State Senate Race Takes Center Stage

This article originally appeared in the Queens Tribune, and was written by James Farrell.

Affordable Housing, Transportation and Campaign Finance are Hot Topics for Debate

State Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing) and businessman S.J. Jung, both candidates vying for the 16th Senate District seat currently occupied by Stavisky and up for grabs this election season, met for a candidates’ forum at Queens Library in Flushing Tuesday night. The event gave the candidates an opportunity to present their positions to the community ahead of the September 13 primary.

The nonpartisan forum, which was co-sponsored by 17 community organizations and moderated by MSNBC’s Richard Lui, was generally civil as the candidates expressed their views on a range of issues including affordable housing, transportation and campaign finance, among others. Stavisky, a high school teacher by trade and the first woman from Queens County to be elected to the state Senate, touted her legislative accomplishments after nearly 17 years in office. Jung is a small-business owner and former president of the MinKwon Community Action Center. He also ran for City Council in 2009 and state Senate in 2014. He presented himself as a bold newcomer with the community advocacy experience to challenge the status quo.

The night began on the topic of affordable housing. Jung said that Queens was lagging behind other boroughs like Manhattan and Brooklyn in producing affordable housing. He suggested that rather than specific policy issues, the problem was a lack of political willingness, indirectly targeting the Stavisky campaign’s political contributions.

“It does not take rocket scientists or a city planner to figure out how to make more affordable housing,” he said. “If you have received political contributions from the Real Estate Board of New York, which is a large arm of big-money real estate developers, it is hard to believe that you will really advocate for affordable housing,” he added.

Stavisky said she would seek to repeal the Urstadt Law, which puts rent regulations under state, instead of city, jurisdiction. This was a response to concerns that landlords can take advantage of current state laws to legally increase rents on rent-stabilized tenants.

“I grew up in a rent-controlled apartment,” she said, “so I know the importance of rent-controlled apartments and rent-regulated apartments.”

Stavisky also expressed frustration that $2 billion in affordable housing funding promised in the 2016 budget has not yet been released, as state leaders have not signed an agreement called a memorandum of understanding.

With regard to the question of money in politics, Stavisky said she supports closing the “LLC loophole,” which allows companies to set up multiple LLCs to make larger political contributions. She also supported limiting or, if possible, eliminating the practice of collecting outside incomes while in office, and putting better limits on campaign financing at the state level. Jung, meanwhile, touted his own campaign funds, arguing that he was running a “no strings attached” campaign. “Money reigns” in Albany, he said, and comprehensive campaign finance reform is the only solution.

Stavisky also highlighted a number of other platforms and achievements throughout the night, including her longstanding support for disaggregation, or ending the practice of considering Asian Americans as one ethnic group; her support for the SWEAT bill to combat wage theft; and her ongoing work with the borough commissioner of the Department of Transportation to ensure the protection of small businesses affected by the upcoming yearlong sidewalk-widening project along Flushing’s Main Street.

Jung, meanwhile, said he would remove “out of touch” regulations on small businesses, support the SWEAT bill and push for a comprehensive investment plan for infrastructure in Queens. In discussing the issue of cultural competency in New York, he cited his experience as an immigrant. He added that he once advocated for an executive order, which ultimately passed, to force all government services to be provided in multiple languages, but that budget problems have hampered results.

Jung and Stavisky agreed that nail salon owners, who have been under scrutiny and increased regulation after a New York Times article highlighted employee health hazards, needed relief from some of those regulations, but added that employees still needed protection. To that point, Stavisky also challenged Jung on $21,000 worth of contributions from nail salon owners, which Jung countered.

“I received contributions from more than 100 small business owners. So divide it by 100,” he said of the $21,000.

Stavisky and Jung also got to ask each other a question. Stavisky presented her staunch pro-choice stance, and asked Jung if he agreed. He did not, saying he only supported abortion when the health of the mother was threatened. Jung asked Stavisky about $86,000 worth of donations from the Real Estate Board of New York. Stavisky questioned the accuracy of that number and reiterated her support for affordable housing.

“I made this very clear to the folks at the Real Estate Board of New York, that I support tenants’ rights,” she said, highlighting her recent advocacy for tenants in rent-stabilized buildings in Flushing who are concerned about their landlord, Treetop Development. The Jung campaign has also been vocal about Treetop, addressing residents’ concerns in a press conference about affordable housing two weeks ago.