Lieutenant Governor Candidates Bid for Chinese Voters

Kathy Hochul talking to community representatives at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (Photo by Catherine Li via Sing Tao Daily)

Kathy Hochul talking to community representatives at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (Photo by Catherine Li via Sing Tao Daily)

Chinese voters all know the state has a governor. Not many know it also has a lieutenant governor, thanks to the low publicity of the job. Nevertheless, Tim Wu and Kathy Hochul, the two Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor, have been frequent visitors to the Chinese community recently, as if this was the frontline of the race. Their presence only enhances the community’s knowledge of the post of lieutenant governor, but is also prompting some community activists to call again for voters’ registration. Eventually, the community becomes a definite winner.

Candidates for statewide positions have to mobilize voters in the entire state. Their campaign activities are normally scattered around the state. It is rare for them to frequently visit one particular community. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for example, has never visited any of the major Chinese neighborhoods in the city to talk to the voters, be it in 2010 when he first ran for the office or now when he is running for reelection. Neither has Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham University professor who will challenge Cuomo in the upcoming primary.

But Wu, who partners with Teachout and is running for lieutenant governor, and Hochul, his counterpart on Cuomo’s side, have been fighting for support from the Chinese community from the beginning.

Tim Wu speaking at Lin Sing Association (Photo by Catherine Li via Sing Tao Daily)

Tim Wu speaking at Lin Sing Association (Photo by Catherine Li via Sing Tao Daily)

Wu, a professor at Columbia University who is half Chinese and half British, ignited the battle by visiting the Lin Sing Association in Chinatown on July 16. He shared with Chinese voters his political opinions, and also showed off his fluent Chinese to connect with the community. Five days later, Wu and Teachout held a press conference where Chinatown and Little Italy meet, to urge Cuomo to provide more help to the underage immigrants rushing in from the southern border.

Wu portrays his opponent as anti-immigrant and wins quite a lot support for himself in the Chinese community. But Hochul clearly doesn’t want to give up the Chinese ballots without a try. In early July, she had a private meeting with Asian elected officials in Flushing including Rep. Grace Meng, State Assemblyman Ron Kim, and City Council member Peter Koo.

On July 26, Hochul, accompanied by Chinatown Council member Margaret Chin, visited the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association in Chinatown, the first time she publicly introduced herself to the community. And on August 1, she went to Flushing again to shake hands with members of the senior center of the Chinese-American Planning Council.

Wu is also coming back. He is scheduled to visit both the Chinese Community Center and the Taiwan Center in Flushing on August 14.

Chinese voters have been getting more and more attention from political candidates in the recent years. It is a no-brainer for candidates running in districts with high concentrations of Chinese residents. For citywide offices, when the race is very tight, competitors may campaign heavily in Chinatown, Flushing and Sunset Park in Brooklyn. Candidates for statewide positions visit occasionally, particularly those who somehow relate to the community. For examples, State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY-D) both speak Chinese, and both visited Chinatown during their campaigns.

But it has never happened that candidates competing against each other for a statewide position have waged such an intense “turf fight” in the Chinese community.

Johnson Lee, general counsel of the Chinese American Voters Association, doesn’t think Chinese voters will be able to affect the results of the race between Wu and Hochul. Lee said there are at most 180,000 Chinese voters in New York, and their turnout in some elections is not very high. They may be able to play a significant role in local elections that cover their own neighborhoods. But for a statewide race, their number is not big enough to make any difference.

But Lee said for candidates of statewide positions, visiting the Chinese community can often get them more publicity than in other neighborhoods, especially for people like Wu who has Chinese background. “Every time they come to visit, the Chinese media cover it profoundly. They don’t normally get so much media attention in other places.”

George Arzt, a veteran Democratic consultant, said Wu and Hochul’s competition in the Chinese community is understandable. He said if Wu was not half Chinese, he may not have initiated the visit to Chinatown. And Hochul might have visited anyway, but not so often. But now no matter how many votes the Chinese community has, no one wants to concede them to his or her opponent.

Arzt said normally voters make decisions only based on the gubernatorial candidates, and candidates for lieutenant governor don’t matter much. And in this race, the incumbent Cuomo’s victory is almost certain. But in some extreme situation, it is possible that the gubernatorial candidate wins but the lieutenant candidate he or she picked loses. In this case, the elected governor has to work with the lieutenant governor who was his opponent. And it often ends up in a disaster.

The last time this happened was in 1982, when Mario Cuomo, father of the current governor, defeated then New York Mayor Ed Koch in the primary, and Cuomo’s lieutenant pick, Carl McCall, lost to Koch’s pick, Alfred Benedict DelBello. So Cuomo had to run Albany with DelBello, whom he loathed. The two didn’t talk at all in the office and eventually DelBello quit. “It’s rare but it happens. So the candidates for lieutenant governor don’t want to miss a single ballot now,” said Artz.

Virginia Kee, a longtime political activist in Chinatown, said the increasing number of Chinese candidates and their being elected, from former Comptroller John Liu to Rep. Grace Meng, and Council members Margaret Chin and Peter Koo, has helped mainstream society realize the importance of the Chinese ballots. Now the major hurdle might be from within the community. “Many Chinese still don’t want to register to political parties because of bad memories in their home countries about party affiliations. But this makes them lose the opportunity to vote in the primaries,” said Kee.

She calls for a new voter registration campaign in the community that would encourage people to register for a political party, thereby taking advantage of the rising interest in the primary resulting from the lieutenant governor’s race.

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