Money talks, and the Wongs and Muhammads of this world are speaking louder in New York City politics. From 1989 to 2001, the number of contributions to municipal campaigns from those two surnames quadrupled as the population of Asians—a broad category that includes people from the Middle East to the Far East—grew faster than any other group in the city. Yet the ethnic calculus of this year’s mayoral campaign is still limited to blacks, whites, and Hispanics, according to the Marist and Quinnipiac polls, which report results only for those three groups, omitting a tenth of the city’s people.
Yes, merely a tenth. “For us, we’re still not that big,” says John Abi-Habib, a person of Lebanese descent and a vice chairman of the Brooklyn Republican Party, who helped found a Middle Eastern political coalition eight years ago, “but then we have over 50,000 registered voters in this city.” And that number is growing, partly as a reaction to negative fallout from September 11. “The last four years, we must have registered thousands and thousands of people to vote,” Abi-Habib says, “and they see the importance of it because they know their voice has to be heard.”
The black-white-Hispanic-obsessed lingo aside, mayoral candidates in 2005 are hunting votes in neighborhoods where the signs might be in Arabic, Urdu, and Cantonese. “I think all the candidates are paying more attention to the Asian American vote—the existing Asian American vote as well as the fast-growing numbers of Asian American voters,” says City Councilman John Liu of Queens, where 50 percent of the city’s Asians live, composing 18 percent of the borough’s people.
Liu noticed that this year all four Democratic contenders showed up for a debate he set up, while in 1989 no campaign even replied to invitations to an Asian American forum. Elsewhere in the city, among the hundreds of council candidates are a few names from these emerging groups, like Dilip Nath and Renee Lobo in Queens and Naquan Muhammad in Brooklyn. City Council Speaker Gifford Miller has held two press events featuring high-profile Asian supporters, including York Chan, whom some refer to as “mayor of Chinatown.” And Virginia Fields got into trouble when a campaign mailer faked a photo featuring Asians.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s campaign, meanwhile, boasts the backing of the Chinese-language Sing Tao newspaper, which the mayor’s campaign calls “the first-ever such endorsement in the paper’s 40-year history.” Bloomberg 2005 also has set up Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for Bloomberg, a group headlined by a Korean from Long Island, an Indian American businessman from Queens, and a Pakistani dentist from Staten Island.
Ethnic labels are crude by definition: You’re black whether you just flew in from Senegal or are descended from slaves shipped to U.S. shores centuries ago. Latinos include light-skinned Cubans and Indian-blooded families from Ecuador. But the categories make some sense if common concerns affect the people they cover. And while Asian and Middle Eastern New Yorkers care about failing schools, high rent, rats, and all the usual urban woes, they also worry about things that other groups needn’t fear.
“There are lots of issues that Asian Americans share,” said Liu, “one being the immigrant experience, being relatively recent immigrant arrivals. And Asians also suffer from a perpetual-
foreigner syndrome, meaning that you could be a fourth- or fifth-generation Asian American but still somehow it’s difficult to believe that you’re an American. I get that: First they compliment me on my ability to speak English, and often I get asked, ‘Well, where are you from?’ and for some reason people refuse to take Flushing for an answer.”
For Arab and Muslim New Yorkers, there’s the added fear of profiling. “What’s different for us,” says Abi-Habib, “besides addressing taxes, crime, auto insurance—the difference to us is awareness: We need education for people in the public sectors so they understand when they talk to people they don’t label them.” Contrary to popular belief, Abi-Habib says, 75 percent of Arab Americans are non-Muslims.
It was Bloomberg’s signing of a 2003 order preventing police from asking about people’s immigration status that earned him the backing of dentist Mohammad Khalid, president of the Pakistani Civic Association, a Staten Island group that claims a membership of 1,000 families. “Generally,” Khalid tells the
Voice, “the administration right now is very helpful to our community.” So far, at least. What Khalid wants to see next is more Muslims in top city jobs and more Urdu and Arabic speakers in the schools’ ESL classrooms.
Those desires mirror what immigrants have always sought in New York. Other Asian neighborhood issues similarly mix the familiar with the ethnic-specific: At a June event at Confucius Plaza in Chinatown, Council Speaker Gifford Miller addressed street lighting, bird flu, truck traffic, and the fact, as Miller put it, “that Chinatown doesn’t have an arch.” In Flushing, signs are posted protesting a plan to build on a large municipal parking lot right off Main Street—an old-fashioned urban dispute articulated in a new language. “Where is our politician we voted for when we need them?” the signs ask.
A candidate’s outreach—or lack of it—can itself become an issue. Assemblyman Jimmy Meng, the first Asian American elected to Albany and a Fernando Ferrer supporter, says Bloomberg ignored Flushing the first three years he was mayor. On the other hand, Khalid says the mayor is the only candidate who has shown any courtesy to Pakistanis in the city.
Part of a candidate’s reluctance to reach out, if there is any, might be the potential pitfalls of leaving familiar campaign territory. Walking into a room of Arab Christians and referring to them as Muslims, for example, is a huge
no-no. So is saying “hello” in Mandarin when you’re in Cantonese-dominated Chinatown. Even where the communities exist can be hard to keep straight. Abi-Habib jokes that when they want to do an Arab New York story, “all the media go down to Atlantic Avenue. But they’re not anymore on Atlantic Avenue.” Instead, they are in Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, Astoria, and Highland Boulevard on Staten Island.
But while missteps still occur, there seems to be progress. “Elected officials and other entities are becoming more savvy about Asian Americans,” says Liu, “and the fact that there’s no one descriptor that can be applied to everybody who’s Asian American, and even within the different ethnic groups there are some nuances.”
For instance, Meng says candidates stress different themes depending on which part of the Chinese community they are addressing. “If they come to Flushing, they talk education,” as well as business opportunities and street cleaning, he says. “They come to Chinatown, they start with immigration. Brooklyn? Immigrant issues.” The reason, Meng says, is that the immigrants in Flushing typically arrived earlier than their Chinatown counterparts or they have the concerns of more established residents rather than newcomers.
Of course, the communities themselves are always evolving. Liu says that many Asians who are citizens still don’t bother to register or, if registered, to vote. But that might be changing. He sees Asian New Yorkers getting engaged in this year’s campaign, mainly because politicians are bothering to engage them.
In a poll of Asian American voters in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens on Election Day 2004, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund found that 36 percent were first-time voters. AALDEF’s Margaret Fung expects a big Asian turnout in 2005, thanks to the availability of bilingual voting information and the increasing prevalence of Democratic Party membership. The Democratic share has been increasing since AALDEF began polling in 1988, she says, reaching 60 percent in the 2004 poll. In a Democratic town like New York, that could translate into augmented influence for Asians.