Sparks Fly At Debate On Senior Issues


A debate on issues important to the city’s surging senior citizen population turned into a tense session of insults Thursday morning, as former Councilman Sal Albanese blasted former Democrat mayor rival Anthony Weiner for a long-ago vote on rent-control.

The former congressman fired back at longshot Albanese by calling him a “demagogue,” and explaining his vote in favor of allowing vacancy decontrol in 1998. Albanese then said Weiner “lied to [tenant] organizations about this bill … just as he lied about his texting scandal on CNN.”

The latter comment drew boos from the crowd of some 250 senior citizens at New York University, some of whom arrived in a chartered bus. Weiner, however, did not react directly to the quip about the scandal that ended his congressional career in June, 2011, instead staying on the topic of housing.

He defended his vote to decontrol low-cost housing because otherwise the Republican governor and Republican-led Senate at the time would have allowed all rent control laws to expire. Under decontrol rent increases only went to wealthier tenants and more expensive apartments, he said. Claiming a penchant for compromise, he said that in Congress he had favored a national single-payer health plan, but instead “I got Obamacare which made life better for a lot of people.”

That brought another candidate, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, into the fray, when he said “You didn’t get Obamacare, President Obama got Obamacare. I know you have a tendency to think the world revolves around you.” (See video of the exchange below.)

De Blasio, who was not in public office at the time of the decontrol vote, added that Weiner “could have stood up and said I’m not going to let these units go out of affordability, not on my watch. So, just own it.”

The tense exchanges amounted to a few moments during a two hour session sponsored by the Council of Senior Centers and Services, a non-profit advocacy group, focusing on the candidates’ plans to improve the lives of the city’s seniors if elected mayor. Also present were Democrat John Liu, the city comptroller, and Republican/Liberal John Catsimitidis, a businessman.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and former comptroller William Thompson declined to attend. Another longshot candidate, Rev. Erick Selgado, agreed to participate but never showed up.

In their remarks the candidates offered similar views on how to fund increasing needs of the senior population, which is expected to see a 45 percent increase from a current 1.4 million by 2030, according to the CSCS. All promised to make it a top priority of their administrations.

Albanese said the city should find more funding for senior programs by decreasing tax breaks to real estate developers. “Give the money to people who need it,” he said. Saying City Council member item grants to community organizations are “bad for democracy,” he said, and the city should instead “baseline,” or create a permanent stream of funding for the Department for The Aging’s progams, a view that was largely undisputed.

Catsimitidis said he wants the city to ensure that anyone who has a medical emergency be taken to a doctor within 10 minutes of their home, and provide technology for seniors to call for help during a health crisis.

De Blasio said he had a plan to require the real estate industry to create 200,000 new affordable housing units for seniors and others. Liu said he favored mandatory inclusionary zoning, which would require developers to provide more housing, funded by selling air rights of existing property.

Weiner said that rather than award grants he would come up with a budget fgure for progams for the aged and have “a public debate.” He also advocated doing more to make the homes of seniors safe to avoid medical costs from falls.

Liu also called for baseline funding for seniors, recalling the times he saw activists sweating in the summer sun outside City Hall trying to get funding restored for various programs. “I would like to see seniors come to City Hall to advocate for legislation, not to take part in this ridiculous budget fight over programs that should never be cut.”

Asked by moderator Jarett Murphy, editor of City Limits, what they would do to combat elder abuse and other crimes against seniors, de Blasio said he’d create greater awareness among city agencies to report signs of abuse; Weiner called on banks to be alert seniors when large, atypical withdrawals are made from their accounts. Albanese said he’d encourage the five district attorneys to create bureaus to combat crime against the elderly. “Word will go out that you’ll find yourself in big trouble,” he said.

The attacks against Weiner didn’t sit well with some members of the audience.” I’m disappointed with Sal because he made it personal,” said Jim Fouratt of Greenwich Village, 72, after the debate. “Seniors don’t care about that stuff.”

Fouratt said he was most impressed by Weiner and Liu. “They really stepped up with interesting answers,” he said. Liu “has had his hands on the money of the city.” And he said Weiner’s vote on the decontrol matter was understandable because “sometimes you have to let something go to get something else. Real progressives won’t hold that against him.”

But Joyce Berger of Forest Hills said that Weiner came off as “obnoxious” for standing up to deliver his answers while others sat, as he usually does at debates, while saying that Catsimitidis, who referred to himself during the debate as “Catman” offered nothing constructive. “I had no idea what he was talking about.” She said she left feeling “depressed” because of the “weak field” of candidates.

Phoebe Wiener, who is not related to the similarly named candidate, said she had arrived and left as a fan of his. “He was our representative in Congress and was an excellent representative and spokesman,” said Wiener of Kew Gardens, a volunteer at SelfHelp Community Services. “I believe he’ll be a very good spokesman in the future as mayor. His private life is his private life.”

Weiner at one point made light of the attack. When Murphy, noting that the number of participants had dwindled toward the end of the debate, compared it to “Star Search,” Weiner said “When you’re doing well in the polls, it’s more like ‘Survivor.’