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Flushing demographics may shape council race

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The 2000 census figures released earlier...

By Chris Fuchs

With the November election less than eight months away, the question of whether the representation in the City Council does — and should — mirror the demographics of the city is one that has again resurfaced.

The 2000 census figures released earlier this month show that there are about 115,000 people living in the 20th Council District in Flushing. More than 55,000, or 49 percent, are Asian American, while 39,000, or 33 percent, are white. Blacks account for the smallest segment of the district, with only 5,467 people, or about 5 percent, the figures show.

It is unclear from the figures, however, what percentage of each demographic group is registered to vote. And while there are those who look at the possibility of an Asian American being elected to the Council as a overdue milestone in city governance, some community leaders and the candidates themselves are taking a broader view, focusing on issues more than on ethnicity.

“We do know there is a history of racially polarized voting in the 20th district,” said Glenn Magpantay, a staff attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a non-partisan civil rights organization.

“Asian have typically voted for Asian candidates. White voters have voted against Asian candidates and therefore Asians have been deprived of a fair opportunity,” he said.

There has never been an Asian American elected to the City Council, a fact that could change this year with several races, including one in Flushing and one in Chinatown. There are a total of seven candidates running for the 20th Council district, a seat held by Councilwoman Julia Harrison since 1985, four of whom are Asian-Americans. All of Queens’ council delegation will be forced to step down in 2002 by term limits.

If you buy into the theory that Flushing must have an Asian-American council member because the district is nearly half Asian, then the three other candidates — two white men and a Hispanic woman — have no chance and the election is a foregone conclusion.

But those candidates disagree.

“The most dangerous thing that would happen is to put an Asian-American candidate in office for the sake of making history,” said Adrian Joyce, a city council candidate and former chairman of Community Board 7.

Richard Jannaccio, another council candidate, said he believes that Asian Americans will cast their vote not based on ethnicity but on ability and experience. “Asians are interested in someone who is not only going to put a face on the City Council but will also get them the funds that they need,” he said.

The other non-Asian candidate, Martha Flores Vasquez, did not return a telephone message seeking comment.

John Liu, an Asian-American candidate who ran for the council seat in 1997 and lost in the primary, said the district should elect someone who will deliver adequate funding to Flushing, which he contends has been shortchanged over the years.

“The election is about getting the best person to represent the district,” he said. “I think that even though I’m not conceptually in favor of term limits, it will give an opportunity to produce a more reflective City Council. With the common election, the face of the City Council will change with the face of the city.”

The president of the Chinese American Voters Association of Queens, Ellen Young, said there should be Asian representation in City Hall, so long as the candidate’s merits stand on their own.

“I would say it is not important to get any Asian to City Hall from Flushing,” she said. “It think it is more important to have Asian representation at City Hall.

“If we have a good candidate, and the party’s and community’s encouragement, you’ll see a big change: Chinese Americans would be more devoted in the community. That’s because we’re being encouraged.”

Young, who volunteers her time registering new citizens to vote, said many Asian Americans do not register because of voter apathy. Before the presidential election last year, the association saw a marked increase in registration, she said. But for the council race this year, she said, the rate so far has been normal, although she expects it to gain momentum as Election Day nears.

With Harrison unable to run again because of term limits, the hurdle of incumbency has been lifted from the race. In 1997, Liu and Pauline Chu, another Asian-American candidate, faced off against Harrison but lost to her in the primary.

Some say it is surprising that despite having drawn criticism for disparaging comments she made about her Asian American constituents, Harrison has managed to represent Flushing for more than 15 years.

“There are instances where there have been non-Asians who have very well represented the interests of the community,” Magpantay said. “Then you have the other side of the spectrum, where you have an elected official who holds the community in contempt.”

Reach reporter Chris Fuchs by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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