Crowley, who comes from a well-known political family, admitted her electoral losses in 2001 and 2008 were disappointing, but said she never considered giving up her political aspirations).
This year, for the first time, Crowley will campaign as an incumbent, forcing her to run on a record that will include controversial issues such as the new school; the ongoing development debate; and the closing of the St. John's and Mary Immaculate hospitals, not to mention the recession and its impact on economic growth in her district.
Yet Crowley said she isn't thinking of November, when the entire City Council is up for reelection. She also rejected the idea that her incumbency gives her any edge.
"By no means do I feel that I have security as an elected official," Crowley said. "To get too secure in that position would only be under-serving, under-representing your constituency."
Right now, said Crowley, she has too much work to worry about her next election.
"There's so much to do as a council member," Crowley said. "If I do a good job that will speak for itself."