Councilmember Vincent Gentile, who is now the senior member of the City Council, got started on the road to a political career three decades ago. In 1984, he took his first steps by founding a political club, the Bay Ridge Democrats.
“We used to meet in the basement of the Bay Ridge Manor,” Gentile said.
Starting up a Democratic Club in Bay Ridge was a daring move in those days. The neighborhood was a Republican stronghold at the time, but Gentile said he believed it could also have a dynamic Democratic presence as well.
Meetings of the Bay Ridge Young Democrats drew sizable crowds, quite a feat in the era of Ronald Reagan.
The Bay Ridge Manor was a Democratic mainstay from basement to top floor. Gentile and the Young Democrats met in a room in the basement. Up on the third floor, Sal Albanese, a Democrat who represented Bay Ridge in the City Council, had his district office.
“I worked for Sal in his 1982 campaign. I coordinated his door-to-door canvass operation,” Gentile recalled during an interview with the Brooklyn Eagle over dinner at Tommaso Restaurant in Dyker Heights.
Gentile represents the 43rd Council District, a district that covers all of Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights and includes parts of Bensonhurst and Bath Beach. He has the longest term of service of any current councilmember, 12 years and counting.
He loves his job. So much so, that when he was recovering from a double knee replacement surgery this summer, he was still doing his job. He was on the phone with his staff every day getting regular updates on issues.
Gentile won the council seat in a special election in March of 2003 and has won re-election several times since.
In a twist of fate, Gentile went from losing an election to winning one in a matter of months.
In November of 2002, Gentile, who had served as a state senator representing Bay Ridge since 1996, lost his re-election bid to Republican-Conservative Marty Golden.
Golden had been a City Council member. He had to leave to take the state senate post. Gentile decided to run for Golden’s council seat and won.
Bay Ridge has undergone significant demographic changes since he first won a state senate sat in 1996, Gentile said. Middle Eastern and Asian cultures are moving into the formerly Irish-Norwegian community, he said.
“The Irish pub is becoming a rarity,” he said.
Gentile is a native son of Bay Ridge. He grew up on 74th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues and attended P.S. 170, McKinley Junior High School and Fort Hamilton High School.
Gentile earned a bachelor’s degree in government from Cornell University. During his time at Cornell, he worked as a sports reporter for WVBR- FM, a professional radio station.
He is a graduate of Fordham University Law School.
He worked for a time at the Kinney Shoe Corporation, investigating discrimination and sexual harassment against workers and supervisors. He handled these complaints for two years.
Gentile then got a job as an assistant district attorney in Queens. He still values that experience. “They put you in a courtroom right away,” he said. He spent four-and-a-half years prosecuting cases in the Special Victims Unit.
After working behind the scenes on political campaigns, Gentile made a foray into politics as a candidate in 1994 when he ran against Robert DiCarlo, a Republican state senator. Gentile lost, but made a comeback two years later in 1996.
The 1996 race featured three candidates, Gentile; DiCarlo, who was running on the Conservative Party line; and Republican John Gangemi Jr.
To this day, Gentile disagrees with the notion that he won only because it was a three-way race. Gentile is quick to point out that he earned 51 percent of the vote, meaning that he would have won no matter what.
These days, he is constantly in motion: traveling all over his district, going to City Hall, attending civic meetings and visiting senior citizen centers.
While he is a native son of Bay Ridge, Gentile insisted that he works hard to ensure that he provides services to all parts of his council district. “I have to make sure that Dyker, Bensonhurst and Bath Beach get services,” he said.
In Dyker Heights, he has worked to combat illegal home conversions. Longtime residents have told him of their concerns about property developers buying up one and two-family homes and converting the buildings in multi-unit dwellings without the proper city permit, making the neighborhood more crowded.
Gentile has legislation pending in the City Council to provide easier access for inspectors from the Department of Buildings to gain access to houses that are suspected of having been illegally converted.
Gentile said he believes that his most significant and enduring accomplishments are the two down zoning laws he passed for Dyker Heights and Bay Ridge. The new zoning allows growth but within the “context of the appearance and look of our neighborhoods,” he said.
In Bensonhurst, Gentile has held community cleanups and has worked to provide the community with a Greenmarket every year. “I was insistent on it getting a Greenmarket,” he said.
The market, which sells fresh fruit and vegetables, is open Sundays from June to November.
Gentile has served during two administrations — Michael Bloomberg and now Bill de Blasio.
There are differences, he said. The de Blasio administration “is certainly more accessible,” he said.
Gentile was an early supporter of fellow Democrat de Blasio when he ran for mayor in 2013. He had also supported de Blasio, a former councilmember, when he ran for council speaker.
In addition to local issues, Gentile is also paying close attention to citywide matters like new zoning and housing options.
He is looking at the mayor’s plan to create 200,000 units of affordable housing. “It’s a large number to fulfill. It may be done in a combination of things that come under the heading of ‘affordable,’” he said. Offering an example, he said micro-sized apartments might fall under the category of affordable housing.
Gentile is an ally of the mayor but he is not afraid to disagree with de Blasio.
He would vote against the mayor’s plan to ban horse carriages on city streets if it came up for a vote, he said.
Among the many bills Gentile has sponsored is one that combats animal cruelty by creating a registry that those convicted of animal cruelty must be listed on. “It is a deterrent and protection,” he said.
Parking and roadway safety are big issues in his district , he said.
He has successfully passed legislation that eliminates parking meter rules on Sundays.
Gentile has worked to improve parking in his district and to stop aggressive ticketing by traffic enforcement agents. He has successfully pushed legislation to restrict the agents.
“If we had as many police officers on the streets as traffic enforcement agents, we’d have no crime!” he said.
The City Council is committed to hiring 1,100 more cops.
The city is down 6,000 to 7,000 cops from the days of the Giuliani administration. The number of cops the city currently has — 35,000 — is too low, according to Gentile.
Gentile recently announced that he had provided funding for additional Department of Sanitation pickups on commercial streets in his district. Funds are also being used to hire a nonprofit organization to sweep litter off streets.