Tony Avella and John Liu Fight Over Chinese Voters

Tony Avella with supporters in the Chinese community. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

[Editor’s note: The following is a combination and condensation of two stories by Rong Xiaoqing that ran recently in Sing Tao Daily. The first focused on a fundraiser state Sen. Tony Avella held with Chinese supporters, and the second on the candidates’ accusations over flip-flopping on the specialized high school admissions test (SHSAT) and other policy positions.]

More than 200 Chinese voters from Senate District 11, where former City Comptroller John Liu is challenging the incumbent Tony Avella, gathered at a fundraising event in Flushing on Aug. 5, for Avella. “To support Avella is to support ourselves,” said Angela Hu, a parent living in the district who helped organize the event.

It may be hard to imagine in 2013 when Liu was running for mayor that any Chinese would support anyone other than the political superstar from their own community. But it is clearly a different time now, thanks to the mayor’s controversial plan which aims to phase out the SHSAT, the single test that decides admission into specialized high schools and that Chinese students are good at. The plan set off an outcry in the Chinese community and accelerates an already fierce battle between the two candidates of SD 11. But it is only the fuse detonating the longtime feud between Liu and Avella.

For the participants of the fundraising event, the SHSAT was clearly the pivotal issue. Liu recently told the media that he doesn’t support the mayor’s plan, while Avella made it clear that he thinks the current system is the best.

In the eyes of Chinese parents, Liu chose his stance only reluctantly when the election was at stake. He doesn’t support the current system which they prefer, and there was a disparity when he presented his view to the Chinese-language media outlets and the English-language ones. “John Liu could have been our pride. We could have stuck to our old principle that Chinese vote for Chinese candidates. But he doesn’t hesitate to shortchange our interests for ballots. Avella is the one who fights for us,” said Hu, the mother of two children in Stuyvesant High School, one in middle school and one in elementary school.

But in Liu’s mind, he is unfairly bashed on the SHSAT issue and Avella takes advantage of it. Liu said he did write an op-ed in The Huffington Post when he was the comptroller to discuss the admission policy of specialized high schools. But he never called for the test to be abandoned. Rather, he supports a holistic admission policy in which the test is but one of the criteria. And Avella also voted on a Senate bill calling for specialized high school reform in 2013. “If people think I am a flip flopper, I don’t know how many flip floppers there are among politicians,” Liu said.

But the SHSAT aside, what’s really hard for Liu to swallow may be that anyone could think Avella represents the interests of Chinese voters better than he himself. Indeed, from Liu’s perspective, the bumpy relationship between him and Avella for close to two decades was all because of his passion of fighting for the Chinese.

“Avella and I are not in disagreement on many issues including the SHSAT. But he is the only elected official I have never gotten along with. There is a reason for that,” Liu said.

Liu and Avella were both first elected to the City Council in 2001 from neighboring districts: 20, which includes Flushing and 19, which includes Bayside. In 2003, a Chinese-American woman named Connie Coleman was attacked physically and with racial slurs by a drunk white man who was later proved to be related to the Gambino crime family at Caffé on the Green, a high-end restaurant in Avella’s district. The woman sought help from Liu. Liu said he hosted a press conference demanding the restaurant apologize only after the woman was not satisfied with Avella’s handling of the case. “Stupid me, I was concerned about her,” said Liu. “Avella was agitated and said I had no rights in his district.” In Liu’s view, the Coleman case has been a thorn in Avella’s side ever since.

In 2004, Liu and Avella again engaged in a fight involving Asian interests. In September of that year, Avella launched a campaign against businesses that had signs without English translation, starting with a Korean billboard advertising car services in Flushing. He said that was discrimination. But to Liu, who led the City Council special task force, which found only 5 percent of shop signs in Flushing had the issue, the discrimination was on Avella’s part – toward new immigrants in his district. “In the City Council and the State Senate, Avella always sponsored bills requiring shops to have English on their signs,” said Liu. “In Avella’s district, there were many Italian shops that only had Italian on their signs. But he only targeted Chinese and Korean shops. This was racist.”

Liu also mentioned the protests Avella spearheads against homeowners converting their properties. “Many of those homeowners are Chinese,” Liu said.

“(The SHSAT) issue is an important one. I understand why people are upset. But they should check the records of me and my opponent to see who really cares about the Chinese,” said Liu. “The reason I am running for office is to make sure the underserved communities are served, especially the Chinese community. That’s my identity.”

When he listened to Liu’s side of the story relayed by the reporter, Avella guffawed. “This is his way to distract people’s attention from the SHSAT when he knows his campaign has no hope,” Avella said.

He said he doesn’t remember the Coleman case, let alone holding a grudge against Liu for it. As for the eight years he spent together with Liu in the City Council, “I don’t think it was a bad relationship,” said Avella. But he admitted that they didn’t often work together either. “No reason to work together. We represented different districts.” When asked whether he and Liu agree on many issues, Avella said: “I don’t know what his positions are. What he said today will change tomorrow.”

About his own vote for S1827, the 2013 Senate bill calling for specialized high school reform, Avella said he voted yes only because, as a Democrat, he was asked to vote together with other Democrats. And he was misled to think the specialized high school alumni associations supported the bill. When he learned it was not the case, he dropped his name from the bill.

The same happened to his position on the shop signs. “There was some animosity between the Asian community and the Caucasian community on this issue. After meeting with the Asian community, I dropped the (Senate) bill in 2013,” Avella said.

As for the housing conversion issue, “Does John Liu mean he supports illegal conversion? If so, that’s his new low,” said Avella. “Illegal conversion affects Chinese homeowners’ interests too.”

After such a long and hostile battle, is it possible for the two to work together someday in the future? “He ran against me in 2014, talked about running against me in 2016, and now is running against me,” said Avella.

“And he makes it so personal,” he added. “Work together? He needs to be elected to an office first.”

At the fundraising event, Avella walked on stage at the end. He told the participants that their votes in this election will be on the record and noticed by other politicians. “So next year when the SHSAT issue comes up in the Senate again, I can say to my colleagues, you’d better keep the SHSAT, otherwise, the Chinese will vote you out,” Avella said.

The audience clearly heard the message. The event wrapped up with thunderous chanting: “Vote them out.”

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