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3 candidates face off at Flushing NAACP

In one of the last debates before the Nov. 6 election, three candidates for Julia Harrison’s (D-Flushing) city council seat tackled the thorny issue of segregation raised by the Flushing NAACP about the concentration of Asian-American businesses in downtown Flushing.

Green Party candidate Paul Graziano, Independence Party candidate Martha Flores-Vazquez and Democrat John Liu, who arrived late, spoke to the concerns of Flushing’s black community in front of a crowd of some 30 people at a forum sponsored by the Flushing NAACP. Ryan Walsh, the Republican candidate, did not attend the debate at the Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“The issues that concern our community aren’t really being addressed,” said Kenneth Cohen, president of the Flushing NAACP, at the beginning of the debate.

Cohen expressed particular concern over the businesses in downtown Flushing, most of which are Asian-American.

“Business have become segregated,” said Cohen. “We ask why this community has been consumed by one particular segment of the population ... I look at Flushing today, and we have no African-American businesses, no Hispanic businesses, few Caucasian businesses.”

Cohen later corrected himself, saying he knew of five black businesses in Flushing.

A member of the audience, Bayside civic leader Mandingo Osceola Tshaka, went even further, accusing Asian-American businesses of practicing illegal discrimination.

“The new people who have moved in don’t hire anyone outside their community,” he said. “I am sure that they are violating state and federal laws and are discriminating.”

Graziano acknowledged the concern.

“This community is two-thirds non-Asian. We have a mono-culture of businesses. It’s a real problem.”

Vazquez, a Hispanic who lost the Democratic primary and is now running on the Independence line, also suggested that Asian-American businesses were guilty of discrimination.

“The banks that we have in this district are not being fair in prioritizing,” she said.

Liu, a Taiwanese-American who is considered the front-runner and could be the first Asian-American elected to the City Council, objected to the domination of Asian-American businesses in downtown Flushing as well.

“We need to make sure that with all the new businesses coming in we allow the African-American community to open up businesses in downtown Flushing.”

A member of the audience asked Liu about his campaign contributions, 85 percent of which, according to Liu’s estimates, came from the Asian-American community.

“Yes, the vast majority of my contributions are from the Asian-American community,” he said. “To me I’m very proud of that fact. The Asian community is very proud to have me as a candidate.”

Graziano, however, argued that much of Liu’s campaign contributions came from developers who were intent on keeping a lack of diverse businesses downtown.

“John Liu would not represent the people of this district,” he said.

The candidates also discussed Martins Field, a park just north of 46th Avenue that was used as a mostly black burial ground in the 19th century.

“There are 1,200 bodies there,” said Graziano, who suggested a memorial should be built in the park and the playground eliminated. “People should not be allowed to use it as an active park.”

Liu, however, was more cautious.

“I do believe that we do need to strike a compromise. That means having the memorial but also to have a corner reserved for the children in the playground.”

The candidates also discussed as-of-right status for community facilities, a law which has enable houses of worship to proliferate in Flushing. Both Graziano and Liu argued that the law should be changed.

Also at issue were rent control laws, which the three candidates vowed to protect.

“I’ve been a tenants rights activist for a long time,” said Vazquez.

Harrison’s district covers Flushing, Queensboro Hill and parts of Fresh Meadows, Auburndale, Linden Hill, Murray Hill and Whitestone.

Before the debate, Samuel Anderson, education director for the Center of Law and Justice at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, spoke on the issue of reparations for blacks in preparation for a November conference on the issue in Harlem.

Anderson called for reparations for “people who identify themselves as African-American until there is parity in the economic world ... Our people should be paid for our labor.”

Cohen later called for reparations for black soldiers who had served in World War II and returned home to face segregation.

The audience had mixed reactions on the issue of reparations.

“We don’t want too many freebies,” said Josephine Jones, a retired librarian. “We want to pay our taxes. We are citizens.”

Reach Reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 141.

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