Thursday, June 25, 2009
20th Council District Race Heats Up
According to the City Hall News, the 20th Council District race is proving to be one of the most interesting races that will take place this year. In a crowded Democratic Party field things are starting to heat up and some interesting ethnic boundaries are being drawn.
By Chris Bragg
When John Choe entered the Council race to replace Council Member John Liu (D-Queens) a few weeks ago, there were two immediate opposite reactions.
The Queens Democratic Party jumped at the chance to endorse Liu’s longtime chief of staff, even though Choe had declared his candidacy only a day before the county’s endorsement meeting.
At the same time, a faction of the Korean-American population in the Flushing district strongly denounced him, even though Choe appears to have a good shot at becoming the first Korean-American elected to the Council.
The county support for Choe is easy to explain: he has the backing of the popular Liu, and Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Queens/Bronx), the Queens County chair. Similarly, Choe said that the promise of county support was one of the main factors in his decision to finally go public with his candidacy.
The big controversy, though, is not over this political maneuvering, but over a foreign policy issue half a world away.
In 1999, Choe founded a group called Nodutdol, whose stated aim is the reunification of North and South Korea. Some in Flushing, however, have labeled Choe a Communist sympathizer, since the group has arranged numerous trips to North Korea for members, and because the group’s website has featured glowing accounts of North Korea and its communist dictator.
In a district where the Falun Gong has for years protested Liu at every turn for what they believe are the councilman’s own alleged Communist leanings, Choe said similar forces are now marshalling support against him among Korean-Americans.
John Hong, of the Korean American Association of Flushing, said Koreans are likely to instead support S.J. Jung, a community organizer, who has also received the backing of the Working Families Party and 32 BJ.
Hong said he did not know what to think about Choe.
“I have heard the rumors about North Korea,” Hong said. “I don’t know if they are true. But I have heard them.”
Choe, however dismissed the whole controversy as irrelevant to his candidacy.
“I’m not running for secretary of state—I’m running to represent the 20th district in the City Council,” Choe said.
Some outsiders are also getting involved. Former Council Member Julia Harrison, who is white and preceded Liu on the Council, has been strongly expressing her concerns about Choe’s candidacy.
“I am very concerned about the perception in the community that the North Korean government has a spokesperson,” said Harrison.
But Harrison has been divisive herself. In 1996, for instance, she referred to the new immigrants in the neighborhood as “colonizers” and prompted a 2,000-person protest in front of City Hall. She later apologized. But that comment helped convince Liu to run against Harrison in 1997 (he lost) and again in 2001, when he won and became the first Asian-American elected to the Council.
Harrison had at one point discussed trying to make a political comeback this year but opted out of the race.
Choe, who was college classmates with Liu, said he also got involved in politics to bridge the divide between the older, white population and newer immigrants. With the county endorsement, and a forthcoming endorsement from Liu, Choe appears well positioned to do that.
Even if Choe did have the full support of the Korean-American community, he would still have to bridge the demographic divides. The district is roughly 10 percent Korean-American, 20 percent Chinese-American, 15 percent Hispanic and 37 percent Caucasian.
There are also two Chinese-Americans in the race: Yen Chou, a former staffer for Council Member David Weprin (D-Queens) and James Wu, a political strategist. Chou is leading the race in fundraising with over $210,000, much of it culled from Chinese-American businesses.
But what is really important about that figure, she said, is what she believes it demonstrates about her resonance in the community.
“Money is not really the point,” Chou said. “It shows that the people respect you.”
In an effort to unify the voting bloc, Chou has also recently been calling on Wu in the Chinese press to drop out of the race, Wu said. He has declined.
Two white candidates—Isaac Sasson, head of the Holly Civic Association, and Constantine Kavadas—are also running. Sasson is considered a dark horse with strong roots in the area who could win if the vote splinters on ethic lines.
Should that occur, it would set up a general election scenario in which Republican candidate Peter Koo, a wealthy Chinese-American businessman who lost a race to State Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Queens) last year, could be running against a white candidate. This would force voters to choose between ethnic allegiances and party affiliation, potentially giving the GOP a chance to pick up the seat.
Many believe that after Liu’s political ascension, the Korean-American community in Flushing is now ready to elect one of its own, with money pouring into the race from around the country and first-generation immigrants giving way to a more politically sophisticated second generation.
Yet the political lines in the area remain blurred for now, as is evident in the history of the local Assembly seat, which has gone to four different people in the last four elections.
Assembly Member Grace Meng (D-Queens), who is Chinese-American, was able to beat the county party-backed candidate Ellen Young in 2008 by forming a coalition with Harrison and former Assembly candidate Terence Park, who is Korean-American.
Meng said the winner of the Council race would likely have to follow a similar strategy.
“You have to be able to build coalitions, whether you’re Korean or another ethnicity,” she said. “Just because you’re Korean-American doesn’t mean you can just stay focused on that community. You have to make other communities realize that you understand their problems and that you have been there for them in the past.”