From Old Town Road to City Hall:
City Council Minority Leader James S. Oddo
By Arkadiy Fridman and Lori R. Weintrob
“If there are ten people in a room and one disagrees with me, that’s the one I will engage,” says Republican James S. Oddo about his role as Minority Leader in the New York City Council. For Oddo, every day brings an opportunity to argue passionately, listen carefully and build alliances to benefit his constituents. It’s something you sense immediately and his words back it up without a question: “I’m not gratuitously partisan. I like reaching across the aisle. My concern is to deliver.”
Although the minority caucus of five Republicans is the largest since the mid-1990s, they are overwhelmingly outnumbered on the 51-member legislative body. Elected in 1999, only eight years after graduating New York Law School, Oddo became City Council Minority Leader by 2002. The City Council governs as an equal partner with Mayor Mike Bloomberg. The Republican presence can make itself felt through alliances with centrist Democrats, though there are only few of those too.
Oddo campaigned this past fall on the slogan “Nobody Works Harder” and recently won with nearly 75% of the vote. Oddo’s district, the 50th district, includes mid-Island neighborhoods as diverse as South Beach, Travis and Todt Hill, as well as parts of Bensonhurst. In the wake of this victory, Oddo moved to a new office at 900 South Avenue. And, Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro endorsed him as his successor.
Weintrob: Who were your early role models growing up?
Oddo: My father was a motorman, who drove trains around New York City, working day and night, sometimes at three jobs. He pushed me to get the education I never had. From him, I got my work ethic. My mom was active in the local Democratic party and she passed on her compassion and common sense to me. My oldest brother joined the fire department and another brother became a cop. I had great coaches and teachers, notably, at the Academy of St. Dorothy, Sister Helen Cashiri. In fifth grade she preached to us the power of words, written and oral. Sometimes when I’m typing, I think of her.
Fridman: Why did you become a Republican in a family of Democrats?
Oddo: In a word, Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter was associated with rampant inflation. Like many others, I was aching for hope. Actually I have a Daily News clipping of a hockey game where the U.S. beat Russia 4-3. That was a source of pride. But one day I noticed on the back the headline: Inflation hits 18%. Reagan created a sense of optimism and hope that we would pull out of the malaise. I hold with the Republican philosophy on economic issues: Keep more of your money. And, be strong on defense and criminal justice.
Fridman: The day I became a citizen, on the application was a question about party affiliation. I marked Republican because I remembered Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev at the Berlin Wall. I remember his speech that day. We were so happy in the Soviet Union. Reagan brought hope of a better life and freedom.
Weintrob: What inspired you to run for office?
Oddo: I never thought that a kid from Old Town Road could get a job in politics. I went to law school to get into the FBI. But when I graduated law school, John Fusco hired me as his legal council and later chief of staff. He gave me a chance and became my mentor. Fusco taught me about the human conscience. He held civic roundtables and brought commissioners to Staten Island. When Jim Molinaro was Deputy Borough President, I learned from him too, about negotiation and compromise. Working with Tom Ognibene, Council Minority leader from Queens, challenged me further, particularly in 1997 when he tried to pass controversial legislation to impose a juvenile curfew. I went into very different neighborhoods around the city. I watched him debate Norman Siegel at Mount Loretto. I honed my research and writing skills on legislative issues. When they held a special election for Fresco’s seat in 1999, I realized: I know this job!
Fridman: Why are you so popular?
Oddo: I’m not an ideologue. I put my responsibility to my district before ideology. As a moderate Republican, I can work with colleagues across the aisle to get things done. I am a straight shooter and don’t pick unnecessary fights. I actually enjoy hearing from my critics and am in the process of organizing a “biggest critics” meeting in my office. To quote from I. Claudius: “Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud leak out.”
Weintrob: What are the three accomplishments as City Council Member you are most proud of?
Oddo: After fighting a seven year battle, finally passing historic legislation requiring life-saving Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) in many public buildings throughout the city. I poured a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears into the struggle to pass this legislation, which was unanimously passed by the City Council in 2005. I heard expert after expert testify about the life-saving capabilities of these devices and the tragic stories of people whose lives could have been saved if there had been an AED present to treat sudden cardiac arrest. I listened to Rachel Moyer trying to make school officials understand what it was like to see her 15-year old son, Greg, taking a jump shot then walking off the court and dying before her eyes. This legislation makes New Yorkers safer.
I am also proud that, during my tenure in the City Council, I have been able to bring back more than $120 million in total to my district, including $45 million for our schools. This money represents tangible resources expended to make our community a better place to live, work, and raise a family.
Finally, I am proud that my City Council office has lived up to the “gold standard” of constituent service established by my predecessor, John Fusco. Ninety percent of the great things we do as an office happen behind closed doors out of the public’s eye and my office has literally helped thousands of Staten Islanders solve their problems.
Weintrob: What is your vision for the borough over the next five years?
Oddo: Broadly speaking, we must maintain and protect those areas that are bedroom communities and, at the same time, find a proper balance in areas ripe for smart growth, such as our waterfront areas. As an island, it is vitally important that we do better with our waterfront, which can be the source of new, well-paying jobs if we plan properly and appropriately. We must also invest in and use technology, such as Smart Lights, which better control the flow of traffic based on actual traffic conditions, to help solve some of our infrastructure challenges.
Fridman: How can we create more bridges between old and new citizens?
Oddo: We need to bring more people to the table. We can’t operate based on presumptions and stereotypes. When I graduated Farrell High School, there was only one black kid in my class. Now my best friends aren’t only Catholics. Some aren’t white and some aren’t straight. I had to shed a certain ignorance.
Weintrob: What are your family’s ethnic roots?
Oddo: I came from immigrants, like everyone else. Three of my four grandparents were from Sicily, near Palermo. They came through Ellis Island early in the century seeking economic opportunities and settled in Brooklyn. One worked as a street sweeper for the sanitation department and another for the transit authority. My parents came to Staten Island in 1963. Because of this working class background, I was pleased to get the endorsement of the Working Families Party and of several unions, such as the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the commercial food workers union.
Fridman: Do you feel new Americans should be encouraged to speak English?
Oddo: John Fusco used to bemoan the loss of the Italian tongue in Italians of his generation. But I see English as key to the American dream and have voted against translation bills that cost the city $40 million a year. That’s a lot to spend when firehouses, like the one in South Beach, can’t stay open.
Fridman: What other advice do you have for new American citizens?
Oddo: It’s the same advice as for anyone: Pay attention! Get Engaged!
Too many people don’t pay attention unless the issue is literally on their doorstep. They don’t know the name of their Senators and aren’t part of any civic group. Folks criticize but they aren’t informed. Yet the Staten Island Advance makes it so easy.
Read the papers. Learn how to navigate the system. “An educated consumer is my best customer.”
When doctors at the Richmond County Medical Society got involved in the debate on local health care services, it was a great day for Staten Island.