Two years after narrowly defeating 16-year Republican incumbent state Sen. Marty Golden, Democrat Andrew Gounardes is fighting to hold onto his post in one of Brooklyn’s only right-leaning districts.
The race for District 22 — which covers Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonshurst, Gravesend, Gerritsen Beach, and Marine Park — is one of a handful of close races that could decide which party controls the state Senate, which Democrats flipped in 2018.
Gounardes’ opponent, former nightclub owner Vito Bruno, has placed law and order at the center of his campaign, while Gounardes has focused primarily on improving traffic safety and education.
And though Gounardes’ campaign has raked in $942,000 in contributions — over $800,000 more than Bruno’s — local concern about rising crime has fueled Bruno’s candidacy. But where do the candidates stand of a wider range of issues, and what do they hope to accomplish if elected? In interviews with Brooklyn Paper, Gounardes and Bruno broke down their policy positions, accomplishments, and goals.
Gounardes: Prior to running for state Senate in the 2018, Bay Ridge native Andrew Gounardes worked for former Democratic Councilman Vincent Gentile and Borough President Eric Adams. In 2012, Gounardes and now-Councilman Justin Brannan founded non-profit Bay Ridge Cares after a fire displaced five Bay Ridge families, and the non-profit has continued to provide food and funding to locals in need.
Gounardes said that he jumped into the 2018 state Senate race to push forward legislation increasing traffic safety and lowering property taxes.
“In 2018, I saw that our community’s priorities like traffic safety, property taxes, transit funding and much more were being ignored in Albany,” he told Brooklyn Paper. “I wanted to usher in a new kind of politics, based on bringing the community around a shared set of ideals and values.”
Bruno: A Bensonhurst native, Bruno started his career as a nightclub manager and businessman at Bay Ridge’s storied 2001 Odyssey club, which rose to fame after being featured in the film “Saturday Night Fever.” Bruno went on to run a handful of other clubs in clubs in the 1980s, such as AM/PM and the Roxy, before starting an entertainment company, AM/PM Entertainment Concepts.
Bruno turned to politics in 2017, staging an unsuccessful run for borough president on the Republican party ticket, and becoming president of Brooklyn’s Edmund G. Seergy Republican Club. He decided to run against Gounardes because of crime and the city’s hyperpartisanship, he said.
“Without good public safety everything else is affected as well,” he said. “It seems that many politicians only listen to people from their own party nowadays. We need someone who will bring everyone together and work with everyone and help all constituents. I will have an open door policy for everyone.”
Gounardes: In his two years in office, Gounardes has voted in favor of climate legislation, a bill that strengthened benefits and worker protections for 9/11 responders, and legislation extending the look-back period for children who suffered sexual abuse to sue their abusers, among many others. After COVID-19, he wrote and passed a bill to ensure line of duty benefits for the families of public workers who died of the virus — an achievement he said he’s particularly proud of.
“My proudest achievements in the state Senate so far have been my efforts to get first responders the services they are owed,” he said.
If re-elected, Gounardes said he would prioritize passing a package of traffic safety bills to crack down on reckless drivers and lower property taxes. He would also focus on improving the state’s educational system by increasing funding for public schools and making the CUNY system free, he said.
“I will continue to fight for a public transit system that works for everyone, is accessible to all and responsive to the needs of riders,” he said. “I will keep working to pass my bill to give riders a vote on the MTA board.”
Bruno: If elected, Bruno said he would focus on repealing the 2019 bail reform, increasing funding to local schools, and punishing the actors responsible for the high numbers of senior deaths from COVID-19 — presumably nursing homes and the nursing home lobby.
“[I would prioritize] justice for the seniors who needlessly suffered such horrific experiences during the COVID pandemic, and making sure every person and organization behind this shameful debacle is held accountable.”
Bruno clarified that he doesn’t believe all nonviolent offenders should necessarily be held on bail — just violent offenders and repeat offenders who pose a threat to the public. Revisions to the 2019 bail reforms now allow judges to set bail for defendants who commit a crime while out on release for a non-bailable offense, but Bruno believes the revisions should go further.
“We are not talking about onerous bail requirements for first-time non-violent offenders, but we must allow judges to take into account a violent repeat offender who poses a threat to the community,” he said.
Gounardes: Though some right-leaning locals have hammered Gounardes for voting in favor of bail reform in 2019, others have accused him of being in the pocket of developers. One notable accusation alleges that Gounardes struck a backroom deal with the developer of Dyker Heights’ historic Angel Guardian home, which stopped the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) from considering the home’s neighboring convent building for landmark status. Critics points to a $2,250 campaign donation from the developer as evidence.
Gounardes says that he’s remained steadfast in his support for the landmarking of the main Angel Guardian home building, but did not comment on the donation.
“My position on Angel Guardian home has never changed and I have always fought to ensure that the Angel Guardian home will receive landmarked status, which I expect to happen very soon,” he said. “In 2018, I stood with then-Senator Marty Golden, Fran Vella-Marrone and others to fight for the Angel Guardian home to be landmarked. This summer, I sent a letter to the LPC in favor of its landmarking. My opponent did none of those things.”
Bruno: Gounardes has repeatedly hammered Bruno for telling the New York Times in 1983 that he used to pay off cops at this nightclubs, and for accusations in Bob Woodward’s book, “Wired,” that he would fetch drugs for his celebrity friends. He’s also come under fire for anti-Semitic tweets that a campaign volunteer posted praising Hitler, and Facebook posts from his estranged wife disparaging Orthodox Jews.
But Bruno, who has denied Woodward’s claims and said he’s not the same person he was 40 years ago, argued that his estranged wife and campaign volunteer don’t represent his values.
“I ask voters to judge me on myself and my character; I have stood side by side with civil rights groups for decades,” he said. “I strongly condemn anti-Semitism, any racism and bigotry in any form no matter where it comes from. The Gounardes campaign has focused on trying to smear me because they don’t want to talk about the real issues in this race.”
Where to increase and cut state funding
Gounardes: Gounardes said he was proud of the more than $6 million he has secured for a Marine Park playground, a non-profit with educational programs for people with disabilities, a foundation to treat drug addiction, among other social services — and said he would work to increase funding for schools and public transportation if re-elected.
In light of 2020 state budget shortfalls, he would cut some tax breaks for developers and funding for cosmetic renovations, he said.
“We should eliminate tax breaks for luxury developers and MTA vanity projects like re-doing the tiles on a station for millions of dollars when commuters just want cleaner, safer and faster rides,” he said.
Bruno: Bruno said he would prioritize funding for public transit improvements and schools while finding ways to reduce the costs of small improvements, such as park bathroom renovations.
“There is something wrong with government when we are spending $3 million to build a bathroom in a park or tens of millions on retiling a subway station,” he said. “There is a lot of waste in government, and when we weren’t in dire financial straits, it was tolerated, but now we have to look at reigning in wasteful spending.”