Gary Ackerman on how Grace Meng is like Jeremy Lin, and how Rory Lancman didn’t get his hint

Ackerman with Ambassador Shigeyuki Hiroki. (Rep. Ackerman, via flickr)
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Gary Ackerman, who has represented part of Queens in Congress for the last two decades, stopped short of endorsing a successor on a conference call with reporters this afternoon. But he indicated he had great sympathy for the cause of electing an Asian-American representative in the newly created 6th congressional district after he retires at the end of the year.

"I can't imagine how the Asian community would feel to have its own congressperson, especially a congresswoman from their community," he said.

He was referring to Assemblywoman Grace Meng, who was endorsed by the county party yesterday, and is running in a primary against Assemblyman Rory Lancman and City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley.

"It's uplifting, it's tranformational, it's inspiring, it encourages people to vote and register and participate in the process, that they're not left out, that they're included in," Ackerman said. "And America is a place of inclusion and it's supposed to be that with everybody."

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Ackerman said that, at some point, communities reach the point where it becomes less important to them to have a representative, but "we're not at that day yet."

"Certainly, in any community, a first is a first," he said. "We saw the euphoria of the first citywide elected official from the Asian community. It's important to a community to have its heroes. I mean, you know, people are going bonkers over Jeremy Lin, more so in the Asian community than anywhere else. There's ethnic pride that we all have ... It's important and it's a good thing."

Ackerman said Meng was "filled with grace, I have to tell you, as the official candidate of the Democrats"--Ackerman likes jokes--and that she knows Taiwanese issues "cold," although "other candidates bring to [the race] other knowledgeable issues, I'm sure."

Ackerman said one of those candidates, Assemblyman Rory Lancman, didn't quite get the hint about Ackerman's possible retirement, when Lancman met with him last week to inform him that he didn't intend to mount a primary challenge in the newly formed district.

"I wished him good luck, I told him that he had a future ahead of him," Ackerman said. "I told him how circumstances changed when I first became a congressman—I wasn't, then somebody died, then the next day I had a shot that I didn't have—and in this business things turn on an instant. And that it could happen quicker than he thought.

"I thought that was a pretty big hint."

But Ackerman, who waxed both philosophical and nostalgic on the 47-minute call, admitted that he waited for Lancman's public announcement that the assemblyman wouldn't be running, and that ego played a role in his decision to leave Congress, just as it did when he decided to enter Congress.

"It made it easier for me personally, I think, because I was under no pressure," he said. "And I could make it under the ideal circumstances for me. I didn't lose an election, I didn't go out in a body bag, and nobody was chasing me out."

Ackerman strongly refuted the notion that he was redistricted out of existence, and said the portion of Queens that was added to the new district by the courts, to make up for the Nassau County section that was subtracted, was all territory he had previously represented, and part of which he grew up in. And he said he had bought and sold three houses during his 29-year career, so having to relocate from Nassau wasn't a reason to leave.

"The real reason and it's hard for people to understand, is that I think it was time," he said. "For every time, there is a season. It's my time. I put in a bunch of years, I put in a tremendous amount fo energy and love, and I have to tell you, it was harder to make the decision and to actually to try to get out of Congress in my case, than it was to actually fight to get in."

Apologizing to the reporters on the call—which included a number of Queens and Long Island outlets, as well as India Abroad and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency—Ackerman said the stories about his lack of fund-raising indicating that he was planning to retire were, essentially, lazy.

"People say, 'Oh he was dropping hints, because...'—I hate raising money in politics, I hate asking people to contribute. I do two big fund-raisers and they haven't happened yet," he said.

Ackerman said that, in fact, he wasn't plotting his retirement, and that he was planning to run immediately after seeing the court's lines, but then wavered on the decision over the course of a couple weeks. He set a personal deadline of today, the start of petitioning, so that candidates could run in an open primary process.

"I'm shocked that I made the decision," he said. "I never thought that I'd be able to make that decision, to leave a job that I love, especially one that would be relatively easy for me in my circumstance to be re-elected."

Ackerman said he "was surprised I was able to pull the plug," and that he didn't have any specific plans for the future, except that he wasn't interested in traveling back and forth to Washington all the time.

"But don't get me wrong," he said. "I've loved every excruciating minute of it."