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Periscope: Julia Harrison: She’s a tough act to follow

Let me tell you about Julia Harrison’s handshake. Way back in 1996 her hand was a cement block in the hands of a rookie reporter. It crushed, it intimidated and it impressed. But then in those days Flushing’s Democratic city councilwoman was only 76 or so.

When I saw her last, her hands were still strong. But her knees were giving way.

She was on her way out. Term limits, the New York City law that ensures two-term mayors, city council members and borough presidents had seen to that. And perhaps to add insult to injury, John Liu, a Taiwanese-born, 30-something, who four years ago had compared her to a hyena, stood poised to occupy Harrison’s seat.

It’s fair to say that we are not going to see the likes of her again.

Depending on whom you speak with, Harrison, who was a labor leader before entering politics, could be described as the conscience of her mostly conservative constituents. Others would call her an acerbic bigot who brooked no criticism or opposition from the increasing number of Asian constituents in her district.

It’s also reasonable to assume that if it were not for term limits, Harrison would have remained in office for another term, perhaps more. The support she enjoys, despite the many toes she has bruised, remains unflagging.

She speaks to and for the people who elected her. The people who’ve pulled the lever for Harrison are old-fashioned. To the rapidly changing culture that is Flushing, she might be the grandmother who looks askance at a teenager’s nose ring or tattoo.

Harrison came into the Council in her 60s and she knew Flushing before the 34-year-old Taiwanese fellow she views as an upstart had the temerity to run for public office.

Liu has emerged as the front runner in a field of 10 that includes four Asians for the Flushing seat.

When someone writes the history of Flushing, he’ll point out that Harrison’s independent streak caused her colleagues from Albany and Washington considerable heartburn. She has also, on more than one occasion, gone against the wishes of Thomas Manton, the county’s Democratic boss.

“I’ll follow a leader if he’s intelligent,” she said in a recent interview. “But I’ll be goddamned if I don’t follow my own conscience.”

But the very traits that made Harrison a vastly popular elected figure among her supporters also have made her a poor politician. She’s a throwback. Unlike the other elected officials from Flushing, who tailor their remarks to the newspaper they are speaking to, Harrison is painfully blunt and stubborn and not always right. But one thing her constituents like and respect her for is that “she tells it like it is.”

But telling it like it is does not win you the support of fellow politicians, people you have to do business with. As a result, at one time or another, Flushing’s state assemblyman, state senator, and the Queens County Democratic machine have turned against her.

And perhaps because she did not have political currency, Harrison was unable to control the dizzying pace of change that has made Flushing unrecognizable to her constituents, who remember Flushing as mostly white and middle class.

To be fair, it’s uncertain if anyone could have held back the tide of change for very long. The Asians filled the vacuum left behind by the white flight of the mid- and late ‘70s. By the time Harrison assumed office in 1985, Flushing was well on its way to becoming a haven for immigrants from Taiwan and the Chinese mainland and the Indian subcontinent.

In the community of recently arrived immigrants, Harrison is widely perceived to be anti-Asian. And that, in a sometimes absurdly politically correct climate, has been a millstone around her neck.

Since March 31, 1996, after a New York Times front page story quoted her as calling Asians “invaders” and “colonialists,” any criticism Harrison has leveled at Asian shopkeepers, real estate developers or budding politicians has been dismissed as being racist.

Yet an examination of how she apportions her discretionary funds shows she has given generously to Asian groups, senior centers and community programs. These donations don’t get much press. Partly it’s because most people are not willing to change their mind about Harrison and partly because Harrison is woefully inadequate when it comes to public relations.

After The New York Times article, for example, the crusty councilwoman refused to explain to the press in what context she had made her remarks. It was as if the world at large did not deserve an explanation. When asked about the criticism she had suffered, Harrison said, “The hell with the editorial columns. They don’t elect me. My people elect me.”

And she was right. While her many political enemies called for her head and several ambitious Asian candidates saw their chance finally to represent Flushing in the City Council, Harrison trounced them all in the 1997 elections.

Despite her showing at the polls, Harrison has not had the clout she needed in the Council and thus was unable to convince the city to provide Flushing with sufficient garbage pickups. When the litter got to be ankle-deep, she had to dip into her discretionary funds to get a second pickup. Of course, either way the taxpayer foots the bill, but it’s telling.

Another pet peeve of Flushing residents, the mish-mash of Asian shop signs in Flushing, which go up without any thought as to size or aesthetic sense, has left Harrison stumped. She tried to introduce legislation to regulate the signs but was shot down. Critics called her racist and she gave up.

But Harrison also had the foresight to come up with a master plan for Flushing’s development. And ironically it is this master plan with its accompanying zoning changes that serves as a reference for developer Wellington Chen and his associates as they pursue their dream of rebuilding Flushing.

And it’s Harrison’s stubborn nature that thwarted real-estate developer Thomas Huang from tearing down the landmarked portions of Flushing’s RKO Keith’s theater and led to his 1997 indictment for environmental crimes at the site. She has been his nemesis and it will be interesting to see what happens to the theater once Harrison vacates her seat.

“This has been a good job and I was uniquely qualified to hold it,” she said in an interview last week. “My conscience is clear.”

“And one more thing,” she said after a pause. “Don’t count me out yet.”

Amen.

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