With a week to go until Primary Day, Community Board 1 Chairman Chris Olechowski is focusing his message on one theme: consensus building. The candidate for District Leader in the 50th Assembly District points to his more than 30 years experience serving the community as a main advantage he has over opponent, incumbent Lincoln Restler, when it comes to unifying the community to address local issues.
“He’s a newcomer to the area,” Olechowski said. “As much as he wants to be actively involved in the issues of the community, I think he’s just scratching the surface. You have to go deep into the diversity of this community and work with the people, year in and year out, to unify the diverse voices of this community. I have that experience.”
In what has to be the most widely publicized District Leader race in history, Olechowski is leaning on that experience and the record he has established since coming to the community in 1981. Inspired by the totalitarian state he witnessed in Poland in the 1970s, Olechowski went to work in Greenpoint, assisting Polish refugees, and eventually landed the job of Director of Refugee Assistance at the Polish and Slavic Center (PSC). While at PSC, he helped establish their afterschool program and headed up their home healthcare program, which later split from PSC, and which he still heads, having built up its membership from around 400 to over 1,000. Along the way, he joined, left and rejoined the Community Board, on which he has served uninterrupted since 1993, including stints as Member-at-Large and Chairman of the CB 1 Rezoning Task Force before he became Chair in 2009.
With issues to address such as establishing open space, attending to the community’s homeless and traffic control, as well as quality of life issues like noise complaints, Olechowski believes his tenure at CB 1 gives him the tools to unite the community to take on these challenges successfully. “A good District Leader needs to know his community well enough that he can locate local resources and groups to help influence a positive outcome for the community.”
Developing a new voting base among Polish immigrants and community members who have not participated in the political process is a main focus of Olechowski’s campaign. He believes he can reach those residents better than others, especially during the transition the community is undergoing. “I want to strike a balance between those with a history in the community and newcomers. I don’t want to have one group disenfranchised at the expense of another,” he said.
Along the way, the Olechowski campaign did hit a few bumps. One came from campaign literature crediting him for leading the fight against a proposed TransGas power plant. In actuality, he was CB 1 Member-at-Large at the time and “took part in supporting the coalition fighting the power plant.” According to Olechowski it was an error which he thought was corrected before being sent. The candidate, however, took full responsibility for the mistake.
Detractors also cited Olechowski’s relationship to embattled Kings County Democratic Leader Vito Lopez. The candidate downplayed the criticism, acknowledging that Lopez lent some technical support and campaigning advice early on, but it was actually Councilman Steve Levin who has been his “staunchest supporter.”
With the recent news stories circulating about Lopez adding to the buzz around the race, Olechowski admitted he was stunned by the attention its gotten in the press and among elected officials from throughout the City.“I think the coverage of this race has been blown out of proportion from the start,” Olechowski said. “It’s unprecedented. The politicization of this race has drawn away from the important issues. I stand on my record. I just want to give this community a voice and a voting block it never had before.”