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Crime, education and more at issue

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Primary election candidates for Queens district attorney and City Council Districts 19, 20 and 29 joined the Asian Wave Alliance on Sunday to discuss issues of special relevance to the communities they hope to represent.

Among the most pressing topics discussed were the citywide increase in crime, ubiquitous illegal smoke shops and NYC’s steady influx of asylum-seeking immigrants.

In District 19, Democratic candidates Tony Avella, Christopher Bae and Paul Graziano are running to replace incumbent Vickie Paladino (R-Whitestone) in the City Council.

As per the NYPD 109th Precinct, crime rates in District 19 have skyrocketed as of late.

Graziano ascribed the spike to laws that prevent public safety officers and the courts from “taking care of people who should not be on the streets.”

Avella claimed that bail reform has negatively impacted public safety. He backs dividing the 109th Precinct into two precincts — one for Northeast Queens, and one for Downtown Flushing — to allow for better response time and a “more permanent police presence.”

“We also need to address doubling the hate crime penalties,” he said. “Hate crime against the Asian community is outrageous.”

Bae, a prosecutor in the Queens DA’s Office for the past seven years, supports providing more funding and resources to detective squads that tackle grand larcenies, such as catalytic converter thefts.

In District 20, Republican candidates Yu-Ching James Pai and Jin Liang Dany Chen share that same sentiment of restoring law and order as they run for the seat held by incumbent Councilmember Sandra Ung (D-Flushing).

In April, Ung and incumbent DA Melinda Katz announced the Flushing Merchants Business Improvement Program, which allows business owners to notify the NYPD 109th Precinct about trespassers, who will be arrested if they return.

“This crime rate, this disorder should have been addressed a long time ago, not just right now,” Chen said.

“The Democrats defunding the police, you’re not helping,” Pai said. “By putting handcuffs on cops, pushing out pro-criminal laws, that’s just something to mask what’s going on.”

Chen and Pai both stated that they do not feel safe walking around in their communities.

Asked if they would fund civil patrol groups in District 20, Chen said yes, while Pai supports assessing their procedures before doing so.

In City Council District 29, Democratic candidate Ethan Felder promised to ensure that the police receive adequate funding and that wrongdoers are held accountable.

“We need to make sure that there [are] the right programs in place to make sure there [are] economic opportunities so that people don’t fall into the conditions that lead to crime,” he said.

Sukhi Singh supports funding educational programs to address violence and hate crimes.

He and Felder are challenging Councilmember Lynn Schulman (D-Forest Hills).

Judge George Grasso, Melinda Katz’s opponent for Queens DA, pledged to take public safety seriously and prioritize victims’ rights, theft, drugs and assault if elected.

He promised that police officers in Queens “will be supported when they do their jobs” and claimed that Katz has not made this clear.

“The only reason she became Queens County district attorney or ran for it — she was term-limited as Queens borough president, a job that had no responsibilities whatsoever for criminal justice and frankly, not a lot of defined responsibilities for a lot of other things either,” he said.

During her tenure as Queens DA, Katz formed the Violent Criminal Enterprises Bureau to dismantle criminal organizations, in addition to a Cold Case Unit, 24/7 Domestic Violence Helpline and Conviction Integrity Unit. She was not in attendance at the candidates’ forum.

Grasso proposed creating a Mental Health Bureau in the DA’s Office, which would consist of mental health professionals who examine defendants and help them receive necessary, voluntary care.

He plans to address illegal cannabis shops by restoring the nuisance abatement law. “If we had three violations of law in these smoke shop establishments … we had the presumptive ability to shut those places down and renegotiate with the landlords to ensure that they would reopen a legal business,” he said.

Grasso also expressed concerns about the unknown additives that illegal cannabis shops may potentially use, including fentanyl.

In District 19, Bae supports pressuring landlords not to lease space to the shops. Pai made similar statements regarding District 20.

Avella proposed to address the shops with a specialized task force under which police make arrests and the city penalizes property owners.

Another hot topic across NYC is the steady influx of immigrants — more than 65,000 have arrived since last spring, and 37,000 remain.

In wake of Mayor Adams’ recent deliberation over whether to house migrants in school gyms, District 19 candidates unanimously claimed that their neighborhoods are not equipped to serve migrants.

“We’re a transit desert,” Avella said. “How are these families going to be helped by placing them in a neighborhood where they can’t get … transportation to services?”

Graziano noted that the state Constitution and City Charter prevent the city from turning migrants away.

“If we’re a city that’s compassionate, we also have to be a city that’s fair, and fair to everyone in our city, not just the folks who are coming here looking for assistance,” he said.

In District 20, Chen criticized Adams for using taxpayer money to house migrants in hotels and said the federal government must secure the borders.

Pai concurred that immigration is primarily a federal problem and called for housing vouchers for migrants.

A pressing issue for Districts 19 and 20 is bill A5688, proposed by Assemblymember Jeff Aubry (D-Corona), which would alienate 50 acres of parkland for Steve Cohen to build a casino in the Citi Field parking lot. All three District 19 Democratic candidates oppose the bill.

In a suit brought by Avella, he and Graziano were plaintiffs to prevent construction of a mall on the same site. “How can you give the 95th richest man in the world property that’s worth $750 million for free to make half a billion dollars a year on the misery of the people surrounding these communities?” Graziano said.

Avella articulated the impossibility of matching the alienated parkland acre-for-acre and described Cohen’s hopes for a casino as a “pipe dream.”

In District 20, Pai said that until issues of traffic, quality of life and gambling addictions can be resolved, he does not support the casino.

“I don’t think the community is aware [of] what’s going on,” he said. “As time goes on, I feel Steve Cohen should do a better job on reaching out, not just the associations, but the community that truly lives there.”

Flushing and Corona residents have protested the casino several times, including once in front of Aubry’s district office this month.

Chen described a casino near struggling communities as “unacceptable” and “inappropriate.”

Bike lanes have also become more common throughout Queens, but not all of them are used frequently.

Avella said the bike lane on Northern Boulevard in Douglaston has caused an abundance of car accidents and suggested that bike lanes remain only in appropriate locations.

Bae concurred, stating that space taken up by unused bike lanes could be used for bus lanes or parking.

Chen and Pai both support leaving bike lanes where they make sense and eliminating ones that do not, especially in areas with heavy traffic.

In District 29, Felder supports bike lanes in general, but called for an analysis from the DOT regarding which bike lanes are used, and how.

Singh made similar comments and expressed concern for the lanes next to heavy traffic on Queens Boulevard.

He also supports the potential transformation of Austin Street into a pedestrian-first zone and suggested closing it to cars at peak pedestrian hours or making it a one-way street.

Felder maintained that there are ways to help pedestrians without banning cars, which would exclude elderly and disabled individuals from businesses on Austin Street.

He suggested expanding the use of commercial delivery zones and ensuring that people are not excessively meter feeding to ensure the safety of pedestrians on bustling Austin Street.

District 19 faces overcrowding issues, especially in schools. Gov. Hochul recently signed a bill to limit class sizes, which may require the construction of additional schools.

“To the extent that there is this mandate and the law says we need to get the numbers down, I support that,” Bae said. “But this will require more resources from City Hall, not less.”

Graziano concurred that District 19 is crowded, but claimed it is not as crowded as others.

“While we do need more school seats … we have to be very careful where we put those schools,” he said.

There is also talk of building a specialized high school in Queens. There is currently only one, on the York College campus in Jamaica, which admits 125 students every year.

Avella said that construction would be possible with proper funding and communication with the community.

Graziano supports gifted and talented programs and proposed to replace a crumbling hospital in Fort Totten with a specialized high school.

Paladino opposes Drag Story Hour in public schools and libraries. In her State of the District speech, she pledged to “fight against inappropriate adult content in our schools.”

Bae noted that the program does not take place during school hours and is not mandatory for students, but would be available to those with questions about identity.

“I’m not going to tie any funding for specific schools to this issue, because [Paladino] is making it very political and not thinking about the health of our students,” he said.

Graziano, who claimed not to find support for Drag Story Hour among parents at PS 209, does not find it appropriate for public schools, but supports it in public libraries.

Avella would leave the decision up to individual schools, parents and principals.

Asked whether they support the legalization of basement apartments, all three candidates for Council District 19 gave a resounding no.

Graziano said basement apartments are not affordable housing, and that they impose substandard conditions on people in need.

“There’s a reason basement apartments were always illegal: They’re unsafe,” Avella said. “We should not change this.”

Avella also said legalizing basement apartments would undermine the city’s zoning code, overburden infrastructure and overcrowd schools.

While Bae does not support the complete legalization of basement apartments, he is willing to consider it on a case-by-case basis.

Primary day is June 27.

CORRECTION: This story originally misstated a dollar value due to one letter being mistyped. The referenced figure is $750 million. We regret the error.

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