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Periscope: Flushing council race: new faces, old machine

This was to be a year of promise — a season of wide-open political races for 35 term-limited city council offices, 14 in Queens alone. It was touted as an opportunity for a new, younger City Council to instill some vigor into a lethargic legislative body and perhaps even elect a council speaker with his own hair.

This promise was made even sweeter by the introduction of matching campaign funds, which allows a candidate to collect $4 for every dollar raised. This, the advocates of the reform joyously trumpeted, would level the playing field. This, they said, would rein in the influence of powerful party bosses and the financial backing favored candidates gained by their implicit approval. This would mark the advent of a new democracy: the end of the status quo and the rise of the well-meaning community activists lacking party support and wealthy backers.

Think again.

An examination of the upcoming city council race in Flushing should suffice to put the idea of the dawn of good government in the league of urban myths such as, let’s say, the claim that the yellow tape upon being merely touched opens the back doors of a city bus. It is fairly clear that special interests and the influence of the county Democratic machine will continue to prevail in the corridors of City Hall.

Barring a catastrophe late in his campaign, John Liu, a suave 33-year-old financial consultant with strong banking and real estate connections, will take over the Democratic Flushing seat occupied for the last 15 years by Councilwoman Julia Harrison, an acerbic octogenarian whose political career was forged in labor and community activism.

By doing this Liu, a Democrat, stands to make history. He will become the first Asian to sit on the City Council.

And by sheer dint of effort, he deserves to be. Of the seven Democrats from Flushing who have declared themselves, Liu has waged the most sophisticated campaign. He has already raised the maximum ($137,000) allowed by campaign finance laws, thereby freeing him up to spend his energy on the actual business of soliciting votes. His opponents, a mostly feeble lot, are still scrambling to get their political houses in order with the Democratic primary just seven months away.

But does the fact that Liu, an Asian American, is about to win a seat always occupied by a white politician signal a new era in the increasingly diverse borough of Queens?

Not exactly. While it is refreshing that an Asian American will represent Flushing with its burgeoning Asian population, Liu, unfortunately, is not positioned to be an independent councilman. He has already mortgaged a good part of his political clout by alliances he has formed and the money he has received from banking and real estate interests, two businesses which dominate downtown Flushing.

Liu has never let his eyes stray from the Flushing council seat since his defeat in the 1997 elections when Harrison, with county support, held on to the post by a comfortable margin. Since then Liu has worked hard to endear himself to the party machine.

Soon after his defeat he joined the New Century Democratic Club, the power base of Brian McLaughlin, the influential labor leader and Democratic state assemblyman from Flushing. In a short time, he has risen to be one of the club’s senior officers.

McLaughlin, in a recent interview, strongly implied he would back Liu. And with this backing comes the army of volunteers the labor leader can hurl into Liu’s campaign.

Liu has also hired Evan Stavisky, son of the late state Sen. Leonard Stavisky, to manage his campaign. Stavisky, whose mother now occupies the Albany seat his father held for many years, will bring the all-important Jewish vote to the Liu campaign.

Political observers say the presence of the young Stavisky also signals the support of Democratic County boss Thomas Manton, whom election law prohibits from openly backing a candidate during a Democratic primary.

A look at Liu’s campaign contribution reveals his support among the real estate and banking interests of the community. Some $32,000 of his war chest came from these businesses. Interestingly enough, Liu’s crossover appeal is not reflected on his campaign contribution forms. Almost 90 percent of his contributors are Chinese.

Given these permutations, how independent can John Liu be? For example, when the time comes, will he vote for a city council speaker of his choice? Hardly. He will do what Manton tells him to. After all, the only way for Manton to consolidate power in City Hall is to control the delegation from Queens.

Ellen Young, the president of the Chinese American Voters Association and Liu’s director of constituent services, said recently on Sinovision, a Chinese language cable station, that “Flushing will not change unless John Liu is elected.”

When asked to explain what this meant, she replied that the new council member, unlike the current one, “should be favorable to development.” Not surprising, given the real estate contributions to Liu’s campaign.

Yes, Flushing will have a new councilman, but it will be business as usual.

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