The Upwardly Mobile Councilman

jose The Upwardly Mobile CouncilmanLocal 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.