Among the city's five borough presidents, only Staten Island Borough President James P. Molinaro may have a race on his hands this year. He has the distinction in the city’s most Republican area of being the first “beep” elected from the Conservative party. Yet his Democratic opponent, a commercial real estate lawyer named John Luisi – who’s raised little money but claims the backing of powerful unions and the Working Families Party – may represent the political future in a borough that’s trending Democratic. In the past two years, Democratic registration has soared by 13 percent while Republican enrollment has increased by 3 percent. After 20 years of Republican control of borough hall, Staten Island might be ready to make a change.
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But whatever happens there on Nov. 3, all five of the city's borough presidents may face a more challenging test in 2010, when a commission is expected to be formed to review the New York City Charter, perhaps with a view toward eliminating an office that some argue lost its raison d'être 20 years ago.

Ever since the Board of Estimate, with five powerful borough presidents, gave way to the current City Council structure, there have been steady calls for eliminating the post. If Mayor Bloomberg is re-elected and a charter review commission begins work next year as Bloomberg has promised, that body will likely explore term limits, the powers of the City Council, and whether to change or eliminate the office of public advocate. It could also revisit the question of whether borough presidents make sense in 21st-century New York.

The Richmond County race

While the office has lost much of the heft it had two decades ago, borough presidents are not exactly toothless. They have a major role in the city's Uniform Land Use Review Process that governs zoning changes, capital projects and dispositions of city property. Borough presidents weigh in on each ULURP project in their borough and if they disapprove of a proposal, a supermajority of the City Planning Commission (nine votes, instead of a simple majority of seven) must vote to override the BP. The borough president also appoints a member of the City Planning Commission.

The contest over who will perform these duties for Staten Island is “definitely a real race,” said Abraham Unger, an assistant professor of government and politics at Wagner College, on the island’s northern end. "Both candidates have strong name recognition. I do think it's a tough race for Mr. Luisi to win,” Unger said. Molinaro is somewhat better known and is associated with economic development projects—like the North Shore rail line and development along the Stapleton waterfront—that islanders want to see come to fruition, he says. "We're beginning to see some real headway. Staten Island has been waiting a long time for that."

Indeed, things are changing in the borough: Democrat Debi Rose is on her way to becoming the island’s first black City Council member, having defeated the incumbent in primary elections last month. And Democrats are mounting relatively well-funded challenges to Republican incumbents in the island's other two Council districts. Democrats now outnumber Republicans in the borough by a ratio of 1.5 to 1.

Four years ago, Luisi ran what he calls a "quixotic" race against Molinaro, who was first elected in 2001. The Democrat got 41 percent of the vote, despite being outspent by 6 to 1. "I actually have a strong amount of name recognition from that, which I'm frankly surprised at," Luisi says. But he admits to getting a late start in this year's race. Like most Staten Islanders, he expected popular Councilmen James Oddo, a Republican, and Michael McMahon, a Democrat, to fight for the BP post. But after U.S. Rep. Vito Fossella was arrested for drunk driving and resigned, McMahon won Fossella's seat in Congress; then the Council voted to extend term limits, allowing Molinaro to run again. Oddo opted for re-election to the Council. Luisi decided to repeat his challenge.

But if the candidates are the same this time, the issues are slightly different. "Four years ago, overdevelopment was the key concern of Staten Islanders. Today the traffic woes are," Luisi says. "The traffic issue needs to be resolved through transit infrastructure which is sorely lacking." With better transit, he says, Staten Island could actually absorb more development. In fact, Luisi argues that areas like St. George would benefit from more density because it would allow them to attract stores and services. Currently in St. George, he says, "We have no supermarket that is easily walkable. What I wouldn't give for a Fairway or a Trader Joe’s or a Whole Foods here."

Luisi charges Molinaro with failing to act quickly enough to build a North Shore Rail Line, which would give to the island's northern half the same rail link to the ferry terminal that the southern side has in the Staten Island Rail Road. The Democrat has also criticized Molinaro for appointing a Realtor who happens to be his daughter-in-law's sister to the City Planning Commission.

Molinaro's office did not return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment. The borough president recently took Mayor Bloomberg on a tour of the rail line. "I don't see a rail running through there during my term, even if I get re-elected," Molinaro told the Staten Island Advance. "But I see it's getting closer and closer." In his campaign literature, Molinaro highlights his plan to make Staten Island's economy more self-sustaining. "That means attracting more businesses and industries to the Island to expand our job base and reduce commute times for Staten Islanders," his website reads. He has also called for a study to explore the feasibility of a wind power farm on the island.

Staten Island Republican chairman John Friscia doesn't believe Luisi has a shot to take down the incumbent Republican, even if the enrollment numbers favor Democrats. After all, Friscia says, Staten Island Democrats have demonstrated again and again that they're willing to cross party lines. But he agrees with the challenger that "first and foremost are the transportation issues here."

"We don’t have anything near the type of public transit system that the other counties do," he says. Of the delays in the North Shore line, he says, "Unfortunately, any time the city and state gets involved in anything it takes a lot longer than in private industry." Friscia adds that healthcare is a growing concern on the island. The city's fastest growing borough—its population has swelled nearly 10 percent since 2000—does not have a public hospital and has seen some health facilities close. The growing population also is putting strains on classroom capacity in Staten Island's public schools. He asks, "Where do we put the kids?"