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Insider : Irreverence Marks New 'Baron of Asia' : New Yorker Gary Ackerman now heads a House Foreign Affairs panel that focuses on Asia and the Pacific.


WASHINGTON — During nearly a decade in Congress, Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) has attracted attention for his relentless but unsuccessful pursuit of a good deli in Washington and his memorable verses on the House floor at the start of the Gulf War bombing: "Slam, bam, thanks Saddam. . . ."

He has often shown concern for issues of Jewish emigration and for famine relief in Ethiopia. But never, until this year, had he shown any particular interest in Asia.

So why, two nights before Inauguration Day, were ambassadors from nations like South Korea and Singapore lined up at a glitzy Washington reception at the Jefferson Hotel, paying tribute to Ackerman?

Answer: Gary Ackerman had just been anointed as the head of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee responsible for Asia and the Pacific--the man who might be called the House's new Baron of Asia.

Ackerman is the successor to former New York congressman Stephen J. Solarz, who turned the chairmanship of the subcommittee into a powerful platform from which to wield influence over Asia--and, in the process, built up huge campaign accounts that relied heavily on fund-raising from Asian-Americans.

Solarz, who lost his seat after congressional redistricting last year, was Washington's leading patron of such leaders as former Philippine Prime Minister Corazon Aquino and former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

He pressed hard for such high-profile causes as democracy and human rights in Asia, while also taking on some bread-and-butter issues like the treatment of Indian, Pakistani and other foreign doctors in the United States, which helped further attract political contributions.

Ackerman, a curly-haired, potbellied man from a Queens and Long Island district that is about 10% Asian, relinquished his job as chairman of a House Post Office and Civil Service subcommittee in order to take over the Asia panel.

"It's an exciting time for foreign policy," he said in an interview last week. "There are going to be some monumental changes, and I'll have an opportunity to play some kind of a role in fashioning U.S. policy toward Asia, the most dynamic, fastest-growing region in the world."

Then, too, he quickly adds with a laugh, there is another factor:

"I love Asian food. Yesterday I had Japanese food for lunch in New York, in Flushing, and then I came down here (to Washington) and had Chinese food for dinner in Chinatown. . . . So that's probably the overriding reason for becoming chairman. Lots of good restaurants."

As those words suggest, Ackerman is an earthy, irreverent pol Asian leaders will find a startling contrast to Solarz.

Ackerman operates in a milieu far removed from the Washington of the think tanks, Embassy Row and the State Department's Foggy Bottom. His wife and three children live at their home in Queens, and Ackerman himself sleeps in Washington aboard Unsinkable II, a 42-foot houseboat on the Potomac River.

He is an avid stamp collector. On the handful of congressional delegations to Asia in which he has participated as a member of the subcommittee, he is said to have shown a particular interest in obtaining first editions of the stamps of foreign nations and then having them signed by government leaders.

Ackerman brings to those foreign trips some of the wit and the street wisdom of the politician from Queens. After getting a tour of Manila's Malacanang Palace a few days after the Marcoses fled the country, for example, he came up with his own theory of Imelda Marcos' shoe collection.

"Not one shoe box! Only shoes!" Ackerman deadpans. "She didn't give a damn for the shoes. That was just a ploy. It was the shoe boxes she was interested in. It was a way of getting the money out of the country. She didn't have a shoe fetish. She had a money fetish."

Ackerman, 50, grew up in Queens, graduated from Queens College and worked for a time as a social studies teacher and as publisher of a weekly newspaper. After four years as a state senator, he was elected to Congress in 1983 with the support of a fellow Queens native--New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.

In the House, he has combined a solidly liberal voting record with a penchant for the dramatic. In 1985, he organized a Children to Children crusade in New York City schools that raised nearly $200,000 for famine relief. Three years ago, when Congress was considering a ban on flag desecration, Ackerman, on the House floor, buttressed his claim that the idea was impractical by unfurling bathing suits and pantyhose with U.S. flags on them.

His new appointment raises the intriguing question of why the chairmanship of the House Asia subcommittee always seems to go to New Yorkers. Not only Ackerman and Solarz, but Solarz's predecessor, Lester Wolff, have all been from New York City.

Part of the explanation lies in the fact that, prestigious and exciting as the House Foreign Affairs Committee might sound to outsiders, not that many lawmakers ask to be appointed to it--and New Yorkers are among the few prominent exceptions.

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