Claire Shulman, who became the first woman to rise to Queens borough president, taking office when her predecessor and boss resigned in a corruption scandal, then won election after election over 16 years as she sought to restore the office’s integrity, died on Sunday at her home in Beechhurst, Queens. She was 94.
Her longtime friend Nicholas Garaufis said the cause was lung cancer.
Ms. Shulman was the deputy to Donald R. Manes, the borough president for 14 years and one of New York’s most powerful politicians, when he resigned in February 1986 in the wake of scandal and a suicide attempt. He had been found in his car bleeding heavily from self-inflicted slashes on his wrist and leg in January.
When Mr. Manes resigned, he had been unmasked as a central figure in what turned out to be the biggest municipal corruption scandal in New York City in decades. The Manes ring had pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks from companies doing business with the city’s Parking Violations Bureau.
Ms. Shulman, a fellow Democrat who had been Mr. Manes’s deputy since 1980, was chosen by the Queens members of the City Council as the interim president for the rest of the year.
In March, Mr. Manes fatally stabbed himself in the heart.
The first woman to hold the position, Ms. Shulman went on to win four elections, holding office until the end of 2001.
She presented a striking contrast to Mr. Manes. Where he was a gregarious, backslapping product of clubhouse politics — he was also the leader of the Queens Democratic Party — Ms. Shulman was reserved; “a nice, motherly figure,” as one city councilman put it at the time.
As a registered nurse, she had entered government through the largely nonpartisan world of community boards — the groups of residents and business people that advise New York City officials on issues like land use and municipal services.
Some politicians questioned whether she had the political savvy to battle effectively for her borough in the rough and tumble world of citywide politics. Others said that people would find it hard to believe that Ms. Shulman — who was not implicated in Mr. Manes’s wrongdoing — had been unaware of it.
“Whether you or anyone thinks that I should have known, I didn’t,” Ms. Shulman said, adding that she had been busy concentrating on governmental matters.
But it was a nonissue to voters. In 1986, in the race to complete the remaining three years of Mr. Manes’s term, Ms. Shulman defeated her opponent by two to one in both the Democratic primary and the general election. In her three subsequent re-elections, she never had a primary opponent.
A borough president’s most influential role in those years was as a member of the Board of Estimate, which — until it was abolished in a municipal reorganization in 1989 — was one of the city’s two top policymaking bodies, along with the City Council. The board, comprising the mayor, the council president, the city comptroller and the five borough presidents, shared with the Council the authority to approve the city’s budget, and it had the final say over matters like zoning and land use.
Having a vote on such crucial issues gave the borough chiefs most of their power. By 1989, Ms. Shulman had shown that she knew “how to negotiate fiercely but fairly” as a board member, The New York Times said in an editorial.
One notable example came in 1987, when the board adopted a major citywide rezoning with the intention of encouraging construction of middle-income apartment buildings. Ms. Shulman negotiated a compromise that exempted some areas, including a dozen in Queens, in which small private homes predominated. Residents of those neighborhoods had opposed the construction of apartment buildings in their midst.
After the Board of Estimate was abolished, leaving borough presidents with largely only advisory roles in city affairs, Ms. Shulman disputed the contention that the office had become mostly ceremonial.
“As the highest-ranking elected official in a borough of two million, I work with business and community groups, civic associations and federal, state and local officials to provide services to individuals and improve neighborhoods,” she said in a letter to The Times in 1996.
She remained a forceful advocate for her borough on economic development, environmental issues and disputes involving airports — Queens is home to two of the three main ones in the New York City area — as well in securing services for its increasingly ethnically diverse population. She helped obtain funding for more than 30,000 additional school seats and for the completion of the Queens Hospital Center, the borough’s largest health care provider.
If Ms. Shulman came across as reserved, she did not hesitate to speak her mind. When a committee hoping to attract the 2012 Olympics to New York City proposed building an Olympic Village in Queens on land earmarked for permanent housing and reconfiguring the lakes in Flushing Meadows Corona Park to hold the rowing and canoeing events, Ms. Shulman fought back.
“They come in here with their arrogance and think they are just going to move things around,” she said in 2000. “What do they think we are, peasants?”
Claire Kantoff was born in Brooklyn on Feb. 23, 1926. She graduated from Adelphi University on Long Island. In the 1960s, while living in Bayside, Queens, she became chairwoman of the local community board.
Her husband, Dr. Melvin Shulman, a psychiatrist in New York for 40 years, died in 2015. She is survived by her sister, Ruth; her daughter, Ellen Shulman Baker, a physician and retired astronaut who took part in three spaceflights; a son, Lawrence, an oncologist; five grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. Another son, Kim, who was a film director, died in 2001.
In recent years Ms. Shulman founded and led the Flushing Willets Point Corona LDC, a nonprofit community advocacy group.
As borough president, she had championed Queens cultural institutions, including the Queens Museum of Art, the Museum of the Moving Image and Flushing Town Hall, which honored her last year on its 40th anniversary.
“When you spend taxpayers’ money,” she said at the time, “you want to make sure that it goes to a good purpose.”
Julia Carmel contributed reporting.