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Council mudslinging takes over

It was billed as a debate, but it turned into an airing of dirty laundry.

The six Democratic candidates running for the seat of City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) participated in a candidates’ forum in Flushing Monday night, but what started as a cordial discourse on issues affecting District 20 quickly devolved into a fracas replete with allegations of everything from racism to planted questions.

During the course of the forum, held at Korea Village by Terence Park’s Our Political Coalition, candidates Yen Chou and Isaac Sasson were openly called racists, John Choe was criticized for calling the United States imperialist in a 2006 speech, S.J. Jung was accused of living in another state and Constantine Kavadas erupted against forum panelists whom he accused of asking questions planted by opposing campaigns.

“This was a zoo,” said Chou’s campaign manager, Michael Olmeda, following the event. “An absolute mess.”

The bizarre fracas started shortly after Choe left to attend a meeting of his co-op board at the Mitchell Linden Houses. As Choe left he was accosted by a member of the audience, who demanded he answer questions about his views on North and South Korean relations with the United States.

In his absence, Sasson and several audience members harped on the Korea point further, saying they wished he had been in attendance to answer questions about a 2006 speech he gave on free trade negotiations between the U.S. and South Korea, where he referred to himself as a “byproduct of U.S. imperialism.”

Reached for comment, Choe rejected the criticisms of his views on international politics.

“This election is about the future of Flushing, not past statements about Korea,” Choe said. “It is about working together toward a future with better schools, good jobs and improved quality of life.”

Shortly after Choe left, the discourse between the remaining five candidates quickly deteriorated.

Kavadas was angered by the phrasing of a question about contextual rezoning and ripped moderator Richard Jannacio, accusing him and several of the forum’s panelists of planting questions on behalf of Sasson’s campaign — an accusation the debate’s organizers flatly denied.

Not long thereafter, during a period in which the candidates were allowed to ask questions of one another, Jung asked Kavadas “if he felt the quality of life in the district had deteriorated during the last eight years.”

“The reason you’re asking me that is because you just moved to the district from New Jersey last Tuesday,” Kavadas said.

Jung responded that he “moved to the district 20 years ago” and has been serving the community ever since. City Board of Elections records show Jung did vote from an address in Rivervale, N.J., in November 2008, but has since moved to an apartment on Sanford Avenue in Flushing.

“You can tell you’re the frontrunner in a race because your opponents start kicking you,” Jung said.

Kavadas then accused Sasson of leading a “racist” campaign against Kavadas and unfairly taking him to court by challenging his petitions in an effort to become the sole Caucasian in the race.

“Absolutely untrue. I would defy anybody that would say anything like that,” Sasson said. “Every campaign has the opportunity to challenge petitions and almost all of them did.”

Next, Wu accused Chou of circulating fliers, saying he, the only other Chinese-American candidate, was not running in the race.

“Why have you been telling people I’m not runningi” Wu asked.

“Well, you’re here, you’re running and I acknowledge that. So, there’s your answer,” Chou said. Later, a volunteer for Wu, whom he said acted on her own volition, demanded an apology from Chou for allegedly circulating what she called “racist” campaign literature calling Sasson a “Jew” and contending any vote not for Chou would elect “the Jewish candidate.”

At one point, the discourse became so heated and decentralized that the organizer, Park, had to remind the moderator, Jannacio, that he was not supposed to participate in the discussion or critique the candidate’s responses.

Another candidates’ forum is scheduled for Thursday at Flushing Library at 7 p.m.

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

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