New York: Fifth District|
Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D)
Last Updated June 11, 1999
The North Shore of Long Island is ''Gatsby country,'' where peninsulas jutting out into the Sound are covered with vast green lawns leading to the mansions of America's great capitalists. Nineteenth Century millionaires commuted by steam yacht from Manhattan to their estates in what now is Queens or Nassau County. In the early 20th Century the richest people in business and entertainment spent their leisure time here, playing croquet while their servants unloaded bootleggers' boats at their private docks during Prohibition. Inland, behind the expansive lawns, Long Island was still farm country, with little villages clustered at railroad stations, occasional colonial era houses, and acres of billboard-strewn wasteland on the highways to New York City. But The City grew out. Affluent neighborhoods developed in Douglaston and Bayside on the water, just beyond the middle-class Flushing area of Queens inland. The Great Neck peninsula became a very affluent, mostly Jewish suburb. Farther out, on Sands Point and Oyster Bay, old estates alternated with more modest homes, originally built for servants, and newer subdivision mansions. Further east, in Suffolk County, affluent subdivisions grew up on hilly land above the bays and points.
The 5th Congressional District ties together a disparate collection of New York City neighborhoods and suburbs on or within a few miles of the North Shore. At several points the district is connected across open water, and anyone wishing to traverse its boundaries from one end of it to the other better be a good swimmer. About one-third of its votes are cast in Suffolk County, where the political leanings are conservative on cultural and economic issues. In the middle, with about one-quarter of the votes, are the North Shore communities of Nassau: the Jewish areas Democratic and liberal, the WASPy areas Republican but also culturally liberal. Half the district's population and about 40% of its voters are in the borough of Queens. Here along the Sound are the affluent double-house Bayside neighborhood, and higher-income Douglaston and Little Neck, next to the Nassau border--all Republican territory. A few blocks inland is Flushing, an old Dutch settlement from the 17th Century, with the Queens numbered-street grid superimposed on old Dutch trails; once heavily Jewish, this has become one of the biggest Chinese (mostly Taiwanese) communities in the country. The 5th also goes south almost to the Long Island Expressway, to pleasant homeowner neighborhoods like Fresh Meadows and Oakland Gardens. But even here, far from Manhattan and in relatively affluent areas, there are plenty of high-rises.
The congressman from the 5th District is Gary Ackerman, a Democrat first elected in a March 1983 special election. Ackerman grew up in Flushing, taught junior high school, ran an advertising agency, started the weekly Queens Tribune in 1970 and sold it to publisher Jerry Finkelstein in 1978. That same year he was elected to the New York Senate, where Democrats seem permanently in the minority. He won his seat in the House, from a district centered in the heavily Jewish apartment complexes in central Queens. Ackerman is a colorful character, who always wears a white carnation and lives on a houseboat in Washington (the Unsinkable II, successor to the Unsinkable I, which sunk); he hosts an annual ''Taste of New York'' fundraiser, featuring pastrami sandwiches and stuffed cabbage, with waiters imported from New York. Acerbic but humorous, he is a pungent speaker, with a humor that makes even opponents smile. On the roll call for speaker in January 1995, when he was second in alphabetical order, after Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii voted for Dick Gephardt, Ackerman said, ''Move to close the roll!'' During the impeachment inquiry debate, frustrated by time limits, he rose and said, ''I move that when the House adjourn, we do so to Salem, a quaint village in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts whose history beckons us thence.''
Ackerman has a solidly liberal voting record and a penchant for taking on worthy but usually neglected causes. When Democrats were in control, he was active on the International Relations Committee, devoting much attention to rescuing Ethiopian Jews and relieving government-caused famines in Ethiopia and Sudan. In October 1993 he chaired the Asia and the Pacific Subcommittee and was one of the few Americans ever to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung. On AIDS issues he has joined with Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn (''one of the leaders of those people we used to call wackos,'' he said) to pass the 1996 ''Baby AIDS'' bill requiring HIV testing of newborns and disclosure of the results to the mother; the bill also bars insurers from terminating coverage because of AIDS test results. This measure had been opposed by Manhattan liberals, although many HIV-positive newborns can be saved if identified in time; it took some courage for Ackerman to brave the wrath of New York's left wing. He and Coburn worked to stop the Center for Disease Control from opposing this and got into the October 1998 omnibus bill $10 million to assist states in AIDS testing.
Ackerman has also looked after North Shore issues. He has opposed the inane postal regulation that requires Queens zip codes to be labeled only Jamaica, Long Island City, Flushing or Far Rockaway rather than the dozens of other community names or simply Queens. He got $5 million for the Glen Cove waterfront, an additional $500,000 for the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, government-financed housing in East Northport (despite some local opposition) and helped to save the 200-year-old Coast Guard station at Easton's Neck from closing. He sought to open PX stores to veterans with disabilities of less than 100% and to keep open the East Garden City INS office. He has opposed the flag-burning amendment, criticized Pete Hoekstra's investigation of labor unions, and sought money to track down whether elderly German immigrants were Nazi war criminals.
The 1992 redistricting switched Ackerman to this less Democratic North Shore district in which two other incumbents also lived. But both retired, and Ackerman has made this a safe district. He won the primary in 1992 by just 60%-40% over consultant Hank Morris's mother and the general by just 52%-45% over a Republican who carried Suffolk County. In 1994 Republican Grant Lally spent heavily and held Ackerman to a 55%-43% victory; in 1998 Lally was fined $280,000 for having used his father's assets as his own. Ackerman beat Lally in 1996 and a retired New York policeman who had been working as ''Mr. Mom'' in 1998 by nearly 2-1 margins. Redistricting after the 2000 Census may pose a threat, since Ackerman has few friends in Albany and this long, thin district could easily be sliced up among its neighbors; the head of Governor George Pataki's New York City office ostentatiously moved into Great Neck in 1998. But Ackerman has survived tough threats before.
Safe. Although he had a couple of tight races in the early 1990s when his district was heavily altered, Ackerman has made himself a safe seat here, unless, of course, redistricting changes this seat once again in 2002.
- Pop. 1990: 581,073
- 0.8% rural;
16% age 65+;
- 84.2% White,
0.1% Amer. Indian,
7% Hispanic origin;
62.3% married couple families;
26.5% married couple fams. w. children;
57.7% college educ.;
median household income: $50,103;
per capita income: $24,296;
median gross rent: $604;
median house value: $256,900.
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