At the Broadway-Flushing Homeowner Association’s Candidates Night on Thursday, incumbents Paul Vallone and Peter Koo largely defended their accomplishments in elected office, while challengers Paul Graziano and Alison Tan, respectively, explained their vision for each district.
The Democratic Primary will take place on September 12.
The forum, which took place at The Church on the Hill, allowed the candidates to introduce themselves and take questions from the audience. They discussed issues like landmarking and preservation, rising property taxes and the closing of Rikers Island.
Vallone, who spoke first and left immediately to attend a graduation, has represented neighborhoods stretching from College Point to Little Neck since 2013. He faced Graziano in a five-way Democratic primary four years ago, collecting 31 percent of the vote while Graziano took home 17 percent.
He went on to defeat Republican challenger Dennis Saffran in the general election.
Vallone opened the forum with a simple question: where was the district four years ago?
“Very simply, we were last,” he said.
The Democratic incumbent argued that District 19 was underfunded for years. Out of the borough’s 13 districts, his district consistently ranked last.
After Vallone came into office, the district went straight to the top, he argued. He said his top accomplishment was bringing home money for parks, libraries, safety and schools.
“Those are the things that you look back and say, we really made a difference,” Vallone said.
Graziano, an urban planning and historic preservation consultant, said that under previous City Council leadership, council members used to receive different amounts of funding. When Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito came to power, she gave nearly equal funding to every district.
“We all would’ve received the same amount of money,” Graziano said. “To listen to this as if the wheel was reinvented is particularly galling to me.”
The challenger asserted that Vallone has the lowest rate of legislation passed under any Queens council member.
“I have personally written or passed more legislation as a consultant than Paul Vallone,” he said.
If elected, Graziano’s primary focus will be to protect neighborhoods like Broadway-Flushing from overdevelopment. He touted his work downzoning the entire district a decade ago when he served as State Senator Tony Avella’s planning consultant when Avella was in the City Council.
“I was known as the go-to person for land use issues, that is my strength,” he said. “Land use issues, in my opinion, inform everything else.”
He charged that under Vallone’s tenure, the community has seen an increase in illegal conversions. Graziano also blasted Vallone’s connection to and donations from the real estate industry.
“I urge you to take a look at the actual record of myself and my opponent,” he said. “We have great neighborhoods in northeast Queens, but we are being savaged. We are losing some of the best homes in our community.”
Graziano also connected Vallone to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is unpopular in the area. The mayor supports Vallone, Graziano said.
“I will fight him tooth and nail if elected,” he said.
Flushing Councilman Peter Koo and challenger Alison Tan, also spoke at the forum. Tan said she’s running to improve quality of life in a community that is growing at a high rate.
“I have a lot at stake in this community. My two parents are retiring here, I’m raising my two little girls here,” she said. “I know that the environment that my children grow up in has a tremendous impact on their outlook in life, their view of self-worth and their confidence.
“Unfortunately, in the 20th Council District quality of life has significantly deteriorated, nobody disputes that,” Tan added. “It has to do with funding that we fight for to provide the infrastructure and maintenance to support the population growth. Right now, I don’t think the council seat is optimized to its fullest potential. We don’t have a fighter in that seat.”
Tan, a Community Board 7 member and wife of Assemblyman Ron Kim, asserted that Koo may not care and hasn’t fought hard enough for these improvements.
“We need to be assertive, we need to be vocal and we have to fight for our families,” she said.
Audience members asked Tan about her lack of political experience. Tan, who works in the private sector in real estate financing, highlighted her management of over $7 billion in capital and the accomplishment of becoming one of the youngest managing directors in her firm.
“We’re held accountable for our performance,” she said about the private sector. “If we don’t deliver on the things we say we’re going to do, you’re subjected to performance reviews. You get fired and someone replaces you.”
If elected, Tan said she would push her staff to not just address constituent concerns, but also proactively outreach to address local issues.
Councilman Peter Koo, who arrived late after attending other scheduled events, reintroduced himself to the Broadway-Flushing community. He said he was an immigrant who worked minimum wage jobs to get through college.
After he graduated with a degree in pharmacy and moved to New York City, he opened a chain of pharmacies in downtown Flushing. Along the way, he often spoke to residents about applying for Medicaid and finding senior housing.
In 2009, Koo ran for an open City Council seat as a Republican, a move he took because “there were no seats available for me on the Democratic side.” He won a hotly contested election by a slim 650 votes.
Three years later, Koo switched to the Democratic Party in order to chair a committee and get more funding for his district. He easily won re-election in 2013.
“I wanted to serve my community better,” he said. “I brought more resources to my district.”
All four candidates were asked about their position on closing Rikers Island, criminal justice reform and the use of stop and frisk.
Vallone, Graziano and Tan were all opposed to closing the much-maligned Rikers Island and opening new jails in each borough. Vallone, who sat on the Board of Corrections for five years, called the island “the perfect spot.”
“Closing Rikers Island is not the answer,” he said. “Eight million people do not want to see detainees in detention centers throughout the community.”
The incumbent also opposed the City Council’s move to make minor crimes, such as urinating on streets or drinking in public, into a civil offense, which usually results in a summons.
“If you commit a crime, you’ve got to do the time,” Vallone said. “A crime is a crime. If you commit it, you have to deal with it.”
Graziano said he’s also “100 percent opposed” to closing Rikers. He called it a real estate plan to convert the land into either housing or a runway for LaGuardia Airport.
He called it a “huge mistake” for the city to decriminalize quality of life violations.
“When you’re comfortable with minor crimes, you’re comfortable with major crimes,” Graziano said. “I don’t want to see a kid or an adult urinating on the street. I’m not interested in that. When you don’t curb that behavior, it’s a slippery slope.”
Tan opposed closing Rikers Island because she believes her community would be hit hardest. While she believes there should be penalties for quality of life crimes, she also said “children deserve second chances.”
Koo offered tepid support for closing Rikers Island, which he said was “not good for young people” and is “too old.”
“Our prison system has too many prisoners,” he said. “We don’t want too many people to go to jail.”