By Ernabel Demillo
Asian American Life Host
I first met Yuh-Line Niou in 2014 when she was New York Assembly Member Ron Kim’s chief of staff. We were working on a story on Asian Americans in elected office, and at the time Kim was the first Korean American to be elected in the New York State assembly. Three years later, his chief of staff would make history.
In January 2017, the number of AAPIs in the New York Assembly doubled – from one to two. Niou joined her former boss in Albany, after she won the race to represent the 65th District in New York. She is the first Asian American to represent her district, one that includes Chinatown. She’s also the first AAPI to represent the borough of Manhattan.
Since taking office in January, she’s been quite busy. Along with meeting with her constituents, she has been seen at rallies supporting Dreamers and has sponsored and co-sponsored several bills, including a bill that would require state agencies and commission to disaggregate Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders when collecting data.
“We are not one monolithic group,” she said. “I think it’s very important to make sure that we are disaggregating this data and able to get the services that our community needs.
We met at her Lower Manhattan office, just across the street from New York’s City Hall. The building is where most of the elected officials have offices. But she says they are planning to move soon, to be closer to her constituents. Meeting her constituents, she said, is one of her favorite things about her new role.
“I love to be able to see that we can provide access to government,” she said.
While working in government was always a goal for hers, elected office wasn’t. But there was an open seat in the district where she lived. The 65th District in Manhattan includes the financial district, Tribeca, Battery Park, South Street Seaport and Chinatown. While the area has changed dramatically in the last few years, it still has a sizable Asian American community, who make up 40% of the district’s population.
The once powerful former Assembly Member Sheldon Silver held that seat since the 70s, until he was forced to step down after he was convicted of federal corruption charges in 2015. (Silver’s conviction was overturned in July 2017.)
Sheldon’s exit created an opportunity for change and Niou’s mentors encouraged her to run.
“I felt we really needed to have much more representation and it was a big driver for to me really think about how little voice our Asian American communities have in government,” she said.
But she lost the special election to Alice Cancel, a candidate backed by Silver.
She didn’t give up. She ran in the Democratic primary, beating out four candidates including Cancel. Niou then won a resounding victory in the general election. But she said it was tough to celebrate her victory. On the day she won, she said she was sad to hear that her candidate, Hilary Clinton had lost.
Watch her candid interview with us as Niou opens about sexism and racism she faced while running for office and how she’s determined to make government more accessible.
Watch this month’s episode of Asian American Life. Along with Niou’s interview, reporter Kyung Yoon takes a look at Korean American reaction to the U.S. administration’s on-going war of words with North Korea; along with special reports on Asian American health and well-being from the rise in smoking among Chinese Americans to osteoporosis in AAPI women.
Asian American Life, is a 5-time Emmy-nominated magazine program produced by CUNY-TV in New York.
The show premieres the first Tuesday every month at 8 p.m. on Channel 75 and 25.3 in the New York City viewing area, and in syndication on Ch. 25 (NY Media). You can watch all our episodes online at http://www.cuny.tv/show/asianamericanlife.
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