During a low-key forum Tuesday night between Democratic state Senate hopefuls John Liu and incumbent Tony Avella, the only real sparks were provided by a handful of hot-headed members of the audience, who temporarily brought the proceedings to a halt.
Throughout the 90-minute session at the Sheraton LaGuardia East Hotel in Flushing, which drew about 200 mostly Asian-American constituents, Avella and Liu never came face to face. But each offered plenty of allusions — direct or indirect — to the other, making it clear that the competition between them for the 11th District seat is on.
A third candidate, Paul Gilman, representing the Green Party, had little chance to make an impact as the crowd had noticeably thinned out by the time he spoke.
As Liu followed Avella on stage, he received a rousing welcome until detractors produced a large banner calling for his arrest, leading to a verbal melee in the audience.
Liu, taking the incident in stride, quipped, “Welcome to democracy. These people who voice their opinions are certainly entitled. I’ve been told that they are part of my friends of the Falun Gong, who have been following me for years, mainly because they firmly believe that I am a Communist spy from China. You can make your own conclusions.”
Moderated by NY1 Queens reporter Ruschell Boone, the forum followed a simple formula. Panelists, including a representative of the MinKwon Center for Community Action, the host organization, asked each of the candidates the same six questions.
The contest between Avella and Liu is widely seen as one of the year’s most heated. It began shortly after Avella angered members of the Democratic Party when earlier this year he switched to the Independent Democratic Conference, a faction of five state senators which has an alliance with Senate Republicans. With the Senate’s near-equal balance, the caucus’ bloc vote is often the key to a bill’s passage or failure.
Queens Democratic Party leaders encouraged Liu, a former city comptroller and councilman, to challenge Avella, who was also a councilman before being elected to the state Senate in 2010. The primary is set for Sept. 9.
Responding to the first question, on comprehensive campaign reform, Avella said, “I support the matching fund program. I want it to go further. I want total matching funds of campaigns, period. Until we take out the special interests and the big donors, we’re losing control of our own democracy.”
He offered his support when it comes to tenants’ protection and said he is committed “to making sure that workers are protected ... and that no worker ever works in an unsafe environment.”
As a co-sponsor of the DREAM Act, which would subsidize young unauthorized immigrants’ college tuition, Avella said “we have to make sure that every student has access to the best education possible. The problem is we have some Republicans and some Democrats in the Senate who will not vote for the DREAM Act. Those people have to be replaced.”
He went on to indicate that “we had a vote this session. The Independent Democratic Conference vote brought the DREAM Act to the floor. It lost because Democratic senators did not vote for it.”
Avella said that “it’s crucial the minimum wage be increased. It’s become so expensive to live here. The millionaires of this state should pay more for the services for the middle class, the working families and the poor.”
Concerning homes for individuals with developmental disabilities, he said, “The state has cut funding for these groups to the extent that some of them are going to go bankrupt. That’s absolutely a disgrace.”
It was one of many issues on which Avella and Liu see eye to eye. Liu indicated that “funding at the state level for special needs children has been decimated in recent years. As state senator, I will fight to assure that that funding gets restored.”
On campaign reform, Liu sees the need for change. “In past recent years, the city system has been somewhat arbitrary,” he said. “When we extend to the state level, which I believe we should do, we need to make a system that is fully comprehensive and fair.”
He believes in continuing the rent protection laws for the city and state, seeing a need to strengthen some provisions.
He took advantage of a question about the DREAM Act to aim one of several gibes at Avella. “I support it,” he said. “My opponent supports it. [But] he empowered the Republican leadership that made sure the DREAM Act went down in flames. That is the difference. We cannot allow this to happen in this state Senate any longer.”
Liu said that as comptroller, he pushed to raise the minimum wage in the city from $7.25 to $11.50. Now that other cities have surpassed that amount, he said: “Let’s pass a real minimum wage and stop letting the Republicans obstruct the vote on a real minimum wage increase.”
Taking a final shot at Avella, he concluded, “We need to elect a real Democrat to the New York State Senate from this district. I will be that Democrat.”
Gilman, a self-described longtime activist, covered the same basic issues, saying, “I am for public financing of electoral politics,” adding that “stricter oversight” is needed.
Audience questions were not allowed due to time constraints.
The 11th District covers portions of Flushing, College Point, Whitestone, Bayside, Bay Terrace, Briarwood, Jamaica Hills, Little Neck, Fresh Meadows, Murray Hill, Auburndale and Glen Oaks.