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.
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?"

Unger from Wagner College agrees that the transit problem is paramount to island voters. "The north and south shores are somewhat different politically, but in the case of transportation there's a consensus from north to south and east to west that that is the issue," he says. "It is so salient on this island."

Elsewhere, little opposition

The other four borough president elections are so quiet, constituents may hardly be aware of an election. In the Bronx, for example, Ruben Diaz, Jr. is opposed by Allison Oldak, a Republican who does not appear to have raised any money for the race (she is not even registered with the Campaign Finance Board). Diaz won the Bronx job against similar token opposition in an April special election after predecessor Adolfo Carrion joined the Obama administration.
Queens’ Helen Marshall, first elected in 2001, has already won an election this year. She handily defeated two primary challengers on Sept. 15, one of whom, Marc Leavitt, spent $447,000 on the effort, exceeding Marshall's $420,000 outlay so far. Republican Robert Hornak is running against her in the general election, but faces a stark registration disadvantage: Democrats outnumber Republicans 5 to 1 in Queens. One of the people Marshall beat in the primary, Robert Schwartz, continues to run as a Conservative.

Brooklyn's Marty Markowitz, who was elected in 2001 and considered a run for mayor before term limits were extended, faces a long-shot Republican opponent, businessman Marc D'Ottavio. A Libertarian candidate, Michael Sanchez, is also in the race.

D'Ottavio says his campaign is about listening to needs that don't get much attention. "You hear about Atlantic Yards, you hear about Coney Island, the Gowanus Canal. You don’t hear about these parking garages in residential areas," or about a failing pedestrian bridge near the New York Aquarium on Coney Island, he says.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who was first elected in 2005, is opposed by Tom Baumann—a Socialist Workers Party candidate who says he is "running on a platform to protect the interest of workers and farmers"—and Republican David Casavis. Unknown and heavily outspent, Casavis has little chance of winning. But his platform is simple. "When I was asked to run, I said I would run under one condition: That my campaign would be devoted to dissolving the office," Casavis says in a video message to voters. "If I win, I want my job eliminated. Borough Presidents have many privileges and few duties."

President of what?

Borough presidents, who are each elected to a four-year term and earn a salary of $160,000, used to have more power. Each had a seat on the Board of Estimate along with the mayor, comptroller and City Council president (forerunner of today's public advocate). There, the borough presidents, often voting as a bloc, wielded significant influence on budget and land use decisions. For David Dinkins, a stint as Manhattan's borough president paved the way to the mayoralty.

That changed in 1989, when the Supreme Court ruled that the Board of Estimate's voting structure violated the Constitution's "one man, one vote" principle, since the borough president of Staten Island had the same power on the board as the president of far more populous Brooklyn. The Koch administration opted to eliminate the board, and the borough presidents lost any direct say over citywide policy.

Since then, the position has been a favorite target for some critics. Last year, the New York Post reported that Molinaro and then-Bronx Borough President Carrion had 11 cars in their official fleets, and that Brooklyn’s Marty Markowitz had seven. "Borough presidents were a useless annoyance back when times were flush," the Post opined. "Now, wasting one more cent on them is a scandal." It remains to be seen whether a city charter revision commission agrees.

In the current fiscal year 2010 budget, borough presidents' allotments range from $3.9 million in Staten Island to $5.5 million in Brooklyn. Manhattan's borough president has a staff of 45. In the Bronx, 77 people work for the beep. All five offices were cut this year; with 15 fewer staff members, Markowitz lost the most positions.

Clearly, some campaign donors believe the office merits attention. So far this cycle, borough president candidates have raised more than $4.6 million, led by Stringer and Markowitz who've collected more than $1.6 million each. Aaron, Benjamin, Carolyn and Randie Malinsky—all connected to the P/A Associates real estate development firm—appear to be the top donors, having contributed $23,850 to Stringer, Markowitz and Diaz. Ethan Geto, a lobbyist whose firm represents interests including New York University and Atlantic Yards Development, is the top fundraising intermediary in the race, having transmitted $31,250 in donations to Stringer's campaign.

The borough’s bodyguard

Borough presidents control a portion of the city's expense and capital budgets—Stringer's office estimates its total at about $20 million for last year. And they appoint members of boards such as the Panel for Education Policy (what the Department of Education calls its “governance body”), the Franchise and Concessions Review Committee, the city's main pension fund, hospitals, and partnerships like the Hudson River Park Trust. Under the charter, they can introduce legislation to the City Council. Stringer's office has a policy unit that has produced major reports on vacant land, public housing and potential threats to the city's watershed.

"There are people who are going to call for the elimination of the public advocate office, borough president, the City Council. There are people who believe that we should have a king system here," says Stringer. "Borough presidents are part of a new era and a different kind of government. It has real responsibilities and it gives you a large footprint on the issues you get involved with. It's up to the individual to take advantage of that, that you might have an impact."

In addition to influencing land-use decisions – a role Stringer calls “all-encompassing” – there’s a grassroots management component too. “You appoint 600 individuals to community boards and then you're uniquely involved in the day-to-day running of those boards."

That's not to say the charter doesn't need revising, he adds. He'd like to see his office get an independent budget, and not one set by the mayor and Council.

Markowitz also wants an independent budget, and told City Limits, "It's my hope that the charter revision commission will look at the possibility of significantly enhancing the government role of borough presidents." He also believes that borough presidents should play a more decisive part in land use decisions—the role currently played by the City Council, which gets the second-to-last word, before the mayor.

In the country's biggest city, the presidents see a place for a leader with a borough-level portfolio. "We're close to what's going on," Markowitz argues. "A City Council member only looks at what happens within their district, not what's across the street. My duty is to ask, 'How does it affect what's across the street?'"

The role provides a needed counterweight to a strong mayor, says Markowitz—who points out that any changes to the borough presidents' authority would not affect him because they wouldn't take effect until after the next term. "I do believe that if you concentrate all power centrally in the office of one elected official I don't think the residents of New York would be served as effectively as they could be served if you had some modest power-sharing with those who are close to the constituents."

A borough president lacks direct power over hospitals or schools, but does have the ability to be a spokesman for the county, candidates say. "The borough president's office can and should be, and once was, a bully pulpit," Luisi says. He remembers that Molinaro's predecessor, Guy Molinari, “used the borough president's office to launch lawsuits to close the Fresh Kills landfills—I think that's a fine use of the office."

Markowitz sees himself as a bodyguard for his borough. "There are occasions when Brooklyn was being dumped on and we had to speak up," he says, such as when some Council members tried to block a plan to close waste transfer stations in the borough, or the Bloomberg administration's plan to locate a new homeless intake center in Brooklyn. "That is wrong, and it's a job of borough president to raise my voice and stop that," Markowitz says.

His opponent Marc D'Ottavio agrees. "He's powerful enough that people are going to listen to him."

- Jarrett Murphy