By Timothy Denton
Longtime Elmont community activist Carl Achille announced last week that he would challenge Rep. Gregory Meeks for the Democratic nomination in the 5th Congressional District.
Achille may be facing an uphill battle against the incumbent. Meeks has never received less than 65 percent of the vote in his 11 congressional outings. In many cases, he ran unopposed. He has yet to face a serious primary challenge and has beaten back every challenge since reapportionment in 2012, winning by at least the same 65 percent margin as in the generals.
Achille, who is both a veteran of the Iraq war and a New York Police Department detective, is undeterred. Although Brooklyn-born Achille now lives in Elmont, “I have deep roots in Queens,” he said. “I grew up in Jamaica and Queens Village and still have family there,” he said. Jamaica is considered part of Meeks’s core constituency.
Achille currently serves as president of the Parkhurst Civic Association, known most recently for its stance against the Belmont Park hockey arena project. Achille has not himself taken a public position on the project, whose impact on the district as a whole is open to question. Public opposition could place the candidate in a delicate position, since such Democratic heavyweights as Gov. Andrew Cuomo are known for their energetic support of the project.
Achille said his decision to take Meeks on was motivated by his perception that “Meeks is just going through the motions. He’s not really doing the job in Washington. We need a full-time congressman who will fight for the whole district, not just a part of it.” Besides Jamaica and Elmont, the 5th District comprises parts of Floral Park, Franklin Square, Lawrence, the Rockaways and about a third of Valley Stream.
Local voters questioned about Meeks’s record in serving the district agreed with Achille’s assessment of him as an absentee congressman. “We only ever see him at election time,” said community activist Mimi Pierre-Johnson.
Many issues playing out on the national stage, such as the Deferred Admittance for Childhood Applicants, or DACA, question, also resonate strongly with local communities. Achille is of Haitian ancestry, and the 5th District has a large immigrant population. Elmont itself has a Haitian population of some 3,500, out of a total population of roughly 33,000.
In addition, Elmont has been fighting for many years for an investigation into its water quality. The community has a cancer rate many times the national average, and while local citizens and civic groups have pressed for government action, to date their efforts have fallen on deaf ears. Achille said the issue is also a personal one, because his mother suffers from lung cancer. “She was diagnosed in 2016,” he said, “and thank God she is still with us, but this is a huge problem for the community.”
Despite his outsized election victories, Meeks has been tagged a number of times as one of the most corrupt members of Congress during his more than 20 years as a representative. However, from his alleged relationship with former Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez to alleged illegal campaign contributions from the Stanford Financial Group, none of the charges have ever been proved. The House Ethics Committee investigated Meeks in 2012 for alleged campaign finance irregularities as well, but again, no charges were proved.
The organization most often responsible for charges against Meeks — Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington — has itself drawn criticism for the disproportionate number of charges against particular groups. For example, CREWs has disproportionately leveled charges against Democrats, including several leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus.