Campaigns & Elections

Seven candidates compete for Grodenchik’s seat in the pseudo-burbs of Eastern Queens

Following accusations of sexual harassment, Council Member Grodenchik decided not to run in 2021.



Queens’ topsy-turvy political landscape became even more uncertain last year when Councilmember Barry Grodenchik, one of only four councilmembers in the borough eligible for reelection, decided not to run in 2021.

Even before the announcement, a handful of candidates had filed campaigns to challenge Grodenchik, weakened by accusations of sexual harassment and stripped of his role as chair of the Parks committee. His exit plan set the stage for a wide-open primary, with seven people on the ballot and, according to local political observers and insiders, no clear-cut favorite.

The candidates include Grodenchik’s closest aide, Steve Behar; prominent nonprofit director Linda Lee; veteran government official Debra Markell, Sikh community leader Harpreet Singh Toor; and organizer Jaslin Kaur, the first Eastern Queens candidate backed by the Democratic Socialists of America. Two other community leaders, Sanjeev Kumar Jindal and Koshy Thomas, are also running.

The seven hopefuls are vying to represent one of New York City’s oldest council districts, where more than 20 percent of residents are over age 65. It’s also one of the city’s most suburban regions.

Indeed, driving through the neighborhoods of Council District 23 — and without a single subway stop, most people do rely on cars and buses — one would be forgiven for thinking they’ve already crossed into the burbs of Nassau County. 

Detached single family homes take up big tracts of land here, more so than in nearly any other council district in New York City. Major institutions, like Long Island Jewish Medical Center and the massive North Shore Towers co-op complex, straddle the border of Queens and Nassau.

Even neighborhood names give pause: Are you in Floral Park, Queens or Floral Park, Long Island? 

And if all that geographic confusion weren’t enough, there’s an honest-to-god farm here, complete with sheep for shearing and chickens for laying. Granted, it’s nearly 330 years old and preserved as a novel historic site, but still, a farm in New York City. 

But like suburbs across the country, the Northeast Queens pseudo-burbs are anything but homogenous. 

Residents, and candidates, span the political spectrum and incomes vary. In Community Districts 11 and 13, which overlap with Council District 23, more than 43 percent of residents are considered rent-burdened, meaning they spend more than 35 percent of their income on housing. 

Residents also reflect an array of races, religions and ethnicities. 

White New Yorkers, and in particular, Jewish residents, make up a large portion of the population in Bellerose, Douglaston, Fresh Meadows, Glen Oaks and Oakland Gardens, but the district is also home to some of New York City’s largest Asian, South Asian and Pacific Islander communities. In fact, more than 40 percent of district residents identify as Asian, including about 45 percent of the population in Community District 11, which overlaps with much of the council district. 

About 45 percent of CD11 residents were born outside the United States and many more are first-generation Americans. There are also significant populations of Black and Latino residents in places like Hollis and Queens Village, which are located in the northern portions of predominantly Black Community Districts 12 and 13.

“This is a very ethnically and religiously diverse district and is largely a community of single-family homeowners but with sizable garden apartment co-ops in it,” said Glen Oaks resident Ali Najmi, an attorney extremely active in local politics. He ran for the council seat in a 2015 special election and is representing Kaur in this election. “It’s a great place to live and raise a family.” 

But it could be even better, the candidates agree.

Three major goals emerge in conversations with the people running to replace Grodenchik: Increase transportation options in the subwayless “transit desert,” preserve the quality of the region’s well regarded schools and boost services for seniors. They are also focused on healthcare and reaching residents — like immigrants and low-wage workers — whose experiences don’t fit into the district’s comfortable, suburban reputation.