Interviews & Profiles

James Gennaro is back for Round 2

A Q&A with the new City Council member who is starting his 13th year in the chamber.

New York City Council Member James Gennaro

New York City Council Member James Gennaro Dominick Totino

James Gennaro was planning to get married in April 2020, but thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, that didn’t happen. Instead, he and his wife, Wendy, settled for a much smaller event in September – but time was of the essence, since he was planning to run for New York City Council. “I said we’ve got to get this done, because I have a primary in June!” Gennaro recalled. “It was only days after we got married that rumors started to swirl that Rory might leave early.”

Sure enough, former City Council Member Rory Lancman stepped down in November to take a job in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, triggering a special election for Feb. 2, 2021. Gennaro, a Democrat, had to run for office even sooner than expected, but he was probably the most prepared candidate in the field, having previously represented his district in Eastern Queens from 2002 through 2013.

Gennaro overwhelmingly won the special election and just started his second round in the City Council. City & State caught up with the former Environmental Protection Committee chair to talk about who he ranked on his ballot, why he won as a political moderate and the big project he wants to take on off the city’s coast.

You won the special election for Council District 24 in Queens to replace Rory Lancman on Feb. 2 and were sworn in Feb. 18 –

I couldn’t do anything like hire staff or anything until you’re actually a council member. Of course, after Feb. 2, I started getting constituent requests and all sorts of things. People think I’m in office the morning of Feb. 3. That’s not the way it works.

You’re up for reelection this year already. Do you expect to have a serious challenge in the June primary?

I’m certainly assuming there’s going to be a primary. One of the people who’s in the race (Mohammad Uddin) already has like $12,000 in his account. So I’m assuming he’s going to go. We’ll see who else circulates petitions, we just don’t know. And I did get the county endorsement (from the Queens County Democratic Party), so I am the county candidate. I got the Central Labor Council (endorsement) yesterday. A lot of labor unions were holding back for the special.

Now that the race is over – did you rank on your ballot? Who else did you include?

I will say what I said publicly during a debate. I ranked second Neeta Jain. But I’m not going to go beyond that. But I’ve got a very good relationship with Deepti Sharma. We saw her at an event the other day denouncing anti-Semitism and anti-Asian bigotry. I have a lot of respect for Deepti. I think she’s really smart. It’s not for me to say, but I think she’s going to go pretty far in this business. One of these campaign funny things, Deepti’s mother and my wife became real friends from campaigning. Like, ‘OK, we’re going for coffee, want some?’ But I can’t say enough about how much I think Deepti is really smart, really capable. I think she was a great candidate.

A outside political action committee funded by real estate developers spent more than $220,000 in the race. I know you’re not allowed to coordinate with them, but why do you think Common Sense NYC was so supportive of your candidacy?

I don’t know what their thinking was. I had no coordination with them. They’ve got their own reasons for educating voters about people’s positions. But beyond the statement I made (denouncing the PAC’s “personal attacks” on other candidates), I don’t know. It’s got nothing to do with me and I don’t know their thinking.

This is your second go in the City Council, starting your 13th year –

Before I was a councilman for 12 years, I was a staffer for 13 years. So I have 25 years experience with the body. I was the environmental policy adviser for the City Council for 13 years. And I knew that with the new speaker, whoever it was going to be in 2002, wasn’t going to keep me around. Because by that time I had become a (then-City Council Speaker Peter) Vallone guy. I was sort of in the inner circle. Those are the first people to go when a new speaker comes in. So I said, you know what? I’m president of my civic (association), I’m a member of the local community board. I taught for years at Queens College. I said, I’m just going to go run myself. It was run and get elected or get fired. I’m going to go for door No. 2.

With so many young candidates running now, you may end up having more years of experience working in the council than some of your future colleagues have been alive.

I focused on this in my campaign a little bit. I talked about experience, I talked about moderation. I think I embody both those things. But it’s more simple than that. I think I’m just a good fit for the district in terms of where I am on the ideological spectrum. And I had the benefit of having worked with every demographic group in the district and try to make things fair for people. It’s just a moderate district (that) elected a moderate guy. I keep going over in my mind, trying to make it more complicated than that. I don’t think it is.

It’s been seven years since you’ve been in the council. Do you have any bills you want to introduce?

My core mission is environmental stuff, and should you have any problem with insomnia, I have a 14-page single-spaced compilation noting my accomplishments and awards. So one of my big things is following up on all the climate stuff that I got the ball rolling on. It helped the planet to some degree, speaking as a scientist, probably not a great degree. We’re only 303 square miles out of the whole planet. And if we sent our carbon emissions to zero, it probably wouldn’t make a big dent in the world (greenhouse gases) budget. However there are huge benefits to local air quality! That’s what really got me going on the climate change stuff.

And something I tried to push at the (state level), and it wasn’t able to get done, is storm surge barriers. There’s going to be a lot of yelling and screaming about trying to put up storm surge barriers, but this is not a brand-new technology. When you look at places like New Orleans, when you look at St. Petersburg, (Russia), when you look at the Netherlands, when you look at Venice – they’ve done it like all over the world and we need to do it here. I think it’s time that we gave the idea of storm surge barriers more of an in-depth study than they’ve got thus far. But this is going to be a lot more huffing and puffing than putting up a new Tappan Zee Bridge, which was a lot of huffing and puffing.

The council passed a bill last year capping building emissions, and now Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposal has – as some people might say – created a loophole for building owners. Are you OK with the addition in the budget?

There’s a lot of moving parts with that. I am a proponent of Local Law 97 and that is a local government thing. But now we’re dealing with state government, and I’ve been in state government and I understand the power of state government – and the ability of local governments to flex on state governments. It doesn’t work out all that well. I was surprised to hear of this development, of it being in the budget. But I’m talking with people in the state Senate and the state Assembly about what is within the realm of the possible regarding where this ultimately goes. I can stand on the City Council floor and thump my chest and say it’s Local Law 97 or nothing, but now we’re dealing with state government, so now we have to see how to make the best of the situation.

If I may say so, this is where experience comes in. Everything that Local Law 97 is about, that started with me. There wouldn’t be a Local Law 97 but for me! Because I wrote the predecessor to Local Law 97. I’m confident that I’ll be able to bring a lot of value into that really important discussion.

You’ve served with Gale Brewer in the council before, and there’s some discussionthat she may try to become the next speaker. Do you think the speaker could be somebody like her, who isn’t currently serving?

Let me say that Gale is a really terrific asset to the council. We served as staff to the council way back when. We go back that far.

I think the best way to say it is, the class of 2022 is going to come in, and many of these people are holding out some hope that, someday, they may get to be speaker in their second term. And so if someone who is newly elected to the council gets elected as speaker, that means that all of the new people in the council have just voted against – have really diminished the chances that they could ever be in a position to run for speaker. There’s a built-in disinclination for many people in the council to vote for someone who’s newly elected, even as experienced as Gale, to be the speaker, because they just voted themselves out of any opportunity of ever being speaker. Someone like me, who has no aspirations to be speaker, it’s fine. I think Gale is great. And so it matters not to me. And of course, I know Gale. I’ve known Gale forever. We’re really good friends. I would do well if she was speaker of the council because she knows me and my work, but I do tend to think it’s probably going to be someone who’s already on the council and running for their second term.

Did any current City Council members come and campaign with you?

I didn’t seek the endorsement of other council members. So no other council members. I did seek the endorsement of other state officials that overlapped the district. And I did get one! I got (state Sen.) Joe Addabbo, with whom I go back.