Racial Tensions Flare at Queens Redistricting Hearing

IMG_4072Unlike Teddy Roosevelt, the president he quoted at last night’s Queens redistricting hearing, Republican Councilman Dan Halloran spoke loudly and did not carry a big stick.

Mr. Halloran’s bruising 2009 City Council race in northeast Queens cast a long shadow over the hearing in Long Island City- the third of its kind in front of a commission tasked with the decennial redrawing of districts to reflect demographic changes in the city- where he and allied civic groups clashed with Asian advocacy organizations about whether a neighborhood, Oakland Gardens, should be incorporated into Mr. Halloran’s 19th District. The heavily Asian neighborhood, which groups like the Asian American Community Coalition on Redistricting and Democracy (ACCORD) believe should be joined with nearby Bayside to empower Asian-American voters in the area, is currently in Councilman Mark Weprin’s district.

“Additionally, contrary to some public submissions which call for the creation of a Asian or other ethnic district, I cannot help but to recall the words of the great New Yorker and president, Teddy Roosevelt when he said that, ‘There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americans,’” Mr. Halloran said. “We do not have proposals to create an Irish district, an Italian district, a Greek district, a district of green eyed people or a district of left handed people.”

Though a bevy of Asian advocacy organizations believe Oakland Gardens, which many locals call Bayside, should be naturally joined with Bayside in the 19th District, Mr. Halloran sharply disagreed. The seemingly small matter of where the district line ultimately falls could determine Mr. Halloran’s political future. In 2009, he was able to defeat the Korean-American Democrat Kevin Kim in what was an election defined by race and religion. If Asian advocacy organizations get the district lines they want, Mr. Halloran may not a win a second or third term, especially if an Asian candidate like Mr. Kim emerges in the future (no Asian candidates have filed to run in this year’s 19th District race).

Groups like ACCORD, Korean Americans for Political Advancement or the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) profess to be nonpartisan and bristle at any assertions that they support one candidate or oppose another. However, Mr. Halloran’s ’09 race was alluded to several times during the proceedings.

“Bayside in particular was the center of a racially charged city council race between an Asian American and a white candidate in 2009,” said Jerry Vattamala, a staff attorney with AALDEF, the group that crafted a detailed City Council map for New York City known as the Unity Map. “Asian Americans were assaulted, intimidated, had property destroyed and were disenfranchised at poll sites.”

Mr. Halloran and his predominately white civic allies had their own qualms with the commission as well, testifying that a section of suburban northern Flushing should be drawn into Mr. Halloran’s leafier district. This proposal was not contested by members of the public, unlike the latest draft of the 28th District, which ropes in Jamaica, Rochdale, Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park. While the district, until this point, has been primarily a place where the aforementioned advocacy groups have argued that the area’s booming South Asian and Indo-Caribbean populations should be granted greater voting power, it emerged last night as a battleground between Asian civic groups and the larger African-American community on the other side of the Van Wyck Expressway.

Represented by the African-American Ruben Wills, the district has traditionally elected black council members. South Asians in Richmond Hill have complained that those council members, like the late Tom White Jr., neglected the western portion of the district. The proposed district would be about 45 percent black, down from 48 percent in the current district with the Asian population growing from about 16 to 18 percent and the Hispanic population growing from about 17 to 18 percent.

“This is a predominately and historically black community of middle class families residing in one and two family homes,” said southeast Queens resident Florence Johnson. “I find these attempts to skew these lines to create a new majority that includes Asian, Hispanic and other ethnicities is a clear attempt to disenfranchise my historically black community.”

One of southeast Queens’ political power brokers, Reverend Charles Norris Sr., appeared at the hearing to back up the contentions of residents like Ms. Johnson. Yet South Asian and Indo-Caribbean leaders were not satisfied with the proposed district either, arguing that it still did not encompass enough of South Ozone Park and neglected to include a local high school and the Aqueduct Racetrack.

“It seems as though everybody here has the same problem,” Mr. Norris said, as applause rippled through the auditorium.