Community leader Chen vying for Assembly seat

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For years, Ethel Chen has immersed herself in the Flushing community.

As the founder of the American Chinese Women’s Association, a Democratic district leader and the host of a Chinese radio program giving advice to immigrants about American customs, Chen has become a highly recognizable figure in Flushing.

Now the retired librarian hopes that recognition will pay off.

Chen, 64, is one of seven candidates who have filed petitions in the race in the 22nd Assembly District, centered in downtown Flushing. Democratic activist Richard Jannaccio, Republican district leader Meilin Tan, Democratic political aide Barry Grodenchik, Democratic attorney John Albert, Green Party activist Evergreen Chou and Democratic businessman Jimmy Meng also are contending for the seat.

The seat was created by the state Legislature as part of the redistricting process to have a majority Asian population. The district is 53.3 percent Asian, 20.1 percent white, 18.7 percent Hispanic and 4.5 percent black, according to the 2000 Census.

Chen narrowly lost last year’s city council Democratic primary to Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing), who was backed by the Queens Democratic Party.

Despite the party’s support for Grodenchik, Chen, who has said the party would not endorse her because of her attachment to rogue state senate candidate Julia Harrison, remained confident.

“I think we’re the front runner,” Chen said. “Harrison feels I’m the winner, so she supports me.”

Born in China, Chen escaped to Taiwan with her family in 1949, the year China fell into Communist hands. Chen earned her degree from the National Taiwan University School of Law in 1960. Two years later, she moved to the United States to continue her studies.

After earning a master’s degree in library sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, Chen got married and moved to New York in 1964.

“I came to New York because there are no earthquakes and also the opera house is here,” Chen said.

She worked her way up in the New York Public Library System, becoming a supervising librarian in 1975.

Chen said her years at the libraries helped teach her about the dynamics of neighborhoods.

“You feel you’re really serving the people,” she said. “We’re very much attached to the neighborhood people.”

In 1993, Chen moved from her home in Forest Hills to Flushing with the goal of becoming involving in politics.

Chen’s fellow members on Community Board 6 in Forest Hills asked her why she decided to move.

“I said I think Flushing has more problems,” Chen said.

That year Chen became one of the borough’s six district leaders at large, elected officials assigned to serve all of the borough.

In her work in Flushing, Chen said she has taken on two different points on view.

“I am a new immigrant and an old resident, too,” she said. “I know the hardships of the new immigrants. But I also know how the old residents feel about the new immigrants.”

Like many of her opponents, Chen lists making sure the city gets its fair share of state resources as one of her priorities.

Besides pursing more education money for the city, Chen also pointed out the need for more funds for public transportation.

“The first thing we should look for is equality, fiscal equality,” she said.

Chen also has called for reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the often-criticized state laws that require mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders.

Chen added that she knew becoming a state legislator would be a challenge.

“The reality is that it is not easy,” Chen said. “You are just one person. You have to know how to network with others.... Some people don’t even know the real job of lawmakers. But if people look at my qualifications, they can trust me.”

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 141.

Posted 7:15 pm, October 10, 2011
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