Watching the First Debate in Queens

Last night, 15 reporters scattered throughout Queens to watch the first presidential debate with local residents in bars, political clubs and other viewing venues to gauge the night’s mood and observe voters’ reactions to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, and Republican candidate Donald Trump.

Queens typically votes heavily Democratic. As of April 1, 722,740 Queens voters were registered as Democrats, with just 123,469 registered as Republicans out of a total of 1,106,172 registered voters. That reflects the margin in the city as a whole. According to a Siena Research Institute poll of New York City voters released Sept. 20, Clinton maintains a 21-point lead in a match-up with Trump, Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Libertarian Gary Johnson.

The Queens electorate is ethnically diverse. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated in 2015 that 2,339,150 people live in the borough. A total of 47.8 percent of the population are foreign born and 56.5 percent of families speak languages other than English at home.

Queens, like much of New York City, is notorious for low voter turnout. According to the Board of Elections of the City of New York, in 2012 just 58 percent of eligible active voters turned out for the general election.

The following short pieces provide a glimpse of the debate that was watched by millions across America.

By Tara Law

Millennials Cheer and Jeer at Queens College

At Queens College, Monday evening before the debate. (The Ink/Ravie Lakshmanan)

Getting ready for the debate

At The Summit building on the Queens College campus, a roomful of 100 students watched the presidential debate closely. Most were millennials, many were members of the political science club and some will be first-time voters in November.

“This is the first election that there are same percentage of millennial voters and baby boomer voters,” said Kaitlyn Koerick, an 18-year-old student who helped arrange the event and gave a short speech before the debate. “And you know, baby boomer voters are…. ” The audience started laughing before she could finish.

Many said they were eager for the debate but skeptical of both candidates. “It’s going to be a comedy, a horrible comedy,” said Nahia Vassell, a political science student, just before the debate started. “We have two people who lie just so that they can get votes.”

“You asked me if Trump could convince me to vote for him? Not a chance!” said Haisam Khalil, 27, a veteran studying political science and international relations. “I want to figure out based on the debate, how the candidates performed, if my country is going to hell or not.”

Judging from the overall reaction to the candidates, the audience clearly favored Hilary Clinton over Donald Trump. “We just really wanted to provide a stage for students to exchange their opinions in a respectful manner,” said sophomore Emily Abrams, an organizer of the event. “Plus there’s free pizza. Who doesn’t like that?”

— By Chuan Tian & Ravie Lakshmanan


In Trump’s Native Queens, Outnumbered GOP Stays Cautiously Optimistic

At the start of Monday night’s presidential debate, the Queens GOP headquarters near Donald Trump’s childhood home was nearly empty. Of the six Republican stalwarts who stayed after a meeting to watch the debate, congressional candidate Mike O’Reilly looked the most nervous.

“I’m hoping that Trump is able to speak intelligently on the key issues with a broad stroke,” he said. “He doesn’t need to get bogged down with the general population with Aleppo, but he needs to be able to point it out on a map,” he added, referring to Libertarian Gary Johnson’s recent gaffe.

O’Reilly knew Trump is not likely to win New York. But he hopes the Republican candidate may be able to “agitate the silent majority” enough to boost his own campaign against incumbent Gregory Meeks.

At the start of the debate, Trump attacked Clinton for her support of NAFTA and the Trans- Pacific Partnership. But County Chairman and former U.S. Congressman Bob Turner was unimpressed.

“This resonates well with blue-collar people,” he said. “It’s not going to work. This is a populist strategy, not an economic strategy.” Turner said he reluctantly voted for Trump at the Republican Convention and plans to do so again in November.

At the end of the debate, O’Reilly picked up his campaign pamphlets and headed toward the door.

“Who wins when they both did a good job?” He wondered. “I think Trump.” Turner nodded in reassurance.

— By Sarah Gibson


In Jackson Heights, LGBTQ Democrats Celebrate Clinton’s Performance 

Members of the LGBTQ community showed up to Club Evolution in Jackson Heights to watch the first round of presidential debates. (The Ink/Santiago Arnaiz)

Monday nights are “Lunes Picantes” at Club Evolution in Jackson Heights, when bartenders don sombreros and DJs play Mexican beats. But yesterday, Queens’s self-described hottest gay Latin dance club took a break from its regular programming to broadcast the first presidential debate.

Before the debate, Bill Meehan, a board member of the Lesbian & Gay Democratic Club of Queens, the event’s host, and a longtime Jackson Heights resident, said he sees Clinton as a champion of his community. Though he acknowledged Clinton had been slow to support same sex marriage on a national level, Meehan urges people to look to the present. “A lot of people who are now supporters took their time. I have no problem with people who’ve come late to the party, as long as they’re here.”

After the debate, Lesbian & Gay Democractic Club founder Daniel Dromm, a New York City councilman, evaluated Trump’s performance. “Oh my god, he was horrible,” said Dromm. “I worry about his mental health—it’s almost sad.” To Dromm, the possibility of a Trump win is now inconceivable.

But for voters like Meehan, even a small chance of a Trump administration is cause for alarm. “I’m a gay man, a senior, and I have undocumented people living with me,” he said. “He’s a threat to my way of life and to the people I love.”

— By Santiago Arnaiz and Devin Briski


Astoria Residents Laugh with Clinton 

At Astoria’s Q.E.D. Bar, dozens of voters watched the debate with a side of comedy. Comedians Frank Conniff from the Mystery Science Theater 3000, Christian Finnegan from A&E’s “Black And White,” “The Fun Part” on Netflix and Myka Fox from Someecards hosted the event.

The highly anticipated event seemed to fill some Astorians with equal parts excitement and dread.“I’m just waiting to get it over with,” said Brendan Smith, 31, director of engineering at Citywide Ferry Service, before the debate.

The comedians were quick to pick up on room’s mood. “It’s so nice to see you here, at the end of all things,” said Finnegan.

Throughout the debate, the crowd roared with laughter at the comedians’ commentaries and seemed to find Trump’s statements the funniest.

After only a few minutes into the debate, it became clear that the majority of the room was pro-Clinton. The first big round of cheers came when Clinton termed Trump’s economic policies as “Trumped up, trickle-down.”

Moderator Lester Holt got at least one good review.

“I was pleasantly surprised actually,” said Katherine Cahn-Fuller, 27, a medical student. “I was a little worried,” she said, “Since he said, ‘I’m not going to fact check”…but when Trump said things that were just so blatantly inaccurate, he would kind of step in and say, ‘No, that’s not true.’”

— By Rashida Kamal and Arijeta Lajka


Jackson Heights Democrats Cheer on Clinton 

Yeras Sports Bar and Restaurant in Jackson Heights was packed on Monday night as spectators gathered to watch the first presidential debate with the John F. Kennedy Democratic Club of Queens. (Nicole Einbinder/ The Ink)
Yeras Sports Bar and Restaurant in Jackson Heights was packed on Monday night as spectators gathered to watch the first presidential debate with the John F. Kennedy Democratic Club of Queens. (The Ink/Nicole Einbinder)

At Yeras Sports Bar and Restaurant in Jackson Heights on Monday night, the mood was tense.

The first presidential debate was about to begin, and for the 30 or so people gathered at the John F. Kennedy Democratic Club of Queen’s viewing party, the next 90-minutes would be critical for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to clinch the election.

The dimly lit restaurant, decked out with eight flat screen televisions, a full bar, and margarita machine, erupted in cheers the moment Clinton walked on stage. As viewers snacked on guacamole, nachos, and chips, debate moderator Lester Holt began the evening with a discussion on job creation and economic equality.

The evening was characterized by laughter — from Clinton’s portrayal of her opponent’s economic plan as ‘Trumped-up-trickle down economics’ to Trump’s claim that thousands of people love him.

“Is he hitting the tap before he got on the stage?” said Jackson Heights resident Scott Brevda, 24, his eyes glued to the screen.

By the debate’s close, however, there was little doubt over who won.

“[Trump] said nothing about what he would do for this country,” said Jackson Heights resident Joan Schaffer, 53, with a laugh. “He was the clown that he always is.”

— By Nicole Einbinder


Clinton Declared the Winner in Little Manila

Krystal’s Cafe in Woodside was filled with laughter and applause Monday night as around 30 Filipino Americans gathered to watch the first presidential debate. The historic implications of Hillary Clinton as the first female Democratic nominee resonated with the roughly 90 percent female attendees. Aries Dela Cruz, 31, president and co-founder of Filipino American Democratic Club of New York, noted that women take on more leadership roles in Filipino culture. “There’s a reason why the first female president in Asia was in the Philippines,” he said.

He added that many Filipino American wives are the breadwinners while the husbands fill the role of the stay at home parent. “The way that toxic masculinity and patriarchy works in this country is that men have a very low bar for success,” he said. “So, I think Hillary will have to over-perform.”

The crowd expressed their impatience for Trump’s redundancy through intermittent jeers. When he attempted to make a point about securing America, someone yelled, “Move on!” Another person criticized him for “saying the same thing over again.” Then his spiel about Clinton’s propensity for running negative ads incited a “bye bye!”

Loida Nicolas Lewis, chair of Filipino Americans for Hillary East Coast, was the most recognizable of the empowered women in attendance. She expressed her admiration of Hillary Clinton’s performance against Donald Trump at the debate.

“She never allowed him to get under her skin,” she said. “He was on the defensive.”

— By Caitlin Kelley


Nepali Americans Aimed to Engage Community at Debate Party

Members of the Nepali-American community gather at Himalayan Yak in Jackson Heights and take photographs of the first 2016 presidential debate on September 26, 2015. (The Ink/Gabriela Bhaskar)
Members of the Nepali-American community gathered at Himalayan Yak in Jackson Heights and took photographs of the first 2016 presidential debate on September 26, 2016. (The Ink/Gabriela Bhaskar)

In a quiet Nepalese restaurant on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, the advocacy group People’s PAC for People hosted the first of three planned presidential debate viewings as part of an effort to drive political engagement within the Nepali-American community.

“We started this organization last year to make sure the Nepali-American community is informed and engaged in mainstream politics,” said Tara Niraula, 62, a former education professor.  

The event at the Himalayan Yak began with an introduction by Durga Prasad Bhurtel, president of People’s PAC for People. Niraula, speaking in Nepali, then explained the American presidential election system and the basic rules of the debate.

“We are not concerned which candidates people vote for,” Niraula said. “We want the community to get educated in United States politics, and how it works.”

A portrait of the Dalai Lama overlooked the 25 people intently watching Trump and Clinton.

Between eating momos and snapping smartphone photos, the crowd broke out in laughter when Trump said, “I have a much better temperament than she does.”

Many in the audience said they had already decided who they were voting for and most said Clinton was their choice.

— By Gabriela Bhaskar


In Astoria’s Icon Bar, Clinton Alone is Queen

Despite narrowing national polls, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reigned supreme for an assembled group at the popular gay bar Icon in Astoria. As Clinton walked onto the stage in a red pantsuit, one viewer gasped aloud, “She’s so regal.”

Responding to a critique from Republican nominee Donald Trump that she’d over-prepared, Clinton smiled. “I prepared to be President,” she said. “And that is a good thing.” Icon’s audience jumped to their feet and cheered.

For this group, Trump could do nothing right. Promises and allegations were met with boos and heckles. During a spiel on Trump’s tax return, bartender and comedian Andrew Fafoutakis, 33, shouted, “We don’t want a list of banks! We want a list of tax returns!” Quieter punters nursing gin and tonics nodded.

What they really wanted, said Anthony Carmichael, 34, was explanations of the feasibility of Trump’s policies. “Hillary came prepared, but Donald only gave his opinion,” he said. “It’s not enough to say you’ll do something – you need to give a how.”

In the aftermath of the debate, some worried about the possible impact of Clinton’s gender on her candidacy. “It’s like any sort of job situation for a woman,” said Gill Adler, 28, a sex education instructor. “She’s overqualified, he’s under-qualified, but somehow they’re on the same stage.” On the debate stage and on the bar’s big screens, Clinton’s wry looks across the room sometimes looked as though she was considering the same thing.

— By Natasha Frost


Watching With Van Bramer in Long Island City

Jimmy Van Bramer welcomed locals at The Creek and the Cave in Long Island City on Monday. (The Ink/Navraj Narula)


Jimmy Van Bramer took the stage at a dim basement bar in Long Island City’s The Creek and the Cave bar a few minutes before Monday night’s debate and announced to the crowd his commitment to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

“Are there any Trump supporters here?”the city councilman asked. “You should leave!”

He added, “God help us if Donald Trump is elected. She has to win this election for all of us: immigrants, people of color, gay people. Donald Trump is not the right direction for this country.”

As the debate began and Clinton moved to attack Trump, the crowd started to heat up. Every time Clinton jabbed at Trump in response to his attacks, the crowd would burst into cheers and laughter. Trump’s style did not seem to impress anyone.

“Side eye,” shouted one person in the crowd as Trump made a face when Clinton spoke of her middle class upbringing.

Clinton’s performance boosted the confidence of the audience, which consisted almost exclusively of her own supporters.

“Hillary won!” Van Bramer exclaimed after the debate.

Jimena Monjaras, 31, a Mexican immigrant who works for a nonprofit, elaborated. “She just came across as the president, and Trump didn’t.”

— By Harry Chang, Aditi Hudli & Navraj Narula