Still Crazy After All These Years
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
Gary Ackerman: Still Crazy After All These Years
I’ve known Gary Ackerman since the flood — the flood of Castle
newspapers he spread throughout the Queens College Campus in 1962 or was
We went to school together, although I was much younger –
still am. Paul Simon, the poet/singer of our generation, was in Queens
College back then too. I’ve borrowed the headline of this column from
Paul... it just seemed to fit perfectly for me.
Gary and I have been friends ever since Queens College.
We’ve attended each other’s family celebrations up until a month ago
when Gary’s son Corey was married the same day as my daughter Allison
was Bat Mitzvahed. Gary’s daughter Lauren is locking in her Shea
Stadium wedding date early so that I can share in that one. Put simply:
we’re longtime, very good friends with great affection for each other.
We’ve been politically connected at the hip — before his
surgery. As a matter of fact, I managed and/or served as his campaign
chairman when he was first elected to the State Senate in 1978, first
elected to Congress in ’83 and several times thereafter, including his
last redistricting battle of 10 years ago.
business partners since I took over the Tribune from him in 1979.
Our business relationship has seen a couple of changes as the Tribune
grew and was sold and Gary also grew — in Congress. But both of us are
invested in this newspaper, both financially and spiritually. In
addition to our friendship and political simpatico, our commitment to
providing quality community journalism to the people of Queens unites
Trib/PRESS Publisher Michael Schenkler and
his friend Congressman Gary Ackerman in a photo taken a little
Sharpton and Schenkler... one of them changed the spelling? Both
caricatures – the one of the Rev. Al Sharpton which was part
of the cartoon that appeared on this page two weeks ago and the
weekly logo of Trib Publisher and columnist Mike
Schenkler – are the handiwork of our distressed Not 4 Pub
cartoonist, Dom Nunziato. We were wondering if perhaps there is
a family connection between the men pictured who use words to
get a reaction.
Gary and I are a team; there is a wonderful camaraderie
between us. My apologies to the Republican who runs against him — you
ain’t got a chance. Although this paper always tries to be open-minded
and fair, how can you be better for the people of Queens, the City, the
nation or the world than a person like Gary Ackerman? It’s a tough
task and there are not many up to it.
Now, if I don’t sound objective, I’m probably not. But
when I put on my interview hat, I can still ask pretty probing
questions. That’s just what I did on Monday afternoon when Gary came
Actually I did more for this planned interview.
Both Gary and I have credentials as teachers and journalists;
so I decided to use the interview session as a learning laboratory for
four young reporters. Although I carried much of the interview, they
were each told, in advance, to prepare a tough question for the
Congressman, take notes and write a 350-word story.
I’m going to edit and excerpt from their four stories in
order to tell the story of Monday’s interview.
The following is a composite of the stories written by:
Angela Montefinise, Susan Lee, Ben Abelson and Shams Tarek.
is the Key for Local Congressman
The process of redistricting has left carnation-wearing
Congressman Gary Ackerman with 200,000 new Queens constituents and the
largest Asian population of any Congressional district in the mainland
United States – and the man who praises equality in all aspects
couldn’t be happier about it.
A decade after the remappers moved his district east and
stretched it along the north shore through Nassau all the way to Suffolk
County, they have used the latest census figures to bring the Queens kid
Ackerman, who was the son of a taxicab driver and climbed the
ranks to become a Congressman, stopped by the offices of the Tribune –
the paper he founded – and its sister paper the PRESS
this week. Ackerman is spending more time in Queens to help get
“reacquainted” with his new constituents and, he ended up discussing
everything from benefits for illegal immigrants to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict; from the need for campaign finance reform
to his opinion that the word “God” should be taken out of the Pledge
Ackerman voted “present” instead of supporting a House of
Representatives resolution disagreeing with a court decision that said
“God” didn’t belong in the pledge.
It was “a feel-good kind of thing” for Congress, Ackerman
said, a sort of chest-thumping exercise, he implied, when he actually
stood and performed the motion. The
pledge “should be an independent decision, not a government one”
according to Ackerman, and in his personal opinion, the word “God”
should not be present. “If
you want to believe in God, that’s wonderful…that’s choice.
Under the law you don’t have to say the pledge…[but] I
don’t know many kids who’d do that.”
One common theme in every subject Ackerman discussed was his
belief in equal representation for all people, something he said he will
take to his new district which has a “majority minority” population,
if its Asians, Hispanics and blacks are added together.
All it takes to succeed in America is a little elbow grease,
an education and tons of hard work, according to Ackerman, the almost
20-year incumbent of the 5th District
The main reason that so many people do not succeed, and are
trapped on the bottom of America’s economic scale, is that “those
people aren’t as motivated, and that’s the real problem of our
blamed this lack of motivation on a society that “turns a blind eye”
to the poor.
While Ackerman took a strongly libertarian stance on the
pledge, he echoed a classically liberal notion of upward social mobility
when the topic changed to that of individual success. “When you have a system that gives everybody the
opportunity…if you work, really hard…you can really become anything
you want to become,” he said.
Ackerman himself grew up in public housing in Brooklyn and
Queens, before deciding to attend Queens College after his dad told him
it was free. This was one
of the major opportunities in his life, he said, and he stressed the
importance of education as the avenue to success.
“When you have a system giving everyone an opportunity to
become the very best they can become without the constraints or limits
according to religion or economic status,” success is not far,
according to Ackerman. But
the Congressman, when pressed, conceded that America faces innate
challenges in areas like campaign finance reform and wealth
Although Ackerman, who is a senior member of the House
International Relations Committee and the ranking Democrat on the
International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia,
said he is ready to take over the new district, he did criticize the
process of creating minority seats through redistricting. He said,
“America has to mature to the point where we see more than the shapes
of people’s eyes and the color of their pigmentation.” He added of
ethnicity, “We should discount all of that,” but that the way to do
that is to, “have more people speaking the same language, and I
don’t mean English, I mean the language of humanity, the language of
inclusiveness, and the language of opportunity.”
Ackerman believes the system works even in the face of
poverty, whether his own – he worked two jobs just to pay for his
books in college – or his constituents’.
He discussed benefits for illegal immigrants, saying that
“it’s essential” to provide basic services to all people. “We
don’t provide those services based on pedigree . . . The whole thing
is stupid. Why would you not inoculate a child? This is the humane part
of our society.”
Ackerman asserts immigration is good for the economy and for
the public good but has some practical concerns.
“I’m in favor of immigration but we also need rules,”
he said. “We have to have
some rules and regulations in America, or the world would empty out
here. But “national
security” is an excuse being made up by the anti-immigration
“We should be going after the terrorists,” he added.
“If someone wants to come here to be a doctor, I want them here.”
Ackerman even takes the same easy-mannered, practical
American approach to an issue as thorny as the Middle East crisis.
“Israelis and Palestinians both see Jerusalem as their
home,” he said. “Instead
of fighting over the same piece of pie, why not fight over a bigger
piece of pie?”
He proposes – to the initial amusement and later
chin-rubbing of anyone who’ll listen – that Jerusalem be expanded
(even consider air rights), with the newly-apportioned part of the City
given to the Palestinians.
“It’s just a real estate deal,” he said.
And so Gary Ackerman, the teacher turned journalist turned
public servant, shared his thoughts with another generation aspiring to
help mold a new America. He does it well.
Angela had met and written about Gary previously; Susan, Ben
and Shams met him for the first time. They each captured his spirit in
their 350 word efforts. Trib/PRESS editor,
Tamara Hartman, also sat in on the interview.
Although I had not extensively planned for the session with
Gary, it is interesting to see the outcome. It is also interesting to
note that a group of journalists who joined me for the interview of my
friend who represents a majority – minority district, included an
Italian, a Korean, a Jew, a Bengali and a mutt of German/Polish
Gary, welcome back home to Queens.
by Dom Nunziato
Michael Schenkler can be reached at: MSchenkler@queenspress.com