Election question divides Chinatown leader

By Josh Rogers

It’ll be an odd-year Election Day next Tuesday, perhaps more than just literally speaking. In Lower Manhattan, the local City Council race is pretty much a foregone conclusion. No state legislators are on the ballot, and the mayor and governor are not up for reelection. The only race political observers are paying close attention to is a referendum to end political primaries for city offices and replace them with non-partisan elections.

The proposal, which is being pushed by Mayor Mike Bloomberg and is opposed by Democratic leaders and loyalists, has also divided Chinatown, where some see the measure as the best way to give voters, who may be reluctant to join a political party, a bigger voice in city government and others who say it will lead to confusing elections benefiting wealthy candidates.

“This is the only competitive, interesting thing on the ballot,” said Margaret Chin, deputy executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, a neighborhood non-profit organization. Chin is one of six faces and the only Asian to appear on a Bloomberg-financed mailing supporting the Nov. 4 ballot question.

The proposal would apply to races for mayor, public advocate, borough president and city council. Instead of internal political party primaries open only to party members, all registered voters would choose between all of the candidates in September. The top two vote-getters would compete in a runoff in November. The city’s Campaign Finance Board would be responsible for applying its existing laws about party expenditures to the new campaign set up.

“More people will be able to come into the process,” Chin said. “Open up the process for them.”

Glenn Magpantay, a staff attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said if the referendum passes, voter turnout may very well increase in Chinatown, but that benefit would be overwhelmed by a confusing ballot in which candidates could invent new party names.

“If one cannot read the ballot or understand the ballot, or if a rich candidate will be able to slaughter the district by buying lots of literature, I am very concerned about the outcomes of the election,” said Magpantay.

Jerry Skurnik, a Democratic political consultant, has been tracking Lower Manhattan and Asian voting patterns for several years. He said Asians living in the First City Council District Downtown are 10 percent less likely to register for a political party than other Downtowners.

Skurnik, who uses a computer program to identify Asian-sounding surnames, said 46 percent of the Asian registered voters in Lower Manhattan are not registered Democrats, so they can’t vote in Democratic primaries. Comparatively, about 35 percent of all of the registered voters in the district are not Democrats. Skurnik said there are certain inaccuracies in his computer program, but the 10 or 11 percent gap between Asians and non-Asians is consistent through the various way of comparing the populations.

Chin, who has worked in Chinatown to register Democrats for years, said many people are scared to join parties because of the countries they left. “I don’t think it’s just people form China,” she said. “It’s ethnic Chinese from Vietnam and Cambodia — same problem.”

“Here you think just check the box,’ ” Chin added, before expanding on some of the fears. “It doesn’t mean to pay membership dues or you have to go to meetings. When you do have the time to explain it to them, they will just register Democrat.”

She and Virginia Kee, an opponent of the proposal, each cited personal experiences to argue their point.

Kee, president of a political club, the United Democratic Organization, said she always felt close to the Democratic Party, but it wasn’t until the ‘60s when President Johnson liberalized America’s Asian immigrant policy, that she decided to join the party. Kee, who later ran unsuccessfully for the City Council, said she also understood she lived in a Democratic city and she would have more influence as a Democrat.

“I looked at our city and realized it is important to be part of the political process,” Kee said.

She said people who feel close to another party should work to strengthen that party so they will have more of an influence.

“You have to get all of the people who are Democrats to switch parties,” Kee said, adding it was not an unrealistic goal. She cited a little-known Southern governor, Jimmy Carter, who campaigned hard in Iowa and used the state’s caucus as a springboard to the White House. “It’s America. It can be done. In New York City, it can be done.”

She said it doesn’t make sense to change the system, particularly since there will still be state and national primaries if the referendum passes. “They have to learn the system and register as Democrats,” Kee said of potential voters in Chinatown. “Then they will vote in presidential primaries and they’ll do that in the city and the state.”

Chin, a more recent unsuccessful Council candidate, cited her 2001 campaign to help make her point. In a seven-person primary, Chin finished fourth with almost 2,500 votes, or 17 percent, losing to Alan Gerson, who got 21 percent. In the general election, she ran on the Liberal line, where she said she had more disadvantages – less money and she was not listed as a Democrat – but she still was able to get 1400 more votes, or about 4,000. Councilmember Gerson, who next week faces light opposition from Republican Seth Elliott, won the general election overwhelmingly in 2001. Chin did not suggest she would have won if the

*proposed new system were in place, but she does think that if the proposed changes had been in effect, one of the three Chinese candidates would have had a good chance to make it to the two-person runoff with Gerson. And both would have been identified as Democrats.

“There were a lot of people who I did have their support, but they just couldn’t vote for me,” she said of the primary.

She remembers visiting the Board of Elections in 2001 and seeing hundreds of affidavit ballots that were never counted because they were cast by people who had not registered as Democrats.

Sean Sweeney, president of Downtown Independent Democrats, said unfounded fear about political parties in Chinatown is not a reason to abolish primaries. “Should we change the whole system because one community has fears from their homeland.”

Just about every Downtown Democratic political club has joined together to oppose the measure even though many of them have engaged in bitter fights with each other on other issues over the years. Sweeney, who describes previous club disputes as “gang warfare,” said the unity against non-partisan elections is an indication of how bad an idea it is and that it is a threat to the Democrats 5-1 advantage in New York City.

“It’s time for Democrats to stop fighting each other and start fighting Republicans,” Sweeney said “We have had the luxury of internecine war to amuse ourselves. This is an assault on the Democratic Party with a big D, but also democracy with a small d.”

But Paul Lee, who last month had to close the Mott St. store his grandfather opened in 1891, is leaning toward voting for the plan because he thinks the system needs to be shaken up. In particular, he doesn’t think there has not been enough focus on business problems in Chinatown.

“Nothing else has worked for Chinatown,” Lee said. “I don’t think we’re getting 10 percent of the attention we should.”