An intriguing City Council race is heating up in the far reaches of Southeast Queens, where special election will be held on November 2.
The six-way race to fill a seat left vacant by late City Councilman Thomas White Jr. pits Sean Bell’s widow Nicole Paultre Bell against a popular Rikers Island jail imam who was caught with an illegal gun in his car this summer. Also in the race are a career politician who is alleged to have tried to punch out his opponent during a prior council bid, an Indian-born Sikh activist, and a local lawyer who may have listed phantom donors on his campaign filings.
Paultre Bell — whose fiance, Sean Bell, was gunned down by police on the morning of his bachelor party in 2006 — has the widest name recognition, but as a complete political novice, she may not have the campaign organization needed to get out the votes. Queens political consultant Steven Stites tells the Voice, “It’s going to be a classic ground game. If you can put the boots on the ground then you can win.” Stites says it’s going to be a very low turnout race, taking place during an off-year. In a race like that, it’s possible that just a couple thousands votes can make the difference.
Bell, who is 26-years-old, does not have a campaign website. The website of her non-profit dedicated to the memory of Sean Bell, “When it’s real, it’s forever,” says nothing about her campaign (The only reference to the campaign is a campaign thermometer spot, which is blank). But Bell may have other obstacles. She recently prevailed in a ballot fight — one of her opponents claimed she did not have signatures to quality for a run. But she still has to move into the Jamaica district by election day. Last we heard, Bell was still living in the Rockaways.
Charles Bilal is a popular African American chaplain who has been working for the Department of Corrections for 22 years. In a race in a district whose power bases are in the black churches, an imam might have trouble, Stites says. But Bilal has other issues. As we first reported last month, city marshalls found an illegal gun in Bilal’s car this summer. Bilal first told an attendant that there wasn’t a gun in the car, which turned out to be untrue. Bilal later said a constituent of his mosque had given him the gun to turn in to a gun buyback program being held at the mosque. The Queens district attorney’s office has told the Voice that no such buyback program took place. Bilal recently told an audience in Queens that his experience on Rikers gives him a unique understanding of how young men get involved in crime.
The two most experienced politicians in the race are the firey Ruben Wills, who has run for the Council before, and Albert Baldeo. Last year Wills’ rival accused him of knocking him to the ground inside the Queens board of elections office. Baldeo is a lawyer who has been involved in various community service projects (Most recently, he gave free legal services to victims of the Haitian earthquake), and has ties to the Congressman Gregory Meeks. The New York Post has recently reported that his donation records are rife with irregularities and include bogus contributions.