Person of the Year: Success after success crowned retired Councilmember Vincent Gentile’s 20 years in public office

January 30, 2018 Helen Klein
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The political landscape in southwest Brooklyn has just dramatically shifted.

After 20 years in the forefront of action across Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bath Beach and Bensonhurst, Vincent Gentile — most recently a city councilmember for 14 years, and previously a state senator for six — has returned to private life, as a result of term limits.

Behind him, Gentile leaves a dramatic legacy of two decades of accomplishment that he savored in a recent interview with this newspaper.

From ensuring funding for universal pre-k in Community School District 20 in his freshman year in the State Senate (1997), well before universal pre-k existed across the city, to legislation designed to crack down on illegal home conversions, signed into law in his last months in the City Council, Gentile has unabashedly fought for his constituents and, by extension, residents of New York City as a whole, during a distinguished career.

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It was a career that — because of his willingness to be everywhere, all the time, wherever he was needed or wanted — early on also saw Gentile dubbed “Senator Everywhere,” a work ethic he carried with him to the City Council.

“I’m blessed to have been in this position for as long as I have been,” Gentile told this paper. “There are great, great, great neighborhoods in Brooklyn. To be elected to represent neighborhoods like these in the Senate and City Council, everyday I was so proud to be the one to represent them.”

His political career actually began while he was still in school. A graduate of McKinley Intermediate School and Fort Hamilton High School, Gentile dipped his toes into the arena when he ran for and became class representative at McKinley while he was in the eighth grade. He followed that up with a successful ninth grade run for president of the student government, before heading to Fort Hamilton where he also became student government president.

“I was voted class politician,” Gentile recalled, adding, “I didn’t start out in public service in the clubhouse. I started out in community service.”

Early on in his fledgling career, the young Gentile became president of the Bay Ridge Community Council (BRCC), an umbrella organization of organizations that dates back to the 1950s and through which many a Bay Ridge or Dyker Heights civic leader has learned the ropes.

Gentile’s career has clearly always been predicated on service. He attended law school and subsequently took a job as an assistant district attorney, prior to making his first run for office, an unsuccessful one, back in 1994, when he challenged then-State Senator Robert DiCarlo, a Republican, for the right to represent the 23rd Senate District (which encompassed portions of southwest Brooklyn and Staten Island) in Albany.

Despite having no money and no name recognition, the young Gentile pulled in 42 percent of the vote in that election, leading Democratic honchos in the area to back him when he decided to try again, two years later.

It was, as he said, a “squeaker,” but in 1996 he garnered 51 percent of the vote in a tense, three-way race, against DiCarlo, who was running on the Conservative Party line, and John Gangemi, Jr., who had pulled an upset in the September primary and snagged the GOP nomination, wresting it away from the incumbent.

While in the Senate minority, Gentile still managed to have an impact for his constituents. His first bill (which was ultimately passed under another senator) was to eliminate the state’s sales tax on clothing and footwear costing less than $110. He also introduced legislation that eased the burden of prescription drug prices on senior citizens, by expanding the state’s EPIC program, and another which expanded eligibility for rent relief for seniors under the SCRIE program.

Gentile ultimately held the Senate seat for three terms, despite spirited challenges in 1998 by former-State Senator Chris Mega, and 2000 by DiCarlo, trying to make a comeback.

Then, as a result of the Census, redistricting happened, and Senate Republicans as the chamber’s majority party drew a new 22nd Senate District that they believed would be favorable to a GOP candidate, cutting off the portion of Staten Island that had been part of the district Gentile represented, and snaking a newly configured district in the opposite direction, through additional portions of Brooklyn up to Gerritsen Beach and Marine Park.

To make up the new 23rd District, the Staten Island portion of the old district was attached to Coney Island, where Gentile was unknown and where he was unlikely to challenge the incumbent Democrat, Seymour Lachman. So Gentile ran in the new 22nd Senate District against another very popular local politician, then-City Councilmember Marty Golden, who defeated Gentile in 2002 in a hard-fought election.

That didn’t stop Gentile, who decided to run, instead, in the February, 2003 special election for the City Council seat Golden had vacated, winning the post in even more of a “squeaker” than his 1996 victory.

In a five-way race, Gentile (one of four Democrats seeking the position) eked out a 31-vote victory over the sole Republican in the race, Rosemarie O’Keefe, former CAU Commissioner under former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, beginning his 14-year career in the Council a month after the special election had been held (with the delay occasioned by the need to count all the paper ballots, an arduous process).

With such a long career, there have been many highlights. Indeed, Gentile arrived at this newspaper’s office for an interview about his time in public office with a seven-page precis of his career that, yet, did not include all of his accomplishments.

What is he most proud of? “That would have to be the down-zoning of both Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton [in 2005], and Dyker Heights [in 2007],” Gentile replied. “I say that for two reasons: how difficult it was to craft — the 246 blocks in Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton was the largest one in Brooklyn history at the time — and also the fact that the down-zoning preserved the contextual character of the neighborhoods. It is going to last long after I’m gone.”

In addition, Gentile cited the 2005 elimination of Sunday parking meters, necessitated when, through an administrative change, the city — under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg — began charging for parking on many strips where previously, the meters had been idle on Sundays, whether or not churchgoers had relied on those once-free parking spots to go to their place of worship.

“I called it my Pay to Pray legislation,” Gentile noted, adding that, to make it law, the bill needed enough Council backing to override a mayoral veto.

In more recent years, Gentile took on another problem that threatened the quality of life in the neighborhoods he represented — illegal conversions, in which one and two-family homes are reconfigured by unscrupulous developers into multi-family dwellings that endanger both their inhabitants as well as first responders, as well as overburdening existing city infrastructure.

A recent law tackling the issue that was authored by Gentile increases the monetary penalties for “aggravated illegal conversions” as well as giving city agencies additional authority with respect to inspections of suspected illegal conversions. His legislation, Gentile said, “Give the city the strongest tools ever to address the problem.”

And, he added, another of his 2017 bills represented “first-time-ever regulation of hookah smoke, by making hookahs part of the Smoke-Free Air Act.”

But a local legislator’s job isn’t only about passing laws; it’s also about bringing home the bacon and, over his career, Gentile did precisely that.

Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Marty Maher “calls me the $40 million man,” Gentile noted, for the amount of money he has brought in for parks in his district [$20 million allocated directly plus “another $20 million leveraged from other players”], adding up to “More money than ever for local parks,” he went on.

This includes a dog run and field lights at Dyker Beach Park, new synthetic turf fields for both St. Patrick’s (on Shore Road) and St. Anselm’s (on Fort Hamilton Parkway) as well as a new synthetic turf soccer field for Dyker Beach Park, plus renovation coming to the tennis courts at Fort Hamilton Parkway and 100th Street, an impending (but fully funded) $4.2 million renovation and rehabilitation of the Shore Road Park field house at 97th Street, and $5.2 million in upcoming renovations for the Fort Hamilton High School field complex.

And, parks were not the only beneficiaries. Over his career in the City Council, Gentile brought back to the district more than $80 million in local funding for capital projects as well as to help non-profit groups and hospitals serving the district.

Gentile also successfully advocated — not once, but twice — for funding to provide the city’s cops with state-of-the art bulletproof vests to replace the older ones that were no longer adequate, a cause he took up after a local police officer, P.O. Anthony Mosomillo, was shot to death in 1998, and took up again after the 2014 shooting deaths of two other officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.

Over the years of his public service, Gentile was one of the loudest voices in favor of returning ferry service to the 69th Street Pier. Early on in his City Council career, he allocated money for a spud barge that would allow ferries to dock at the pier.

While that never came to fruition, his advocacy was not lost on a one-time fellow City Councilmember, now Mayor Bill de Blasio, who attended one of Gentile’s press conferences on the subject. Lo and behold, when citywide ferry service was announced, the pier was on one of the Manhattan-bound routes. “He remembered,” said Gentile.

“Having been an advocate for ferry service for so many years, when I was told by the mayor that Bay Ridge would be one of the stops, I asked him to repeat it,” Gentile recalled. “It was that important to me.”

In addition, Gentile was behind the successful effort to have a school built on the site of the beloved “Green Church,” formally the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church, at Fourth and Ovington Avenues, after the church was torn down for condos that were never built.

“I convinced the Department of Education to make it a school,” Gentile recalled. He also, he said, worked with the School Construction Authority to ensure that the building’s design saluted its predecessor, including the purchase of the original rose window from the sanctuary.

“We didn’t save the church but we kept the lot for public use,” Gentile reflected, “and at least we have a reminder of what used to be at the site.”

While reminiscing, Gentile made a point of citing the relationships he’s built over the years with the district’s older residents whom he hosted for proms and picnics. “They are very special,” he stressed. “They taught me a great deal about perseverance, toughing it out through the bad times and the good times, and they also taught me that seniors have a good time.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he added, though, at 59, Gentile has a ways to go before it’s his turn. What’s up next? His future, he said, “Is uncertain right now. I’m in the process of screening for a possible judicial position but there’s no guarantee, so I’m also looking for other opportunities in public service, which is what I like to do best. Otherwise, I could do private legal work or cross-section with government so if anyone out there has any ideas, please let me know.”

Would he run again for office? “I really don’t have any plans right now but one thing I’ve learned in politics is never say never,” Gentile rejoined.

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