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Asian Americans: A Growing Force in City Politics

Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Photo by Tom Good through Wikipedia Commons
New York City Councilmember John Liu (at the podium) at a press conference on term limits last October on the steps of City Hall.

John Liu, a Taiwan-born former business consultant who moved to the U.S. at the age of 5, made history in New York politics in 2001 as the first Asian American elected to the City Council. This year he will write a new page by becoming the first Asian American to run for a citywide office as he campaigns to become the city's next public advocate.

An increasing number of Asians, many, like Liu, from Taiwan or born to immigrant parents from Taiwan, are competing for office in the city, particularly in Flushing, as their counterparts from Hong Kong are doing the same in Manhattan's Chinatown. While representing a possible new force in the city's already diverse political life, their emergence reveals generational splits and other divisions within New York's growing Asian communities.

Liu's Next Campaign

Although Liu has not officially declared his candidacy for public advocate, the political director and treasurer of his campaign, Mei Ru, has confirmed his bid, and a fundraiser was held on Jan. 7. Chinese and English-language newspapers see him as a front-runner in the hotly contested race. Brooklyn Councilmember Bill de Blasio and civil rights attorney Norman Siegel have already announced their candidacies for the post, and Queens Councilmember Eric Gioia also is expected to enter the race.

According to the blog, Liu's campaign aides have confirmed that he has hired Bill Lynch Associates, a public relations firm headed by former deputy mayor Bill Lynch, as his general consultant. He also has reportedly sought help from two well-known political marketing specialists, Jimmy Siegel and Celinda Lake. Among those running for the public advocate, Liu topped the campaign fundraising chart with more than $3 million.

Flushing Makes History

Liu represents City Council District 20, which covers parts of northeast Queens, including Flushing, Queensboro Hill, Kissena Park, Harding Heights, Auburndale and some of Whitestone. His district is home to the city's largest Asian community. Some New Yorkers jokingly refer to the area as "Flu Shing Province of China" because of its large Chinese population, and Chinese signs and businesses can be seen in every street corner. Many Koreans live in the area as well.

Among the Chinese-speaking population in New York, Flushing is the "Mandarin-speaking" Chinatown because the residents are primarily Mandarin speakers from Taiwan and central and northern China. Manhattan's Chinatown is Cantonese-speaking since most people there are from Hong Kong or Canton (now Guangdong) Province.

Liu, a Democrat, did not make history on his first try. He ran for City Council in 1997 and lost to six-term incumbent Julia Harrison, who earned notoriety for comments many perceived as anti-Asian.

Nor was Liu the first Asian American to run for New York City Council. Pauline Chu, a former president of Community School Board 25, ran against Harrison in the 1991 Democratic primary and lost. Harrison then defeated Chun Soo Pyun, a former president of the Korean Businessmen's Association, by a large margin in the general election.

Ethel Chen, a retired librarian and onetime head of the Asian American Democratic Association in Queens, had a string of unsuccessful runs for office, as did Meilin Tan, a Republican. Both remain well-known figures in the Flushing community, and other candidates seek their support.

In 2001, Harrison had to vacate the seat because of term limits, and that time, Liu got enough support from within and beyond the Asian American community to win. He was re-elected in 2003 and 2005.

State Assembly Race

Photo by China Daily

Liu's victory in 2001 provided a much needed boost in confidence for New York's Asian American community. Three years later, Jimmy Meng, a former president of the Flushing Chinese Business Association, became the second Asian American to win an important local election, capturing Flushing's seat in the New York State Assembly.

Meng had lost to Barry Grodenchik in 2002. Two years later, though, the situation was reversed, and Meng won the Democratic nomination, defeating Grodenchik. He then went on to gain a landslide 70 percent of the vote in the general election, defeating Meilin Tan.

However, Meng's campaign created some controversy. Simon Ting, an aide to Meng, later was indicted on charges that he faked voter registration documents. Meng did not run for re-election in 2006, citing health problems.

The contest to replace him revealed sharp schisms in the Flushing Asian community. In 2006, the race pitted his daughter, Grace Meng, against Ellen Young, a Taiwanese immigrant who served as a district aide to John Liu.

The intense race ended when Meng dropped out of the race after Young charged she did not live in the district as required by law. Young won the primary and general election, becoming the first Asian American woman elected to the New York state legislature.

But the rivalry between Young and Meng -- and between the Meng family and Liu -- did not end. Last year, they had a rematch in the Democratic primary that was widely viewed as a power struggle between Liu's camp and his rivals. The feud also focused attention on generational differences among Asian politicians.

Meng, a lawyer and chairwoman of the Queens Chinese Women's Association, garnered support from Harrison and Terence Park, who both ran against Liu before. Meng also claimed that her American-born background gave her an edge over Young.

"I'm someone who was born and raised here. I'm comfortable with the culture. I'm comfortable with the language," Meng said during the campaign. Meng's camp assailed Young for not having a college degree (she finished junior college in Taiwan) and, they said, of not being able to reach beyond the Chinese community. Young's immigrant background, once seen as an asset, had become a liability. Meng won by a double-digit margin.

Chinatown's Dilemma

While Queen's has now elected three Asian politicians, with more almost certainly on the way, the primarily Cantonese-speaking Manhattan Chinatown has not been able to send any Asian Americans to City Council or the state legislature -- even though it has been the center for New York Chinese American life since the first large wave of Cantonese immigrants settled here in the late 1800s.

Chinatown sits in District 1, one of the most ethnically and economically diverse districts in the city, covering SoHo, TriBeCa, Greenwich Village, Battery Park City, the Financial District, Little Italy and the Lower East Side.

After the district's creation in 1991, Kathryn Freed, a lawyer, defeated Asian American candidates in consecutive elections to serve as the area's council member. In 2001, Freed had to step down due to term limits. Alan Gerson, also a lawyer, won the Democratic primary, defeating six opponents including three Asian Americans: housing advocate Margaret Chin; Rocky Chin, a public-interest attorney; and Kwang Hui, a labor activist.

At the beginning of the 2001 campaign, many political observers expected District 1 would choose an Asian American council member. Many attribute the failure to do so to the fact that Chinatown is primarily a place of work, business and entertainment for Asian New Yorkers, not the neighborhood where they live. In addition, many Chinatown residents are undocumented and so cannot vote. Meanwhile, Asian American voters seem to have difficulties presenting a united front I the area.

Chinatown has, however, elected Chinese judges to the Civil Court. The Second Municipal Court District, which covers roughly the same area as City Council District 1, elected Doris Ling-Cohan to the Civil Court in 1995. In 2006, Margaret Chan, an immigrant from Hong Kong, was elected to the same court.

2009 will see more efforts to elect a Chinese American to represent District 1 in City Council, although Gerson is believed likely to seek re-election. Margaret Chin, who just announced her fourth bid for the City Council, left her position as the deputy executive director of Asian Americans for Equality to focus on her campaign. An immigrant from Hong Kong who came to the U.S. at the age of 9, Chin has been an advocate for affordable housing, access to social services and government assistance for low-income immigrant families.

Jan Lee, a third-generation Chinatown resident and business owner, also has expressed interest in the race to run but has not made a final decision on whether to run.

Filling Liu's Seat

With Liu seeking to move on, several established community leaders and a new generation of political leaders in Flushing hope to fill his City Council seat.

Yen S. Chou, president of the Chinese American Parent-Student Council and a member of District 26 Community Education Council, is among them. An educator who has devoted her career to helping immigrant families, Chou was elected to Community School Board 26 before the Bloomberg administration restructured the Department of Education. Also a native of Taiwan, she has attracted support from many community leaders and organizations.

Meanwhile, other political families could challenge the Mengs. James Wu, Ethel Chen's son, has been an active member of the Democratic Club of Queens. A Democratic district leader in Queens, he has registered his City Council bid with the City's Board of Elections.

Oliver Tan, the son of Meilin Tan, teamed up with his mother, and was elected a Republican district leader in 2007, a position his mother has held since 1992. Oliver Tan also served as the manager for Peter Koo's failed State Assembly campaign in 2008. Tan would face formidable odd in the Democratic district, but is expected to rise in Queen's Republican circles.

Taiwan Connection

The Flushing politicians share a connection to Taiwan, but there are generational differences between them.

Pauline Chu, Jimmy Meng, Ethel Chen and Meilin Tan represent the first generation of New York Asian American politicians. All four were born in China but moved to Taiwan as young children and were educated there. They are part of a massive tide of immigrants from Taiwan who started to form a community in Flushing in the 1970s. Now Flushing is home to the largest Mandarin-speaking community in New York, including many newcomers from China who arrived after the 1990s.

John Liu represents what scholars refer to as the "1.5 generation" -- those born abroad but who moved to the United States before their teens and so share characteristics of both first and second generations.

Grace Meng represents the 22nd District in the New York State Assembly

The second generation, by definition, was born in the United States to immigrant parents from Taiwan. These include Grace Meng, James Wu and Oliver Tan. They inherited their parents' resources and are eager to develop their own paths.

Grace Meng is by far the most successful of these politicians. Her work as a coordinator for her father's campaign and her increased involvement in the community after her loss in 2006 paid off. Meanwhile, her campaign strategy to present her as the open-minded candidate who can reach beyond the Chinese community has proved to be effective. Her victory is an indicator that the new generation's time might be just around the corner.

Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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Today's The Rainy Day

By David R. Jones

Like two freight trains headed toward each other on the same track, two different groups of people confront the city's welfare system. One includes the more than 38,000 New York City families who, on December 1, reached time limits and so can no longer receive federal Family Assistance. At the same time, more than 100,000 people - mostly low-wage workers - who lost jobs in the economic downturn following the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center will be applying for benefits. A new jobs program could aid both groups

Although the welfare caseload in New York City has been reduced by half since 1994, experts have warned that a welfare reform policy that concentrates on merely reducing the number of people on the rolls would succeed only during good economic times. Now with a recession in full swing, New York City confronts a worst-case scenario.

When Congress passed welfare reform legislation in 1996, it imposed a 60-month lifetime limit on the amount of time that people could receive federal welfare funds. The current 38,000 families, including tens of thousands of children, are merely the first wave in what will be an ongoing problem for the city as more people come up against the deadline. By February 2002, 55,000 families will have reached their time limits. By September 2002, it will be 68,000.

The Safety Net

Families facing the 60-month time limit are eligible for New York State's public assistance benefits - the Safety Net Assistance Non-Cash program - which is funded by both the city and state. Many welfare recipients have not been informed of the changes, and advocates fear that this will leave many families without basic supports. Meanwhile, city caseworkers seem unaware of critical information needed to help clients, and state officials, who will be assuming these clients, seem unconcerned.

The state has decided that welfare recipients must reapply to receive aid, and the amount of paperwork involved is onerous. But once people are again accepted for public assistance, the Safety Net program will award them with the same amount of benefits they received before.

The big difference is the way that benefits will be disbursed. Rent and utilities will be paid directly to the provider. The remainder of the grant will be provided in cash on an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card.

These benefit levels are less than half the federal poverty line ($14,630 a year for a family of three). The welfare grant for an average family, typically a mother with two children, is $577 per month.

--Cristina Di Meo, Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.

Because of provisions of the New York State Constitution, families reaching the time limit are supposed to receive benefits through the Safety Net Assistance program financed by the state and local governments. The transition to Safety Net Assistance should be as easy as possible. Instead, the city intends to force many families that have reached their time limit to reapply in person in order to get Safety Net Assistance.

With the city besieged by new applications because so many people have lost their jobs, and with many city computers still not working properly, now is not the time to call 38,000 families already on the rolls into city offices for interviews. Meanwhile, errors by case managers and outright misinformation have frightened some people - many of them single mothers with children - into wondering whether their benefits will end.

Some eligible recipients are already falling through the cracks. Even if the cutoff is only temporary, some people will go hungry or lose their apartments. The number of families in city shelters, already at an all-time high, will climb further, and more homeless people will be forced onto the streets.

The city's transition plan also jeopardizes the employment efforts of families who are working but need cash assistance to supplement their low wages. Almost half of those now reaching time limits fall into that group.

A more rational, logical, and humane transition plan would allow families to be reassessed without onerous paperwork and endless appointments. The city should move welfare recipients into Safety Net automatically. Any problems with eligibility could then be dealt with during the normal recertification process that recipients go through twice a year.

Reforming Welfare Reform

by Megan McLaughlin

Here are five things the new mayor could do to change welfare in New York City:

  • Ensure that households reaching the five-year time limit on federal assistance are able to move smoothly and without interruption to the state benefit program.
  • Reorient the city welfare agency, the Human Resources Administration, toward assisting people in need rather than discouraging them from getting help. Ensure that people can apply for assistance, streamline applications and limit the amount of required paperwork and appointments.
  • Provide programs and services to help families become economically secure. Encourage participation in education and training activities - including literacy, English as a Second Language, getting a high school equivalency diploma, post-secondary education and skills training. Increase the availability of subsidized child care. Develop targeted assistance for people with physical and/or mental disabilities, HIV/AIDS, and victims of domestic violence.
  • End the workfare program and replace it with jobs that offer a living wage.
  • Collect information to track the experiences of families leaving welfare, including employment and earnings, to help monitor the success, or failure, of welfare policies.

These changes would mark a first step in what could be a new era in welfare reform. Congress will have to reauthorize federal welfare legislation next year. A new approach is required to help families create a better future for themselves and their children.

Megan E. McLaughlin is executive director of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.

Although the city's welfare rolls have been cut in half since the advent of welfare reform, there will always be some adults who cannot work, perhaps because they are disabled, or they are caring for disabled family members. Some may be transferred to other federal programs that offer disability benefits, but others need rehabilitation and training to be able to enter the labor force.

Meanwhile, others who only just succeeded in moving from welfare to work have been thrown out of their jobs.

To address their needs, the city should create 50,000 one-year transitional jobs. The program would be open to New York City residents who have been unemployed for at least one month. Participants would be full-time employees receiving a minimum of $8.50 per hour, a rate that would still allow the workers to receive food stamps, Family Health Plus, federal and state Earned Income Tax Credit, and subsidized childcare.

There are many workplaces that need able hands but cannot afford them. The city could use these workers in parks and public hospitals. Subsidized employment would also provide a boost to many small neighborhood businesses threatened with bankruptcy. Therefore, the program would not just help the workers; the city as a whole would benefit from the work they do.

This program could be funded through a combination of federal disaster-related aid, an unused $125 million Welfare to Work grant, reinstat ement of the commuter tax and the state's Temporary Assistance to Needy Families "rainy day" fund, which now exceeds $1.6 billion. The state has consistently refused to spend this money, but if today is not a rainy day, when would be?

David R. Jones is president of the Community Service Society.

Click here to read Lucy Cabrera's "The Hunger Crisis"


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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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