Asian Politicians Celebrate Gains, Plan for the Future

Sheldon Silver, Jean Quan, Floyd Huen, Margaret Chin, Chris Kui.

Last week, hundreds of supporters came to the Jing Fong Restaurant in Chinatown to help the prominent advocacy and housing organization, Asian Americans for Equality, celebrate its 37th anniversary. Dignitaries such as Rep. Anthony Weiner and State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver addressed hundreds of invited guests as they feasted on platters bursting with lobster, whole fish and roast chicken.

Silver presented a special award to Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, who last year became the first Asian woman to be elected chief executive of a major American city.

During a fundraiser an hour earlier at the historic Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a few blocks away, Quan talked about her groundbreaking and somewhat unexpected victory, which has given many Asian American activists hope for the future. In spite of their large numbers in major urban areas, including New York, there are still relatively few Asians serving in high profile political positions in this country.

Just two years ago, Comptroller John Liu became the first Asian elected to citywide office in New York City. In the same election, Margaret Chin became the first Asian woman on the City Council and the first Chinese person to represent Chinatown.

Margaret Chin and Jean Quan at the Nom Wah Tea Parlor.

It was in Manhattan’s Chinatown in the mid-1970’s that Quan cut her political teeth. She and Margaret Chin were on the front lines in labor protests at Confucius Plaza.  Asian Americans for Equality was born out of these demonstrations.  Chin went to to serve as one of the organization’s main leaders. Quan went home to California, where she became a political activist and later a City Councilwoman.

Quan said Asians cannot be satisfied with their recent gains at the ballot box.  The East Coast, she noted, is significantly behind the West Coast when it comes to getting Asians elected to political office.  The election of Chin represented the fulfillment of a long-term AAFE goal.  But Chris Kui, the organization’s executive director, says there’s a lot more work to be done.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez, Margaret Chin, Rep. Carolyn Maloney at this year's Lunar New Year Parade in Chinatown.

A few weeks ago, AAFE released a report showing that Asians in New York are dispersing beyond traditional ethnic enclaves in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. While 2010 Census figures, released yesterday, disappointed many in Chinatown, they also back up what AAFE found in its study. Not only are Asians settling in many different neighborhoods — but their citywide numbers have grown by an impressive 32% in the past decade.   Kui believes the message  is clear: there’s a big opportunity for Asians to make gains across New York, at every level of government.

In spite of Chin’s historic achievement, she does not seem particularly interested in pursuing higher office.  But even if she chooses to bow out of politics after running for a second term on the Council, Chin will have an important role role to play in setting the stage for other Asian candidates to run in the future. That future will begin to take shape in a matter of weeks, as this year’s epic redistricting battle gets underway.

At the fundraiser, Quan talked about her recent invitation to visit the White House. In walking through the front door, she was very much aware she was not simply representing herself or just the people of Oakland, but the hopes and aspirations of millions of Asians who are becoming increasingly comfortable exercising their political power.