12:03 pm Jun. 26, 20121
On the corner of Henry and Rutgers Streets in Chinatown this morning, Representative Nydia Velazquez was practicing her limited Chinese.
"Ni hao! Ni hao!" she hollered at voters making their way toward the East Broadway stop on the F line, pressing them to take a palm card.
Velazquez was the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress and still seems most comfortable speaking in Spanish, but on the morning of her first real primary in 20 years, she was introducing herself to voters in Chinatown, the second stop of a long day that's scheduled to include appearances with Comptroller John Liu, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Representative Carolyn Maloney and Councilmember Diana Reyna.
She was joined in Chinatown by Councilman Dan Garodnick and Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh.
Velazquez is trying to beat back a challenge from Councilman Erik Dilan, who enjoys the backing of Brooklyn's Democratic chairman, Vito Lopez, who has a long and unpleasant history with Velazquez.
"All they've done is to make me lose six pounds," she said. "And for the longest time now, I've been trying to lose five pounds. I didn't have to spend any money going to a gym."
Velazquez's newly redrawn district is mostly in Brooklyn, stretching from the northern neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg down to Sunset Park, but it also crosses the river into Chinatown. On this particular corner, Velazquez was campaigning across the street from Fuzhou Supermarket on one side and the St. Teresa Catholic Church on another.
She talked to a group of women at length in Spanish, and greeted some stroller-pushing parents in English, but most of the conversations were in broken Chinese. Many of the voters seemed to get a kick out of the congresswoman's efforts, smiling as they took a palm card and offering a "ni hao" in return.
Among the pictures on her palm card, which included the Chinese translations beneath her accomplishments, were pictures of the congresswoman with President Obama, the area's councilwoman, Margaret Chin, and a multicultural group of smiling children. A bullet-point list said she was fighting for "working people" and "standing up for immigrants and championing passage of the Dream Act."
It also mentioned her work on the case of Danny Chen, the U.S. Army private who was killed in a hazing incident in Afghanistan.
"He was hazed to death because he has a different look," said Christina Lo, a second-grade teacher who was handing out cards for Velazquez. "It make me so angry. And [Velazquez] is not Chinese, but she came here to Chinatown, and also got together with some of the prominent Chinese people and she went to Washington and she urged the people in the Pentagon there, you know, to investigate what's happening and then she tried to introduce rules and regulations to protect minorities."
Lo said the congresswoman's efforts had gotten a lot of attention in the district.
"Oh, definitely! A lot of Chinese people know about her. Definitely. A lot of people know who she is. That's why I say she's going to win," Lo said.
At one point, Lo brought over a voter who wanted to meet the congresswoman, and then pulled her aside to teach her a new phrase that might help in what's expected to be a low turnout race, on an unusual June primary date.
"Jin ten!" Velazquez began telling voters after her pow-wow. "Jin ten!"
"That means vote today," she explained to Garodnick, who was handing out palm cards and intermittently laughing at Velazquez.
"I don't know why it's so good," he said to me. "It makes you laugh every time."
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