QUEENS — It isn't a coincidence that Melinda Katz chose politics. The 47-year-old candidate for Queens Borough President says she got her first lessons in civic engagement from her parents when she was still a child.
“They had a dream for this borough that no one needed to go over a bridge or under a tunnel in order to get great culture and art,” said Katz, who was raised in Forest Hills and still lives there.
Katz grew up singing, listening to Van Cliburn and Itzhak Perlman and taking piano, trumpet and clarinet lessons. She still sings sometimes at senior centers and Memorial Day parades.
She also sang at Shea Stadium during the seventh-inning stretch.
“I sang twice. They [the Mets] lost both times," she joked. "I never got invited back.”
Forest Hills was a much different place when she was growing up, she said. Part of today’s bustling commercial stretch along Austin Street was not much more than a patch of grass.
Over the years, she has watched the area transform into a vibrant neighborhood, and she has decided to raise her children there, too.
“I’m raising a third generation in the same house,” Katz said.
Her primary goal as borough president, she said, would be to attract as much capital to Queens as possible and to make it affordable for families to live here. Another would be to rebuild the areas destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.
She says that her personal experience sets her apart in the crowded field of candidates running for the office, which now includes city councilmen Leroy Comrie and Peter Vallone Jr.; two state senators, Jose Peralta and Tony Avella; and Barry Grodenchik, a former state assemblyman and a longtime staffer at Queens Borough Hall.
Current Queens Borough President Helen Marshall cannot run for re-election due to term limits.
Katz, who announced her plans to run for last October, has so far raised $283,144, her campaign announced on Tuesday. Peter Vallone Jr. has raised the most of all candidates — more than $1 million.
“I know the job well,” said Katz, who worked at Queens Borough Hall under Claire Shulman. “It’s not like I’m wondering whether I’ll like it or not.”
The fact that there are so many candidates running for the same office proves its importance, she said.
“The borough president needs to bring folks together and fight for the whole borough,” she said, adding that “no particular community should ever feel disenfranchised.”
After growing up in Forest Hills, Katz studied political science at the University of Massachusetts and graduated summa cum laude.
She said shortly before her finals, her father put a $100 deposit down for law school.
“It was one of the last things my father did when he was alive,” said Katz, who followed her father’s wish and earned a law degree from St. John’s University School of Law.
A few years later, she ran for the New York State Assembly and won.
“That was 20 years ago this February,” Katz said.
In the Assembly, she served as chairwoman of the subcommittee on urban health and fought against the privatization of public hospitals, she said. She was also responsible for a bill increasing penalties for domestic abuse.
Later, she went to work for Shulman, the borough president at the time, as a director of community boards, attending meetings around the borough and keeping the president informed about communities’ concerns.
In 2002, she was elected to the New York City Council.
Her tenure on the City Council won her a recent endorsement from former Mayor Ed Koch.
Katz “is the one candidate in the race that raises the level of conversation about balancing economic development with the community in Queens,” Koch said in a statement.
After she lost the Democratic primary for New York City comptroller in 2009, Katz went to work for a law firm, Greenberg Traurig, specializing in land-use issues and government relations.
“But I always loved public service,” she said.
She said she discussed a possible run for the borough president office with her partner, radio personality Curtis Sliwa, and they “decided this is where I want to be.”
Katz and Sliwa may seem an odd couple since Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels, is known for his conservative views.
But Katz said they respect each other’s views and offer one another advice.
“We both have very strong opinions and we are both very outspoken,” she said. “But we resolved many, many years ago that he has his views and public career and I do, too.”
They first met during a rally against a strip club in Forest Hills, where Sliwa came with his wife at the time, Lisa Evers, Katz said.
Then they saw each other again in 1997, when Sliwa went to Albany with his radio crew. Katz, who was an assemblywoman, was fighting to keep rent stabilization laws in place.
They started going out soon after, but their relationship didn’t last, she said.
They reunited years later and are now parents of Carter, 4, and Hunter, who will turn 2 in February.
Sliwa, who, Katz jokes, never takes off his Guardian Angels red beret, has been campaigning with her.
“The one thing that we have in common is public service,” she said. “We are both true believers.”
She said they take their children to many campaign events.
“I need them to understand that this is part of what we do,” she said.
As a mother raising her children in Queens, she said she wants to fight for more school seats and “to make sure that the schools are available and good."
“Pre-K is a huge problem in our district,” she added.
Her goal is also to keep families in the borough.
“Queens is an amazing place,” she said, referring to its mix of cultures and languages and listing the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the Queens Museum of Art, the Queens Theatre in the Park, and the Hall of Science. “We have an amazing amount of stuff to offer.”
Katz hasn’t yet taken a position on Major League Soccer's plan to build a soccer stadium in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.
“I don’t really have enough information,” she said, adding that she fears “the alienation of so much parkland.”
“My job is to make sure that the rest of the city knows what Queens has to offer,” she said. “But just because we are the borough of Queens doesn’t mean that we should accept anything.”