Asian Americans Boost Their Political Clout

Fish market in Chinatown (Photo by Julius Motal for Voices of NY)

Fish market in Chinatown (Photo by Julius Motal for Voices of NY)

Tim Wu may have lost his bid to become lieutenant governor, but the Taiwanese-American Columbia law professor gained a whole lot during the final weeks of his primary campaign with his fellow lawyer and running mate Zephyr Teachout: huge name recognition and widespread attention in the city’s Chinese neighborhoods in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn.

NYIEWu is turning that name recognition to his advantage, working now to defeat Proposition 1, a redistricting amendment that will be decided on by voters during the upcoming elections on Nov. 4. If, approved, the ballot proposition would leave redistricting in the hands of a state established commission, where no political official will be allowed to serve.

Chinese voters and their leaders – as well as Koreans, Bangladeshis and other Asians – are flexing their political muscle as never before. They may not boast the numbers in New York City that Latino voters do, but they are strategically ramping up their efforts to get results. Their objective is not only to elect more of their own, but, even more importantly, to ensure that their particular concerns and needs are met by the politicians who represent them.

“If you are not politically active you won’t count,” said Jahangir Kabir, 38, secretary of the 3-year-old Bangladeshi American Advocacy Group (BAAG). In addition to helping Bangladeshis register to vote, the group is pushing for public school holidays on the Muslim Eid holidays and halal food choices in school cafeterias. In neighborhoods like Parkchester in the Bronx and Richmond Hill in Queens, Bangladeshis are making their voices heard.

Celia Dosamentes (l.), Executive Director of the Bangladeshi American Advocacy Group, with Jahangir Kabir (r.), Secretary of BAAG. (Photo by Julius Motal for Voices of NY)

Celia Dosamantes (l.), executive director of the Bangladeshi American Advocacy Group, with Jahangir Kabir (r.), secretary of BAAG. (Photo by Julius Motal for Voices of NY)

The community of Bangladeshi origin is the fifth largest Asian group in the city, with a population of 48,677 according to the 2010 Census, double the number in 2000. It is dwarfed by the Indian-origin population of 229,663, not to mention the Chinese-American community, which has close to half a million residents in the city, and an estimated 151,000 registered voters.

select-asian-groupsIndian Americans are also increasing their political clout, and have managed to secure key positions in city government. Just this year Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Nisha Agarwal as the commissioner for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, and Meera Joshi as the commissioner of the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission.

The city’s Korean-American population is close to 100,000, and James Hong, director of civic engagement at the MinKwon Center in Queens, says there are 45,000 Korean voters in the state, most of them in Queens.

Altogether, ethnic Asians, both foreign-born and U.S.-born, make up just under 10 percent of New York City’s population, compared with a Latino share of about 23 percent.

Laying the groundwork

The first big “win” for Asians was electing John Liu city comptroller in 2009.

“Getting the first Asian American elected to a citywide position was such a big deal,” says John Mollenkopf, distinguished professor of political science and sociology at CUNY’s Graduate Center, and director of its Center for Urban Research.

It was a coalition of pan-Asian voters that made Liu’s win possible, said Jerry Vattamala, a lawyer at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF). [Liu failed in two later bids – one for mayor, and more recently for a state senate seat from Queens.]

Crosswalk on Main St. in Flushing, Queens (Photo by Julius Motal for Voices of NY)

Crosswalk on Main Street in Flushing, Queens (Photo by Julius Motal for Voices of NY)

Redistricting has helped boost the chances for some Asian-American candidates – and led to important changes that acknowledge the growing importance of the different groups. Asians, for instance, gained significant voting numbers in Congressional District 6 in Queens following redistricting — then went on to help elect the Chinese-American lawyer Grace Meng in 2012, making her the first Asian American from New York elected to Congress.

Meng is up for reelection this Nov. 4, unopposed.

But with the limited English proficiency of many potential voters, getting people to the polls has been difficult. In 2013, AALDEF and South Asian advocacy groups sued the NYC Board of Elections for delaying the addition of Bengali-language instructions to election ballots, a move which had been federally mandated in 2011. Earlier this year Bengali was finally added to the ballots, joining Spanish, Korean and Chinese.

Jerry Vattamala of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. (Photo by Julius Motal for Voices of NY)

Jerry Vattamala of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. (Photo by Julius Motal for Voices of NY)

For Asians, just as for other ethnic groups, engagement in the political process has evolved over the years. AALDEF’s Vattamala points out that first-generation Asian immigrants, like many other groups, first focus on work and on getting the best education for their children, with politics initially taking a back seat among their concerns. That changes over time, though, and eventually, immigrant groups begin to exercise their political power, either by electing their own or electing people they believe will help them to get the political and economic benefits they seek.

Says Vattamala: “It’s not about electing one of their own, it’s about allowing them to choose whoever they choose.”

For immigrants, the need for political awareness and the importance of wielding political power is clear. “Roads get paved a lot faster where people go out and vote,” says Harpreet Singh Toor, 59, who came from the Punjab region of India in 1983 and has been voting since 1990.

A Sikh leader from Richmond Hill, Queens, Singh Toor says he is glad to see that his community is becoming more active politically but notes that the voting bloc has much to learn about amplifying its voice in a city where primaries generally determine elections. “Many people are registering as ‘independent’ and that’s an issue in a city that’s majority Democrat,” he says.

Jackson Heights, Queens (Photo by Julius Motal for Voices of NY)

Jackson Heights, Queens (Photo by Julius Motal for Voices of NY)

”Not taking any sides means nobody will care about you.” A registered Democrat, Singh Toor made an unsuccessful run in 2010 for City Council District 28, which covers Richmond Hills and Jamaica, Queens.

Causes near and dear

Business owners in ethnic communities know the importance of political pull. There are about 9,500 Korean-owned businesses in the five boroughs, says Sung Soo Kim, president of the Korean American Small Business Service Center and co-founder of The Small Business Congress NYC.

Because of soaring rents, Kim said, “just last year over 24 percent of mom and pop stores owned by Koreans disappeared.” So he helped craft the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA), which would give small-business owners the right to negotiate fairer commercial leases. After stalling in the City Council last year, the bill was reintroduced this past June by Bronx Council member Annabel Palma. Kim and his organization, Small Business Congress NYC, asked the Hispanic council member to take the lead on the issue.

Sung Soo Kim of the Korean American Small Business Service Center. (Photo by Julius Motal for Voices of NY)

Sung Soo Kim of the Korean American Small Business Service Center. (Photo by Julius Motal for Voices of NY)

Beyond those dollars and cents issues, specific causes that are near and dear to some communities become issues that local politicians rally around to garner ethnic votes. In the Korean community, one such issue is recognition of the “comfort women” who were forcibly held and abused by the Japanese military during World War II. Tony Avella, who just beat back a primary challenge from John Liu for his state senate seat, has been a strong supporter of measures to honor the memory of the Korean comfort women.

And just as commercial rents have pushed some ethnic business owners to action, so too have residential pressures motivated other voters to act.

A second-generation Chinese American, David Tieu has been a housing advocate for 10 years, working with the People First Campaign and member of the Chinatown Working Group, an advisory committee working on rezoning plans for that area. He says that people displaced by climbing housing costs have been forced to mobilize around the issue.

Tieu cited as an example the people who voted against councilmember Margaret Chin in 2013. While her opponent Jennifer Rajkumar lost, she nonetheless garnered 42 percent of the votes. Rajkumar, the daughter of Indian immigrants, was not well-known, Tieu noted. But “Bloomberg-era policies disenfranchised Chinese and Latinos,” he said, “and many felt Chin didn’t do much to prevent that from happening. So it’s not about candidates, it’s about the issues.”

Now, following the pioneering efforts of some Asian Americans, says CUNY’s Mollenkopf, the Asian-American community is seeing “a second generation of rising leaders” who are pushing further to enhance political participation.

Jackson Heights, Queens (Photo by Julius Motal for Voices of NY)

Jackson Heights, Queens (Photo by Julius Motal for Voices of NY)

The Bangladeshi American Advocacy Group’s executive director, Celia Dosamantes, is one such leader. Under the 24 year old’s leadership, the organization is monitoring politicians and their legislative positions. “We know there is a lack of politicians paying attention to us, but we are paying attention to what they are doing in the districts we live in and informing our community about it,” says the Queens-born activist, who has already worked with several politicians at the federal, state and local level.

voters-and-voter-turnoutThe Korean community, meanwhile, is trying not only to increase the number of registered voters, but also voter turnout. Korean American Civic Empowerment (KACE), an organization with offices in Flushing, Queens, and New Jersey, is pushing its 8080 campaign, designed to get 80 percent of eligible Korean votes registered and to ensure an 80 percent voter turnout.

In 2012, KACE reports, voter turnout among eligible Korean voters in New York State was 21.5 percent, and among registered Korean voters it was 40 percent.

KACE runs a voter hotline to explain and clarify issues, and monitors polls to protect voters from discriminatory actions or polling site violations. At the MinKwon Center in Queens, the director of civic engagement, James Hong, has been organizing telephone banks and door knocks to get out the Korean-American vote.

Translated ballots, voter registration drives and political representation are just the beginning of a political awakening for Asian Americans. Says Dosamantes: “We come from many countries, and division is an issue — especially among South Asians — but what we are trying to do is to be organized as one community, so our people can start getting noticed.”

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