Yuh-Line Niou strolls through trendy South Street Seaport, poised, steely-eyed and fully prepared for her favorite time of year — election season.
Unbeknownst to the tourists who roam the surrounding brick streets, Niou is a favorite to become the face of district 65 in New York’s state legislature. If she is elected over her Republican challenger on November 8, she will also be the first Asian-American to represent Manhattan and will join only one other Asian American in the assembly.
Her rise to prominence in New York has been swift. Her story, like that of the heavily Democratic Lower East Side community she hopes to represent, is one of change: a fresh face to represent a socioeconomically diverse electorate, worn down by years of corruption.
“I think that people really want to make sure that we have growth, economic growth for everyone,” said Niou.
Across the 50 states, the work of local officials is vital to the future of towns and cities. The Chinatown and Wall Street community where Niou hopes to serve as state assembly member is 42% Asian. It is one of the city’s most demographically diverse districts, including a sizeable Spanish-speaking population. Residents are young too. Thirty-three percent are millennials, signaling a larger share of potential first-time voters than past elections.
All about access
As Niou fiddles with her microphone, ahead of our interview, a seagull soars behind her. Looking through the lens of the camera, I tell her the composition looks nice.
“We don’t usually like seagulls,” she deadpans, before revealing an infectious laugh. “I’m scared of them.”
Niou, a self-deprecating, vibrant 33 year old, has known the United States for as long as she can remember. With her family, she came to the country when she was six months old, living in Moscow, Idaho and Beaverton, Oregon.
But it wasn’t until Niou moved to New York that she would feel a sense of belonging.
“I was going to school, throwing away my lunch every morning, in fear that I would get made fun of for having Chinese food for lunch,” Niou explained. “Over here, kids were literally begging their parents to be able to try their classmates’ food from different cultures. I thought that was really beautiful.”
Since she was a child, Niou has known discrimination to be a part of life for her family, who came to the United States in search of greater educational and economic opportunities.
There was one instance in particular that stays with her today.
“This guy was speeding in a school zone, and my mom was turning to go and pick us up from school, and he rear-ended her. Open and shut case, right?” she said, incredulously. “But because his English was better than hers, she was deemed partially negligent.”
The story itself is not terribly dramatic, but Niou said it helped define what she stands for as a candidate.
“There were little instances like that throughout growing up where I saw that there are certain folks who had access and certain folks who did not,” Niou said. “And I just felt like it was so important for more and more folks to be able to have access to government.”
New York politics
Prior to her candidacy, Niou served as chief of staff to Korean-American assemblyman Ron Kim of Queens, New York, currently the only Asian-American serving in New York’s assembly. In April, she ran her first campaign to fill the 65th district seat vacated by Democrat Sheldon Silver, a 38-year veteran in the state legislature who had earned a 12-year prison sentence and $7 million fine after being convicted of federal corruption charges, including money laundering and extortion.
But Niou’s path to victory would wait. Democratic challenger Alice Cancel, who once referred to Silver as “a hero” would go on to win — a move highlighting Silver’s continued influence within New York political circles. Cancel was widely considered to be his personal pick for successor.
When the seat came up for election again in September, Niou jumped at her chance, this time defeating Cancel and five others. But she wouldn’t capture the primary without first withstanding a campaign aimed at ruining her credibility, not just as an Asian-American candidate, but as a young woman, in what she describes as a white patriarchal system.
“They don’t ever say that it’s because I’m a woman, that they are questioning me on whether or not I'm qualified, they always say it's my age,” Niou said. “You are too this or too that,” she goes down a list. “When you are a young woman or a young woman of color, and you’re faced with a lot of these issues every single day. It’s very easy to start internalizing more and more of it.’”
Greater transparency, representation
But the potential rewards outweigh the challenges. For Niou, that means a pledge to fulfill constituent services, provide greater transparency in a post-Silver era, and address the needs of the Lower East Side’s low-income and immigrant residents.
“You have a whole group of folks who just immigrated here, and then there are folks who have been here for centuries, and yet people lump them all into one group,” Niou said. “They forget that, ‘Hey, we have different needs’ … and I think that’s what’s so important, to make sure that we have those perspectives all on the table.”
Niou hopes that momentum will rise on the side of greater representation.
“I think that it’s very important to make sure that folks realize that this is something that will help our communities to be able to have a bigger voice,” she said.
Certainly, Niou’s own perspective on government, and her power to affect change, has evolved over time.
“Growing up, I always thought that it was this kind of ephemeral thing that kind of just happened to me,” Niou said. “But I realize that it’s actually accessible. You just have to know how to navigate those hallways, and you need to know which doors to knock on.”