KEW GARDENS — Queens City Councilman Peter Koo defected from the Republican to the Democratic party on Monday, weakening the GOP's already anemic presence in the borough and throwing a wrench into what promised to be a bruising 2013 primary.
Koo, one of only five Republicans in the 51-member City Council, changed parties at the Board of Elections office in front of the borough's Democratic boss, Rep. Joe Crowley, and a who's who of Queens elected officials.
"From the beginning, I am always a Democrat at heart," Koo told reporters.
Koo credited the Democrats for doing "much more" locally than Republicans, specifically in Queens' immigrant communities. Koo, whose Flushing district includes many Chinese constituents, immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong in 1971.
"I want to use my experience to help other immigrant groups or help other immigrants, so that they can become successful, so that they can fulfill the American dream," he said.
Koo denied that infighting in the Queens Republican Party played anything more than "a small part of my decision."
"The Republican Party, of course, they are sad that I'm leaving," Koo said. "But there's not much they can do to help me here."
He released a statement after the news conference adding that he is "an independent thinker who believes in the support of principles which best sustain and improve the overall quality of life in our communities."
Koo won his seat in 2009 by downing Democratic opponent Yen Chou, a former teacher. Before Koo's defection, the City Council primary in Flushing next year figured to be one of the more compelling races in Queens, potentially re-matching Chou against his opponents from three years ago.
With Democratic officials from across the borough piling into the Queens Boulevard office to congratulate Koo on Monday, the news conference often felt like a fraternity admitting a new member.
"We'll go through the ritual later on — and the hazing," Crowley joked.
He called Koo's change "a real boon to our party."
"This is the year of the dragon, and this is a very fortuitous year and a very important and jubliant year for the Chinese American community," Crowley said. "And Peter, you're making it that much more jubilant for us."
Assemblyman Rory Lancman of Hillcrest said with a grin that he never understood why Koo was a Republican because he's "such a nice guy."
"We were finally able to get it done," Meng said with a smile.
Even state Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky of Flushing, who fended off a 2008 bid by Koo to unseat her, welcomed him to the party.
"I am delighted, Peter, to say to you, 'Welcome home,'" Stavisky said.
Liu hailed Koo for giving "with such largesse back to the community that he is so well known and many people have called him the mayor of Flushing.
Astoria Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. told DNAinfo after the news conference that he expects to find common ground with Koo.
"I have been pretty lonely as a conserative Democrat in the Democratic big tent," he said. "Now it's nice to have someone who shares my philosophy. It pretty much doubled the amount of conservative Democrats by Peter Koo coming into our party."
Vallone also hailed Koo, who owns the Starside pharmacy chain in Flushing, for bringing business experience into the city's Democratic ranks. "That's an area where we've been lacking," he said.