News & Politics

Chinatown’s First Asian-American Representative Prepares to Take Office

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Before national-level outcomes drove most of the city into despair, the late evening of November 8 carried a feeling of purpose inside Hotel Chantelle on the Lower East Side. Yuh-Line Niou and her supporters had gathered in the lounge to watch poll results for Assembly District 65, and by 9 p.m., cheers erupted: Niou, a Democrat, had won three-quarters of the vote. She was going to Albany.

Niou stepped up to the podium for a brief victory speech. “For the first time in our city’s history, an Asian American will represent Chinatown, or any part of Manhattan, in the state legislature,” she said. “My parents came here when I was an infant to seek a better life….Tonight’s win is for them — my parents — and for every family who works hard to achieve their own American dream.”

Her win closed a dark chapter for her district. It had been almost two years since federal prosecutors linked her predecessor, Sheldon Silver, to a $4 million web of bribes and kickbacks; the conviction ended Silver’s four-decade reign over the district, a downtown swath encompassing the financial district, the Lower East Side, and Chinatown. The day after the verdict, a special election was called to select Silver’s replacement. Niou, then chief of staff for Queens assemblyman Ron Kim, was just as quickly called on to run.

Since 2012, the 33-year-old had overseen constituent services in the Asian-majority Flushingneighborhood that Kim represented. There, she heard from as many as 75 people a day, often about tenants’ rights or tax assistance. Some appointments arrived at Kim’s office from Manhattan’s Chinatown, where basic language assistance was so lacking they made the hour-plus commute for help translating a single letter or bill.

“People say government isn’t accessible, but that’s the big lie,” Niou told the Voice. “Government is accessible — as long as you know how to access it. [But] I rarely saw the folks who needed help the most.”

Niou understood personally the disconnect between immigrant families and the government that’s supposed to represent them. Her parents moved to Idaho from Taiwan when she was six months old; the family (Niou has two younger siblings) bounced around every few years. One afternoon, as she waited outside her El Paso middle school to get picked up, Niou watched a speeding car rear-end her mother’s minivan. There were no serious injuries, but the family’s only means of transportation was totaled. It was a turning point for Niou. “My mother was deemed partly negligent by the insurance companies. She got penalized because the other guy’s English was better,” Niou recalled. “There wasn’t anyone who was able to advocate for her. I thought if I could just communicate better, I could become someone who speaks up for people.”

After college, she worked as an aide in the Washington State legislature. She went on to the Statewide Poverty Action Network and lobbied on behalf of Seattle’s welfare and poverty groups. In 2010, she came to New York to enroll in Baruch College’s National Urban Fellows program, which develops leaders for the public and nonprofit sectors. The program granted Niou a master’s degree in public administration and an introduction to Kim, a fellow alum, who was about to launch his first campaign for state assembly. “Yuh-Line was hired from day one not just as an employee but as a partner,” Kim told the Voice. “I needed someone who first and foremost really cared about helping people. She obviously had that.”

After four years of watching Niou work, Kim was glad to help his chief of staff with her own campaign, which kicked off at the beginning of last year on a progressive agenda prioritizing affordable housing and a higher minimum wage. With Kim onboard, endorsements followed from City Comptroller Scott Stringer and his predecessor, John Liu. Community leaders and labor groups also signed on.

Then, on the way to LaGuardia Airport in the early morning hours of February 23, Niou’s cab smashed into a stalled vehicle on the side of the BQE. The crash left Niou with a torn MCL, cracked cartilage in both knees, and two ruptured discs. “[But] the second she woke up, all she could think about was how to get back on the campaign trail,” Kim recalled months later at a private campaign event. “The next day, Yuh-Line literally had a cast on going to all her endorsements.”

Niou could have almost exclusively courted Chinatown — the 65th District is nearly 50 percent Asian — but she instead followed the example of her first political mentor, Seattle’s “Uncle Bob” Santos, an activist widely credited for stitching the area’s diverse groups into a unified civil rights front in the 1970s and ’80s. Niou drew on Santos’s facility for coalition-building, seeking support from her district’s significant Jewish and Latino communities to build a stronger base.

Niou’s election doubles the Asian-American representation on the assembly floor to two (the other is Kim), and she heads to Albany this month on behalf of a community long kept in the shadows of New York life. Some Chinatown residents still remember the 1983 march against a proposed prison extension in their neighborhood, which then-mayor Ed Koch curtly dismissed: “You don’t vote, you don’t count.”

Koch’s finger-wagging spurred a movement to redraw district lines and boost Asian voter participation — changes that, decades later, made Niou’s election possible. Still, “her coming is a bit earlier than expected,” said Peter Kwong, a professor of urban planning at Hunter College. Kwong says Silver’s explosive fall dragged down anyone with ties to the district’s deep-rooted, mostly Jewish establishment. “The scandal left this room for her,” he explained. Niou sees it similarly: “Silver was the most powerful person in New York State history,” she said. “My district has been hurt. A lot of folks feel betrayed. My win is their voice speaking up for change.”

Of course, a fresh start brings its own set of challenges. Having been Kim’s top aide during his freshman term, Niou knows that getting her phone calls returned or her inquiries prioritized won’t be easy. “Oftentimes the immigrant or Asian-American perspective is left out, whether it’s about poverty or labor or small business. Ron is the only voice on these issues.” She added: “It’ll be very powerful to have our experiences as first-generation kids in the assembly.”

More could be on the way: Nearly two hundred high school and college students volunteered for Niou’s campaign, and many of them grew up in immigrant families. One was Johnson Ya, an NYU sophomore who coordinated internships for the campaign. “What Yuh-Line is trying to do is build and develop a community of people who are able to enact change,” Ya said. “We look to her as an inspiration. She gathers us all up into one energy and one body.”

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