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Friends, Not Foes: Queens City Councilmen Reach Across Political Aisle

Republican Councilman Eric Ulrich (left) and Democratic Councilman Paul Vallone (right) worked together to salute Purple Heart recipients during a ceremony at City Hall in 2015. (Photo courtesy of Vallone’s office)

Queens City Councilmen Reach Across Political Aisle

WINDSOR TERRACE — When council members Eric Ulrich and Paul Vallone sat next to each other at council meetings at City Hall, they often enjoyed a few laughs during the long hours of speeches, debates, and votes. “Eric and I always see the humor of the day,” Vallone said. 

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That the two men could laugh together might not seem unusual — except for the fact that Ulrich is a Republican and Vallone is a Democrat. At a time when the country feels like it has been torn apart by polarization, they’re proof that friendship transcends politics.

Due to a new seating arrangement in the council chamber — members used to be seated alphabetically — the two don’t sit together anymore but that hasn’t put a damper on their friendship.

With Ulrich,  “you don’t have to keep your guard up,” Vallone said. “You can joke around but you can also have a serious conversation. We talk about our families a lot.”

“He’s a great guy,” Ulrich said of Vallone. “What I like about him is that he treats everyone with respect.”

Politics aside, Ulrich and Vallone have a lot in common. They both represent Queens. They’re both Catholic — Ulrich attends Mass at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Ozone Park. Vallone is a parishioner of St. Andrew Avellino Church in Flushing.

Vallone represents District 19, which takes in several neighborhoods including Bayside, College Point, Douglaston, Whitestone, and Flushing. Ulrich’s district, District 32, includes Belle Harbor, Breezy Point, Howard Beach, Ozone Park, and Richmond Hill.

The council is dominated by Democrats — only three of the 51 members are Republicans. That fact isn’t lost on Ulrich. He often teases Vallone by passing him notes accusing him of secretly being a Republican and asking if he’s sure he doesn’t want to join the GOP.

Ulrich and Vallone are both moderates, which may be one of the reasons they get along so well. “It is okay to be in the middle,” Vallone said.

“You find common ground,” Ulrich said.  “Some of my colleagues are much more progressive. But you learn we are all public servants. It is the bonds of character we share, not ideology. Not every day is Election Day.”

Ulrich, who was first elected in 2009, forged partnerships across the aisle during the four years he served as chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee. He found common ground, even with colleagues on the far left, because people of all political stripes respect veterans. 

“You can find broad bipartisan support on certain issues,” he said.

Both Ulrich and Vallone said it’s a must to reach out to voters in the opposing party.

In 2013, Vallone became the first Democrat to win the council race in District 19 in many years. “My district was Republican for years,”  he said. “When I ran, it was not just a victory for me, it was a Democrats gaining a seat they never had before.”

“I am very blessed to represent a diverse district in Queens,” Ulrich said, adding that his district has a 3-1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans. “In order to ever win an election, I needed the votes of Democrats.”

There’s one thing an elected official has to have above all else, according to Vallone: “You have to have a moral compass.”