When introducing the keynote speaker at his Asian Pacific American Heritage Month celebration at the Queens Library in Flushing on Friday, Councilman John Liu went on about her important yet approachable stature.
Abruptly, his attention swung to the back curtain of the stage. Peeping through an opening, Liu (D-Flushing) watched as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) inconspicuously appeared before the audience.
Even as the keynote speaker at the celebration, the politician many came to see during her first senatorial visit to Flushing had circumvented her grand entrance.
“She’s just that down to earth,” Liu said. “You’re talking about her and she appears — just like that.”
Gillibrand, who was named to Hillary Clinton’s seat after the former presidential candidate was named secretary of state by President Barack Obama, had been in Flushing previously for one of her girlfriend’s weddings, but not on official business.
An Asian studies major at Dartmouth, Gillibrand has an intimate knowledge of the culture being celebrated. According to Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing), Gillibrand speaks better Mandarin Chinese than she does. While the senator would admit her linguistic skills had declined, she had plenty of points to make regarding Asian Americans’ important role in development of the state, Queens, and, in particular, Flushing. And since they have made an investment in America, Gillibrand said they should take part in the political changes her party wishes to make in the coming years.
“Now is a wonderful time to honor those who have come before us, for the refugees and immigrants who settled in our country,” Gillibrand said. “And we should honor them by dedicating ourselves to the challenges we have in common.”
Gillibrand used much of her time to outline plans for comprehensive education, healthcare and immigration reform. Mainly, she touched on the subject of families split up during the immigration process and wants the family reunification process — which she said can take up to eight years — shortened to around six months.
Gillibrand focused on unemployment, as well. Minorities are having a harder time finding jobs, Gillibrand said, evidenced by unemployment rates as high as 15 perceent in communities of color.
“That’s a very significant number,” she said. “We have to address how we create jobs, how we get this economy moving, which investments to make a difference at a local level.”
The senator then held up Meng and Liu as two examples of Asian influence in New York’s elected offices. Meng, who last year was elected to represent the 22nd District in the state Assembly, is only the second Asian-American to take that office. The first was her father, Jimmy Meng, who held the same seat. Asian Americans are so non-existent in state government that Meng says one of the questions she always hears from colleagues is, “Do you know John Liu?”
Liu, who is running for city comptroller, was praised by Gillibrand for being the son of immigrants, working in a sweatshop during his childhood and eventually becoming a community leader and the “quintessential American story.” She added that she hopes to see more minorities, including Asians, try to attain a role in government.
“The more we encourage persons from our immigrant community to seek elected office, that is a very welcome thing,” Gillibrand said.
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month was designated for the month of May, and Liu sought to cap it all off with his event. The auditorium was packed with about 100 Asian residents as well as other elected officials, including Borough President Helen Marshall and state Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Flushing).
They took in performances from the Townsend Harris High School Chamber Ensemble, a short play and dance routine from the Phillippine Forum, and a performance of “God Bless America” by children from the Immanuel Genius Educational Center with the elected leaders standing in back.
“You don’t have to go on an airplane, just look around in your own neighborhood,” Marshall said. “You will find you have neighbors from all over. This is a very, very special place.”