Council Member Koo, center, among others (photo: John McCarten/City Council)
In central Queens’ City Council District 20, which spans Flushing, Murray Hill, and Queensboro Hill there is a crowded and competitive Democratic primary race coming to a head this month, with early voting ongoing and primary day on June 22. The candidates face an onslaught of contentious issues such as anti-Asian hate crime, rezoning of the Flushing waterfront, a busway in downtown Flushing’s Main Street, and small business struggles.
Hoping to replace outgoing Council Member Peter Koo, known as the “Mayor of Flushing,” are Hailing Chen, an Uber driver and gig worker activist; John Choe, a community organizer and public policy professor; Anthony Miranda, a retired NYPD sergeant; Sandra Ung, a lawyer and congressional aide; Neng Wang, a leader at the Chinese‐American Planning Council; Dao Yiin, Secretary-General of the Shanghai Association of America; Ellen Young, a former State Senator; and Ming-Kang Low, who does not appear to be running much of a campaign.
The race has put the Queens Democratic establishment on trial. City & State reports that a coalition of seven Democratic candidates (Chen, Choe, Low, Miranda, Wang, Yin and Young) have positioned themselves against the Democratic Party-endorsed Ung in an attempt to strategically use ranked-choice voting to take down the party-backed pick, who is endorsed by Koo, among others.
The coalition wants a “change in political leadership” given concerns around the party’s lack of accountability and transparency. Miranda and Choe say they were excluded from the Democrats’ decision to endorse Ung, and claim that the party internally predetermined nominees without public input. Meanwhile, Choe, an outspoken local activist opposed to private market development, is facing his own opposition as he’s being targeted by his fellow community board members.
The candidates are fighting to represent a district that, according to 2010 Census data, has experienced a massive influx of Asian-American residents since 2000, with a 37% increase from 2000 to 2010. Of the district’s 160,913 residents, in 2010 64.1% were Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI), 15.6% Hispanic, 15.4% white, and 2.7% Black.
Racist reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have sparked a surge of hate crimes against the city’s AAPI population, which Koo has been outspoken about combatting, calling on Congress and the President to enact the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act to look into pandemic-related hate crimes against Asian-Americans. Koo announced support for mayoral candidate Eric Adams based in part on his tough-on-crime stance, but also related to Adams’ positions on education, including keeping the specialized high schools admissions test in place (a position Adams has taken after reversing himself).
A recent report by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism found that between the first quarter of 2020 and 2021, New York City experienced a 223% increase in hate crimes against AAPI residents. It has become a key issue in the race to replace Koo.
Health care infrastructure in Queens, especially coming out of the pandemic, is another pressing issue in the district and beyond. In a June 1 letter to the State Department of Health, 51 Queens candidates and elected officials, including Ung and Hailing in this race, demanded expanded hospital capacity in the borough, which currently has the fewest hospital beds per capita in the city, according to a Bloomberg report.
The long conflict over the busway project on Main Street in Flushing to create a mostly car-free zone for the 19 bus lines that run through the bustling commercial area is also still an issue driving the race. Despite a 2018 DOT report demonstrating the value of the busway, a consortium of Flushing businesses including the Flushing Chinese Business Association, says it will hurt their profits even though the report found that 79% of shoppers get to a business by walking or using public transportation. Proponents of the plan, such as Mayor de Blasio, point out that it will “serve 150,000 New Yorkers everyday.”
Koo was opposed to the busway and led a misappropriated “Business Lives Matter” chant during a Department of Transportation press conference last July. With Koo’s support, the business consortium sued the city for not consulting the public enough before altering the streetscape, and initially obtained a temporary restraining order before ultimately losing the case earlier this January.
Even mayoral candidate Andrew Yang weighed in on the busway, saying he is “open to re-examining” the new project, which was finally implemented on January 19 and quickly increased bus efficiency. Candidates in the district will have to decide if they will nurture or fight to roll back the nascent project, especially if the next mayor looks less favorably on the busway.
Rezoning on the Flushing waterfront is another major issue shaping the primary race, though the project is moving ahead after the City Council, at Koo’s urging, approved a private rezoning plan in December 2020 that Koo said would “transform an isolated and polluted brownfield into an active waterfront community with open space and promenade for the public.”
The Special Flushing Waterfront District (SFWD) plan proposed to the City Council by a group of three developers -- F&T Group, United Construction & Development Group, and Young Nian Group -- drew sharp criticism from some and support from others, a lightning rod of sorts like many other large development projects in the city, in this case over questions about whether high-end condos and a new hotel would be bad for the surrounding area in terms of driving up the cost of living or whether the project would be beneficial given the economic activity and new amenities, like park space.
Chen immigrated to New York from southeast China’s Fujian province when he was 14, working in restaurants and as an Uber driver to support his family and pay for college. Chen organizes with the Independent Drivers Guild and a Machinists Union affiliate to rally for gig workers’ rights, having already seen success in helping to win a 44% pay increase and better benefits for the city’s for-hire drivers, he claims on his campaign website.
Chen hopes to bring this fight for gig worker rights to the City Council with his arsenal of $43,220 in privately-raised funds and $160,443 in public matching funds, according to the NYC Campaign Finance Board (CFB) website as of June 8. While some legislation has been introduced in the City Council to address the classification of gig workers as employees, Chen told the Queens Chronicle that the Council also needs to guarantee gig workers a “livable wage.”
On his website, Chen’s platform is relatively sparse, with only a sentence per campaign goal outlining a community solution.
On housing, Chen said he will advocate for all New Yorkers to have the chance to own their own home, build 500,000 new affordable housing units, and aligned himself with Koo’s pro-basement apartment position to combat overcrowding. Chen was a signatory of the open letter demanding Koo’s opposition to the SFWD waterfront development project.
While driving for Uber, Chen told Documented NY that he witnessed first-hand the discrimination that fellow Chinese drivers faced from unreasonable customer complaints and anti-Chinese rhetoric with no way to fight back. While he hasn’t proposed any specific solutions to address the surge of discrimination against AAPI communities, Chen said that community outreach should be a starting point to fight for vulnerable populations.
Less definitive on the topic than some of his opponents, Chen says that while the Main Street Busway is important for efficient sharing of the road, he wants to see more parking spaces and is open to changes in its design, although he did not elaborate on specifics.
Chen, proponent of a $1,000 universal basic income, wants a larger social safety net that includes city-run “Food Hubs” to provide free and reduced access to quality food for the needy, as well as a city-based universal health care system with no deductibles or copays.
Choe immigrated from South Korea as a teenager to New York, where his family started a grocery store. He is a SUNY and University of Chicago graduate, and has continued his work in public affairs and policy as an adjunct professor at Queens College. Choe worked for now State Senator John Liu beginning with his City Council tenure in the ‘90s, eventually becoming his Chief of Staff in the State Senate. He ran for the seat in 2009, when Liu was elected comptroller, but lost in the primary. Choe founded numerous community groups such as the Flushing Interfaith Council to promote religious tolerance and the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce to support Flushing’s small business community.
Choe, an active player in the SFWD dispute as the leader of one of the organizations who filed suit against the city and a signatory of the open letter to Koo, told The City that his campaign is “insurgent … opposition to the development community,” which he claims has “their tentacles in our democracy.” Choe is a member of Queens Community Board 7, which approved the SFWD plan 30-8 in February 2020. An outspoken critic of the project during the hearings, Choe said he would only support the plan if 500 units of affordable housing were included.
On his website, Choe says he will fight to ban luxury developments until more affordable housing units are constructed, the ULURP land use process is reformed, and more community input is considered. Additionally, Choe hopes to reform Area Median Income to more closely represent residents’ ability to pay the rent and ensure that tenants are able to stay in their homes despite pandemic misfortune.
Choe’s vociferous criticism of development made him a few enemies on the more pro-development CB 7 on which he sits. In an unprecedented move just days before early voting was to begin, CB 7 informed Choe of numerous allegations they filed against him of ethics violations that threatened his membership to the board, the Queens Daily Eagle reported.
Choe denies that he violated ethics codes and called the investigation “a witch hunt against me” full of “funhouse mirror images” of his anti-development stance that often clashes with the board’s leadership. In a statement to QNS, Choe said that he thinks the move is an attempt to “quash dissent and consolidate the power of the board leadership, which rammed through the rezoning.”
Choe’s loud dissent during the SFWD approval process was interpreted by fellow officials as unnecessary levels of defiance. Koo, who chose not to nominate Choe to the board earlier this year, although he was eventually appointed by Donovan Richards, the Queens Borough President, told the Eagle that Choe always presented an obstacle to advancing the board’s agenda instead of “[listening] to the majority.” Kelty, CB 7 Chair, echoed Koo's complaint, saying that she was “tired” of Choe’s repeated failure to comply with the board’s proceedings and that he has even “gotten up and left meetings” part way through.
Choe thinks that the investigation is politically motivated to suppress development opposition. It sends “a message that you shouldn’t be participating, you shouldn’t be speaking out and participating in these types of public hearings and meetings,” he told the Eagle.
Despite the investigation and controversy, Choe claims many endorsements for his City Council run with the support of the Working Families Party, health care workers (1199 SEIU), school administrators (CSA), immigrant justice group Make the Road Action, racial justice group Community Voices Heard, tenants’ rights group Tenants PAC, street safety group StreetsPAC, the National Association of Social Workers, environmental justice group Resilience PAC, AOC’s Courage to Change PAC, State Senators John Liu, Robert Jackson, and James Sanders Jr., City Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Brad Lander, and Assembly Member Ron Kim. According to the CFB, Choe raised $54,629 in private donations and $160,444 in public matching funds as of June 8.
Choe has been a strong proponent of the Flushing Main Street busway, and hopes to expand open streets and add protected bike lanes, according to his website.
In an interview, Choe said that when combating anti-Asian hate crimes, the police “are not always there” and “cannot be relied on.” Instead, he argued, we must rely on people in “our neighborhoods” to “stand up, protect and intervene.”
Miranda, who lost to Richards in last year’s Queens borough presidential race, is a retired NYPD sergeant who now chairs the National Latino Officers Association, which he helped start after seeing discrimination in law enforcement.
Miranda claims to have been voted “chairman of the Democratic Coalition for Council District 20,” the group of seven candidates uniting against Ung. He is outspoken against the Democratic establishment whose “machine politics” fail to serve the community, he argued in a recent press release.
No endorsements are published on Miranda’s website, although the NYPD Sheriffs Association endorsed him during his campaign for borough president. He fundraised $25,695, none of which was eligible to be matched with public funds, according to the CFB as of June 10.
While he did not sign the open letter against the SFWD development plan, Miranda told the Queens Daily Eagle that he opposed the plan for its lack of affordable housing units and likelihood of raising rent for Flushing residents. Instead, Miranda wants “a moratorium on luxury development,” to rezone to revitalize less populated areas of Queens, and to “remove any caps to building public housing,” he explains on his website.
On his website Miranda also vows to expand pedestrian- and bike-friendly areas, but made it clear that “these expansions will not be made at the expense of small business.”
In an interview with QNS, Miranda said that defunding the NYPD would only serve to hurt the department’s diversity, accountability and transparency. He did say, however, that funding social and community services ought to be a priority, but the money can come from “more than one institution.”
Miranda’s website offers an in-depth policy platform on public safety with accountability, ending mass incarceration, decriminalizing poverty, ending racial targeting, and stopping the war on drugs as key goals. He wants to increase the Civilian Complaint Review Board’s oversight, appoint a permanent independent special prosecutor to investigate police misconduct, promote the hiring of officers from local communities, and provide addiction treatment and other support to individuals incarcerated for crimes related to “poverty, mental illness, [or] addiction.”
Lack of diversity and equal opportunity in the city’s specialized schools are a problem in Miranda’s eyes. He hopes to make funding more equitable across all schools and expand the admissions process to consider qualities beyond testing such as extracurricular activities. Making CUNY free is another, more long term education goal of Miranda’s.
Ung has had an extensive career in public service and community advocacy and has widespread support among elected officials, including Koo and Rep. Grace Meng. A Flushing resident since age 10, Ung emigrated from Taiwan and attended New York public schools throughout her life, ultimately getting her law degree from Columbia Law School. She is now special assistant to Meng and has served in the state parks department, the city comptroller office under two comptrolllers, and the state Assembly.
As a community advocate, Ung sits on the Flushing YMCA board and is the executive director of At the Table PAC, a group working to expand representation of women and minorities in politics.
In May, Ung cross-endorsed with mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, who praised her as a “rising AAPI leader” in a time when “increasing AAPI representation in government is going to be critical to ensuring a fair recovery.”
Ung had raised $109,504 in private funds and $160,444 in public matchings funds according to the CFB as of June 10, and she is endorsed by many Queens elected Democrats, beyond Koo and Meng, and some from other boroughs: Council Members Keith Powers, Carlina Rivera, Justin Brannan, and Karen Koslowitz, State Senators Toby Stavisky and John Liu, and Assembly Members Catalina Cruz, Nily Rozic, Dan Rosenthal, and Ed Braunstein; as well as many labor unions: teachers and school supervisors and administrators, property service workers, public employees, nurses, hotel workers, home health care workers, communications workers, sanitation workers, firefighters, transportation workers, retail workers, and others. Endorsements from community and advocacy groups are also plentiful for Ung: New American Voters Association, NY League of Conservation Voters, National Institute of Reproductive Health, NY Pan-Asian Democratic Club, Stonewall Democratic Club, Lesbian & Gay Democratic Club of Queens, women in politics group 21 in ‘21, and Vote Pro Choice.
While her plethora of endorsements, pedigree, and ample funding make her a clear frontrunner, Ung’s website platform often falls back on fluffy rhetoric without providing specifics.
In an interview with QNS, Ung listed pandemic recovery as her campaign’s top priority. To support small businesses impacted by the pandemic, she wants to end fining businesses for minor mistakes, add language liaisons to the Department of Small Business Services, and organize seminars in law and business for small business owners.
Ung also hopes to expand after-school programming and bring more gifted and talented programs to Flushing schools, she states on her website.
To combat anti-Asian hate crimes, Ung says she will fully fund the city’s Commission on Human Rights so that discrimination and hate crimes are investigated and prosecuted and promises to be a “steadfast advocate for civil rights for all New Yorkers,” she puts it on her website. She told Jim Owles, an LGBTQ-focused club, that police officers should be removed from schools, taken off of mental health response calls, and no longer preside over traffic enforcement.
In July 2020, the Queens Daily Eagle reported that Ung was skeptical about the busway’s “lack of parking” and diversion of traffic to nearby streets, arguing that small businesses should be consulted before “we implement any changes of this magnitude.”
Ung has not signed the open letter to indicate opposition to the SFWD project and told The City she had yet to make a decision on the issue. She told Jim Owles that she thought “organized labor and community groups are brought into the [development] discussion too late.”
Wang, the former director of the Chinese‐American Planning Council’s Nan Shan Senior Center, immigrated to New York City from Taiwan to attend St. John’s University, eventually obtaining a master’s in social work from Hunter College. He is running as more of a moderate or conservative than other candidates in the primary aside from Yin.
Wang’s campaign centers on a law-and-order platform, securing him the endorsement of the city’s police unions: Police Benevolent Association (PBA), Detectives’ Endowment Association (DEA), Lieutenants Benevolent Association (LBA), and the Sergeants Benevolent Association (SBA). Wang said that he “will make public safety [his] priority, which includes restoring the NYPD budget.” (The PBA co-endorsed Wang and Dao Yin.)
He is also endorsed by the Asian American Voters Alliance, NY Laundromat Business Association, local political group Kissena Democratic Club, a financial advisory group and two law firms. His campaign had $140,348 from private donations and $99,775 in public matching funds, according to the CFB website as of June 10.
Last November, Wang told The City that he aligned with Koo in his support for the SFWD plan because it will create “thousands of permanent jobs” and help the suffering economy. On his website, Wang vowed to support landlords by granting “reasonable property tax relief, freezing property taxes, and providing low-interest loans.” He will also “advocate for tenants who have difficulty paying rent,” although he doesn’t say how.
Education is another major tenet of Wang’s platform is supporting education. Wang hopes to bring more gifted and talented middle school programs to the district and maintain the specialized high school admissions test (SHSAT), he explains on his website.
He will also fight to “provide tax relief, reduce the burden of tickers and violations, and increase access to low-interest loans” to ensure that Flushing’s once prosperous small business community survives the pandemic.
Part of Wang’s platform to promote small business is his opposition to the Main Street busway, which he argues on his website is a “reflection of a longstanding institutional blindspot towards the economic engine that has made Flushing into a commercial and shopping destination.”
Yin, born and raised in China, immigrated in the late ‘90s to Queens, where he became the Secretary-General of the Shanghai Association of America and is now the executive Vice President of the Queens Residents and Voters Coalition. After losing in the Democratic primary to Donovan Richards in the Queens borough presidential election last summer, Yin hopes to represent this slice of Queens in the City Council.
Yin is endorsed by former Assembly Member Jimmy Meng, several other current and former candidates for local office, and former President of the NYPD Hispanic Society Louis Hernandez. Several local Sikh, Muslim, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Nepali community leaders have also voiced their support for Yin. Along with the PBA co-endorsement, he also has support from the Asian Americans Alliance, National Police and Veterans Foundations, and the Guang Dong Association of Americas.
Yin had raised $26,748 in private funds and $160,444 in public matching funds, according to the CFB website as of June 10.
Yin is focusing his platform on law-and-order, according to his website, and wants to increase NYPD funding -- a point of clear deviation from most other candidates, aside from Wang. After receiving the PBA co-endorsement, Yin said that “more than ever, we need to support the NYPD” in fighting looting and anti-Asian discrimination.
Also similar to Wang, Yin is “totally against” the Main Street busway, although on his website, he claims that “unreliable” buses hurt Queens residents who have long commutes.
On education, Yin says he would promote fine arts, support charter schools, and preserve the specialized high school admissions test (SHSAT), according to his website.
Yin did not sign the open letter pressing Koo to oppose the SFDW rezoning plan, and has said it could be instrumental to Flushing’s COVID-19 recovery by bringing job opportunities and affordable housing. During his run for borough president, Yin told QNS that he would fight to eliminate luxury housing tax credits and apply them to low and middle income housing.
Previously the first Asian-American woman elected to the New York State Senate, where she served for one term before her defeat in the 2008 primary to Grace Meng, Young has also been an NYPD Auxiliary officer and a small business owner.
As a state senator, Young fought for increased middle-class and senior housing, among other things, and became the first Asian-American woman to pass a New York state law, according to her website. In 2008, her primary race against Meng was tense, with Meng criticizing Young for being “a creation” of her former boss, then-Council Member (now State Senator) John Liu, and Young’s campaign manager calling Meng’s portrayal of herself as the American candidate “straight up racist.”
Young is endorsed by some of the highest profile Asian leaders in the city, including her old boss, Senator Liu, and City Council Member Margaret Chin and Assembly Member Ron Kim -- splitting this type of support with Ung. Young also has the backing of a number of community leaders.
Young raised $68,535 in private fundraising and $160,444 in public matching funds, according to the CFB website as of June 10.
Young is perhaps the candidate most vehemently opposed to the Flushing Main Street busway, having recently told StreetsBlog that “the main reason [she] decided to run was because the busway is a “punitive tax” that “is murdering Flushing.” On her website, she expounds the importance of “reliable and accessible transportation” and the need for more community input and review on streetscape issues.
To combat anti-Asian hate crimes, Young proposes creating hate-crime focused police units and funding the NYPD’s community policing programs.
Young has no platform for housing on her website, aside from mentioning expanding affordable senior housing, and has not spoken on the Flushing special district rezoning debate. She did not sign the SFWD opposition letter.
Like many of her opponents, Young wants fully-funded schools with expanded gifted and talented programs and to preserve the specialized high school admissions test, coupled with more preparatory resources.
Low does not have a campaign website nor any other campaign presence online (aside from a sparse Facebook page), but has raised $13,945 in private donations with no public funding according to the CFB website as of June 10.