Hu, Sontag and Sassouni win in ‘unprecedented’ Great Neck library elections

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Hu, Sontag and Sassouni win in ‘unprecedented’ Great Neck library elections
Mimi Hu, Chelsea Sassouni, Scott Sontag and Josie Pizer won their respective Great Neck Library trustee races. (Photos from the candidates)

Mimi Hu, Scott Sontag, Chelsea Sassouni and Josie Pizer claimed victory in Great Neck Library Board of Trustee elections Monday night after an unusually divisive and active race.

Between the Main Library and the Parkville Branch, more than 2000 people cast ballots in this year's contested Great Neck Library trustee races. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)
Between the Main Library and the Parkville Branch, more than 2,000 people cast ballots in this year’s contested Great Neck Library trustee races. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)

The race drew high turnout for a library election: 2,147 ballots cast on machines, plus nearly 200 proxy and “emergency ballots.” The voting line snaked around the Main Library throughout the day, with some voters reporting waits between half an hour and an hour and a half – and a handful reading books.

“This is unprecedented,” Great Neck Library Director Denise Corcoran said.

Hu, who faced a write-in challenge from Qiping Zhang, won her race 1,248 to 688 and will serve a four-year term in what is currently Great Neck Library Board President Robert Schaufeld’s seat. There were  205 “under votes” – meaning a voter went for neither candidate.

“I think people really cared about a lot of issues that are involved and I’m truly thankful to my friends and supporters because they worked so hard today,” Hu said, noting she was “very surprised by the turnout” and “very happy with the result.”

Hu also said that she is “ready to learn” new things and listen to the community because the “best ideas are always in the community.”

Zhang did not immediately respond to a request for comment after the results, but posted a statement on WeChat saying she was “feeling great,” thanking her supporters and calling for unity.

“Let’s grow out of this campaign, put all the negativity to the end, and create the unity at an elevated level,” Zhang said. “We all love the libraries, we all love the community, we love everything about Great Neck. And we want everyone to be happy.”

Sontag, meanwhile, unseated Schaufeld 909 to 489 and will finish Francine Krupski’s term, which is January 2019 to 2020. In that race, 718 people chose neither candidate and 25 people cast write-in ballots.

“I think that the election came out the right way,” Sontag said. “I think that the people that need to be on the board are on the board and we’ll get some good change coming in.”

Among the changes Sontag said he hopes to see implemented are improving the programs already there, bringing in a community advocate and engaging people more to get them to come back to the library.

Schaufeld, who had run for a one-year term in hopes of finishing ongoing projects like the branch library renovations and a landscaping project for the Main Library, said he is “disappointed” with the results but that the “future is bright” for the Great Neck Library.

“I’m obviously disappointed, but the public has voted and they expressed their desire for change,” Schaufeld said, noting that he has three months left on his term.

Sassouni, who was nominated earlier this year to fill a vacancy on the board, was elected to a four-year term for Joel Marcus’ expiring seat as an independent candidate and defeated Nominating Committee-endorsed David Zielenziger 1,077 to 611. More than 400 people didn’t select either candidate.

Sassouni said in an email message Tuesday: “Our Library is a catalyst, connector, supporter, and guide for our community’s motivated groups and individuals. The voter turnout yesterday is proof that our community cares deeply for this institution and the multiple roles it takes on – and I am so grateful for the trust bestowed upon me as a Trustee. I especially hope to see new faces getting involved alongside the Trustees at the Board and Committee meetings that are open to the public!”

“I was surprised to have even been nominated and it would have been fun to serve,” Zielenziger said via email. “However, Mimi and Scott are both smart, prepared and younger than most of the current trustees. For sure, the Library will have a more capable president than the one defeated today.”

Pizer, an incumbent, won her uncontested race with 1,077 votes, while Nominating Committee candidates William Gens, Alex Au and Francine Krupski each won their uncontested races with 925, 983 and 979 votes, respectively. In all of these races, more than 1,100 voters did not cast a vote for any candidate.

The totals exclude the approximately 100 “emergency ballots” – meaning ones that had to be counted by hand – and roughly 90 or so proxy ballots.

The days leading up to the election were heated, with some candidates facing allegations including wanting to bring drag queens into the library to indoctrinate children to being anti-Semitic and racist against the Persian community.

A week before the election, Hu also appeared to be targeted over support for the LGBT community in an incident that was recorded on a video viewed more than 10,000 times. In that incident, two women called her a “communist fascist,” asked her if she was a man or a woman, and said to “take that —- to China” regarding support for transgender people.

Messages had circulated on WeChat connecting LGBT rights, transgender bathrooms and bringing so-called drag queen story hour to the library in what appeared to be an effort to connect Hu to social issues.

The presence of Zielenziger on the ballot also appeared to spark some concerns, with some voters pointing to an article he wrote in 2015 entitled “Worried About Iran? Great Neck Has Just Been Taken Over by Iranians” as an example of “hatred” against Orthodox Jews and Iranians and his frequent questions at village board meetings.

One man emailed Zielenziger after the election, calling him a “low life, racist, liberal scumbag,” using obscenities and saying he “would love to bump into you at the library and break your glasses in half.”

Zielenziger said shortly after the results were announced that a last-minute campaign was “more interested in frightening and scaring people and causing resentments by accusing me of being a Jew hater, which is impossible” than qualifications for the trustee position.

This is a sharp contrast to recent elections, where a few hundred – not thousands – of people voted. In 2015, former Trustee Francine Krupski retained her seat on the board with just 104 votes, Douglas Hwee unseated incumbent Trustee Varda Solomon 275 to 218 in 2016, and fewer than 250 people decided on two trustees and Nominating Committee members in 2017.

Rebecca Rosenblatt Gilliar, a library advocate and community activist for 30 years, described it as an “astonishing election” considering it involved a library.

“I knew that it was going to be a big turnout because of the rhetoric in the public space. You could tell,” Gilliar said. “There was too much fire and brimstone attached to this election. I just didn’t know where exactly the fires would be.”

But Gilliar also said the election went beyond the institution itself.

“I don’t think this election was about the library,” Gilliar said. “I think it was about a community with some serious schisms.”

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