When Melinda Katz assumed the role of district attorney on January 6, her deputy borough president, Sharon Lee, stepped in to fill her shoes until a special election to find a permanent replacement could be held.
That special election was supposed to be held on March 24, but the COVID-19 outbreak that has cancelled everything from the NCAA tournament to classes in he nation’s largest school system, has also scuttled the special election.
No makeup date has been set as the city and nation see how the pandemic proceeds, so for the foreseeable future Lee will continue to lead Borough Hall.
“I made a commitment to represent and serve the people and families of Queens to the best of my ability and for as long as necessary, and this commitment still stands,” Lee said in a statement following the suspension. “Government must not and will not shut down.”
So for the time being, councilmen Costa Constantinides and Donovan Richards, former councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, Anthony Miranda, Jim Quinn and Dao Yin will have to be patient and then restart their campaigns once a new election date is set.
It remains to be seen if this will help or hurt a particular candidate. Given the inability to campaign, hold events, or connect with donors and voters due to the directive to “socially distant” ourselves from one another, this will likely just be a pause in the action rather than an opportunity for one of the candidates to gain momentum – or lose it.
Prior to the mayor’s announcement on Sunday, some of the candidates were already calling for the special election to be postponed, given how many polling sites are located in schools and senior centers, home to two of the city’s more vulnerable populations.
But back to Sharon Lee. If you thought she was just going to keep the seat warm until a successor to Katz was chosen, you were sorely mistaken.
During her time in office, Lee has been proactive and in front of the public. She is making appearances before community boards and holding the usual slate of monthly meetings at Borough Hall, from land use hearings to Borough Board meetings.
Likewise, she is weighing in on issues that could have a lasting impact on the borough far after she leaves the temporary post. She recently held hearings and weighed in on the borough’s budget priorities, as well as the proposed jail for Kew Gardens.
And just last week, she made a bold decision on the Special Flushing Waterfront District, a proposal by a trio of developers to make over 29 acres of largely vacant and industrial land, turning it into housing, retail and hotels.
The plan has been controversial, with several heated encounters between members of Community Board 7 and protestors when the board held public hearings and a vote. Police had to be called on several occasions.
Protestors say the affordable housing the project will create is not nearly enough in a neighborhood struggling with affordability issues.
Community Board 7 eventually approved the plan in a near unanimous vote. But last week, Lee refused to throw her support behind the plan in a rare move contradicting the wishes of the board. She agreed with critics that the plan doesn’t go far enough in addressing affordability and infrastructure needs.
That’s a bold decision on a large-scale project for someone who is acting borough president. It could also be seen as a measured decision based on the merits, and not one made by someone who is worried about future fundraising or her ability to get elected to the next office.
And on Sunday morning, before Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the all city schools would be closing, Lee issued a statement defying the mayor’s earlier statements that schools would remain open, issuing a strongly worded message to parents:
“I strongly urge all Queens families, in no uncertain terms, to keep all children home away from school this week.”
She essentially tried to shut down the schools in Queens before the mayor came to that decision on his own, basically setting a course for Queens residents that was different from the rest of the city.
Yes, Lee is doing much more than keeping the seat at Borough Hall warm. In fact, do we even need to hold this special election?