In his quest to unseat 20-year Rep. Nydia Velazquez in New York’s newly redrawn 7th District, which now includes parts of Chinatown, the East Village and the Lower East Side, Brooklyn-born challenger Dan O’Connor is gambling that his familiarity with Chinese culture, coupled with a keen knowledge of economics and lack of any political experience, will translate to victory.
O’Connor, an economist and businessman who works at Green Energy in Manhattan, turned his admitted “fascination” with Chinese culture into a six-year stay in mainland China, where he learned to speak fluent Mandarin and Cantonese. He studied economics at Johns Hopkins University in Nanjing, China, and later worked at an economic think tank in Hong Kong before returning to the United States in 2009.
With his early March opening of a campaign office in Chinatown, O’Connor made official his belief that longtime Rep. Velazquez, the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress, has been all but “ignoring” the Chinese community that now comprises nearly 20 percent of the district.
Just this past Friday, O’Connor, who has been actively courting the Chinese vote, received a public endorsement from the American Fujianese Association, the largest Chinese organization in New York. In a campaign news email, O’Connor wrote that the endorsement carries weight with thousands of Chinese voters.
Asked about O’Connor’s courting of the Chinese vote, Paul Newell, Democratic district leader of the 64th Assembly District, said, “It’s a democracy, and anyone should be able to campaign for any voter they want.”
Newell, who is supporting Velazquez in the upcoming primary on June 26, cautioned against putting too much stock in any particular ethnic vote.
“I think as a general rule, this kind of ethnic idea of politics is overrated,” he said. “At the end of the day, in most of these elections, people vote for schools, transportation and the kind of issues that impact their lives.”
But from O’Connor’s perspective, Velazquez hasn’t had the kind of impact she claims. “She has bragged about securing federal money for the community, when in fact she is dead last in bringing back money to the district.”
Campaign fundraising, however, is a different story. According to opensecrets.org, Velazquez has raised more than $250,000 as of early this year, while O’Connor has raised about $45,000, according to his campaign.
In an email campaign appeal, O’Connor estimated that he needs to raise about $100,000 to effectively compete against Velazquez, as well as challengers City Council Member Erik Martin Dilan and Occupy Wall Streeter/hip-hop artist George Martinez.
Claiming that he saw the economic collapse coming and warned of faulty economic policies in Washington, D.C., O’Connor says his real concern is the corrupt relationship between big business and government that has produced a crop of politicians who are only concerned with pleasing corporate sponsors and getting re-elected.
“Instead of giving bailouts and trillions of dollars to large banks, hedge funds and corporations, I will fight to put money back in the hands of everyday middle-income and lower-income families,” said O’Connor.
Elaborating further on the key issues, O’Connor says he’s been sticking to bipartisan concerns such as the still struggling economy, rising inflation and political gridlock.
“The price of gas, housing and food has skyrocketed,” O’Connor said. “Unemployment has remained high. I’m one of the few candidates still talking about our very high rate of inflation.”
Citing his strong background in economics as a key qualification to serve in Congress, O’Connor has also pledged to accept only half of the $174,000-per-year congressional salary and to not take part in the lucrative congressional pension system.
“I don’t plan to be a career politician,” he said. “I want to go to Washington, enforce some accountability and return to the Democratic Party of old that didn’t favor big business.”
A supporter of term limits, O’Connor adds that many politicians go to Washington with good intentions but “come out rotten.”
And while many politicians have been talking up signs of an improved economy, O’Connor says we still have a long way to go before things turn around.
“I don’t see any real signs that things are better,” he said. “In fact, conditions in New York City have only gotten worse, through discussions with voters all across the district over the past year.”
He noted that over the past few years of the economic downturn, bankers have continued to receive million-dollar bonuses while middle- and lower-income families in his district have struggled to pay the next month’s bills.
Regarding his stance on national security, O’Connor, who has libertarian leanings, says our government is involved in too many foreign affairs and is not concerned enough about vexing problems that exist in our own country.
“We need to end the needless militarism. We are less safe as a result and closer to bankruptcy every day,” he said.
A political newcomer, O’Connor offers that one of his best qualifications is “not having held office.”
When asked about a political conspiracy being floated by some New York City political bloggers that O’Connor and OWS activist Martinez are being used to essentially draw votes away from Velazquez, he seemed unfazed.
“I’m willing to work with any people or groups that can help me win more votes, as long as I’m not compromising my own principles,” O’Connor said. “If others are conspiring to help me win votes, it’s OK with me. I’m very confident I will win this.”
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