By Mark Hallum
State Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing) faced off against S.J. Jung in a Tuesday night debate which raised tough questions about nail salons, government ethics, public transportation, housing and education.
The two candidates are both fighting to win the Democratic primary in the 16th District, which covers an area from Woodside to Bayside and much of Flushing. Asian Pacific Americans Voice, a civic engagement group, hosted the debate in the auditorium of the Queens Library in Flushing at 41-17 Main St., and employed the help of MSNBC and NBC reporter Richard Lui to moderate.
Stavisky is the first woman elected to state Senate from Queens and has a background as a high school teacher. She has been elected to office seven times since 1999. Jung is a community activist originally from South Korea who was formerly the president of the MinKwon Center, which specializes in community organizing and advocating for Asian immigrant communities.
The issue of campaign finance reform to keep the wealthy from leveraging the political system in their favor was raised by Susan Lerner, executive director of the New York chapter of Common Cause.
Stavisky said she supported legislation to close the LLC loophole, which would eliminate the likelihood of candidates using cash flow from personal enterprise to fund political pursuits, and punishing campaign finance violations with pension forfeiture. She also said there should be limits on contribution amounts as well as caps on spending.
Lui followed up to Stavisky’s response by questioning an $18,500 contribution he claimed Stavisky accepted from Forest Hills Plaza College. She responded by saying her record on public higher education was exemplary. She referenced honors and awards she has received from SUNY and CUNY for her support of schools in Queens.
“The accusation that appeared in the paper was outrageous,” Stavisky said, denying she had any knowledge of the contribution. “They’ve asked me to do absolutely nothing except be an advocate for education.”
Jung said a lawmaker cannot not have a dual interest in both money and legislation, and comprehensive reform would be the only antidote to ethical woes afflicting city and state elections.
“A little patchwork here, a little patchwork there, will not work. We need comprehensive campaign finance reform,” Jung said. “For example, we need to adapt the public matching fund system that we have right here in the city so that a poor insurgent candidates like me can jump into the race.”
Jung firmly denied he had ever accepted contributions from former business associates, and said his stand could be reinforced by his financial disclosure statements.
He went to say that although challengers are often able to make it into public office, once there they begin to benefit from the system and do not advocate for change.
Jung said the public matching fund system could be extended to the state level by reducing tax breaks for private developers, which he contended would create about $7 billion in public funds, where only $25 million is needed for a matching fund system at the state level.
Charles Yoon,executive director of the Korean American League of Civic Action, raised the issue of dry cleaner and nail salon employment practice and recent legislation designed to protect worker from dangerous chemicals and fumes.
Jung took the side of the issue which defends business owners, as a business owner himself.
“Small businesses create two-thirds of private sector jobs,” Jung said. “While we protect worker’s rights we need to find a way to promote small business.”
Stavisky said while employers should not be driven out of business, workers’ health should be a high priority. According to the senator, an attempt to change the way dry cleaning employers operate needs to be addressed through education, which explains how certain chemicals can be dangerous to staff.
–Candidates shared their views on communities in Queens under-served by public transportation resulting in packed subways and buses as well as crowded streets.
Lui asked the candidates how often the two take public transportation, Stavisky said it had been two years since she had last used her MetroCard, while Jung said he uses the bus almost every day.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall