Korean American Civic Empowerment (KACE) and the Korean American Civic Action Committee hosted a Bergen County Freeholder candidates’ debate Thursday at the FGS Korean Community Center in Englewood.
Noting that the Korean-American population in Bergen County is nearly 57,000, that 14.5 percent of the county’s population is Asian-American and that 6.3 percent is comprised of Korean-Americans, mostly concentrated in Fort Lee, Palisades Park, Paramus, Leonia, Cliffside Park, Tenafly and Englewood Cliffs, KACE staff attorney and debate moderator Chejin Park said the objective of the debate was twofold.
“The two objectives of this debate are to help the Asian-American community make an educated decision at the November general election and to create an excellent opportunity for candidates to reach out to their Asian-American constituents and create positive exposure for their campaigns,” Park said.
Incumbent Robert Hermansen and his Republican running mate Margaret "Peg" Watkins faced off against Democrats Steve Tanelli and Tracy Silna Zur, taking questions mostly related to how they propose to improve Korean-Americans’ accessibility to county services.
Watkins said she is running on three principles “that continue to guide my actions.”
“I believe that you know better what your family needs than any government can,” Watkins said. “Therefore my aim is to leave you with what you earn in your hands. I believe that government runs best when it is directly answerable to you, the people, and I know that big government is rarely efficient.”
She also said she’s a “firm believer in encouraging small business,” noting that many Korean-Americans are small business owners or otherwise involved with them.
“You need to have the ability to keep your businesses running and to keep your taxes in check,” Watkins said.
Zur said making sure that government officials “encourage involvement at all steps along the way” is of paramount importance.
“Korean people and others need to make sure that they understand the ways they can get involved in government, and county government specifically,” Zur said.
Tanelli said Democrats have made strides at the county level, reminding the mostly Korean-American audience that County Clerk John Hogan took part in a debate hosted by KACE, which was known at the time as the Korean American Voters Council (KAVC), last year and promised “real outreach” to the Korean community “even though he had to fight every step of the way to get that accomplished.”
“Our Democratic Prosecutor hired a [Korean] Deputy Prosecutor into his office,” Tanelli said by way of example, adding, “The most important thing is opportunity.”
“I believe everyone deserves a fair opportunity, and I look forward to the day when a Korean-American is sitting up here debating for a spot on the Freeholder board,” he said.
Hermansen said he and Watkins would strive to continue to do what the county government has already been doing, a theme he repeated all evening.
He said the Donovan administration has been reaching out to the Korean community for a long time and “doing things that were never done before they were required by law.”
For example, he said, the county’s website is now translated into Korean, among other languages, and that he and Watkins have been handing out campaign literature in Korean at cultural events and holiday celebrations like Chuseok, a major Korean holiday celebrating autumn and the harvest.
“[We’re reaching out] to the community to let them know that we care, and that we’re trying to do the right thing to embrace them,” Hermansen said. “We believe that the Korean values and people who are Korean small business owners have the same values as the Republican Party: keep more of what you earn and do the right thing for your families.”
All four candidates gamely attempted a couple of phrases in Korean much to the delight of the audience but with varying degrees of accuracy, and keeping the mood light, Park asked each of them to name their favorite Korean dish.
The Republicans both said Korean barbecue, and the Democrats both said Kimchi.