2001-10-20 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

By Howard Schwach

In last week’s column, I mentioned the fact that many voters in Rockaway had long memories and would not vote for Joann Ariola because of what she did in her race for the assembly against Audrey Pheffer.

A number of readers have called and E-mailed The Wave asking what it is all about. I think that it is important, from a journalistic standpoint, to tell the story, not because I want to harm Joann, who I really consider a viable candidate, but because it is important that voters have all of the information they need to make a decision for themselves about whom to vote for in the upcoming election.

Marion Polichek was a community activist who lived in Bayswater. She was the president of the 101 Precinct Community Council and very active in the Bayswater Civic Association. Her friend, Jim Dwyer, was the commander of the local American Legion post.

I lived in Bayswater at the time. As I was driving up Mott Avenue and saw the yellow crime scene tape around Polichek’s home, as a reporter, I knew what that crime scene tape meant.

Both Marion and Jim had been brutally murdered in what looked to be a robbery attempt gone wrong.

Police quickly focused on a next-door neighbor, a young many who had recently gotten out of prison on another homicide rap.

The irony of the whole deal was the fact that Polichek had written a letter to the parole board urging the young man’s release from prison.

Audrey Pheffer was a good friend of Polichek. She had been urged to write a letter in support of the young man’s parole as well. She did, and therein lies the tale.

Polichek was doing a favor for a neighbor. Pheffer was doing a favor for Polichek.

Because of community support, the letters from Polichek and Pheffer, the young man was paroled and returned home to live in the house next to Polichek’s.

It soon became clear that the neighbor had killed the two activists in an attempt to rob the home.

He was arrested for the crime and, eventually, found guilty.

In the last days of the 1996 Assembly campaign, however, Ariola decided to make the murder into a campaign issue.

I understand from some who worked for her in that campaign that a number of people tried to talk her out of using the murder, afraid that it would backfire on her.

In any case, Ariola put out a mailing that effectively blamed Pheffer for the murder, intimating that she was soft on crime and had caused a friend to die.

It did backfire on Ariola. It incensed many Bayswater and other Rockaway voters who knew the truth about Pheffer’s involvement. The word traveled quickly throughout the peninsula by word of mouth (think what would have happened if there had been the Internet at that time) and Ariola, who seemed to be slightly ahead by local polls, was defeated by Pheffer.

"I dislike Lew Simon intensely," one local political activist who lives in Rockaway told me prior to the primary. "If he is running against Ariola, I will vote for him, however, because I cannot vote for Ariola in light of what she tried to do to Audrey and the pain she brought Polichek’s kids because of what she said."

That is an indication of how strong the feeling is about the issue, even today.

I spoke with Ariola about the controversy recently, and she still has deep feelings about what happened.

"It opened a wound in my heart," she says.

"I was trying to make a point," she told me. "In 1996, crime was the biggest issue. I was trying to point out that you could not be soft on crime. I wanted everybody that you could not parole a violent felon who had not completed his sentence, that releasing such a person into the community could cause harm to somebody in that community."

"It was our intent to show that you cannot be soft on crime," she added. If my opponent intends to use it against me now, then he will reopen that wound."

What has the events of five years ago to do with this election (things have changed so much in the last 40 days, nevertheless in the last ten years)? Probably not much, but it does raise the question of campaign styles and the lengths a candidate will go to win an election.

It looks now that whoever wins in Rockaway might take the election. Both Addabbo and Ariola have strength in their particular sections of the mainland. Addabbo showed strength in Rockaway during the primary battle with Lew Simon. Although he lost to Simon in Rockaway, he did not lose by all that much.

Ariola has to move aggressively into Rockaway if she is to get the votes she needs from this community.

Will the memories of her last election try hinder her this year? It is hard to say what will happen in an election.

I would never have believed that Simon would have outpolled Chris Jorge in Belle Harbor and Neponsit, yet he did.

We will have to wait and see. The campaign has just begun, and it will end on November 6.

It should be an interesting two weeks.

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