Local Republican consultant Bill O’Reilly recalls going to speak to the editorial board of “a New York publication” about two years ago.
“And the question was, ‘Can you identify any up-and-comers in New York politics—besides Eric Gioia?’”
That would be 35-year-old Councilman Eric Gioia of Queens, who is preparing for the next step in what has been a tidy political career.
It’s sort of a given in local political circles that he’s going places. There’s also, perhaps inevitably, a residual resentment about his robotic inexorability.
In interviews with local political officials, staffers and observers, Mr. Gioia was consistently described as a young man with a bright political future, and as someone who is, as one local activist put it, “there when the camera’s there.”
“Eric’s eagerness has served him as a double-edged sword,” said Morgan Pehme, former managing editor of the Queens Courier who now runs a blog called the Brooklyn Optimist. “It has won him notoriety and the affection of the media, while turning off others who see a facade to conceal naked ambition.”
“He’s at least going to be mayor, if not president of the United States,” said one City Council member, not sarcastically, but not kindly, either.
The council member added, “The image overwhelms the reality.”
Mr. Gioia accepts that there will be judgments like this. “A tough part of my job is, you’ve got to develop a thicker skin and you’re in the public eye, and everyone won’t always be happy, but you can’t focus too much on that,” he said in an interview this week.
He isn’t one for negativity in general. He often says things like “My idea is to come up with a good idea, explain to people why they should do it, and make change” and “I like to think I got my passion from the Franciscans and my rigor from the Jesuits” and “I guess the meta-thing is, trying to get people to believe again.”
Mr. Gioia is planning to run for public advocate next year—he has yet to declare officially—and he certainly looks the part of an elected official on the ascent. He appears at all times as if he just showered. His brown hair is smoothed back, his clothes are neat, his eyes are bright, and his skin is almost dewy.
He’s convincingly idealistic, whatever he’s talking about; he’s also good at the business of politics. Apparently, it has always been so for him.
“When he was in the sixth grade he decided to run for [student] president,” said Teddy Rufus, the assistant principal of P.S. 11 in Queens, Gioia’s elementary school. Mr. Rufus also played basketball on a team coached by Mr. Gioia’s grandfather. “It wasn’t like an ego thing for him,” Mr. Rufus added. “Like, a lot of kids want to be president because they think it’s cool. He really wanted to make a difference here.
“And you kind of knew then that he was going to go places,” Mr. Rufus said.
He did. First, to N.Y.U., where he put himself through college working as a janitor and a doorman and an elevator operator. Then to Georgetown law, then to the White House, where he worked under the deputy White House counsel to Bill Clinton. (When discussing his time at the White House, Mr. Gioia usually mentions that he was “the lowest person on the totem poll.”)
Before he was 30 years old, Mr. Gioia was back in the Woodside neighborhood where he grew up, where his family had owned a flower shop for more than 100 years, where he had attended—in addition to P.S. 11—I.S. 125 and St. Francis Prep. As he tells it, he first worked as a lawyer to pay off large debts from school, but before long, he was running, against the machine, in a five-way Democratic City Council primary. It was 2001 and he was 28 years old.
He won by campaigning tirelessly, and in places his opponents generally didn’t go, such as Long Island City’s Queensbridge housing project, which is the largest public housing project in the country and which voted for him by an overwhelming margin.
SINCE BEING ELECTED, Mr. Gioia has been good to the residents of Queensbridge, starting a baseball league and then a basketball league, and bringing a bank to the neighborhood, where before there had been only check-cashing institutions. He got security cameras installed. When the entire ZIP code didn’t receive Social Security checks, Mr. Gioia brought a representative from the Social Security office to cut checks in the project’s community center.
It’s a narrative that couldn’t have been more precisely designed by a political consultant. Although Mr. Gioia speaks like a teenager from California, peppering his sentences with “right?” and “like” and “you know?”—“So, like, I’m leading the fight to divest from Darfur, right?”—he’s a legitimate Queens boy. As he puts it, “It’s kind of hard to, you know, out-neighborhood-guy me.”
Significantly, Mr. Gioia can come across both as the longtime resident and the new-wave gentrifier.
Over a recent breakfast in Long Island City, at a cafe that also has an outpost on Bedford Street in the West Village, Mr. Gioia gave a 10-minute lecture on St. Francis of Assisi (his “favorite saint”); talked for half an hour about eradicating hunger from New York City; and then went on for a while about whether he wants a Kindle. It was finally determined that what he really wants is not a Kindle, but to be able to read books on his iPhone. He was wearing a crisp blue shirt and shiny pink tie and drinking a latte served in a giant mug. He did not eat.
“I really think the iPhone is the perfect birthday gift,” he confessed, although he also carries a BlackBerry for e-mail. “I mean, you really should be asking people for that. My wife has one; otherwise, I’d get it for her.”
His 2004 wedding to the congenial political fund-raiser Lisa Hernandez Esler was featured in the “Vows” column of The New York Times’ Weddings section. The lede describes their first meeting, which took place when they were both working on Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000.
More recently, 500 people attended his “pay what you want” birthday party fund-raiser on April 24, including Karenna Gore Schiff and the filmmaker Morgan Spurlock. Mr. Spurlock, who is perhaps best known for choosing to eat only at McDonald’s for a month while filming the documentary Super Size Me, was Mr. Gioia’s college roommate, and also stars in a campaign ad, which will be distributed to his formidable (in the six figures, according to Mr. Gioia’s chief of staff) e-mail list.
Once, about a year ago, Mr. Gioia spent a widely publicized week living off food stamps. He went to Washington to meet with members of Congress, including Hillary Clinton, and at the end of it all, Charlie Rangel bought him the turkey, mashed potatoes, broccoli and Diet Coke that he had been craving, the Daily News reported at the time.
Mr. Gioia’s staff members are young and idealistic and energetic and friendly, and, like their boss, they take an unusually proactive approach to dealing with the media.
One journalist recounted a story about how the day that a story of his ran, which included a not-positive line about Mr. Gioia, a staff member contacted him to set up a meeting.
Ryan Lizza, now of The New Yorker, confirmed a separate story about getting a call around two years ago from Mr. Gioia, who was visiting Washington, where Mr. Lizza worked at the time for The New Republic. The two had never met, and there was no immediate business that prompted the call. They wound up having what Mr. Lizza described as “a pleasant lunch.”
Mr. Gioia gives dictionaries to every student who graduates from elementary school in his district, because, he says, when he was young, his family couldn’t afford books, so he used to read the newspaper with the aide of a dictionary. “I read Mike Lupica every single—I mean, I couldn’t wait to read the newspaper,” Mr. Gioia said in the Long Island City cafe. He turned to his chief of staff, Zoe Epstein, who had accompanied him to the interview, and added, “We have to get me to go have lunch with Mike Lupica.”
MR. GIOIA’S ISSUE now, as he prepares to seek citywide office, is global warming. He says he’s now running the first “carbon neutral” campaign in New York City history, and so far no one has contested that it is; the Campaign Finance Board is still working out the details of using campaign donations to buy carbon offsets. Among other things, the campaign will use no paper invitations and hold events whenever possible in places easily accessible to large numbers of people by public transportation. (The birthday party was in Times Square).
The hard sell is working, as measured by Mr. Gioia’s prodigious fund-raising. The most common donation, according to his office, is $10. At the last filing, he had $1,623,445 in his campaign account. (That’s tops among the likely candidates for public advocate, and more than most of the likely candidates for city comptroller.)
Assemblyman Peter M. Rivera of the Bronx, who describes himself as a supporter, thinks if Mr. Gioia runs for public advocate, he’ll be “the person to beat.”
His current opponents include attorney Norman Siegel, who is making his third attempt to win the office and had $80,706 at last filing, and Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, who was arrested in the early hours of the morning on March 6 for driving under the influence.
Two better-known potential candidates, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, have yet to give any solid indication that they intend to jump into the race.
Mr. Rivera suggested that Mr. Gioia’s fortuitous positioning has raised the hackles of some of his peers.
“Does that create animosity among some people?” Mr. Rivera asked. “Of course it does.”
As Harlem-based consultant Bill Lynch, another Gioia ally, put it: “He’s a coming star in this city. … People are reluctant to embrace somebody who is as aggressive and tenacious as he is.”
Mr. Gioia said, “I’m very proud of my record and believe deeply in the work I do, and I think that the only fair measure, the most important measure of any public official, is that people’s lives are better because of the work they’ve done. People’s lives are immeasurably better because of the work we’ve done together.”
Asked what he would do if Michael Bloomberg abolished the office of public advocate, Gioia laughed nervously. Mr. Bloomberg has occasionally threatened to get rid of the idiosyncratic post, though, as Zoe Epstein, Mr. Gioia’s chief of staff, noted from her perch next to him in the cafe, “not in a while.”
EARLIER, AS HE was pulling up in his baby blue hybrid SUV on the street next to his office, which faces Queens Boulevard near the 46th Street-Bliss Street station of the No. 7 line, Mr. Gioia had been talking about how difficult it was to live in poverty. He had just attended a meeting of tenants who were filing a lawsuit because they were in danger of being evicted by a company that had recently purchased the apartment building where they live.
“What are you supposed to do?” he asked in a pained voice. “When you’re trying to have some dignity in this life, and it’s just, the deck is totally stacked against you. That’s why this job—”
“Eric, there’s a spot,” said Ms. Epstein, who was sitting in the back seat.
“There’s a spot?” Mr. Gioia says. “I can’t tell.”
There was, in fact, a spot.
“That’s what attracts me so much about this job,” Mr. Gioia continued as he steered the car into the spot.
“I think that, between my law background and my ability to identify issues and go out there and bang the drum …” A car honked and he paused.
“That’s the type of thing I will do,” he said, finally.
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