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Flushing’s fall elections put Asians in spotlight

From afar, Flushing’s Main Street looks much like any other New York City community headed into an election season.

Campaign posters are plastered across storefronts, bulletin boards and virtually every sliver of free space available, while teenagers and adults in brightly colored T−shirts pass out campaign literature on a daily basis.

But a closer look reveals a distinct difference in the typical propaganda littering the streetscape, one that just a decade ago would have raised eyebrows: The vast majority of the political candidates being advertised are of Asian descent.

Much has changed in the political makeup of downtown Flushing since City Councilman John Liu (D−Flushing) was elected in 2001, marking the first time in New York state history that an Asian American was voted into office.

Liu is now positioning himself for a run at a citywide office in 2009, while Flushing’s Assembly seat has been occupied by two members of the Asian−American community, formerly the Chinese−born Jimmy Meng and now the Taiwanese−native Ellen Young (D−Flushing).

Headed into the 2008 election, Young is facing her first primary challenge from Meng’s daughter Grace, while longtime state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D−Whitestone) is facing a stiff challenge from Chinese−born Republican Peter Koo.

According to Steve Choi, an attorney for Flushing−based community advocacy group YKASEC, none of it would have been possible without Liu’s historic run.

“I think that was really sort of a seminal moment in the consciousness of the Asian−American community here,” Choi said. “There has been a significant maturation of the Asian−American community. I think it’s pretty remarkable. It’s really a point of pride.”

Liu said he would like to have seen an Asian American elected to office before he was in 2001, but said often it takes time for immigrant communities to get involved in the political process.

“I really wish I was the ninth or tenth to be elected,” Liu said of his election. “There’s a certain learning curve with regard to participating in our American democracy and Asian Americans are coming up that learning curve much as our predecessors did. We all come through that learning curve and I think that the Asian−American community is getting there.”

Young, who became the first Asian−American woman to be elected to the Assembly in 2006, said she is honored to be a part of Flushing’s quickly evolving political history, but added that more can still be done.

“Part of the reason is there is better organization in the community,” Young said. “We still have a long way to go. When you look at the percentages of Asian Americans who are registered voters, it is still pretty low.”

In mid−August, Choi helped host a debate between Young and Grace Meng that drew more than 200 mainly Asian−American supporters to the Sheraton LaGuardia East Hotel — a display of political enthusiasm he said he had not seen from the burgeoning immigrant community before.

Kyung Yoon, who was the first Korean broadcast news reporter in New York City, moderated the debate and said it represents an exciting time in Asian−American politics.

“I think we really might be on the verge of seeing a big wave in Asian−American leadership in many major cities that have large Asian−American constituencies,” she said. “Quite often what you will see is the first generation immigrants are focused on taking care of their families, that they are sort of the manual (labor)<FEFF>generation and their children become the professional generation. The third act is that we are seeing now is moving on from the professional generation to the policy generation.”

Yoon said while the Chinese and Taiwanese communities have been the most active thus far in Flushing, she sees the same potential for political growth in some of the more recently established communities such as the Korean community in northern Queens.

Choi, meanwhile, said Liu’s plans to run for an as−yet−undetermined citywide office could be a galvanizing point for Asian−American politics not just in Flushing, but elsewhere in the city.

“Next year when John’s seat is opened up, I think there’s going to be a lot of second−generation Asian−American politicians, not just in this district, but others as well, running for office,” he said. “In other areas like Chinatown or Sunset Park, there hasn’t been that sort of breakthrough. I think that John winning definitely has inspired a lot of people — it has made it a reality for them.”

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e−mail at Sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, ext. 138.

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