Dozens of Democrats welcomed now-former Republican Councilman Peter Koo of Flushing into the fold on Monday as he officially changed party affiliation.
It was a Democratic love fest as Congressman Joe Crowley (D-Queens and the Bronx), who is also Queens Democratic Party chairman, was joined by a host of area elected officials at the Board of Elections office in Kew Gardens.
In 2009, Koo became the first Republican in 100 years to win the 20th District seat, besting his Democratic opponent by 5 percent of the vote. He replaced John Liu, now city comptroller, who took part in Monday’s festivities.
Liu noted Monday was Lunar New Year, adding to the celebratory mood. “What a great day for this to be happening,” he said. “Peter never forgot about the community of Flushing and he always gave back. His issues are in line with the Queens delegation.”
For months, there has been talk that Koo, 58, was dissatisfied with the Queens Republican Party because of the infighting and lack of support for him. But the councilman downplayed the issue Monday, saying that was just a small part of his decision.
“I am an independent thinker, who believes in the support of principles which best sustain and improve the overall quality of life in our communities,” Koo said. “This has led me to cross party lines to support candidates who are best qualified for the job.”
In addition, he noted that as an Asian immigrant, he wants to do more to help new arrivals of all ethnic origins “to participate in the political process and achieve the American dream.”
He favors such Democratic initiatives as the DREAM Act, to allow illegal immigrant students to pursue higher education, and in stopping the practice of Rikers Island officials reporting immigrant detainees to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
But most importantly, Koo said, he wants to do more for the community he represents. “I want to continue to fight for needed capital projects, save important programs and improve the overall quality of life,” he said.
As one of only five Republicans in the City Council, Koo heads no committees, and as a Democrat he may see that change as well as getting more discretionary funds. That idea was not discounted by Crowley, who noted that majority party members are more likely to be rewarded.
Crowley added that Koo “feels comfortable” with the Democrats, but that it takes a lot to change parties. “It comes with a risk; I hope he is rewarded for it,” the congressman said.
Koo said he is a longtime supporter of Liu, Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing) and Gov. Cuomo. “I’m a Democrat at heart and more in tune with Democratic issues,” he said.
The councilman is up for re-election next year and he was asked if changing parties was to make it easier to get re-elected. Crowley answered that there are many Democrats who may want to run for the Flushing seat, but, “they may rethink running now that Peter is a Democrat and it could make for a smaller primary for him.”
A political insider who asked not to be identified said that one reason Koo switched parties was because he wanted a solidified party behind him for his next election. “He can be a fiscal conservative, but still be a Democrat,” the person added, noting that Koo has been toying with the change for a year.
Meng said she was not surprised by the move. “It’s a good thing. We get along and he’s a moderate, but as a small business owner, he’s still conservative.”
Reached by phone, Robert Hornak, spokesman for the Queens Republican Party, said he thinks highly of Koo: “We’ve had a good relationship in the past and hopefully in the future.”
A successful businessman, Koo owns five drugstores in the Flushing area. An avowed workaholic, he moved to the United States from Hong Kong in 1971 and held low-paying jobs to put himself through pharmacy school.
Koo moved to New York in 1981 from New Mexico, worked at New York Hospital Queens and bought his first pharmacy in 1991. A philanthropist, Koo makes numerous donations to hospitals and senior centers, endowing a scholarship fund in memory of his father at LaGuardia Community College and donating his $112,500 City Council salary to area nonprofit groups.