Costa Constantinides would take climate crisis fight to Borough Hall

Councilmember Costa Constantinides is running for Queens borough president after spending several years focused on combating the climate crisis.  Eagle  photo by Jonathan Sperling.

Councilmember Costa Constantinides is running for Queens borough president after spending several years focused on combating the climate crisis. Eagle photo by Jonathan Sperling.

By Jonathan Sperling

(Updated September 17, 2019): This story has been updated with information about Constantinides’ official campaign announcement.

Parts of New York City, including a swath of Queens, could be permanently underwater within the next century, as sea levels rise due to the climate crisis.

That’s the stark reality that Western Queens Councilmember Costa Constantinides has fought to reverse throughout his five years representing District 22. 

Constantinides formally declared his candidacy for borough president in a video posted on his campaign’s social media channels Tuesday morning, after filing a “COSTA 2021” committee for an undisclosed position. He’s raised more than $110,000 as of July 2019, according to New York State Board of Elections records

“I feel like this office has a lot of untapped potential when it comes to capital dollars, land use, to having more diverse community boards. There’s so much this office can do and I’m looking forward to it,” Constantinides told the Eagle via phone call following his announcement.

Constantinides, an Astoria native and chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection, has made climate change his core issue since his election in 2013. In the past few months he has called on major TV networks to host a Democratic presidential candidate climate forum in Queens, proposed building a wastewater treatment plant on Rikers Island and led the charge on the passage of the city’s Climate Mobilization Act

After Borough President Melinda Katz’s victory over public defender Tiffany Cabán in the Democratic primary for Queens district attorney, political observers have turned their attention to the borough president’s office — a position that would open up if Katz defeats the Republican nominee, Joe Murray, in the November general election. Should Katz win her bid for DA, the mayor would call a special election for Queens borough president sometime in February or March of 2020.

“You should have an active role in leading the borough. That’s your job. It shouldn’t be only a cheerleader,” Constantinides told the Eagle at a café in Astoria last month.  “I’ve had some people tell me that ‘you’re too much of a policy wonk to be borough president, because it’s a not a policy-driven job.’ I completely disagree with that. You have a seat at the table as the leader of the borough to work with the state, the city and the federal government.”

“Why wouldn’t you take an active role in policy and lay out a vision for the borough of Queens on transportation, on healthcare, on jobs, on education, on sustainability/resiliency, on diversity and protecting immigrant neighbors?” he added.

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Constantindes’ face lit up when speaking to the Eagle about his home borough. He cracked an occasional dad joke and veered off-topic every so often to mention his stint as an assistant manager at a Kay Bee Toys, or to describe how he met his wife on Steinway Street.

But on the topic of climate change and borough-focused environmentalism, his demeanor turns solemn. 

“Climate change is the challenge of our generation. If you look at the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report, if you look at every metric, even Donald Trump’s own report, we have 12 years to make a difference,” he said. “We have 12 years to ensure that the Queens that my son and all of our sons and daughters inherit is the Queens that we know and love.”

The report discusses the dire impact of 1.5- to 2-degree Celsius global temperature increase, including brutal heat waves, extreme drought and flooding.

“We’re talking about the worst of the climate impact, the times when the Rockaways disappear, when heat is going to kill thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers,” he said. “We’re going to have climate refugees from communities who can ill-afford to move. We need a borough president that’s going to preserve Queens in the way that we all know Queens and love Queens.”

But Constantinides’ borough president aspirations revolve around more than just the climate crisis. He has also expressed interest in diversifying community boards by making the application process more transparent, a goal that he said takes on greater importance in the city’s most diverse borough.

He said several issues currently affecting Queens, like a lack of bike lanes, can be solved by diversifying the borough’s community boards. Several local community boards have resisted the implementation of new bike lanes boroughwide. 

“Being the most diverse borough should not be a talking point, it should be an action item,” Constantinides said.

On the matter of land use, Constantinides said that the borough president’s office should act as a “clearing house,” especially in regard to transportation. He questioned why the borough president’s office had not yet come up with a boroughwide transportation needs plan that they could present to the city, state and federal government.

While the Amazon deal roiled Western Queens and inspired fierce denunciations from some local lawmakers, Constantinides did not initially condemn the deal outright, though he had reservations.

“I hope we take this opportunity to treat these negotiations as a partnership, one where the interests of our communities come first and not giveaways to a multi-billion dollar corporation,” he said in a statement after the deal was announced in November 2018.

By the beginning of 2019, however, Constantinides called the deal a “disaster from the start.”

“New York City has long-standing processes in place to ensure that any project — from a sidewalk cafe to a corporate headquarters — considers the community’s needs. Our objections were never answered and we rightfully opposed this bad deal. Today is the natural result of plugging your ears to the legitimate concerns of the people and bypassing them in favor of corporations," Constantinides said in a statement Feb. 14.

As the leader of District 22, Constantinides represents Rikers Island, which is technically located in the Bronx. 

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He declined to say whether he supports the city’s current community jails plan, which was approved by the City Planning Commission earlier this month. However, Constantinides was adamant that Rikers “has to close.”

“I think there’s a moral, social imperative for Rikers to close,” he said, noting the cost of transportation to and from the island. “They talk about it being a Bronx territory, but let’s be real — every person that comes on and off Rikers Island has to come through Queens.”

Constantinides, a Democratic district leader, would not say whether he would seek the endorsement of the Queens County Democratic Party. He also said he has worked “really well” with the Democratic Socialists of America in passing the Climate Mobilization Act, though he wouldn’t say whether he would seek or accept their nomination either. 

“I’m going to take this to the voters,” he said. “The people who make the final decision are going to be the people in the ballot box.”

This story is part of a series on borough president candidates.