The Korean American Voters Council (KAVC) hosted a debate Tuesday for District 37 candidates at the following a forum the previous day with candidates for Bergen County office, in an effort to boost participation in the rapidly-growing Korean community.
The focus of both was on issues of particular concern to Korean-American voters, who tend to have a low turnout rate for elections, said moderator and KAVC staff attorney Chejin Park.
“The Korean population is really growing in Bergen County, but their participation is really low,” Park said. “The voter registration rate is less than 50 percent, and the participation rate—voter turnout—is less than 30 percent.”
Park added that in order to boost those numbers, Korean-Americans need to be better informed about candidates and their positions on the issues.
He said KAVC has been holding such events, which are later broadcast on Korean television stations with subtitles, for the past five years, and that while many of the issues that concern Korean-American voters are the same as those of any voter, there are some unique concerns.
“Right now we are suffering from the economic recession,” Park said. “The main issue will be taxes, and then how to get out from this economic recession. And the other thing is the language barrier," he continued.
"I know that around 68 percent have limited English proficiency in the Korean community. So it will be an issue for Koreans—how they can use the government services if they don’t know what to do. Once they know about the government system, once they know about the candidates, once they know about the issues, I strongly believe that Korean-Americans will participate in voting and all kinds of civic activities.”
For the most part, the District 37 candidates—Democratic incumbents, Assemblyman Gordon Johnson and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, and their Republican challengers, Senate candidate Robert S. Lebovics and Assembly candidates Keith Jensen and John Aslanian, along with Libertarian candidate Julian Heicklen—reiterated their positions on various issues as expressed in previous debates such as the one at Bergen Community College on Oct. 17.
Aslanian and Jensen, for example, said the Fair School Funding Act, which they’ve touted throughout their campaign, would bring an additional $163 million in school funding to District 37 and offset property taxes.
“It’s a proposal that needs to be debated,” Aslanian said. “It should be passed, but at the very least it should be debated. To just dismiss it out of hand, there’s no sense and there’s no defense for that.”
Calling the plan a “silver bullet” for lowering property taxes, Jensen added that voters should “ask them what they have done to clearly lower property taxes by a lot. Why is our money going out to these failing school districts?”
Huttle countered that, “What they’re calling this fair school funding is quite frankly unfair, pitting students against other students.”
Johnson pointed out that when Gov. Christie “vetoed the budget put forth by the Legislature, this district lost $20 million for schools.”
“This idea of the Fair School Funding is not accurate, is not true and will not pass the Supreme Court muster,” he said.
Instead, he said, the way to control and reduce property taxes “that’s a comprehensive plan that will be accepted by the New Jersey state Supreme Court” is consolidation and shared services.
“Our state has 566 municipalities and very few shared services with one another,” Huttle said. “We can no longer afford to maintain the overhead costs of this system.”
Lebovics quoted Albert Einstein, as he does on his campaign website, in defining “insanity” as “doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result.”
“If you’re happy with the way things are in terms of the state’s economy, the tax structure, the state fiscal solvency, economic development, I tell you, you should vote for them because that’s exactly what you’re going to get more of,” Lebovics said. “But if you don’t, then you have to look for a change.”
Heicklen said that if elected, he would reduce the prison population, reform the legal system, put an end to the state income tax, “end prosecution of all consensual acts between mentally competent adults” and rebuild decaying infrastructure, among other things.
The candidates also attempted to tailor their message to their Korean-American audience Tuesday.
Senator Loretta Weinberg couldn’t be at the debate because of an out-of-town family event, but KAVC allowed her to submit a five-minute, videotaped statement.
Weinberg focused on healthcare, Medicaid and senior citizens’ services and talked about the Korean-American unit at the Bergen Regional Hospital as “things that are important to the Korean-American community, as well as our community at large.”
“We appreciate the contributions your new generation in our state is making to our county, to communities I represent, to our students,” Weinberg said, adding that Johnson has been “a wonderful friend to your community” and a “liaison between the two communities.”
Aslanian said he believes the two communities are “the same.”
“We are all immigrants,” Aslanian said, noting that he comes from an Armenian family who came to the U.S. a generation ago and that his father “started a business with $5,000, which eventually grew to $30 million.”
“I have so much respect when I see the Korean signs going up everywhere,” Aslanian said. “I know that we share the same work ethic; we just want a place to live, free from over-regulation, free from high taxation, a good place for our children to go to school, and when we get older, we don’t want our taxes going through the roof when we’re on fixed income.”
Huttle said she would like to see more representation from the Korean community in elected positions.
“And I will tell you that the elected members of the Korean Community that I know are Democrats,” Huttle said. “We want to help our businesses grow and thrive, but we need representation from everyone.”
Jensen countered by saying the Korean culture is “proud,” “family-oriented” and “conservative in a manner.”
“I don’t understand why historically, the Democratic party is who you always used to vote for,” Jensen said. “I think times have changed, and that Democratic party that you knew when you first immigrated here is not at all nearly even close to what the Democratic party is now that represents you, who’s abandoned you.”
Jensen said that if elected, the Republicans will lower property taxes by a third and “fund your schools better.”
He also said that he has a plan for helping local Korean business owners that doesn’t involve “giving out grants and giving out free money.”
“I’m one of the only ones—if not the only one—that focuses on the Korean businesses,” Jensen said, adding that he knows “the people to go after that are holding you up, who are not giving you those contracts, who are not giving you those agreements.”
Lebovics, who said he too would like to see more Korean-Americans “involved on the governmental level,” said he also doesn’t believe in quotas to give minority-owned businesses an edge in competing for state grants and contracts because “that’s not America,” but he promised Korean voters “respect” and “a seat at the table.”
“The only way to chop down the regulations [challenging Korean business owners] is to send out the people who gave you those regulations,” Lebovics said.
Aslanian and Jensen butted heads with Johnson at one point over their support of Korean soldiers who helped the U.S. Army during the Korean War and subsequently immigrated to the United States and are now fighting for benefits from the U.S. government.
Johnson said, “We have a resolution in requesting that the federal government acknowledge these brave soldiers and take care of their needs."
But when Jensen pressed him for a resolution number, Johnson, with the help of an aid in the audience, eventually came up with Assembly Resolution No. 164, which Jensen pointed out actually honors Korean veterans of the Vietnam War.
Heicklen, of Teaneck, admitted he doesn’t know much about the Korean-American community, but he said he wants to learn what the specific concerns are. He invited people to meet him in the hallway after the debate “to give me the opportunity of knowing the situations that you face that I’m not altogether familiar with.”
On Monday, KAVC hosted a similar forum with County Clerk, Surrogate and Freeholder candidates. Both events will be broadcast on Korean TV with Korean subtitles, but Park said the broadcast dates have not yet been determined.