Have you seen this candidate?

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Columbia University on November 2, 2000.

Trina knew the name, she said. It was on the tip of her tongue.

She lit a cigarette with a customer's lighter, leaning over the bar to return it. It didn't help. "Nope," she finally said. "I'm not sure who's running."

It's not like politics comes up much, she said, looking around Tailors Hall, the Irish pub where she works as a bartender.

"I don't think I've heard anybody mention it," she said, pulling another round of hard cider. "They talk about the president, but nobody mentions the local races."

Across Sunnyside, a small community in northwest Queens, the election seems a chimera, with residents and politicians alike acting anything but excited about Tuesday. Even local candidates rarely stop by this solidly Democratic neighborhood where no hot issues exist to electrify the electorate.

Sunnyside's business district -- sprawled along seven or so blocks of Queens Boulevard -- shows little sign of Election Day's nearness, with only one shop displaying political advertisements in its windows.

"I'm not even sure what they're running for," said Olga Samlidis, manager of the Oasis deli.

"They're our customers here," she explained, pointing at the posters of Assemblywoman Catherine T. Nolan and her challenger, Alice Lemos. "They didn't see their signs here and they asked if they could put some up."

Usually, Samlidis said, the deli takes down such signs after a few days. Nolan and Lemos stop by often enough, though, that they're kept in the window.

"We make our customers happy," she said. "As long as they keep coming here, we'll keep them up."

Not that a sign or two will provide much help for Lemos, admit her supporters.

"It's an uphill battle for Republicans," said Ray Murry, commander of Sunnyside's chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and a volunteer on Lemos' campaign.

State Assembly District 37, which contains Sunnyside, boasts an overwhelmingly Democratic electorate. About 80 percent of the registered voters -- 28,327 residents -- are registered Democrat, and in 1998, about 10,600 of the voters gave the nod to Nolan, while her Republican challenger tallied 2,625 votes, 2,000 less than the number of blank or void ballots.

"It's not really a race people are talking about," Murry said. "There's no issue that's captivated the voters. I don't think people are really thinking about it."

This lack of campaigning seems endemic to the area. For example, a local weekly called the Woodside Herald, which covers much of District 37, contains no political ads, while the western Queens edition of the Queens Chronicle has only one, for Garafalia Christea, the Right-to-Life candidate challenging incumbent Joseph Crowley for his Congressional seat.

In an article running next to the ad, Christea said she is challenging Crowley, an anti-abortion Democrat, on "his commitment to the pro-life movement."

"He isn't pro-life. He claims to be," she told the paper, adding that if he was truly pro-life he would make "legislative moves to support the cause."

"I do not consider myself a professional politician," she said. "I'm an activist."

The abortion debate isn't likely to drive voters to the polls, said Rita Manton, director of volunteers for the Sunnyside Community Center.

"I don't think there really are any hot issues," Manton said. "The seniors will be out voting because they always vote, but there's nothing really driving people to the polls."

And those familiar with seniors said the older voters are committed to the local Democratic ticket.

"They might split their vote on the federal level," said Rich McGrade, assistant director of the Sunnyside Senior Center. "Some of them don't like Gore, and even traditional Democrats might not support (Senate candidate) Hillary (Clinton)," he said. "Older voters have a hard time understanding how she's put up with what she has."

Republican Senate hopeful Rick Lazio, he said, stirs maternal instincts in some of the center's clients, he said. "They see him as a nice young boy," McGrade said. "And they see him as a New Yorker. He can talk about the Brooklyn Dodgers."

On the local level, though, votes come down to personality and party affiliation.

"Cathy Nolan comes to the center all the time," said Lillie Navarro, a volunteer at the Sunnyside Senior Center. "Even when it's not election time. I don't think I've seen anyone else. Very seldom do we get Republicans visit."

Like most of her friends, Navarro said, she plans on voting a straight Democratic ticket come Tuesday.

"I've been a Democrat since I was five years old," she said. "My parents were Democrats and my grandparents. Of course I'll vote Democrat."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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