When Grace Meng is sworn into Congress in January, she will become New York’s first Asian-American politician on Capitol Hill.
Meng’s political rise — from representing Flushing in the state Assembly all the way to Washington, D.C. as a member of Congress — is the latest example of an emerging Asian-American political base spawned in Queens during the last decade.
It began 11 years ago, when John Liu became the first Asian-American to serve in a major elected office in New York City. Today, most of the state’s Asian-Americans on the City Council, state Assembly and in Congress are, or originally were, representatives of Flushing.
The Pew Research Center reported in June that Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing immigrant group in the United States, with New York City boasting the largest Asian population in the nation. Yet no other neighborhood with a large Asian-American population has produced the political players like Flushing has.
Ten years ago, all of Flushing’s representatives — Assemblyman Barry Grodenchik, Councilwoman Julia Harrison and state Sen. Toby Stavisky — were Caucasian. The neighborhood’s Asian population has since grown by 37 percent, and now more than two-thirds of the neighborhood’s inhabitants are Asian-American.
“Growing up in Flushing, I never dreamed I could run for office, let alone get elected,” said Liu, who served for eight years in the City Council, has been the City Comptroller since January 2010 and is running for mayor in 2013.
Today, Stavisky — re-elected seven times in 13 years as state senator for the 16th District — is the only non-Asian representative left. And even Stavisky had to beat an Asian-American, J.D. Kim, to keep her seat this year. Every race for a seat in Flushing on Election Day, regardless of party, featured at least one Asian-American candidate.
“Flushing has provided opportunity for Asian-American advancement faster than anywhere else,” said Evan Stavisky, son of the senator and partner at strategic communications firm The Parkside Group.
Though Flushing has had an Asian-American city council representative since 2002, Chinatown elected its first Asian-American council representative, Margaret Chin, just three years ago. Chin makes up one-half of the Asian-American delegation of the entire City Council; Councilman Peter Koo (D-Flushing) is the other half.
Koo considers his predecessor Liu a “trailblazer” for his eight years as the city’s first Asian-American council member. “He ran for office, and he had courage,” Koo said. “After, other people looked back to him — [former Assemblyman] Jimmy Meng, for example — and thought, ‘John, if you can do it, then we can do it, too.’”
Grace Meng agreed with Koo’s description of Liu. In 2004, two years after Liu won his city council seat, her father, Jimmy Meng, had become the first Asian-American elected to the state Legislature. Before her congressional race, Meng followed in his footsteps from 2009 to 2012. [Her father pleaded guilty last month to bribery charges, committed after he left office.]
“Every Asian-American who runs for office, and every woman, is a trailblazer,” Grace Meng said. “Every time someone runs for office, win or lose, they encourage people to get involved.”
Now, as Meng heads to Congress, her successor in the Assembly is a Seoul-born immigrant who moved to Flushing at the age of 7, Ron Kim, who is making history by becoming the first Korean-American lawmaker in the state.
Liu said that when he first ran for City Council, the Asian-American political base — both in terms of voter turnout and political representation — was low. “Now, not only has it grown substantially, it has also become that much more motivated,” he said. “Asian-Americans are making progress along the political learning curve: Before, we didn’t have any elected legislators, and now we have a handful, at all different levels of government. And I expect that trend to continue.”
The Pew Research study also found that Asian-Americans are now the highest-earning and best-educated racial group in the country, which may account for their growing political force.
“Look at Ron Kim,” Koo said, referring to Meng’s successor. “He’s educated and understands communities. Flushing has more and more immigrants coming in, and a lot of them are well-educated. They are more involved in politics and successful in business.”
The Brookings Institution found that America’s foreign-born population was increasingly moving towards the more suburban areas of cities, such as New York City’s outer boroughs, after analyzing American Community Survey data in 2011. The Asian-American population in Manhattan’s Chinatown dropped 15 percent between 2000 and 2010. Asian-Americans now make up just 13 percent of the neighborhood, whereas Flushing’s Asian-American community has increased.
“The new immigrants [to Flushing] understand the concept of taking care of the community, as well as their family,” Koo said. “So they are more involved in politics, running for office, and being part of the community board.”
“It’s about the American Dream,” said Liu. “And the essence of being American is being political. Taking part in the democratic process.”
In 2009, Flushing had the third-highest portion of foreign-born residents in New York City, with over half of its residents identifying themselves as such. Almost a third of those immigrants are Chinese alone.
When the MinKwon Center asked residents in 2011 why they had moved to Flushing, the most common response was the proximity of one’s friends and family.
Asian-Americans have typically been underrepresented in New York’s politics, both in terms of its politicians and voter participation. However, redistricting based on the 2010 U.S. Census helped create Asian-American political hubs: the redrawn Congressional District 6 — the seat Meng won — had almost triple the Asian-American population of its predecessor, at 38 percent.
“The lines were drawn — and I think I’m absolutely correct in saying this — with a view to giving the Asian community dominance, when it might otherwise have been a multinational community,” said former Councilmember Julia Harrison, who was succeeded by Liu in 2002 (and later Koo), and is currently a Democratic District 22 leader.
She added, “If the people who are voting in that area recognize that the candidate is a worthy person who has served nobly for years — and is a responsible and responsive person — they will support that person, Asian or not. The Asian vote is not dedicated to voting only for Asians; they vote according to who they know. They have voted for me.”
Meng’s senior advisor, Michael Tobman — who has coordinated Meng’s political campaigns since her Assembly race in 2008 — agreed that the Asian-American community contributed only in part to Meng’s win. “Both in the primary and in the general elections, Grace won everywhere,” he said. “She got the Jewish vote in Forest Hills, the Spanish-speaking vote, and women’s votes in every part of the district. It’s great to have a demographic and geographic base to run from, but if you can’t deal with the rest of the district, you shouldn’t be running.”
The city comptroller’s 2012 report found that the neighborhood’s immigrants come from more than 70 different countries, including Colombia (5.6 percent), Ecuador (4.1 percent) and India (3.8 percent).
“In Flushing, you have demographics that represent every corner of the globe,” said Deputy Comptroller Ari Hoffnung.
“I could probably best point to [the diversity] by thinking back to mid-September,” said political consultant Stavisky. “There was a press conference, with three Democratic candidates. You had my mother [Toby Stavisky], Grace Meng, Ron Kim, and Flushing’s diversity was really on show: a white woman who’s Jewish; Grace Meng’s Chinese and her husband’s Korean; Ron Kim was born in Korea and his wife was born in China. There’s a lot of groundbreaking there.”
As the only Asian-American serving in the state Assembly at the time, Meng sponsored legislation during her term that eliminated the use of the word “Oriental” in state documents. She also established the Asian Lunar New Year as a school holiday for districts with a high Asian-American population.
Both Koo and Meng agreed that learning to deal with the challenges of Flushing’s multiethnic population had allowed them to grow and develop as politicians. “You don’t focus on what [demographic] communities have specific to themselves but, rather, what they have in common,” said Tobman, Meng’s advisor. “The issues — social mobility, economic mobility, education, quality of life — have nothing to do with diversity.”