Staten Island Borough President James S. Oddo

Never dreaming that a career in politics could be possible for a boy from Old Town Road, James S. Oddo had his sights set on working in Federal law enforcement with the FBI. When that didn’t work out, his mother intervened, telling then  Council member John Fusco about her son and his newly-minted law degree at an Old Town Civic Association Christmas party. An interview followed, and Oddo began what would be a seven-year tenure on Fusco’s staff and a stepping  stone to what has become a 22-year political career.
Born and raised in the Mid-Island, he was instilled with a strong work ethic by his parents, attended the Academy of St. Dorothy and Monsignor Farrell High School, and graduated from Fordham University and New York Law School.
Elected to the New York City Council in 1999, by 2002, Oddo had become the Council’s Minority Leader. The New York City Council is the lawmaking body of the City of New York, comprised of 51 members from the 51 council districts  throughout the five boroughs. His district, the 50th, included Mid-Island neighborhoods as diverse as South Beach, Travis, and Todt Hill, as well as parts of Bensonhurst.
Staten Island’s mostly Democratic City Council serves as a check against the mayor in a strong mayor-council government model, monitors the performance of city agencies, and makes land use decisions as well as legislating on a variety  of other issues.
In 2013, after serving on the City Council for 15 years, Oddo ran for the office of Staten Island Borough President and was endorsed by his predecessor, James Molinaro. Oddo’s record of achievement and personal connection with voters –  even those outside his Republican party – resulted in a landslide win by an overwhelming 69 percent majority. A legacy of personal integrity, dedication and hard work continue to fuel Oddo’s large and small accomplishments throughout  the borough.
On a recent rainy morning, Living In Staten Island spoke with the Borough President inside his history- imbued wood-paneled office in 100-year-old Borough Hall. From Staten Island’s seat of government, a designated New York City  Landmark directly across from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, James Oddo shared the story of his unexpected life in politics.

LIM: What does it mean to you personally to serve the people of your native Staten Island?
JSO: I am the first person of my family, the youngest of four boys, to be born on Staten Island. My parents moved here in March 1963, before the bridge went up; so my mother likes to say that she is a native Islander, but true native Islanders  scoff at that. My late dad was a motorman with the New York City Transit Authority. Dad was always working. Mom raised the boys. Hard work was the norm in our household.
My entire life has been about honoring and validating the sacrifices made by my parents for our family. The seven years I was a member of John Fusco’s staff honed the values that my parents had preached to me for years, so it’s no surprise that I wake up every morning thinking about what I need to do to get things done on Staten Island.

LIM: Did you believe when you were younger that you would rise to a high political office?
JSO: It never occurred to me that I could have a career in politics. I went to law school to get into the FBI but when I graduated, John Fusco hired me as his legal counsel and later chief of staff. He gave me a chance. He‘s also a workaholic.  He preached to us as a young staff that we would not be outworked.
I’m not the same insecure young man I was when I first walked into John Fusco’s office in 1992. I believe more now than I did back then that hard work is the great equalizer. People may have degrees from Ivy League schools or come from  families who came over on the Mayflower, but I believe that no matter what you undertake, if you are willing to work hard you can be just as good as the next guy.
I’m a Staten Island kid with the same blue collar sensibilities that are pervasive on many parts of the Island - if you are willing to work hard you can have success doing whatever, wherever. Hard work trumps anything else. My staff and I,  we’re not going to be outworked.
The other passion in my life is baseball. I’m still really holding out that someday I will have a job doing something along those lines. (Laughs).

LIM: How do you regard being from the minority party?
JSO: When I was a member of the City Council, I was in a super minority of three, maybe four Republicans — but I also had a record of achievement because I had learned over the years that in this business, it’s about getting things done,  about building bridges.
In baseball parlance, I didn’t take a swing at every anti-Republican pitch that came my way. I looked for common ground and I made personal friendships. One of these friendships early on was with Christine Quinn, a Democrat who became Speaker of the New York City Council. Having that relationship gave me a valuable base on which to build.
Staten Island is known as a Republican bastion yet in my council district, I had 8,300 more registered Democrats than Republicans and I won with 74 or 75 percent of the vote. I think I got those votes because I got things done. I got things  done because I wasn’t an ideologue. The City Council is the most municipal level of government. The people don’t want you to stand on ideology. They want a pot hole filled, they want that street paved. The reputation I inherited from my  mentor, John Fusco, who is now retired from the Supreme Court at age 76 and working down the hall from me as my legal counsel, is one of being constituent-oriented.
Certainly there were times when I felt my Republicanism and I felt obligated to stand up in defense of something, but more times than not I figured out a way to work with people who very proudly call themselves Progressives, people who  didn’t necessarily have to work with me as a member of the minority.
I believe that if I make the people who raised me and who mentored me proud of the decisions and actions that I take every day, then I feel that I am doing right by the voters on Staten Island who elected me.

LIM: In addition to your parents and John Fusco, did you have other mentors?
JSO: I’ve been very privileged to work with very astute political people. John Fusco taught me about public service and how to be a Staten Island elected official. Former Minority Leader Tom Ognibene was more of a political entity who taught  me about raw politics. From Tom I learned how to throw a sharp elbow. And then there was Jim Molinaro, my predecessor, who was also a mentor.
I’ve come across a lot of great, smart people in this business. I learned that if you keep your mouth shut and your ears open, you can absorb a lot. Combine a work ethic with what you can learn about political acumen and you can become
a halfway decent public official.

LIM: What are the issues that are closest to your heart on Staten Island?
JSO: Something really personal to me is opening up a new front to help Staten Islanders live healthier lives. This is not only the fulfillment of one of my campaign pledges when I ran for Borough President, but also a core mission of my  office.Jim taking a selfie with Flat Stanley for the students at PS 29. Left: The ribbon cutting for Richmond University Medical Center’s Women’s Comprehensive Center.
My father always worked, but he was ill from as early as I remember. He did all the wrong things. Didn’t watch his diet, smoked. I know what that does to a family. Being unhealthy is a miserable existence. I try to lead a healthier lifestyle. I  find enjoyment in exercise. I am always learning a little more about nutrition, but it doesn’t mean I won’t eat a donut every now and then.
Staten Island has the highest rates citywide for diabetes and heart disease, as well as the highest rates for obesity and smoking. Every category where you can measure health and wellness, relative to the other boroughs, we are failing miserably at on Staten Island. We are leading in all the wrong categories.
I believe that with just a little encouragement, education and inspiration, Staten Islanders will take steps to live healthier lives. With all the changes in healthcare occurring across the country, the focus has shifted to prevention and that  needs to be our focus also.

LIM: Are there other consequences to our poor health record?
JSO: Poor health is eating our tax dollars, especially through rising healthcare costs for city workers, which grew from $6.5 billion in the Bloomberg administration to Mayor De Blasio’s four-year plan costing over $9 billion. Every dollar spent  on healthcare is one less dollar available for cops and firemen, cultural services, homeless shelters, any city service you hold near and dear.

LIM: What measures do you have in mind to promote better health?
JSO: I’ve hired Staten Islander Dr. Ginny Mantello, a neuroradiologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, as health and wellness director. Dr. Mantello has taught meditation at Staten Island Technical High School, and is co- chair of the Wellness Committee at Staten Island University Hospital, where she also established a wellness website and a slim-down initiative for employees.
We have formed an advisory council to help us get this work done. In a heartbeat, we were able to sign up three high schools to implement an awareness campaign in the coming school year to promote “Sodabriety,” a 30-day program where groups of teens develop and then lead educational campaigns designed to convince other teens to reduce consumption of sugary beverages and to drink more unsweetened beverages. In some communities, after 30 days, not only  did teens completely give up sugared drinks, but consumption of water nearly doubled.
“Jim's first night in office as Borough President. His parents, Margaret and John, and fiancée Kim help celebrate the moment.We want to bring the message to Staten Island workplaces too. Al Frederico, owner of Coastal Plumbing, took control of his life and lost a tremendous amount of weight. He then created a wellness program for his employees. Good health  numbers went up for his employees, and bad health numbers decreased. Sick days impacting productivity and profitability were reduced. Morale improved. It’s a win-win for everyone who participates in a program like this.
Some say this is no role for government. I say that I am not going to turn a blind eye to seeing my borough in such poor health. I don’t believe in former Mayor Bloomberg’s attempts to ban sugary drinks. I’m not interested in wrestling that  third Twinkie out of your hand, but I do think we can be successful through education and prevention in schools, civic groups and businesses like Coastal Plumbing across Staten Island.

LIM: How has Staten Island recovered from Hurricane Sandy?
JSO: We haven’t. These have been the most difficult months of my 22 years in political service. We’re 18+ months into this and we’re nowhere. Councilman Vinny Ignizio and I went to New Orleans, and one of the lessons they drilled into us  was “it’s about leadership and resources, leadership and resources.” I think everyone in government should be embarrassed about where we are. A lot of people have put a lot of work into this but collectively, too many people are not living  in their homes and don’t know what direction their lives are taking.
People in government try to do the right thing, but government is intrinsically dysfunctional and we haven’t done right by our residents. It’s heartbreaking and frustrating. The new mayor has put a team together and I respect them, think they  are good folks, but in a lot of ways it is almost as though we are at Day One. This is an indictment on a lot of folks.

LIM: How do you see the borough government moving forward on Sandy issues?
JSO: One of the things we brought back from New Orleans is the concept of acquisition of land for redevelopment. We learned about the Louisiana Land Trust. We stole the idea and brought it back here but the Bloomberg administration didn’t embrace it.
One success has been Governor Cuomo’s buy-out program. He did it efficiently in Oakwood Beach keeping the land forever as open space. It has been our mission since February 2013 to acquire land for redevelopment.
If the Bloomberg administration had embraced the Louisiana Land Purchase concept, we would be in a completely different place right now. The neighborhoods that were hard hit — Midland Beach, New Dorp Beach and South Beach —  were good places to live but need new infrastructure and the right elevated, resilient housing stock.
A long-term plan for robust redevelopment should be in place for those who want it. In addition, government has to cut the reimbursement checks that were promised to people, rebuild the homes that you promised people you’d rebuild, and  make some type of significant progress.

LIM: Are the projects along the North Shore changing the landscape of Staten Island?
JSO: Development of the new North Shore puts a hop in my step every morning. This is a very exciting time for the North Shore. Right outside these windows there’s over a billion dollar investment in four projects.
The part of the project which has probably gotten the most attention was the announcement of plans for the 625-foot-tall New York Wheel, the biggest observation wheel in the nation, due for completion in 2016.
SHoP Architects revealed plans for a multi-tiered outlet mall. The Esplanade is opening up the waterfront. Just southeast of here will be Lighthouse Point, a project that is located on a three-acre abandoned pier that used to hold a lighthouse and Coast Guard base. Lighthouse Point will combine new construction and historic preservation to create new retail and dining, plus a 96- unit rental tower and a 180-room hotel. Triangle Equities is the developer.
Finally, we are creating something called Urban Ready Living and have broken ground for 900 hundred affordable living units in Stapleton targeting young, creative people. I have an even deeper appreciation of what the Urban Ready Living  component of this project means now that I’ve learned more about technical and start-up creative industries and the infrastructure that makes them successful. Prior to the North Shore project, there was already a burgeoning tech and  creative industries sector growing on Staten Island. This project will enhance that by providing housing for a critical mass of young people, who draw and create new businesses.

Current Staten Island Borough President James S. Oddo with his fiancée Kim Petersen to wed in the Fall, 2014.LIM: Is there a plan to handle increased traffic and parking demands on the North shore?
JSO: The project has many phases and will take shape over the next 2-4 years. A public esplanade will run along the site and all parking will be underground. Tying it all together is our beautiful ferry system. We have already stepped up ferry service and by May 2015, we’ll see ferry service every half hour, 24/7, because tech and start-up development is closely tied to consistent, accessible transportation and after-hours service. Much of Staten Island is, wants to be, and  should remain a bedroom community.
Maintaining that quality of life is part of my job. But as we are protecting those areas, it doesn’t stop us from creating a vibrant, diverse, hip waterfront neighborhood. There is plenty of room to expand the vibrancy. The revitalization of St.  George and Stapleton is close at hand, and then hopefully this wave of revitalization will continue through the commercial areas of Richmond Terrace.

LIM: What can you tell us about the film industry’s activity on Staten Island?
JSO: One of the other very exciting things taking place is the announcement that Broadway Stages is bringing Hollywood to Staten Island with plans to create a 69-acre mecca for movies, TV shows and music videos.
Broadway Stages, which already operates movie and TV studios in Brooklyn and Queens, is turning the former Arthur Kill Correctional Facility – which closed in 2011 – into a $20 million movie back lot with five state-of-the art sound stages.  Broadway Stages has agreed to purchase the state-owned site on Staten Island’s West Shore for $7 million and invest $20 million in private funds to build the studio.
This will be a world-class facility and is expected to create up to 1,500 wellpaying jobs over the next five years.

LIM: What are some of the best-kept secrets on Staten Island?
Staten Island has some incredible parks, and a lot of people who don’t live on the island don’t know about them. One of the best is Von Briesen Park. Another is Clove Lakes Park. These are great places to take the papers and coffee  on a Sunday morning. Walk down Mt. Loretto property on the South Shore, or walk the boardwalk. Jim Molinari should be proud. He had a campaign called “Back to the Beach,” and it worked. We also have truly amazing cultural centers like  Snug Harbor, as well as fantastic restaurants.
A great word to describe Staten Island is “surprising.” Wherever you travel on Staten Island, off-islanders will be surprised at what we have to offer.

Pet Peeve Littering. More locally, Staten Islanders who don’t take pride in their own community. Littering, how they drive, negative comments they make about their own communities. I don’t get that.
Movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Music Justin Currie, former lead singer in Scottish band Del Amitri
Restaurants It’s between Brioso and Da Noi
People You’d Like to Dine With Muhammad Ali, Abraham Lincoln, and Michael J. Fox

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01 Jun 2015

By Christine Burke Eskwitt