Two years ago, Bob Holden led the residents of Maspeth, Queens, in fighting City Hall. For four months he and other members of the largely white, quasi-suburban community picketed a Holiday Inn that the city had sought to turn into a temporary homeless shelter, bearing signs decrying Mayor Bill de Blasio as “the dope from Park Slope”; protesters were then bused to the Brooklyn home of Steven Banks, head of the city’s Department of Social Services, for nighttime demonstrations. Juniper Berry, the local magazine of which Holden was the managing editor, printed article after article calling the de Blasio administration “shameless propagandists” responsible for an “unending stream” of homeless people.
About a year later, Holden was elected to the City Council, beating incumbent Elizabeth Crowley by about a hundred votes despite being outspent two to one. When the results came in on election night, Holden’s supporters chanted “Ding, dong, the witch is dead!” (The headline in the Juniper Berry was “How David Unseated Goliath.”)
Upon taking office, though, Holden found himself working directly on the issue of homelessness with his old nemeses, Banks and de Blasio. And he now says that, despite himself, he found that they weren’t so bad after all.
“I tried not to like him, I really did,” says Holden of de Blasio. “I told him, straight, ‘I didn’t want to like you,’ because I felt he was attacking my neighborhood, rather than benefiting it. But then I did like him. He has good intentions.” Holden previously accused de Blasio of “shoving [shelters] down our throats,” while de Blasio said of Holden that “we don’t share values.”
The issue of homelessness, Holden found, is more complicated than he thought. And though he doesn’t take back the things he said about the Holiday Inn shelter, he’s now working with Banks to find a location for a shelter in his district, after essentially staking his campaign on opposition to it.
“Those guys have a really hard job,” he now says of DHS employees. “They could work on communication a little bit, but they have good intentions.” (In a statement to the Voice, Banks says his conversations with Holden so far have been “encouraging and helpful.”)
The change of heart may seem surprising for a decades-long neighborhood gadfly like Holden, but it’s not entirely unexpected. The city’s outer boroughs are filled with prominent NIMBYs who rage at community board meetings about how city government and developers are encroaching on their neighborhoods’ right to be left alone. These neighborhood advocates can be very influential in their own district, but it’s rare that they can muster the campaigning muscle to end up on the City Council. And when outsiders like Holden do make it to City Council, they find it’s not much of a place for gadflies.
For the first few months, Holden says, he played on his phone in the City Council lounge while his peers chatted it up all around him. “Nobody wanted to say two words to me,” he tells the Voice in an interview at his district office. “I still don’t really feel like I belong there, in City Hall. I feel much more comfortable out here.”
Despite its focus on day-to-day things like parking permits and stove safety, the council remains a political body. Its leaders frequently throw their weight against the mayor and the governor on citywide problems like public housing and the subway; in May, Speaker Corey Johnson dragged de Blasio kicking and screaming toward a deal for subsidized subway fares, and members of the powerful Investigations Committee have taken the lead on addressing mismanagement at NYCHA. Council meetings typically begin with the breezy passage of largely symbolic resolutions calling on Albany and Washington to take this or that action on various issues, and numerous councilmembers keep one eye on higher office: Tish James, for instance, went on to become the city’s Public Advocate, and is now a frontrunner in the race for state attorney general.
Holden, by his own admission, doesn’t care much about any of that. “I’m not a politician,” he says. “I’m not going to praise people; I don’t care about getting elected to another office. I’m knowledgeable on things about the neighborhood — that’s what I’ve been doing for thirty years, that’s it.”
All the other councilmembers already knew each other when he arrived, Holden says, even the newcomers. He realized later that his peers had spent years working as chiefs of staff for each other’s predecessors, or had bonded over long hours in the Democratic clubs of Brooklyn and the Bronx. But Holden has never held public office before, or worked for anyone who has; he spent those same years fighting what he saw as neighborhood nuisances.
Nor does he have deep political connections: He’s a registered Democrat, but he ran for the council as a Republican; he’s now labeled a Democrat on the council website, but the Queens GOP honored him in May at a gala also attended by Trump goon Roger Stone. His family has donated four times as much to Republican candidates as it has to Democratic candidates over the past decade.
When he sat down for the first time with Johnson, Holden says, the first thing Johnson asked him was whether he was a Republican or a Democrat. “I’ve been a Democrat longer than you’ve been alive,” Holden replied; he says Johnson didn’t seem totally convinced.
If Holden’s political allegiances are difficult to pinpoint, that may be because his district’s allegiances are, too. The councilmember’s lifelong neighborhood of Middle Village has long been considered one of the NIMBY capitals of New York City. Like the nearby communities of Maspeth and Glendale, it’s mostly white, and full of single-family homes on sedate streets with ample parking and little access to public transit. Even the slightest changes cause concern, with residents having expressed public outrage in recent years over illegal home conversions, noise from an arts venue, and bioswales on their sidewalks.
Holden’s opposition to Crowley, the Democratic councilmember he defeated last fall, was based less on questions of ideology than on what he considered her failure to protect the neighborhood from outside incursions, foremost among them the Maspeth shelter and the borough-based jails that would replace Rikers Island if it were closed. (Crowley, along with the neighborhood’s other elected officials, opposed the shelter as well and even sued the city over it, but ultimately conceded she could do nothing to stop it.)
He “campaigned like a civic leader, not a politician,” he says. But when he showed up at the City Council, he discovered that everyone still wanted to treat him like a politician.
Six months later, Holden still feels a sense of distance between himself and his peers. In almost every photo op taken at City Hall, he can be found at the back of the scrum, looking nervous and a little out of place; before meetings he sometimes roves the chamber by himself while other members shoot the breeze in small groups. Even by the sometimes lackadaisical standards of the City Council, his speaking seems to command less attention.
Holden had big plans for his first bill. In late May, he introduced legislation to have the city study the cost of renovating the Rikers Island jail where it is, rather than closing it, as Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to do.
But when his turn came to speak at a council meeting in late May, he never got off the ground. Such meetings are notorious for long-winded speeches, but his lasted only ten seconds.
“I call on a commission to examine the cost of renovating jail facilities on Rikers Island relative to the cost of borough-based jails,” he began. “This—”
“Thank you,” said Democratic Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo from the dais.
“Okay,” said Holden, looking up. “You’re cutting me off.”
“Congratulations on the introduction of your new bills,” said Cumbo, laughing.
“Okay,” said Holden. Cumbo called on the next member. And that was that.
His fellow members of the Criminal Justice Committee didn’t seem to know what to make of the Rikers bill. In a statement to the Voice, Keith Powers of the Upper East Side notes that the council already reviews spending on Rikers every year. Alicka Ampry-Samuel, a first-year councilmember who represents Brownsville, says the problems with Rikers go far beyond the age or cost of the facilities, noting that the jail is difficult for families to access and that it clusters far too many inmates in one place.
“I’m not really sure this gets to the heart of the issue with Rikers, which is that we need to find a different way of treating people in the criminal justice system,” she tells the Voice, noting that she, Powers, and Holden toured Rikers together earlier this year.
Ampry-Samuel adds that, despite their disagreement, she admires Holden’s passion for his neighborhood. “I love that he asks so many questions for his district,” she says. “We’re all trying to figure this out, and I know he’s trying to do what’s right for Queens.”
Holden believes the cold shoulder he initially received from some councilmembers was the result of Crowley trying to avenge her loss. When he showed up to be sworn in, he says, he could immediately tell that she had spoken to many of his peers and encouraged them to ostracize him from informal meetings and conversations. (He missed the two-day training for new members because his race was still up in the air at that time.)
“I was being excluded deliberately,” he says. “People told me that she went in there before I took office and poisoned the water. They said, ‘We thought you were this crazy, angry guy’ — she labeled me ‘Angry Bob.’” He also believes that Crowley’s cousin Joe, the giant of New York politics recently taken down by 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, flexed the muscle of the Queens machine against Holden as well. (Holden says he and Joe used to be friends, though, and that he attended Joe’s wedding in 1998.)
(Reached for comment, a spokesperson for Elizabeth Crowley denies that she intervened against Holden: “Maybe it’s his own paranoia, or maybe [other councilmembers] have seen Bob Holden’s actions prior to his taking office, including protests of public schools being built and racist protests against homeless families. In a body as diverse as the council — one that is led by an openly gay, HIV-positive speaker — I’m sure Bob has no trouble making enemies all on his own.”)
Holden’s allies on the council demur when asked whether he’s been excluded intentionally, but they do emphasize that his background as a civic leader distinguishes him from many of his more political colleagues.
“He’s someone who understands the needs of his constituents,” says Mark Gjonaj, a councilman from the Bronx who cosponsored the Rikers bill. “I think everything for him comes back to the neighborhood, and I think other people are starting to understand that.”
Kalman Yeger, a first-year councilmember representing Borough Park, Brooklyn, says he sympathizes with Holden’s focus on “homeowner-centric, quality-of-life issues” like illegal curb cuts. Yeger was elected as a Democrat last year, but emphasizes that his district and Holden’s are both fairly conservative.
“I recognize there is some discomfort by members of my party that think it’s strange he was elected on a Republican line, but in my neighborhood that’s not unheard of,” says Yeger. “For a very long time he was doing volunteer work in civics, listening to people’s problems, and I think there is a contrast with other members in that respect. He’s providing a service for his community, and he’s not concerned about what’s next — that’s refreshing.”
Sal Albanese, a former councilmember from Bay Ridge and three-time candidate for mayor, believes the outsider perspective Holden brings to the council can be useful. During his time on the council, Albanese — also a Democrat from a conservative area — was an inveterate critic of city leadership, casting the sole vote against what he calls the “coronation” of Peter Vallone as the body’s first speaker.
“You have to get past that feeling of being on the outside,” says Albanese. “But then you can be very effective. You’re going to get left out of important conversations; they’re not going to call you in for meetings. But you can still build public pressure and advance an agenda.”
Albanese says that councilmembers’ ambitions for higher office make them “cozy up with Big Real Estate, with lobbyists, with people who are going to give them money,” which compromises their integrity. “I never did that — which is obvious, because I haven’t been successful in seeking higher office.”
When he ran for mayor, Albanese spoke to Holden’s civic association and was impressed by his “grassroots support” at the neighborhood level. He thinks Holden is qualified for the mantle of Council Outsider, but wishes he’d focus more on the bigger picture than on neighborhood-level annoyances.
“I think he could really be one of the premier voices on the council,” says Albanese, “but he’s got to focus more on the macro-level issues, take on stuff that’s really essential.”
Holden’s constituents, though, seem to appreciate his focus on the little things. Residents interviewed in Juniper Park, the central green of Middle Village, almost uniformly decline to give their names, saying that the neighborhood is very close-knit (“I don’t want to get blackballed,” one woman said), but praise Holden’s opposition to the Holiday Inn shelter and his attention to small details like potholes and sewer breaks. (“Better than that piece of shit Crowley,” one man pontificates.)
“He seems very community-conscious,” says John Finneran, a retiree who formerly worked in insurance. “He’s been very responsive thus far, and he’s paid attention to the little things, which you can’t say of everyone.” Finneran recalls that when a pile of lead-contaminated soil was discovered in a construction zone near a school in April, Holden took swift action to get it removed.
Holden cited his crusade against the lead soil as a defining moment of his time as councilmember. When he found out about it, he says, he “couldn’t sleep for days” and called every elected official he could.
“I spoke to half a dozen elected officials about problems at this school,” he says, “and I would be talking to them, and I would see that I’m losing them — their eyes are glazing over. I’m thinking to myself, either it’s common, or they just don’t give a shit.”
Holden himself seems most comfortable when he’s talking to people who share these sensibilities. In a few recent question-and-answer sessions with his constituents, he promised to catch and prosecute residents who are illegally converting single-family homes to two-family ones, a “plague” for which he plans to introduce a bill.
At these conversation sessions, no concern is too small: He and the gathered constituents went back and forth about bootleg roof repairmen and congestion on a particular avenue. Everyone there, of course, was a NIMBY: They love their neighborhood, and they want to keep it just the way it is. That’s what Holden’s worked for most of his life to do, and what he’s still doing, even if it earns him the ire of those who have loftier aims.
“My grandfather worked a farm in this neighborhood,” he says, “and my mother was born 94 years ago, around the corner from where I live now. I’ve spent decades in the trenches at Community Board meetings on weeknights. They go on for hours.”
He goes on: “And you know what? No one else on the council can say that — none of them. At first I felt out of place, but I was duly elected. I deserve to be here.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 9, 2018