‘I Don’t See How He Wins’: A Queens Democrat Sees His Way To City Hall

A year after Donald Trump won the nearby neighborhoods of Middle Village and parts of Forest Hills, voters in their city council district sent a former graphic designer named Robert Holden to city hall. Like Trump, Holden was a Queens-born Democrat with a limited background in politics who was endorsed by the Republican party and notched a surprise win.

“I don’t see how he wins,” Juan Ardila told Bushwick Daily about Holden’s prospects this time around to win re-election in District 30, which also includes parts of Ridgewood, Woodside, and Woodhaven.

A confident 26-year old NYU graduate who’s lived in Maspeth his entire life, Ardila is running against Holden in the election this November and, as he sees it, Holden doesn’t stand very much of a chance at seeing a second term. Ardila won’t mince words about the man whose seat he expects to take and who he labels a “far right-wing extremist.”

The arrest last week in Queens of a self-identified ‘Proud Boy’ accused of stockpiling ammunition and plotting to execute Democratic politicians speaks to the kind of people that Holden represents, Ardila added. Eduard Florea, the 40-year-old software engineer nabbed by the FBI, lives only blocks away from Holden’s Middle Village home. Like the alleged extremist the FBI found posting in Ridgewood, Florea had been a vocal online supporter of the rioters who showed up at Capitol Hill earlier this month and this, Ardila said, seems indicative of the mindset of the typical Holden voter in the district.

“[Holden] represents the same folks that went to riot at the Capitol two weeks ago,” Ardila says.

Ardila calls Holden a “far right-wing extremist” who “nobody can work with.” (image via City Council Office/Bushwick Daily illustration)

Holden’s office did not respond to a request for comment, though he condemned Florea in vague terms to a reporter at the Queens Daily Eagle. (“Anyone who threatens or commits violence, or who is in possession of illegal weapons, should be arrested.”) What Holden, who announced last year he would seek re-election in a video posted to his Facebook page, does have working against him is the disappearance of his primary rhetorical rival: outgoing Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who has occupied ample mental real estate during Holden’s short political career. Before he was elected, Holden got his name in press clippings by pulling stunts like gathering a group of angered residents in 2016 to bang on kitchen pots outside the home of a DeBlasio aide. When he did run, Holden also ran on a party line he invented called Dump de Blasio. (“I don’t know the guy, I’ll try and work with him,” DeBlasio told reporters when asked about Holden after his surprise win.)

Also befitting a comparison with the former President, Ardila says that Holden’s personality stands in the way of his capacity to get anything done. (On the matter of Trump, Holden claims to have voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016.)

“Nobody can work with him because of the way he is and because of the way he conducts himself,” said Ardila, who claims that he’s made more friends than Holden in his own time in city politics. After publication, a representative for Holden’s campaign refuted this notion and told Bushwick Daily that “a number of Council Members have said that they enjoy working with Bob and get along with him,” citing numerous supportive tweets by sitting city council members in response to a story by Jake Bittle in Village Voice titled “Life as a City Council Newbie Has Been Rough for ‘Angry Bob’.”

Indeed, though the primaries aren’t until June, Ardila has already racked up endorsements from state senators Jessica Ramos and Michael Gianaris as well as at least one of Holden own colleagues at city hall, the outgoing council member Brad Lander, who represents swathes of southern Brooklyn and is currently running for the comptroller’s office. Before working as a consultant for the New York Department of Education, Ardila worked as a manager at Lander’s office. Ardila tells Bushwick Daily that his “very good relationship” with the person “who I believe will be the upcoming comptroller” will reap dividends for the district. If elected as the city’s chief auditor, Lander would be third-in-line to the mayor’s office.

Most indicative, perhaps, of Holden’s failures during his four years in office, Ardila says, was the opening of the Cooper Avenue homeless shelter last year in nearby Glendale, a charge that may invoke déjà vu to some voters. Back in 2017, Holden launched his run for office by accusing then-incumbent Elizabeth Crowley of not spending enough time at the local protests against the shelters that Holden was busy organizing. But despite elevating Holden to a six-figure salary, the protests have largely been ignored by city hall.

Ardila, curiously, says that he would continue Holden’s project of getting rid of the shelter but believes that he’ll have better luck.

It’s notable that Ardila carefully enchews Holden’s safety-based line against the shelter, which had become a cultural war proxy in Queens community hearings, a battle between “unsafe” Manhattan and an imaginary version of suburban Queens, which Ardila says has been falsely stigmatized “as a white district.” Ardila, in fact, would become the district’s first Latino representative in City Council, and he points to a moving story about his mother facing deportation as a personal catalyst for seeking elected office. (The story ends with his mother getting her green card the same day Ardila filed paperwork to run against Holden.)

Instead, Ardila’s argument against the shelter is that Glendale is too much of a “transit desert” for a shelter there to do anyone very much good.

The site of the contested homeless shelter in Queens in 2018. (via Google Street View)

“I don’t want to say ‘remove the shelter from the district,’ that’s a very cold way to say it,” he admits.

He decides on a different phrasing: “Getting the shelter to no longer be in Glendale is very, very doable and will happen with me behind the wheel.”

What Ardila wants in the district instead is housing. He sees the district’s border in Ridgewood as prime real estate for some of the district’s first public housing projects. Ridgewood, Ardila says, is in the midst of a “gentrification crisis” caused by skyrocketing property values. Hundreds now regularly line up at the food bank across the street from Rosa’s Pizza where Ardila volunteers.

The most concrete of Ardila’s housing proposals is bureaucratic: he says his first legislative priority will be getting a law passed that would legalize renting out additional dwelling units, something California did last year. He cites a study from the Regional Plan Association that claims 100,000 new affordable homes can be legally created by adjusting rental laws in such a way. The legal quirk will also create new jobs for unionized construction workers, he adds.

Holden’s district sits adjacent to districts 34 and 37, which are currently represented by Antonio Reynoso and Darma Diaz respectively (City Council Office)

For his part, Holden is still bashing DeBlasio from the editorial perch of the New York Post to increasingly bizarre results. (“But after ordering the filet mignon and the imported Italian wine, he excuses himself to the restroom and never returns, leaving you with the $95 bill­­ion tab. That’s how it often feels to live in de Blasio’s boroughs,” he wrote of DeBlasio last year.) But an aura of overt hostility feels like a big part of Holden’s appeal and whether Holden remains in office will depend on how much residents want to actively work with the political machine. Shortly after city council passed a law banning police chokeholds following the summer of Black Lives Matter demonstrations, Holden proposed a law repealing that ban. Last year, “approximately 40” of his supporters showed up at a street corner in Maspeth to urge Holden to run for mayor, an event Holden declined to attend.

“A lot of his supporters, the ones he caters to, are a very small population in Middle Village and they’re the ones who are chanting [support for] Trump, bringing back chokeholds, broken windows [policing]” Ardila says.

Ardila adds that he’s unconvinced by one of Holden’s more recent and softer fights, an effort to push city council to create a committee devoted to animal welfare, which Ardila calls “100%” a political masquerade, a notion that Holden’s campaign also disputes, calling this effort “a natural progression of Bob’s lifelong concern for animals.” While he lost the Democratic primary to Crowley in 2017, Holden continues to identify as a Democrat, though Ardila has his doubts: “One minute he’ll say he’s a Democrat, the next he’ll say he’s a Republican. It just shows that he has no ideology and no real values or moral code.”

“He’s trying to cover up what he’s [been] doing for the past four years,” Ardila adds.

Top image from Juan Ardila’s campaign site.

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