Just three days after an ugly verbal brawl marred a forum for District 20’s City Council candidates, five of the eight contenders gathered for a second, quieter forum on July 30 at the Flushing Library.
Organized by several Asian American organizations and billed as a forum on issues affecting the Asian community, the event filled the library’s auditorium with a diverse crowd. Simultaneous translations in Chinese, Korean and Hindi were available on headsets for those needing it.
Moderator Joyce Moy of the CUNY Asian American/Asian Research Institute asked the candidates a total of six questions, followed by three questions chosen by the audience. For each question the candidates were allowed only two minutes to answer. With the five contenders staying focused on the issues for most of the event, a fairly clear snapshot of each emerged.
John Choe, considered by some as a favorite in the race because he was endorsed by the Queens County Democratic Party, spent most of his allotted time stressing his experience — and his opponents lack of it. Repeatedly, the long-time chief of staff for Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) used phrases like “I have been there when …” and “I was on the front lines when … “ and “I am the only one in the room who has … ,” followed by a list of what Liu’s office has accomplished.
Asked for his ideas on how to clean up the Flushing waterfront, Choe drew laughter with a deadpan response.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have risked my life for your benefit,” he said. “I have gone into the Flushing River itself. I have tested it and I have come back alive.”
He later explained he and Liu kayaked on the river and performed some simple chemical tests as they were investigating what could be done with the area.
Choe listed neighborhood safety, quality of life and community integration as his top three issues. Ensuring economic opportunity for all and strong youth development programs are keys to neighborhood safety, he said. He wants to have Small Business Services more active in District 20, as well.
Housing, the environment and creating economic opportunities would be the priorities for Green Party candidate Evergreen Chou. He said he would work to set a rule requiring one-third of all new housing to be allocated for low-income earners. A hospital worker himself, he wants the city to survey and clarify the prevalence of pollution-related conditions, like asthma, among city residents.
Addressing the audience as “brothers and sisters,” Chou offered simple solutions to some problems: less driving to clean up the air; vitamin C and traditional Asian medicines to help fight H1N1; more cats to fix downtown Flushing’s rat problem.
To help small business, he would promote the growth of flea markets. To create a more integrated community and help immigrants more fully participate in society, he would make his office open to the entire community and enlist multilingual volunteers. He also wants to see a community center for people of all ages in Flushing.
On developing the town’s waterfront, he contributed the idea of building bike paths and walkways to connect the area to downtown.
He wants a transparent city government, where the public can view online the entire city budget. As councilman he would encourage the city to replace contractors with directly employed workers.
Although the forum moderator asked several times to hold applause until the question and answer session was entirely finished, a large number of student supporters for Yen Chou seemed incapable of suppressing their adoration of the educator candidate.
As might be expected, Yen listed education as her top issue. She said she would work to extend pre-K programs and reduce class sizes. She sees a link between education and making Flushing cleaner, because she believes educated children make for educated families.
Transportation is her second issue, and economic opportunity her third. To resolve traffic congestion in downtown Flushing, she suggests building a public transportation hub.
Yen would also fight for ESL funding for adults; she already runs a nonprofit organization that provides such services. She wants lower taxes for small businesses, and noting how vulnerable small businesses are to dangers like deadbeat clients, she suggests creating a “fair business agency” to police the small business environment.
Asked how she would improve the cultural sensitivity of 109th precinct officers, she said she would have them take classes in cultural sensitivity and enlist multilingual volunteers to aid in their communications with the community.
Candidate S.J. Jung said reviving the economy would be his first order of business, followed by improving quality of life and education in Flushing. He stressed his opposition to the city making budget cuts “on the backs of lower income and immigrant workers.”
On improving access to medical care in Queens, Jung favors community clinics in targeted areas, and increasing language translation services in hospitals.
To create more affordable housing, he thinks legal maneuvers are part of the solution. He said it is important to preserve Queens’ existing affordable housing by extending laws protecting it, which are set to expire, and to also repeal laws that have enabled landlords to convert fixed-rate housing to market rates.
Jung said helping immigrants integrate into society helps the whole of society. He cited himself as a case in point: he has built a business and a non-profit that helps other immigrants since coming to the U.S. some two decades ago. He therefore wants city funding for immigrant services to be baselined rather than discretionary.
Jung further suggested that money in the city’s Employee Pension Fund can be used for microfinancing of small businesses during these times of tight credit. The New York State Employee’s Pension Fund is already providing microfinancing through the New York State Business Corporation.
Rather than try to save money by cutting budgets, Jung thinks government should generate revenue during the recession through a progressive income tax.
James Wu, the only American-born candidate present said education would be his top priority as councilman. In particular he has a plan for introducing digital books into the schools, a move he calculates will both save money and benefit learning.
Wu’s second issue is economic development, creating jobs that provide “more than just a minimum wage.”
He believes Queens does not get its fair share of city services; all streets in the city, he said, should look as clean as Wall Street.
Wu would try to create more affordable housing by expanding the Housing Asset Renewal Program introduced by Christine Quinn. Under the program, the city is taking over some of the many development projects that have stalled during the recession and converting them to affordable housing. In addition, he would have developers that fail to allocate 30 percent of their projects’ units to lower income earners pay into a fund for creation of such housing.
Wu said he would help educate small business owners on winning government contracts, as he found this key in establishing his own business.
On helping the 109th Precinct interact more smoothly with the community, Wu suggested using the same international operator services that now provides language translation in many hospitals. Like Jung, he is in favor of progressive taxation, but stressed new taxes should start at the $1 million income level to avoid hurting small business owners.
The forum wound down to a humorous conclusion as Choe started his final statement, saying “I want you to vote for me not because I’m good looking, or because I speak well, but because I have delivered results to this community.” He then dismissed the other candidates’ words as empty rhetoric, and again listed his endorsements, including the 1199SEIU union — of which Evergreen Chou is a member.
Evergreen, in turn, ended his final statement with a direct response: “Further John, 1199, we never had a general vote so I never did vote for your endorsement. The executive [decision-makers] made a decision to endorse him,” he said, turning to an audience erupting in laughter, then punched fist into palm and exclaimed, “Yeah!” before returning to his seat.
The three candidates who did not participate were Isaac Sasson, Constantine Kavadas and Peter Koo. Sasson declined beforehand, while Kavadas said he was unable to attend because he had to address an unexpected legal challenge. Staff for Koo, the lone republican contender, said his absence was because of a scheduling mistake on their part. Sasson failed to return a call asking why he had declined.