By Francesca Trianni
Long before Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park), ran to unseat Democratic incumbent state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach), received nearly $900,000 in campaign contributions, before Addabbo was endorsed by Gov. Cuomo, and before their district was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, Addabbo and Ulrich were just Eric and Joe, two parishioners at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church in Ozone Park.
Addabbo and Ulrich faced off Tuesday in what has been described as “the most closely watched and possibly most expensive state legislative race in the country,” for the 15th State Senate District which includes this neighborhood. Addabbo won by a wide margin.
That tension is evident at the church, where Ulrich once served as an altar boy and where Addabbo and his wife, Dawn, married in 1998, in a ceremony held on Valentine’s Day. “There were balloons shaped as hearts,” recalls Luisa D’Ambrosio, 92, a longtime parishioner.
Now, Ulrich is often seen reading the Scriptures at the church while Addabbo is known for working as an usher. Ulrich usually sits in the middle of the right column of pews with his wife, Yadira, while Addabbo and his family sit in the back.
The church, which accommodates about 1,000 churchgoers every Sunday over three different services, has been the place of worship of the two candidates for the past two decades, and their parents before them.
D’Ambrosio, who has been coming to Nativity since 1928, says she lives across the street from Addabbo, and has known Ulrich since he was a young boy in the church choir. For her, and many others in this community, the election for the state Senate seat is a personal affair.
“When you see both of them grow up, it’s a tough decision,” she said.
It’s especially hard for parishioners who remember voting for Addabbo’s father, who represented the community in Congress for over 20 years.
“We voted the name Addabbo for our entire life!” said retiree John McCormack.
Father Paul Palmiotto, 60, who has been pastor of the church since 2008, says this election puts the community into a quandary: “It’s like having two children. Which one are you going to pick?”
Monsignor Robert Thelen, who was a pastor at the congregation for 12 years during the 1990s, spoke of the candidates as prominent members of the parish. “Both men were more than simply parishioners who came on Sunday; we’re talking about people who were both part and parcel of the community,” said Thelen, who is now rector of the Cathedral Seminary in Douglaston. “I have known Eric since he was a young man, and I celebrated Addabbo’s wedding and baptized one of his daughters.”
Residents of the neighborhood have elected both candidates to represent them. They voted three times to elect Addabbo to the City Council, and twice to make him a state senator, in 2008 and 2010. They voted for Ulrich when he ran to replace Addabbo in the City Council four years ago and re-elected him in 2009.
Though both candidates attend the same church, their different positions on social issues may sway parishioners’ votes.
Addabbo has been under fire for his vote in favor of gay marriage; Ulrich has been criticized for his firm stance against abortion.
Father Palmiotto, who was assigned to the parish in 2008, had reminded people to do their civic duty and vote. “I usually say something to encourage people to vote, and vote based on their values,” he said. But voting based on values, he adds, can prove difficult.
Addabbo was one of the eight Democrats who voted against a same-sex marriage bill in 2009, which didn’t pass. But when the Senate was asked to reconsider the measure in 2011, Addabbo changed his vote to support it.
That vote has caused problems for Addabbo, who otherwise benefits from his incumbency and the name recognition that comes from his father. Joe Addabbo Sr. is still remembered by parishioners as a “great man who went to Mass every morning,” said D’Ambrosio.
Now, Joe Jr. has to defend his voting record on gay marriage with his fellow parishioners.
“I won’t forget that he voted like that,” said Rubin Martinez, 55. “In the past, I voted for Addabbo, and I also voted for Ulrich. But after that [vote], the church is divided. I feel horrible that one of them has to lose, because they both have done, and will do, well for this community,” he said.
Louise Hobbes, a 70-year-old member of the parish, said the congregation made calls to Addabbo’s office before the vote against gay marriage. “I called his office, and my mother called, and my cousin and my next-door neighbor called. We all did. But he voted for the party line,” she said. “I don’t think he followed what the community would have wanted.”
When asked to comment, Addabbo said: “I think people understand. And the issue has never come up, because there are more serious issues people are concerned about. This election is about jobs, healthcare, transportation.”
But the issue did come up in debates held the last few weeks before the election, and Addabbo had to justify his decision in front of voters. “It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do,” he said, about the vote in favor of same-sex marriage, he said at a debate in mid-October in Middle Village.
“My vote was not the deciding vote,” he added. “Even if I did vote no, it still passes. So, I’m not the deciding vote and you have marriage equality because of [Republican Senate Leader] Dean Skelos and the four Republicans” who voted for it, Capital New York reported.
But Ulrich has also been under fire, for his firm pro-life stance. Negative mailers sent by third-party groups have depicted Ulrich as “waging a war against women.”
“Even as a Catholic, I believe that women have the right to choose for themselves,” said Irene Rigal, a retiree who received all her sacraments at Nativity. Yet, she plans to vote for Ulrich because she “likes that he stands up for the community.”
The candidates are aware of how divisive the election has been for Nativity.
“There’s no question that people in the community are really torn between voting between the two of us,” Ulrich said in an interview. “We have many of the same friends and backers, we worship in the same church, people are uneasy because they know the both of us. But the district is large.”
Said Addabbo: “I think it’s going to come down to who do they trust, who do they call upon? I go with my record, I’ve been there for the community, people know I’m their voice and [I] put myself on the line.”
But some voters, though they voted for Addabbo in the past, were undecided until late in the game.
McCormack, who remembers the senator’s father, was one. “I almost don’t want to vote in fear of offending one of them,” he said.
The 15th District, which includes Ozone Park and nearby neighborhoods like Howard Beach, Woodhaven and Glendale, was recently subject to redistricting that added areas of the Rockaways, an area that is considered more conservative. The redistricting made the district more Republican and Addabbo has attracted Democratic heavyweights like U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and New York State United Teachers, the largest teachers’ union in the state, to his cause. Ulrich has at least one national conservative group in his corner.
But this race still feels like a community affair at Nativity BVM Church.
“Both guys are in the community, people know them. Who knows Romney or shook Obama’s hand? But here we see them, we know their family. It’s a different concept,” said Father Palmiotto.
As members of the congregation gathered at a fundraiser last Sunday, McCormack and Martinez shared memories of the two candidates and insisted the choice would be tough for all of them.
It’s not just about politics, or values, or policies. This election is about “our boys,” they say.
“I bet each of us has Joe’s and Eric’s cell phone numbers in their phone,” said Martinez.
They pulled out their phones to check.
Indeed, they did.