Volume 23, Number 10 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | July 16 - 22, 2010

Over a decade later, still room for more representation

In July, 1998, the Downtown Express ran an article titled “When Will An Asian Candidate Be Elected?” Josh Rogers, the article’s author, reported that an Asian-American had never occupied a seat in the City Council despite several efforts by accomplished Asian candidates to represent Lower Manhattan’s District 1, which includes Chinatown. His story went on to describe the frustration of prominent Asian-American political figures with the reelection of Julia Harrison to that district. Harrison had described Asians as “‘colonizers’” who “‘sure knew how to buy property and jack up rents and drive people out’” in a front-page New York Times article.

Today, that district and the greater City Council have seen a relative improvement in Asian representation. Council Member Margaret Chin, the daughter of Asian immigrants and a longtime advocate with several Asian community groups, currently holds the seat that Rogers’ 1998 article described as the object of considerable frustration among Asian political leaders. Peter Koo, an Asian representing District 20, also holds a seat in the City Council. Yet, by the standards of those interviewed in Roger’s article, the change comes as too little, too late after 12 years of political history.

James Chin (no relation to the council member), who won a Staten Island school board election in 1998, told Rogers, “‘If you don’t see an Asian-American City Council Member in 2001, that’s when the Asian community will wake up and say, it’s embarrassing.’” In 2001, the City Council did include a single Asian American, elected not from District 1, which contains one of the highest concentrations of Chinese residents outside of China, according to CNN, but from Queens. While no one with a history of disparaging comments about Asians was elected, the primary for District 1 came to a disappointing close for those who hoped to elect an Asian representative. Alan Gerson, a white man, defeated two Asian candidates, one of whom was Margaret Chin.

Back in 1998, Rogers interviewed several politically-active Asian-Americans about the difficulty of electing an Asian to District 1. Rogers wrote that James Chin suggested, “the districts are still mostly non-Asian, and you have to appeal to white voters as well,” noting District 1’s reach into neighborhoods like Battery Park City and Tribeca, typically composed of white constituents.

Jennifer Lim, an Asian candidate for City Council District 1 who had recently lost to a white incumbent, suggested the Asian community seemed “‘passive,’” unlike the “‘very united’” gay and Jewish communities. Margaret Fung, then executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said Asians were unable to achieve political unity because they were widely dispersed throughout the boroughs.

Even television news reporter Ti-Hua Teng chimed in, telling Rogers, “‘It was shocking to me for a candidate to make racist statements and then get reelected.’” He also emphasized the necessity of pragmatism on the campaign trail, advising Asian candidates to campaign in regions where voter turnout is highest.

Today, the City Council is still comprised of significantly fewer Asian members than NYC’s Asian population would seem to demand. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly ten percent of city residents identify as Asian, but only two of the 51 council members do so. Twelve years after Rogers described the effort to elect Asian candidates, the struggle for appropriate representation remains a part of life for many Asian-Americans.

But there are some bright spots. In 1998, Rogers interviewed a concerned young candidate who found the absence of Asian legislators troubling. That young man was named John Liu. A year ago, he became the first Asian elected to city-wide office as the City Comptroller.

— compiled by
Joseph Rearick


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