By Russell Leung, AsAmNews intern
From his presidential campaign to his bid to be New York City’s next mayor, Andrew Yang became one of the most prominent Asian Americans to take the political stage in recent years.
And despite his polarizing mayoral run and disappointing fourth place finish, Yang’s visibility and advocacy for Asian Americans made him an inspiration for many — and a symbol of what the future could hold.
“If we want to talk about the impact of Andrew Yang’s campaign, I think it actually does pave the path for Asian Americans to see that we can legitimately aim for elected office, even the highest office in this country,” said Karen Low, vice president of the New York City Asian-American Democratic Club. “It’s almost like a flickering candle light of hope that we can actually be at the table.”
Now that Yang’s bid for New York City mayor is over, the question arises: What’s next for AAPIs in politics? Certainly Yang’s unconventionality made a splash and drew widespread attention, even as his inexperience, untimely gaffes and increased scrutiny ultimately sank his campaign. Could his high-profile run influence the future of Asian Americans in politics, especially in New York City? And Yang isn’t completely out of politics yet — he plans to launch his own political party.
For Low (and her organization, which endorsed Yang), Yang’s emergence represented a “culturally significant moment” for Asian Americans, especially because of their history as a marginalized group.
“One of the most important problems that confronts our aspiring politicians is that we have never been looked at as leaders,” Low told AsAmNews. “We just do our job, we put our heads down and we obey the law. But now, these things are being shattered because many, many Asian American aspiring politicians are now coming to join the electoral process. And I think this kind of conversation would not have happened if Andrew Yang or other aspiring politicians did not run for office this year.”
Yang’s presidential and mayoral runs also helped normalize the idea of Asian Americans succeeding in politics, said Richard Lee, who ran for New York City Council this year and was endorsed by Yang.
“I think it was almost a first for an Asian American to really get to that national recognition level,” Lee said. “In that sense… he did open up the path for a lot of second-generation Asian Americans like myself who are now going into political activism.”
During his campaign for New York City mayor, Yang had sought to create a “next generation AAPI coalition,” endorsing Lee and another City Council candidate, Sandra Ung. Lee noted that he had long standing ties with fellow Asian American candidates in adjacent districts and had formed collaborations on his own. But Yang likely gave both Lee and Ung an edge in their districts, considering their significant Asian populations: Ung beat out seven other candidates to win her primary, while Lee finished second out of six total candidates to Tony Avella, who had previously served as the district’s councilperson for seven years and was the clear favorite.
Just as they supported each other during their campaigns, future Asian Americans should also continue to uplift each other in politics, Lee told AsAmNews.
“What we really have to try to do is look to start supporting local candidates, local Asian Americans who are going to be running for office,” said Lee, who also endorsed Yang. “Give them the airtime and the space to really introduce themselves.”
Asian Americans are relative newcomers to political engagement, even in New York City, where Asian Americans account for 15.6% of the population. The immigrant-dominated Asian American population has faced obstacles like discrimination, language barriers and financial instability for decades, said Joyce Moy, the executive director of the City University of New York’s Asian American and Asian Research Institute.
It has thus been difficult historically for Asian Americans to participate in politics. What’s more, Moy told AsAmNews, a collective Asian American identity, as opposed to specific national and ethnic identities, only started to develop in recent decades. Previous generations did not even consider themselves American because the United States treated them as foreigners. (Incidentally, though Yang made every effort to counter the “Asians are foreigners” stereotype, it still hounded him throughout the campaign.)
“It took a long time for us to become politically engaged,” Moy said. “When you’re an immigrant, you spend all your time and energy trying to put food on the table, to try to navigate the school system. Politics is probably the last thing on your mind. That’s the kind of thing that comes with feeling part of the community, comes with education and acculturation as well as financial stability.”
But ultimately, though Yang’s bold campaign made him a celebrity, Asian American career politicians stand a greater chance at reaching city hall, said Mae Lee, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association.
Lee cited the example of John Liu, the first Asian American to serve on New York City Council. Liu made a failed bid for mayor in 2013, but now serves in the New York State Senate and remains an important figure in NYC Asian American politics.
“I don’t think that Andrew Yang is just a blip,” Lee said. “But it is an example of someone who’s… actually never worked in government before, who tried to run for mayor.”
Liu, in an interview with AsAmNews, said that Yang has already made a sizable impact for Asian Americans because his success elevated their national profile.
And even though Yang came up short, Yang’s run still provides wisdom for future AAPI politicians.
“Every campaign and every candidate is good for the community,” Liu said. “It advances us in many different ways and there are always lessons to be learned from every campaign, winning or losing.”
Some observers are still waiting to see Yang’s ultimate impact on AAPI politics. At the very least, Yang’s run indicated that New Yorkers were open to a non-traditional, non-white male candidate, said Asian American Federation Executive Director Jo-Ann Yoo.
“He came in fourth. I mean, that’s something,” Yoo said. “That means that the city is willing to look beyond race to be able to pick a mayor. The next time Asian Americans run for mayor, hopefully that same sentiment of yeah, we can imagine an Asian American mayor, we can imagine a female mayor, we can imagine a Latina, we can imagine all of these things. That’s what I think this election highlighted for us.”
Yang’s legacy for Asian American politicians, then, may not be the minutiae of his campaign’s style and substance so much as his surprising visibility. His high-profile runs can empower Asian Americans to believe that they, too, can get involved in politics and earn elected office.
Many young Asian Americans do not participate in political and civic life because they do not see themselves reflected in those spheres, Yoo added. Yang’s campaign could inspire them to enter public service.
Even some of Yang’s harshest critics believe that he will prove influential to future Asian American candidates.
Rohan Zhou-Lee, a local activist who signed a letter opposing Yang, told AsAmNews that they didn’t believe Yang and his policies properly represented the Asian American community. Nonetheless, Yang embodied a breakthrough for a traditionally invisible population in the political sphere.
“As much as I could not stand his ideas, at the end of the day, he did open a lot of doors,” Zhou-Lee said. “Now, hopefully it’ll become more normalized to see or acknowledge Asian Americans as viable candidates in politics.”