The special election to succeed Sheldon Silver in the Assembly has gotten too little attention, given it is likely to tell us a great deal about the rising influence of Asian voters.
The Democrats selected Alice Cancel, a Puerto Rican district leader, a nomination usually tantamount to a landslide victory in this district. Meanwhile, the Working Families Party has nominated Yuh-Line Niou, a vibrant political activist with strong roots in the Asian community. The Republicans have nominated an Asian businessman, Lester Chang.
The 65th Assembly district draws from four pools of voters: a demographically aging Jewish community and a steadily growing Hispanic vote both centered in the Lower East Side; an Asian population exploding around Chinatown and a highly educated, often affluent, white professional vote lodged in and around Battery Park City.
Victory will emerge from two arithmetic factors: the energy and skill of each candidate’s turnout operation and which candidate builds more stable bridges to the two pools without a candidate, all operating underneath the presidential primary.
Alice Cancel has the advantage going in, if she can churn out a large vote from her Hispanic base while generating a bullet vote from Silver’s base (mirroring how she secured the Democratic nomination). But I don’t discount the potential for Yuh-Line Niou to blend the empowerment fire burning within the Asian community with the energy coursing through white progressives coming out for the presidential primary.
There will also be a strong dose of tactical skill attending victory. Namely, which campaign does a better job of getting Democrats who turn out for the presidential primary (the Republican primary vote here will be relatively small) to also cast ballots in this separate special election open to all voters on April 19.
Why do I sense that Asian voters might be more motivated than other groups to turn out for this special election, giving Yuh-Line Niou a chance to pull off an upset?
I sense that the Asian community is simply tired of being ignored by political pundits. The Asian population in New York City, according to the last census, exploded by 32 percent (to roughly 1 million, which is 13 percent of the city’s overall population). This growth was citywide (41 percent in Brooklyn, 40 percent on Staten Island, 24 percent in Manhattan and 23 percent in the Bronx, not to mention that one in five Queens residents is Asian).
The Asian vote was 2 to 4 percent of the overall general election vote in New York City from the late 1980s through 2000, but recently it has regularly hit 6 to 7 percent of the total citywide vote. In the 2009 Democratic primary, which elected John Liu as city comptroller, New York City’s first Asian-American citywide elected official, the Asian vote hit a 10 percent share of the total vote.
Despite Liu’s success in 2009 and Grace Meng’s election to Congress from Queens in 2012, you still hear from too many pols and political observers the same old whispers about the Asian vote that were applied long ago to other ethnic and racial groups: “they don’t vote” when open seats emerge. Just as with those earlier ethnic blocs, the only way to change the lagging perceptions of the punditry is for Asian voters to turn out and vote.
Asian candidates also have a coalition-building template for success from the earlier success of Liu and Meng. For example, while Asian voters were essential to Liu’s election as comptroller, the numerical base of his 2009 coalition was black voters.
I will be curious to see if Yuh-Line Niou will follow John Liu’s 2009 bridge-building playbook by targeting white progressive and professional voters flocking to the polls on April 19 to vote for either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, tied to a surge in prideful Asian voters.
In the end, I offer no prediction in this race, precisely because there are too many unknowns. But one thing is certain: If Yuh-Line Niou pulls off a victory, it will be seen historically as a key building block in the inevitable ascension of the Asian influence in New York politics.
Bruce Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.
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