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Sears’ past informs present

In her bid to stay in office for a third term, City Councilwoman Helen Sears (D-Jackson Heights) can draw upon lessons from several decades of public and private service in her neighborhood.

“I’ll quote Ronald Reagan and say I won’t hold my opponents’ inexperience against them,” she said in a recent interview with TimesLedger Newspapers.

Sears, 80, was born in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, but has spent nearly the last five decades in Jackson Heights. She lived in Europe for a while before working for the National Education Association in Washington, D.C., in 1955. She moved with her husband to Jackson Heights in 1960.

Sears attended Queens College and graduated with a degree in business and sociology in 1978. That same year she was elected a Democratic district leader.

The next year she got a taste of administrative duties when she was tapped to head the Katherine Sheridan Senior Center after its executive director stepped down. Sears took the yearlong job for a salary of $1.

She next started work for the city Department for the Aging in 1980 and in 1983 became director of governmental affairs at Elmhurst Hospital.

Sears became CEO of Physicians Hospital in Jackson Heights in the late 1980s, but that closed in 1990. Sears said she helped negotiate its sale to Wyckoff Heights Medical Center. The facility operated as Jackson Heights Hospital until 1996, when it closed its doors for good.

Sears’ first bid for city office came in 1991, when she was narrowly beaten in a primary by John Sabini for the Democratic City Council nomination.

Between 1998 and 2000, Sears worked for the major engineering firm F.R. Harris, helping with plans to better coordinate mass transit options to the city’s airport.

“Something happened and they could not finish it,” she said of the project, but she credits the work for helping pave the way for the E train connection with Kennedy International Airport’s AirTrain.

When Sabini was term-limited out of office, Sears ran again and won the seat in 2001. She said the proudest achievement in her first term was reacquainting her constituents with their elected official.

“It was kind of startling how little people knew of their local government,” she said, noting she held more than two dozen town hall meetings in her first four years.

“This place was foul-smelling, Dumpsters on every corner,” she said. “It was being cleaned up by either the merchants or the garbage companies.”

Sears banned the use of Dumpsters outside shops in the neighborhood and helped establish the 82nd Street Business Improvement District to keep the area clean.

She hopes to use the next four years to get a high school into the Jackson Heights area. The nearest is currently Newtown High School in Elmhurst. She also is in the process of establishing a women’s health clinic in her district.

Sears took quite a bit of flak from her opponents after she voted in favor of extending term limits last fall, but the councilwoman stands by her decision.

“It wasn’t handled very well from the beginning,” she said, noting she would have preferred to see the decision go to a voter referendum. But Sears believes that extending term limits allow elected officials to see long-term capital projects and other agendas to fruition.

“You can’t decapitate communities by leaving projects that you wish to move along after they start,” she said. “When I’m out of office, nobody’s picking up my initiatives.”

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jewalsh@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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