Nunes is running against State Senator Shirley Huntley in the Democratic Primary for the 10th District, a diverse and complicated district that spans Jamaica, Laurelton, Springfield Gardens, Richmond Hill, Ozone Park and Forest Hills.
Both Nunes and Huntley say that the campaign boils down to kitchen table issues. They’re taking their campaign to the streets the old-fashioned way, knocking on doors to talk about the foreclosure crisis, healthcare, education and jobs.
But Huntley and Nunes have key differences that will play out in the media and political stage as the September 14th primary draws near.
Nunes is a young upstart in the political scene; Huntley is a two-term incumbent who took office in 2007 and began establishing her roots in the community by serving on school boards since the 90s.
Nunes, 25, a real estate broker who is of Brazilian and Chinese descent, lives in Richmond Hill. Huntley, who is 72 years old and African-American, lives in Jamaica.
Nunes has been endorsed by LGBT rights groups and the gay elected officials such Speaker Christine Quinn, Councilmen Daniel Dromm and Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer and Councilwoman Rosie Mendez. Huntley, on the other hand, was one of eight Democratic members in Albany who voted against same-sex marriage bill last year.
Last year, Nunes lost by a hair’s breadth – four votes - in a race against Councilman Tom White, who has 14 years of experience in the City Council. But Nunes has hit the political circuit again in an attempt to nail the numbers.
Yesterday was a rough day because his volunteers were canvassing near Huntley’s home, Nunes admitted, “But we’re going to do better today.” After all, the rain keeps voters indoors and makes canvassing seem extra heroic, he says optimistically.
“Anything below 15 on a rainy day is not good,” he stresses while parceling out the districts and distributing campaign materials to volunteers, “We need to bring at least 350 [affirmative responses] back to be successful,” he tells them. The rain keeps falling.
“Don’t let them stop me”
Huntley’s most recent campaign mailing painted a doomsday picture of a community under siege. It reads, “There are forces that have invaded our community who have threatened Shirley Huntley, our hard-working State Senator; have contributed more than $100,000 from outside the district to her opponent; care about one issue only – gay marriage.”
Volunteers at his office nearly fell off their chairs as the mailing was passed around the office. “Hey Lynn, you care about one issue only – gay marriage,” one canvasser joked.
“Marriage equality is an issue where I stand on, but in the grand scheme of things it shouldn’t be the dialogue we’re having with the residents,” Nunes said in a sit-down interview, “I think my opponent is using that as a tool to hurt this campaign.”
Huntley, however, insists that the literature did not mention Nunes’ name and as such, “it doesn’t refer to Nunes,” she said.
But she admitted that she has been reaching out on that issue within the community since she voted against it in the State Senate. “To be very honest, I never had any conversations in my constituency about it [same sex-marriage] until it came out in Albany. That’s when I started reaching out,” she said.
Huntley defended her no-vote by arguing that 62 percent of people polled in her district had said they would not support same-sex marriage.
Observers say that Huntley is trying to win over the conservative churchgoers in her district. “The church community is a large part of my district. I can’t help it if people go to church,” she said. “If you know anything about communities in general, there are many people who are devout Catholics, Baptists and Methodists, Orthodox Jews; I don’t reach out to them; they reach out to me.”
“A lot of cynics and detractors say that the community is very much against same-sex marriage,” said Nunes, “I think we’re come a long way. I think they do support marriage equality and the popular electorate does feel civil rights and equal rights should be granted to everyone.
“One of my biggest hang-ups with media is the focus on the same-sex issue. The focus becomes a problem when it detracts from issues like healthcare and education,” Nunes added.
Just as he was about to launch into foreclosures in the district, his train of thought was interrupted by a fly. He caught it in one deft move, and then laughed as he recalled a similar memory of President Obama killing a fly during a televised CNBC debate. “And all that, all everyone was talking about in the media was the story of Obama killing a fly.”
“No method to the madness”
The conference room in the basement of Nunes’ headquarters – which campaign staff strictly declared off-limits to photography - looks like a battleship’s operations center. A chart counts down the number of days until the primary. Maps and polls plaster the walls with a dizzying sequence of figures, highlighting the results-driven campaign that Nunes is running that has prompted Dromm to call him “a statistician in terms of numbers.”
Observers say that it’s not clear who the winner will be at this point in the race. How events will play out in the next three weeks will be crucial in shaping the election.
Political consultants say that as a general rule of thumb, candidates seeking a fighting chance against incumbents must have three times as much in campaign funds. From April to now, Nunes has raised over $175,000 and spent around $50,000 on his campaign. Huntley has raised over $121,000, but spent $91,000 in the same period, according to the state Board of Elections.
Huntley recently ran into controversy after the media learned that she had paid $30,000 in consulting fees to Michael Nussbaum, a political consultant and associate publisher of the Queens Tribune. Critics charged that she was trying to buy over the press.
Huntley said that Nussbaum’s multiple hats did not pose a conflict of interest. “This newsman has been in community as long as I can remember,” she said, “He has run many campaigns and I have not seen anything that called into question his ability to do his job.”
Back at the Richmond Hill campaign headquarters, Nunes said that his campaign was at a fluid point. At 7 p.m. when the canvassing was done for the day, Nunes’ volunteers would report back to the mothership with a count of how many residents received them positively, as well as the households that reacted negatively. The numbers would then be banged out into a master document and studied by Nunes’ staff to see if his campaign needed readjusting. “There’s no method to the madness,” said Nunes.
In fact, just a week ago he brought the former campaign manager for Assemblyman Jose Peralta on board to manage the race. “Things are very dynamic at this point,” Nunes said.