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Race card played at Liu seat debate

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With less than two weeks until the Democratic primary election for City Councilman John Liu’s (D-Flushing) seat, the topic of ethnic politics and racism once again stoked fire among the candidates at a debate at Flushing Library last week.

The six Democratic candidates running for the seat — John Choe, Yen Chou, S.J. Jung, Constantine Kavadas, Isaac Sasson and James Wu — duked it out during a forum sponsored by TimesLedger Newspapers, part of the Community Newspaper Group, last Thursday.

An otherwise civil discussion on District 20 issues turned ugly when the candidates were asked about the role of ethnic politics in the race, briefly descending into a screaming match between Kavadas and Sasson, who have each been accused of racism during the campaign.

Queens College student Kavadas accused Sasson of leading a racially motivated effort to remove him from the ballot, contending the 68-year-old sought to be the only non-Asian candidate in the race.

“He said to me if I’m on the ballot I’m going to cost him the election because I’m a ‘white candidate,’” Kavadas said.

Kavadas was removed from the ballot by a Queens Civic Court judge last month but was allowed to participate in the debate due to a pending appeal of the decision set for this week.

Sasson, a retired cancer researcher, blasted Kavadas’ accusations.

“Mr. Kavadas is upset because the judge knocked him off the ballot, she said that his petitions were permeated with fraud and that he lied on the witness stand,” Sasson said.

The other candidates, for the most part, addressed the topic in a calmer manner although at times with no less vitriol.

“Well, it sounds like we need some adults in this room,” Choe said, before condemning Sasson and Chou for leading what he said were divisive campaigns.

Choe said Chou had put out campaign literature suggesting that if the Chinese-American community did not vote for her, a Jewish candidate -— Sasson — would win, something her campaign staunchly denies is true.

He also decried Sasson for participating in “racially tinged politics” against Kavadas by allegedly trying to force him out of the race.

“For him to come out and say Constantine Kavadas being in the race is going to deny him the election,” Choe said. “How dare you Isaac, how dare you say that kind of thing to our community. The voters deserve better.”

Sasson responded with an attack on Choe, ripping the former Liu chief of staff for calling the United States “an imperialist nation” in a 2004 speech and contending a group he formed, Nudutol, has ties to anti-Semitism.

“For him to attack others, he should really look at himself first,” Sasson said. “He’s proven during the last 10 years that he has these anti-American views and he’s not going to be able to run away from it just because he’s running for the City Council.”

Chou, a former staffer for City Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis), noted she herself is a Chinese-American immigrant and said she would never be a part of racist politics and said it is important for ethnic communities to have pride in their roots.

“I don’t think this is a racial issue, no never. I think there is a lot of pride in the community and I think that is where this is coming from,” Chou said. “We’re all coming from communities with strong roots and I think it’s important to respect that and really be proud.”

Jung, the former executive director at YKASEC, and Wu, a Democratic district leader, kept their distance from the fracas.

“I think we should rally people around common issues and common vision, otherwise we start rallying around ethnicity and race and then we all lose,” Jung said.

Wu, meanwhile, said he identifies himself as a Flushing resident first, which gives him an advantage in the race.

“I’m an American-Chinese vs. someone who draws their first identification from another ethnicity. I draw my identification from my community and this is what I’m here to represent,” he said.

The victor in the Democratic primary will face Republican Peter Koo in the general election.

A full video of the debate is available online at our new political site, BoroPolitics.com.

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail at sstirling@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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