Seven candidates face off in Harrison-seat debate

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At a recent candidates forum in downtown Flushing, the gaggle of political hopefuls seeking to replace City Councilwoman Julia Harrison (D-Flushing) had quite similar positions on education, affordable housing and the environment.

Seven of the eight candidates running for the seat attended the Aug. 28 debate at the Flushing library and agreed on the need for more schools, affordable housing and environmental awareness in the district they wish to represent. Republican Ryan Walsh did not attend the debate.

All of the political hopefuls also seemed to have a plan to clean up downtown Flushing, which has recently rivaled Manhattan in the crowded streets-and-sidewalks department. All the candidates advocated the inclusion of English on the commercial signs dominated by Asian languages in downtown Flushing shops and businesses.

But even though the Democratic, Green Party and Independent Party candidates who turned out for the debate appeared to have few differences in their platforms, the Flushing race for the 20th Council District seat has proved to be one of the most interesting and unique political contests in the city.

In an election year when the public will choose a new mayor, public advocate, comptroller, four out of five borough presidents and some 35 city council candidates — including all 14 Queens representatives — the race to replace Harrison has drawn interest for a number of reasons.

With downtown Flushing quickly becoming the epicenter of Asian-American life in the five boroughs, the race for Harrison’s seat could result in the first Asian-American elected to public office in New York city or state.

The race will also produce the only Green Party primary in the city, with candidates Evergreen Chou and Paul Graziano facing off Sept. 11.

And while most races in Queens, a heavily Democratic borough, could be virtually decided when the Sept. 11 primary narrows the Democratic field, there will still be at least four candidates on the ballot for the 20th Council District.

A Democratic candidate will face off against Republican Ryan Walsh, a Green Party candidate and Independent Martha Flores-Vazquez, who was knocked off the Democratic Party line earlier this year when her petitions were challenged.

In a district where the Hispanic population is a large group that turns out to vote, Flores-Vazquez’s presence on the ballot in November could be a threat to the other candidates.

Harrison’s area, or the 20th Council District, includes Flushing and Queensboro Hill as well as parts of the communities of Fresh Meadows, Auburndale, Linden Hill, Murray Hill and part of Whitestone.

Candidates running for the seat include Democrats Ethel Chen, Richard Jannaccio, John Liu and Terence Park; Green Party candidates Chou and Graziano; Independent Flores-Vazquez and Republican Walsh.

The Aug. 28 debate, organized by the Government Access and Accountability Campaign, gave the candidates a chance to answer questions from the public. Most of the more than two-hour event was dominated by the candidates’ discussion of the issues.

Audience questions focused on education, affordable housing, the environment, cleaning up downtown Flushing, improving transportation in the area and maintaining racial harmony in the diverse district.

Chen, a longtime Democratic district leader, repeatedly pointed to her long record of service in the community when responding to questions.

“I can be a very good bridge between the immigrants and the residents,” she said.

The topic of affordable housing was significant for Chou, who described himself as “the rainbow candidate.”

“There are people who can no longer afford to live in Flushing,” Chou said.

Flores-Vazquez, the only Hispanic candidate in the race and one of two women vying for Harrison’s seat, said the next council representative of the area must be aware of racial tensions.

“We’ve got to be sensitive,” she said.

Graziano, a civic activist, pushed land-use issues as an important aspect of the race.

“The neighborhoods are not being properly developed,” he said.

For civic leader Jannaccio, maintaining the environment is a priority in the district.

“There are too many loopholes in the laws,” Jannaccio said, referring to environmental regulations that do not penalize businesses with dirty shops.

Liu, widely seen as the front-runner in the race, has been endorsed by the Queens Democratic Party and raised nearly $140,000, far more than his competitors.

“The need for smooth delivery of services to the Flushing area and to immigrants is a top priority,” he said.

Park, a former city official who worked in both the Dinkins and Koch administrations, pointed to quality of life as the main topic of his campaign.

“Democracy is based on the strength of people’s participat­ion,” he said.

Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

Posted 7:23 pm, October 10, 2011
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