Once again, a record number of Asian Americans and a growing number of Pacific Islanders are running for public office at the local, state, and national level.
Every week, Reappropriate will profile progressive AAPI candidates for higher office, as well as officials serving in public office. Check back at Reappropriate throughout 2020 to learn more about these candidates and find out how you can get more involved in their campaigns.
What is your full name?
What office are you seeking and/or what office do you currently hold?
I have been the New York State Assemblymember of Assembly District 65 since 2017, and I am running for re-election for my third term. I won 2-1 this past June in the Democratic primary and will be on the ballots in the general election as the Democratic nominee, as well as on the Working Families Party line.
When is the election date and/or when is the end of your term?
The general election date is Nov. 3, 2020, and my current term ends Dec. 31, 2020.
What is your party registration (if any)?
I am registered as a Democrat and endorsed by the Working Families Party.
Tell me a little bit about your background in general, as well as your relationship to your identity as an Asian American and/or Pacific Islander?
My parents immigrated to the United States from Taiwan when I was only six months old. I grew up like many immigrant kids, with my parents seeking educational and job opportunities. My parents moved us around to many different states: Idaho, Oregon, Texas and Washington. I grew up seeing different communities and different ways that the government looked and felt. I lived in El Paso when Ann Richards was the Governor. That was the first time I thought about how women could be elected officials!
I lived in Washington and was an intern there when Gary Locke was Governor and Washington State had more women in office than men in the legislature. That was when I first thought about the lack of representation in certain communities in government. I started working for a few amazing women legislators: Senator Debbie Regala, whom I interned for and was a session aide to, and Representative Eileen Cody, who was the healthcare chair whom I was the staffer to. I started to see the interconnectedness of all of the policy issues that we worked on piecemeal. I knew that the biggest issues we faced seemed to circle around poverty. Whether it was environmental injustices that were killing people, or lack of housing, or education funding… I wanted to see how we could end poverty.
I went on to dedicate my life to public service and anti-poverty advocacy by starting with the Statewide Poverty Action Network where I regulated the payday lending industry, worked on legislation to stop redlining in the insurance industry and worked on bills to heal the foreclosure crisis. This work drove me. I knew I needed to take on more to fight more.
So, I then followed in my parents’ footsteps and moved to New York to pursue my own Masters degree at Baruch College. During that time, I chose a fellowship with the US Environmental Protection Agency to utilize my environmental science background alongside my policy background to successfully build programs for the Office of International and Tribal Affairs and the Office of Diversity. When I finished my fellowship, I met an alumnus of my program at the National Urban Fellows, who was looking to run for office as the first Korean American to win an elected office in New York. He ran, won, and I became Assemblymember Ron Kim’s Chief of Staff and continued to work on behalf of immigrants, seniors and our working families. In 2016, when the former speaker of the Assembly was indicted, I was asked to run against his hand-picked candidate to represent Chinatown, Lower East Side and the Financial District. I lost that special election, but I ran again in the primary and was able to win the seat as the first Asian American to represent the area.
How did you become inspired to seek elected office?
I was born in Taiwan before immigrating with my family to the United States at a young age. From very early on, I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to public service and policy work. I remember this time my mom was rear-ended by a guy who was speeding in a school zone. I remember being so angry because he kept yelling at her, and she was trying to say something back. It should’ve been an open-and-shut case, but because she was an immigrant and her English was not perfect, they found her partially responsible. I saw it all happen and felt that laws were not designed to protect us. Starting from then, I wanted to understand how the government worked and how laws were made, and I quickly grew to become a policy wonk!
In college, I started interning in the state legislature, and I learned how committees work, how to write citations, resolutions, proclamations, how to whip a vote and more. The most incredible thing I learned is there’s no big secret to accessing government and that there are just a lot of people with a lot of power and money that make it so that everyone else thinks government is inaccessible. I wanted to change that, and I knew that the transformative structural change I was looking for would be driven by building coalitions across communities. So I first ran for office in 2016 to fight for the change and representation I wanted to see. In a historic and diverse district such as my own, I knew that we needed strong progressive change and a representative who could bring the community together. At my core, I’m an organizer and coalition-builder. I believe in linking people together across disciplines and interests in order to best serve our communities. I also believe that our policies need to be layered and that everyone’s perspectives are valid and necessary when collaboratively creating great policy. We need to make sure that our lawmakers are diverse in order to make sure our multifaceted problems can be looked at from all different angles and solved together.
What three issues do you think are most important to your constituents, and what step(s) do you plan to take to address them?
The three most important issues facing Lower Manhattan as we currently face a global pandemic include:
1. Economic justice, including ensuring a prevailing and living wage for workers (including public utility workers); closing the racial wealth gap by increasing access to financial services and ending redlining; ensuring public money works for public good by ending the public financing of the fossil fuel industry, enforcing the Community Reinvestment Act, creating a public banking system and fighting for fair and equitable e-bike legislation; and supporting a COLA universal basic income program and removing the barriers that keep people in poverty by removing asset limits on public assistance programs to ensure people can save up instead of forcing people to spend down.
2. Education, including getting schools the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) funding they are owed; ending the barriers and inequalities (including those with regards to foundation aid/CFE funding) that have led to such deeply segregated schools; and fully funding our public schools, making the City University of New York (CUNY), State University of New York (SUNY) and other public schools truly free and for the public and combating the school-to-prison pipeline.
3. Housing, including fully funding public housing and having more oversight over the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) in order to address the horrifying conditions in New York’s public housing; fighting for permanent and deeply affordable housing; working to end homelessness holistically by addressing the increased costs of living/housing, while also treating cycles of addiction and violence and ensuring that people are not becoming homeless in the first place; and furthering last session’s progress by passing tenant protections and rent reforms.
What impact has the current political climate had on you as an Asian American and/or Pacific Islander progressive seeking (or in) elected office?
The state legislature wasn’t built for someone like me, but I am fighting and working to build it for others. When I was elected, I became the first AAPI person to ever represent Chinatown at the state level – and I won in the face of racist attacks. My whole campaign, my whole career as an AAPI elected official, is a lesson in the structural and institutional racism that permeates our world. It’s become my mission to build pipelines and pathways for others and for our youth to organize politically, seek office and change the political landscape in the present and the future.
In addition to winning elections, our campaign focuses on training in order to build a pipeline for young POC leaders to grow into political activists, government staffers and civically engaged voters. Every year, I run a youth intern program that holds workshops outlining the history of racial discrimination in Chinatown and the Lower East Side by covering topics such as redlining, the school-to-prison pipeline and the lack of Asian American studies in our education system. This program helps to shape leaders who don’t just see structural and institutional racism but have the language, tools and skills to dismantle it. Our interns have grown to become government staffers and interns, directing conferences such as the New York City Asian American Student Conference (NYCAASC) and working with transformative media to bring a new progressive and more representative voice to our city, state and country.
It’s clear that our current political climate often divides us, but having seen the new wave of progressives, people of color and women taking office, it’s clear to me that like myself, many others are figuring out that there is no secret to accessing government. Asian Americans, women of color and progressives have come out in droves to organize and run for office, and we’re beginning to install a wave of younger, more diverse and more progressive representatives whom we’ve never seen before. Even in the middle of such polarizing and difficult times, I have immense hope for the future of our community and our movement.
What advice would you have for other young Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders currently considering a career in politics and/or public service?
I think as Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, it’s important to remember that our political systems and governments weren’t designed to protect people and communities like us, and that it’s up to us to fight for the change we want to see.
I learned early on that the big secret to accessing government is that there is no secret to government. Rather, there are just people with power and money that will fight to uphold institutional government inaccessibility and underrepresentation for women, communities of color and immigrants. In order to change our systems, we need to understand it and our history and work harder than our oppressors by out-organizing and building a people-driven movement that fights for working families and immigrants. We need to listen and fight for those that the system ignores, and most importantly, we need to be authentic to who we are and to our voices. It’s with the voices and the needs of the many rather than the special interests of the wealthy few that will shape the future of our city, state and country.
Where can readers go to learn more about you and your platform?
Campaign website: https://www.nioufornewyork.com/
How can readers get involved? Are there any upcoming events you’d like for us to know about? (150 words or less)
To volunteer: https://www.nioufornewyork.com/volunteer
Interview conducted by H. Han.
If you are a progressive Asian American or Pacific Islander running for or currently serving in elected office in 2020, and would like to be profiled in this series, please contact me for more information.