In a lot of ways, politics is like baseball. Even when it looks like nothing is happening, a great deal is going on.
Politics is also a spectator sport where fans (i.e., voters) can be participants. Fans often feel they know the players personally, and their allegiance to their favorites can be rabid.
The recent congressional primaries were like the League Championship Series. A few races were laughers (Engel defeated his challenger, 93–7), some favorites won easily (Collins, Meeks, Maloney, Jeffries) and one game went into extra innings (Rangel–Espaillat).
As for the Democratic primary in NY-23, that race evoked the immortal words of the late great Yankees announcer Mel Allen: “How about that!” Because of the exciting outcome of that contest, New Yorkers now have the opportunity to send two Asian-Americans to the 113th Congress, after never before electing any in our history.
Of course, one of these sluggers is Assemblywoman Grace Meng, whose victory has been widely reported in the papers, and cited as an historic achievement by Democrats and voting-rights activists. But the other up-and-coming hitter’s exploits have gone largely unsung, though they are no less worthy of note.
Tompkins County Legislator Nate Shinagawa’s primary win is remarkable because he won in an overwhelmingly non–Asian-American district. His victory is what the Voting Rights Act was intended to make possible: enable voters to choose candidates without governmental interference or racial prejudice.
For those of you who are hearing about Shinagawa for the first time, he’s an Asian-American of Japanese and Korean ancestry who moved from California to Ithaca over 10 years ago. In his high school commencement address, a young Shinagawa presciently spoke of breaking glass ceilings. And yes, he was voted “most likely to succeed” (as a jaded New Yorker, I roll my eyes at this type of thing).
A county legislator and hospital administrator, he was an aide to Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton. His support for the Affordable Care Act is tied to his commitment to improving access to quality rural healthcare. And like many of his constituents, he believes that the environmental risks of natural- gas exploration outweigh the economic gains.
At this point the Jeremy Lin comparisons are inevitable. Like Lin, Shinagawa seemingly came out of nowhere (especially to those of us in New York City). Yet this is less a reflection of who he is than a symptom of our collective political myopia.
Shinagawa’s clinching of the Democratic nomination is the spiritual and physical embodiment of the Voting Rights Act. The VRA was not enacted for the perpetuation or preservation of racial and ethnic silos. Shinagawa won in one of the most rural parts of the state with votes from whites, blacks and Hispanics, which arguably makes his victory far more significant and impressive than Meng’s, who won as the machine-favored candidate in a predominantly Asian, court-drawn district in Queens.
Like Lin’s memorable first games with the Knicks, Shinagawa has erupted onto the scene with unquestionably impressive feats, but a fairy-tale ending to his Cinderella story is far from assured. He now faces a tough general-election campaign against the GOP incumbent, Tom Reed, who bested his 2010 opponent, Matthew Zeller, by 12 points and nearly 30,000 votes.
Meanwhile Meng faces the GOP standard-bearer and famously pagan City Councilman Dan Halloran, in a race she is heavily favored to win, owing to the Democrats’ significant registration advantage in the district. Wins by both Shinagawa and Meng, while not signifying a post-racial New York, would mark another advance in achieving the American dream.
Their electoral successes suggest New York should apply to the U.S. District Court for bailout from Section 5 preclearance coverage under the VRA. I believe the city has effectively overcome its past treatment of minority voters and candidates. Although Asian-American candidates have had greater success across than other racial minorities in being elected from predominantly white communities, I still believe that the stain of voter discrimination has been removed for decades in New York.
As voters in NY-23 go to the polls in November, they should judge Nate Shinagawa on the issues and on his merits as a candidate to represent them in Congress. I look forward to following all the balls and strikes.
Retired Assemblyman Michael Benjamin represented the Bronx for eight years.
Tags: Adriano Espaillat, Affordable Care Act, Asian-American, Barbara Lifton, california, Charlie Rangel, Dan Halloran, Grace Meng, Ithaca, Japanese, Knicks, Korean, Matthew Zeller, michael-benjamin, Nate Shinagawa, Tom Reed, Tompkins County, Voting Rights Act
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