A little over six months into her term, Staten Island City Council Member Debi Rose is changing the face of politics in the borough as well as showcasing its diverse population as Staten Island’s first Black elected official.
Sen. Charles Schumer best summed up Rose’s victory when he said in January at Rose’s inauguration: “You got here the old fashioned way: You have earned it.”
She beat out Kenneth Mitchell of the Conservative Party and Timothy Kuhn of the Republican Party. Well done for a woman, who on her third attempt, made it into public office.
Now in the swing of things, she has fully immersed herself in dealing with issues in her district on Staten Island’s North Shore. Learning how the budget process works, giving the option of good health care to her constituents and, recently, dealing with a string of hate crimes that have plagued the borough are a few things she has tackled so far.
But while her goal is to make life better in what many consider the “stepchild” borough, due to the lack of services and access it receives, Rose said in a recent interview with the AmNews that she’s proud of the work she’s done so far and what’s ahead.
“I love it,” she said. “I get up every morning excited. The North Shore is neglected sometimes, and I have a chance at changing that.”
Her political journey began 28 years ago when she served on Staten Island’s Community Board 1. A second-generation Staten Islander, she lived in West Brighton and was always active in the community.
While on the Community Board, she had several victories, including the sprucing up of Staten Island’s only park named after an African-American, Cpl. Thompson Park. The area is significant because of its link to abolitionists and the Underground Railroad. While also on the Community Board, she served on the youth committee and became second vice chair and secretary.
“I love the Community Board,” she said. “It gives to you the opportunity to learn all of the issues.”
Rose also served on the school board on Staten Island, where her priority was to get a new school in the North Shore. Her work on the school board helped prompt a landmark investigation into the lottery system at a private school in the borough that led to a change in the selection process.
In 2000, she decided to run for City Council with a grassroots campaign. She was the first Black candidate to have a headquarters.
She said. “I knew it was going to be hard. [But] I knew the issues, and I knew them well.”
With no major party support and little money, people questioned if she could really win. While Democrats told her she wasn’t wealthy enough, others told her that the nearly 30 percent of Blacks in the district at the time didn’t vote.
“You couldn’t convince me that I wasn’t going to win. I felt like I knew a broad spectrum of the people,” she said.
Election Day during that year came on September 11, 2001, the day terrorist attacks crippled the city. The election was then rescheduled to September 28. Exit polls indicated that she had won. However, many of the votes were disqualified and she lost by only 170 votes.
She decided not to run in the 2005 race, due to her mother falling ill. She continued working at Staten Island College, serving as executive director of the Liberty Partnership Program and remained active on the Community Board. She was also a strong supporter and organizer on Staten Island for Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential elections.
After losing a special election in January 2009 to win a vacant City Council seat, she set her sights on the primaries during that same year. She targeted her campaign toward women and received small donations from the community. She won the primary by a landslide.
She said, “For the first time, I was the Democratic candidate. For the first time, I wasn’t the ‘grassroots’ candidate. It was surreal.”
Weeks later, she won the general election, becoming the District 49 City Council Member representing North Shore neighborhoods, including Snug Harbor, St. George and Port Richmond. She is one of three council members on Staten Island.
“It was about the issues and the belief that I would do something about it,” she said. “The voters knew that I knew the North Shore had been neglected and I was a forceful advocate.”
Since serving on the council, she’s been named chair of the Civil Rights Committee. Rose recently introduced legislation to address the lack of health care services on Staten Island and has also been an advocate against proposed MTA bus route cuts. She has also advocated for the need for more Section 8 vouchers for the needy.
One her goals is to bring more jobs to the borough by revitalizing commercial strips, along with getting access to waterfronts.